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Posted on March 15, 2015 by Katie Ashford

How can we motivate reluctant readers?

Recently, I had the pleasure of attending my first ever ‘Spinning’ class at my local gym. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, Spinning is exercise for people who hate themselves. The indoor cycling phenomenon, which became trendy a few years ago, is still the calorie-burning activity of choice for those who enjoy pain and sweat-soaked, arse-cramping humiliation.

About five minutes in to the session, I thought I was either going to have to stumble out, throw up all over the bike, or cry. I looked to my left to see that one guy had already managed to escape. He looked back over his shoulder as he exited the room; I caught his eyes and, without saying a word, begged him to take me with him. But there was no chance of escape. The coach was crouched in front of me, screaming in my face, shouting at me to go faster. In that hour, I experienced new levels of pain and left feeling that Spinning should most definitely come with a warning label saying “Not for the physically and/or mentally feeble” or something like that.

Landing back on my couch an hour or so later, I limply whimpered and hugged my legs to remind them that they still existed. As I recovered, I thought about the parallels between the horror of spinning, and what it must feel like for a struggling reader every time they are asked to pick up a book.

Reading is incredibly hard work for some children. It’s so hard that they want to give up before they have even really begun- just like I felt after a few minutes of the spinning class. It was my first time, so I went in thinking that I was going to fail. For a struggling reader, merely picking up a book can bring all sorts of anxieties and fears. Some kids even give up and decide that there is little point in trying right from the off. They are afraid to give reading a chance. It’s hard, it’s arduous; frankly, it’s a task that is easier to avoid than to confront.

So what can we do to motivate reluctant readers? It’s something that teachers across the land have pondered for decades. In some schools, I have seen teachers industriously searching for texts that appeal to kids’ interests. In other schools, I have seen teachers redefine reading completely, asking pupils to use iPads rather than books (Indeed, I once visited a school where the library had been replaced entirely by Apple products- not a single book remained- a fact that the Head was most proud of; she assured me this strategy had dramatically improved reading motivation across the school.)

Like thousands of other educators, I have mulled this over for ages. I’ve picked up lots of ideas over the last few years, but here are a few that work well. None of this is revolutionary- quite the opposite!

  1. Get them into the right habits

We must help children to form the right reading habits. If we allow them not to read, they will never learn to do it. And if they never learn to do it, they won’t learn to love it. It’s a nasty, vicious spiral that we should endeavour to snap them out of as soon as possible. Like going to an exercise class, it will be painful at first, but if you don’t even bother going, how will you ever get fit?

Daily reading is something I have seen work excellently in Primary schools. Secondary teachers, I implore you to visit your local primary right now and see how much those kids are reading every day. For some reason, not all Secondary schools keep this up. Often, we just give them a library card, tell them to go and find something they like, and then leave them to it. NEWSFLASH: this is not enough.

I’m not advocating a military regime where we chain them to a desk and force them to read, but is it wrong to insist that pupils read every single day for an extended period of time? Yes, this will mean that you have to make space for it in the timetable. Yes, it will mean that you might not be able to use tutor time for endless announcements and pupil voice surveys. But it will make a difference- trust me.

Of course, for the most reluctant readers, silent reading time can simply be an opportunity to stare out the window. To avoid this, use these chunks of time to run small group reading sessions with the weakest readers. If a teaching assistant can cover the rest of class whilst they are reading in silence, the teacher can take out the few who need the most support and read with them.

Daily reading practice is vital for habit change and motivation. If every Secondary Head teacher in the country could prioritise this, we’d be a lot further along in solving the problems of literacy in the UK.

  1. Help them to experience success 

Believe it or not, I did in fact survive my first Spinning session. As somewhat of a glutton for punishment, I have since been back a few times, not just because I enjoy public humiliation, but because I really want to get better at Spinning. (Currently, my aim in life is to go once a week and not die.) Surviving my first session made me realise that I absolutely can do it if I keep going. If I throw in the towel, I’ll never get there. But the taste of success has persuaded me to keep trying.

The same is true of struggling readers. They must feel that they are learning and improving every time they pick up a book. First, ensure that they are on the right reading programme (more information on this here). This will enable them to succeed and feel that they are making progress. Secondly, help them to track their progress. Visual trackers and displays make success more visceral and appealing for struggling readers. A simple star chart will suffice. Again, I’m not advocating anything revolutionary here.

  1. Increase the challenge

By far the most frightening moment in Spinning was when the coach came over and increased the level of resistance on my bike. At that point, I thought I was about to leave this mortal coil for good. But then I looked around the room and noticed that he was only increasing the resistance for the people who looked like they were dying the least. It gave me such a confidence boost (‘Check me out! I’m winning at this! I’m ready to go up a level! I am awesome! I’m winning at life! I love Spinning!’), that I felt so motivated to keep going.

I thought about this whilst I was recovering later on. Maybe it was the dopamine talking, but an increased level of challenge really gave me a buzz. It stopped me from feeling like a complete failure and made me realise that I was totally capable of doing it. There was nothing physically preventing me from carrying on- as per usual, my stubborn head had been the only thing getting in my way.

I’ve applied this to our reading motivation strategy at Michaela. I’ve seen struggling readers patronised with graphic novels, magazines, comics and all sorts of nonsense in the past. It’s an approach that aligns well with that old adage “It matters not what they read, as long as they read something” – a line that I wholeheartedly disagree with. If you only ever eat KFC, you won’t be very healthy; if you only read picture books, you won’t get better at reading.

We have an after-school reading club at Michaela. The 15 weakest readers come every day after school and we read great books together. At the moment, we are chomping our way through the Classic Starts series: so far, they have devoured Frankenstein, Dracula, Gulliver’s Travels, Sherlock Holmes, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Roman Myths and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. They absolutely loved reading them. This is partly because they are great stories with brilliant characters, but it is also a consequence of increased levels of challenge. We don’t patronise them with nonsense that intends to appeal to their interests; we want to expand their horizons, not limit them. It has given them an enormous sense of achievement to sit and read all of these books, to understand them and have an opinion of them.

It may seem counter-intuitive to suggest that weak readers should read more challenging books, but the paradox of reading is that we must be challenged in order to improve.


Posted on 15 March, 2015 by Bodil Isaksen

Third time’s a charm. Yesterdays #mathsconf2015 organised by Mark McCourt‘s La Salle was the best yet.

Here’s what I got from the day.

David Thomas

David always has something new to say at conferences. No rehashed powerpoint slides and tired jokes to be seen. This time, he demonstrated three powerful techniques: bar modelling, algebra tiles and double number lines.

I was fairly au fait with bar models already, but the talk did prompt me to track down some My Pals are Here books once and for all. These are the books used in Singapore primary schools. He had sourced some lovely problems from them, like the following (rephrased because I didn’t get the exact wording):

I have a mixture of 20c, 50c and $1 coins. I have 20c and 50c coins in the ratio 2:5. I have 3 times as many $1 coins as 20c coins. If I have 28 more $1 coins than 20c coins, how many more 50c coins do I have than 20c coins?

Lovely with a bar model; horrid without.

Next up were algebra tiles. This was of much interest to me: I have to make the call on whether to buy class sets for the department pretty sharpish before we teach negative number to our pupils.

I could see how they would be excellent for wiping out misconceptions when collecting like terms and expanding brackets.

I was a little more wary about them for solving equations. Take an equation like 4x + 1 = x + 4

It starts off really well. The idea of taking the same thing from both sides works nicely.

Dividing both sides by three seems OK as well, though there’s something slightly less intuitive about it – maybe because I can already see that the sides don’t look equal?

This is my real bugbear. Look at that picture. The length x is clearly not the same as the square of unit 1. They are different!

I wonder whether the algebra tiles don’t just reinforce the misconception that equals means “the answer is…” rather than “the same as”.

The jury’s still out. No manipulative is perfect, and its advantages may outweigh the disadvantages I currently see. It’s one I’m pondering.

No such misgivings about David’s third technique, however: double number lines. What a fantastic way to introduce proportionality! I was mentally replanning my unit of work on proportional reasoning as he spoke.

The idea of starting with simple times tables is genius:

David then suggested giving number lines that get harder and harder, getting pupils to fill in numbers using a variety of techniques.

Finally, you can extend to word problems: currency, converting units, percentages, you name it.

I really think this technique could be game changing for schools, especially with the heavier focus on proportional reasoning in the new GCSE.

Tweet up and do some maths

I’m convinced there’s a circle of hell called “speed networking”. I get what conferences are trying to do: talking to other delegates is often the best part of a conference. But you need to let it happen more organically for it to work. Best catalyst for a room of mathematicians? Some maths problems like this on the walls:

From the wonderful @solvemymaths

I thought this worked an absolute treat. I had a boatload of fun, talked to some new people, and did some maths.

Kris Boulton

Kris said many sensible things on assessment. He started off with his definition of mastery: a term which has come to mean whatever people want it to mean of late. Is mastery about refusing to move on until everyone’s got it? Is it about kids showing some sort of “understanding” over and above procedural knowledge? Kris stuck to something more tangible: depth before breadth and spending longer on topics before moving on.

Kris gave a crystal clear explanation of validity and reliability, and how that affected how we choose to assess in mathematics. I second his recommendation to read Measuring Up by Koretz. It will give you the tools you need to think clearly about assessment.

I appreciated Kris’ bold principles for assessment design: one mark a question, with no marks for working, making it possible to mark and record results in under one hour. We’ve all spent weekends scrutinising messy exam papers for whether Jimmy can pick up that M1 mark and filling in complex QLA grids – the fact I saw multiple people marking GCSE papers in corners of the conference centre during coffee breaks is evidence of that. It’s one of those workload issues I now have to think about a lot more carefully as head of department than I did as a lone ranger. I want my teachers to have an excellent work-life balance.

A further principle that Kris espoused was that the mastery assessments should be endlessly resit-able. The ideal would be endless assessments with the same structure questions but different numbers. I was left pondering how small tweaks might make that a reality with our assessment system. We’re already ticking many of the boxes with no marking for teachers, QLA automatically generated, and limitless resits (but with the precise same questions each time). With the flexibility of Excel imports and the =randbetween and =concatenate functions, it’s possible to generate many subtly different assessments with minimal workload. One I’ll be working on.

Jo Morgan

Jo (@mathsjem) is a veritable powerhouse of ideas. @danicquinn and I were sat together, nattering like excitable schoolgirls about the pros and cons of the exciting methods we were exposed to. I loved the format: we tried some questions, compared methods and Jo then showed us four or five different ways it could be done.

Jo made some important points about “nixing the tricks”. I have a lot of sympathy with Nix the Tricks. I hate awful things like the adding fractions butterfly. I do, however, think it goes a bit far sometimes. I won’t be simplifying surds like this anytime soon:

Jo said we should “keep pupils brains free of unnecessary memorisation”. This gives me pause. I think memorisation is often more necessary than we think – including the type of rote, instrumental, procedural memorisation that is so slated. It’s important to remember that it’s not a choice between “memorising something” and “learning something”. Unless something has changed in long term memory, nothing has been learned. So memorisation is learning. You can’t learn without memorisation. It’s what you memorise that we should be discussing.

All in all, a really enjoyable, useful and thought-provoking day. Thanks to all involved in making it happen!

Posted on February 27, 2015 by Bodil Isaksen

Maths everywhere

Here’s how we squeeze in maths outside of maths lessons, without compromising subject content in other lessons.
  1. Rolling numbers

Rolling numbers is a great first step for embedding times tables. Ultimately, we want our children to know each times table out of order and without counting on their fingers. But rolling helps the children get a feeling for the patterns. Incorrect answers start sounding out of place. But the main reason I do it really is that the children simply love it.

You can break out a quick roll anytime and anywhere. Outside in the playground when lining up to come in. Between main course and dessert at family lunch. At the end of form time when you got them stood behind their chairs a little too early.

It’s nice to drop in some other rolls once they’re confident with the basics. Can they roll their 18s? Their 25s? Their 3.5s? Their 0.303s? You can then follow up with a conversation about how they figured each number out. Decimal rolls in particular are great for reinforcing place value.

  1. Quick-fire everywhere

I’m lucky enough to work in a school where all teachers recognise the central importance of number facts. All staff help pupils by firing questions like times tables or square roots to individual pupils in spare moments. I’ve seen this work particularly well in the queue for the toilet at break time.

As we’ve gone through the year, staff have become good at working out who needs what, adjusting the level of challenge for the pupil as appropriate. One pupil might be asked 7 + 8, and the next to find the difference between the square root of 169 and 25.

I love this for so many reasons. It has zero resource cost. If a pupil is struggling, the teacher can go straight into a one-on-one pep talk about the importance of automaticity. It really makes the pupils feel like every staff member cares about them automating their number facts – not just the maths teachers.

  1. Maths Mugshots

In order to super-size the effect of quick fire, I produce one pagers with photos of the pupils who need particular attention. I print A3 posters showing the slowest pupils’ names and photos. These are stuck up in the office, staff room, by the photocopier and even in the staff loos.

Teachers can hone in on those pupils and fire a quick question at them every time they see them. They can also use it to generally encourage and check in on the pupil. It’s not watertight: I don’t expect teachers to recall perfectly who is on the posters. But if it means even one kid gets one bit more practice in the thing they need, then I think it’s worth it.

  1. Number chains

Start with a number. Multiply it by something. What do you get? Take off something. What have you got now? Then square the answer. Then halve that… You get the picture. I run number chains like a fast paced game of Pepper with enough wait time to keep everyone on board. I tend to do a mix of hands up and cold call.

Number chains are fantastically adaptable. You can make them as difficult or as easy as you like. You can easily link them to current learning. You can play with any size group. You can have a number chain that lasts a few seconds or many minutes.

They are perfect for when you’re waiting for any reason. We play if we have to wait to leave the classroom while another class is filing past in the corridor. We play with the first pupils to arrive in the lunch hall whilst waiting for the other classes to come down. We play before PE when some pupils are changed into their kit before others.

  1. Times table rockstars

The best £50 your department can spend. TTRockstars takes on a life of its own. I do next to no promotion of TTRockstars, but our pupils answer tens of thousands of times table questions a day. Hype up the launch week, buy some inflatable instruments and whacky glasses, then sit back and watch.

  1. Scores on the door

We have an IXL subscription which gives pupils endless high quality practice. Every day, I publish the whole year rankings, right from top place to bottom place, for time spent on IXL the night before. It is purely an effort measure: it ranks based on time spent, not difficulty of topic or percentage success. Pupils who really struggle are on a level playing field with those who don’t.

We have numerous pupils choosing to do over 2 hours of IXL a night. These aren’t all existing high attainers: they span right across the spectrum. They are speeding ahead of their peers. Those spending the least time deserve to know what the standard is. I don’t want them to wallow in denial about how hard everyone else is working. I want pupils to know where they stand. They want to know where they stand too. They love crowding round to see what position they came in.

The sign it’s working? The median time spent is usually around 45 minutes a night. Different names come in the top 10 each day. And I just got an email from IXL saying my pupils had answered over 600,000 problems since September. Can’t say fairer than that.

Posted on February 28, 2015

Which knowledge?

I often ask pupils at family lunch at Michaela what their favourite subject is. Many of them reply, ‘I love every subject, sir!’ What we choose to teach plays a big part in how much our pupils love learning. 

At Michaela, we decide which knowledge to teach based on three principles: schemata,challenge, and coherence.


Our aim is to help pupils remember everything they are learning, and master the most important content. To this end, subject content knowledge is best organised intothe most memorable schemataSo we organise history and English literature chronologically. We start in Year 7 with classical antiquity: in History we study Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Rome and Roman Britain; in Religion, we study polytheism, The Old and New Testament, Judaism and Christianity; in English, we study Greek mythology, The Odyssey, Roman Rhetoric, epic poetry and Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar; in Art, we study Egyptian, Greek and Roman art, sculpture and architecture. Chronological, cumulative schemata help pupils remember subject knowledge in the long-term: not for ten weeks or ten months, but for ten years and beyond.



The subject knowledge we choose to teach our pupils to master is the most vital and the most challenging content. The pupils we teach often arrive at school far behind, unable to read fluently or multiply. Many have a vocabulary of under 6,000 words, while wealthier pupils often have over 12,000. So the opportunity cost of anything other than the most challenging subject content is high. Only the most challenging topics with the most stretching vocabulary, combined with high support so all pupils understand and use it accurately, will allow them to compete academically with the 96% of private school pupils who reach University. We dedicate extended teaching time for mastery of grammar, spelling and vocabulary, the hidden bodies of knowledge that make for accurate writing. Our pupils will have vivid memories of reading some of the most complex and beautiful texts ever written: Shakespeare’s Othello, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Shelley’sFrankenstein, Orwell’s 1984, Malcolm X’s autobiography, Duffy’s The Worlds’ Wife, and Mandela’s A Long Walk to Freedom.


Subject knowledge we select dovetails cohesively across and between subjectsAt Michaela, our pupils will remember Year 7 as the year they learnt about classical civilisation. Across subjects, they are making exciting connections. Sacrifice, for instance, recurs in the stories of Abraham and Isaac in religion, with Agamemnon and Iphigenia or Minos and Theseus in Greek mythology. Across English and Science, the planet Mercury is named after the swift Greco-Roman messenger god as it is the fastest-moving planet, taking 88 days to orbit the sun. A dovetailed knowledge curriculum allows pupils to make these fascinating connections for themselves, and understand the ideas of democracy, dictatorship, hubris, nemesis, tragedy and monotheism from their early origins.

In short, we select challenging, sequenced, coherent schemata within and across subjects, so that our pupils remember what they’ve learned for years to come.

Posted on January 17, 2015 by Katie Ashford

 How do we get them reading?

This post is intended to help teachers who are at a complete loss as to why their pupils can’t read. I’m not saying I have all the answers- what I am proposing is not a definitive solution to the problem of reading, but it outlines some of the things I wish someone had told me when I started teaching. There is a range of things you could do, of course. These are just some of the things I have learnt over the past few years that I have seen work well.

Countless secondary schools across the country are faced with this problem. It is an absolute travesty that many children start secondary school unable to read. It means they will struggle to access a KS3 curriculum, and because many secondary schools lack the time, funding and frankly, the expertise to teach children how to read, they can often slip through the net and make very limited progress in reading over 5 years. I felt compelled to write this post because I have had to spend hours and hours researching, reading and trying to understand what on earth we can do to solve this problem. It is my hope that a few secondary teachers will read this and feel empowered to do something about a problem that likely does exist in their schools.

Step 1: Assessment.

You cannot begin to teach children to read if you don’t know where they are to begin with. Lots of schools use the Accelerated Reader reading test. This is okay, but it won’t give you much of a breakdown of their ability. So you won’t know whether their strengths lie in vocabulary or comprehension, which can make it more difficult to determine what support they need. I would recommend the New Group Reading Test by GL assessment. They do an online version and it generates very easy to understand reports.

Once you have your reading age results, get all the pupils with a reading age below their chronological age to do a decoding test. I would recommend the WRAT test. It takes about 3 minutes per child (done individually) and anyone can administer it. All they have to do is read a list of words until they can’t read anymore. It’s simple.

Step 2: Placement.

 The WRAT test contains instructions for converting their score into a Standardised Age Score (SAS). If they have an SAS below 80, they need to do a phonics programme. If they are between 81 and 100, they need some fluency work, and usually some support with spelling (but this may vary, depending on the child).

Step 3: Phonics.

Badger your SLT and make them invest in a good phonics programme. I would highly recommend Ruth Miskin’s Fresh Start for any pupils in year 7 with a low decode score. It could be taught to kids in higher years, but some of the resources are a bit young. I haven’t found a better programme that is more age appropriate, however, so I’d still recommend this one. They’ll need 3 sessions of 45 minutes a week. It will take about 6 – 8 months, depending on how weak they are when they start. Find the money and the time in the timetable. It’s worth it. If you or members of your school’s SLT have ideological reservations surrounding phonics, get over it. A phonics programme WILL work if it is delivered properly, and not doing it because you don’t believe in it is borderline immoral. #justsayin.

Step 4: Fluency

Lots of pupils can decode, but still read in a very stilted, awkward way, without expression or much of an understanding of emphasis, tone or intonation in reading. It is important that all children can read fluently, as it frees up space in working memory to focus on comprehension. If all you are thinking about is how to pronounce the words, you aren’t concentrating on the content.

There are lots of ways to solve this. Firstly, they need to be reading aloud often- at least once a day, if possible. A simple way to do this is to read aloud in class. At Michaela, our pupils read aloud in all subjects. I’m very lucky to work with excellent humanities, maths, science, art and French teachers who recognise the importance of reading, and will happily ask pupils to read aloud in their lessons. You could also get them into the habit of reading aloud when they read at home, but this is obviously harder to monitor.

Secondly, if you have the time, you could try to do some timed repeated reading practice with the pupils concerned. Here is a good video outlining what this looks like.

Step 5: Comprehension

There isn’t a magic bullet for this one, unfortunately. It takes a very long time to build, and the poorer kids’ comprehension is to start with, the slower it improves. But there are important points to note here. Firstly, comprehension is heavily underpinned by knowledge. A 1988 study by Rechts and Leslie tested the comprehension of weak and strong readers with the same text. They found that poor readers with a good knowledge of the content (baseball) outperformed the strong readers with poor knowledge of baseball. Read more about this here, or there’s a nice video you can watch here. So the first step is to cram them with as much knowledge as possible.

Another option is to use these resources by McGraw Hill. They are expensive, but are completely scripted and extremely well sequenced. A teaching assistant can deliver these sessions, and each one takes about 20-25 minutes. Again, time would need to be built into the day for this, as you wouldn’t want to take them out of mainstream lessons and therefore give them less access to the knowledge they need to get better at reading.

A few more points

Finally, if you have exceptionally weak readers, I would recommend getting in touch with Dianne Murphy (@thinkreadtweet), whose reading programme has enormous impact on weak readers. Definitely worth a look.

Of course, to make any of this work, reading must be a central part of the school culture. Pupils must have access to a range of texts, and must learn to love reading. Next week, I will blog about building a culture of reading in a school, and motivating pupils to read. I think these two aspects of reading are so vital that they merit their own post. The five steps above are intended to help literacy leads or English teachers who don’t know where to begin with reading, as I didn’t a few years ago. Of course, I am still no expert- far from it! I’m just passing on some of the wisdom I have been fortunate enough to stumble upon over the last few years.

Happy reading!