I began the first of this series of posts including some information about the scale of the reading problem I faced as a Literacy Coordinator in charge of reading intervention according to the standardised Suffolk reading test scores we collected on pupils on entry. Here is that information again.

It is always important to see these sorts of figures in relation to cohort size.

Y7        87/262 pupils (33%) below 9 years 6 months 108/262 pupils (41%) below 10

Y8        54/262 pupils (21%) below9 years 6 months 66/262 pupils (25%) below 10

Y9        47/214 pupils (22%) below 9 years 6 months 65/214 pupils (30%) below 10

Y10      64/270 pupils (24%) below 9 years 6 months 72/270 pupils (27%) below 10

Y11      63/274 pupils (23%) below 9 years 6 months 68/270 pupils (25%) below 10


Now you can see for Y8-11 on entry around 22% had a reading age below 9 years six months and around 28 % had a reading age below ten. This was the case for years even before I was put in charge of intervention. And figures like this do not point the finger of blame at any one individual. In fact an annual entry like this indicates an endemic systematic failure…so there is plenty of blame to share about with everybody! The fact that we drew from over 27 different primary schools both within and outside our catchment area also indicates that there was a widespread problem.

Now you might be thinking at this stage, “Ah wait a minute Dave, this is just one test. You can’t go judging problems on the basis of one test. Who do you think you are – the government?” And you would be right. Of course there were a lot more tests, but the figures I’m giving you here were the tip of a very slippery iceberg. Around 12-15% of pupils who scored badly on this test also had problems decoding and others had different problems: some who lacked confidence massively because they thought they were stupid because they could not read fluently; some who could read fluently but were behind on their spelling; some with linked behavioural issues because they thought they were stupid; some who had not progressed because of attendance and/or extremely poor behaviour; some who could decode but not comprehend what they had read; some with difficult backgrounds; some with difficulties in concentration; some with difficulties in memory; some who were incredibly lazy; some who had just given up.

In fact if pupils begin secondary school unable to decode fluently they are years behind their school mates. Think about it: what age would you expect a pupil to be at least decoding fluently. 7? 8 at a push? Many of the pupils starting Comprehensive were therefore at least 3 years behind. They had often felt like failures for 3 years of their life in school. We often hear politicians talking about grit. Please. They don’t know the meaning of the word. Try feeling like a failure since the age of 8: frustrated, disheartened, lost. Then tell me what grit is

And yet.

Young people are remarkable. Look at the progress one young person managed to achieve:

      BSTS Spelling Age Sept Y7 BSTS spelling age Sept Y8 Spelling improvement over 1 year in months       SRS Reading Age Sept Y7       SRS Reading Age Sept Y8       Reading Age +/- Over 1 Year in months       SRS Reading Age Sept Y9 Improvement over two years Salford Reading Age June Y7 Salford Reading Age June Y8
7.11 10.07 32 8.05 11.1 40 14.11 78 9.07 11


Here is a child who stared failure and adversity in the face and beat it back with hard work and determination. He had to learn how to decode and encode, AND then improve fluency and vocabulary. He has to read enough to catch up with the pupils who have been able to decode since the age of 7 or 8 and have been therefore reading more difficult texts than him for years. In fact his progress seems even more impressive, because I only introduced the Salford test at the end of Y7 and he only got to 9 Years 7 months after 6 months of intervention.

Of course there is more at play here. If this pupil had not used his newly gained knowledge and skills to read a lot more himself he simply wouldn’t have caught up to this extent. If we had not had excellent parental support it would have been a lot more difficult.

OK so I’m ace right? Some sort of literacy Messiah? No. Why was this pupil so very far behind to begin with? What had gone wrong? I’m not arrogant or stupid enough to believe I performed some sort of magic? Indeed I wouldn’t even claim that the intervention was anywhere near where I wanted it to be at this stage. When you meet pupils like this who seem well behaved, hardworking, quite intelligent and polite and they can’t decode, their progress does make you feel proud, but it also makes you feel irate. It’s not on. Heads should roll. It is because I’ve met pupils like this and seen some of the awful consequences on pupils’ achievement and self-esteem that I understand when those in charge of reading intervention vent their anger about pupils being unable to read on entry by slamming “learning through play” or just primary schools in general. I’m sure the excellent primary colleagues I follow on Twitter would feel a similar level of outrage faced with the same thing.

However, as I said at the start, the problem we faced was clearly indicative of endemic systematic failure and there is plenty of blame to share.  So what had exactly had been going wrong? Well as far as I could gather from speaking to parents and pupils and teachers there were a number of problems at play.

  1. Phonics

Not enough time was spent on teaching teachers how to teach phonics in ITT. In fact I was told by one primary trained teacher that she spent more time on how to teach Music than how to teach pupils to decode in her ITT.

Primary schools were not given regular refresher courses in teaching children to read. This meant that if the teachers who had been trained moved on to another year group or another school, their replacement did not necessarily therefore have the same expertise. The teacher the pupils moved onto also did not necessarily have the training/expertise to address pupils’ deficits.

There was a tradition of doing “Jolly Phonics” and whilst the books were out of date and still included “sight words” the pupils sang the songs and many were given a decent start in this way. Phonics was also used to teach spelling. However if pupils missed sections of “Jolly Phonics” because of poor attendance or teachers did not take enough care over their “schwa” then pupils started to pick up problems and catch up intervention was slow in catching up.

  1. Biff, Chip and Kipper

Having been given or not given a good grounding in phonics pupils, by and large, began the Oxford Reading Tree books. If they failed to progress with Biff, Chip and Kipper, they got to do…more Biff, Chip and Kipper! If they did progress with Biff Chip and Kipper, then they got to try and finish the entire scheme. Every. Single. Book. By stage 10 pupils had begun to lose the will to live. There are so many books after that. And so many are complete dross. But some primary schools persisted with it until the bitter end. Some pupils simply pretended to read these books at home. Primary schools also did not have the funding to invest in new reading schemes.

Pupils did not read enough language rich texts once they could decode and they did not develop their vocabulary enough once they had learned to decode. In essence some pupils’ reading simply plateaued.

  1. Intervention

Intervention in some schools consisted of an untrained LSA with an outdated reading scheme. Sometimes this intervention was effective. Sometimes it was not. Either way it’s not as if there was extra funding for better training and/or resources. In some schools the only intervention a teacher could provide was done through guided reading sessions. Essentially a number of groups working independently on tasks while the teacher focussed of those who needed it the most. I have done this type of lesson myself and it really is not easy to manage. I have even heard a trainer say, “It doesn’t matter what the rest of the groups are doing as long as you are doing the guided reading with those pupils who need the most help.”

Parents did not know how far behind their children were and if they did many were unable to help them.

  1. Accountability

Accountability rested on the shoulders of the Y6 teacher assessment levels which I’ve written about before here. Essentially the Y6 teacher’s job had to provide evidence that so many pupils were a certain level. Their focus was on the bottom line and they focussed on outer appearance rather than on building strong roots for the future. Pupils redrafted and redrafted and redrafted the work or typed it up until the evidence matched the figures they were under pressure to deliver.


Of course there were more problems, but these four were the greatest systematic failures in my view. At this point I’d like to point out it is easy to be an angel in Heaven. In my experience schools and teachers work tremendously hard to fix holes in the system. The truth is there wasn’t a coherent system for addressing the problem.

In Wales, in my view, there still isn’t.

Thanks for reading.