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The secret of reading; How to get students to learn from the texts they read in your lesson. Thursday Morning Thriller 11th December 2015

The subject of the Thursday Morning Thriller was the secret of reading.  This great session was led by Zoe James, Literacy Lead at Oriel High School.  This was a really informative session that followed on very nicely from the INSET work about making the Implicit Explicit that we did on Friday 21st November with David Didau (@learningspy).  Initially Zoe asked us to try to decode the image below:


Zoe explained that as experienced readers we are able to decode the meaning of text, even in another language, based upon; our familiarity with the layout of online news pages; our knowledge of the conventions of headlines and our ability to read images as well as words.  As advanced readers we are adept at learning from texts:  we understand the implicit conventions and the vocabulary and grammar of our subject.  In addition, we are able to read efficiently, skimming and scanning a text for the information we need, disregarding what’s unnecessary.

However this experience is not the same for someone who is developing their ability to read!

Reading accelerates learning: students who read adeptly become independent; what’s more, they are able to process and grapple with the complex detail of their subject and refer back to ideas.  Also, through reading, they internalise the vocabulary and grammar of the subject.  This in turn means students can reproduce it in their own writing.  Reading trains students to become scholarly in their approach to learning and expert in their use of language.  Students who cannot read well are held back in all these areas.

To help students achieve high quality learning from subject based reading, Zoe suggested the following:

Warm up the text; Try prediction activities, support students to look for structural clues and try to make use of relevant images to support meaning.

Identify the text type – what is the purpose?

Recount? Narrative? Persuasive? Informative? Explanatory? Argumentative?

Pre teach challenging or key vocabulary; David Didau made the point that you need to know 95% of a text’s vocabulary in order to understand it and that some students (1 in 12) that he referred to as ‘word poor’ could have a working vocabulary as small as only 800 words!  If we only learn about 15% of new vocabulary through reading there is a pretty large understanding gap that needs to be filled before we can hope to support students to achieve subject mastery; in essence we need to teach understanding of the key vocabulary before we can hope to move on.

Ensure students have a focus for their reading; What do you want students to know? Have you told them? Have you given them the skills to look for what you are asking for?  If the answer to any of the above is no then the learning might not progress as quickly as you had hoped….

Discuss strategies for finding answers; Skimming & Scanning


Some less proficient students feel that every word needs to be read to elicit understanding from a text.  Competent readers naturally skim and scan where appropriate to speed reading up.  Scanning is looking for a particular keyword or trigger and then drilling into the text once it has been found to gain context.  This technique is particularly useful when completing comprehension style activities.


This is looking through a text to pick out the gist (general meaning).  This technique allows the reader to pick out the main points but often without detail.  This technique is useful when trying to understand the meaning of a section of text perhaps in relation to the introduction of  a topic.

Darts Directed Activities Related to Texts; 

I have reproduced the introduction to the resource that Zoe shared here:

What are DARTS?

DARTS are activities that are designed to challenge students to engage with texts. They ask them to read closely and to interpret the information carefully. They can often go beyond the comprehension question, which can sometimes only ask students to move information, rather than to understand it.

The advantages of DARTS activities are many:

  1. They are problem-solving activities and therefore they promote and develop thinking skills.
  2. They are often kinaesthetic, as students manipulate text, often physically, and so can be adapted to many learning styles. (V 2003! TMA)
  3. They provide active learning situations, in which students collaborate and cooperate to solve problems.
  4. They help to internalise learning and so support the subject teacher’s aims.
  5. Students are encouraged to be analytical.
  6. Students are interacting with text and not practising poor reading skills, if they are weak readers.
  7. The work is shared and supportive and so aids the less able.
  8. The tasks enable pupils to go beyond the literal level of understanding.
  9. They provide many ICT opportunities, as students manipulate text.
  10. They are an excellent way to introduce a new topic or to revise and consolidate a topic at the end of a unit.

They combine the development of literacy and the promotion of thinking skills within the context of the subject.

However, DARTS should only be used 10-15% of the time within each subject. They can take time to prepare, but are invaluable resources once they have been produced. Students take time to learn how to debate and discuss so the teacher needs to draw their attention to the rules of good group work. Finally, to ensure that the learning goals have been reached draw out the explicit teaching.


Choosing the right DART activity to suit the learning intention is essential if the learning is to be well assimilated.

Ask yourself if you are:

Helping students to see the structure of a text
Helping students to select and interpret information
Helping students to confront the range of information or to see the big picture

The resource that Zoe shared is comprehensive and although it has been around for quite a while it was well received by staff members in attendance.  You can download the complete DART resource here: DART

Why teach reading?

Many secondary colleagues have little experience of actually teaching a student to read; their experience may come from helping their own child but the mechanisms of learning to read for many of us have long been confined to the depths of memory as reading is a skill that we have mastered and then used to be able access academia.  This leads us to be at a disadvantage when trying to understand the difficulties that some of our students may be facing.  Zoe summed up with the following:

We teach reading because:

  • It builds resilience.
  • It builds independence.
  • It enables students to internalise the language of your subject.
  • It allows students to access a range of knowledge.
  • It enables students to process complex ideas – they can easily refer back to writing.

I would add the following; for me it is a non negotiable element of education; all students should be taught to able to read and access text.  Anyone who leaves school without this ability is being let down. (steps down off soap box!)  Also in the continued drive for school improvement and better quality outcomes improving the ability of students to access and interpret information within your subject and then use this knowledge to perform in examinations is a pretty key improvement activity.  I believe that it will bring sustained benefits to both the students (most importantly) and to the subject teams that invest the time and energy it takes to make this a reality.



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