New review examines most effective strategies to help struggling readers

A new review of international and UK research published today will allow teachers to assess themost effective strategies for narrowing the gap between struggling readers and their peers. The review, by the Education Endowment Foundation and Durham University, focuses on the transition from primary to secondary school.

In 2013, 75,000 children (approximately 1 in 7), did not achieve the minimum expected level in reading by the end of primary school (Level 4). If these pupils perform similarly to those who did not achieve Level 4 in English overall in 2008, only 1 in 10 will achieve 5A*-C, including English and Maths at GCSE.

On average, struggling readers who are eligible for free school meals are less likely to achieve Level 4 than their peers, and those that are behind are likely to be further behind than other struggling readers. In 2013, 27% of White British pupils eligible for free school meals did not achieve Level 4.

Reading at the Transition reviews the effectiveness of different approaches in helping struggling readers catch up with their peers. It emphasises the importance of using evidence to identify the most promising strategies and underlines the value of effective intervention in Key Stage 1 and the early years.

Key findings

Both one to one and small group tuition can help pupils catch up. One to one has a slightly higher average impact and a more secure evidence base, but in some cases small group tuition can be as effective. Given its lower cost, schools could consider trialling small group tuition as a first option, before moving to one to one tuition if it is ineffective.

On average, reading comprehension approaches appear to be more effective for low attaining older readers than phonics or oral language approaches. However, supporting struggling readers is likely to require a concerted effort across the curriculum, and a combination of approaches. It may be that children who have not succeeded using phonics previously will benefit from approaches which place a greater emphasis on meaning and context. Where phonics is used, age-appropriate materials delivered by trained professionals appear to be most effective.

Summer schools can improve reading ability but their effectiveness will be limited by the quality of teaching which takes place. In addition, it is possible that other approaches delivered in school may be more cost-effective.

Dr Kevan Collins, Chief Executive of the Education Endowment Foundation, said:

“The educational prospects for the 75,000 children who leave primary school each year without reaching the expected level in reading are bleak. If these pupils perform in line with previous pupils like them, approximately 1 in 10 will go on to achieve five or more good GCSEs, including English and maths.

“The reading gap is stubborn and wide, and there are no quick fixes. Clearly getting it right when children are younger is the best strategy, but where they have fallen behind at age 11, some approaches offer greater promise than others. For example, while there is clear evidence that phonics can help struggling readers, and is particularly effective for younger pupils, for older children who are still behind it is unlikely to be sufficient on its own. It’s critical that teachers have access to high-quality evidence, which will increase the chances of the 11-year olds who need our help.”

Professor Steve Higgins, from the Department of Education at Durham University, said:

“We think evidence from research can help schools support children who are falling behind with their reading.

“Our analysis shows there is a range of approaches that schools can use to help their pupils catch up, but that the challenge is greater than most schools realise. One short intervention is not going to be enough for the average pupil who is behind in reading at 11 years old.

“We hope this research summary will help schools choose the most effective ways to help their struggling readers catch up with their peers.”

Notes to editors

  • 1.The Education Endowment Foundation is a charity set up in 2011 by the Sutton Trust as lead foundation in partnership with Impetus Trust, with a Department for Education grant of £125m. It is dedicated to breaking the link between family income and educational achievement through evidence-based research. Since its launch the EEF has awarded £42 million to 75 projects working with over 500,000 pupils in over 2,400 schools across England.
  • 2.Reading at the Transition by Professor Steve Higgins, Dr Maria Katsipataki and Robbie Coleman is available here
  • 3.For more information on the effectiveness of different educational interventions see the Sutton Trust/EEFTeaching and Learning Toolkit. It covers 34 topics and summarises research from over 10,000 studies. The Toolkit is a live resource which is regularly updated as new findings are published.