A focus on reading fluency to support SATs preparation

Written by: Kelly Challis | Published:
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Maintaining a focus on reading fluency beyond key stage 1 could be key to improving SATs results. Kelly Challis explains how and offers some teaching techniques and other ideas

Our education system is built on stages. As children grow, skills learnt during primary school are built on until they leave for secondary school. It is during primary school that children learn to read, write, spell and calculate. Currently SATs are used to assess a child’s competence in these skills.

The 2019 English paper required a pupil to read around 2,200 words across three extracts and 39 questions and provide answers within one hour. So how a school can support a pupil’s fluency and text navigation in order to help them read at a speed and give them more time to focus on the comprehension of the text?

How children learn to read

The acquisition of reading skills begins with decoding (sounding out words and blending sounds together). Next comes fluency (ability to read with speed, accuracy and expression), then comprehension (processing text and understanding meaning). The final stage is inference (reading between the lines).

At first, concentration is focused on the letters, their shapes and recognising the patterns that letters make both in print and sound. As the lexicon of a child grows the concentration shifts to whole word and finally sentences until words themselves need little targeted attention and it is the story which becomes the focus.

Let us consider a pupil in year 3 who still struggles with blending words and therefore continues to read falteringly. The curriculum will require this pupil to comprehend and start to analyse text in more detail. If the pupil continues to process the information in front of them at a word level, they will be using more of their processing ability on this than the task in hand.

As such, if their lack of fluency is not addressed, it will continue to hamper their ability to comprehend and subsequently draw inferences. Move this into an exam context and the risk is that without addressing the key skill of fluency this pupil will not reach their potential.

The importance of fluency beyond key stage 1

Recent analysis of 2019 SATs scores by the Education Policy Institute’s deputy head of research Jon Andrews indicated a dip in reading ability despite the cohort having reached the expected standard in their year 1 phonics screening check in 2014.

So what has gone wrong in the years between? One answer may be a reduced focus on both phonics and fluency as children leave key stage 1. A pupil who continues to struggle with decoding and phonics in years 3 and 4 will often be supported through discrete intervention by their school rather than a whole class focus. How this intervention is carried out is up to the individual school and specialist provision is not mandatory.

Many of the pupils I have worked with as a specialist literacy teacher do not read at the required speed for the SATs paper and therefore are overwhelmed by the amount of text on the page. Their difficulties are two-fold – slow reading speed and inability to navigate the text.

A technique used by speed readers is to look at the middle of the page and process the whole line. The most efficient readers can move their finger down the centre of the page and read 10-plus words in one go.

There is an assumption that not every word is being processed at the same level as others. Articles (a, an, the) for example can be skipped and lengthy description, including several adjectives or adverbs, may also be skimmed over. Frequently pupils that struggle with reading will not feel confident in missing words and will attempt to read every word. How do you know which words to miss out unless you are shown?

Working on fluency needs to be systematic with practice little and often. To improve fluency, use a familiar, low threat text. The purpose of the task is to become more fluent, not to learn new vocabulary or comprehend.

The importance of the audience that the text is intended for cannot be underestimated: frame analysis around who the author is targeting to encourage a deeper discussion of the text, build interest in the text through discussion and tap into background knowledge, pre-teach pertinent vocabulary, and explore grammar and punctuation in the context of the text.

Navigating text

For pupils who continue to struggle with reading, explicit teaching of text structure helps improve their confidence to navigate. Once the context in which the text has been written is understood, teaching what to expect from a text – an opening paragraph, a concluding paragraph etc – as well as scanning through for quotations, figures and names gives the pupils the gist of the text. This should then enable them to begin analysis. Teach how to – and importantly when to – skim read, scan and close read.

Practising different reading techniques provides a pupil with more options when faced with an unfamiliar text or a lot of text in a limited time frame. Familiarise the whole class with a text and where possible read it out loud to the group as an introduction. This will allow some modelling of efficient reading as well as an opportunity for the pupils to soak in the text before looking at it in more detail.

The next step is to look at smaller sections in more detail. Model this forensic approach for pupils to understand what being analytical looks like. Consider using the “Stop and Jot” approach (see further information) to encourage frequent reflection throughout the reading of a text rather than answering the questions at the end of a piece.

Each step of the process from getting the gist to identifying themes and finally detailed analysis should be punctuated with regular check-ins to ensure all pupils are on track. This approach, if rehearsed in class, can then be applied by the pupil in exam situations.

Scaffolding the way into a text rather than changing the text itself is a good technique for learners with literacy difficulties. It is important that all pupils are exposed to different types of text and that they vary in complexity. High expectations and aspirations should be maintained for all pupils.


As grade margins and word counts continue to increase in the SATs reading paper – from 1,855 words and a pass mark of 19 in 2014 to 2,168 words and a pass mark of 28 in 2019 (see analysis by Tim Roach in further information). It is imperative that pupils throughout key stage 2 are taught strategies to read at speed and navigate a variety of texts alongside comprehension and inference skills in order to handle the demands of the reading paper. These skills are also essential preparation for secondary school. 

  • Kelly Challis is a consultant teacher at the Driver Youth Trust. She has a specialist qualification in teaching learners with literacy difficulties and has worked in all phases of education as a teacher and SENCO.

Further information & resources

  • Jon Andrews’ analysis of the 2019 SATs scores in reading (Twitter conversation with @mrjpandrews): http://bit.ly/2YIFfjH
  • Stop and Jot (from www.theteachertoolkit.com): http://bit.ly/2YJJStH
  • Tim Roach’s analysis of word counts, pass marks and time limits for the SATs reading paper (Twitter, @MrTRoach): http://bit.ly/2OUqmX0
  • The Driver Youth Trust is a charity committed to improving the outcomes of young people who struggle with literacy:

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