The Trouble with Reading in Wales

The PISA results, the National Reading Tests and other data

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What schools and teachers should be doing to improve reading in Wales

It's been eight months since we wrote a blog about education in Wales. In that time the National Tests have been and gone and we've had the PISA results for tests taken by a random sample of 15 year old pupils across Wales in November 2015. The PISA scores were widely received as poor by the media and it is true to say that the progress Wales needs to make in order to close the gap with the other home countries, has not happened. Reading has remained relatively static since 2009, unlike Scotland who has seen a drop of 7 points. In fact, Wales has closed the gap with Scotland over the last 6 years from 69 points in 2009 to 40 points in 2015. (see figure 1 above). However, this is due to Scotland's rather dramatic decline rather than any significant improvement in Wales' performance. The differences and similarities between the two nations' results are of added importance when you consider Professor Donaldson's role in the development of both curricula.

So what can these figures tell us about reading in Wales and what steps do we need to take to ensure progress. We should pay heed to William W Watt's advice; "Do not put your faith in statistics until you have carefully considered what they do not say."

Since their inception in 2013 test results for the National Reading Tests have slowly improved going from 18.1% of pupils operating below average in 2013 to 13.3% of pupils in 2016 operating below average. On the surface it looks like an improving picture, but dig a little deeper and things are not quite as rosy. Whilst the number of pupils attaining the lowest standardised scores has been slowing decreasing, so has the rate of change. If you look at the difference between 2015 and 2016 there has been no demonstrable change. (see figures 2 and 3 below) It is this fact that should be of greatest concern to schools and teachers throughout Wales. The sharp increase we saw in results within the first two years of testing has disappeared and standards have stagnated, despite pupils taking the tests having had nearly four years of the Literacy Framework. So the question is what should we do now?

In our work with schools, especially around using data to inform planning, we have found that teachers are finding the key reading skills that the national test measures difficult to accurately define and even more difficult to progress. The language that the Literacy Framework uses is highly subjective and the resources provided by Welsh Government through the interactive Literacy Framework designed to set the standard are of poor quality, or in some cases, absent.

Teachers are struggling to pin down exactly what skill statements from RC4 - Inference and Deduction, mean in terms of teaching strategies, classroom activities and pupil work. This is no surprise when you see that the key phrase from the Year 7 statement is "reading between the lines" and Year 8, "layers of meaning". Our workshops have seen English specialists struggle to place these types of progression statements in the right order, let alone subject specialists teaching literacy as it appears in their specialism. What's needed as Hattie (see figure 4 below) advocates, is an accurate understanding of what a year's progress looks like, so that both pupils and teachers are clear when a year's progress has in fact been made. This understanding needs to be more than a rather woolly statement from the Literacy Framework, it needs to be an agreement of exactly what that looks like in pupil work.

Achieving real, rapid progress in reading comprehension comes from a clear, accurate understanding of where pupils actually are. It comes from classroom activities and teaching strategies at the real level of challenge each pupil needs, and this must be replicated across all subjects. For primary schools this is a relatively easy fix. All that needs to be done is that every teacher feeds into a evidence based exemplification process. It is with this in mind that we have created Diagnostic Resources (see figure 5 below) for key Literacy skills that clearly identify classroom activities designed to address exactly the skill statement they correspond to. Once the pupils have completed the specified activity, their work can be photographed and anonymously uploaded to a shared area. This shared evidence then allows staff to start the discussion of standards for each yearly statement against actual pupil work in line with the new Wales curriculum rather than NC Levels, which are a best fit process not designed to inform planning for progress and recognised by Welsh Government as having 'acknowledged weaknesses' (Note 1).

The actions required for secondary schools to achieve a whole school understanding of what one year's progress looks like, is a little more complex and if anything more pressing. Subject specialists have an implicit understanding of how reading comprehension works but little or no explicit understanding of how it should be taught. Indeed, if you ask many secondary English teachers how pupils learn to read and understand texts, their knowledge will be limited. So, our resources that set out exactly what to do to progress skills at each yearly step, enable subject specialists to plan with confidence and Literacy coordinators to know everyone is already singing from the same hymn sheet.

Finally to return to our original question, what schools should be doing to improve reading in Wales, the simple answer is ..... know where pupils' skills really are and create learning that moves those skills on. The more complicated answer is that every teacher and school needs to really understand what the skill statements from the Literacy Framework mean and be agreeing with their colleagues as to what progress looks like in pupils' books for each separate skill pathway.

For more information about how we can help you and your school put in place practical strategies to improve your pupils' reading contact us using the details below.

Note 1 - Successful Futures: Report on the Curriculum and Assessment Arrangements in Wales - Professor Graham Donaldson

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Figure 5 - Impact Diagnostic Resource for Reading Comprehension

A Little More About Us

Who are we? - We are Finola & Jane, Literacy & Numeracy specialists, with 35+ years of teaching, training & leadership experience between us.

Can you trust us? - We have both worked for Welsh Government supporting schools & senior leaders across Wales. We have held senior leadership posts, delivered support to strategic education advisers, and published curriculum support guidance with Oxford University Publishing...but if you need to know more visit our website for testimonials from schools we've worked with.

Why should you buy our support? - Put simply, because we believe in impact. We do exactly what our name suggests. Our school support is always bespoke, high quality and designed specifically for each school we work with. Our focus is on delivering measurable impact for pupils.