Assessment – The Bridge Over the Reading Gap revisited (Part 1)

May 2, 2020 | Effective Practice, Teaching Struggling Readers, Whole School Literacy

Following up the long list of questions from our researched Home presentation on 30 April 2020, we are providing more detailed answers in a series of short blogs about different aspects of the topic.


What tests should be used to identify students with reading difficulties?

The first principle is that no one test will give us all the information that we need. We recommend at least three tiers of screening to identify students in need of intervention.

In the first tier, all students in the cohort should sit a standardised test of reading, to ensure that no one ‘falls through the cracks’. At secondary school, this test needs to be normed up to at least 16 years, be suitable for administration to groups, and contain both a comprehension and decoding element. That leaves only a few tests. We usually recommend the New Group Reading Test, because of the ease of administration and its broad statistical base. Many UK schools have a licence to access the entire GL Assessment Bank, including the NGRT.

The purpose of using a standardised test is to reliably rank students against the wider population. Students in the bottom third (35thpercentile or below) should sit another standardised test, or a parallel form of the first test. Some of these students may score significantly higher on the second test. Sometimes this higher score is due to the standard error of measurement that is present in all standardised tests. More often, it is because they were simply not trying their hardest on the first administration. It is quite common for up to half the students in the bottom third to move out of that grouping on the second standardised screening test.

Students who remain in the bottom third should be assessed individually to determine whether they have difficulties with decoding, comprehension, or both – and, in some cases, to screen out those who are reading reasonably well, but gained low scores on both previous tests due to low motivation. To do this assessment rigorously and reliably requires training and practice – for example, when we work with schools, it takes two days to train a team in close assessment skills.


If I have a student who starts in Y7, with a reading age 3 or more years behind, they are tested and have a phonics and decoding problem and comprehension issues. Where should I start?

Let’s say that you’ve gone through the process described above and have a group of students with both decoding and comprehension problems, who are well behind their peers.

First of all, if these students are three years behind in reading accuracy, group intervention will be inefficient because each student will have their own individual pattern of gaps in their learning. It will be much more efficient to teach them one-to-one, on the basis of very fine-grain assessment. Secondly, start with those furthest behind as they will need longer to catch up. Thirdly, it makes logical sense to focus on decoding issues primarily (while still addressing comprehension), as many comprehension issues are often resolved once students can decipher the words on the page. If they have successfully mastered decoding, but they still have low comprehension, then assign them to a small group working on generic comprehension skills. (For example, we recommend Corrective Reading: Comprehension.) It’s also essential to share students’ assessment and intervention data with subject teachers so that they understand the importance of building subject knowledge and vocabulary in their curriculum area (because a substantial element of reading comprehension is domain-specific).


As a trainee secondary teacher, I worry about not identifying weak readers soon enough. Do you find that some weaker readers tend to cover up their lack of reading ability or use avoidance strategies? Or is it quite conspicuous when a student has a much lower reading age?

It’s not always obvious when a child has reading difficulties. We need to be very pro-active in screening children for reading difficulties, because some become adept at masking their difficulties, or avoiding tests altogether. Some students are very good decoders but have weak comprehension. When we hear them read aloud, we can easily assume that they are proficient, when in reality they have understood almost nothing of what they have read. Equally, a student may have difficulty in ‘getting the words off the printed page’, but have an excellent understanding of the discussion – and this understanding can mask the fact that they can’t read independently. Students with more obvious reading difficulties also need close assessment, so we know what to teach them. No student should ever be prevented from receiving effective support because of inadequate assessment information.

It’s worth noting, too, that many disruptive or confrontational behaviours are motivated by avoidance and escape responses. If reading makes you angry, frustrated or anxious – and often it is all three – getting thrown out of class, or at least derailing the lesson, can seem like a more attractive option. Many students who are regarded as having significant behaviour problems also have significant reading problems.

Tip: Try correlating the list of students with high behaviour points with the list of students with high literacy needs.

Further reading:

Thinking Reading: what every secondary teacher needs to know about reading – James and Dianne Murphy

The researchED Guide to Literacy – edited by James Murphy

Essentials of Assessing, Preventing and Overcoming Reading Difficulties – David Kilpatrick

Next up:

In-class support – The Bridge Over the Reading Gap revisited (Part 2)


You may also be interested in:

The Bridge Over the Reading Gap (our first blogpost in 2013)

How to Save Time and Money Through Screening

Pulling the Strands Together

Building on the Evidence

Addicted to Denial?


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