Improving Reading – a whole school approach

If you’re new to the role of literacy lead, or just have an interest in approaching Literacy across the school I’d strongly advise beginning your journey with vocabulary – I have written two blogs on this (links below). It makes sense that before students can access texts, we teach them how to access words, and I love how this approach to vocabulary has naturally led me, in my role as literacy lead, to move from words to texts.

I went on a course once, led by the inimitable Geoff Barton, and he said the key to improving reading is to really ask yourself if what you are doing genuinely encourages students to engage with text, or if it is just a box tick exercise. For example, world book day activities can be great fun and engaging for a day, but in the long term, how does dressing up encourage children to engage with reading? This is a question I return to again and again when devising new strategies to approach the development of a whole school to teaching reading.

If you’re reading this I’m assuming you don’t need to be encouraged into the importance of developing reading across the curriculum, but here are some shocking but helpful statistics I’ve discovered along the way:

  • 1 in 8 disadvantaged children in the UK do not own a single book at home
  • 25% of 15 year old pupils have a reading age of 12 or under 

A study by GL discovered:

  • Children who are weak readers will struggle as much in maths and science at GCSE as they do in English and in arts subjects.
  • There is a significant connection between reading ability and success in all GCSE subjects, however the link between good reading and good grades is actually higher in maths than in some arts subjects like English literature and history.
  • That doing well in creative subjects such as art, drama, music, media and PE has very strong correlations to a student’s reading ability, underscoring how ‘text heavy’ and challenging these subjects are too.

As always, any approach initially needs to involve staff training. We are about to embark upon our fourth staff training session on developing reading. The power of staff training cannot be underestimated; lots of staff are under confident in their own literacy skills so building up slowly and playing the long game is crucial. These training sessions are also important for providing the theory and rationale behind whatever move you wish to make. You need to allow time and space in the sessions for staff to identify for themselves what improving reading would do for students in their subject specifically; there’s always the battle of curriculum time to contend with so staff buy in is crucial.

What follows is how we have approached developing reading across the school, starting with how we have structured our staff training. Our aim is to build into our curriculum plans, across all school subjects, per term, three embedded, explicit reading opportunities, in which staff will plan to use reciprocal reading roles to encourage independence when tackling texts.

Staff training session 1:

  • To understand the importance of reading across the curriculum
  • To understand how children learn to read 
  • To develop practical strategies for helping struggling readers in the classroom

Staff training session 2:

  • To understand student perceptions of reading across the curriculum 
  • To develop understanding of how reading can support learning in your subject area

Staff training session 3:

  • To understand how to develop students reading skills to encourage independent learning
  • Metacognitive approaches to reading

Staff training session 4:

  • Reciprocal reading structures 
  • Looking at curriculum opportunities

In and amongst these sessions we have:

  • Conducted learning walks (voluntary) to explore current good practice
  • Looked at medium term plans to identify current practice and subjects who may need further support for our next steps
  • Used students to complete a reading trail to record how much reading they do in different lessons across the school
  • Completed staff voice on perceptions of reading and challenges in increasing reading in their subject area
  • Met with middle leaders to discuss plans and take feedback on board
  • Researched theory and strategies to trial
  • Trained one dept further to create an area of good practice which we will use to springboard into whole school embedding of reading

As I said above, this is a very slow, drip feed approach, we’re always mindful of staff perceptions of literacy being ‘shoe-horned’ in and of workload and find that slowly introducing concepts and ideas helps staff to grow comfortable with them in their own time before we increase their use across the school more formally. Thereof; we’re still in the middle of our journey! We have planned for the following sessions to take place this year:

Session 5:

Plan for three reading opportunities in next term 

Session 6:

Deliver reciprocal reading roles training suited to different curriculum areas

On reflection; if I think about where we are, how much work we’ve put in and where we want to be – as with all things Literacy and whole school – I have to remind myself this process is a marathon and not a sprint. As an English specialist I often find myself frustrated that everyone isn’t as passionate about reading as I am; so being constantly aware of the pressures on staff and their own curriculum time is paramount – consulting with middle leaders and making our long term aim clear is also really important.  We’ve raised the profile of reading and started a conversation. We’re at the informal experimentation stage now and we’ll take staff and student voice and consult again with middle leaders before our next steps.

What do you think of our approach? We’re definitely in the middle of our journey so all thoughts and ideas would be gratefully received!

Sarah Eggleton is Assistant Headteacher and Head of English at Stretford High School

Read more blogs by Sarah Eggleton:

The latest news and views on education from Oxford University Press