Alex Quigley on literacy, independent reading and lockdown

18 Mar 2021
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We spoke to our Literacy for Learning conference keynote speaker and respected teacher and author Alex Quigley about his thoughts on everything from reading online to engaging colleagues across all subject areas in literacy.

How would you recommend creating a joined up approach to disciplinary literacy? Is there a danger that the creation of different subject-specific schema could lead to confusion over certain terms that are used across different subject areas?

I think there needs to be a careful balance of general literacy alongside disciplinary literacy. The are some general areas – such as vocabulary instruction, spelling strategies, or writing planning – that can begin with helpful general principles that apply broadly across subject areas. Then a follow up by reflecting upon the disciplinary aspects of such areas is necessary.

It is crucial to slowly and carefully establish disciplinary and recognise that most departments will need central support. It may be necessary to establish a shared language in the first instance, before eventually developing more specialist terminology etc. Slow and steady is necessary in most schools.

Will the cancellation of Y6 SATs make the transition to Y7 even harder for pupils and teachers?

I am not certain that the Y6 SATs cancellation will make a great difference to transition to Y7. Generally, many secondary schools do not use the SATs outcomes with great care, nor recognise the implications of SATs reading outcomes.

More broadly, I think this summer is a crucial time to get transition right. From assuring the contact and comfort needed of the pastoral transition, it is also the opportunity to secure some effective diagnostics assessments at the transition. It may include topics secured and insecure from year 5 and 6, to useful diagnostics about reading ability (e.g. fluency), and more.

Engaging colleagues in literacy

How do you engage colleagues who are weary of hearing about literacy and genuinely don't see the link to their subject?

It is an understandable position for some secondary colleagues to be suspicious of whole school literacy, given their experience of general approaches to literacy foisted upon them and their subject domain without an understanding of crucial subject differences.

In trying to engage our PE or maths teacher colleagues, we need to help them understand the issue in their subject. For example, it may be focusing in on reading mathematics word problems, or teaching maths vocabulary to address mathematical misconceptions. In PE, it may be a focus on quality academic talk and helping pupils writing about GCSE theory in clear, effective ways. There may be general whole school training, on say reading, or tackling the language of exam questions, but we must then allow discussion and adaptation to address subject specific needs.

Any suggestions about best ways to promote independent reading (reading for pleasure/at home)?

An essential starting point is reading access. We may audit the reading habits of our students, including their interests, before ensuring they have access to quality reading material. For many students, they need their reading choices to be supported, so a school library or knowledgeable teachers, steering to subject reading, can help a great deal.

Many schools understandably embed reading into regular parts of the school day, which builds the skill and will to read independently too. Once more, offering scaffolds for such approaches will matter (time, text choices, and apt links to curriculum). Motivation clearly matters more broadly too. We can promote independent reading by offering reading goals and ways of recording their progress.

No silver bullet

How do you encourage reluctant readers and those requiring literacy intervention to "buy in"? We do lots of explicit vocabulary, etymology and morphology teaching and find it is effective, but only if the students care enough to want to know what words mean! What about those who just switch off when it comes to being presented with written information?

I don’t think there is any silver bullet here. It is a slowly, effortful process that occurs over periods of terms and school years. We do know that reading success builds both increased confidence and engagement. If we work hard at their issues, then they have more mental bandwidth to begin to be curious too.

This is a sensitive, tricky process, where we need to pay heed for the needs of pupils. Persistence and the modelling of ‘word consciousness’ – interest and a curiosity for words’ – is the water that hollows out the stone over time. I have often been surprised when such pupils have had their interest caught. Building on those small successes, and referring back to them, can – step-by-step – keep building that interest, rooted in increased practice, which leads to increased competence and confidence.

Is there a limit to some of the good practice in remote classrooms with metacognitive approaches to reading compared to what is done in physical classroom?

I think, realistically, some of the modelling and questioning we undertake during reading or writing, are hard to replicate remotely. That doesn’t mean we cannot try and find success. With reading in different subjects, I see teachers using online polls and quizzes and carefully calibrating questioning, to prompt that important metacognitive approach to reading.

Other benefits to remote reading have become clear. For example, students can more easily record their insights and reflections of a text, and share it with their peers and the teacher. Lots of innovations in relation to reading have emerged over night. We should not forget though the challenges many students face reading remotely. We should reflect closely, post-lockdown, and what reading strategies we need to promote.

A varied, well-targeted approach

What is your opinion on teachers reading to students as a way to improve reading ages and enable reading for pleasure?

The teacher as reader can of course promote a love of reading when the teacher reads fluently and with rich expressiveness. Also, the teacher leading the reading can allow for more complex texts to be read with many classes.

I think we will improve reading gains and sustain reading for pleasure by promoting a varied reading diet in the classroom. Students may need to read independently in some cases, or read aloud to develop fluency at others, whilst the teacher does most of the reading in class when it comes to complex texts. A varied, well-targeted approach to reading is likely the best way to improve reading ability and an interest in reading.

In context of lockdown. Do you think students should limit the amount that they read online? Is it more important that we get students in front of paper texts or that we get them engaging with text online?

I am a great believer in the adage of ‘everything in moderation’! This likely also captures my views about reading online. Some evidence about reading informational texts indicates there is a subtle value of reading real texts over reading on screen. We should pay heed the differences between a textbook, and its structure, compared to website navigation.

A crucial point to make is that we are really most interested in reading quality texts. Quality trumps the medium. If students are writing about they read and acting as a skilled reader with texts on screen, that trumps loose reading of real texts.

Is it worth buying in standardised reading tests? How can we make the data relevant to our strategy in terms of next steps?

Standardised reading age tests are really valuable in giving us a broad picture of reading attainment – against valid, national samples. A bit like GCSE exam outcomes however, they don’t offer us a lot of relevant information in terms of what to teach next. For information about what and how to teach next, we likely need diagnostic assessments.

Diagnostic assessment can take many forms. For example, quizzes on texts read, can offer a window into reading comprehension, and what may need to be taught next. You can also zoom in on aspects of reading such as vocabulary knowledge and fluency. By focusing on reading fluency, including analysing words per minute (WPM) or fluency more broadly (such as Rasinski’s ‘Multi-dimensional Fluency Scale), you can make teaching choices about how to read in class and what pupils may need additional supports.

Overall, diagnostics assessments need to be accessible and manageable for teachers. A small number of reading comprehension questions, or even a single multiple-choice question, can offer us important information on next steps. The standardised reading score, by contrast helps us identify what pupils may be a little behind typical age related norms and that can offer us crucial information for interventions.

Effective practices

Is the EEF planning to support more research into effective practices for the teaching of disciplinary writing in UK?

Our guidance report development is a constant process, so we update the guidance when there is enough evidence to make new, or altered, recommendations. We are constantly scanning the best available evidence that attend our recommendations. There is, at this time, not enough focus in this area – which we hope will change in future.

Additionally, we do devise tools to go alongside our guidance reports. It may be, if there is interest from enough teachers, that we develop more tools in this area. You can find our guidance and the initial tools to run along with it.