Adapt and survive

25th February 2005 at 00:00
Paul Blum suggests strategies for making text accessible to pupils with different reading abilities.

One of the first training sessions we offer new teachers at Islington Green School covers strategies for differentiating work for pupils with low reading ages.

Forty per cent of 11-year-olds arrive at this north London comprehensive with a reading age of nine or below.

The national average is lower, but still significant. Twenty per cent of pupils, on entry to secondary school at the age of 11, have not yet achieved national curriculum level 4 in reading, which indicates lower than chronological reading age.

Despite this stark fact, the average secondary school textbook is written for pupils with a reading age of at least 13. Teachers are often forced to manage with largely inappropriate reading materials, even though research has shown that readers become frustrated when their accuracy level falls below 90 per cent. Not surprising, then, that many secondary pupils switch off.

So what can the classroom teacher do about it? The first and most important thing is to find out the spread of reading ages in the class, rather than making assumptions about the level of work you are setting. Most secondary schools should be able to supply a reading age through the Senco.

The daily reality of being a classroom teacher is that you are short of time and inundated with demands on it. But there are some quick and easy approaches to differentiation that can be delivered off the cuff.

If you have a difficult text, try explaining the main ideas to the class before you read it. Write up difficult words on the board with a clear definition of what they mean.

When deciphering the meaning of text through written work, there are a lot of "quick fixes" that can involve low-age readers swiftly and effectively.

The simplest are quick cloze exercises on the board: for example, write 50 words of text with a few critical words missing. The pupils copy it down and find the missing words from the text. If you focus the exercise on a small part of the text, it's easy for the pupils to find the answers. The secret is to keep it short. A short cloze is a lifeline for low-age readers and it's a good warm-up or summary exercise for the rest of the class.

A variation on this theme, which tests understanding of the text and is easy to set up, is a truefalse exercise. You can produce five statements "on the spot" on an overhead projector or whiteboard. Pupils copy them and have to make a basic decision about whether the statement is correct or incorrect, using the reading material you have given them.

Another simple way to open up difficult text to low-age readers is by focusing on the pictures and diagrams that go with the text. You can use them in almost any lesson by asking careful questions around them. Drawing spider diagrams and flow charts on the board is another way to simplify complex ideas through visual stimuli.

On the spot differentiation

* Find out which children are weak readers. If you find it hard to recognise a reading age, ask the Senco to give you a piece of writing that the pupil can read comfortably.

* Help poor readers make sense of regular text by explaining the key points they will meet in advance and putting important words on the board.

* Ask pupils to focus on short parts of the regular text, using cloze and truefalse exercises.

* If pupils get stuck when reading aloud, don't let them struggle for a long time, allow a better reader to prompt discreetly with the difficult word or phrase to keep the flow of the narrative going. Give weaker readers the choice of how much or how little they'll volunteer to read. Two sentences will include them in the lesson as much as two pages.

* Underlining important words and phrases in the text is an excellent way to focus poor readers on particular ideas as you read.

Paul Blum is deputy head of Islington Green School, north London and author of Improving Low-Reading Ages in the Secondary School. Practical Strategies in Learning Support (RoutledgeFalmer pound;16.99

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