Setting the context for reading support
Learning support teachers play a pivotal role in providing reading support in secondary schools. They usually work with pupils who have been identified as having special educational needs, and much of the funding for their jobs comes into the school via the special needs budget. Special Education Needs pupils often have a multiplicity of learning, emotional and behaviour problems, but for many the underlying issue is that poor reading skills are making it hard for them to access the curriculum.
Low-aged readers: defining the challenges
Despite the rigorous attempts of the National Literacy Strategy to improve reading in primary schools, a significant number of children enter secondary school with reading ages well below their chronological norm. This has shown up statistically with the results at the end of Key Stage Two, where at least 17 per cent of pupils are failing to score National Curriculum level four in their reading. Many of these pupils continue to have reading ages between seven and ten when they are aged twelve to sixteen. It is not uncommon to find particularly high concentrations of low-aged readers in inner-city secondaries, with 50 per cent of Year 7 intakes reading at two years and more below their chronological age. Of this underachieving group the vast majority are boys. There are new opportunities for reading recovery work offered by the extension of the National Literacy Strategy into secondary schools. The most important aspect of the National Literacy initiatives at Key Stage Three, in this regard, is the proposed structure for English lessons. This format suggests a twenty-minute slot in the middle of a lesson, where pupils divide up into groups, giving the class teacher, and any support teachers in the room, explicit time to work with readers at various levels. This process has been named ‘Guided Reading’. The recommendation is that this time should be used to help low-aged readers to infer and deduce meaning from text. But this book demonstrates how this twenty minutes can go a lot further—creating a regular opportunity for a learning support teacher to help readers decode unfamiliar words in a text and work on improving their phonic skills, their store of sight vocabulary and their emotional attitude towards reading.
The emotional dimension
The majority of the pupils who work with learning support teachers at secondary school have already experienced many years of failure and frustration at their primaries. For pupils already burdened with negative emotions about their poor reading skills by the time they are eleven, the onset of teenage years is likely only to exacerbate these feeling of low self-esteem.
Such pupils find themselves in a secondary school system which is organized very differently from the primary system. The one class teacher is replaced with ten subject specialists, and the one classroom replaced with up to six room changes a day. This creates a major challenge to all pupils, let alone those who have pronounced reading difficulties. In this new fast-paced environment it’s not surprising that struggling pupils can lose their motivation to improve their reading skills and instead devote their energies to hiding their problem.
Dyslexia and specific learning difficulty
Most of the low-aged readers in secondary school will have some kind of learning difficulty, often labelled dyslexia. Defining dyslexia always creates controversy amongst practitioners and researchers, and the focus of that debate is beyond the scope of this book. In simple terms, dyslexia can be defined literally as ‘difficulty with words’. In practice, secondary school learning support staff will find themselves working with pupils who have significant literacy difficulties, the most common being problems with reading, writing and spelling. Some pupils can decode words but don’t understand their meaning, and others can’t decode but have good language awareness. Some read well but can’t write or spell efficiently. It is common to find a combination of all these difficulties. Our target group of pupils will have fallen significantly behind their classmates and their lack of progress with the printed word will have become persistent and ingrained.
The role of a learning support teacher
There are a number of ways for learning support teaehers to work with low-aged readers in this environment. Two specific routes usually present themselves:
- one-to-one or small-group work in the mainstream class
- one-to-one or small-group work through withdrawal from mainstream class.
The effectiveness of these methods of working depends on a number of institutional factors that vary from one secondary school to another:
- the school’s overall ethos in learning support and literacy catch-up work
- the attitude of subject teachers to incorporating low-level readers into their lessons
- the skill and knowledge that the learning support teacher brings to assessing pupils with reading difficulty and then devising a programme of recovery work which will make a big difference to their reading competency