A DIET of classic authors and serious literary study could be damaging the weakest readers when they first arrive at secondary school, ministers will be told in a report due out later this year.
The switch from primary school language work to the study of English literature may help account for the fact that as many as 45 per cent of pupils actually get worse at reading in their first year of secondary school, says one of the the authors of the government-backed report, Professor Maurice Galton from Homerton College Cambridge.
The report, co-written with colleague Professor Jean Rudduck, will say that secondary pupils need specific teaching designed to improve their reading skills. Ministers have already announced they are to introduce the literacy hour into secondary schools for struggling pupils.
"There's quite strong evidence that when you move from primary school to secondary school, the nature of English lessons changes dramatically," Professor Galton said this week.
"Whereas in primary school it's largely a matter of skills, when you get to the secondary school almost all of it is based around the study of literature." Suddenly, children are asked to pen character portraits and examine the motives of the author. "The consequences for poor readers are quite dramatic."
Auxillary help - support teachers working in the classroom - has not proved particularly helpful, he said. "What they need is specific work on skills."
Ministers have long been concerned that students may be neglected at the bottom end of secondary school. One in 10 pupils appears to make no progress in English during key stage 3, ages 11 to 14.
Last year another report by professors Galton and Rudduck found that primary reading standards have declined over the past two decades.
They concluded that the national curriculum and the emphasis on whole-class teaching have been partly to blame, for cutting out teachers' time to hear struggling readers.