A Route to Readability Part 1

Having only been an English HoD for a year, I escaped the trauma of making judgements about the placement of students into GCSE tiers. A reflective over-thinker (who, I’ve been told, would take an hour to walk along a street as a toddler), I was spared the task of playing out scenarios in my head such as ‘… on a good day, with the wind blowing in the right direction, with a good text, and nice questions, John could get a C…’ We have a tendency to focus on what students can do, rather than what they do, consistently, do.

Cue the great GCSE reform and the entrance of the single tier and the accompanying relief at having one less thing to think about.  The updated information from Ofqual (March 2017) about GCSE reform states very clearly that ‘Exams can only be split into ‘foundation tier’ and ‘higher tier’ if one exam paper does not give all students the opportunity to show their knowledge and abilities.’ So, in a single tier English GCSE, it should follow that all students have this opportunity.

The single tier means that in a comprehensive school those who are within a fingertip of 8s & 9s are reading and responding to the same text as those who have an EOY11 FFT of 1 or 2. Whilst there have been reservations about single tier in English, as discussed in The Guardian GCSE Reform: Can one exam work for pupils of all abilities?  and in this 2013 document by Tim Oates, Tiering in GCSE , I am a supporter. I don’t want be the one to cap or jeopardise a student’s ability to to reach their potential. In my school, our new mixed ability groupings exemplify this core belief that there should be no ceiling on student progress and allow students wriggle room to grow, mature & develop between Y10 & Y11.

Taking away the tier and the sets does not mean, however, that the issue of accessibility has disappeared along with it.  Carrying out a Flesch-Kincaid readability grade level and reading ease test on the new AQA specification GCSEs (Specimen, SAMS & June 17 exam) highlights exactly what ‘opportunities for… all‘ really means. Overall, reading grade level ages range from 2.9 (Lang P1 SAMS 3) to 12 (Lang P1 Specimen, Lang P2 Specimen, Lang P2 SAMS 2). The average reading ease scores range from 92.4 – accessible and easy (Lang P1 SAMS 3) to 49.9 – college level reading, very difficult to access (Lang P2 SAMS 2). The complete table is at the end of this post, which may be useful when choosing texts to support or challenge your students.

In summary, averaging out the texts used by AQA in Lang P1 & 2 students are required to have a reading age of a Y9 student (with a RA of around 14.0). Any students below this may struggle to access the paper fully to formulate their response. In 5 Things every new (secondary) teacher should know about reading , David Didau quotes ED Hirsch Jr, who argues that “if decoding does not happen quickly, the decoded material will be forgotten before it is understood”. Add to this unfamiliar material, time pressure, poor grammatical control, poor handwriting and anxiety, and we have a recipe for disaster where students with lower reading ages are concerned.

To really understand the landscape of our cohort we began, at the end of term, a process of literacy profiling. Below are two examples from students, one in Y7 moving into Y8 in September, the other in Y10, moving into Y11. The profile captures an attitude to reading, a handwriting sample, evidence of grammatical control and will have the reading age (RA) and spelling age (SA) score added to the sheet. Every child from Y8-11 will be profiled in this way. It is relatively quick and is throwing up some interesting patterns, and anomalies among students. For example, a female student, X, in my class is incredibly hard working and a model student. On paper, it seems as if she should often achieve higher grades than she frequently does. After testing, she is shown to have a RA far below her chronological age and her reading statement describes exactly how hard she has to work to read effectively. I wonder if this has been picked up by any of her teachers before?

Literacy profilingThe profiles will be stored centrally and be accessible to all English teachers. The main and most important patterns will be shared with all staff. With this information, we will  run interventions according to need, using a variety of resources e.g.. Sarah Barker’s excellent approach to addressing handwriting. We will focus on a few key groups to track progress and evaluate.

It will also bring about greater collaboration between English, Inclusion and the Library, a multi-agency approach, if you like. The last thing I want to do is duplicate the good work being done elsewhere. However, the stakes have been raised in English, and across all subjects. It is very much our problem and we need to know what we are dealing with. In the 2013 Ofsted paper ‘Moving English Forward’  the introduction makes the bold and (I think) accurate statement that ‘there can be no more important subject than English in the school curriculum… Literacy skills are also crucial to pupils’ learning in other subjects across the curriculum.’

I know I will sleep much better at night having a realistic bottom-line understanding of our students (exactly how many students in Y11 are below the required RA for the material?)  rather than running through those ‘on a good day, with the wind blowing in the right direction…’ scenarios.

Reading Ages AQA

Reading Age scores of AQA papers.


Further Reading & Sources:

The Guardian,  GCSE Reform: Can one exam work for pupils of all abilities? 

Tiering in GCSE by Tim Oates

David Didau Learning Spy: 5 Things every (new) secondary teacher should know about reading

NASEN Supporting reading & literacy in Secondary Schools

Ofsted, Moving English Forward April 2013

Sarah Barker: The Stable Oyster @ladybarkbark Building Automaticity in Handwriting 


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