A whole-school guided reading programme

Written by: Auveen Twomey | Published:
Image: iStock

Deputy headteacher Auveen Twomey describes her work to introduce a whole-school guided reading programme to raise standards of literacy, boost reading for pleasure and raise pupil outcomes

In the summer of 2014, during my second year at my current school, I became vice-principal and joined Future Leaders, a leadership development programme for aspiring heads.

As part of Future Leaders, I was required to plan and deliver a school improvement project, called an “Impact Initiative” that would both improve student achievement and develop my leadership skills. However, despite putting significant effort into planning a reading initiative, I found that schools are complicated places to work.

I was responsible for raising standards in phonics, reading and writing. The objective of my impact initiative was to make significant improvements to student achievement and increase the proportion of children meeting the government’s new end-of-year expectation measures in English.

Our school is situated in the middle of a housing estate in West Yorkshire and we serve a community that is predominantly White British. More than 50 per cent of our pupils are eligible for free school meals and more than 20 per cent are on the SEND register. While we had managed behaviour well, we had much work to do on developing appropriate learning behaviours; pupils were compliant but too many were disengaged from learning.

When I first started the atmosphere was positive. We had recently become an academy and our data had shown improvements over the previous three years, although there was still a steep hill to climb.

However, things were set to change quite dramatically. Between 2013 and the present day the academy has had two substantive principals and two interim principals, all of whom had very different approaches. At the start of the academic year in 2014 we had 100 per cent permanent teaching staff but by January 2015 this had fallen to 43 per cent. These changes created much instability and drastically affected our ability to create consistency and sustainable improvement.

I had begun working on my impact initiative optimistically, analysing data for English achievement and identifying how best I could facilitate the raising of standards. The goal was to accelerate progress and increase attainment in reading across the school by July 2015 and achieve the government’s new target of 85 per cent of pupils meeting the end-of-year expectations.

Therefore my target was to have 85 per cent of pupils in years 1, 3, and 5 and 80 per cent of pupils in year 4 meet end-of-year expectations from the new curriculum (I excluded years 2 and 6 because they were still being tested on the old curriculum.) I established a baseline using the end-of-year outcomes for reading in July 2014 (based on the old curriculum).

  • Year 6: 4C-plus 81 per cent; 4B-plus 58 per cent.
  • Year 5: 3A-plus 58 per cent.
  • Year 4: 3B-plus 71 per cent.
  • Year 3: 3C-plus 63 per cent.
  • Year 2: 2B-plus 80 per cent.
  • Year 1: 1A-plus 77 per cent.

My first course of action was to establish a consistent whole-school approach to raising standards. After working alongside a consultant, I introduced a whole-school guided reading programme that linked directly to the new national curriculum.

Our previous system had used colour-coded texts so that students at different levels would read different colours. However, the lower level texts were not particularly inspiring and so weren’t engaging students with their learning. I wanted to give every child the opportunity to read quality books, opening up the experiences of those lower achieving students.

The new system introduced a carousel of five activities for each week that allowed the whole class to engage with the same text but in a way that was tailored to their needs. Each class was divided into at least five groups, according to their reading ability, and a set of activities planned for each group. These activities were then organised over the course of the next five days.

Every cycle of activity began with pre-reading; the more advanced students would read a chapter or part of a text independently, while the students with lower reading abilities were read to directly. It means the guided reading activity carousel looked like this:

  • Day 1: pre-reading – the pupils or adult read the given text and were given a specific objective on which to focus.
  • Day 2: teacher-led discussion – this group would then participate in a teacher-led discussion about the text.
  • Day 3: student activity based on previous day’s discussion – students would complete a new activity based on the text and building on the discussion.
  • Day 4: independent reading – the aim is to help students develop a love of reading, so they are able to choose want they to read.
  • Day 5: student activity – students explore another activity connected to the main text.

Each group would be at a different stage of the cycle on the same day and the activity carousel would span across the weeks/half-term. This gave a really useful structure to teachers’ planning and assessment, allowing them to compare student achievement and track progress consistently using a planning and evaluation document I created.

The aim was to allow pupils to engage with a range of texts and resources, while staff used the tools I put in place to assess their pupils’ attainment against the new reading curriculum objectives. Those who were still struggling with the basic decoding aspects of reading still received additional support but this strategy meant they were not missing out on the pleasures of thinking and talking about books.

To allow for the accurate monitoring and evaluation of the impact of the guided reading programme, I had to consider how to assess pupil progress and attainment bearing in mind the recent changes to assessment.

At the beginning of the academic year 2014/15 we had decided to continue to assess pupils on the old curriculum levels, as there was a lack of guidance on how to actually assess. However, this caused too much confusion and I met with colleagues from within the Trust who had devised a new assessment tool. I adapted this for our school and while the climate of uncertainty around assessment continued, it did provide our staff with guidelines on how to monitor pupils’ progress and attainment.

However, the change from levels to end-of-year expectations caused issues in ensuring accurate measures. Using a Future Leaders training session and reading other literature on assessing without levels, I reviewed my original baseline data and matched this to the new curriculum end-of-year expectations. The results were disappointing.

More than 50 per cent of pupils in each year group were starting the new academic year well below the new attainment standards expected from the new curriculum. It would be a major challenge to help our pupils catch up quickly. The revised end-of-year outcomes for reading, based on the new curriculum end-of-year expectations, were:

  • Current year 6 previously year 5: 4C-plus 46 per cent.
  • Current year 5 previously year 4: 3A-plus 50 per cent.
  • Current year 4 previously year 3: 3B-plus 38 per cent.
  • Current year 3 previously year 2: 2A-plus 48 per cent.
  • Current year 2 previously year 1: 2C-plus 7 per cent.

I believe the procedures put in place to raise standards in reading were well-planned and researched and could have raised standards in other circumstances. However, the staff turnover meant that only three classes had the same member of staff for the entire academic year. As a result, the strategy was not consistently followed and children’s progress in reading was limited. The goals I set in September were not reached.

As I reflect on the work over that year, I know that it was significantly affected by the turbulent staffing structure and the decline in student behaviour that followed it. However, I also believe that the strategies and procedures I put in place probably prevented an even more drastic decline. This was validated by the second interim principal, who has more than 30 years’ experience as a principal, and it was excellent to find that the majority of our year 4s were at their expected reading age or above in September 2015.

This academic year, as I did last year, I have used our staff’s skills in improving pupils’ reading skills to set a target to focus on improving the delivery of guided reading and develop pupils’ skills and knowledge in reading and comprehension. During this work I have referred to Ofsted’s 2010 publication, Reading by Six: How the best schools do it, and have outlined the key points to be addressed by us as an academy.

The five key principles in Reading by Six are:

  1. Systematic phonics to help children who are trying to read.
  2. Context and experiences to broaden vocabulary and develop comprehension.
  3. Knowledge of high-frequency words.
  4. Knowledge of grammar and syntax.
  5. Ability and confidence to “have a go” in decoding words.

When I looked at raising standards in reading I returned to the fact that the ability to read not only brings pleasure and enjoyment but also opens doors to all areas of the curriculum; research shows that pupils who fall behind in reading and writing at primary school will struggle to achieve in secondary school and beyond.

“Sweating the small stuff” and forward planning are essential in preventing situations that could potentially hinder the future prospects for our pupils. After the challenges we faced that academic year, I now have a stronger belief in my own abilities to analyse problems and create constructive and purposeful solutions which will, in the future, allow me to lead a team of like-minded people to give our pupils the opportunities they so deserve. I have also “relearned” that change is normal, and that we must be ready to handle it!

  • Auveen Twomey is deputy headteacher of a primary school in Yorkshire.

Future Leaders

Future Leaders is a leadership development programme for aspiring headteachers of challenging schools. To apply or nominate, visit www.future-leaders.org.uk. Future Leaders is also recruiting for Talented Leaders, a programme to place exceptional school leaders into headship roles in the areas that need them most.

Reading by Six

Reading by Six: How the best schools do it, Ofsted, November 2010: http://bit.ly/24ipUgI

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