Leveraging Literacy at Secondary School

Mar 5, 2016 | Whole School Literacy

School leaders are uniquely placed to impact literacy

Sometimes it’s difficult, in the maelstrom of school life, to step back and look objectively at literacy. While at first literacy may seem just a single strand of the curriculum, a deeper examination will often show how students’ behaviour and overall progress are tied to – or indeed, limited by – their reading and writing skills. Senior leaders are uniquely placed to create the conditions for literacy to flourish.


If asked to choose the single strategy that senior leaders can implement to make the most difference for the lowest cost, I would say that the key is introducing whole cohort screening with follow-up individual testing for lower-scoring students. It is clear that you have to have good data before you can deploy your resources most effectively. But while a standardised test is a good starting point, it will need more detailed individual assessments to ensure that artificially low scores are detected (e.g because of low test motivation, careless answers, or even a desire for extra attention).

I’m sometimes asked about suitable standardised tests. Here some suggestions:

The New Group Reading Test (NGRT) has a broad statistical base and tests for both phonic decoding and comprehension. There is a digital version which allows immediate analysis of results. It can be pricy, though – so set students up carefully before using it, to ensure that they don’t need to repeat it. That principle applies to all testing, of course – but particular care needs to be taken around computer-based tests where students intuitively treat it like a game or speed test.

The Suffolk Reading Scale (SRS) is another commonly used screening test which has sound standardisation data and is straightforward to administer. The test has multiple choice and sentence completion questions. It is not quite as expensive as the NGRT, and there are both paper and digital versions. However, the standard test only goes up to 14 years 6 months, so you would need to use the digital version for students above Year 9.

The Wide Range Achievement Test (WRAT) has been published since 1946 and is now in its fourth edition. It tests single word reading and sentence reading. The new edition also has a comprehension component. The norms are age-based, and now go up to 94 years. However, the norms are also drawn from a US population – not necessarily a problem, but something of which to be aware.

Many schools have bought in Accelerated Reader and use the accompanying STAR test as a screening tool. Statistically, this test has been revised with UK norms and a much larger sample, so it appears to be technically sound. However, we also hear many anecdotal reports from teachers who are wary of the results because they do not match the students’ performances. This could be due to the computer-based format with timed questions, which encourages some students, especially weaker readers, to guess and move on. (As I’ve argued elsewhere, one the main reasons for difficulties in reading at secondary school is that students have been trained to guess at primary school through faulty whole language practices. Test items therefore have to be designed to detect and discourage guessing.)

Obviously, setting up standardized testing and reporting is only a first step towards a high-impact literacy strategy, and its usefulness depends on how we act upon it. But is prerequisite to any other decisions or interventions, takes little time, and can often spark the questions and conversations that lead to wise decisions.

You can find out more about developing a whole-school literacy strategy by visiting our website.


You may also be interested in:

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5 Principles to ensure that literacy improves for all students

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