5 Tips for Developing Reading Fluency in Secondary Schools

a girl sat in a library reading a book

Reading fluency is a topic of much discussion in education circles once again, and for good reason! Reading is arguably the most important subject taught at school. Firstly, because it is the key for accessing the curriculum outside of the English classroom and secondly because it is a truly essential life skill.

Reading fluency is needed to access all aspects of the curriculum. A learner simply cannot excel without it. To do well in biology they will need to understand words like photosynthesis and phototropic when reading their textbook. In geography they will be confronted with words like asthenosphere and metamorphic. If any of those words come up on an exam paper and they can’t fluently read them, suddenly it doesn’t matter how much they know about that subject. If they can’t comprehend the question, they cannot answer it.

But education is about a lot more than exam results. Fundamentally we’re preparing young people for life as an adult, and adult life requires reading fluency. Ask yourself when was the last time you used your reading skills? With the exception of reading this sentence, odds are it was at least in the last half hour. Shockingly though the National Literacy Trust report 16.4% of adults in England are functionally illiterate. This needs to be addressed before learners become adults because whether it’s your latest household bill, the bus timetable you use to get to work or the story book you read to your child before bed, we all use reading every single day.

We have spoken about reading fluency before in our blog “What is Reading Fluency and How Do We Achieve it?” where we explain how the overall skill of fluency is built up of smaller skills such as prosody, automaticity, and comprehension. We also defined the context of reading fluency regarding its place as one of the pillars of reading. But we didn’t touch on the pressing issue of getting specifically secondary school students reading fluently.

Considering the importance of reading fluency, we can see how imperative it is for learners to becoming fluent readers in secondary school if they aren’t already. Because the curriculum doesn’t wait, exams don’t either and for secondary school students' adult life is fast approaching. It’s crucial that struggling readers in secondary school are set on the right path to reading fluency and we’re here to help with our 5 tips to develop reading fluency in secondary school.

1. Change the Pedagogy

They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. That rings true in education. If learners have got all the way to secondary school without becoming fluent readers perhaps a change in the way they’re being taught reading is required.

Education is always changing. The BBC published an article noting how much education has changed in the UK to mark the 60th anniversary of the 1944 education act coming into law. These changes included dividing schools into primary and secondary education, raising the leaving age to 16 and the ending of corporal punishment. Changes that we can all agree were for the better. It’s been another 10 years since that article was published and education in the UK will look a lot different again, even in that relatively short space of time.

The point being evolution isn’t something to be shied away from. In fact, it should be encouraged. Especially in areas of education that aren’t as effective as they could be. So, if your current teaching methods aren’t getting secondary school learners reading fluently then it can’t hurt to try something new and it may be good to take learners out of the classroom for targeted reading intervention.

As stated, the curriculum won’t change, and reading is required to access the entire curriculum. So, if a learner cannot access the curriculum, removing them to focus on reading shouldn’t result in any lost learning time.

Focus on what you can change and that’s how reading fluency is developed. A different approach can take the form of an intervention such as Lexonik Advance or even introducing ways to gamify learning like our “Odd One Out Challenge” which is designed to test comprehension of words and affixes.

However, change shouldn’t be made for the sake of it. It’s important to think about what you’re already doing and consider why it isn’t working. Are the methods engaging enough? Are you being provided with the right resources to improve fluency? Are you and other educators at your establishment being provided with the right training to tackle reading issues at secondary school levels? Once you’ve answered these questions, you’re on your way to effective change and improving reading fluency in your secondary school learners.

2. Empathise with your Learner's Situation

As an educator, empathy is no doubt an often-used tool in your arsenal and it’s one that will come in handy when tackling reading fluency at secondary level. Reading is seen as the domain of primary institutions, despite the numerous amounts of research and opinion to the contrary.

Alex Quigley writes in TES that “Reading fluency matters more to older students” and the EEF (Education Endowment Foundation) sees an emphasis on reading fluency as a necessity due to the different demands of the secondary curriculum:

“Reading a range of academic subject texts, which are more technical than those encountered in primary school, can be a daunting prospect. Additionally, they’re faced with the increasing language demands of the secondary curriculum and must adjust to being taught by a range of teachers, many of whom may not be specifically trained in the literacy demands of their subject.”

Of course, primary schools have a role to play in developing reading. But it is not their sole responsibility. However, there is still a stigma about not being able to read fluently in secondary school and learners know it.

Learners in secondary can often be sensitive or embarrassed about their reading ability. Shrinking into their chairs every time a book is pulled from the shelf, pleading silently that the teacher doesn’t call on them to read a chapter. It’s a horrible situation for anyone to be in, let alone a child.

Because of this it’s vital that as and when learners are withdrawn, for any kind of reading intervention, it’s done delicately. Learners will not engage with the intervention otherwise. The type of intervention you choose is an important decision; an age appropriate and unpatronising intervention must be selected. For example, some learners will need to brush up on their phonics skills before they can make strides in reading. So, it can be tricky to find an intervention that doesn’t feature cartoon animals and extremely simple activities. That’s why when we designed our phonics intervention Lexonik Leap, we did it with older learners in mind. In fact, all our programmes feature age-appropriate resources as well as academic vocabulary and affixes with applications across the curriculum, so as not to make secondary learners who take part in the programme condescended.

Removing learners from the classroom can also be a minefield, as it can make them feel a sense of otherness when compared to their peers. That’s why when an institution invests in one of our intervention programmes, we recommend they start by using it with their higher achievers in literacy. This approach makes the intervention feel exclusive rather than exclusionary. We believe approaches like this is why in the National Literacy Trust’s Impact study into Lexonik Advance they found “The older the students were, the more they benefited from the programme.’

When putting learners through interventions the EEF recommends “Seeking to develop students feelings of self-efficacy” and these tips go a long way into doing that. They keep secondary students motivated, engaged and most importantly unpatronised throughout any reading intervention.

3. Deliver a Fast-Acting Literacy Intervention

We’ve established that before a learner can access the curriculum, they must first go through some kind of reading intervention and that may involve their removal from the classroom. Because of this, time is of the essence with your chosen intervention.

It’s important that they miss as little classroom learning as possible and that they can improve their reading quickly, so they can therefore access the curriculum they’re currently missing out on. An intervention needs to be a fire break, an “in case of emergency” approach. Therefore, it needs to be flexible enough to meet the learner at their point of need and cannot become part of the curriculum.

If an intervention goes on for months and months of the academic year, it’s no longer an intervention, it’s part of the curriculum. An intervention must come complete with a schedule, no two learners are the same and therefore not everyone will make progress at the same rate. But there at least needs to be a rough idea of how long progress should take, depending on the needs of the learner. Ratio gains are a good metric for this.

We have talked about assessing educational data when choosing an intervention before. But to reiterate, to work out ratio gains you take the number of months gained in an intervention and divide by the number of months the intervention would take. If you had an intervention that gave 14 months reading age gain across a year you would divide 14 by 12 to get a ratio gain of 1.2. We have a helpful guide to illustrate this is number actually means:

1-2 can be considered as modest.

2-3 can be considered as useful.

3-4 can be considered substantial.

4+ can be considered as remarkable.

This is why we devised our interventions with speed in mind. Lexonik Advance delivers an average reading age gain of 27 months in just 6 weeks and Lexonik Leap is designed with flexibility, as it can be delivered little and often in sessions as short as 15 mins if needs be, making it perfect for tutor time. You can have longer sessions for results sooner, it all depends on the needs of your cohort.

4. Assess your Learners Needs

When it comes to reading fluency, time is not just of the essence for learners but educators as well. When GL Assessment asked Alex Quigley about the importance of reading to the whole school curriculum he said:

“Too many secondary school teachers and leaders prove undertrained and simply too busy to support their students to best access the demands of the academic curriculum.”

Educators are busier than ever, and it can be hard to find the time to put an emphasis on reading fluency when there’s so many other things to cover in the academic year. That’s why any intervention has to work for educators as much as it does for the learners taking part. In our interventions, teacher training comes as part of the deal, taking only between 1-2 days. But more than that, a good reading intervention should give the educator age-appropriate resources and the materials to actively identify the deficits a learner might have, to make life easier for them as well.

We believe interventions should be a wholesale solution, something that can spot and solve problems in the same breath. In the EEFs Improving Literacy in Secondary Schools Report they state: “Effective intervention is impossible without assessment” and we couldn’t agree more. This is why Lexonik Advance comes with 180 WRAT5 (Wide Range Achievement Test) assessments per licence. As well as that Lexonik Leap comes with a 6-step diagnostic test. We do this so before the intervention even begins an educator can see exactly what they need to work on in their sessions. Going through the process of assessment, identification, and solution swiftly and efficiently for the educator.

5. Invest in Teacher Training and Professional Development

As an educator you’re under no illusions that a problem such as reading deficiencies will only be a problem with a single cohort. The benchmarks learners are expected to hit can be arbitrary. There will always be learners who go up to secondary or who are currently in secondary that struggle with reading. Therefore, any intervention you implement has to account for that.

If you have struggling readers an intervention can be selected, be used with that cohort, and even help fill in the gaps those learners might have. But what then, what about the next cohort of struggling readers? Or what if the educator who delivers that intervention leaves? A good reading intervention needs to be future proof.

At Lexonik we operate the “teach a man to fish” ideology with our interventions. Providing educators with training in how to deliver our interventions, that way educators can deliver to cohort after cohort. Having a potential impact on generations of learners rather than just a single group (as well as Lexonik Advance including a replacement after the first year if an educator departs).

We also encourage educators to share what they have learnt with their colleagues which as the National Literacy Trust’s Study into Lexonik Advance shows can have an amazing impact:

“More than 9 in 10 (educators surveyed) also felt their school was better equipped to support students’ reading overall after taking part in the programme and nearly 3 in 4 told us they had shared what they learned in the training with their colleagues, indicating that learning and strategies are being cascaded within the school, creating a potential for systematic change in teaching practice.”

That should be the ultimate goal for an intervention. To enact long lasting and systemic change across an institution that benefits not just a single group of learners, but every learner who walks through the door for generations to come.

That concludes our top 5 tips for developing reading fluency in secondary schools. We hope you found them useful and can implement a few of them in your school.

If you’re interested in improving fluency in your institution, we can help. Contact us here or send an email to [email protected]