Looking for Impact? Structure Matters

Sep 17, 2016 | Effective Practice, Whole School Literacy

Why do school structures matter when it comes to reading interventions?

Sometimes the obvious answers – or ‘the way we’ve always done it’ – turn out not to be the best solutions. Take reading interventions at secondary school. Usually, interventions for students who are reading at a low level are located within the SEN department, based on the following assumptions:

  1. Students who have difficulty reading likely have a disability of some kind (one of the many variants of ‘dyslexia’, for example);
  2. Students who are reading at a low level do so because they are less intelligent, and therefore should be taught within the ‘special needs’ context;
  3. Low-reading students are less likely to make progress and therefore less likely to assist the school’s results, so it makes sense to identify them as having special needs when accounting for their progress (or lack of it).

I’ve pointed out elsewhere why these common misconceptions are wrong, and how they hinder the progress of students. But when we consider that nationally, 20% of students arrive at secondary school unable to read at the level required, poor reading can hardly be defined as a ‘special’ need. The problem is widespread, and due almost entirely to inadequate teaching, not ‘disability’.

That being the case, perhaps it is worth considering that there are alternative ways of tacking the problem?

We analysed implementations of Thinking Reading in six secondary schools last year. We found that where the intervention was attached to the English department, or placed directly under the Teaching and Learning lead on SLT, implementation was faster and reached more students. Where it was attached to SEN, we conversely saw slower implementation and a more limited impact.

This is a small sample and we wouldn’t want to over-generalise. We also wouldn’t want to confuse correlation with cause. But we do see a pattern that encourages us to urge schools to re-think their intervention structures, for the following reasons:

  1. It is possible that some SEN contexts are so used to a ‘disability’ model that expectations of student progress are lowered. Certainly, the goal of students catching up rapidly and completely, so that they no longer need intervention or in-class support, is potentially at odds with the rationale of a department whose existence depends, at least in part, on maintaining its client base.
  2. Reading is clearly part of the English curriculum and it is entirely appropriate for English specialists to take a lead on improving literacy. Often whole-school literacy co-ordination is already led from within the English department, and it is logical to incorporate the co-ordination of reading interventions into this role. Many English teachers will confess that they know nothing about teaching reading, particularly remedial reading; but that is simply a reason for ensuring they receive targeted, high-quality professional development which will impact directly on student progress.
  3. Placing an intervention using best-evidence based teaching practices under Teaching and Learning is also very appropriate. Success with students who have previously been failing can be very powerful evidence for staff that solutions to long-standing problems exist, and can work in their school.

We have also found that there is much greater impact when the lead for the initiative is a member of the senior leadership team. This is not only because of the considerable support that is often required to implement structural changes in the way that the school supports reading interventions; it is also because of the awareness of literacy that this promotes at a senior level, and the signals it sends to staff about the importance of reading, and ensuring that all students learn to read at their chronological age as soon as possible.


A key element of this structural change is using a tiered approach to ensure that effective practice is being used in classrooms and small group interventions, and that rigorous assessment takes place to ensure that one-to-one support is targeted to the students who really need it. Some students with poor behaviour also have reading difficulties, but not all; some students who are quiet and well-behaved may also have significant difficulties which go largely unnoticed. Thorough screening is vital to ensure that resources are not misdirected, and no one falls through the cracks.

Some of our recent work with schools has shown that preparatory thinking by SLT on the school’s strategy for literacy improvement has a powerful impact on implementation.

You may also be interested in:

The natural home for reading interventions

Te Wero – The Challenge

Seven Misconceptions About Teaching Adolescents to Read


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