North East secondary school reading project “could be a game changer”

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An ambitious region-wide project that aims to improve the reading skills of thousands of secondary school students across the North East “could be a game changer” for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

That is the view of Louise Quinn, Director of Shotton Hall Research School in Peterlee, who successfully bid for funding of almost £100,000 from SHINE for the Fluency for All project.

“Receiving this grant is a massive thing for me personally and professionally,” she says. “It is probably the highlight of my career because I genuinely believe we’ve got something that can help children and SHINE has given us the money to hopefully make it happen. The funding will be really well spent.”

Over three years, around 2,000 children from County Durham, Northumberland, Stockton and Redcar & Cleveland will take part in the programme, and Louise hopes it can be scaled up so that many more children from across the North East and further afield can benefit.

Louise aims to develop a secondary reading programme that is more affordable and effective than anything currently available so that it can help more of the children who need it most.

“There is no education without reading,” says Louise. “The evidence is clear: reading is the biggest barrier to academic attainment at secondary, irrespective of the subject, and the majority of struggling readers are from disadvantaged backgrounds. They are already the most vulnerable children – and then because they can’t read fluently, they are even more vulnerable because they are not part of the conversation.

“I feel really strongly about this. I grew up in and taught in one of the most deprived wards in the North East. I have taught in schools in deprived areas for most of my career: I understand the power of reading and education more broadly; they can be equalisers.”

At its core, Fluency for All is a peer-tutoring programme that sees children reading out loud for 20 minutes a day, two days a week, under the guidance of older students, who have received bespoke training.

The sessions, which take place during morning registration time, involve three anthologies of non-fiction texts, written specifically for the programme by Louise and her colleagues.

Many Year 7 reading interventions focus on phonics (decoding the meaning of words from the way they sound) or comprehension (the understanding of texts). However, the main aim of Fluency for All is to improve the fluency of children’s reading. Fluency is about reading accurately, at the same speed as you would talk in everyday conversation, with the appropriate stress and intonation.

The evidence is clear: reading is the biggest barrier to academic attainment at secondary, irrespective of the subject, and the majority of struggling readers are from disadvantaged backgrounds. They are already the most vulnerable children – and then because they can’t read fluently, they are even more vulnerable because they are not part of the conversation.

Louise Quinn

Louise explains, “Through one-to-one diagnostic assessments across our 7 secondary schools, we found that 85% of our struggling readers in Year 7 had a fluency issue. We then set about devising a bespoke, evidence-informed reading fluency intervention.

“However, if our findings are replicated across similar secondary settings, then there is a potential risk that students could be matched to the wrong reading intervention.

“Reading is a grey area that many secondary schools currently grapple with, and it is not uncommon for pupils to be mismatched to phonics or comprehension interventions.

“Fluency is the bridge between decoding and comprehension. If you can’t read fluently, your working memory has no capacity left to attend to comprehension.

“This is happening because the working memory is tied up with the act of getting the words off the page and there’s nothing left over to attend to comprehending what is read.  So, we need to get children reading fluently to support their comprehension.”

A pilot evaluation of the programme has already taken place that has shown early indicators of promise. The purpose of the SHINE grant is to test the impact of the programme further, so it can be further refined and scaled up.

Issues with struggling Year 7 readers are due to lack of resources in the system and this has been compounded by the pandemic, because “a lot of disadvantaged children didn’t have access to books or didn’t practise reading at home”.

“It’s a considerable issue and you can’t really address comprehension properly until fluency has been addressed. Peer tutoring is an approach well-placed to meet the scale of the challenge.”

“There’s a lot of evidence to support peer tutoring but it consistently tells us it’s about the quality of the tutoring sessions and interactions between the tutor and tutee. So, our programme sets out in detail what great peer tutoring should look like.”

At the core of the programme are ambitious and age-appropriate texts.

“You cannot find quality non-fiction texts anywhere. For this to be a fluency intervention programme, those texts need to be written with the language methods that support fluency,” says Louise.

She explains that, often, fiction is more suited to improving fluency because of the writing style and so the texts are “almost non-fiction written in the style of fiction, so we get the best of both worlds.

“We’re proud of our texts. There are 60 texts per anthology, and they are challenging but written at appropriate reading ages for the children.”

The three anthologies also help build pupils’ background knowledge. Subjects covered in the texts roughly align with the Key Stages 2 and 3 National Curriculum, covering areas like the Ancient Greeks, places around the world, animals, planets, extreme adventurers and extreme sports. These subjects also appeal to the most reluctant readers.

“At the same time as improving their reading, the texts are also increasing the pupils’ cultural capital and background knowledge, so pupils are better able, we hope, to access their lessons.

“Interestingly, in our first pilot, reading fluency not only improved, but reading comprehension improved on a standardised reading test as well, and we think that’s because of the wider background knowledge emphasis in the anthologies.”

“We have taken a great amount of care and pride in the texts. None of them are lightweight or without substance. They are, for me, the heart of the programme.”

Yet the Fluency for All programme is much more than just anthologies and training. It includes quality assurance tools, diagnostic assessments, and comprehensive support for reading leads, senior leadership, and tutors. The aim is to create self-sustaining programmes within schools.

“It’s a complete system, says Louise. “We hope to develop something that works if it is implemented correctly, and all the milestones are met.

“But we need the schools to run the programme the way that we intend it to be run. The devil’s in the detail, so we will support them throughout the process.

“We don’t have much time in education – people are really busy – so let’s make the best use of the time that we have.

“The aim is by year three to take us out of the equation as much as possible. To this end, there will be manuals, video training and a website explaining every aspect of the programme.”

Louise and her colleagues are hoping that the programme will be well received.

“We hope it will greatly appeal to secondary schools because they can sometimes struggle with reading interventions. That’s why, with the best of intentions, we can sometimes spend a lot of money on a silver bullet that doesn’t currently exist.

“There are a lot of reading intervention programmes that charge a lot of money and promise the world. We’re hoping to produce a really cost-effective, high-impact solution for schools. We also hope it will enable secondary schools to divert their most precious resource – their staff – to more specialist interventions such as phonics or comprehension.

The programme will be thoroughly tested and fine-tuned throughout the three years of the project.

“We’re going to run 25 randomised controlled trials in schools over the next three years to test the impact,” says Louise.

“We’re running two evaluations concurrently with SHINE. There’s an impact evaluation to test whether the programme works. Do the students get better at reading after one, or two terms, after being involved in our programme? And we’re also running a process evaluation, where at every stage we refine the programme and make it better.

“We’re really passionate about it. We hope it will work and our pilot evaluation has shown early indications of promise. If it can work – and it can work at scale – this could be a game changer because there isn’t anything else like it currently.”