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Could Your Pupils’ Reading Ability Be the Cause of Their Challenging Behaviour?

Beccie Hawes recalls how one school harnessed the canniness of two reluctant readers, and used it to unlock their latent literacy skills…

Beccie Hawes
by Beccie Hawes
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Often, it can be easy to spot pupils who are beginning to find reading a challenge and those at risk of developing a reading difficulty.

We’re all familiar with those pupils who struggle to secure a basic but reliable sight vocabulary, those who find it difficult to read fluently and accurately, or who become overly reliant on very few decoding strategies.

Careful questioning can help us identify those pupils able to read words on the page, but who find the process of making meaning from those words a mystery.

Yet some pupils can be very skilled at masking these difficulties, with the result that their reading difficulties can emerge suddenly, as an unexpected surprise.

September always seems to bring teachers surprises like this. In the case of one English lesson in which I was observing two new pupils, the surprise was two angry, non-compliant boys whose behaviour left a lot to be desired.

They clearly didn’t want to read George’s Marvellous Medicine, and were instead busy disrupting the lesson with a series of behavioural challenges for the teacher.

The teacher was left frustrated by the constant display of poor behaviour, and her efforts to calm the situation down appeared to have no impact.

It was evident that she was thoroughly fed up with these ‘two naughty new boys’, yet based what I saw, I wasn’t so sure that the boys’ behaviours were designed to annoy and upset.

I had a hunch that what we were observing was actually behaviour that served as a form of protection against the potential humiliation of being two boys who couldn’t read aloud, since they weren’t yet fully functioning readers.

As far as these pupils were concerned, behaving badly would result in their ejection from the classroom – which in turn would mean that they didn’t have to read.

To me, their avoidance strategies showed innovation and their swagger indicated confidence – both markers of potential success. We just needed to find the key that could unlock them. And I was convinced that the key was reading.

Early identification

To put that metaphorical key in the lock, we needed to explore where the pupils were ‘at’ with their reading, and where they needed to go next through robust assessment.

For all pupils, a school’s approach to reading assessment needs to be proactive, as opposed to reactive. Early identification and intervention are non-negotiable. We shouldn’t be waiting for the pupils to fail before we act.

Consequently, it’s essential that we’re able to draw on a range of holistic assessment tools that explore all aspects of reading: attitudes, confidence levels, previous experiences, decoding strategies, accuracy, fluency, and the many aspects of comprehension.

This toolkit should include a first layer of assessment that allows us to screen for potential difficulties, identify strengths to build upon and then track and monitor progress.

In this case, the New Group Reading Test (NGRT) provided us with valuable information that confirmed my initial hunch, signalling that it was time to delve deeper.

The information that this form of proactive assessment provides gives us a valuable window of opportunity in which to make decisions about what to do next. It’s a means of filtering, aimed at ensuring that those at risk of failure are spotted before it’s too late.

To achieve this, it’s important to keep a ‘red flag’ in mind.

The form this takes will vary from school to school, but often a good starting point would be to flag those pupils with a standardised score of 86 or below, since they’ll be just on the cusp of falling below the average range if their progress isn’t sustained.

Under the NGRT, scores below 90 can merit further investigation.

A second layer of assessment should then allow us to drill down further, to ensure that our interventions and approaches are tailored to exactly match the pupil’s needs.

This could include attitude and confidence surveys, observations of reading behaviours, miscue analysis and standardised assessments.

For my two ‘surprises’, this is where the York Assessment for Reading Comprehension (YARC) was able to give us even more detailed information. After administering this test, we were able to gain a standardised benchmark for accuracy and fluency.

The breakdown of comprehension question-type successes and decoding error analysis provided us with rich information that we could use to target specific issues and assemble a clear picture of existing skills and strengths upon which to build.

Coupled with the boys’ negative self-view and lack of confidence in themselves as readers, and the very limited experience of texts they’d enjoyed up to that point, we now had a wealth of information to utilise.

The feelgood factor

We decided to help our two misunderstood reluctant readers build a reliable sight vocabulary of words that they’d quickly recognise on sight. A positive experience was needed here, so a variety of winnable games and challenges were deployed that didn’t involve opening any dreaded books…yet.

To build their comprehension skills, we decided to eliminate the words and start with picture comprehension tasks. Learning to ‘read’ the pictures became fun, as we used stills from their favourite cartoons to predict what might happen next and work on making inferences.

Once their confidence had been sufficiently built up the feelgood factor truly kicked in, and we proceeded to explore graphic novels that had been carefully selected using the ‘Goldilocks principle’ – not too easy, not too hard, but just right!

Next came the development of a range of strategies for decoding, taught via lots of modelling, praise and the use of small and subtle strategies on prompt cards to act as reminders back in lessons. By this point, we all felt sure that the key had turned and that the door was opening…

Although we all felt that we could see tangible progress, it was important to have something to evidence what we believed to be happening. We repeated our earlier attitude and confidence surveys, which showed a marked positive shift.

Our observations and repeated miscue analysis showed a wider range of decoding strategies, a more fluent sound to the reading and greater levels of self-correction.

We also identified something exciting happening in the boys’ personal records – a decrease in the number of consequences, especially in lessons that required lots of reading. To triangulate everything, we shall be repeating a standardised YARC measure next term.

Our findings ultimately showed us that the key had not only opened the door, but left it wide open for success to flood in!

Beccie Hawes is head of service at Rushall inclusion advisory support team, based at Rushall Primary School. The school is one of GL Assessment’s Centres of Assessment Excellence; further details about the New Group Reading Test (now available in a termly edition) and the York Assessment of Reading for Comprehension can be found at

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