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

May 4, 2020 | 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.

In-class support

I am a secondary English Teacher and I feel in no way trained to teach phonics, decoding etc and wouldn’t know where to start with creating these effective lessons you talked about.

It’s important to draw a distinction between effective intervention lessons, which target precise skills and knowledge, and general classroom lessons, which are not appropriate for anything more than incidental phonics instruction. This means drawing students’ attention to the sound sequence and letter combinations which represent them.

For example: The teacher writes on the board and says: this word is ‘coup’. As we write, we underline each letter group to show which sound is represented, as in: c + oup /ku:/ and we sound this out to make it explicit. We would normally do this in conjunction with introducing the word to students’ vocabularies:

“The word ‘coup’ follows this spelling pattern because the word has come into English through French. In French it means a strike or a blow, and in English it has a more specific meaning – a sudden power grab. So, a coup in English is usually used to refer to the sudden removal of the government by another group, often the military.”

In this way, in the space of about a minute, I have covered the word’s sound, its etymology, and its English usage. However, it would not be appropriate to attempt to teach phonics systematically in the general classroom, since that requires a much larger amount of time that would reduce coverage of the regular curriculum.

Image: Minna Sundberg

 How do you support weak readers in a lesson without making them stand out to their peers or slowing down the lesson too much for others?

This blog post sets out some suggestions for setting ground rules and effective scaffolding practice that make reading safer and more social. Once trained, peers who are better at reading generally become extremely supportive of those with more difficulty.

What is the most effective classroom strategy to support weaker readers?

What strategies can classroom teachers use to improve reading?

How would you suggest we best support the students (in the classroom, in addition to the interventions they receive) who are considered well behind in their reading when reading complex novels with complex vocabulary, particularly something like Shakespeare?

Do you have any tips on how to teach the etymology or morphology or words successfully?

In the general classroom, explicit teaching of vocabulary probably has the greatest impact on the largest number of students for the time required. However, such instruction needs to be explicit, highly efficient and the items taught must recur frequently in classroom discourse, in reading and in writing for them to be successfully embedded in students’ working vocabularies.

The comments above regarding the word ‘coup’ are an example of how a word can be introduced thoroughly and efficiently. A useful mnemonic for teachers introducing vocabulary is EMU: etymology, morphology and usage.

There are whole books written about etymology. Perhaps the most useful perspective from a teacher’s point of view is to consider etymology as the biography of a word. This presents words as living, changing things – an essential for students at secondary school to grasp as they develop a more sophisticated understanding of how language works. Words only exist because people create them, so etymology is also a window into the worlds that have now vanished, leaving traces in the words we use every day. Perhaps, most importantly, for teaching students who struggle with reading, etymology explains and highlights why words look and sound as they do.

Here’s an example of introducing a new word to students:

Teacher: This word is ‘decimate’. De – ci – mate (underlining each part of the word).

Say it with me. (Teacher and students say decimate).

On your own: (Students all say decimate).

Teacher: You’ll notice the word looks a lot like decimal. That’s because both words come from a Latin word, decem, which means ten. Latin was the language spoken by the Romans. When they wanted to punish soldiers who had rebelled, they would decimate the army by lining up the soldiers and executing every tenth one. In English, we now use the term to mean a significant loss of people or resources, such as the plague decimated the population of London, or the budget cuts decimated social services in the region. But I wouldn’t say, the sugary drinks decimated my teeth, because that’s about my health, not people or services or resources.

The teacher draws students’ attention to the sound of the word, its parts, and focuses on its etymology and particularly its usage, as decimate is often overused or used incorrectly. The emphasis between these elements will vary depending on the word. Notice that in addition to the examples, we have also used a non-example to clarify how the word should and should not be employed. This explanation is perhaps a little longer than most, which is fine as long as the introduction of new words averages less than a minute each.

Such a presentation will not be enough on its own – it will need review and exemplification in the texts that are being studied, in classroom discussion, and eventually in students’ writing.

Is there somewhere I can find a comprehensive list of tier 2 words? I’m trying to incorporate into my teaching but can’t find anything.

One useful exercise is to have the subject staff to work as a team to highlight Tier 2 words in Grade 9 GCSE papers. This will generate staff buy-in and creates a subject-specific list of high utility words.

This blog post by David Didau provides a useful overview of teaching Tier 2 vocabulary and has a list that will form a good foundation.

When completing reading in each lesson, do you suggest that we should have students read out loud? Would you go through how to pronounce more challenging words before starting or as they are reading?

This blog post highlights the ground rules for getting students to read aloud. The two key principles to bear in mind are 1) that students should have subject-related reading in every lesson and 2) use a variety of reading activities that enable access. See also Chapter 4 of our book (link below).

 Following along with a ruler under the text or just listening? What is your recommendation for supporting weaker reading in whole class reading?

If you are doing close reading and analysis of a particular passage, using a ruler, and/or numbering the lines in the text, is very helpful. If you want to promote comprehension of the plot or focus on drawing useful inferences, including making tentative predictions about how the story might develop, reading aloud to the students can be very helpful. Taking turns around the classroom to read can be a chance for some to opt-out of following, and difficult for others to keep up. If using this approach, keep the amount read by each student very short, and make it unpredictable as to who will read next. However, bear in mind the ground rules above: you need to have a ‘pass’ option so that students who are anxious about reading aloud have a safety valve. Of course, some students who should read may use this as a way out, but you can always target them another way – and protecting your struggling readers from embarrassment, humiliation or bullying is much more important.

 What evidence is the best to use to motivate subject teachers outside of the English Department to embed reading in their lesson?

The GL assessment study cited in the presentation, showing a significant correlation between GCSE success and reading achievement is a good start. The strategy we discussed in the presentation, asking subject teachers to identify key Tier 2 and Tier 3 vocabulary in Grade 9 GCSE scripts also helps to highlight the importance of teaching these terms. This post by Daniel Willingham also explains the importance of teaching background knowledge (and by implication, vocabulary) in order to build comprehension in different subjects. Ultimately, clear leadership has to be given by senior management on this issue over a sustained period of time. The reality is that people aren’t going to change their practice because a middle manager or literacy co-ordinator asked them to – they need to understand that improving literacy is a fundamental part of the school’s mission. Otherwise literacy initiatives are seen as window-dressing.

If intervention isn’t available for those at the beginning of school for reading, how can we better support children in class who are struggling to become secure with their phonemic awareness?

It’s not practical or appropriate to attempt to address such issues in the general classroom. If you have data that shows that you have students who need help to improve their phonemic awareness, use this data to make a case to your SLT. If they don’t care enough to address the problem by allocating the required resources (which are not massive) then you might want to consider moving schools. We need ethical leaders who recognise the fundamental right to literacy of every child in their care.

If reading should be embedded in all subjects, why then do some lesson observers/educationalists tend to criticise Maths lessons in which many words are used?

We need to teach vocabulary. In maths, Tier 3 vocabulary is extensive and important. This vocabulary needs to be regularly used and reviewed so that it is embedded into students’ working vocabularies.

Such teaching should be efficient. Avoid complicated, ambiguous or repetitive explanations. Explain once, clearly, then check students have understood. Clarify and move on.

Long teacher explanations are difficult to concentrate on and the longer they last the more confusing they are. Brevity is an art that needs to be rehearsed and practised.

What advice would you give, to an NQT Secondary English Teacher, going into a school in a disadvantaged area where the reading age of pupils is known for being much lower than the average?

First of all, never allow the circumstances of our students, their ethnicity, their socio-economic status, or where they live to shape your preconceptions. Some schools have cultures where low expectations of the students are deeply embedded. As a result, thecurriculum is dumbed down, poor behaviour is tolerated, and the school culture leans too much towards nurture and not enough towards challenge. We need to see every child as an individual. Our job as a teacher is to know what they need to learn, and then help them to learn it. ‘Typical’ reading scores are irrelevant to teaching actual students.

Secondly, large-scale low reading scores may be the result of other factors in addition to weak reading, including the aforementioned low expectations, disaffection, disengagement, poor test administration and poor previous teaching. Reading is not a reflection of ‘ability’; it is a reflection of how effectively they have been taught.

Third, get them to read as much as you can. You can’t control what they do outside of school, so in your lessons, get them to read often – smaller amounts at first, and gradually increasing the number of words. This blog post has further suggestions about what that looks like in the classroom.

Tip: Have your weakest readers spend a few minutes every week reading to you individually.

This post was updated 09:57 6 May 2020

Next up: Fluency and comprehension

You may also be interested in:

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

Six Ways to Help Struggling Readers in Your Classroom

Can Reading Problems Affect Mental Health?

Seven Ways to Increase a Student’s Chances of Exclusion


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