How to develop brilliant reading at KS3

How to develop brilliant reading at KS3


Reading is in vogue at the moment – and rightly so! Several factors have raised the priority of reading in schools. The number of students reading at home has slowly dwindled as the number of distractions has dramatically increased. Alongside this, the GCSE changes have also increased KS3 reading demand and expectations in lessons. The lockdowns in 2020 and 2021 resulted in students missing out on a breadth and variety of reading experiences, which are needed for success in exams and in life. It is no wonder that Ofsted has placed reading at the centre of its drives for improvement: if a student cannot read, then they cannot succeed. Ofsted’s Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman, said that ‘reading with fluency is the gateway to almost all learning’ in her speech at the Festival of Education in 2022.


A newfound understanding of reading 

Our assessment of reading has been influenced by GCSE examinations in secondary schools. Our understanding of reading has largely focused on what examiners expect to see at GCSE. Can pupils use a quotation? Can they structure a paragraph? Can they explain what the writer has done in a paragraph? Years 7, 8 and 9 largely focused on reading novels, poems and plays and getting students to attempt writing GCSE-style essays. Reading wasn’t simply assessed on its own, but alongside a student’s ability to write in this form. If a student could not write an essay, then, erroneously, they were viewed as struggling to read.


In our department, we wanted to separate the two aspects: the reading and the essay writing.   

 On investigation, we found that the essay writing approach actually hindered boys’ academic performance in English. Instead of praising and building on their existing reading skills, the judgement of reading through essay writing in Years 7, 8 and 9 created a negative cycle that focused on the aspect boys find hard. Using this approach, the writing is the key focus rather than reading skills. We know that some boys struggle with writing (whether that is the result of motivation, stamina or ability issues), but when comparing English and mathematics you see that when you reduce the amount of writing and focus on the process then they often excel.

In my department, we decided that the GCSEs had dominated Key Stage 3 for far too long; the essay approach had hidden, masked, and blotted out other issues around KS3 reading. Colleagues were basing their teaching on what a student could do in an essay and not asking fundamental questions about their reading, such as: What do the students understand? And what don’t they understand?


Comprehension is the name of the game 

We returned to comprehension tests to gauge reading ability because we wanted to see what students were able to do with a text without the barrier of essay writing. Comprehension tasks have not had the best of publicity due to rigid national assessments at KS2, but as part of ongoing teaching they have their value. Whilst no two reading experiences are exactly alike, the comprehension questions can highlight misunderstandings, misconceptions, mistakes and missing bits of knowledge to be addressed and worked on. Reading is a tapestry of many things, but focusing on one or two threads helps teachers build the wider picture and helps students understand the text.

Therefore, we constructed reading assessments to help us understand several things about a student’s reading of an unseen text, including their knowledge of word meanings, ability to make inferences or identify and comment on effect, techniques and so on. The teacher could then use this information to guide further reading and teaching. For us, we found that the texts became a starting point for discussion and exploration of language and meaning in texts.


The impact: progress and collaboration

‘A watched pot never boils’ is an idiom that also applies to reading. The constant assessment of reading prevents students from reading and getting better at reading. In our new approach, we set two reading tests a year: one at the start of the year and one at another time when we felt it was needed. For the rest of the year, we taught students normally following our usual Key Stage 3 curriculum. What the tests allowed us to do was pause learning and take a quick check on independent reading: what can students do when facing something on their own?

The impact for us was incredible. As a department, we spotted patterns across year groups which were largely unnoticed when teachers marked in isolation. Year 7s, for example, were reading the question and searching for the answer rather than reading the text first.

Instead of grading students with a meaningless mark, we were exploring the detail of the results, investigating patterns and using them to build and shape our curriculum. The whole process allowed us to explore the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of reading, allowing us to think, plan and adapt our teaching together as a department. We could explore why we thought an inference question was tricky for Year 8 but not Year 7 and use that knowledge in our teaching.

All too often, we get the idea that year groups, in English, are strong in areas, such as writing or reading. This new way of looking at reading, for us, gave us a more in-depth picture of the year group’s reading skills. That, in itself, really helped strengthen the department because we knew what Year 7, 8 and 9 needed to do in reading to get better.

Our teacher pack, Develop Brilliant Reading, contains twelve photocopiable reading tests for English departments to set their classes. They cover a range of genres and styles of writing so that the tests can slot into most topics studied, or stand on their own as a discrete assessment. Reflecting the approach we use in our department, the tests provide the starting point for identifying issues around reading so that collectively or individually teachers can pinpoint what students can and cannot do around reading. And, to further support teachers, there are ten discrete lessons covering a range of reading aspects so that teachers can focus on key areas of need. Develop Brilliant Reading helps teachers to place emphasis on reading and, in particular, reading skills in the classroom.


Book cover of Develop Brilliant Reading

Chris Curtis has been an English teacher for over fourteen years and a head of department for the last five years. As an avid reader and blogger, he is always looking and reflecting on what works for students in the classroom. He is a big believer in finding and sharing practical solutions to difficult problems in the classroom, and the author of new editable teacher pack, Develop Brilliant Reading, and How To Teach: English and The Art of Writing English Literature Essays: for GCSE.

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