How to Read: TLT15

On 17th October, I travelled to Southampton for my second year presenting at TLT. I was talking about reading (not much new there), and, specifically, how to read. Reading, of course, is at the core of what we do as teachers; and not just as teachers of English. More and more in my new role, I’m coming to see that reading may be the only silver bullet in education: beautiful in its simplicity, obvious in its impact.

The reality is that our strongest readers read the most, and our weakest readers the least: the exact opposite what we need to see to close the gap between our best and worst performing students. This is not only true in their home lives, but also in our classrooms. Anyone who has ever asked for volunteers to read (including: me; guilty as charged) is advantaging those strong readers, and further denying reading from the weakest.

The gap in reading is not just a practice gap: it is also a knowledge gap. When we take our weak readers out of subjects to teach them reading skills, we are denying them that subject-specific knowledge that will enable them to make sense of a wider variety of texts. With the new strengthened GCSEs, students being able to read rigorous subject matter independently is essential.

Of the three stages of reading, decoding, comprehension and fluency, I said the least about decoding, instead pointing people to the awesome Katie Ashford’s blog, where she gives plenty of great advice on how to deal with students who cannot decode. It is clear that too many students slip through the decoding net at primary school, and we at secondary school lack the expertise to bridge that gap. This is evident in my experience in even years 10 and 11; last year I taught a student who would auto-correct unfamiliar words, as she didn’t know how to decode and hadn’t been properly taught phonics. She would autocorrect so many words, she couldn’t then understand the sentence, so for example: ‘Alison leapt up bracingly from her meal’ she might read aloud: ‘Alison led up braking from her meal’, which makes absolutely no sense.

Comprehension entails understanding what is written. Using Willingham’s examples from his excellent book Raising Kids who Read, often reading contains an inference gap: ‘Trisha spilled her coffee. Dan jumped from his chair to fetch a cloth.’ Expert readers automatically see how the first sentence impacts the second; novice readers might see these as two separate and unconnected events.

Interestingly, though, the gap between those from low and high income backgrounds manifests itself after the decoding has been taught, because comprehension, the second stage, is largely predicated on background knowledge, which our economically advantaged students have in abundance (usually from wide background reading). Using Hirsch’s classic ‘Jones sacrificed and knocked in a run,’ I explained that readers with high levels of knowledge on a given topic do better on tests which supposedly only test their reading ‘skill.’

And yet we are still persisting in believing our weak readers simply need more training in generic reading strategies, often withdrawing students from subject lessons to teach reading in isolation, and then wondering why their reading is not improving. In fact, the optimal way to close the reading gap is for students to gain a broad knowledge of subjects across the curriculum.

So clearly, we need to put reading at the heart of our lessons. Yet this is not an easy sell. Citing my own trials of getting students to read aloud (ranging from outright refusals to early tears), I later that evening found there were many out there who considered reading aloud in class to be cruel: (

I welcome those challenges to this idea. It is all too easy to do whole class reading badly.

Indeed, it is absolutely vital to consider the emotional impact of such a policy, and the way to make it work in your individual classroom for your children. Running a class where every child reads aloud is difficult, make no mistake about it. It depends on excellent pedagogy and the creation of a warm, safe environment. It requires constant vigilance and tight management. But, crucially, it is possible.

Why read aloud with students, if it is so difficult? First, so we know they can read. I’ve heard of too many teachers at KS4 finding out their students can’t read to not put this top of my list of reasons. Next, so we know they are listening during the lesson – the knowledge you could be asked to read at any time undeniably focuses the mind. Also, reading aloud helps us as teachers to check for understanding, something impossible when students are reading silently at their own pace. But finally, because reading aloud is probably the most enjoyable thing you can do with a class.

One recent example: when year 7 went on their ‘outward bound’ trip, I was the lucky teacher of history with three periods to fill for those ‘left behind.’ A mixed group of around 18 students of vastly differing ability, I didn’t want to press on with the planned lessons, but also didn’t have a bank of ‘rainy day’ history lessons as a first year teacher of this subject. In my desperation, I photocopied about 30 pages of Gombrich’s History of the World (recommended to me in the summer by both Daisy Christodoulou and Jonathan Porter) and threw together some comprehension questions. The first lesson was fine, but I was really concerned about the double: two hours of pure reading and writing. And guess what? It’s probably the best lesson I’ve ever taught. No joke – I wish someone had come to see it. These children were utterly, utterly engaged in a way I’ve seen only rarely, in the most remarkable teachers’ classrooms. They adored the stories, and their curiosity led to a wonderful class discussion and some impressive paragraphs.

It was not always thus. Previously, I would use ‘guided reading,’ where my students read at different paces in groups, thus ensuring no misconceptions could be ironed out, and again advantaging those strong readers. Moreover, I previously did not read aloud well to students, as I have written about here.

So, I was held back by my own low expectations, and it was the children themselves who set me on the right track: they wanted to read, and they seized that moment to show me they could do it.

But how can we do it every lesson? Here, Doug Lemov has the best answer I’ve found with ‘Control the Game.’ I went through each of the components of this: be vague about how much children will be reading, keep the reading duration unpredictable but short at the outset, move swiftly to the next reader with limited words (‘Stacey, pick up’, or, in my class, ‘Stacey’) and take over and model reading of tricky passages. At the start of my time in a new school, I tweaked this: we did snake around the class, for two weeks in fact. What was lost in terms of students checking out and not following in this two weeks was made up for, I think, in that it set the expectation that every child would read in every one of my lessons. For unconfident readers, they got used to this expectation with the predictability. It also gave me two weeks to suss who was going to push back on reading, and deal with them individually. (Interestingly, my year 10 middle ability class proved harder to get reading than my year 11 set 7 class, who frequently bound into my room shouting ‘are we reading today miss?’) Only once the whole class was secure in reading (and only a sentence each time) did I move to selecting students, but even now they are only reading a sentence, though I am moving away from that.

The implications of this kind of teaching are that teachers need to spend their planning thinking more about the questions they will need to ask students to ensure they have understood, along with which vocabulary students will struggle with and how they will gloss those words and check students have learned them.

From the mechanics of reading I moved to the motivation: reading is highly emotional, and I shared methods I’ve written about extensively on this blog in the past to build a reading culture in a school, such as sharing one book, sharing reading lists and delivering reading assemblies.

Once again, I would like to thank my warm and encouraging audience, who indulged me in my anecdotes and engaged with the ideas with gusto. Much love also goes to those who listen and challenge in the room and after: it is only through such thrashing out of the ideas that we come closer to being the best teachers and professionals we can be.


How to read


Teaching tough texts in a world of “Twilight”

Last week, I outlined my experience at TLT and the fantastic sessions I attended. This week, I’ll outline my own session and some of the thoughts others shared.

I opened by exploring the idea of “rigour”: this seems to be one of a few educational buzz-words du jour. With the new “reformed” GCSEs in English, in particular, we are being forced to do away with such “non-rigorous” texts as Of Mice and Men (about which I have written before) in favour of more rigorous texts – which seem to be defined as nineteenth century, English composed ones. With tougher vocabulary. Along with this new rigour comes a new balance of language and literature; with progress 8 double-weighting the qualifications, no longer will schools prioritise language – a joy to English teachers everywhere.

At KS3, though, we might be mindful of balancing rigour with freedom and, dare I say, fun. Without ever losing sight of the qualifications we need to prepare students for, we also might wish to think about ways to engage and delight students in tough texts. I shared my own school’s current KS3 curriculum, with an unapologetic literary focus: we teach language through literature, and there are no “writing to inform” units or “media exploration” studies. Yet with such a tough curriculum comes a caveat: I don’t want my students to be passive recipients of literature, but rather literary critics.

Next, I shared one of my year 7’s paragraphs on poetry:

H lovely parag

Although this was meant to be an analytical essay, I couldn’t help but be proud of her. She really seemed to have engaged with the purpose and importance of poetry, even though this wasn’t something I’d ever explored with the class. Such engagement, I hope, will stand her in good stead for the tough qualifications she has ahead of her.

I didn’t want to denigrate Twilight, a book I actually really, really loved (and have written about it here), and used this as a springboard to explore personal reading. Noting the Matthew Effect (the word rich are often set to become word richer; the word poor poorer) I feel we, as English teachers, have an obligation to close the gap in our students’ experiences of literature. I cited the reading assemblies I have shared before on this blog as examples of my quest for students to take up the gauntlet of personal reading, and referred to Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer and some of the ideas I’ve explored before here. While Miller’s entire curriculum revolves around personal reading, how much should we be taking from this idea? How central should personal reading be in our practice? This formed the start of our conversations in the session, and I was interested to hear the thoughts of the lovely attendees and their fabulous ideas.

One mentioned some students simply don’t know how to pick a book, and explained her students tended to look at the books without even handling them, and then said “I can’t find something” – she had to model flicking through and reading the blurb for them.

Chris Hildrew mentioned his school had set up a “media frenzy” around some high quality texts, leading to students picking these up, reading them and discussing them in the way they had The Fault in Our Stars in response to the worldwide media attention this book has drawn.

In order to create literary critics though, we need more than just readers. I explored what makes a text suitable to teach, and shared some strategies I’ve used in the past for making these texts accessible. I then asked attendees to think of a student they were struggling to engage with reading and/or literary criticism, and formulate a plan of action for engaging that student. Some excellent ideas arose from this, many of which I will be taking and trialling myself – so thank you!

Once again, I will say that I had a fantastic time at TLT. During this last week of term, I have been more full of hope and energy than ever before of that particular week, and it can only be as a result of that day of meeting, sharing, learning.

Teaching tough texts in a world of Twilight


Immersed in the insularity of a new job in a new school last year, TLT13 passed me by. The first awareness of it for me was seeing exciting looking tweets and blogs on and after the day, when clearly it was too late to join in. This year, though, I was determined to be on it – which made me feel even more delighted to be asked to present something as part of the literacy strand.

A train journey with a dear friend and past colleague provided me with plentiful food for education thought, and by the time we arrived at Southampton I was already percolating a “things I would like to be better at” mental list, which overflowed as the day went on.

Tom Sherrington

Creeping into the lecture theatre, only slightly late, I was relieved not to have missed Tom Sherrington’s opening. He spoke passionately about leading a new school, this time a large comprehensive, and noted pleasingly that what applies in a grammar school applies “even more” there; he also remarked that the extent to which expectations can be low is amazing. Candidly referring to teaching his year 8 class as “feeling like someone who has just done a 10K run with no training,” he went on to explain that teaching is really rather straightforward (not easy; never easy – but definitely straightforward): know what you are trying to teach – the key concepts, the objective; and keep the pitch high: never lose sight of the top end, while bringing the other children with you. He showed his famous tweet: “if there was no OfSTED, no SLT… just you and your class… what would you choose to do to make it great? Do that anyway.” He clarified at this point that he did not mean there should be no accountability; rather that if what you are doing in your classroom is amazing and it is working, no-one will mind.

Referring to the new behaviour system being rolled out in his school, he noted that for classroom teaching to have its desired impact, the culture and systems first have to be in place: without these, all else is meaningless. Too much teacher time, otherwise, is spent controlling behaviour and not teaching. (Incidentally, I remember a friend of mine moving to teach in a private school where lessons were 35 minutes long. I asked her how she got through the curriculum, and she replied “well, no-one misbehaves, so the lessons don’t feel that short.”) Tom went on to explain that children need to feel confusion and struggle in their learning: if they are getting everything right, the lesson is not challenging enough.  Tom also remarked that his school had scrapped levels on reports, saying he “can’t justify another 6b meaning nothing.” He noted they will fill this vacuum with something better, and I can’t wait to see what that might be.

Kev Bartle

My first session of the day began with a clip of some rather peculiar, red-haired, 80s looking woman singing. I had long suspected it, but I then knew how completely amazing Kev must be, both as teacher and headteacher. His session made close reference to the OfSTED clarification for schools document, and he began by noting his annoyance that many SLTs aren’t yet getting it right with OfSTED: when they are doing things “with OfSTED in mind”, it is often the OfSTED of five or eight years ago. Opening with the wise words: “there is no such thing as progress within lessons. There is only learning”, he was scathing on the preponderance of mini-plenaries and other such AfL strategies reduced to progress-prop gimmicks.

On lesson grading, Kev noted that even if you observe a main-scale teacher for 30 minutes six times a year (this is approximately five times more than I have ever been observed in a year), that still represents only 0.4% of the teaching that teacher will do over the year. Referring to the policy exchange report “Watching the Watchmen”, he reminded us that OfSTED inspectors can see the same lesson and give it every one of the four arbitrary grades.

On lesson observations, he asked why SLT “who teach the least” should be the ones to lead on teaching. While I agree that a top-down approach to observation is not favourable, I can’t help but look at the SLT in my own school which contains some of its strongest practitioners, and my line manager (deputy head) who remains one of the best teachers I have ever seen in action. Kev went on to explain why learning walks and book looks were also a waste of time if done in a top-down fashion; better practice, he suggested, was to have a department look through books together and discuss each other’s practice. Of “data trawls”, less is more: in Kev’s school, they enter data for year 11, 12 and 13 only twice a year; this ensures the data is reliable and robust, and not the product of an over-tired teacher putting in any old thing every half term.

Kev had strong words to say about consistency: teaching is about humans – messy, uncontrollable humans; we need to open ourselves up to uncertainty, and mystery. He put forward an alternative set of ideas on how a school might be run, largely built on trust, and assuming the best of people.

Chris Hildrew

I was so excited to finally meet Chris in person, having long admired his blog, but first I had to be bowled over by his phenomenal talk. Chris was speaking about progress and assessment within a “Growth Mindset” school. With the dynamism of a Mr Keating, children-on-desks educator, he told us we had to begin by thinking of the “X kids” – the “mutant kids who can do it.” We had to consider the students who had most excelled in our subjects, and what they had that we could replicate in schools.

Immediately, the pastoral implications of this jumped out: no-one really believes children are naturally Shakespeare; rather, they have self-esteem and self-belief, along with the self-awareness to know how to change and develop into better students. Achievement and mindset go hand in hand.

Importantly, growth mindset must not become reductive; a tick-box on a lesson plan or a resource sheet. Rather it must become embedded at a whole-school level, as Chris has written so eloquently about in his blog.

Along with this, we need to build demand and a high level of challenge into our curriculum, knowing where we want our students to get to and then plotting how to arrive there. Chris spoke of asking subject leaders to tap into their core moral purpose: why should students study their subject? And with that in mind, bend the (very flexible) National Curriculum to that purpose.

Echoing what Tom Sherrington had said, teachers saying students have “nothing to improve” clearly need to set the challenge bar higher; what more could they read; what more do to broaden their knowledge? Chris also outlined his school’s method of tracking progress, which looks very exciting, and I can’t wait to hear more about it.

Chris Curtis

Like everyone I had heard speak so far in the day, I longed to be a student in Chris Curtis’s classroom. His opening salvo: “how is writing an essay like going on a date?” immediately made the room buzz with activity and excitement. He noted we are often busy moulding the next journalists, and not academic writers; something to be mindful of with the advent of the new GCSEs. Proclaiming “death to the PEE format,” he showed us something much better: point and then development. Using the fantastic resource below, he guided us through how to develop an idea, and gave us plenty to take away into our own classrooms.