Reading skills – Why focus is the key to effective literacy interventions

Close-up photo of teenage school student sat at desk, concentrating hard on reading a book

If you want your reading interventions to make a difference, narrow the scope of what you’re trying to achieve and stay focused

Elaine McNally
by Elaine McNally

There are many reasons for creating a group reading intervention aimed at boosting reading skills. One might be to target students who have problems with comprehension, rather than word recognition or decoding.

In your classroom, there may be students who can read out loud with reasonable confidence. They will mostly observe punctuation, adhere to the syntax of the author and occasionally add expression. They largely recognise and successfully decode tier 2 words.

However, questioning might reveal that these students are, in fact, struggling to comprehend what they read.

You might then conclude, after considering various sources of data, that these students would benefit from explicit comprehension strategy training, vocabulary teaching, and group discussions of a certain book or text.

The most valuable phrase

The essential elements of such a session might include reading the text and activating background knowledge. You can then ask questions that encourage the students to predict, summarise, interpret, clarify, infer and build connections between ideas. This can run alongside explicit vocabulary instruction.

One way of narrowing the potential scope and positively impacting upon literacy outcomes would be to build intervention planning around two strategies – one based on comprehension, and another on vocabulary teaching.

The early literacy expert Carolyn Strom has previously written about a brilliant strategy with huge potential in reading intervention groups, since it compels students to think hard about a specific aspect of a text.

Strom calls this strategy ‘most valuable phrase’ or MVP. Students are taught to identify, and then justify their choice of the ‘most valuable phrase’ in the text. In doing so, they extend their thinking by engaging in purposeful talk that combines many comprehension sub-skills. Through reasoning, drawing connections and summarising, MVP both extends students’ understanding and directs them towards what might be important.

Enjoyable routine

Strom sets out the following criteria for what qualifies as the ‘most valuable phrase’:

M – it has to relate to the Main idea

V – Vivid and memorable language, or compelling Vocabulary

P – A ‘Phrase that stays’ because it adds to knowledge and builds understanding of the text as a whole

MVP is most effective when implemented via an explicitly named, repetitive, routine-driven approach. Students enjoy it. They like defending their choices of phrase and disputing those of other students.

It also helps them see that the meaning of texts aren’t stable, and can change depending on the reader. It’s a simple, yet extraordinarily effective strategy that combines opportunities for oracy with building comprehension, and works equally well with both fiction and non-fiction texts.

That said, students can find it hard to review and scan texts before settling on a final choice of MVP. I’ve tried to tackle this by modelling how MVPs can be identified during initial reading, by placing a sticky note with an arrow beside lines that might work.

Word games

Explicit teaching of high utility vocabulary shows students how words are connected through morphology and etymologym but it also provides a way of incorporating enjoyable literacy activities that involve an element of play.

Word games are a fantastic strategy for making students more word conscious and word curious. I’ve personally found that using Word Ladders for Fluency by T. Rasinski can make a significant difference to discussions around words. Word ladders feel like a game, but will develop students’ literacy skills, and broaden their thinking around letter patterns and combinations.

It’s easy for students get enthusiastic and competitive when these are used in class, and it’s easy for teachers to modify and extend such activities as needed – by clarifying new words, putting words into sentences or highlighting any homographs and homonyms, thus providing rich opportunities for discussion.

Any reading skills intervention strategy you design will be based around assessment data, tailored to a student or group of students and context-dependent.

Incorporating the MVP and word ladders can make interventions more focused, by ensuring students pay attention to the relationship between texts and words, develop their comprehension skills and vocabulary, and ultimately move towards finding satisfaction in reading.

Elaine McNally (@mrsmacteach33) is an English head of department; for more information, visit her blog at

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