Research shows half of poor readers receive no support at secondary school

Having just read Vision for Literacy, 2025, I feel compelled to share a thought about why struggling readers are not being adequately supported during the secondary phase. A couple of years ago, Margaret Snowling’s team at York University published a study which highlights the scale of this problem:

The Rate and Identification of Reading Difficulties in Secondary School Pupils in England.

The research demonstrates that less than half of ‘poor readers’ (reading age under 8) are identified on secondary SEN registers – with the result that they fall further behind and leave school functionally illiterate, having received no help.

I have a theory about the reason for this under-identification of reading difficulty, supported by six years of data collected at my school. What our data shows us is that the SAT reading level is in reality no reliable indicator of reading ability. In other words, transferring to secondary school with the expected level 4b does not mean that you are a competent reader.

I work at an all ability high school in a selective area. We screen reading ages every year, less than 10% of the Year 7 cohort comes to us with a reading level 3 or below, yet this year – which is typical – around 30% of students are currently following a reading intervention, meaning their reading age is below 9.6 (the point at which we intervene). By the time they reach Year 9, only a small proportion of these students will remain on the SEN register, because most respond to intervention and do catch up, but this is not without much more support than is generally available for struggling readers within the secondary phase: in a school of just 650 students, we have 19 TAs – all trained in delivering a range of reading interventions to groups and individuals.

I am very happy to discuss the range of programmes we use, with evidence of their impact, in a future post. (I would also be very keen to counter the Sutton Trust finding that TAs do not represent value for money in relation to closing the gap – properly trained, their impact can be transformational.) This post, though, aims merely to flag up what I feel is a major issue – that achieving the ‘expected level 4b’ does not mean that reading age and chronological age are close, necessarily – the discrepancy can be very significant indeed and this, I am suggesting, has contributed to the alarming findings highlighted in Snowling’s study.

Published by Mary Meredith

Working in schools for over 20 years, I've been a Head of English, a SENCO and a deputy headteacher. I'm currently Head of Inclusion at Lincolnshire County Council. I am a sucker for the underdog. Always have been, always will be.

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