An Edinburgh project is showing how the fortunes of poor readers can be turned around dramatically even after they have started secondary school.
The Fast Track reading scheme, which gives pupils in S1 and S2 twice-weekly extra help in small groups for a school year, has resulted in some "massive improvements", according to Martin Gemmell, Edinburgh's principal educational psychologist.
Scores were recorded for 343 pupils in August 2014 and again last month, showing a "statistically significant" overall increase, Mr Gemmell said. A total of 21 of the city's 23 secondaries improved their average reading scores - 13 of them making "highly significant" gains. The other two remained at the same level.
"This five-point gain is crucially moving poorer readers into the average range," he said. "Schools have therefore targeted their poorer readers and taught them to read."
Less is more
The programme, based on a well-known US scheme of the same name, has just completed its second year. An average of 15 pupils per school took part, down from about 20 in 2013-14. However, this 25 per cent fall in participation can be deemed a good sign, as the fall has been linked to successful reading interventions in the city's primary schools.
"This means that secondary schools are more aware of pupils with intractable issues where support beyond the group intervention of Fast Track is necessary," Mr Gemmell said.
Qualitative research involving several schools showed that pupils felt the programme had helped to improve their reading generally. Nearly all pupils thought the programme should be offered to other S1s who struggled with reading.
"I don't feel anxious about reading in front of people in this class," one pupil said. Another child explained: "It helps me to learn new word sounds and how to break words down."
But Mr Gemmell said it was important that the mechanics of reading were not taught in isolation from reading for pleasure, adding that school librarians had a crucial role to play in helping pupils put their new skills to use.
"We've still got to entice them into the whole world of literature," he said. "It could be magazines about computing, it could be football, it could be anything."
Even if children have grown up in households with no books, Mr Gemmell is convinced that it is not too late for them to discover a passion for reading. He recalled how, as a newly qualified psychologist some years ago, he had seen a 13-year-old reluctant reader fall in love with Treasure Island.
"It was almost like the scales falling away - he was just really into reading for pleasure. That stuck with me, and Fast Track is basically a way of ensuring we can do more of that," he said.
Mr Gemmell added that other councils, such as Fife and North Lanarkshire, were having success with reading programmes.
The Scottish Book Trust also believes that secondary school is not too late to inspire reluctant readers and help them make dramatic improvements to their literacy.
Sometimes imaginative approaches are required, however, and the trust highlights the use of "rap battles" in South Lanarkshire. In a blog post, English teacher Peter Kelly recounts how working with Scottish rapper Loki helped to uncover a gift for language in pupils.
"This project appears to have made an impression on these boys and has raised their interest in, of all things, poetry and debating," Mr Kelly writes. "Not things 13-year-old boys are usually too interested in, it has to be said."