Reading two challenging novels back to back enables poorer readers to make rapid progress, according to a new study.
The University of Sussex study found that weaker readers – those with a reading age of 12 months or more behind their chronological age – made 16 months’ progress in their reading comprehension if they read two challenging novels in class in a short period of 12 weeks.
All pupils made nine months’ progress on average.
The research – Just reading: the impact of a faster pace of reading narratives on the comprehension of poorer adolescent readers in English classrooms – involved 20 teachers and 365 Year 8 pupils across 10 schools in the south of England in 2015.
All 20 classes read two whole challenging novels over 12 weeks in English lessons. Ten teachers received additional training to deliver this, although this had no direct impact on the progress made by weaker pupils.
Texts were chosen based on the level of challenge and complexity they presented, with teachers opting for novels such as The Boy in The Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne, Once by Morris Gleitzman or Now is the Time for Running by Michael Williams.
The study suggested the 18-year trend for teaching and testing short extracts left teachers deskilled when teaching whole text comprehension.
Teachers found pupils were motivated through quickly reading a whole text. The pace and fluency broke down when teachers interrupted too often to ask questions.
One teacher in the study said pupils were engaged through having consistent time to read.
“In my experience, they hate reading for five minutes then doing a diary entry for 40 minutes…they just want to know the next bit of the story,” she said.
Teachers in the study found that students' writing levels had improved following three to four weeks of reading the whole text.
They initially feared the texts chosen would be too difficult for their pupils but found that even previously reluctant readers were rushing to their English lessons, excited to discover what happened next in their novel.
The academics said that the findings disproved certain "myths", including "that poorer readers need simpler texts; reading aloud by students equates to their comprehension; every part of a text has to be analysed; comprehension leads to inference; and teachers have to be in control of the reading".
Reading challenging books quickly was a “catch-up” programme for weaker pupils, they said.