Suleiman Ibrahim

Head of Islamic studies & Social studies / Islamic Education Lecturer

Why Ofsted’s focus on reading must go further

Having spent the past decade or so researching reading in secondary schools, I was pleased to see a new guidance report published by Ofsted this week on exactly this topic.

Overall, there is much to welcome in the report. It identifies some of the huge challenges secondaries face in trying to promote reading – challenges that I have also come across in my research.

For example, whose job is it to support poor readers at secondary school? How do schools find the time for any additional support? How do schools ensure that all teachers have the capacity to support the poorer readers in their classrooms? Indeed, my research shows that every mixed-ability classroom will include a handful of students with poor reading, and that this will limit their ability to access secondary curriculum materials.

As well as highlighting these challenges, which are being keenly felt by schools, the report draws out some promising approaches to tackling them. 

These include encouraging buy-in from senior leadership, so that reading is given high status and is seen as a shared responsibility for all; and carefully planned professional development for teachers to ensure they understand how to teach reading and how to interpret data from key stage 2 Sats and other assessments.

The report also stresses the importance of ensuring that all teachers know who the struggling readers are, having a joined-up approach that combines school-wide initiatives with targeted support and interventions for poor readers, and effective collaboration between primary and secondary schools.

The importance of assessment

Recently, I have been acting as a critical friend to Blackpool secondary schools as part of the key stage 3 literacy project. These points very closely mirror discussions that we have had regularly about what is working in those schools.

One key finding from this project is the importance of effective reading assessment, specifically the need to combine screening and follow-up diagnostic assessments. Our approach is summarised here.

Ofsted notes that its case study schools are using a similar combination of assessments. These assessments are norm-referenced, which means that they indicate a students’ reading ability relative to same-age peers, and can be contrasted with criterion-referenced assessments that establish whether a student has reached a target level of knowledge or skill.

Screening and diagnostic assessments provide norm-referenced scores that are really useful for identifying need and evaluating progress. They also yield reading ages, though, which are deeply misleading, as I argued just last month in a Tes feature that is cited in the Ofsted report.

Case-study schools were using screening assessments with whole cohorts that identified reading needs and following this up with diagnostic assessments that specified needs with more precision, allowing them to be aligned with appropriate support and interventions.

Schools were also evaluating the impact of those interventions in a range of ways, looking at changes in knowledge and skills, but also confidence and motivation.

Giving teachers a voice

When doing this, it’s important to ensure that interventions are not only effective but feasible and acceptable for schools, teachers and students. This is something Ofsted acknowledges, drawing on teacher and student reports. I was particularly encouraged to see this as the perspectives of these groups are often neglected in research.

It is great to see good practice in using assessments to evaluate impact. Yet there is one element of diagnostic assessment that is not emphasised in the Ofsted report. 

Screening assessments tend to be administered to large groups of students, making them feasible for schools. A necessary consequence of group administration, though, is that for a small number of students, low scores can reflect lack of engagement or guessing instead of poor reading. 

Diagnostic assessments, when conducted on a one-to-one basis, allow us to check this, avoiding wasting precious time and resources on support and interventions that a child might not need.

When it comes to what that support should look like, Ofsted places a clear focus on word reading: on phonics and fluency. My research shows that word reading is indeed a challenge for many students in key stage 3, so it is great to see resources for supporting word reading that are age appropriate. 

In fact, I was first motivated to begin researching adolescent literacy more than a decade ago by secondary schools telling me that they didn’t know how to support their poor readers, and knew that their materials, which had been designed for key stage 1, were patronising and off-putting.

The missing elements

On the one hand, then, Ofsted’s focus on this area is positive to see.

However, on the other hand, this focus means that the report is much quieter on the importance of supporting reading comprehension – a skill that is underpinned by spoken language and is also a challenge for many adolescents.

An important next step will be to investigate what works in secondary schools to support comprehension, an area where the evidence base is less strong.

Similarly, we must be careful not to lose sight of the importance of reading motivation and reading behaviour. The National Literacy Trust consistently reports alarmingly low levels of reading for pleasure in secondary students and my research with Dr Laura Shapiro and Sanne van der Kleij reveals close links between reading amount and reading skills.

Comprehension and reading motivation go hand in hand with reading ability, and it is crucial that we don’t forget the importance of any of these elements in pursuit of another.

But those words of warning aside, it is great to see Ofsted shining a light on the importance of supporting reading in secondary schools and emphasising the value of ensuring that all young people leave school able to read well, so that they can participate in society and thrive.

A key part of this is to focus on assessment, and supporting knowledge and skills, as long as we don’t allow this to sideline other crucial aspects of learning to read.

Professor Jessie Ricketts is director of the Language and Reading Acquisition (LARA) Lab at Royal Holloway University



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