Using knowledge to improve reading.

Dame Rachel de Souza, Chief Executive of The Inspiration Trust and PTE Founder

Last year The Inspiration Trust conducted research into KS2 reading. They wanted to see if interventions based around a sequenced, knowledge rich primary curriculum could improve reading for the most disadvantaged pupils. You can read the full report here .

Despite implementing sophisticated reading strategies primary schools often struggle to teach every child to read fluently. Children still struggling with reading by the end of primary school will lose access to the curriculum and inevitably spend the rest of their time in education playing catch up.

The solution may have less to do with how reading is taught than the wider curriculum. One of the major factors preventing disadvantaged pupils from reading fluently is a lack of background knowledge. We know that this is particularly true with texts that contain words outside of our everyday experiences. What appears to be a deficiency in reading ability may in fact be an impoverished knowledge base.

At Inspiration Trust we have carried out research into the relationship between a primary curriculum based on subject knowledge and reading ability. We wanted to find the most efficient way to improve the reading ability of our most disadvantage pupils. As part of the study we introduced complicated, subject specific vocabulary and provided in depth, subject based training for our staff.

Vocabulary and associated subject-specific knowledge were added to lessons to make the content accessible and engaging. For example, in a lesson on Anglo-Saxon England, pupils were familiarised with concepts such as ‘legend’, ‘evidence’ and ‘shire’. In Biology, children were introduced to specialist vocabulary such as ‘eukaryotic cells’, ‘mitochondria’, and ‘ribosomes’. This level of vocabulary would typically be more familiar to 11 and 12 year olds starting secondary school.

Over four terms, the 324 pupils who took part in the programme were taught at least 1,400 ‘tier 2 and tier 3’ words in subject specific contexts and tested at intervals for improvements in their reading ability and retention of key vocabulary.

Tier 1 words are words that commonly appear in spoken language. Tier 2 are high frequency words used by mature language users across several areas. Tier 3 words are central to building knowledge and conceptual understanding in subjects and disciplines.

We found a marked improvement in reading as a result of our interventions. The study demonstrates that exposure to more complex words not only accelerates learning in specific subject areas, but also improves reading ability, particularly among disadvantaged pupils and pupils for whom English is an Additional Language.

The research found that pupils who accurately recalled the most curriculum content made greater improvement in their reading performance. Our experience is that children find learning a knowledge-rich vocabulary stimulating and enjoyable. In turn this makes it easier for them to develop as readers.

Once derided by some in the sector, phonics is now accepted as the best way to teach children to read. This research shows that knowledge-based curriculum should follow in phonics’ footsteps.

As a trust, we are passionate about inclusion and so we are making this content freely available to all schools. We would encourage anyone who wants to narrow the gap on reading ability to adopt this model so that all children, regardless of background, can properly access the education they are entitled to.

The Inspiration Trust delivered the work through the trust’s central team of subject experts (with national reputations in their subject traditions), supporting all of the schools who took part through training, CPD and school visits. The study was led by Dr Richard Kueh. As a school-led project, it was unique in its robustness with two post-doctoral research associates involved.