Barriers to Success – The Bridge Over the Reading Gap revisited (Part 6)

May 23, 2020 | Effective Practice, Myths and Misconceptions, 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.

This post answers questions on some important issues in reading education. Some of our best efforts in the past have actually created barriers to success.

Barriers to Success

Is there any research to show that dyslexia diagnosis is not always accurate, and that such students can improve with reading intervention?

What do we mean by ‘dyslexic’?

First of all, it is important to acknowledge that there are some people who find it much more difficult to acquire reading than others. There is very real pain involved in this, of which we are acutely aware – and we consistently advocate for effective reading instruction for these students, on the basis of the misery that poor reading brings. But advocating for effective instruction necessarily requires challenging beliefs and practices that are ineffective.

The consensus of research to date strongly suggests that the most persistent reading difficulties arise from problems with phonemic awareness – the ability to discriminate between phonemes, and to manipulate them in words. Where this set of skills is addressed systematically and ‘aggressively’, as David Kilpatrick puts it, strong gains in reading can be found. (See Chapters 6 and 11 of his excellent book).

There are, however, many children labelled as dyslexic for a variety of other reasons, often as a result of a private ‘dyslexia assessment’, which have little or no basis in scientific evidence. There are many different definitions of dyslexia in circulation, some in academic literature and some in popular parlance. So-called symptoms can include clumsiness, left-right confusion, short-term memory problems, slow language processing, reversal of letters (both shape and sequence), concentration difficulties, and even an alleged sensitivity to certain wavelengths of light. A long-standing, and scientifically discredited, view of dyslexia is a discrepancy between a high IQ score and poor reading ability. Some proponents of the term argue that ‘dyslexia’ is a ‘gift’, which endows the fortunate with greater creativity, imagination and problem-solving skills. This proliferation of terms and definitions effectively makes ‘dyslexia’ unverifiable, and has led to many academics (for example Keith Stanovich, as far back as 1994 in Does Dyslexia Exist?, and Julian Elliot in 2014), questioning whether the term has any utility.


It is also worth noting that the tendency to attribute students’ reading difficulties to an innate condition called ‘dyslexia’ is a very useful social narrative that excuses schools for providing poor instruction. As a consequence, it is also highly destructive, as it not only allows the profession to avoid confronting its own lack of expertise, but it also limits students’ beliefs in their own capability, and lowers teacher expectations. In such circumstances, responses to reading problems are then based upon a premise that the reading difficulty must be accommodated rather than resolved. In this scenario, everyone is excused, and no one is helped.

There is widespread agreement that there is no scientific evidence to warrant the creation of two separate groups of ‘poor readers’ and ‘dyslexics’. See, for example, Elliot and Grigorenko The Dyslexia Debate (2013), or Chapter 3 by Wheldall, Wheldall and Buckingham in The researchED Guide to Literacy (2019) for an introduction to the literature on this. There is, however, clear-cut scientific evidence on how to help children with reading difficulties. Regardless of diagnosis or labels, the same methods are required. Where systematic and explicit instruction is given, with high standards of fidelity to best teaching protocols, we can expect good progress. This implies a knowledge of how to conduct detailed assessment, not only to identify gaps in the student’s knowledge of letter-sound correspondences, but also in their underlying phonemic awareness. For older students, such instruction must also be explicitly connected with teaching of comprehension, vocabulary, fluency, and language structure (Boardman 2008). ‘Dyslexia’ can indeed be addressed through reading intervention, but successful interventions must be very systematic, and very thorough, in identifying and rectifying students’ underlying difficulties. Many so-called ‘dyslexia-friendly’ responses such as multi-sensory activities, coloured lenses, overlays and paper, or memory games do not achieve this; as a result, the impression that dyslexia is an incurable, innate condition is perpetuated.


The illustration of the power of instruction in our presentation was a well-known paper by Vellutino, Fletcher and Snowling (2004). All the Year 1 children in a US school district were assessed for reading, and 9% were found to fit a dyslexic profile. These children were taught with an explicit, systematic approach, with high attention to fidelity of delivery. After one semester, 95% were no longer deemed ‘dyslexic’.

So, to answer the question: yes, there is ample research to show that we can teach dyslexic students to read well. When this happens, have we ‘cured’ an innate condition – or have we simply taught them what they needed? And if so, how much sooner could they have been taught?

Often students with attention deficit tend to be weaker readers. Would you have ideas on how to help them overcome this?

Every student is an individual. Within any group covered by a label, such as ‘attention deficit’, ‘dyspraxia’ or dyslexia’, there will be a very wide variation. What matters most for effective reading instruction is detailed assessment, so that we know exactly what that individual student’s gaps are.

There are many features of Englemann’s Direct Instruction that make learning more accessible for students with difficulties. Here are three that are important in every setting:

  • Ensure that the lesson is delivered at a brisk pace. A common misconception in education is that students who are further behind need to work at a slower pace. The opposite is true. They need to work at a faster pace to close the gaps. A faster pace also assists attention and concentration. A slower pace creates more opportunities for the student to become distracted.
  • Make your communications logically faultless. This means anticipating misunderstandings and misconceptions and designing explanations and instructions to pre-empt their occurrence. Carefully sequenced sets of examples and non-examples make definitions clearer without having to teach abstract concepts.
  • Ensure that students do not just become accurate, but also fluent. This implies plenty of opportunities for practice such as low-stakes quizzing, retrieval practice, and fluency drills.

Morningside Academy in Seattle is a fascinating school set up specifically to cater for students struggling in mainstream schools. Many of their students are diagnosed with ADD and ADHD. Founded in 1980, the school has a very brisk, demanding curriculum which uses both Engelmann’s Direct Instruction and (American) Precision Teaching. The results are impressive. Morningside gives parents a guarantee that their children will make two years’ progress on standardised state tests for a year at the school in their area of greatest deficit – or give their money back. In 2012, the founder, Kent Johnson, noted in this article that the refund clause had been used ‘rarely’ in 32 years.

What about with older adults who have SEND and learning difficulties?

 Age is not a barrier to learning to read. For students with significant learning difficulties, explicit, systematic instruction is required. High levels of repetition and extensive work on creating secure foundations are important, but the processes that we acquire in learning to read are the same, and follow the same sequence, in both younger and older learners. The issue is not age per se (although materials and interaction style should obviously be adjusted to take account of age) but the clarity and thoroughness of explicit instruction.



Can you clarify the difference between phonics and decoding?

 Phonics is knowledge about the relationship between phonemes (the sounds of speech) and graphemes (the writing system).

Decoding is the act of rendering the written language into speech. In other words, teachers teach phonic knowledge; readers use their knowledge of phonics to decipher text. While successful decoding is a pre-requisite to independent reading comprehension, it’s not sufficient in itself; there are a range of skills that must be taught alongside phonics, especially for older readers, where higher levels of vocabulary, background knowledge and reasoning skills are expected.

If a child has not engaged with phonics throughout primary school would you argue diminishing returns in continuing to revisit it at the secondary school level?

We have to be cautious when assuming that a child has not ‘engaged’ with phonics. The first question to ask is whether the phonics teaching provided was of good quality. Was there rigorous assessment? A systematic analysis of the content to be taught? Frequent monitoring? Anticipation and elimination of misconceptions? Adequate practice opportunities? It is unlikely that a child simply disengages from effective instruction, especially for the whole of primary school. It is much more likely that reading has become aversive for the student after a pattern of failure is established early. That is why effective instruction in the early years is so critically important – failure at this stage creates layers of difficulty in curriculum, cognition, behaviour and motivation.

There is a myth that ‘phonics is not for every child’ and that ‘good teachers match the teaching to the student’, which sounds truthy, but ignores the logical reality that to read English accurately, the reader must have a knowledge of the relationship between sounds and the written symbols that represent them. There is simply no way around this. Given that English is an alphabetic language, it is imperative that once the student reaches secondary school, they are given targeted reading provision (not phonics in isolation) to identify and close any gaps that they have.


Reading Recovery

Why don’t you recommend Reading Recovery as an intervention for primary schools?

There are many committed teachers around the world working to help students with their reading, and some of them deliver Reading Recovery, and those efforts and good intentions should be acknowledged. That said, there is a great deal of concern about Reading Recovery in the reading science community. Here are some of the concerns that have been raised:

  • The selection criteria for intervention tend to be relative, e.g. ‘the lowest performing children in the lowest performing class in the most needy schools’ (see Brooks 2016). The success criteria are that students should be reading ‘at the average level of their class’, which, in the case of the lowest performing class in the neediest school, may not be very high.
  • Progress in the intervention is measured against the use of levelled books, which are levelled by ‘professional judgement’ based on meaning rather than decodability.
  • Children who do not make progress in the intervention are ‘discontinued’ and data reported is usually only for those who completed the programme. About 15% – 20% of children are discontinued during the programme (Brooks 2016, Tunmer et al 2013).
  • The intervention is based on a series of ‘whole language’ assumptions about reading. Of particular note is the primacy of ‘cueing’ from context (which can include picture cues). As far back as the 1980s, Stanovich and others showed that good readers do not rely on context to work out words, but poor readers do. There is no point in placing children in an intervention where they are trained to read like poor readers.
  • It is routine for Reading Recovery studies to make very positive pronouncements about impact in the headlines, only for the detail of the study to reveal much less impressive results, and often serious questions about study design.
  • Despite the appearance of rapid initial progress, there is little or no evidence of impact on students later in their schooling. Add to this the number of children who are discontinued during the intervention, who make even less progress, and it is not surprising that government funding has been removed in England, New South Wales and New Zealand.

This study charts the lack of impact made by Reading Recovery in its home, New Zealand. This post explores the continual re-invention of Reading Recovery’s image, as opposed to the realities. While Reading Recovery is certainly better than nothing, that is not a very high bar.


Primary School

 How can I minimise these gaps from a Primary school perspective?

Your focus was mainly on secondary school pupils so what would you recommend that primary schools do now to help their struggling readers that will soon be starting secondary?

How can we translate this to Primary School where we are already implementing interventions for the children and teaching phonics? What else can we do for the children that aren’t progressing as they should?

 How can primary schools reduce the number of children transitioning to secondary school with poor reading skills? First of all, we are not primary experts, and what follows are opinions informed by research we have read and primary teachers we have talked to. Secondly, let’s be clear, there have been major improvements in the teaching of early reading in England, to the point where it has had a positive effect on the country’s standing in international reading tables.

The Phonics Screening Check (PSC) provides schools with good information on how well children are acquiring decoding skills by the end of Year 1. Students who struggled in Year 1 are checked again in Year 2. This data can be used to evaluate impact and to prompt discussion and professional learning on how to help more children master these essential skills at an early stage. Key questions to consider are:

  • Is the phonics programme thorough, well-planned and effective?
  • Are teachers delivering the programme with fidelity?
  • Is there ongoing CPD to build teachers’ expertise further?

Perhaps the most important area to address is after Key Stage 1. In Key Stage 2, curriculum pressures can reduce the focus on reading. Where students are left to read independently before they are ready, or ‘cueing’ approaches to reading are taught (which undermines the decoding skills previously taught), children can practice errors and become inaccurate readers. This lack of accuracy has a cumulative effect in reducing comprehension, making accessing meaning more difficult, increasing cognitive load and reducing motivation. The resulting cycle means that the students who need more practice get less of it, and they fall further behind.

Alongside decoding skills, though, there needs to be a focus on the explicit teaching of vocabulary, background knowledge, and language structure. Children need regular daily practice at reading for meaning, and explicit teaching of comprehensions skills such as logical deduction, various types of inference, analogy, verbal associations and allusions. Ensuring that systems are in place to teach all these elements of reading systematically and explicitly in upper primary school is probably the single most important thing that we can do to close the reading gap before secondary school.

At a system-wide level, the Key Stage 2 SATs reading test is entirely focused on comprehension. It does not include an explicit decoding element. If it did, primary schools would not only have good information about how well all their students are reading, but would also have an incentive to address such problems earlier – rather than simply allow the students to move on to secondary school without the skills required to access the curriculum.


Phonics training for secondary teachers

Do you recommend any courses/books/CPD on phonics, as a secondary English teacher I don’t feel prepared to use it during intervention?

What training would you advise on phonic teaching?

I am not familiar with teaching phonics, are there any places where I would be able to find resources for Secondary-level phonics?

 It’s worth re-iterating that phonics should be taught alongside other aspects of reading. This is especially so for struggling adolescent readers, who are likely to have significant gaps across a range of skills due to years of limited progress.

It is also important to recognise that there is a significant body of knowledge to be acquired if teachers are to have an impact on struggling adolescent readers. You can find out a great deal about phonics through our colleague Debbie Hepplewhite, whose Phonics International is a well-established, effective programme.

John Walker and his colleagues at Sounds-Write use a linguistic phonics approach, teaching children that letters represent the sounds of speech. We use this approach in Thinking Reading: the underlying logic of this approach significantly simplifies and clarifies the nature of teaching communications, leading to faster learning and building confidence.

You can also find out more about effective reading instruction through the forum at the International Foundation for Effective Instruction in Reading (IFERI).


Tip: When students have difficulty reading a word, always teach them to decode through the word using letter-sound knowledge. Do not undermine students reading by teaching them to use ‘cueing’ from context, first letter or pictures.

Next up: Reading promotion


You may also be interested in:

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

7 Misconceptions About Teaching Adolescents to Read

15 Tests for Secondary School Reading Interventions

From novice to expert: seven signs your sign is dealing with reading effectively

Reading Intervention That Gets Striking Results


Join Our Newsletter

Join our mailing list to keep up to date with our upcoming events

Invalid email address
We promise not to spam you. You can unsubscribe at any time.

Related Posts