Tackling common reading barriers

Written by: Alex Quigley | Published:
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The reading gap is urgent and visible. Alex Quigley identifies some common barriers and offers advice on how we can tackle them in the classroom

All teachers recognise the importance and value of reading. It is the gateway to the school curriculum and those pupils that cannot read well go on to struggle academically.

Despite this shared understanding, many teachers are still not confident on how to teach reading and help struggling pupils overcome reading barriers.

The reading gap is urgent and visible to us all. The evidence is stark: in 2019, only 73 per cent of year 6 pupils reached “expected standard” for reading in the key stage 2 SATs. Fast forward a few years and you can see those very same pupils struggle in their GCSEs.

Though this evidence from national data is glaring and draws our concern, the more nuanced challenge for teachers is to understand the more specific reading barriers suffered by their pupils.

Poor comprehenders: A problem hidden in plain sight

For many teachers, they recognise a reading barrier when they sit alongside one of their pupils and read along. It may be very clear that young Claire or James cannot read fluently. Their stop-start reading is s...l...o...w and broken.

Quickly, teachers then invariably seek support for pupils like Claire and James. The SENCO may be called. Dyslexia – the most commonly known manifestation of a reading barrier – often elicits questions and diagnostic testing.

Poor comprehension is a more subtle, but equally debilitating reading barrier for many pupils. Indeed, as many as eight per cent of pupils are classed as “poor comprehenders” in academic research (Clarke et al).

So, what is the problem for poor comprehenders? They can decode words and lift them from the page. Crucially, though, they then fail to undertake the seeming natural processes that a typical reader undertakes.

The research shows that such pupils do not deploy key reading strategies such as noticing text structures, questioning the meaning of the text, or re-reading a text for meaning. In short, they are not active readers. It is not until their inadequate understanding is brought to our attention in classroom questioning do such gaps in their knowledge reveal themselves.

For students sitting and reading non-fiction text in year 6, or a geography textbook in year 10, they do not build a mental model of the text. As they do not visualise the full picture, they do not build their knowledge. Each time they read they suffer small losses. These losses add up to failure in school.

Such pupils require a broad and deep background knowledge to access their academic reading, but they also need to piece together that knowledge and be strategic, active readers. Problematically though, “poor comprehenders” do not do a good job of being active readers.

How can teachers help? We need to explicitly teach the background knowledge that underpins the text. Also, we need to be explicit about teaching and modelling “reduce/repair” reading strategies, such as:

  • Skimming (reading rapidly for a general overview of the text).
  • Scanning (reading rapidly to find specific information).
  • Slowing down.
  • Rereading.
  • Reading back through the text.
  • Checking the index, glossary or scaffolds.
  • Asking questions.
  • Summarising.
  • Noticing patterns and text structures.
  • Reading related texts.

Challenging texts and reading barriers

In the past few years, there has been a widespread recognition that the degree of inherent challenge in the curriculum has been raised. Much of that increased challenge has manifested itself in a greater background demand, which in turn is drawn from reading harder, more academic texts. Put simply, pupils must read more and read more difficult texts.

To understand reading barriers, teachers must concurrently recognise what makes reading hard. One factor that increases challenge is sentence length and grammatical complexity. Put simply, a sentence that has three clauses or more (quite common in academic texts for older pupils) is going to strain the working memory of most pupils.

When you wed together a range of complex vocabulary, with grammatical complexity, you begin to erect reading barriers for most pupils. Poor comprehenders are likely to fall at the earliest hurdle, but many more pupils will pull up short with extended texts.

We can helpfully break-down the complexity of the academic reading that is common in the classroom. I have defined and collated the features of academic texts that determine text difficulty in “The Arduous Eight”:

  1. Background knowledge – the sheer range of necessary knowledge and related ideas in a given passage or whole text.
  2. Range and complexity of vocabulary (including word length).
  3. Use of abstract imagery and metaphorical language.
  4. Sentence length and syntax.
  5. Narrative or whole-text structures.
  6. The generic elements of the text, e.g. a biographical account in history.
  7. The scaffolds present, or absent, in a given text, e.g. keyword glossary.
  8. Text length.

In every classroom, pupils are navigating the challenge of academic reading. By recognising, understanding and mediating text difficulty, we help mitigate reading barriers for our pupils.

Wave after wave of support

A well-established model for identifying and supporting pupils to overcome reading barriers is entitled the “response to intervention” model. The three-wave model is straightforward:

  • Wave 1: Whole-class reading approaches
  • Wave 2: Small-group interventions
  • Wave 3: Individual, intensive interventions.

Most teachers are directly involved in wave 1 teaching, which requires a sound knowledge of how pupils learn to read and go on to “read to learn”.

Wave 2 may involve both teachers and, commonly, teaching assistants. For more complex issues, including dyslexia or severe poor comprehension, wave 3 is essential. The complexity of each barrier needs to be matched by the quality of interventions.

For every teacher, focusing upon reading will lead to gains. By explicitly teaching reading strategies and concurrently developing our pupils’ background knowledge, we offer them the tools to access the school curriculum. It will be helpful to all pupils, harmful to none, as well as fundamental for some.

For all teachers, it is vital that they understand the “reading gap”, so that reading barriers become more visible. This will require no little training and school leadership support. Our pupils’ school success could depend upon it.

Further information

Clarke et al: Ameliorating children’s reading-comprehension difficulties: a randomized controlled trial, Psychological Science, August 2010: https://bit.ly/2yks5wH


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