Literacy: can a basic reading test transform reading?

Ohen Year 7 students arrive at South Shore Academy in Blackpool, they take an important test, the outcome of which will determine their timetable for the next three years.

The test is the new group reading test, provided by GL Assessment. It measures reading skills against the national average and provides each student with a Standard Age Score (SAS).

This score will be used to determine which of several reading interventions students will receive throughout the school week: these are tailored to individual needs, with some students being assigned up to four different interventions, each ranging from 20 minutes per day at two hours a week. .

If you think managing all of this sounds like a huge undertaking, you’re right. But for Bernie Kaye, vice principal of the school, it’s worth it.

“We’ve never been interested in quick wins and the focus on literacy is about playing the long game,” she explains.

The school’s ultimate goal is to ensure that no child is prevented from accessing the full secondary curriculum due to low reading achievement. But their purpose has not always been so clear.

“Five years ago, we weren’t doing anything explicit outside of English lessons for reading,” says Kaye. “We didn’t assess students, we didn’t conduct any interventions, and we certainly didn’t know where reading stood as a school.”

The Blackpool Key Stage 3 Literacy Project

What changed? Well, in 2016 Blackpool was named an area of ​​opportunity. Government funding has been provided for educational initiatives across the city, including the Blackpool Key Stage 3 Literacy Project, which aimed to improve the literacy capacity of all 11 to 14 year olds in the city.

Six regular high schools were involved, including the South Shore. Leaders were trained to deliver different evidence-based interventions for reading and were supported to implement them in their schools. So how exactly does the intervention at South Shore Academy work?

As part of a larger project, leaders were briefed on a range of interventions, but the school decided to implement four.

The first is Lexicona phonetics-based program that develops phonological awareness through metacognition, repetition, decoding and automaticity.

This is followed by Lexia PowerUp, which develops academic vocabulary through a personalized technology-driven approach and accelerates basic reading skills.

The third is Reciprocal Read QFT, which focuses on reading comprehension and uses teaching strategies like questioning, clarifying, summarizing, and predicting.

And finally, precision instruction, which is based on short one-minute tasks to develop reading skills until they are fluent and automatic.

The school also uses paired and guided reading, as well as the British Picture Vocabulary Scale for English as an Additional Language (EAL) students.

Kaye works with Kate Jones, the school’s reading intervention manager, to go through the SAS, one by one, and assign the interventions using a flowchart (see below).

This flowchart was designed with the help of Dr Jessie Ricketts, Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at Royal Holloway, University of London, who supports all schools in the Blackpool Key Stage 3 Literacy Project. She offered advice on the interventions best suited to different needs.

While the average SAS is 100, at South Shore the benchmark for not needing an intervention is 115. A number of different factors help determine which combination of interventions will work best for each student.

For example, if a child has a score of 71, has no EAL, but is either on the lower set or on the “educational” set, they will have a combination of Lexia PowerUp, teaching precision, paired reading, a weekly reading lesson with their Higher Level Teaching Assistant (HTLA) and Reciprocal Read QFT.

Find the time and resources to focus on literacy

It is a substantial program. So how does South Shore find the time and resources to make this work? Part of the funding comes from the Blackpool Project, as mentioned earlier – and as a result the school has five HTLAs who all work full time and carry out most of the intervention. Years 7-10 all have an assigned HLTA, with the other taking responsibility for “education” classes.

But, to find time in the school day, students must be removed from other classes. It’s not ideal, Kaye admits, but it’s a sacrifice that needs to be made to improve reading levels. Some EALs students, for example, arrive at South Shore unable to read and write well, even in their own language, making it incredibly difficult for them to access their regular classes without intervention.

“We are very sensitive to the topics we take students from,” says Kaye. “But, at the end of the day, which comes down to saying that students need this provision. If they can’t read, they won’t be able to access the program. We take individual circumstances into account and mix them all together. throughout the year.”

Above all, the school takes precautions to minimize the content of the subject that students miss when they are withdrawn from lessons: if the intervention is paired reading, for example, and a student is withdrawn from geography, the text used for the reading activity will be provided by the geography teacher.

In addition to the personalized program of interventions, all students participate in 40 minutes of guided reading at the start of each day. Three times a week replaced tutor time, while the other two sessions replaced a PSHE lesson and an assembly in the timetable. As a result, a novel, often linked to broader learning, is read by students every semester.

The big question is: is all this effort worth it? Do the interventions work?

Evidence suggests they do. At the end of each year, students retake the new reading test as a group and progress is measured statistically. When you look at the current Year 10s, the first to go through this program, the improvement is clear. When they were in grade 7, the average SAS was 86.2; today it’s 94.6.

Progress on key stage 3 is also positive: the SAS has increased by an average of 2.6 points per student between autumn 2020 and summer 2021, after an average increase of 4 points per student since 2018.

How to replicate this approach

So, could other schools take a similar approach? Without the funding to hire additional support staff and access to specialized training, it could be difficult to make it work the way it does in South Shore. Kaye also points out that the chosen interventions are working for their students, in their context, at the moment.

“We’re going to get to a point where these interventions won’t work anymore, and we’ll have to think of something more stretchy or more appropriate,” she says. “But at the moment we are serving our community with the interventions we have. It won’t be for everyone, but it has certainly worked for us.”

However, Jones has some advice for leaders looking to replicate his school’s success. The first step, she says, should be implementing initial baseline testing.

“The data speaks volumes and that’s the best place to start,” she says. “From there, you can tailor interventions for students of all levels.”

Here, she says, it’s worth researching what works best for students with the lowest SAS, rather than falling back on additional phonetics lessons.

“Phonetics for high school students can feel ‘immature’ and if it hasn’t worked by the time they reach 7th grade, a different approach is usually needed,” she says.

“The data shows where, specifically, a student is struggling, whether it’s with word recognition or understanding a passage. So if word recognition is the difficulty, it’s worth exploring the precision teaching and the British Picture Vocabulary Scale (BPVS) If a student is struggling to understand it is often worth using York Assessment of Reading for Comprehension, because it deepens the specific difficulties they face.”

The key to success is therefore to first identify the needs of your students through a basic assessment, before adapting the inventions specifically for them. As with so many things in education: context is king.

About Shirley L. Kreger

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