This is a guest blog written by Emily Hanson, former class teacher and freelance education copywriter. She holds a PGCE and M.Ed from the University of Cambridge, and has taught across the primary age range. Her subject specialism is literature, language and phonics. Outside of the classroom, Emily has also worked for a youth charity, widening participation in higher education with prospective students aged 12-17. She adores sharing her passion for reading in her work, but more importantly with her two young daughters. In this post Emily examines how to best support older readers in light of the revised Reading Framework.
In July 2023, the Department for Education released new guidance for all primary and secondary schools covering the vital importance of learning to read, and how this practice should be implemented in schools. The importance of ensuring children leave primary school as fluent, engaged and enthusiastic readers will be nothing new to teachers and support staff.
However, a particular element of the framework could be helpful in improving the attainment gap for a specific aspect of school cohorts: older, struggling readers. In October 2022, Ofsted released guidance on supporting this group of learners. The report cited research that showed only 10% of disadvantaged children who leave primary school with below the expected reading standard go on to achieve pass grades in English and maths at GCSE.
With a focus on ensuring children enter secondary school with a reading ability that will allow them to grasp and engage with the key stage 3 curriculum, the new framework reminds practitioners of the many teaching elements that make up a successful reader, and most notably, the need for systematic, synthetic phonics (SSP) for children in danger of falling behind.
In this article, we’ll break down how the new framework offers specific guidance for supporting key stage two and three children who need extra support to achieve their reading potential.
Can we use systematic synthetic phonics with older children?
Frameworks for learning to read typically focus on children in the Early Years Foundation Stage and key stage one. For good reason – children typically pick up learning to read in their earlier school years, and in fact, need to do so in order to unlock curriculum subjects in their later primary and secondary years.
The new framework opens with a clear focus on this: ‘English is both a subject in its own right and a medium for teaching’ (p. 4). For children to access the fascinating and complex topics they are likely to meet as they progress through school, their ability to decode detailed texts becomes more and more vital.
The assumption, therefore, is that children are moderately fluent readers by the time they reach year three, able to begin enjoying a variety of texts and instructions independently, as well as having a writing ability to match.
What happens, then, if a child hasn’t grasped this vital skill by the time they reach key stage two, or indeed, key stage three?
Children inevitably fall behind across the entirety of the curriculum. This not only impacts their academic levels but can lead to disengagement, behaviour issues, and low self-esteem. The ability to read is the key that unlocks all aspects of learning.
This happens not only for the individual but also impacts wider society, as the report stipulates: ‘to the individual, it matters emotionally, culturally and educationally; because of the economic impacts within society, it matters to everyone’ (p. 10).
Why is SSP the remedy?
The key takeaway is that deficits in reading skills are attributed to a lack of immersion in rich spoken English in a child’s formative years. This will apply to a child whose challenges are due to an additional need, a child with a challenging home environment or a child who has English as an additional language.
Specific SSP teaching in school allows older readers to overcome this early set back that has produced gaps in their language acquisition. Once they are able to decode text, they no longer rely on adults to share vocabulary and syntax with them, as they can access this independently:
‘For children who begin school with a poor understanding of language, being able to decode words is essential for equality, because their understanding of language, their vocabulary and their knowledge of the world will expand rapidly when they can read for themselves.’ (p. 17)
SSP is vital for bridging the attainment gap in older readers. As children become fluent in reading, they are better able to access the rest of the curriculum and develop their overall grasp of the English language:
‘The more words pupils can read at a glance, the sooner they see beyond the word as consisting of a series of letters to decode and can focus on what the word means.’ (p. 62)
SSP is without a doubt the key bridge between falling behind and accessing the wonderful world of learning. Without it, the gap will only widen where ‘the word-rich get richer, and the word-poor get poorer’ (p. 68). But how exactly does the report recommend integrating this into the school day? This is outlined largely in sections 5 and 9 of the report. Let’s break things down.
Prevention: high-quality phonics teaching
As with all areas of education, the best cure is early recognition and prevention. Schools should already have a rigorous programme in place when they teach phonics that will encourage regular assessment of learners, ensuring that children falling behind are quickly identified and early reading intervention activities begin.
Ideally, this happens in the EYFS or key stage one. Those finding phonics challenging may also be identified in the year one phonics check. The report describes this method as ‘keeping up from the start’. Any children falling behind prior to key stage two should ideally follow one-to-one reading intervention programmes using the school’s SSP.
As the report states, this should focus on consolidating grapheme-phoneme correspondence gaps as well as regular oral blending, with each child’s progress carefully recorded and monitored throughout.
In an ideal world, this leads to children catching up with their peers and entering key stage two accessing the same reading teaching as their peers. In reality, as teachers and support staff will know, this isn’t always the case – which poses a unique challenge when ensuring SSP resources remain age appropriate. Most SSP programmes are designed with a younger audience in mind and any accompanying intervention resources may seem too young for older learners. The report goes on to identify how this issue can be remedied.
Variations on systematic synthetic phonics to support older students
The obvious first point of call for any reading intervention strategies is using a schools SSP programme alongside activities such as phonics games. Games are a great way to engage reluctant or struggling readers. Consider how to adapt phonics games to make them relevant and appropriate for older learners.
The report highlights that ‘schools might want to avoid SSP resources specifically designed for younger pupils and instead, consider age-appropriate lessons, as well as reading materials that develop pupils’ decoding and fluency’ (p. 69). Schools are encouraged to create reading intervention materials around the individual child whether they are working at phase two phonics or phase five phonics or bring in a programme aimed at older children to suit their overall cognitive ability, as opposed to their reading age. All pupils ‘should continue to read ‘decodable’ books, that is, books that include only words with GPCs they have been explicitly taught, until they can blend sounds to read new words fluently and automatically’ (p. 67).
Phonic Books Catch-up Readers provide a great way to engage older readers who are still in the decoding phase of learning to read, aimed at children aged 8-14. The chapter books are fully decodable and clearly structured with interesting and engaging themes, from magic through to adventure tales. Each series begins at the CVC level and progresses through to complex texts, allowing readers to feel engaged in the story while retaining gradually increasing independence throughout.
Alongside age-appropriate teaching, children should be taught by fully trained staff on an intensive one-to-one level as soon as gaps are noticed, and this should happen every day. Children should begin at the highest point of the intervention they can access, not the beginning; a baseline assessment is crucial and assessment of their progress should continue regularly.
Once children have begun to build their reading speed and ability to decode, the focus should move to fluency and understanding.
Developing reading fluency and understanding
The framework states that once older readers are at a stage of reading 90 words per minute and can access the highest decodable texts in the traditional SSP, they are ready to focus on fluency. It may be deemed appropriate to utilise SSP texts for assessment purposes here, but again, this may feel disheartening to older children.
Phonic Books Catch-up Readers series are excellent texts to support SSP. Teachers can use the Diagnostic Assessment Cards to ascertain where a pupil is currently at, what knowledge and skills they have acquired and what they still need to learn. The ‘Recommendations’ sheet will match suitable decodable books to the reading level of the pupil.
Once it has been ascertained that a child has reached the highest level of decoding, regular time practising decodable texts alongside mainstream classroom teaching is imperative to continued progress.
The report recommends:
- Setting aside regular time for older readers to practice with moderately decodable texts, encouraging children to come across unfamiliar words and new grapheme-phoneme combinations to practice fluency and reading speed.
- Ensuring regular whole class and one-to-one read-alouds of interesting texts take place. These sessions will also facilitate an ability to quickly understand and access the written word.
- Building in comprehension activities. Alongside fluency, the framework states, comes understanding and comprehension. All children need to regularly read and discuss texts to ensure they have grasped the concepts included in them, and the same goes for children who need that extra bit of support. This could be included in mainstream teaching or using texts that match the child’s existing interests.
Educators should be aware that children may be able to mask their true reading abilities if they are very familiar with a topic or text already (such as guessing vocabulary or guessing text summaries for periods of history they are already interested in).
With a clear outline of how to intervene with struggling readers, the next question for many teachers will be how to organise and facilitate this individualised one-to-one time. The report provides recommendations for this, too.
The practicalities: organising catch-up sessions for older readers
The Reading Framework outlines a lot of intervention methods, but many staff will be rightfully concerned about how to manage this alongside the progress of a full class. There are a variety of recommendations in the report to support this.
Making use of assessment in reading
First comes rigorous assessment. Each minute is vital during an intervention, and no time should be wasted when the asset of an individual staff member providing one-to-one support is a large resource to use up.
The report recommends regular assessment of each child’s progress to make the best use of time. The report also recommends using highly trained and equipped staff members to ensure the time used is maximised.
Equally, the report states the need to make some ‘hard decisions’ about missing other lessons to prioritise teaching reading. We know well that plugging gaps of attainment is key to accessing the full curriculum, and section 9 of the report goes on to highlight that it may be worth taking struggling readers out of mainstream English lessons until they are able to fully access teaching as fluent readers. This takes us through to later sections in the report (9 and 13) which outline how to support struggling readers across the curriculum.
Reading across the curriculum: managing struggling readers
Alongside key interventions, children will likely remain in mainstream classes for other subjects. This is particularly true in secondary schools, where children are likely to meet different teachers at each subject stage. How can teachers support learning in these cases? The key is pre-teaching and communication across the school.
All teachers meeting struggling readers should be aware of their needs. Whole class teaching can naturally facilitate additional support to encourage these children, without further direct intervention.
- Pre-teaching of key vocabulary across topics, the report states, is a great way to provide children with spoken language that they may not pick up through decoding class texts, such as scientific vocabulary or key historical phrases.
- Equally new features of texts, such as glossaries or indexes in textbooks, could be integrated into new topics to provide additional support for children who would not otherwise pick up these areas of learning independently. DK Learning books offer an enormous variety of text-types and topics for children of any age, reading at any level to develop their understanding, fluency and reading stamina.
- Regular partner talk in mixed-ability pairings could also support children who are struggling to pick up new vocabulary through decoding – though staff should do so with caution to ensure higher ability children are still stretched through regular switching up of talking partners.
Final thoughts on supporting older students with reading
A great deal goes into turning a pre-reader into a fluent reader; one who is engaged and interested in the written word. This won’t be news to any teacher or staff member, however, the DfE’s new framework still provides many takeaways for staff working with struggling older readers.
With interesting, age-appropriate decodable texts like the Phonic Books Catch-up Readers, these children needn’t feel stuck behind their peers with texts that no longer engage them cognitively. They can be excited and motivated to get reading!