The Secondary School Reading Plateau.

Many pupils perform well at primary level, showing themselves to be bright and well motivated, and yet a few years later the same pupils begin to experience problems in school. This blip in their academic performance occurs during the transition period between late primary and early secondary school, when pupils are progressing from the accurate decoding of texts to deeper comprehension of texts.

At primary school a child learns to read, at secondary school the pupil reads to learn, and good readers cannot be identified by their decoding ability alone. Reading is a complex activity requiring a combination of skills: decoding, general knowledge, vocabulary, concentration, memory and motivation. In the light of this complexity, it is not surprising that individuals’ reading develops at different rates and to different levels.

Not everyone will be a confident reader when they start secondary school, although this might not be obvious to mainstream teachers. There would be valid reasons for such an oversight: –

  • There is a perception that reading is taught in primary schools. Secondary teachers would imagine the skill to be established by the time a pupil enters secondary education and, even if they realise that a pupil’s reading is weak, few would feel skilled enough to offer support.
  • When a pupil can decode written text, it is assumed that they understand what they are reading.
  • Senior school staff teach large numbers of pupils for short periods of time, observe pupils in limited settings, focus on subject related material rather than literacy skills and so will not have the opportunity to observe pupils’ reading deficiencies.
  • The individual reading activities, in which a pupil’s problems might be observed, are unlikely to occur regularly in subject lessons.
  • The skills that underpin reading such as language, memory and attention, are assumed to be developed to an appropriate level by the time a child is eleven.
  • Secondary pupils needing more opportunities for reading practice than their peers will be the most accomplished at hiding their difficulties.
  • Reading difficulties occur across a wide spectrum and there will be pupils who experience mild reading problems in certain circumstances, perhaps when they feel under pressure, when excessively tired, reading about unfamiliar topics or working within time limits.

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