New Horizons for Struggling Readers at Secondary School

Sep 1, 2017 | Teaching Struggling Readers, Whole School Literacy

Addressing serious reading problems creates new horizons for students – and schools.

One of the most stubborn problems for school leaders is that of students who could perform much better than they do, but for whom reading is a barrier to achievement. Such students can be easily misunderstood, labelled as incapable, troublesome or disabled, and leave school with little if any benefit from eleven or more years of schooling. In addition to difficulties of curriculum access, poor reading also hinders the acquisition of knowledge, affects self-esteem and mental health, and undermines confidence. It is often associated with disruptive behaviour and disengagement. The effects of poor reading are pervasive and lifelong, contributing to a higher risk of unemployment, low income, ill health and shorter life expectancy. If schools exist for anything, shouldn’t they exist to eliminate illiteracy?

Conversely, successfully addressing serious reading difficulties has the potential to positively influence the factors above, such as behaviour, self-esteem, confidence, and mental health. In turn, progress in these areas contributes to a more positive school culture. Put that alongside the academic gains unlocked by improving reading, and the urgency of addressing reading problems is a no-brainer.

There is, however, the obvious problem. How can school leaders address reading problems to this extent? If traditional approaches have failed, how can this be achieved?


School leaders must invest in solutions in three ways. First, they must invest in developing staff expertise, especially amongst those who will lead literacy improvements. Secondly, they need to invest in well-prepared, high-quality programmes that will ensure that lessons are effective without creating the unmanageable burden of writing and producing resources whilst working with the most complex learning problems. Thirdly, and equally importantly, they need to provide strategic leadership, providing vision and a clearly articulated sense of mission to the whole staff. Effective reading instruction may be a specialist task, but the responsibility for support is not restricted to these members of staff. It is a shared priority for the whole school community.

Does such a model work? As you might expect, it’s the model we have been implementing with schools. Across the four schools that shared progress data from their Thinking Reading programmes with us in July 2017, we found that:

  • The average gain was over five years per student.
  • The average rate of progress was two months per lesson.
  • Students were in the programme for an average of seven months (including school holidays).
  • Overall, students progressed at a rate of nearly nine months for each month of intervention (including school holidays).*

So yes, such a model can transform students’ reading, and their view of themselves, if given the right conditions and the appropriate support from school leaders. Who wouldn’t want their students to make progress like this, with payoffs, not just for individuals, but for the whole school?


For those of us who are already fluent readers, it’s hard to imagine what it is like to move from being a teenage non-reader, or a very poor reader, to becoming a competent reader in a matter of months. It opens up horizons that didn’t exist before. I think of students who were not expected to complete Year 11, who went on to apprenticeships and careers; of students who went into sixth form and university after gaining GCSEs that no one had previously thought them capable of; of students who began to read for pleasure, because now they could. Reading changes the way we see ourselves, and the way we see the world.

There are new horizons waiting to be found. Join our mission to ensure that every student finds theirs.

*Further Thinking Reading progress data covering six years in two London schools is available in Professor Greg Brooks’ What works for children and young people with literacy difficulties? (5th edition) (p.187)


You may also be interested in: 

Literacy Leadership 3: Return on Investment

Building on the Evidence

A Time To Think, A Time To Act

15 Tests For Secondary School Reading Interventions


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