How do we get them reading?

This post is intended to help teachers who are at a complete loss as to why their pupils can’t read. I’m not saying I have all the answers- what I am proposing is not a definitive solution to the problem of reading, but it outlines some of the things I wish someone had told me when I started teaching. There is a range of things you could do, of course. These are just some of the things I have learnt over the past few years that I have seen work well.


Countless secondary schools across the country are faced with this problem. It is an absolute travesty that many children start secondary school unable to read. It means they will struggle to access a KS3 curriculum, and because many secondary schools lack the time, funding and frankly, the expertise to teach children how to read, they can often slip through the net and make very limited progress in reading over 5 years. I felt compelled to write this post because I have had to spend hours and hours researching, reading and trying to understand what on earth we can do to solve this problem. It is my hope that a few secondary teachers will read this and feel empowered to do something about a problem that likely does exist in their schools.


Step 1: Assessment.

You cannot begin to teach children to read if you don’t know where they are to begin with. Lots of schools use the Accelerated Reader reading test. This is okay, but it won’t give you much of a breakdown of their ability. So you won’t know whether their strengths lie in vocabulary or comprehension, which can make it more difficult to determine what support they need. I would recommend the New Group Reading Test by GL assessment. They do an online version and it generates very easy to understand reports.


Once you have your reading age results, get all the pupils with a reading age below their chronological age to do a decoding test. I would recommend the WRAT test. It takes about 3 minutes per child (done individually) and anyone can administer it. All they have to do is read a list of words until they can’t read anymore. It’s simple.


Step 2: Placement.

The WRAT test contains instructions for converting their score into a Standardised Age Score (SAS). If they have an SAS below 80, they need to do a phonics programme. If they are between 81 and 100, they need some fluency work, and usually some support with spelling (but this may vary, depending on the child).


Step 3: Phonics.

Badger your SLT and make them invest in a good phonics programme. I would highly recommend Ruth Miskin’s Fresh Start for any pupils in year 7 with a low decode score. It could be taught to kids in higher years, but some of the resources are a bit young. I haven’t found a better programme that is more age appropriate, however, so I’d still recommend this one. They’ll need 3 sessions of 45 minutes a week. It will take about 6 – 8 months, depending on how weak they are when they start. Find the money and the time in the timetable. It’s worth it. If you or members of your school’s SLT have ideological reservations surrounding phonics, get over it. A phonics programme WILL work if it is delivered properly, and not doing it because you don’t believe in it is borderline immoral. #justsayin.


Step 4: Fluency

Lots of pupils can decode, but still read in a very stilted, awkward way, without expression or much of an understanding of emphasis, tone or intonation in reading. It is important that all children can read fluently, as it frees up space in working memory to focus on comprehension. If all you are thinking about is how to pronounce the words, you aren’t concentrating on the content.


There are lots of ways to solve this. Firstly, they need to be reading aloud often- at least once a day, if possible. A simple way to do this is to read aloud in class. At Michaela, our pupils read aloud in all subjects. I’m very lucky to work with excellent humanities, maths, science, art and French teachers who recognise the importance of reading, and will happily ask pupils to read aloud in their lessons. You could also get them into the habit of reading aloud when they read at home, but this is obviously harder to monitor.


Secondly, if you have the time, you could try to do some timed repeated reading practice with the pupils concerned. Here is a good video outlining what this looks like.


Step 5: Comprehension

There isn’t a magic bullet for this one, unfortunately. It takes a very long time to build, and the poorer kids’ comprehension is to start with, the slower it improves. But there are important points to note here. Firstly, comprehension is heavily underpinned by knowledge. A 1988 study by Rechts and Leslie tested the comprehension of weak and strong readers with the same text. They found that poor readers with a good knowledge of the content (baseball) outperformed the strong readers with poor knowledge of baseball. Read more about this here, or there’s a nice video you can watch here. So the first step is to cram them with as much knowledge as possible.


Another option is to use these resources by McGraw Hill. They are expensive, but are completely scripted and extremely well sequenced. A teaching assistant can deliver these sessions, and each one takes about 20-25 minutes. Again, time would need to be built into the day for this, as you wouldn’t want to take them out of mainstream lessons and therefore give them less access to the knowledge they need to get better at reading.


A few more points

Finally, if you have exceptionally weak readers, I would recommend getting in touch with Dianne Murphy (@thinkreadtweet), whose reading programme has enormous impact on weak readers. Definitely worth a look.


Of course, to make any of this work, reading must be a central part of the school culture. Pupils must have access to a range of texts, and must learn to love reading. Next week, I will blog about building a culture of reading in a school, and motivating pupils to read. I think these two aspects of reading are so vital that they merit their own post. The five steps above are intended to help literacy leads or English teachers who don’t know where to begin with reading, as I didn’t a few years ago. Of course, I am still no expert- far from it! I’m just passing on some of the wisdom I have been fortunate enough to stumble upon over the last few years.



Happy reading!


35 thoughts on “How do we get them reading?

  1. Have you considered the York Reading Comprehension tests (YARC) – also available from GL Assessment? Here in Monaco we have Star reading assessments (from Accelerated Reader) and also looked at New Group Reading tests, but York (although time consuming – 20 mins per child) gives a far more comprehensive understanding than the other two. Would strongly recommend it.

    • I’ve used paper tests, YARC and GL, but both are time consuming and unwieldy. Switched to Literacy Assessment Online by RM Education and it is brilliant! 30 mins, online, all results collated and in beautiful graphs, exportable to Excel. Also would recommend Reciprocal Reading strategies for comprehension.

  2. Are you sure you don’t have this slightly backwards? You give us three pro-phonics points, and then, “Lots of pupils can decode, but still read in a very stilted, awkward way, without expression or much of an understanding of emphasis, tone or intonation in reading.” Well, is this precisely because they’ve been taught to read by phonics? Sure, the research clearly shows pure phonics is the optimal way to get kids decoding, but the side effect is that it makes reading seem terribly boring, and maybe that’s what causes the problems in step 4 and 5?

      • It would definitely be convenient if I were wrong, then we could teach phonics without a further thought. But don’t you think it’s possible that a system that focuses on teaching words could lead to kids being weaker at reading sentences?

  3. WRAT 4 is a level 2 test –
    LEVEL 2:
    Certified training and experience in a relevant discipline.
    Membership of a professional organisation appropriate to the focus of the test.
    Evidence of competence in the use of psychological tests.

    so not everyone can use it. And there’s more to it than ‘until they can’t read any more’ as well . Sorry to be picky.

    Also, you really need to put the comprehension in alongside the learning to decode, otherwise it’s meaningless for the students. We use Words first, which uses high frequency words rather than phonics

  4. This topic is of highest importance. It is absolutely possible to ignite reading for Year 7 students and very exciting to see the young people find their feet as they realise that they can read with ease and understanding.
    You might find of interest, because it is new and also because a rhythm-based approach to supporting reading works very effectively and quickly. Rapid progress is the best way to boost confidence in reading and learning. In only ten minutes per week for ten weeks, reluctant readers can make extraordinary progress in reading comprehension, fluency and accuracy. On the website there are case studies and in case you haven’t seen it, this month’s blog post is on reading fluency. If you have any questions please get in touch.

  5. nat says:
    “But don’t you think it’s possible that a system that focuses on teaching words could lead to kids being weaker at reading sentences?”

    I might agree if that were the full extent of phonics teaching, but it isn’t. I can only surmise that you have absorbed too much anti-phonics propaganda if you think that.

  6. Pingback: I ❤ January 2015 | Othmar's Trombone

  7. Pingback: How can we motivate reluctant readers? | Tabula Rasa

  8. I’m associated with two phonics programmes, one designed for infants, one designed for any age – they both have sentences and texts – definitely not just ‘words’! The online programme for all ages has a choice of over 400 cumulative sentences/texts.

    • Tim – tell him that there are many 14 year olds like him who cannot decode the words well enough and that this is because the English alphabetic code is the most complex alphabetic code in the world – and teachers are commonly not trained well enough to know how best to teach it.

      Tell him that some teachers and researchers have had to lobby governments to get phonics properly on the map and into schools – and that even now there is some way to go before teachers share a common understanding of how best to teach reading, spelling and handwriting.

      Tell him that in English-speaking countries the percentage of people identified as ‘dyslexic’ is way higher than countries with simpler codes for writing and reading. In other words, this is about the writing system and the teaching system – not about ‘him’ and his issues. Sometimes, difficulties like his are directly caused by insufficient teaching of the alphabetic code and phonics skills.

      Print off an Alphabetic Code Chart from to illustrate just how hard the code is – there are many free versions for you to choose from ranging from ‘giant’ ones to ‘mini’ ones. These are being used in secondary schools – and in some universities to train student-teachers. None of this is ‘baby stuff’ but the perception around phonics is very much that it’s ‘baby stuff’ when the truth is that literate adults apply phonics in some form to read and spell new and more challenging words.

      Have a look at the pdf below and follow the electronic links via the pdf to the guidance (not the links to the ‘shop’) and you will see the level of cumulative resources, rigour, content (although the texts are not ‘literature’ – and there is nothing for ‘genre’ – this is about foundational literacy).

      However, this level of cumulative content is not commonplace in all infant and primary schools – if it was, your son would be a reader by now and although we can never guarantee children become lovers of reading, we, as teachers, should be able to guarantee that children can lift the words off the page and not be haters of reading.

      Please contact me if you have any questions following a little investigation on your part – .

      Click to access how2.pdf

  9. Pingback: How can we motivate reluctant readers? | Teaching and Learning Toolkit

  10. Pingback: How can we motivate reluctant readers? | Blogs of the Month

  11. Pingback: Why being a SENCO is awesome | Tabula Rasa

  12. I would like to recommend the Sounds-Write Reading and Spelling programme a high- quality phonics programmes suitable for older children. Alongside this are decodable books Magic Belt, Totem and Talisman – quest series for catch-up readers. Very motivating for struggling readers.

  13. Pingback: Work in progress … working out the process. With thanks and credit to Alex Quigley. | Blogger, interrupted…

  14. Pingback: One Hundred Classics for Every Child | Tabula Rasa

  15. Pingback: 20 Months’ Reading Progress in 10 Months | Tabula Rasa

  16. What i do not understood is in fact how you are now not actually much more smartly-appreciated than you may be now.

    You are so intelligent. You already know therefore
    considerably on the subject of this matter, made me
    personally consider it from so many various angles.

    Its like men and women are not involved except it is something to accomplish with Woman gaga!
    Your individual stuffs great. At all times care for it up!

  17. Pingback: Hitting rock bottom | Mrs E's Literature Daydreams

  18. Pingback: Research Ed 2015 | The Wing to Heaven

  19. A great blog, I think phonics is something that KS2 teachers feel should be completed by the end of KS1 so if not competent by y2 children can be left stranded.

    Film and image can be used very effectively to develop comprehension skills in isolation from the decoding.

    There is also a motivation issue around reading alongside other social barriers but that’s a separate discussion.

  20. Pingback: “Please teach my daughter to read” | Tabula Rasa

  21. Thank you for the article, some cool points. Yes letter and word recognition must be stable and clear, without any fear. We start from the small and move to the larger units of measure. I really liked the statement about fluency, where it is made clear that once we are comfortable with the words, we have the space to realize meaning. If we learned too slowly, without the momentum, we become the habit of our practice, hence momentum is a key component, it is like a quantum balance that stagnates if one aspect is out of sync. When we think in too linear a way, we miss the capacity to balance out the key movements that lead to proper word processing.
    Also, and this is a question that must be asked of parents. Why does this parent that came to the school, ask a school to do what he himself could not do while he is a product of the same system??? His speech patterns are not grammatically in line with how we write words. In this his exposure to written language is minimal. Also, this means that our initial exposure to language is imbedded. Changing this takes continued perfect practice, something our schools, by design have little time to do. Word recognition must be completed at a young age, the tools are here, and they remove the pictures, as we are so absorbent that we absorb the pictures and clutter the memory. Words are like the 1’s and 0’s in a computer, if we load up the words with pictures, we create a memory full of viruses, and our processing speed slows down because it leads to associative thinking, we lose what can be dynamic thinking or synergistic thinking skills. Within this, it must be remembered that language is never the thing it describes, it is a construct about something. Yet, we can use words to build a memory of nicely ordered in-form-ation to allow us the space to conceptualize the world around us, and have excellent critical literacy skills, where we can assess what the words present without ONLY following information without question.

  22. Pingback: How can we help the weakest catch up? | Tabula Rasa

  23. Pingback: How can we get kids to read widely? | Tabula Rasa

  24. Pingback: Bright spots // 9th December | Never Stop Learning

  25. Hello

    I’m a representative of Hosting Services Lab Company, here is our website We analyze and compare web hosting providers and help choose the best one. We also collect the feedback from the website owners as their opinion helps us create more authentic review.

    Please, write what web hosting do you use, are there any advantages and disadvantages? Thanks in advance for taking your time,

    Best regards,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s