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The Unity Academy in Middlesborough started life ten years ago as a school created by the merging of two other schools.

When it began life it had serious problems. The majority of children attending the school had a reading age well below that of their actual age.

The article, in The Independent says:

On average, 85 per cent of pupils were at least one year behind their average reading age when they arrived at the newly opened Unity – and 17 per cent were four of five years behind, which meant they were arriving at secondary school with a reading age of just six or seven. Only 5 per cent had a reading age of above their years.

The problem was made worse by the fact that as a secondary school, all the text books were created for children with an average reading age of 13.

This meant that the majority of children were unable to access the texts they were given in any subject.

This is why literacy was made the flagship subject of the new school’s curriculum and aims.

The school started out with a comprehensive assessment of each pupil, scoring their reading and spelling ability.

Then it created a library.  When the school first started there wasn’t one.

The library was split into ability banded sections with clear labelling so the pupils could find books they could actually read, and progress up the ladder as their ability improved.

The challenge was to find books that the children could enjoy and actively want to read.  This is harder than it looks.  A thirteen year old, for example, but who has the reading age of a six year old, will not be interested in primary school reading schemes that would be accessible to them.

Teachers were forced to search far and wide for any and every kind of text that would engage the children.

Competition has played a huge part in boosting the children’s literacy levels.  They are encouraged to compete against each other to read the most, and prizes are awarded. There are regular target setting sessions and the children are also encouraged in other ways.

One child, mentioned at the beginning of the chapter, has written a book, which the school have funded him to self publish on the internet. Children seeing their work in print both physically and online, receive a massive confidence boost from such measures.

The school has improved beyond measure since these ideas have been put into place, and is now a centre of excellence which provides help and tips for other struggling schools.

The ideas they are implementing sound simple, but it is often the most simple ideas that work the best.  The thing that impresses me about this school’s endeavours is their flexibility and their willingness to think outside the box, particularly in terms of the reading material they offer.

It is this flexibility and the willingness to create a kind of literacy tool kit of anything and everything that works that often gets the most effective results with children who are struggling to read.