What one issue lies at the heart of school improvement?

You are reviewing your school improvement plan, weighing up what to prioritise, what to focus on, thinking about whole staff vision, professional development, and of course how to prioritise resources.

Tick off the list. Behaviour. Mental health. Wellbeing. New, harder GCSE specifications. A more knowledge-based curriculum. The ‘long tail of underachievement’.

What theme runs through all of these? Better reading.

Is there a link between poor reading and poor behaviour? We know that poor reading leads to poorer behaviour outcomes. Hempenstall (2013) summarises relevant research :

A few studies have evaluated whether poor reading performance negatively impacts ‘distal’ feelings and behaviours that are not specific to reading activities. In these studies, poor readers have been reported to be more likely to act out or be aggressive (e.g., Morgan, Farkas, & Wu, 2009; Trzesniewski, Moffitt, Caspi, Taylor, & Maughan, 2006), distractible and inattentive (Goldston et al., 2007; Morgan, Farkas, Tufis, & Sperling, 2008), and anxious and depressed (Arnold et al., 2005; Carroll, Maughan, Goodman, & Meltzer, 2005). Older poor readers have been reported to be more likely to consider or attempt suicide (Daniel et al., 2006).

So there is evidence to indicate that reading problems affect mental health. Morgan, Farkas, and Qiong (2012) report that their analyses “indicated that poor readers are at substantially greater risk of socioemotional maladjustment. This was the case across multiple self-report measures as well as after extensive statistical control of possible confounding factors.” (Cited in Hempenstall, 2013).


While teachers have become increasingly aware of the need to ensure that students develop the ability to acquire knowledge independently, we then run into the problem of Matthew Effects.

There is evidence (Stanovich, 1988) that vocabulary development from about Year 3 is largely a function of volume of reading. Nagy and Anderson (1984) estimate that, in school, struggling readers may read around 100,000 words per year while for keen mid-primary students the figure may be closer to 10,000,000, that is, a 100 fold difference. For out of school reading, Fielding, Wilson and Anderson (1986) suggested a similar ratio in indicating that children at the 10th percentile of reading ability in their Year 5 sample read about 50,000 words per year out of school, while those at the 90th percentile read about 4,500,000 words per year.” (ibid)

The increasing difficulty of the new GCSEs is already seen as a source of mental health pressure for students (and staff). Key to these new GCSEs is the ability to decipher and digest large chunks of information quickly. As noted above, those whose reading is slow and laborious will struggle to develop vocabulary and by implication, subject knowledge. The earlier these students are able to improve the depth and speed of their reading, the better.


And, of course, all this matters most when we think about improving the outcomes of those at the ‘lower end’. These students tend to suffer from feelings of alienation at school, disruptive and truculent behaviour, anxiety, and low progress in curriculum areas as they cannot access the knowledge they need from texts.

Addressing reading is not a magic bullet. It requires a systematic, determined and well-informed approach to ensure that every effort we make leads to the kind of improvement we want to see. But the potential transformations to students’ outcomes are remarkable.


How can this potential be realised? Here are seven suggestions:

  1. Build a culture of reading in the school.
  2. Communicate the expectation that every student can become better at reading. Do not give in to the temptation to accept that a ‘certain proportion’  will never pick it up. They can if we teach them.
  3. Collect comprehensive data on students’ reading levels.
  4. Focus on quality classroom use of language, including modelling and eliciting more extensive spoken language,  by all staff.
  5. Offer constant opportunities to write for ‘real world’ audiences – governors, head teacher, parents, school newspaper, poetry anthologies, short story collections, etc.
  6. Build staff expertise to resolve more difficult reading problems.
  7. Set up robust systems to intervene and track the progress of targeted  students – some interventions with small groups, and more intensive interventions for those further behind in a one-to-one format.




Hempenstall, K. (2013) Older Students’ Literacy Problems. Retrieved from: https://www.nifdi.org/news-latest-2/blog-hempenstall/407-older-students-literacy-problems

You may also be interested in:

Leveraging Literacy at Secondary School

A Towering Issue

Pulling the Strands Together


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