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Reading: The golden key

Reading is the golden key to accessing the rest of the school curriculum and a lifetime’s opportunities.

Yet in our wealthy nation, with its long history of free education, we still have one in four of our 11 year-olds not meeting expected national standards in reading – and a similar percentage not achieving a grade 4 in English GCSE.

And what will months of interrupted schooling mean for all children and young people with their reading development?

The linguist Noam Chomsky identified that every human has an innate language acquisition device. Only in rare circumstances do humans not learn to speak, and this is true across cultures. The psychologist Steven Pinker remarked that while children are wired for sound, print is an optional accessory that must be painstakingly bolted on.

I began my working life in education in H.M. Prison Brixton. All educators should spend time in the education department of one of Her Majesty’s prisons. It is a poignant reminder that basic literacy is a birthright that should be denied nobody.

In my time at the National Literacy Trust, I used to give talks entitled ‘Have you ever met a mugger who’s read Middlemarch?’  This was my way of affirming that whatever else we do for children and young people in classrooms, we must give them the dignity of being able to speak, read and write with fluency to make their way in the endlessly fascinating global society which they inhabit.

A political leader once said that the word ‘priority’ should not be used in the plural. Asking a school to set out just one catch-up priority at the start of 2021 would be unhelpful. But we must break this cycle of a sizeable section of the young population growing up with faltering language skills.

Let us be properly ambitious emerging from the 2020 interruptions to schooling. Set the goals and see where we get to.

  • Every primary to say to itself: almost all children will at age 11+ have a reading age which matches at least their chronological age.
  • Every secondary to say that, no matter the child’s starting point, almost all will achieve a grade 4 in English at 16+.

So what’s to do?

A reading agenda

First, schools need a rigorous approach to word recognition: enabling children to use a phonetic approach, to divide words into syllables for pronunciation, to have a knowledge of prefixes and suffixes.

Second, a planned approach to vocabulary development: learning new words, keywords and concepts, technical abbreviations and etymology, symbols and formulae – through regular and consistent use of a dictionary and a thesaurus.

Third, a systematic engagement with comprehension and organisation of text: summarising what has been read, distinguishing essential from non-essential, fact from opinion, drawing inferences and conclusions, noting cause and effect, reading between the lines.

Fourth, a programme to promote reading interests: voluntary reading for pleasure, reading for personal information, developing a passion for particular subjects, the use of the school library, the downloading onto the iPad of a favourite biography.

Fifth, a whole-school approach to study skills: sitting still long enough to read, using skimming for different purposes, reading maps and graphs, learning how to take notes, reading more rapidly with adequate comprehension, forming the study habit.

Reflecting on the five points above, skilled teachers and tutors will not make the mistake of adopting simply an age-related approach to the teaching of reading. Rather, they will select what works for a given child or group of children at a particular point in time.

Teachers and tutors will be driven by the belief that every child can tackle texts with confidence, whether on the printed page or the Kindle.

Written by: Roy Blatchford

Roy Blatchford (CBE)

Roy Blatchford CBE is Adviser to Unity Schools Partnership and Chair of the UK’s leading children’s communication charity I CAN – https://ican.org.uk/ 
He chaired the ASCL commission ‘The Forgotten Third’ – https://www.unitysp.co.uk/the-forgotten-third/

Reading is the golden key to accessing the rest of the school curriculum and a lifetime’s opportunities.

Roy Blatchford

Addressing the ‘Summer Slide’

SP Tutors has been approved by the National Tutoring Programme to deliver summer tuition for Summer 2021. Our intensive in-school tuition programmes are set to tackle the traditional ‘summer slide’ – where some pupils return to school in September having lost learning over the summer and start from a position of ‘catch-up’ in relation to their peers.

We are all familiar (either as parents or educationalists) with the sinking feeling some pupils experience as their thoughts turn towards the new school year. Why is this? There are a number of contributing factors:

Some pupils haven’t seen friends over the summer break, so meeting up again with peers in September can cause some anxiety – pupils wonder whether friendship groups will be the same, whether they have missed out on summer activities, whether they’ll have interesting things to contribute to the back-to-school conversations and whether they’ll have the right equipment, phone, footwear to blend in with peers.

Some pupils will have had cultural stimulus (such as visiting museums, community events, new places/cultures) as well as opportunities to access learning activities such as reading, writing, school projects etc. But, many pupils will not have had access to learning opportunities over the holidays. They will not have had academic or cultural stimuli over the summer break; their opportunities for writing, reading and vocabulary acquisition have been diminished and therefore they go back to school at a lower level of attainment than when they left in July.

Research shows that pupils from lower socio-economic backgrounds are disproportionately impacted by summer learning loss and the ‘summer slide’ can cause a three month gap between them and their peers.

Some pupils will be anxious about finding their way around new buildings, new classrooms, new routines, new homework requirements and meeting new teachers.

No wonder, therefore, that some pupils are anxious about starting back in September. Every new academic year, they have spent the first few months ‘catching back up’ to where they were before – which has a detrimental impact on their confidence and self-esteem.

What can we do about this?

Evidence shows that summer schools can provide the necessary academic and cultural learning opportunities that pupils need to maintain the level of attainment. Small group, academic tuition focused on Maths and English partnered with cultural activities like sport, music, drama, museum visits and art academic and cultural capital pupils may otherwise have missed out on.

“….up to 4 months’ additional progress if the summer school offers small group tuition led by highly-trained and experienced teaching staff”


Peer-to-peer relationships can strengthen through summer schools which build and develop year group communities, foster a sense of belonging and improve pupil well-being and mental health. Furthermore, summer schools offer opportunities to develop metacognitive skills and self-regulation.

School can offer summer school opportunities with a mix of academic and cultural focuses, goal setting, summer projects and work on parental engagement.

Removing barriers to summer school provision

Effective use of funding streams

Summer activities and small tuition is traditionally available only those pupils whose parents can afford to pay for such provision. This year, however, the DfE has two funds that support the summer schools offer:

National Tutoring Programme – 75% subsidy on academic tuition

Summer School Programme – funding available to secondary schools for all year groups, but with an emphasis on new Year 7 pupils. Schools must offer a mix of academic and enrichment activities, according to the needs of their pupils

  • Catch-up funding
  • Pupil premium funding
  • Recovery premium

Read more: Summer schools guidance – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)

Wrap-around care for parents

Particularly for younger pupils, working parents may struggle to take up summer school placements because they need full day childcare in the summer holidays. By coupling small group tuition with enrichment activities, pupils can benefit from a range of learning opportunities and be kept entertained and safe for an entire working day. If you don’t already, why not partner with a tuition partner, and sports/drama/art provider to increase staff capacity.

Activity space, staffing and resources

If school space and human resource is an issue, as well as using out-sourced staffing (tutors/sports leaders) consider partnering with a neighbouring school – provide a carousel of activities on one school site to pool resources. Pupils can be kept in their ‘school bubbles’ and sufficient time can be given between activities to provide comfort breaks and clean down between groups.

recent review of 13 studies which looked at over 50,000 students suggested that they experience an average summer learning loss estimated to equal about one month of the academic year. The effect of the summer holidays is typically more detrimental for Maths, which is possibly due to the limited availability of math practice outside of formal school settings.

InnerDrive – Read more
Start September with confidence