It was a hot, noisy, dusty building site. I was working on a construction project in Wellington during the university summer holidays. There was more concrete pouring due soon, and the carpenters and labourers were all busy. I was tasked with removing some long planks of boxing that had remained stuck fast when the last pour of concrete had dried. The foreman handed me a steel bar and left me to it.

I tried prising the wood away, but there was no gap to gain leverage. I tried jabbing at one end a few times to see if I could get some movement. When that didn’t work I tried the same at the other end, and then the middle. After half an hour, I was sweating, my arms were aching, I was increasingly frustrated, and the wood still hadn’t moved. Clearly something was wrong here. Why had I been left to do this by myself?  This was a job for a team, surely? But there was just me, my steel bar, and the wood that wasn’t budging.

One of the more experienced construction workers passed by on an errand, as I tapped away. He returned a few moments later and paused to watch, making no secret of his exasperation. “Give me that,” he ordered, pointing to the steel bar. I handed it over. My new helper lifted the bar high, half-turned away from the target, then whirled back and drove down savagely. There was a crack and the wood broke away from the concrete. Without pausing, he took a step forward and repeated the action. Then again, and again. After five blows, the immovable length of boxing broke away completely, and tumbled into space.

My helper handed me back the steel bar. “Sometimes,” he said, “you have to make faces at it.”

I’m reminded of this experience often when I am talking to school leaders about getting the most impact from interventions. Sometimes we are faced with a problem that seems intractable. We feel disappointed when our efforts don’t pay off, and we wonder whether we have the right tool for the job.  It is absolutely essential to have the right tool for the job; but it’s also important to wield that tool to maximum effect.

Poor reading is an intractable problem in secondary schools. One of the critical errors is to imagine that it can be solved easily. If a student in Year 10 is reading at a six- or seven-year-old level, the problem is longstanding and has not yielded to normal practices. Multiply this across the year group, and then do the same for every other year group, and you have a body of students with severe, longstanding difficulties.

Consider this comment from Calhoon and Prescher (2013):

“Older struggling readers fall into a wide range of developmental levels, presenting a unique set of circumstances not found in younger more homogeneous beginning readers . . . older struggling readers are extremely heterogeneous and complex in their remediation needs.”

Leaders have to understand the scale of the challenge: a library period a fortnight with Accelerated Reader isn’t going to enable these children to become good readers.

Equally, though, we may invest in the right intervention, and still not see the impact we wish for, because of insufficient investment in the task. Just as I conscientiously chipped away, seeing no movement, one or two staff may be chipping away with insufficient hours, or resources, or training, and seeing little or no result. They may be pulled away to help in other areas from time to time; they may be based in a room that’s too small to be practical; they may be restricted by their timetables as to when they can see students, or delivering lessons too infrequently to matter. Chip, chip, chip.

The answer is to ensure that the resources are directed to hit the problem hard, with sufficient force to have an impact. To shatter the boulder, you need a sledgehammer, not a tack hammer. But you will need to invest considerably more energy and strength to wield that sledgehammer than you did when you were tapping away with your ineffective tack hammer.

In the same way, to get to grips with adolescent illiteracy, we need to invest in training, so that staff know how to obtain the maximum student progress. We need to allocate space and resources so that everything required for lessons is to hand as soon as the student arrives for a lesson. We need to use the time well, but also allocate sufficient staffing so that students have enough lessons to make progress. We need to set ambitious targets for how many students we will help, and how rapidly they will make gains. Which is more ambitious: seven reading graduates in a year, or 38 in six months?* It depends on how hard you swing the sledgehammer.

In short, don’t leave your staff chipping away. Poor reading is an intractable problem: you have to make faces at it.

* These are actual examples from schools we have worked with.

Reference:

Calhoun, M. B., & Prescher, Y. (2013). Individual and group sensitivity to remedial reading program design: Examining reading gains across three middle school reading projects. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 26, 565-592.

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