Words for All: Ideas and approaches for boosting literacy skills

Written by: Lisa Ling | Published:
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Whole Education's Words for All project is helping teachers to prioritise vocabulary development and reading in our secondary schools. Lisa Ling looks at some of the ideas and approaches that have proved successful...


Did you know that it is National Read a Book Day on September 6? This is obviously a good thing. Anything to promote reading, particularly among young people, has to be a positive.

We know that improving reading remains a key priority in all of our schools with increasing numbers of teenagers reading below their chorological age and unable to access the texts across the wide spectrum of curriculum areas they are studying (GL Assessment, 2021).

There is, though, some hopeful news. A National Literacy Trust review (Clark & Picton, 2020) has found positive evidence that young people enjoyed reading during the first Covid-19 lockdown last spring.

More than one-third of the eight to 18-year-olds surveyed were reading more and in different ways during lockdown, with an increase of reading fiction on screens and listening to audio books; more children were also enjoying reading (55.9 per cent).

However, this only tells part of the story. Pre-pandemic, the research found that only 47.8 per cent of children said they enjoyed reading – a 15-year low.

Furthermore, during lockdown many children experienced barriers to reading. The report states: “Barriers including a lack of access to books (with schools and libraries closed), a lack of quiet space at home, and a lack of school/peer support have negatively affected some children’s ability to read and their motivation to read for enjoyment.
Helping children sustain a love of reading beyond lockdown is crucial to supporting children’s literacy skills, wellbeing and life chances.”

In secondary schools, we need to act purposefully and positively to explicitly improve the reading skills and vocabulary available to all students, often working with the most vulnerable young people.

This is what has been happening in schools across the country via Whole Education’s Words for All programme. Co-created with schools in Bolton, this project aims to provide high-quality CPD on the latest, evidence-informed practices, peer learning and sharing, and support in managing transformational change now and in the long term.

The project is being supported by the likes of Alex Quigley (author of 2018’s Closing the Vocabulary Gap and 2020’s Closing the Reading Gap), David Didau (author of 2014’s The Secret of Literacy), and Mary Myatt (author of 2016’s Hopeful Schools).

We all know how very challenging the last two years have been for our leaders, teachers and young people. And yet, more than 40 schools have committed to improving their young people’s life chances by beginning the Words for All journey.

Below is just a small selection of examples of some of the best practice work being carried out by colleagues under this project.


Savio Salesian College, Sefton

The team at Savio took on the challenge of creating a culture of mastery level vocab learning to improve overall reading levels. Led by literacy co-ordinator Holly Greenwood and delivered by academic mentor Toni D’Arcy, the work focused on key stage 3 students who were withdrawn from English lessons to receive specialist vocab intervention.

The intervention group was given a weekly challenging word list of primarily Tier 2 vocabulary – words which they would come across during their mainstream lessons. Activities were driven by the Frayer model – a type of graphic organiser (see online) – to explore the words and commit them to the students’ long term memory.

When we visited the school in June, it was apparent that young people in the target group had benefitted from the work. Reading scores increased for all except one of the participants in the programme and students taking part demonstrated more attempts to use the key words in their work than their peers.

Significantly, the professional learning and confidence of the team to replicate and scale-up this work will mean a far greater impact across the school moving forward. They have also managed to share their findings with local peers.

Lessons learned:

  • Tweaking vocabulary use by way of synonyms, replacing known words with key words, or by insisting on the inclusion of these words made a noticeable difference to the quality of pupils’ written work.
  • Supporting vocabulary taught as part of the English curriculum meant that pupils’ vocabulary schemata was built through regular discussion, examples and application. The same principles of vocabulary exploration would be relevant in subjects across the curriculum.
  • It is cognitively challenging for pupils to digest advanced vocabulary, make use of it and recall it, especially when there are an extended number of words. However, phonemic awareness raised through vocabulary activities provided a platform to remind pupils of/reinforce skills as to how to read and consider spelling patterns.
  • The programme, although systematic, needs to be given more regular time to have a greater impact, either through small group extraction, or in class support.


Witton Park Academy, Blackburn

The Witton Park team was ambitious in its plans to work on both students’ vocab development alongside building on the school-wide aspiration to create a vibrant reading culture for all students.

Staff taking part in the programme embraced all aspects of the professional development offered and have successfully put into place learning, including ideas based on the Words for All webinars and the input of Alex Quigley and David Didau.

When we visited in June, it was evident that the school was prioritising language learning and reading for all students. The work of the Word Wizards in years 7 and 8 was exciting and empowering, helping students to increase their vocab and develop a curiosity to learn new words. The project centred on giving selected students responsibility of monitoring who uses the word of the week.

The team is now looking at developing this across the school in form time, with an emphasis on high-quality CPD to make sure that the delivery of vocab is a priority for all and is something that all colleagues feel comfortable with.

Lessons learned:

  • High-quality CPD is essential so that all staff feel confident using scaffolding approaches and using a unified language of instruction to teach vocab across disciplines.


Gillingham School, Dorset

The team at Gillingham School, led by SENCO Karen Sheldon, used the Words for All project to work with targeted students to develop a reading culture and a love of reading.

Students in the project groups from years 7 to 10 were taken out of English lessons to receive a twice-weekly reading session. During this period, students were read to for 30-minute slots.

A lot of care and attention was given to the choice of books and teachers were able to “make the case” for a book they particularly enjoyed. Making use of the Words for All CPD and advice from Mary Myatt regarding the choice of suitably challenging material, Ms Sheldon created a “how-to” guide and selected staff who were keen to be part of the reading aloud trial.

Students enjoyed being read aloud to and there was early evidence that this encouraged them to read more. Reading aloud was received positively by students of all ages and has also proved to be a way to engage students positively with wider school-work.

Lessons learned:

  • It was beneficial to spend time building a good relationship between the teacher and the student through the reading sessions. One “reading mentor” (a teacher) commented that she “found it so relaxing and enjoyable and this transferred to the students too”.
  • Recorded CPD was a massive positive and has enabled learning to be cascaded across the school in preparation for reading aloud to be a whole-school approach next year, with sessions to be led also by teaching assistants and sixth form students with targeted intervention groups.
  • Lisa Ling is director of secondaries at Whole Education. Prior to this, she worked in secondary schools for 21 years, first as an English teacher and then for 13 years as a senior leader and vice-principal. Visit www.wholeeducation.org/author/lisa-ling/


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