Beware the Reading Traps

Aug 30, 2017 | Teaching Struggling Readers, Whole School Literacy

Avoid the pitfalls lying in wait for school leaders seeking help for struggling readers.

If we can read, we tend to assume that reading is easy. In a large organisation like a secondary school, those who struggle to read can be overlooked, misunderstood, or not supported as they need to be. If you’re responsible for deciding on what interventions to use for reading, and how to monitor their impact, beware these traps!

Trap 1

Assume that the purpose of the intervention is to compensate for a lack of ability, or to shield the student from the consequences of a lack of ability. The vast majority of reading problems can be resolved through effective teaching.

Implication: Students should not be in reading interventions forever, or even long-term.

Trap 2

Expect slow progress from students in reading interventions. This idea is based on the faulty assumption that poor reading equates to poor intelligence. It doesn’t. Students can make dramatic gains if taught effectively. One component of such teaching is to actively counter damaging labels that have reduced students’ expectations of themselves.

Implication: Monitor reading interventions for impact and ask questions if students are making less than three months’ additional progress per month of intervention.

Trap 3

Rely on one intervention to solve reading problems. There are different types of reading problems, and different levels of need. Some students have weak word reading skills and will need an emphasis on phonics. Some will have strong word reading skills but need to develop their comprehension. Tailor the provision to meet the needs of your cohort.

Implication: Ensure that you have catered for those up to two years behind with small group interventions, and more intensive, one-to-one lessons for those more than two years behind.


Trap 4

Expect untrained support staff to solve reading problems that have not been solved in seven or more years of education. Implementing any reading intervention without ensuring that thorough staff preparation has taken place sets it up to fail.

Implication: Set aside time and budget to ensure that staff can deliver what you have asked them do, and so that students derive maximum benefit from lessons.

Trap 5

Rely on an intervention because it is a familiar brand. It’s essential to know the evidence base for the intervention itself and also for the practices it employs. If it claims to be a phonics programme, does it employ a systematic phonics approach? If not, ‘phonics’ could mean a number of practices that have little support in the research literature.

Implication: Do your research on what practices are employed and what evidence there is to support their use.

Trap 6

Be persuaded by claims of reading gains without knowing who made these reading gains. An intervention might claim a 27-month gain on average, but if the bulk of this gain was made by students who weren’t actually behind in their reading, while those who were behind made much smaller gains, the intervention is not going to benefit those who really need help.

Implication: Always check that it is the students reading well behind who will benefit before buying in to a programme.


Trap 7

Assume reading mileage is equivalent to reading progress. Students should be able to read more difficult text over time. Some interventions claim to boost reading mileage, but do not contain any provision for those who cannot yet read independently. For these students, the levels of reading prescribed for them by the intervention may well provide a punishing schedule of uninteresting, babyish texts.

Implication: Don’t expect a reading promotion programme to solve deep-seated reading problems. Struggling readers will need different support if they are to make genuine progress.


If all this sounds complicated, that’s because it is! There are many options, but being sure of the right ones takes some investigation. A good place to start is ‘What Works for Children and Young People With Literacy Difficulties?’ by Professor Greg Brooks.


You may also be interested in:

What Works?

15 Tests for Secondary School Reading Interventions

Building on the Evidence

Pulling the Strands Together

Are All Reading Interventions Created Equal?


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