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Never too old for phonics? Well, not if you're in Year 7

Research shows techniques help struggling secondary students

Phonics techniques commonly used with primary school pupils also provide a significant boost to struggling readers at secondary level, new research suggests.

Low-attaining students in Year 7 can rapidly improve their reading ability by spending up to an hour a day on a phonics-based programme that includes deciphering nonsense words, according to a study published today by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF).

Pupils using Fresh Start, one of the Read, Write Inc schemes developed by Ruth Miskin Training, would make an extra three months' progress in reading comprehension over a year compared with their classmates, the research estimates. Some schools involved in the study reported even greater gains, with students potentially increasing their reading age by two years.

A drive to embed phonics in primaries has led to the government changing the curriculum and introducing a phonics check for six-year-olds, but previous studies in secondaries have found that a combination of approaches works best.

Fresh Start does include reading comprehension tasks within each session but it is primarily a phonics programme. According to the study, by researchers from Durham University, it shows "considerable promise as an effective catch-up intervention for low-attaining readers".

But they warn that some pupils find basic phonics practice patronising and adds that the teaching style is more usually seen in primary schools.

"Fresh Start teachers must not use their own techniques of spellings, word recognition and comprehension. The letters of the alphabet must not be read by their names, only sounds, for example," explains the report, which will be available on the EEF website.

Helen Maddison, head of learning support at South Holderness Technology College in Hull, which took part in the study, said pupils could increase their reading age from 8 to 10 by using the techniques.

"Some of our teachers had done phonics training before, but for some they did find it quite difficult - it's a whole different ball game," she said. "And the students did say, `Well, this is a bit babyish.' But once they had settled into it, then it was totally different. They enjoyed it.

"We have some tough kids, but we didn't have any problems behaviour-wise, because they could access it.

"We're due an Ofsted visit and we can't wait to get Ofsted in because these are interactive, fun lessons and the progress students make is unbelievable. We have about 40 or 50 students coming to us from primary at level 3 in English. For the trial, we found some would make two years' progress [in a year]."

Similar progress was made by children using the Accelerated Reader programme, which was also examined by the EEF.

The scheme, already used in 2,000 schools, asks students to read books from a selection "banded" at their reading level and then sets them computer-based quizzes. The teacher receives the quiz results so they can check the book selection, set goals and give rewards.

Both trials ran for 22 weeks. It was estimated that students using the Accelerated Reader programme made progress equivalent to an extra three months over a year. Pupils eligible for free school meals made an extra five months' progress compared with similar pupils who did not take part.

The research was carried out with pupils who were not "secure" readers (defined as level 4b or above) by the start of secondary school.

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