How to win when they're lost for words

What do you do if your Year 7s can't understand the books you're giving them? Paul Blum explains how to bring out the best in low-age readers

A significant proportion of children have reading ages below their chronological age. Twenty per cent of pupils have failed to reach national curriculum level 4 in reading by the time they arrive at secondary school aged 11; the average secondary school textbook is written with a reading age of at least 13 in mind.

So what do you do with 11-year-olds who enter school with reading ages of between eight and 10 and will be using textbooks for readers with the ability of a 13-year-old?

Research has shown that the reading process becomes too difficult when the reader falls below a 90 per cent accuracy rate. But a significant number of secondary pupils face texts on which they have an accuracy rate of less than 70 per cent. Can we be surprised that they switch off reading?

The vital first step is to try to establish the spread of reading ages in your class. Don't make assumptions about the level of work you are setting. Ask the special needs co-ordinator - or the head of English - about the reading ages for the new Year 7s. It's a reasonable request for a new teacher to make. If the feeder primaries have passed on this information, or if your school does its own reading tests at the start of term, you're in luck. Use them and plan your lessons accordingly.

Most classroom teachers are short of time and inundated with demands on it. But there are ways of making your lesson material accessible to the poor readers - let's call them "on-the-spot differentiation" strategies.

If you are using a difficult text, try explaining the main ideas before reading it. Write difficult words on the board with clear definitions.

Don't always use the teacher-centred approach, where the teacher and successful volunteers read aloud. Get the children to read in pairs or groups, mixing strong readers with weaker ones.

When it comes to deciphering the meaning of text through written work, there are many quick fixes that can help low-age readers become involved. The simplest are quick cloze exercises on the board. Write 50 words of text with a few critical words missing and ask the pupils to copy it and find the missing words. If you focus on a small part of the text, it's easy for the pupils to find the answers. The secret is to keep it short. You haven't time to write chunks on the board and it may not be helpful to have your back to the class for long. A short cloze is a lifeline for low-aged readers, and it's not a bad warm-up or summary exercise for the more able.

A variation on the cloze theme, which tests understanding of the text and is easy to set up, is a truefalse exercise. You produce five statements on an overhead projector or whiteboard. The pupils copy them and have to decide whether the statement is correct, using the reading material you have given them.

The third simple way of making difficult text accessible to low-aged readers involves pictures and diagrams. You can use these in almost any lesson if you think of careful questions to ask around them. Spider diagrams and flow charts drawn on the board are another way of simplifying ideas.

Paul Blum is assistant head of a London secondary school and author of Surviving and Succeeding in Difficult Classrooms (RoutledgeFalmer pound;13.99)

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