At the North Liverpool Academy, a school that welcomes in over 250 students each year, we are looking again at how we baseline reading skills so we can make the biggest difference. We have used the New Group Reading Test (NGRT) for many years. It has a good range, which is important for us as our students arrive in Year 7 with a reading age from 6 years upwards. The digital version of the assessment has taken it into a new era – both from an efficiency point of view and because the questions adapt to the students’ reading ability, which means that the students with lower reading skills find the assessment accessible and therefore non-threatening.
For us, it’s often the case that students can decode well but simply don’t understand what the words actually mean. Without a doubt, the elephant in the room is comprehension. If a child can decode to an extent, that develops confidence – but this confidence is easily shattered quite quickly when they enter secondary school.
We have looked carefully at how we can improve our students’ comprehension skills and started by reviewing all of the books we used in our interventions. During the process, we were surprised that too many interventions were largely left to chance, and that a number of the books were too long and too hard.
Choosing the right books is critical to getting students to love reading so we created a reading schematic that is used with all students as soon as they have taken NGRT. We have hand selected all of the texts and we provide teachers with a guide for each book, outlining the words they need to focus on and discuss. Then, we get the experience right for the students – setting aside quiet spaces for reading, for example, rather than loud, bustling classrooms.
We believe that the standardisation of the intervention is as important as the standardisation of the assessment. You get these wonderfully detailed standardised assessments but unless you’re meticulous about the interventions you use, you won’t achieve maximum impact.
We need to see if our interventions are working so we use NGRT every September and retest again every March/April. Are they confident with using new words? How is their comprehension developing? What is it about their reading that needs work? Importantly, we also need to know if they have started to love reading.
The next stage is to take the information about students’ reading into all subjects in Year 7, and then to roll this out across the Trust. Some subject teachers were unaware that the textbooks, worksheets and online resources they were giving to their students were too difficult for their level of reading comprehension, so we’re working with each subject department to make sure the language levels are pitched right.
We need to get to the point where we look at reading ages in all subjects; it can’t just be the focus of the English department. We’ll make the greatest gains when we all work together.