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Intensive focus boosts literacy

Reading time: 3 minutes. Relevant SSAT partner opportunity: Lexonik

Jeniffer Sing, Vice Principal, and Michael Chapman, Strategic Lead for Educational Research, Hope Academy, describe their intensive, wide-ranging programme and its effects on student reading ages

More than ever, with the new 9-1 curricula coming on stream, we are conscious of the array of knowledge and skills our students need to deploy in their examinations: the increased content; the depth of learning to be demonstrated; the requirement to decode meaning and make connections between concepts and ideas. All to fulfil increasingly demanding expectations.

At Hope Academy, we identified that our students’ literacy and, in particular, the accuracy, speed and fluency of their word and text comprehension, was an essential component in making them exam-ready.


Two years ago, we knew something had to change. Our system for collecting reading age data was not fit for purpose; what we did collect was unreliable. We moved to an online package which immediately gave us more reliable information. Were we surprised that our students, on average, had a reading age lower than their chronological age? No, not really. However, seeing this in such stark terms gave us the impetus to propel literacy to the forefront of our thinking. If we wanted to give our students the opportunities they deserved – to become the next generation of geneticists, oceanographers, engineers – then we needed to teach them the reading, writing and oracy skills to sound like experts in these fields.

New priorities

After sharing this with the whole staff, it opened a dialogue about where the literacy gaps were and where these were most evident across the curriculum. All of our faculties were telling us (supported by data) that students did not have the writing skills to be able to tackle extended writing responses. They were unable to articulate their knowledge of topics as they had not mastered the ability to utilise key terminology and develop ideas in a coherent and structured way. We needed to model this at every opportunity.

Priority 1: culture

We changed the reading culture by creating time and space in the school day for all students to read… for pleasure. We bought books, lots of books! For 20 minutes, twice a week, we collapsed our timetable so that students and staff could enjoy reading. If a student didn’t have a book, we bought them one. We then gave them the tools and the resources to find their own. We talked and talked about books – the books that enthused us, that fed our imaginations, that inspired us. Two years later, this is an integral part of academy life.

Twice a week, we collapsed our timetable so that students and staff could enjoy reading. If a student didn’t have a book, we bought them one

Priority 2: exposure

We broadened their cultural awareness by exposing them to as many non-fiction texts as possible. Through our SMSC Hope Inspire morning programme, we introduced ‘critical thinking’ time. This involved every student in the school looking at topical reading pieces and responding to them as they would be expected to in the new English Language GCSE examinations: identifying and responding to ideas and perspectives. This is led by all form tutors and ensures that our students have a richer awareness of the world around them and a deeper understanding of how writers make sense of modern life and culture.

Priority 3: decoding at speed

A school wouldn’t be a school if priority 2 went according to plan. What this highlighted further was that many of our students had confidence issues when deciphering new words. At this point, we introduced the Lexonik programme.

Lexonik is an intensive, highly structured programme, specifically designed for students who are underperforming with low literacy skills and weak vocabulary knowledge. Fifty percent of the focus is on decoding skills while the rest is on vocabulary development. The taught programme is rigorous and intense, so students are able to make rapid progress which they continue to build on after the taught programme ends.

The programme is taught for one hour a week, over a six-week period. It is aimed at a small cohort of students (four per group) and is led by a dedicated ‘sound trainer’. The sessions occur on a rolling programme so as not to hit the same subjects each week. We made a conscious decision not to focus on training our English teachers, but instead to train staff who weren’t necessarily restricted by timetables. Our sound trainers consist of a business studies teacher, an RE teacher, two teaching assistants, the Senco and the data analyst. This approach means that our trainers can teach more than one cohort at a time.

We have now completed the training with a succession of cohorts, of differing ages and abilities. Each cohort took part in six hour-long sessions over a 5 to 6 week period. On average, students in our academy have made 43 months improvement in their word reading age. Given that the new AQA Chemistry (Foundation) paper has approximately 3008 words for students to read, we know that our students now have a better chance at decoding words with increased speed and fluency.

Next steps?

We are now working with Lexonik to develop a programme of training with our staff which ensures all lessons build on the skills acquired in the intensive programme. Our teachers currently use the website to ensure that they emulate the reading strategies from the taught programme. They value it as an important tool. It is an exciting time for Hope Academy as our students continue to excel in confidence and ability. Literacy is now at the centre of all we do.

Lexonik improves literacy levels, vocabulary and comprehension, and accelerates learning for all. SSAT member schools are entitled to a 10% discount on the price per pupil: Find out more.

Download an SSAT case study about improving literacy: I know what you read last summer



Jeniffer Sing, Vice Principal, and Michael Chapman, Strategic Lead for Educational Research, Hope Academy

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