Linda Evans checks out a newly launched reading intervention program that could prove to be a valuable resource in schools
All schools have weak readers and invariably there will be a range of interventions to help them develop the literacy skills they need to access the curriculum and reach their potential. In UK mainstream schools, the design and planning of such interventions is often the special educational needs co-ordinator’s (SENCO) responsibility and this can be a time consuming process, especially when monitoring and evaluation are added to the task.
Reading: the next steps – supporting higher standards in schools reports on the improvement in reading standards in English schools over the last few years and sets out plans for supporting further progress. The report concedes however, that there is still a long way to go in achieving high standards of literacy ‘across the board’.
Little wonder then that senior staff and SENCOs frequently turn to published schemes and resources to help them in their endeavours. In England the Pupil Premium has provided many schools with a new incentive to look at what is available and how it can be used to boost pupils’ interest and achievement. With Pupil Premium funding expected to reach £8.8 billion by 2015-16 these schemes are something tangible that parents and governors can see for their money.
The newest programs for weak readers are well thought out and carefully structured, providing a valuable framework for SENCOs, support staff and teaching assistants (TAs) to use, amending and personalising for individuals as the need arises. Nowadays, these all include technological components: talking books, interactive texts and, of course, synthetic phonics training.
At last month’s Education Show, I spent some time taking a look at what’s on offer. I once worked in a Learning Support Service with a colleague who felt that all that was really needed to teach was ‘a good teacher and a piece of chalk’; she believed that everything else was ‘a luxury’. But I have always believed that good quality resources can be invaluable in motivating learners, especially those who need lots of practice and overlearning.
Anything which is new and has ‘novelty value’ is usually attractive to youngsters, especially if it incorporates technology! Moreover, new resources can enthuse teachers and support assistants too – providing new impetus for intervention work and encouraging new approaches. One of the newest reading resources showcased at the Education Show is ReadingWise English, and I met with developer Sam Milson and CEO Jamie Fries to learn more about it.
What is it?
ReadingWise is an online intervention program consisting of five modules which can be used individually or in any combination.
- Comprehension (still being developed),
- Training for teachers/TAs (still being developed),
- Dashboard: detailed monitoring of a learner ’s progress.
Based on a literacy program first developed in India in 2006, the program allows pupils to work independently at their own level, with a teacher or TA supervising up to 10 learners at a time. It is not slavishly allied to the ‘Letters and Sounds’ system (and in fact doesn’t use the ‘pure sounds’ enunciation) but is promoted as being ‘complementary’ to it.
Who is it for?
The program is marketed as suitable for learners of any age who need extra help with reading, from children in Y2 (six to seven years of age in England and Wales) to adults. It is reported to have been effective in trials with learners who have significant learning difficulties, and with some who are just below average – with claims of good results in both cases.
Designed to be effective with such a wide target group, the format and graphics are not particularly young-child orientated: this will be welcomed by practitioners working with older pupils who often find that resources at the right cognitive level are not always ‘age-appropriate’ in content and style. The ‘rewards’ for correct answers for example, include applause and cheering – something that has universal appeal.
How does it work?
The ReadingWise program consists of hundreds of short lessons accessed via computer or tablet, enabling each user to work at his or her own level and at their own speed. This can be as basic as letter/sound recognition or more advanced reading of multisyllabic words. Learners are tested with sight-to-sound and sound-to-sight quizzes and are automatically moved on through the program in line with their progress.
Success is guaranteed, as incorrect responses are met with a ‘try again’ prompt and learners simply keep going until they get it right. This can be a very positive experience for many youngsters with SEN, removing stress and raising self-esteem. Accuracy and speed are recorded for teachers to monitor progress via the Dashboard, both during a session, to be aware of any learners who need help, and afterwards to inform planning and to facilitate evaluation.
The ‘bite-size’ lessons have been designed to fit with what we know about attention span and memory and each session might last for 20-30 minutes. The ‘little and often’ approach is advocated, ideally with daily sessions. The program also includes kinaesthetic elements such as card games and using Plasticine for modelling, and encourages learners to identify and use a wide variety of strategies to help them remember, eg ‘say it, act it, put it in a sentence, write it in the air’.
What does it cost?
A school licence costs from £100 per learner per annum. The program can also be accessed by individual learners at home for additional practice and parental involvement.
Is it effective?
The claims are impressive: an improvement of 9.7 months in Reading Age after completion of 20 hours on the program. (This roughly equates to daily 20-min sessions over one term.) Trials have been overseen by the University of Nottingham and several published case studies testify to the effectiveness of ReadingWise with pupils in mainstream primary and secondary schools, and in special schools. Accompanying the improvement in reading age, there is also evidence of improvement in behaviour as youngsters grow in confidence and begin to experience success. An illuminative study by Cambridge University is expected to be published soon.
Is it worth considering?
ReadingWise English could be a valuable part of your school’s provision for struggling readers for several reasons:
- It has the benefit of delivery via computer: most youngsters enjoy using a computer much more than pencil and paper activities. (The program has proved to be particularly popular with some pupils on the autistic spectrum as it avoids sensory overload, provides immediate feedback and allows them to work in their own ‘bubble’.)
- It is suitable for learners with a wide range of abilities It will appeal to older pupils who still need support with reading, helping them to plug any gaps in their phonics knowledge and enabling them to work independently, in a ‘grown up’ way.
- It is economical of teacher/TA time and effort.
- Monitoring and recording is made easy.
ReadingWise – or any other computerised program – is not a panacea, but with careful consideration about how the program is introduced and delivered it could prove very worthwhile. To ensure its maximum effectiveness, think about:
- Training for staff: there is online training but staff will also need time to become really familiar with the different components, working through the lessons and getting to know exactly what is involved. Perhaps the arrival of ReadingWise in school could prompt CPD sessions for all staff on the teaching of reading, or a ‘masterclass’ for a group of teachers/TAs who will be involved with it.
- One keyworker to oversee its implementation and ongoing delivery, monitor pupils’ progress and evaluate the program.
- Ensuring regular (daily if possible) session time and availability of hardware.
- How pupils will have opportunities to talk through what they have learned and apply this back in the classroom.
- Planning post-ReadingWise support. How will you ensure that pupils maintain the gains they have made and continue to progress?
Online demonstrations and free trials are on offer. To find out more go to the ReadingWise website.