Peeling back the layers

Oct 28, 2015 | Effective Practice, Literacy Leadership, Whole School Literacy

Once you look even a little below the surface, the state of reading in our secondary schools appears to be in sore need of structure and accountability.

One of the first tasks in the Innovation Partner support programme is to undertake some research into the ‘problem’ we are trying to solve. In our case, we want to study the extent of the reading ‘gap’ in secondary schools, but finding national data on reading at secondary has proven surprisingly difficult. When you consider that reading is a fundamental skill that underlies a great many other skills required for academic success (not to mention everyday life), it is strange that secondary schools (and indeed the DfE) do not keep standard national data in the same way that they do, for example, on attendance. I haven’t been able to think of a good reason, although I can think of plenty of poor ones.

There is national data in the form of the Key Stage Two English reading test. This one-hour assessment is meant to follow the English curriculum Assessment Focuses (AFs). Only AF1 is linked to decoding, and the marking schedule makes it clear that this is not assessed explicitly. All the other AFs are based on comprehension. The limitations of this approach to assessing reading are fairly obvious: when students arrive at secondary school, they may be identified as having a low reading level, but it is not possible to discern whether this is because of a problem with decoding, comprehension or indeed poor test performance due to motivation.


This year a report was published by the Read On, Get On campaign. It argues that ensuring that all children can read well by the age of eleven is everyone’s business, and points out that the only country in Europe with a more unequal gap in reading attainment at age ten is Romania. Could this be related to the romantic but misguided notions of Whole Language reading “for meaning” that have been prevalent in the English-speaking world?

The findings of the report make sobering reading. Not only is there a large gap in reading attainment, but certain groups are more severely affected than others. The worst affected are:

  • Poor children, of whom 40% are not reading well at the end of primary school;
  • Boys, who are twice as likely to be struggling readers as girls;
  • Low-income, White British boys, of whom 45% were not reading well by the end of primary school.

The focus of the Read On, Get On campaign is to improve the experience of children reading at primary school. It is right to focus on this, so that children get the most benefit from their education. But what about those who have already left primary school with reading problems?  The purpose of Thinking Reading is to ensure that children reading well behind their age at secondary school catch up completely. It’s our ambition that with a ‘pincer movement’ from secondary school above and primary school below, illiteracy in adolescents can be eliminated.


It’s therefore necessary to see what the picture is like in secondary schools, but unfortunately it is quickly apparent that there is no standard system for collecting such data – which perhaps explains why there has been so little progress in solving the problem. Because of this, we thought we might ask the Twittersphere what tests or systems are being used to:

a) assess reading on arrival at secondary school and

b) how reading is monitored subsequently.

To make it easier, we’ve made up a survey that takes a couple of minutes to fill in seven short answers. When we have enough responses, we will share the findings (anonymised, of course) to help spread good practice. If you can spare two minutes, please do fill in the survey here.


It is entirely possible to solve the reading problem in secondary schools. However, it’s also likely that we will have to do this as an educational community, rather than wait for yet another government strategy.

You may also be interested in:

Reading Crisis? What Crisis?

Stepping Up

Why is there a reading problem in secondary schools?

The Bridge Over the Reading Gap

Schools, Character and Justice


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