Reading has a massive impact across all subjects – your ability to read is an essential part of your toolkit to learn, so we need to understand how well our students read and where the gaps lie.Nigel Ward, Chief Executive, Northern Schools Trust.
Nigel Ward, the Chief Executive of the Northern Schools Trust, explains why schools need to assess both decoding and comprehension, and why a robust intervention programme is just as important as a robust assessment programme.
Conversations about reading can often get distracted by a fixation on phonics, a SATs score and a belief that a child can read when they can actually only decode. Effective baselining of both decoding and reading comprehension skills at the start of Year 7 puts all of this into context.
For far too long, students have fallen through the cracks because schools thought they were a level 4c or a 5b. In reality, this didn’t tell us much – we didn’t know whether they got there easily or which areas they struggled with. With standardised tests, we don’t end up with an arbitrary score; the data contains decades’ worth of standardisation so we know it’s reliable. The other valuable component for MATs is neutrality as every test is marked online or externally.
We baseline for impact – we use the scores to find out where the students are in a detailed, forensic way. We also baseline so we can deliver a customised education for every child. Reading has a massive impact across all subjects – your ability to read is an essential part of your toolkit to learn, so we need to understand how well our students read and where the gaps lie.
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.
With standardised tests, we don’t end up with an arbitrary score; the data contains decades’ worth of standardisation so we know it’s reliable.