Raising literacy in challenging contexts

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 for SecEd.

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. 

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.

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

Impact on pupils

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.

Read more to find out how they did it. Raising literacy in challenging contexts

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