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What we can do for struggling readers

July 11, 2022, 7:45 GMT+1
Read in about 9 minutes
  • By offering the right support at the right time, mainstream schools can make learning to read painless for every pupil, says Deborah Salsbury
What we can do for struggling readers

Having a ‘no excuses’ policy to all pupils leaving school with a functional reading age – it should be a given, shouldn’t it?

Well, I’m still meeting teenagers with a reading age of 5–7 years who have been excluded from mainstream education. Many of them attended school for eight years plus before ultimately being placed in special schools.

The government consultation on the SEND and alternative provision system in England ( states that “Children and young people’s needs are identified late then escalate and become entrenched.

In some cases, a child or young person may be incorrectly identified as having SEN when in fact they have not had sufficient access to high quality teaching, particularly in reading and language.” This conclusion was drawn in 2022, but for how long has it been the case?

“Educational trends come full circle” has echoed around staffrooms over the years. As a ‘special needs/remedial kid’ of the 1980s, I know only too well what it feels like to be a struggling reader.

No surprise then that I can spot them a mile off! If only my teachers had noticed: I was always the one who chose the books with the best front-cover designs in the school bookshop, never actually reading them.

I spent most of ‘quiet reading’ times in the book corner, finally selecting the thickest book just as the session was finishing. My heart would jump out of my chest as I was called up to my Year 6 teacher’s desk to do a reading test, involving a list of words that got progressively harder.

I deliberately ‘failed’ an eye test to get glasses so that I could then ‘forget’ the glasses and get out of reading out loud in class.

At secondary school, when we had a class novel and everyone had to take a turn reading a page, I paid no attention to the story as I was too busy predicting the page which would land on me and frantically rehearsing it; or I would time my request to go to the toilet to avoid my turn altogether.

Finally, at university, I was called in after my first essay submission and asked if anyone had highlighted my dyslexia… 

Unlocking potential

What can we learn from the 1980s ‘special needs kid’ who was taught from behind the orange hessian curtain? What worked for me?

Well, I loved listening to stories. My dad read them to me at bedtime. My mum struggled with reading herself, so delegated this job. She subscribed to the audiobook/magazine ‘Story Teller’ and I listened to every one of the books she had… several times.

She also bought the Ladybird book scheme and I read them over and over again too, without the humiliation of them being ‘too young’ for me. Familiar books provided much comfort as I enjoyed ‘sounding like a reader’.

I loved author visits. I remember the car Gumdrop (from the Val Biro books) came to our school and I proudly stood next to it for a photo.

The author Helen Cresswell visited, and every class produced a creative piece based on one of her books, The Bongleweed, and ‘My Aunt Polly’s Scarf’ was displayed in the hall (every family knitted a section). My class had ‘Lizzie Dripping’ puppets and put on a show. 

Despite coming from a relatively working-class family – my mum was a cleaner and childminder and my dad was a printer – an annual pantomime trip was always prioritised.

Although my academic achievements in formal tests were way below age-related standards at primary school, I didn’t feel the pressure from my school or my family. I remember my mum’s mantra, “As long as you keep trying, you can’t do better than your best.”

Relationships were everything to me. It wasn’t until sixth-form college that I found a teacher who recognised my true potential and helped me to unlock that. I put my trust in her and she recognised and celebrated my learning difference. 

Fast forward to 2022 and the phonics method dominates our reading landscape, with school sheds becoming the graveyard of whole language books.

But even though you’ve spent tens of thousands of pounds on phonics schemes/resources, be honest – ask yourself, “Are my most struggling learners really grasping the skills and knowledge they need to become confident and competent readers?”

By this I mean, do they know that print carries meaning and that is the main purpose of reading, or are they little robotic decoding machines? I asked my four-year-old niece recently, “Can you read?” Her answer was not “yes” or “no”, or even the recall of her favourite book, it was this: “B-i-g, big. Z-o-p, zop.” I’ll just leave that there.

Support strategies

So today, with all the promise of reform, what can you as a school leader do for your struggling readers? How can you provide the right support, in the right place at the right time? Here are some good places to start.

  • If you keep repeating the same intervention and it hasn’t created a reader, try something completely different.
  • Do robust assessments that take stock of existing skills, knowledge, learning style and any barriers to learning.
  • Despite spending thousands on a whole-school phonics programme, accept it is not working for some pupils and that they need something more bespoke and relevant.
  • Use the strengths, interests and learning style of your pupils – teach them the way that they learn, don’t expect them to learn the way that you teach.
  • Use age-appropriate resources – always!
  • Use multisensory/dyslexia-friendly resources.
  • Tell your pupils that it’s not their fault they haven’t learned to read up until this stage and it’s not their problem any more, it’s your problem to solve.
  • Bring stories/information books to life – inject creativity and relate to each pupil’s experience whenever you can.
  • Nurture skills and knowledge that the pupil can transfer independently the next time they read a new book.
  • Give precise, positive feedback to encourage successful strategies to be repeated.
  • When adults are supporting readers, promote ‘prompting’ not ‘telling’ if a pupil gets stuck.
  • Give your hardest-to-reach pupils the most experienced/qualified teachers.

9 steps to support struggling readers
Dear headteacher, please help me. I can’t read. I want to learn. I’ve tried, but it hasn’t worked. I need a different way to learn. Here’s how you can help. From, T-O-M

  • Find an experienced, kind, funny teacher, who tells me that it’s not my fault that I can’t read.
  • Get that teacher to find out everything I know already about reading, and to teach me the bits that I don’t know – but only when I’m ready.
  • Get them to help me understand how I learn best; teach me the way I learn.
  • Use books and resources that match my age and interest (I don’t like using things that look babyish).
  • Make reading fun and encourage me to talk a lot about the books I read.
  • Let me read my favourite books over and over if I want to.
  • When I get stuck, please try not to give me the word; I like to work it out for myself using all the things I know at that moment in time.
  • Help me to understand why reading is so important in life.
  • Celebrate with me when I find reading easy and fun.

Deborah Salsbury is a qualified teacher and the founder of The Reading Doctor. Visit

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