Can’t Read, Won’t Read: Part Two

Feb 14, 2015 | Teaching Struggling Readers

No Escape

Our determination is the prerequisite for their success

When students have a well-established history of failure, we need to make it impossible for them to fail. While that may sound an impossibility in itself, the conditions required for success are simpler than you might imagine. The real test is how determined we are to set up the conditions to make learning almost inevitable.

We want to create an environment – physically, emotionally and cognitively – where for students to fail, they would have to be incredibly determined to self-destruct. Even for the most resistant students what they really want – deep down – is to be able to read like every other kid.


Once students at secondary school are identified for a reading intervention, there is a very small window of opportunity to put that student back on the right track. We might imagine we can keep moving them to new interventions in the hope something will ‘click’, but the reality is that unless the programme produces measurable results from the start, the student has been lost. They won’t buy in if they aren’t making progress. And that progress needs to be rapid if those Matthew Effects are to be reversed.

Jenae came with a reputation as not just truculent but downright obnoxious. When she refused to work with her TA at the end of her first lesson, I spoke to her form tutor, whom she respected. He agreed to escort her to her next lesson, which I would teach. By the end of the next half-hour of teaching she could see the results and happily agreed to continue. Before long, people all over the school were commenting on her changed demeanour: she was more polite, more motivated and happier. I knew that we had won Jenae’s confidence when she announced: “They say I need a Reader-Writer, but I’ll show them!”


Initially, students come to intervention lessons because they don’t have any choice. In the early days there will often be tactics to avoid lessons: flatly refusing, not turning up because they ‘forgot’, constantly arriving late, coercing parents into requesting or demanding that their child not attend. We need to close off all their escape routes if they’re to have any chance of success.

Some students will be reluctant to come because, due to timetabling restrictions, a lesson may occur during their favourite subject. Be flexible, if you can, and make changes – and let the students know that you did your best to accommodate their requests. This is time well-invested, because it helps the student to feel heard and respected. However, sometimes this isn’t possible, and we all have to live with it. In such cases we remind them that: a) they will never miss more than 30 minutes of any subject and b) the sooner they complete the programme, the sooner they will be back on their normal timetable.

When Roland constantly failed to come to his after-school lesson – the one he was most likely to avoid – I called his father. “Just a moment,” said his father. I heard him using another phone. “Roland. Where are you now?” Pause. “Roland, you are to get off the bus at the next stop. You cross the road. You take the next bus back to school and do your reading lesson. Understand? Good.” Roland’s father came back to me. “You should see him soon,” he said. Roland completed his lessons, and graduated from the programme. But he wouldn’t have done so, if we hadn’t been even more stubborn than him.


A key principle, enforced with warmth and firmness, is that there is no choice. We have to be more determined than them that they succeed with this last chance opportunity. The school takes responsibility and, like a good parent, ensures that there are clear, fair and consistent consequences for avoidance.

For this, the intervention teacher needs support from the highest level in the school. In practice, the programme needs to be overseen from SLT to have any clout. It’s also important to help keep other teachers on side. In the hierarchy of schools, it is unfair to give such a large and complex responsibility to a TA – it should be a teacher who is running the programme, with support from SLT.

To make the intervention efficient, we need to establish basic routines from the very beginning. The most fundamental aspect of this is to be strict about arrival times – there is a roll-on effect to lateness which either cuts content out of lessons or cuts into other students’ lessons, neither of which is acceptable – especially as our lessons are jam-packed. A key strategy for the student where a pattern of avoidance emerges is to have them make up what they missed during their own time. This teaches them responsibility, and also makes our expectations explicit from the start. For these escape artists, we have to teach them that there is no escape, only success.


The fact is, we want students to arrive at lessons on their own, without any time wasted by going to collect them. It’s also embarrassing for them if they have to be collected (and this may blow any cover story that they may have invented to explain why they are sometimes out of other lessons). So even the threat of being collected from class can become a useful means of encouraging them to turn up on their own – but they must come. After all, any intervention is an expensive resource, and delays in one student’s progress mean that another student has to spend longer on the waiting list.

A complex set of skills is required to negotiate the nuances of engaging and motivating the struggling or reluctant reader. Each individual is different, and what encourages one may discourage another: subtle or more effusive praise, being discreet when meeting them around school, being gentle with admonition, or confronting boldly. Having said that, they will also have much in common, and most strategies will work with most students most of the time! The key is to have enough skills in one’s repertoire to be able to accommodate individual differences without losing momentum.


Escape does not always lead to liberty. The early days of the intervention can seem paradoxical: we are setting up students for success by forcing them to confront something at which they have always failed. But if we know that our teaching programme is effective, and if we are confident of our assessment data, we must restrict their options to the narrow path that leads to success.


You may also be interested in:

Diverging Roads 2

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

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Can’t Read, Won’t Read: Part Three – Metamorphosis

Mongolian eagle hunting req credit (Shutterstock)

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

Time Out

Success, Failure and Self-Concept

The Case for Design in Curriculum



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