A Lamp is Lit

A lamp is lit.

Until this moment, when the flame of the lamp flares blue, then settles to steady yellow inside its ornate globe, the young man had been impressed by the profound darkness into which, upon his late-night arrival at the palace of Rosenborg, he had suddenly stepped.

Music and Silence

Rose Tremain

The darkness is where we begin.

Students unable to synthesise, decode, and read for meaning – most comprehensive schools have experience of a percentage of each cohort coming through with significant gaps in their reading ability. The problem is complex –a multifaceted beast, with such a network of variables that it is almost impossible to pin the problem down to one factor.

We know that poverty impacts on reading ages. The problems start early; this is not about what primary schools have or haven’t done, or what parents have or haven’t done. This problem is deeply rooted – access to maternity services; the lack of physical space in social housing; working patterns of lower-paid jobs; closure of local libraries; the privatisation of public transport services and the subsequent ramping up of prices, forcing families on satellite estates to stay put. It is no good trying to identify one cause. The cause is systemic and that horse has bolted. We cannot simply plug gaps – ‘gaps’ is not the right word for this kind of expansive deprivation.

We know that having English as an additional language is a variable which is, essentially, intangible and impossible to track. Schools oft celebrate their EAL P8 scores – nationally, this group appear to outperform other groups. The KS2 data, though, is hardly fair. Student who have arrived into our exam system after compulsory school age are on the back foot. It is inevitable that they will underperform at KS2, armed only with their everyday vernacular. Their playground English is confident; they communicate smoothly – but the nuances and complexities are not yet developed and the progress that is made between KS2 and KS4 is only ever going to be accelerated. This does not mean that the students have reached their full potential; the progress data belies the head-start that some of the other students benefited from. This progress data allows for smug celebration in a system which is chronically failing these children.

On entry to secondary school, our weakest readers flounder, free-falling through a curriculum designed for Someone Else. We insist that all students should have access to Shakespeare, poetry, the classics, Octavia E Butler, and all the other beautiful things. There are comments online, on blogs, on forums where we read that we shouldn’t ‘dumb down’ our curriculum and that beautiful things are for everybody.

While everybody is making sure that everybody has beautiful things, nobody is teaching our children to read.

We have the discussions, the arguments, and the impassioned conversations in which we decide that we can teach the children to read through these beautiful texts. I’ve been there for these discussions – not just in the schools I have worked in, but online, on twitter, at exam-board hubs, at LA hubs. It gets discussed all the time.

We differentiate, without really knowing what we’re doing. We press through cartoon-versions of Shakespeare, and type up classics in a Sassoon Primary font, and encourage storyboarding. We give glossaries, as though they’re reading Nadsat with the odd tricky noun scattered here and there, and not a complex language with nuances and subtleties that takes a lifetime to master. We push through this enlarged-fonted, abridged-and-simplified version of the curriculum to give students exposure to the same content as the confident readers and I still can’t work out why we do this. I’ve heard arguments that it is humiliating to be studying something different and that they like to feel the same. You know what’s really humiliating? Being an illiterate adult – and I speak as someone with immediate familial experience of this.

Teaching the same, weakened curriculum to everyone is not the way forward. It’s not fair.

A word on EAL children before we look at solutions to this problem – students who arrive at secondary school and are new to English need to be in the top sets, if you set. Students who are not new to English should also be elevated in their set allocation. The challenges they face are distinct from the students who have been through primary school in the UK and not yet learnt to read. I would also recommend that all teachers become familiar with BICS and CALP – my own headteacher, Julia Hinchliffe, has schooled me here; an understanding that EAL students’ language gives the impression of fluency while masking deeper ‘gaps’ is crucial. We have since had an inset where we looked at this as a staff body. Links at the end of the blog.

Students who cannot read on entry to year 7 need to be taught to read. Putting them into interventions with LSAs, while pushing them through the mainstream curriculum, is counter-intuitive. They will not be able to learn, experience, and enjoy the beauty of the new content if they cannot access the new content. Every hour possible should be spent getting teaching these students to read – the interventions could and should accompany this approach. The problem that we have is one of human resources – we need the skill and knowledge base of the EYFS and KS1 teachers. Schools who have wanted to introduce Latin, or perhaps non-Eurocentric MFL may have stumbled over similar HR blocks. The solution lies in training – and while it’s expensive, it’s worth it. The Ruth Miskin Read Write Inc training for secondary (Fresh Start) is an excellent place to start. Send teachers and make sure they’re teachers who can and will train others. Liaising with the experts in primary schools is always useful, but of course their time is precious.

If this is insurmountable due to funding, or time, or whatever other barriers lie ahead, then there are scripted programmes. Before you shudder, they are not ‘scripted’ in the deprofessionalising, robotic way that we imagine. They are highly dialogic – it’s all about board work, and interaction, and the joy of piecing together the bits that somehow slipped through the net all those years ago. The McGraw Hill programmes have brought more life and joy into my year 7 classroom than all of my old attempts to teach literacy through a differentiated curriculum. It’s entirely reading-focused (meaning that they don’t actually write very much) so we maintain writing one lesson a week too. The teacher guide means that if you are unsure of what or how to teach this level, you have a safety net.

We have taken 5 minutes off every lesson of every day to add 20 minutes in the morning for reading. All of Years 7 to 9 (and from September, Y10 too) follow a book while their tutors read to them every day. All of our KS3 children have now read four novels in one school year; something that didn’t happen in previous years – not all of them. You can see our book selection here. This is a huge structural shift; one that we borrowed and adpated this from the Greenshaw Trust and have embraced fully. We are a school that reads.

We have other programmes too; we use Accelerated Reader (and while some may sneer – it works to build a reading culture, if it’s done well). We use Inference Training and Lexonic Leap with small LSA groups.

And don’t they miss out on the beauty of the curriculum? Yes, I suppose they do, for a time. But I am not sure that they would ever truly be able to enjoy the beauty of a curriculum that they cannot access. Someone, in opposition, once gave me the analogy of art – that we can enjoy art without understanding it, and that we are denying these students the simple exposure to the beauty of the world. I like the analogy, but I think it works better if we imagine that, until they can read, these students are looking at the art with their eyes closed.

The lamp is lifted up. Held high, it burns more brightly, as though sustained by purer air, and the young man sees a shadow cast onto the wall.


BICs and CALP – see Cummins’ homepage: https://www.oise.utoronto.ca/ctl/Faculty_Profiles/1464/James_Cummins.html or a summary can be found here: http://esl.fis.edu/teachers/support/cummin.htm

The McGraw Hill programme I have been using for my class of students with a reading age below 8 is ‘Decoding Strategies’ B2 and Corrective Reading. We also use the Expressive Writing programme.

Picture: Francesco del Cossa ‘Santa Lucia’. Labeled for reuse on Google Images and Wiki under the creative commons licence.