When Kids Can’t Read

This is my long overdue review of Kylene Beers’ When Kids Can’t Read What Teachers Can Do

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The first thing to note is that even for an Edu tome, Beers’ 2009 book is pretty expensive.  Adding in shipping from the US, I paid around £27.00 for it, this post outlines to what extent it was worth it.

Why this book?

This year my school have picked up teaching The Giver in Year 8 (my recent post about this is here), this text is popular in the US and many of the ideas for teaching it seemed to reference some reading strategies I had never heard of – “Think Aloud”, “Say Something”.  I was curious.

With much focus on the new KS3 curriculum and the challenge of a new GCSE, perhaps a new set of strategies might be in order.  I am horrifyingly aware that our students now need to confident and independent readers.

Was it worth it?

I am going to say upfront – that this book is without doubt the most challenging and inspiring I have read in the last six years.  It is practical, academically rigorous and wholly focussed on students and their success.

Beers’ book does exactly what it says on the tin. It is a guide for teachers of secondary school age students, outlining the numerous problems with teenagers’ reading and how they can be tackled.

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Her thinking seems to have stemmed from genuine experiences in her own practice and that of colleagues.  Tackling students who were unable to read the words on the page, then unable to read with any fluency or comprehension and then tackling issues of vocabulary and spelling, before tackling helping students respond to texts.

Below is one example of her ability to articulate clearly the issues in her classroom.

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There are many moments of dialogue in this book, dialogue recorded between herself and students or herself and other teachers.  While they do ring somewhat of ‘the American self-help’ book genre, they also serve the purpose of practical analogies for me to frame reference my classroom experience.

I began to realise that the problems I experience stem from issues so different from one another, that a one-off lesson in comprehension just wouldn’t cut it.

The mantra:

Anyone who’s been around education for a while now knows the mantra “making the implicit explicit” *nod to @LearningSpy*.  Beers’ worldview is no different. She just increases the number of things we need to make explicit.  Her challenge is that so many of our behaviours as confident readers are subconscious, that we must as teachers explicitly and intentionally teach them and then model them constantly.  I have written briefly about this before.

Not only does Beers’ tackle the decoding of words (including some very interesting discussion of the impact of Synthetic Phonics on students who were reaching Middle & High School at the time) and word recognition skills, she also has chapters on:

  • Creating Independent Readers
  • Assessing the needs of Dependent Readers – how to work out where to start
  • Explicit instruction of comprehension
  • Learning to make an inference
  • Frontloading meaning – pre-reading strategies. This one caused me some problems – is it possible to develop pre-reading strategies for the new “unseen” elements of GCSE? I am beginning to see some light on this. More on it in a later blog.
  • Constructing meaning – during reading strategies
  • Extending meaning – after reading strategies
  • Vocabulary – how to figure out what words mean (some fabulous stuff on prefix and suffixes here)
  • Fluency and automaticity
  • Word recognition
  • Spelling – moving from word lists to how words work
  • Building the confidence to respond (to texts, in class, in writing)
  • Finding the right book

All of the above with practical lessons outlining each element of knowledge needed and how to teach, demonstrate and build confidence in each skill.

Beers’ literally (yes, literally) steps into the classroom with each new strategy and explores how lessons using it were or were not successful.  Where learning needed to be paused and retaught or approached differently.

Each chapter ends with an imaginary Q&A session – Beers’ foreseeing my British scepticism anticipates our problems with turning her thinking into classroom practice.

The just under 100 pages of appendices include templates and lesson plans, spelling lists, book lists for a variety of levels. The book itself is 370 odd pages long – and textbook sized.  This is no mean guide.


When Kids Can’t Read is definitely a practical guide (along the lines of How to be a brilliant English teacher) – it is jammed packed full of ideas and moments of realisation.  But it is not vacuous in its academic rigour – Beers’ clearly knows her stuff.  She references most of the major research into reading in the US during 90s and early 2000s, as mentioned above her knowledge of policy and policy making of reading in the US seems to go beyond that of someone mildly interested.  She has a big picture view but never seems to take her eye off individual students.

Beers’, although she has left the classroom, no doubt left her heart there.

Should you buy it?

As I stated at the outset – I love this book. It is expensive but worth it. Cheeky aside – many of Beers’ strategies are so widely used in the US that they can be found online with a simple search.  Don’t be fooled though. The strategies are fantastic, but it is Beers’ clear explanation of the issues behind the strategies that are revelatory. Without that exposition, you really aren’t doing anything more that making your powerpoint look different.

For English departments where students are entering Year 7 on a Level 5/6 but showing poor fluency, comprehension or understanding of written texts, then I think this book might be right up your street.  For departments where you are now carrying the burden of teaching students to read, this is a mature guide to dealing with this issue and teenagers.

Our English departments tend to be littered with Literature graduates, we are confident readers. We are not always confident with grammar, spelling and vocabulary – this text can help. We are also not always confident with articulating a process that is so natural to us – this text can help.

It will explain to you what you do automatically and how you can help your students do that too.

By embedding some of these strategies into my teaching, I am already beginning to see students more confident in their own opinions and ideas.

They are no longer grappling with a text and then listening carefully for my ideas or the ideas of the 3 or 4 confident readers in the room.

They are beginning to form their own inferences, viewpoints and connections.

Below are some examples of how I am beginning to try out Beers’ vocabulary, spelling and comprehension strategies.

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beers 6

beers 7

Thanks for reading.



Why The Giver keeps on giving

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It’s pure coincidence, I promise you, although I suspect you won’t believe me. As part of a dystopian fiction unit, Year 8 are reading The Giver this year. We chose it before we knew about the film.

Lois Lowry’s novel is 20 years old and has been the staple of Language Arts classrooms in the US from its first publication. This does not surprise me. For the first time since I began teaching the students in my classroom want to read on and on.

They are gripped by the world Lowry creates, with its eerie familiarity. They are gripped by idea of a perfect world where nothing is what it seems. They are gripped by the secrets and lies. They are gripped by the rules and placid obedience. They are gripped by the pervading atmosphere of horror that never actually slips past the veneer of polite indifference.

They are gripped by the truth. The ability to see our lives in the lives of the characters. The ability to see our government in their elders. The truth that perhaps our secrets and lies may be the same secrets and lies.

But – is it enough to teach a book that simply grips students?

So far in the last 8 weeks I have used The Giver to teach:

  1. Explicit reading strategies*, such as:
    Think Aloud (see here for more on this one)
    Cornell Note taking
    Double entry journaling
  2. Comprehension strategies*, such as:
    Say Something (see here for more on this one)
    Identification of key moments
    Identification of key techniques: contrasts and contradictions, moments of realisation, advice taken and ignored, flashbacks and memories (key for this text), questions asked and not answered.
  3. Literary analysis, such as:
    Modes of characterisation used
    Analysis of language and structure techniques
    Explicit teaching of literal and inferred meanings of language used
    Use of double entry journal for independent analysis
    Links between language and ideas or themes
    Identification of narrative and authorial voice
    Links between different dystopian texts and The Giver
    Links between The Giver and our own world
  4. Creative response:
    The treatment of elderly in the novel, different societies and our society
    The issue of conflict and the modern world
    To what extent is Britain a dystopia
    The importance of freedom in a democratic society

I’m not sure what else you can ask from a text. I haven’t mentioned the vocabulary, spelling and grammar work the text also enables.

The upsides for me: Students love this book, therefore they love talking and ultimately writing about it, whether its a creative response (like the ones below) or an essay.

Win, win.

If you are looking for a new KS3 text, I highly recommend The Giver.  Who cares if the film just came out?

*If you are interested in the reading and comprehension strategies I have mentioned – I recommend Kylene Beers’ books on reading in the English classroom.

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Love Analysis: Essay writing research – phase 1

Essays written in English lessons are flabby.


Like a 50 year old man sitting down to watch the rugby, we have sort out comfort and ease.  A cosy chair – the ‘easy’ chair – in just the right place, the remote within reach (perhaps in one of those attractive over the arm tidy things). The ‘easy’ chair of the English classroom is the PEE architecture used to firstly meet the assessment criteria and secondly meet the assessment criteria in nice ‘easy’ steps.

I have said (numerously) since I first blogged on this research project last April, I have a number of problems with English essays.  I have summarised their main crimes below (and to serve as a context for what follows):

  • Often they start and finish as a gap-fill exercise.
  • They require little articulation of individual thought.
  • They lack cohesion and genuine argument (used here in its true sense).
  • They lack interest – as a piece of writing created they are often the least interesting to read.
  • They don’t often demonstrate knowledge or understanding.
  • They serve little purpose to the writer.

Whilst my hyperbole doesn’t do us all justice. It’s amazing how marking 300+ exam papers makes it seem true. (Intuition and anecdote are not fact klaxon).

Undertaking classroom research

I am apprehensive about calling this project ‘research’.  It’s been 20 years since I did my degree and even then serious study wasn’t my focus.  I worked two jobs and got married. Added to this, research has become a bit of thing in the Edu-sphere and dare I say it, there is an inner circle of those deemed wise or thoughtful enough to comment and then everyone else.  I am definitely the everyone else.

But the question keeps nagging me, and it has followed me from my old school – through a term and a half of supply – and onto my new school.

If I don’t teach Year 7 “the English essay” with PEE and sentence stems and all that gubbins. If I do something else, could it improve their writing?  Don’t worry I’m not about to burst into a rousing chorus of “be the change you wish to see in the world”.

I’m more of a Tolstoy girl anyway.


Expected and unexpected outcomes:

You probably think from my writing above that I want PEE to fail.  Actually that’s not entirely true.  I want essays that don’t mean anything to fail. I want essays where paragraphs with no tangible links to fail (how many times have I read paragraph A on George is father-like and paragraph B on George has had enough of Lennie – with no link, no link!).  I want gap-fill to fail.

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I am not predetermining the results. I hope I am not.

I also know that it isn’t going to be the data that I produce with just 64 students that matters, or that makes a difference.  In many ways it’s the fact that I am focused on it that will make a difference.  I want to teach PEE really well. So that the class that learns PEE end up writing genius essays AND I want to find an approach that isn’t PEE.  I want the students who won’t learn PEE to write something utterly staggering too.

Maybe we can all be winners.

So what I am doing?


I have two year 7 classes, I see each one once a week and they are equivalents sets from each half of the year.  These two hours will be my research hours.  One class will be my test group (no PEE) and one my control group (PEE).  Both classes have equal numbers of boys and girls in. Although one class has a slightly greater number of students with higher levels. Both classes have students in who were ranked as being in the top 5% of the country in their KS2 SATs.

Among other admin tasks we are writing to parents to explain the project and asking permission to use work generated as part of the write up.  Once I get beyond Phase 1, each lesson with both classes will be filmed.

The text I am using for study in this project is the very short story Ruthless by William De Mille.  The text of which is widely available on the internet.

Phase 1: Love Analysis

The first 4 – 5 lessons of the project are the same for both classes.  I have titled this phase “Love Analysis”.  In order to give both classes enough opportunity to read, discuss and analyse prior to writing – we will spend four lessons unpicking this short story, the characters and literary techniques.

At this point there is no discussion of an essay question or analytical writing.  Any written responses produced in lesson are exploratory, recounts or creative.

I have shared the 5 lessons plans for this phase here Essay writing research SOW – Phase 1. There is nothing over-exciting so please don’t expect too much.  These are lesson designed for year 7 to experience analysis for what may be the first time.

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Phase 2:

It is the next phase that is causing me to lose sleep.  Once both classes have read and explored the different ideas and concepts in Ruthless we need to get on and write some analysis.

At first I wanted a thematic question – on injustice. After following the advice of several wise ones – thanks EMC and Fran N – I agreed this was perhaps too much.

So the essay question that both classes will tackle is “How does William De Mille present the character Judson Webb in Ruthless?” Bog standard. Potential for boredom. Potential for greatness.

Now these two classes will diverge.

Here I will teach one class PEE – the most unstructured, structured PEE approach I think I can get away with.  Students will have the broad strokes but I don’t want them to fail, so they won’t have a PEE sentence stem gap fill experience.

The other class will get something completely different. Spot the deliberate vagueness.  Despite this being less than a month away I am still kind of stuck on this one.  I don’t want to give them any structure at all. After all TEEPE is just PEE by another name.  But I also don’t want them to fail, so I need to do something.

In collaboration with my amazing colleagues I am slowly working it out.  I have a draft structure of these lessons worked out and if you fancy having a looksee let me know.

Things I don’t know:

  • Which class should do which? Names in a hat I suppose.
  • What a good essay that doesn’t use PEE looks like.
  • Whether I am reinventing a square wheel.
  • If this has any value at all.

Thank you for reading, if you have any advice or ideas please get in contact via the comments or twitter.

Have a great weekend.


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