Breaking down literacy barriers in year 7

Written by: Ruth Everett | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Some pupils in year 7 lack the required vocabulary and literacy skills. Ruth Everett looks at how we can support students for whom literacy difficulties are a barrier to accessing the curriculum

The initial thrill of the new academic year is waning, new books have names of students and teachers marked neatly upon them, and stiff shoes are becoming more comfortable. However, the harsh reality of the academic challenges of year 7 are beginning to kick in for some students.

This is secondary school with its academically rigorous curriculum, dominated by expository reading and non-fiction texts.

The latter demand a knowledge and understanding of 95 per cent of their vocabulary to be comfortably understood. In addition, year 7 students need to become accustomed to navigating the content and demands of up to six subjects a day, a skill that is known as code-switching.

After the huge excitement of being at “big school” comes the realisation of just how tough it is.

All students (and teachers!) hit a bit of a wall at this point. However, persistently disadvantaged students with low levels of literacy are even more jaded. Why?

These students have yet to acquire reading fluency and probably have far fewer than the minimum 25,000 words it is said are needed to cope with key stage 3. Indeed, recent research has revealed an increasing “word gap” in year 7 between these pupils and their peers and says that four in 10 pupils in year 7 are being held back by limited vocabulary (OUP, 2018; SecEd, 2018).

Therefore, they are far less likely to comfortably understand the content of the work in front of them. They are unable to read with expression, accuracy, intonation, taking note of punctuation and at a conversational pace. They are still decoding sounds and letters, meaning they are having to work doubly hard and regrettably using up valuable space in their working memory which then cannot be applied to understanding what it is they are reading.

When working alongside colleagues from all key stages and types, I repeatedly hear voiced the following frustration: “I can teach them my subject, but I haven’t got time with all the subject content we have to get through to teach them to read!” This is an understandable and real concern. The 2018 Oxford Language Report reflected this worry at all key stages (OUP, 2018).

Unfortunately, the stark reality is that unless students can read at around their chronological reading age, regardless of however effective and caring their teachers are, they will hit this language gap and struggle in year 7 and beyond.

This battle with literacy will often result in a retreat into themselves and disengagement or resorting to exhibiting poor behaviour to disguise their frustration and inability to access the curriculum.

So, what simple and evidence-based strategies can secondary teachers use, regardless of subject discipline, to enhance their students’ development of this essential comprehension and reading fluency skills? I could share many, but the following two are effective, tried and tested, evidence-based approaches that not only increase understanding but lead to students becoming more motivated and engaged.

Prior knowledge

First, make a real effort to activate your students’ prior knowledge of a topic before teaching it. If their interest is engaged before reading a challenging passage or listening to a difficult explanation, students are far more likely to be motivated by the content and subsequent delivery of the lesson.

For example, if starting a topic about volcanoes, first ask students about what they already know. You could then elicit a definition of what they think volcanoes are, followed by showing a short video clip of an eruption. This will not only pique their curiosity but will encourage them to feel that they can already access the topic. Having a sense of some ownership of the knowledge inevitably results in increased motivation and greater self-esteem.

Pre-teaching vocabulary

Second, plan to pre-teach key subject-specific vocabulary which would otherwise be a barrier to your students’ understanding of a topic. If a student is having to concentrate on understanding a significant number of difficult terms, particularly in a non-fiction text, their working memory will be taken up on decoding these so they will not be comprehending the passage.

For example, a text about the Black Death including the words “symptoms”, “bubonic”, “blistered” and “Medieval” will be extremely challenging to a student whose reading comprehension is poor.

Taking the time to read these aloud first, then explain and discuss them, perhaps using a Frayer model, will provide the student with greater insight into a topic and increase the chance of their being able to understand the content when they actually begin reading it.

The Frayer Model helps to organise word analysis and vocabulary building. It is a four-square model that prompts students to think about and describe the meaning of a word or concept. The four squares cover: defining the term, describing its essential characteristics, providing examples of the idea, and offering non-examples of the idea (for more, see online).


There are many other comprehension strategies that can be easily embedded into your teaching and which will help to increase reading fluency, therefore resulting in better understanding. A few more examples include regular questioning, summarisation, and prediction, to name just some. I might well cover some more in a future blog if readers are interested.
In the meantime, activating prior knowledge and pre-teaching “barrier words” are highly effective to give students from “word-poor” backgrounds immediate support and greater access to the content of your lessons.

  • Ruth Everett is a consultant teacher with the Driver Youth Trust, a charity committed to improving the outcomes of young people who struggle with literacy. Visit

Further information & resources

  • Why closing the word gap matters: Oxford Language Report, OUP, April 2018:
  • Four in 10 students in year 7 are being held back by limited vocabulary, SecEd, April 2018:
  • Typical speech and language development for school-age children: A checklist for school nurses (American), Merritt, 2016:


Please view our Terms and Conditions before leaving a comment.

Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Sign up SecEd Bulletin