Primary pupils’ reading skills boosted by programme which gets them to question texts

Latest EEF trials results find more evidence of positive impact of targeted interventions for struggling readers

The reading skills of primary pupils can be boosted by an additional two months when teachers get them to think about, question and summarise different texts, according to new research published by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) today.

Today’s findings build on a large body of evidence that shows the positive impact of targeted programmes for primary pupils who are struggling with reading – and, therefore, effective ways for schools to help close the disadvantage gap.

98 primary schools from the North of England and the Midlands took part in the trial of Reciprocal Reading, a programme created and delivered by a team from Fischer Family Trust Education Literacy (FFT Literacy) and designed to improve reading skills in older primary pupils (8-11 year-olds).

‘Reciprocal Reading’ is an approach widely used in English-speaking classrooms across the world but is not commonly used in the UK. It is a structured approach to teaching strategies – questioning, clarifying, summarising and predicting – that students can use to improve their reading comprehension. Over the course of the programme, pupils are encouraged by teachers, who receive training in the approach, to take on more responsibility for leading and shaping the discussion.

For example, a group of 10-year-old children reading ‘The Magic Box’, a poem by Kit Wright, were confused by the phrase ‘violet wishes’ in the third verse. Using the reciprocal reading strategies, they clarified and questioned the meaning, building on each other’s suggestions and ideas to develop and explain their understanding.

The EEF trial tested two versions of the programme:

  • a targeted intervention that was delivered to a small group of pupils which the teachers had identified as struggling with their reading; and
  • a universal programme where teachers were asked to deliver the reading sessions to whole classes.

In both versions of the programme, the intervention was delivered in 30-minute sessions for a minimum of 12 weeks over two academic terms.

The independent evaluation by a team of researchers from Queen’s University Belfast, led by Dr Liam O’Hare, found that pupils who received the targeted version of the intervention made the equivalent of +2 additional months’ progress in reading and reading comprehension, on average, compared to a similar group of pupils in schools who did not take part in the programme. However, the evaluators found that pupils who took part in the whole-class version of the programme overall made no more progress than pupils in comparison classes. 

There were, though, signs of promise for both the targeted and universal interventions on reading outcomes for children eligible for free school meals (FSM).

These findings – which the EEF assesses as having moderate-to-high levels of security – build on a large body of research showing that high-quality, targeted interventions delivered by teachers and teaching assistants, such as Reciprocal Reading, can be an effective way for schools to support children struggling with reading at the end of primary school and to help close the disadvantage gap.

The latest data shows that 62% of disadvantaged pupils in England reach the expected standard in reading by the end of primary school, compared to almost three-quarters (73%) of all pupils nationally. Pupils in the North of England (78%) and the Midlands (76%) were less likely to reach the expected standard than those in London (81%) and the South East (80%).

The EEF is exploring the possibility of testing Reciprocal Reading at a larger scale.

Sir Kevan Collins, Chief Executive of the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), said:

“Making sure all pupils experience the joy of reading and leave primary school with good reading skills is crucial, not just for their academic success later in school, but for building rewarding careers and lives beyond school. Yet a disadvantaged child in England is still much more likely than their classmates from more advantaged homes to leave primary school without reaching the expected levels in reading.

“So it is great that today’s findings give schools more evidence on the best ways to boost reading outcomes for their pupils. They add to a large body of evidence that show the positive impact that small-group programmes can have for pupils struggling with literacy. Targeted interventions should be an important part of every school’s literacy strategy.”

Also published today are independent evaluations of:

  • Stop and Think: Learning Counterintuitive Concepts, a computer-assisted learning activity that aims to improve science and maths attainment for primary pupils. The independent evaluation found that pupils made +2 months’ additional progress in science and +1 month’s additional progress in maths. The EEF views this as evidence of promise that the approach had a positive impact in both subjects for pupils in Key Stage 2. This trial was co-funded by the EEF with Wellcome as part of a partnership to explore how insights from neuroscience can be used to improve education.
  • Fit to Study, a programme that aimed to boost academic attainment by increasing the amount of physical activity undertaken by Year 8 children in PE lessons. This trial was also co-funded by the EEF with Wellcome, as part of the ‘Education and Neuroscience’ partnership.
  • Integrating English, a programme to improve the teaching of linguistics and grammar, in which teachers are trained to break down the language used in their specific subject in order to improve the understanding of learners, with a particular focus on pupils with English as an Additional Language (EAL). This was co-funded by the EEF with The Bell Foundation and Unbound Philanthropy as part of a joint funding round to improve the attainment of pupils with EAL.
  • Digital Feedback in Primary Maths, a programme that aimed to improve primary school teachers’ feedback to pupils through a tablet app, diagnostic assessments, and training on effective feedback. The independent evaluators from RAND Europe found no evidence that pupils taking part in the programme made more evidence, on average, than a similar group of pupils who did not.