Can’t Read, Won’t Read: Part Three

Feb 18, 2015 | Teaching Struggling Readers


 Diligent attention to details can bring rapid growth and startling transformations. 

Expectations and tone are created instantly. What should the Literacy Centre say when students first arrive? The environment needs to be clean, orderly, and attractive. It should also be immediately apparent that this is a place where the focus is on work: work areas carefully set out, with materials to hand. Just as an engineering workshop or a hospital operating theatre has its routines and procedures, so does a well-run Literacy Centre. But beyond this, the room needs to be desirable – to be, in fact, the most pleasant learning space in the school. A relaxed, purposeful atmosphere can be induced through colour choices, quiet background music and interesting pictures. None of these conditions is optional for a Literacy Centre where we are working in the Last Chance Saloon of the student’s education. To get the progress we want, a dedicated teaching space is essential.

The next step in building a secure emotional climate is to establish a rapport – without this overshadowing the purpose of the lesson. Students usually love working one-to-one, but their enjoyment of the personal attention often has little to do with wanting to learn! We have to avoid allowing the student to set the agenda – we should take a genuine interest in them, but this should not mean that the lesson gets hijacked, resulting in a loss of learning time. A few moments of warm greeting at the beginning, while the student is taking off his jacket or putting her bag down, is usually enough to establish that that they are liked and welcome. Once they are seated, the lesson begins immediately.

Some students feel very rewarded by conversation, especially with adults. For these students, it can be important to apply the Premack Principle, which states that preferred activities can act as reinforcers (rewards) for less preferred activities. (This is also known as Grandma’s Rule: eat your greens if you want your dessert.) By letting students know that more general conversation comes at the end of the lesson, they have a greater incentive to work hard and stay on-task throughout the lesson.

A third key principle is to celebrate every step of success. Be specific in the use of praise – not just ‘you tried hard’ but ‘You improved your accuracy to 98%’ or “Look, the graph shows that you’ve caught up by two years and at this rate you will have caught up completely in one more month!” Certificates should be sent home every time a student completes a new difficulty level. Encourage students to show these acknowledgements of success to their teachers. Take a moment to speak to teachers to give feedback about progress, and listen to how this is transferring to their regular classrooms. Phone home to tell family about progress as well. Parents are, in general, powerful allies. It’s usually helpful to call them when there are problems – but just as important to do so when things are going well.

It is essential to run the operation with clear routines and standards, to ensure, in Englemann’s words, that ‘students learn more in less time’. A key rule here is to anticipate problems. For example, pre-empt the temptation for students to try to take advantage of being out of class. Use return-to-class forms which are handed over to the teacher on return to their subject lessons, showing the exact time of departure. Ensure that out-of-class passes (to show the teacher that they have a scheduled literacy lesson) are handed back in at the end of the intervention, to avoid them being used to facilitate truancy later!

Be ‘transparent’ – everything should be recorded and accessible. Ensure that accurate data is collected each lesson. Use this data to track progress so that adjustments to the plan can be made sooner rather than later. We use a tracking spreadsheet which enables us to follow progress over time and to create student progress graphs – an incredibly powerful visual feedback tool. It is important to maintain rigour in data collection. All teaching decisions should be based on data, not subjective ‘hunches’. Too often we create artificial ceilings for students and hold them back when we need to be stretching them instead.

We write notes for every lesson, including recording when the student was absent, so that learning problems can be identified and resolved, and absences can be followed up. It is also essential to have good records when reviewing the programme for overall effectiveness or for pinpointing the coaching and professional development needs of tutors. These records form the basis of a weekly meeting with each tutor to ensure that correct teaching decisions have been made for all students.

When problems with student compliance arise, it is essential to have your SLT to back you up. Ryan was avoiding lessons, and recruited his mother to call and say that she did not give permission for him to come out of particular subjects. This would have made it impossible to run a proper timetable for him. So my line manager took the call, and made the school’s position very clear:

“I do not give permission for my son to miss his media lesson.”

“I’m afraid that decision isn’t yours to make.”

“What do you mean? He’s my son. I don’t give permission.”

“Thank you for being so clear, but this is something that the school decides. We have a responsibility to ensure that he can access all his subjects, and he can’t do that unless we make sure that he can read properly.”

“You need to do it at another time.”

“We will decide what subjects he comes out of (for 30 minutes each), and we will have him back in class as soon as he is reading at the level required for GCSEs.”

The mother was shocked – but the school did have the right, and the responsibility. While partnership with parents is to be pursued wherever possible, we carry the responsibility for ensuring that all the students who come through our doors learn to read well – even if parents, wittingly or unwittingly, are opposed to that goal.


A subtle but essential role for the intervention teacher is to ensure that positive data shapes perceptions. One way of doing this is by inviting teachers into the Literacy Centre to look at students’ graphs, or to observe lessons. Such interactions can have a profound effect on the teacher’s understanding of the student, and help them to raise their expectations. I operated an open door policy – anyone could drop by to watch at any time.

The same is true for students’ perceptions of themselves. They need to be reminded regularly of how much progress they are making, and how rapidly. It is normal, natural and healthy to feel pride in learning – but it is easy to forget that for these students, there may have been more to mourn than celebrate in their learning histories. We have to be quite deliberate and systematic about ensuring that there is frequent encouragement based on real data.

Like selecting the right fertiliser, the combination of teaching methods, content selection and practice activities needs to be adjusted carefully to achieve accelerated growth. The reason we put so much emphasis on training and guided feedback for tutors is so that they develop the skills to get this balance right – they cannot be expected to just follow a manual. Even though most students will have much in common, there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach.


Through rigorous diagnostic assessment of sound-spelling correspondences, we identify individual learning points for each student. The programme is carefully calibrated so that students make faster progress by quickly mastering small steps. Secure acquisition is then practiced to fluency, which builds both retention and generalisation of the material. Where students are struggling to make their next steps, we ‘slice back’ to check and strengthen component skills. Where a student is already making rapid progress, we skip forward.

All this, of course, is about learning more in less time. We work with students who are reading three years or more behind their peers. They need to progress at about three months or more for every month in the programme to catch up with their peers. (Typical progress in Thinking Reading is significantly faster than this.)

There is a phenomenon in nature known as desert bloom. When the conditions are favourable, a previously barren landscape bursts into life. It seems like magic, but of course the potential for that life was there all along: seeds that lay waiting until the rains came. Our students are the same: we believe that they have the ability to flourish if we will ensure that the conditions are right. We set the emotional climate through physical and social cues; we ensure that firm boundaries and high standards are maintained; we use a sophisticated combination of teaching techniques to address precisely identified needs; we use data to build confidence and motivation; and we carefully review our own practice, identifying problems and solving them through slicing back or leaping forward.


When the students finally catch up, the transformation is often noticeable not just in their mood but in their bearing and appearance. Shoulders are higher, eye contact is stronger, smiles are broader and faces are joyful instead of sullen. It is unlikely that any area of academic learning has greater impact on our perceptions of ourselves than reading. When students graduate we always ask them how their time in the Literacy Centre has affected them. Here are just a few of their comments:

I was really happy because I had actually completed something. And it was something really useful, it wasn’t something you just graduate from – you’re going to need to keep using it every day.

It’s given me a lot more confidence in class, and improved my reading comprehension. I understood what they were asking in the exams better. I also knew more clearly what I wanted to say.

This helped my reading in class and it makes me feel happy to be confident in class. I read books and it’s not difficult for me any more.

Coming to the Literacy Centre has helped my reading and writing. I’m so happy that I can read without feeling scared.

This reading course has helped me firstly with my confidence and secondly with my reading in general. Thank you for everything.

Thank you for all your help. I am now confident and I love to read out loud in class.

This has really helped my reading in class and outside school. I am more confident in class to read and I am able to understand the stories I read in class and at home.

Thank you for my reading because in class I didn’t used to like reading out loud in front of everyone now I do and that has boosted my confidence.

Coming to the Literacy Centre has helped me to read more advanced books without stopping. I have gained confidence and been able to read in front of the class.



You may also be interested in:

Diverging Roads 2

Can’t Read, Won’t Read: Part One – Matthew Effects

Face in Cage (Shutterstock)

Can’t Read, Won’t Read: Part Two – No Escape

Mongolian eagle hunting req credit (Shutterstock)

Can’t Read, Won’t Read: The Sequel – Learning to Fly

Success, Failure and Self-Concept

What Does Mastery Really Look Like?


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