Rebecca Geoghegan shares her advice for supporting ‘low ability readers’. You can also read her blog about approaches for supporting lower ability writers.
When I hear the label ‘low ability reader’, I instantly think of the Allan Ahlberg poem ‘I am a Slow Reader’ which depicts the syllabification of words as the ‘slow reader’ gets to grips with the decoding process. Of course, the poem centres around the issues related to the initial stage of reading: decoding. All KS1 children are led through a synthetic phonics programme with their successes ultimately documented through the phonics screening check. The premise is that they all pass and off they trot into KS2 having ‘mastered’ decoding and ready to take on comprehension more comprehensively. And yet we know that this is not the case. You only have to look at the low reading age of some of your Year 11 students to know that something went wrong somewhere.
Coupled with these decoding issues are the potentially low levels of comprehension skills. We should remember that the two are not necessarily linked: we can have one without the other. A student could understand the biblical allusions in ‘Lord of the Flies’ but not be able to read one word – and of course, therefore the opposite could also be true – they could be able to syllabify the words but have no clue as to their meanings.
In planning for greater support of your ‘low ability readers’, start by considering which category they fall into. Do they have poor decoding skills or poor comprehension skills or both? Once this has been ascertained, you can then move on to consider what support would best fit the student.
Poor decoding skills
In secondary schools there are very few teachers who have a good grasp of phonics – for most their only experience might be of ‘sounding’ out words or ‘segmenting’ them into syllables. My first recommendation would be to start with some CPD for your English teachers. I have used teachers from the local primary school to deliver this in the past, and it has proved to be very successful in both connecting with our primary colleagues and enhancing our subject knowledge. Even the very basic phoneme/grapheme lists can help teachers to understand why, for example, the silent ‘e’ is silent in some words. If it is possible, arrange a visit to watch phonics being delivered at the primary school. Consider how the session is delivered. Once staff begin to feel more confident in their knowledge of phonics, then it is time for them to begin to introduce the teaching of phonics into their lessons. Short bursts of around 20 minutes each day/lesson are most effective (as suggested in the formative Oftsed review ‘Reading by Six’). The government’s free programme ‘Letters and Sounds’ is a good place to start, along with the extremely useful videos by Mr Thorne which can be found for free on YouTube.
Poor comprehension skills
My recent research has underlined for me that there are just a handful of reading comprehension skills that all children from the age of 5-16 need to be able to understand any text. Having analysed the content domain of the KS1, 2 and 4 tests in terms of reading comprehension skills, it is apparent that students need to be able to do the following
There may be more of one than another or one skill might be allocated more marks, but the skills themselves do not change. With this in mind, it is time to start thinking about the way we question our students. Are we ‘framing’ our verbal and written questions to include all of these skills when responding to a text? Low ability readers who have low comprehension skills need practise. Consider how you are teaching texts to your students. A simple summary task at the start of a ‘new’ text or new section of text might be useful – can they confidently tell you the who, what, when and where of the text? Can they then move on to the why? Once they have created this summary, they are in a better place to begin to answer questions relating to the other skills.
One area that is particularly difficult is the skill of inference – the definition ‘reading between the lines’ just isn’t enough for these readers. I have found that images and moving media work effectively in teaching inference skills. Students can ‘suggest the meaning’ of elements of the image or moving media without being bogged down by the words; taking them away means they can focus on the skill of inference only. Part of the application of their inference skill is their ability to see that there could be multiple meanings. This is often hindered by a poor vocabulary. They might, for example, read ‘the boy sobbed silently’ and only consider that the boy is sad. Their lack of reading experience has left their inference limited. By contrast, a ‘good reader’ may consider the alternative inferences that could be derived from both ‘sobbed’ and ‘silently’. Building their vocabulary is critical in developing their inference skills, and something we should be focus on more in a time when students need to use their inference skills less and less – the Internet can interpret everything in life for you!
You may note that I have not mentioned interventions here, purposely. Whilst I agree that there is a time and place for such measures for some students, these should not replace quality first teaching which should rely upon the teacher developing their own subject knowledge and lesson organisation to meet the needs of the low ability readers in their classrooms.
If you have found these approaches useful, you may also be interested in Catapult, developed specifically for lower-ability students, and targeting four key skills areas: building vocabulary, developing knowledge and understanding, improving reading habits, and sustaining writing.