Islington Green school has a typically diverse inner-city intake with as many as 45 per cent of pupils having reading ages two years or more below their chronological age. Improving their literacy skills has always been central to our work.
Last year, we ran a 40-hour training course for our team of 15 learning support assistants and teachers to help them assess the individual difficulties of low-aged readers at secondary school and devise a programme of intervention that caters for them. It was delivered once a week for one hour in specially arranged non-contact time for the staff and gave them the practical strategies that could be used immediately with their small reading groups.
The most critical element of the course focused on how to create a pacey group dynamic for a group of five struggling readers withdrawn from their normal lessons. To do this effectively, it was important to train staff to be flexible from the start and accept that there is no one off-the-shelf corrective reading scheme that will act as a panacea for all ills.
The starting point was to make sure that there was an accurate assessment of each pupil's strengths and weaknesses as readers. The school had initial results from the Suffolk Reading Test, a group reading test taken by the whole of Year 7 in an exam hall at the start of the school year: it gives a crude baseline reading age.
The learning support teachers supplemented this with much more detailed information from an individual reading test, the New Reading Analysis. This provided much highly personal information about the pupils as staff watched them read aloud and asked them questions about the passages they were reading. They also carried out an emotional audit of each of their reader's approach to classroom learning, talking to their subject teachers to gain a picture of teaching methods that enthused the pupils.
Central to our training programme was the idea that literacy recovery work had to build on a pupil's prior knowledge, interests and enthusiasms. This is the X factor which breathes life into every single lesson and helps create a sense of fun.
The pedagogy for the reading groups was based on creating an error-free environment and using "overlearning" as a strategy. Our learning support team was trained to teach a lesson in very small steps, so that it was almost impossible for a nervous pupil to get too demoralised by making mistakes. To create an almost error-free environment, pupils learned by constant repetition and reinforcement and through this process of overlearning, they started to build up levels of self-esteem.
Critical to any successful reading intervention for our struggling teenage readers was finding good texts - both fiction and non-fiction - for an audience that was predominantly boys. We looked very carefully at the available materials and found that there are far fewer really good texts than the glossy brochures suggest. Cherry picking the best involved a lot of research and sample testing rather than getting out the cheque book and buying in bulk.
Improving the phonic skills of struggling secondary school readers was a big problem. Although the vast majority have poor sound-to-letter mapping skills, they don't seem to take too kindly to long periods of structured phonics in a reading intervention. This has often been an approach to improving reading that they have been immersed in at primary school with the national literacy strategy and have become thoroughly disenchanted with.
So our training concentrated on light-touch phonic interventions. Pupils practised blending and segmenting words that they were actually reading in a story rather than reciting abstract tables of words and letter combinations. Phonic interventions were restricted to a couple of minutes before a return to reading for meaning.
A lot of stress was put on building up pupils' "sight vocabulary" rather than relying on the breaking down of an unfamiliar word.
The training programme has had significant success. One of its long-term achievements was giving all levels of learning support staff confidence in using the individual reading test as an assessment tool. But above all, everybody started to understand the vital importance of building up a positive relationship with their pupils if they were to have a powerful effect on their reading.
From our initial evaluation of the training, it was this relationship of "intellectual nurture" rather than any specific teaching method that ensured the biggest improvement in an individual's reading age over a six month period.
Paul Blum is deputy head at Islington Green school and the author of Improving Low Reading Ages in the Secondary School. Practical Strategies in Learning Support (RoutledgeFalmer 2004)