Spring Cleaning

by | Jul 18, 2015 | Teaching Struggling Readers, Whole School Literacy

In order to let in fresh air, sometimes it’s necessary to get rid of the clutter.


My mother was somewhat compulsive when it came to clothes and found it hard to resist new temptations. Vintage stores were a particular weakness. If an item seemed a bargain, that was often enough reason to acquire it – even if there were already several similar items at home. The problem she then had was to find space to store her new purchases.

The fact was that most of it she never wore, mostly because of duplication – and there were so many clothes I’m sure she didn’t remember everything she had bought. Ironically, despite the quantity accumulated, she did not always have the outfits she needed for all occasions.

Row Hawaiian Shirts (Flickr)


I think that another version of this can happen in schools. Schools can be dazzled by the marketing of the next ‘answer’ – or perhaps choose a little desperately, with metaphorically crossed fingers, overwhelmed by the scale of the problem and the range of competing ‘solutions’. The end result is often a clutter of interventions jostling for space and time in an overcrowded curriculum. In these circumstances, effectiveness is often seen as less important than being seen to ‘take action’. (See Are all reading interventions created equal?)


There came a memorable day when my sister-in-law and I kindly, but firmly, insisted that my mother make some decisions. Each item was put alongside a similar one while they were compared, and the winner allowed to remain. She found it very difficult at first, but by the end of the exercise she had sent a great deal of clothing she would never wear to the charity shop, had a range of options for different occasions, had space to breathe and, perhaps most importantly, could see everything at a glance when she needed to make a decision about what to wear.

As with my mother’s wardrobe, sometimes the necessary ‘action’ is to do a stocktake. What do I really need? What am I duplicating unnecessarily? What have I overlooked because there was too much going on?

So, in the spirit of clearing out the wardrobe, here are a few questions to think about between the end of one year and the start of the next:

  • Is what is currently in place working? How do you know? Subjective answers are not good enough – is there hard data? Are GCSE results improving as a result of current intervention(s)?
  • Do you have more than one reading intervention? Why? Is this historical – the acquisition of each new intervention being layered on top of the others? Competing approaches could be be working against each other. How do you know which is more effective? What is the evidence-base for each intervention? (See 15 tests for secondary school reading interventions)
  •  Are you getting value for money? Are there annual licensing costs? Are there other hidden costs? What is the cost of staffing? Probably the most important consideration is the cost to the student – are they making rapid progress and fully catching up, or is there minimal progress over a long duration?
  • Do students ever catch up completely? Or minimal gains accepted because ‘these students can’t . . .’? Low expectations create a ‘ceiling’ effect beyond which students are unlikely to progress. (See 7 Misconceptions About Teaching Adolescents to Read)
  •  Are students being moved between interventions because they are not making progress? Is the intervention being implemented with fidelity or is it not an effective intervention? Are you just kicking the can down the road?
  •  Do you assess rigorously enough to determine actual need rather than perceived need? Or do you employ the ‘squeaky wheel’ approach where students are selected based on staff referrals? Has this been driving your choice of intervention? What does your assessment tell you? (See 10 Point Checklist: Literacy at Secondary School).

Only once you have identified the needs of your students are you ready to develop a cohesive whole-school strategy. Are you currently using a range of interventions that duplicate each other? Which is the most effective? An effective intervention will address: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension, spelling and writing. (See Pulling the Strands Together)

I suspect that many schools just do what seems popular in other schools. I have found very little awareness of – or interest in – the considerable body of research evidence that exists to help schools choose wisely. Here are some links to evaluations or reviews of two common computer-based secondary school literacy interventions. Reviews are not difficult to find online and it is well worth investing the time to do this research. Ask hard questions! You will need to make up your own mind about whether these interventions are worthwhile. (See 15 Tests for secondary school reading interventions)


Accelerated Reader

What Works Clearinghouse: “Accelerated Reader was found to have no discernible effects on reading fluency, mixed effects on comprehension, and potentially positive effects on general reading achievement.”

Education Endowment Foundation: “The overall effect size of +0.24 is the equivalent of approximately 3 months of additional progress in reading age after 22 weeks.”

Pennington Publishing Blog: “Although a plethora of research studies involving AR are cited on the Renaissance Learning website, the research base is questionable at best.”

Stephen Krashen: “None of the studies included long term follow-up data telling us if children continue to read after the incentive system is no longer in place.”


Interventions for Literacy: “For reading accuracy in Y1-8: useful.
 For comprehension in Y2-6: useful.
 For spelling in Y1-8: useful.”

What Works Clearinghouse: “Lexia Reading was found to have potentially positive effects on alphabetics, no discernible effects on fluency, potentially positive effects on comprehension, and no discernible effects on general reading achievement.”

Best Evidence Encyclopedia: “Lexia Learning Systems has limited evidence of effectiveness for beginning reading. The one qualifying study included in this review showed an effect size of +0.20 . . . There are no qualifying studies of Lexia Learning Systems for Middle/High School Reading.”


A cohesive whole-school strategy may or may not require an intensive intervention. Certainly there are other groups in schools who need catering for, besides those reading well behind their peers. For example, with some reluctant readers, who have no decoding difficulties, there may be a need to provide opportunities for them to develop reading ‘mileage’. A popular choice for schools seeking to boost these students is SSR/DEAR, and this can work well. The complication comes when applying this approach across the whole school: for some students who find reading more difficult, it can result in a torturous experience. In this post, How do you get students to read for pleasure? David Didau posits the idea that reading to students is a viable alternative. In the context of a whole-school strategy, such adjustments can make the world of difference for some students.

My mother’s situation called for desperate measures – a cull – where she had to make a case for each item that was to be retained. In the same way, sometimes our schools become too busy and too crowded with new initiatives that compete with older ones. It may be time to take stock – and discard what is least effective, or costs students too much time for too little gain.



None of the photographs above are in any way illustrative of my mother’s actual wardrobe!

You may also be interested in:

A Towering Issue

The Writing on the Wall

Code-Teaching or Code-Breaking?

The natural home for reading interventions

Are all students screened for reading?

The Bridge Over The Reading Gap


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