Effective Intervention – The Bridge Over the Reading Gap revisited (Part 4)

by | May 10, 2020 | Whole School Literacy

Following up the long list of questions from our researched Home presentation on 30 April 2020, we are providing more detailed answers in a series of short blogs about different aspects of the topic.

By far the most questions we received were on effective reading interventions, and what constitutes an acceptable rate of progress in such interventions.

Effective intervention

Where can my school access training for specific staff to teach reading, and which reading programme should we use? where do we get it?

 As a Y6 teacher, I want to implement an intervention for our struggling readers before transition to secondary school. Any tips or recommendations? Any programme or approach you would specifically recommend?

 What intervention programmes have you used which you would recommend for the quickest progress?

 Is it worth using IT based programmes such as immersive reader? The Dyslexia Association like it.

 Can you recommend any relevant interventions that target raising attainment in the Government National Tests for Literacy?

 I am a Literacy Coordinator in a post primary all boys school and every year I struggle to decide on what content to use in intervention. We assess through GL assessment but as secondary teachers, we are not specialists in phonics and would not be confident teaching that. What would you recommend is the most effective method of intervention apart from phonics?

 At my previous school, I set up corrective reading programmes. These were very expensive.  Are there any less expensive ways of doing this.

 We do Thinking Reading and love it! Could you tell us more about the pair/small group programs you recommend?

There are some key principles to clarify in order to answer these types of questions. First, it’s important to remember that different reading interventions emphasise different domains or skills. This is because, by their nature, interventions must target a specific range of skills; if they don’t, they are not really interventions but ‘extra lessons’, which is not the same thing at all.

Secondly, the foundation of effective intervention is that students must be matched to interventions based on their domains of difficulty and how far behind they are.  Gough and Tunmer’s (1986) Simple View of Reading framework, while extended and developed over the years, has been consistently confirmed reading researchers. The SVR splits the skills needed for reading into two main areas: language comprehension and decoding. School assessments must not only verify that the student has a genuine reading need (and is not merely disengaged from the test) but also assess in fine detail to know which areas of difficulty they are experiencing and to identify the gaps that need to be addressed by carefully targeted teaching.

It’s also important to know how far behind the student has fallen. Group interventions, for example, will be effective with students reading up to three years behind, as their teaching needs will be broadly similar. Beyond this, effective interventions in decoding skills should be delivered, on the basis of detailed close assessment, in a one-to-one format for rapid progress. Students with good decoding but poor comprehension can be taught generic comprehension skills in small groups. We often recommend Direct Instruction Corrective Reading: Comprehension for this purpose. However, some who have significant delays in language development are likely to need individual support from a speech language therapist.

Given all the points above, at Thinking Reading we work with schools to develop an intervention plan. Once thorough assessment tells us how many students there are with different types of need, and how far behind they are reading, we can then allocate them to the appropriate interventions.

Students with decoding difficulties who are reading up to two years behind (at Years 7 and 8) or three years behind (at Years 9 – 11) can be helped very successfully in paired reading with a trained buddy or teaching assistant. It’s important that this training enables the tutor to provide concise, effective feedback on decoding errors. Most paired reading programmes concentrate on comprehension skills, which is unhelpful for these students. It can mean that decoding errors become more embedded, as the student is deemed to have succeeded because they derived meaning from the text, despite reading parts of it inaccurately.

It is also possible to use Corrective Reading: Decoding with groups in this category; however, you will need to ensure that they have been assessed as having very similar gaps in their learning. Students with very different needs in the same group means that at least some are unlikely to make strong progress.

Students whose decoding skills are three or more years behind need a comprehensive, individualised programme, or they are unlikely to catch up (see the next section of this post for more detail). Thinking Reading is designed for exactly this group, because it is the most challenging to teach and often the least effectively supported. You can find out more about Thinking Reading, the programme that Dianne developed based on published, empirical research, here and here.

As always, some schools resist such interventions because of cost. It cannot be overstated that the cost to the students throughout their lifetimes, and the cost to society as a whole, far outweighs (by a factor of about 1000) the cost of teaching them to read. In practice, the decision is not about whether the funds exist, but how school leaders choose their priorities.

Rates of progress

Agreed that ‘effective intervention should have a fast rate of progress’ however in the studies you showed there seemed a bit of a slow start before a huge increase in pace. The slow start seemed to be about 2 months. Is this ‘normal’ or extreme (either shorter or longer than normal).

In the first graph we showed, this child had big gaps in advanced phonemic awareness skills which are foundational to reading.  Once these were addressed, he made progress. Struggling adolescent readers come with many ineffective strategies deeply embedded – identifying these, discouraging their use and teaching replacement strategies takes time at the beginning of an intervention.

To think about acceptable rates of progress, we need to see things from the student’s point of view. The longer it takes for them to catch up, the longer they are in interventions and the longer it takes before they have the reading skills to access the curriculum. At the same time, they are out of class for longer, which makes keeping up even more problematic. Think about the arithmetic. A student who is three years behind, and who is progressing at twice the general rate, will take three years to catch up. This means that they would be in intervention for three of the five years of their secondary schooling. If they are four years behind, they would need to start in Year 7 in order to have caught up by the end of Year 10, and they would have had four of five years in intervention. If they are five years behind, they will never catch up at this rate.

If a student is to catch up quickly, and limit the amount of time that they are out of other lessons, we really need them to catch up by at least four or five times the usual rate. Not only that, the gains have to be sustained. If they fall back after completing the intervention, it is questionable whether it was worth the effort and the student’s time out of class. You can find further thoughts on this topic in this post.

How realistic is it to expect such a rate of progress? The answer is that it can be achieved – but not without a great deal of assessment and sophisticated teaching design. The highest levels of need require the highest levels of teaching skills. Here are some of the elements that need to be in place:

  • Detailed assessment before starting the programme.
  • Daily tracking of each skill targeted within the lesson.
  • Highly efficient, research-validated teaching techniques.
  • Strong fidelity to the programme protocols.
  • Problem-solving skills to identify why a student’s progress has stalled, and work out how to get them back on track.
  • Subtle motivation and behaviour management to maximise engagement and effort, especially in the earlier stages when the student is plagued by self-doubt after years of failure.

There is much more that could be said, but that would require a textbook! When comparing reading interventions, you may find this post useful as it provides 15 tests for effective secondary reading interventions.

We know that schools implementing the Thinking Reading programme effectively have seen average gains of five years in six months per student. This post explains in more detail how such progress is possible.

Another useful document for comparing literacy interventions is Greg Brooks’ ‘What works for children and young people with literacy difficulties?’ This post outlines how to use the document to quickly find out what you need to know.

Time and staffing

To begin with, how much time do you suggest students are taken off the curriculum for per week in order to apply an appropriate reading intervention?

 How often would you suggest students be taken out of lessons to improve their reading in lower secondary school?

As above, much depends on the student’s needs: how far behind is s/he? What are the areas of difficulty? For students in small groups for comprehension, or in paired reading, we have seen good progress for students with two thirty-minute lessons a week. For students who are further behind, and who need Thinking Reading, three thirty-minute lessons a week is optimum. These should come out of different subjects, preferably on a two-week cycle, so that no subject is affected by more than half an hour per fortnight. It’s also possible to reduce curriculum impact further by timetabling one or more lessons before or after school.

Logistically, how do you suggest secondaries staff the intervention?

We’ll focus this answer on our experience with implementing Thinking Reading. Staffing will be influenced by the amount of staffing made available, which staff members they are, and the number of students with significant reading needs. If we try to allocate hours across a number of people so that they all have a few hours each, this increases timetabling constraints. If we have one dedicated staff member delivering the intervention, this gives us maximum timetabling flexibility. However, training only one staff member means that there is no resilience in the organisation if that staff member becomes unavailable for any reason. The best arrangement is therefore in the middle – one or more staff members with a significant number of hours, supported by at least one other, so that the school has a backup if necessary.

Who can be helped?

I teach A level students at an FE college. When is it too late to intervene with students with reading difficulties?

It is never too late. Studies have shown that the cognitive processes in learning to read are essentially the same regardless of age, from five years old to over eighty-year-olds. Do bear in mind that older students will have more complex needs, though, after years of educational frustration and often quite unpleasant social consequences of poor reading. Thinking Reading is specifically designed to help older students including adults.

What is the youngest age you would suggest starting any intervention?

The question is not really age but need. Students who have fallen behind in Year 1 should have additional support to enable them to catch up, targeted at their gaps. In general, the earlier that students with reading difficulties receive help, the better – as long as that help actually makes a difference. Across educational settings we encounter an assumption that if hours of support have been allocated, the student has been helped. Frequently, this is not the case and as a result the child learns that despite extra help, they still can’t learn. It can’t be said enough that the greater the learning difficulties, the higher the levels of teaching skills required.

Is there any difference in approaches and achievements with different genders?

No. The most important thing is to be able to assess the individual student so closely that we know exactly what their gaps are. Then the teaching needs to follow processes that make each teaching point explicit and unambiguous, checking constantly that new material has been learned correctly. Students then have short, daily, time and carefully sequenced practice on this material. Gender doesn’t matter – teaching skills do.

How deep do the correlations between reading and writing go? Can teaching writing explicitly help with reading?

The answer appears to be mostly affirmative. An excellent article by Louisa Moats, How Spelling Supports Reading, explains the reciprocal nature of reading (decoding) and writing (encoding) skills.

Once students are adept at decoding and encoding, it is important that they are given many opportunities to read widely and deeply, and to experiment creating different types of text for different purposes.

Given the complexities involved in crafting an extended piece of writing, we recommend that the most productive level of focus, in classrooms or in reading interventions, is at the sentence level. Have them create and edit one sentence. Doug Lemov’s The Art of the Sentence is a good place to start.

Tip: Give your students three minutes to write the most sophisticated statement they can on a given topic or question. Then give them another three minutes to express the same ideas in just half the words. Concision is 90% of clarity!

Next up: MFL


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