Raising literacy in challenging contexts

Written by: James O’Connell Lauder | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

With huge swathes of his key stage 3 children unable to read properly, James O’Connell Lauder was charged with addressing the problems. He explains how he tackled the challenge

Two years ago I started my first senior leadership role in a school in London. The school had recently converted to an academy after many years of unstable leadership, and during the conversion process more than half the staff had left the school, while the number of pupils had increased by 200.


I was assigned reading as my remit, with a brief to introduce school-wide reading time, and raise the reading age of all pupils.

Many of the pupils were from Gujarat in India, and had little or no prior formal education. In a lot of cases, the pupils’ families were illiterate, and did not speak any English. The challenge I faced was therefore threefold. How do you deal with a substantial increase in the number of illiterate children, in a school with high staff turnover, which did not have an established and systematic model for teaching children to read?

I had recently joined Ambition School Leadership’s Future Leaders programme, and one element of this was to design and implement a school improvement initiative. Unsurprisingly, I chose to devise an initiative that would help the school to raise the reading ages of our pupils.

Focused on reading

I spent my first half-term introducing morning reading time, conducting baseline reading assessments, chasing children around the building and figuring out where the mugs were kept.

In the run up to half-term, it became clear that a huge swathe of pupils in key stage 3 – about 120 children – were unable to read properly and drastic action was needed to deal with this situation.

Pupils in the lower sets were making very little progress across the curriculum. However, as much as I would have liked to change the entire curriculum for them, at that time we did not have an alternative curriculum or the skill-sets within the school to deliver one. Our teachers also had little appetite for yet another change.

In order to meet the scale of the challenges the school faced, we needed to use interventions that didn’t require much training and could generate results quickly.

Designing an effective programme under these constraints required me to think conceptually and pursue unorthodox and innovative solutions.

We had to create more time for our pupils to learn to read and so made the case to the principal in the first half-term that we needed an extended day for these pupils. She was supportive and agreed with the need for proposals.

At the same time, we needed to find a systematic and evidence-based programme to teach them to read and which did not require much training for staff; we already had allocated our most experienced staff for the teaching of reading in year 7.

A direct instruction programme for teaching reading was recommended to me by our multi-academy trust’s central team. It involved teachers reading from a script, and required little preparation or prior training compared to other approaches to teaching reading.

Rolling out the initiative

Introducing this programme for target groups in years 8 and 9 was easier said than done, and it took some work to extend the school day for the pupils who needed it. Understandably, as the nights were drawing in, teachers needed some persuasion to start work even earlier than they already did.

I negotiated with teachers individually to persuade them that the longer day was necessary but that it didn’t need to have a negative impact on their wellbeing.

I did this by making it clear that we would reduce workload elsewhere, and by being respectful of personal needs, such as when they needed to take their own children to school. My approach was to be flexible and goal-focused, while making it clear that the status quo was not an option.

This experience taught me that, regardless of how well-thought-through your solution to tackling underachievement is on paper, it is useless unless you can effectively lead others to implement it.

Having convinced our teachers to come in earlier to make more time for the pupils to read, I then faced the challenge of getting them to buy-in to the ethos and requirements of the direct instruction approach. This was a considerable task, as reading from a script is counter-intuitive for many teachers. At first many of them struggled to be consistent, and diluted lesson content with their own activities and approaches.

Having introduced the new system after the October half-term, by Christmas there were still significant inconsistencies in the teachers’ delivery. In order to address this, I arranged for extra training and modelling by members of the MAT’s central network team.

More importantly, I asked teachers to observe each other, mainly by video, and talk those observations through. This highlighted the champions who were adept at insisting on 100 per cent involvement of all pupils and giving pupils immediate feedback, and who were, as a consequence, seeing visible progress. This contributed immensely to making delivery more consistent.

Impact on pupils

The impact of the reading programme has been substantial. By the end of the year, only 12 pupils of the 120 key stage 3 children still had difficulty decoding fluently – these 12 were then assessed for SEND.

The action we took was not pretty in the sense that we were not able to, for example, read individually with each child. But, it was effective. One year 8 boy really struggled to read at the start of the year, despite having been in the country for more than a year already and having picked up a fair amount of English. By the end of the year he was happily reading Diary of a Wimpy Kid and moving up from the bottom set. Across the rest of the school, reading ages rose by an average of two years in a single year.

Clearly, there was a long way still to go. While we had worked hard to upskill teachers across the rest of the curriculum with literacy strategies and help with differentiation, the curriculum for pupils learning English needed a complete overhaul, my major project for the following year.

Lessons learned

The status quo is not an option. Everyone knew a big change was essential, but secondary schools – and secondary teachers – are not built to deliver the primary-style curriculum these pupils needed. Throughout, I had to get people on board by stressing the seriousness of the situation. In changing anything, establishing that “burning platform” is the necessary first step.

Consistency is crucial. Teachers were keen to help the children to learn to read but their initial scepticism about the direct instruction programme led to inconsistencies in delivering it. Establishing clear (and high) expectations was crucial to making it a success. Making it as easy as possible for teachers to deliver any changes will not only help in getting their buy-in, but will also lead to better results.

Driving change in difficult contexts

From this experience I learned a good working methodology that I think is readily applicable to solving difficult problems in challenging school contexts:

  • First, diagnose the problem.
  • Second, convince others of why this particular problem deserves their full attention.
  • Third, figure out how you can use the resources at hand to get the outcome you need. Necessity is the mother of innovation.
  • Fourth, in implementing your solution establish clear expectations and rigorously track consistency.
  • Last, track your results and intervene if it is not working.
  • James O’Connell Lauder is a graduate of Ambition School Leadership’s Future Leaders programme.

Ambition School Leadership

Ambition School Leadership is a charity that runs leadership development programmes in England to help school leaders create more impact in schools that serve disadvantaged children and their communities. Visit www.ambitionschoolleadership.org.uk


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