Goals, catch-up and the HOW of multi-syllabic language

My last blog focused on reading fallback that has more to do with language than reading skills alone – multi-syllabic words as barriers to reading beyond a RA of about nine plus. Teachers and SENCOs are their wit’s end – just what are they to do? How can they best enable pupils who arrive in secondary school with RAs below expected levels to catch up – and fully access cross-curricular learning? I am currently supporting a school with this problem. 

Firstly, we identified sub-components which, when combined, enable reading to develop as a wholistic process, to support subject-based learning:

  1. PHONICS: from CVC, CVCC (milk), CCVC (stop), plus range of vowel digraphs, plural and tense endings (ing, es, ed) – leading to multi-syllabic, with prefixes/suffixes. Could use ‘nonsense’ words to teach (choiling, skomped) , as learning focus is on decoding – not meaning. 

2: BME structure and morphology: Can pupils decode single-syllable words as beginning, middle and end (t/ea/ch, cr/ou/ch) – knowing that vowel digraphs are mainly in the middle? Can they build on BME, to read longer words using morphology (units of meaning – crouching? Teachers?) – as fundamental building blocks for comprehension?

3: Sight words: instant, speedy recognition of common whole words (about 200)? 

4: Context cueing – for unfamiliar word meanings, and general understanding of text

5: Building up multi-syllabic words – function/meaning of different prefixes and suffixes

6: Learning subject vocabulary and concepts – as part of 5. 

7: Developing breadth and depth of comprehension.

HOW can these sub-components be developed through a combination of class-based learning with reading focus, plus with-drawn intervention? A thorny question, given the constraints of time. Some ideas:

  • Teach specific subject vocabulary, for each topic or lesson – read/spell
  • Link with general work on prefix/suffix, and building syllables
  • Teach prefix/suffix meanings, how they change word categories – eg. verb to noun (devote, devotion) – as part of morphology
  • How single-syllable parts build multi-syllabic wholes (con- tem-plate)
  • Same words having different meanings – reflect (think) or reflect from mirror? Reason why context cueing for comprehension is important. From sentence meaning – is it tear or tear? 
  • Use Cloze to develop context cue skills: with word selections to choose from at first, then, when pupils used to the idea – could insert own missing words in spaces
  • Identify and teach aspects of comprehension for each subject topic – main idea, details, cause/effect, sequence, comparison – using subject-based texts? 
  • Develop depth of comprehension (linked to aspects) – literal, inferential, evaluative 
  • Use fun activities where possible: snap, word jigsaws, bingo, word pairs, and working in pairs or groups (for Cloze work?) – visual and kinaesthetic.
  • How can technology, with other strategies/resources, operate together?

Reading must become a whole school issue, involving every member of staff, whatever their subject. When the whole school comes together to attack the problem, striving towards the same catch-up goals, using similar strategies – every single teacher and TA benefits from the collective endeavour. 

Who teaches what, from the above list of suggested skill areas? Maybe it’s for different schools to decide where, amongst the whole workforce, key skills lie, and how these can be utilised most effectively and efficiently to achieve success. 

But are mere goals ever enough, without clear strategies and determination to achieve them? About twenty years ago, the National Literacy Strategy set a goal for 80% of primary pupils to achieve Level 4, the expected standards at that time for 11 year olds. That goal has still not been met across the country – hence the huge proportion of pupils with lower than average literacy arriving in our secondary schools. A new goal, part of the proposed SEND Review, is for 90% of 11 year olds to reach the expected standards in Year 6 SATS by 2030.  

I hope the Government is now happily beavering away to set out strategies for enabling this new goal to be achieved. Meanwhile, what needs to happen during these intervening years for the thousands of young people already failed by the system, to catch-up? If this new Government goal IS reached (do we need a miracle?) secondary teachers can then get on with their main task – that of teaching the National Curriculum and enabling every child to succeed.  

In the meantime, I am enjoying working with staff in one disadvantaged school, helping students, not only to catch up with reading, but use these newly-acquired skills to fully access the NC. 

My next few blogs will report back on how we get on. 

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