Lorna's Story

Lorna Lafford, Assistant Vice Principal at Clacton Coastal Academy in Essex,  reflects in conversation on the experience of implementing Thinking Reading at the school.

Choosing Thinking Reading

How did you find out about Thinking Reading?

Our regional director actually brought it to my attention and said that he had heard it was working really really well in a school in London, and had been back to the academy (which just happened to be his old school). He’d gone and seen it in action for himself and thought it would be really beneficial for our students here. I then went to the website and had a look at the testimonials and the case studies on there, then I sat down and talked about it with the head and thought, you know, this looks perfect for what we’re looking for.

It was really lovely when you came in to have a look – and that was helpful, was it?

Very much so. I think if you had tried to explain the programme to me I would have probably run a mile – being completely honest. Because it is so so structured that to look at a lesson plan and see that you’ve got so many parts to the lesson - unless you can see how easy it is to actually deliver it once the routine is established. It’s much better to look at it in practice, I think. It’s amazing to watch too. It’s lovely to see the children responding so well to it and relating well to it.

So what actually stood out for you when you were observing Linda teaching?

It was the amount of focus that was there, between the LSA and the child, that was so obvious. And also the pace of the lesson, it just went from one thing to another, and even though there were three other people in the room, they were just completely oblivious to what was going on around them. It was amazing to watch a child concentrate for that length of time.



What commitments did the school have to make in order to implement Thinking Reading properly?

I think it’s really important that you’ve got an appropriate space to deliver it in. We were lucky enough to be able to commandeer a large classroom which we were then able to set up for the establishment of four different workstations. I think that’s key, that everybody has their own place to work . . . we bought new storage as well, to accommodate all the materials, and made sure that everything was to hand. I think that’s important, that everything is in the same room. I think the other thing is, it’s really beneficial to have someone come in, and actually organize it all for you, and tell you exactly where it should go, and rationalize all that for you, because of the number of different components there are to organise. I think if you don’t do that from the start, it’s quite easy to miss things out.

So you found it quite helpful, having someone come in and do the setup?

Absolutely, yes. And even silly things, like having the master copy in each folder, with a yellow cross, and the copies in front of it – knowing that you’ve got that system in place is really really helpful.

The other thing was staffing. We’ve got four dedicated people, all of them are part-time, but we have four dedicated tutors for the programme. We have one person who is supposed to be working on one programme and also on Thinking Reading, but that hasn’t really come to fruition. I think that the way to go is to have them working solely on one programme.

The other thing, obviously, is having SLT support. You need someone who is going to push things forward and actually stamp their feet when things don’t happen.

Yes! Which brings us back to the fact that you actually did the training. Certainly my experience has been that it needs someone at SLT level to drive things forward.

That’s right. And I’m really glad that I did the teaching from the start as well. It was really good that I could empathise a little bit with some of the fears that the tutors had, in terms of making sure that things were right. You know, I made the same mistakes they did, at the beginning. And we all helped each other, which was a good way forward.

You started with Year 9. Is the plan to roll it out to other year groups?

Yes. We’re about to start testing Year 9 again, but this time we’re hoping that we will be able to start working with some of them before they get into Year 10. What we’re looking at eventually is using it right through Key Stage 3. We’d like to test them as soon as they come in, and start them right from the beginning.

So what made you think it was worth the commitment?

Looking at your results, really. This is why we said, okay, we’ll pilot it for a half-term and really throw everything we’ve got at it. But the results spoke for themselves. Talking to Emmanuel, when we came over to the school, and listening to his take on it, and actually getting a sense of what type of person he is, it's really nice. As soon as we saw him, I think both Tracey and I related to him as a classic example of what we’ve got here, the same type of student. But it was just the look on his face  - and the look on your face as well – you couldn’t have timed that one better!*

And reading the kids’ testimonials really is what does it for me. And we’ve proved it here, because listening to our children we’re getting the same comments coming back. We’ve got one boy in particular, and I don’t think he can quite believe it himself what he’s achieved, he’s gone up something like five years. It’s just a case of making them sit down, as you said, and realize that he can do it.



What was your experience of the training?

Great. I really like the fact that we split it up. I liked the fact that we had two days at a time. Doing it like that was great. Obviously because we’re using support staff, not teachers, then you’ve got the benefit that you’re not taking them off timetable really. Making that time commitment to it was lovely. And I think if you try and do it all in a week, we would have been in meltdown by the end of it. Splitting it up like that gave you time to digest what you’d read and go away and think about it. It was very comprehensive, obviously – but it was good, really good.



How long did it take before the team felt confident about delivering the programme – once they started teaching?

About a fortnight – there was a point where you could see it happening, almost like a light bulb going on. I think another thing to remember is that, unless you’re making a complete idiot of yourself, the children don’t know what to expect either. The key for us was telling them, "bear with us, this is something new that we’re trying out, that we think is going to help," and making it okay to make a couple of mistakes. You get there in the end, but I think you have to go through that process, and I think you just have to keep going back to it. But yes, give it a good fortnight – I think if you were working on it full-time, I think two weeks would be plenty of time.

How do you feel about the progress that the students are making?

I think it’s unbelievable, actually! It’s really amazing to look and see how far they’ve come in such a short time. We’re really really pleased with it – and more to the point, the students are so pleased with themselves, to know they can actually do it. Because it was heartbreaking, actually, watching some of them fumbling their way through the assessment, coming out at seven-and-a-half, eight-and-a-half – and now all of a sudden, they’re reading at the twentieth set, they’re right at the top of the scale, and it just seems like it’s happened just like that. The only thing is to keep re-testing them – we’re going to retest them after six weeks just to make sure that they haven’t slipped back. But we’re amazed at how quickly it’s worked. It’s so gratifying as well – because people have worked hard with the programme. That’s the reward.

What impact has Thinking Reading had on the school?

You can imagine that when we said we were going to intervene with Year 10, pulling them out of lessons three times a week, we hit some quite major resistance. We more or less made them aware that it was a non-negotiable, that these students were struggling, and that if we don’t put this in place, the chances of them succeeding in your subject are going to be very low . . . now we have staff coming up to us telling us that students are more focused in lessons, that when they’ve gone out for a half hour session, when they come back in they get straight on with their work, there’s no messing around.

We made a point of setting up learning buddies in the classroom for the children, so we’ve asked teachers to nominate somebody who collects any resources or makes any notes for the pupil who comes out. In the classes where they’ve done that, and done it well, it works really well. So they’ve really got on board with us like that. It’s a way of making sure that nobody misses anything.

We’ve been quite flexible in terms of timetabling, so if anyone’s come to us and said that there’s a massive issue around a student coming out of a particular lesson, e.g. they only have four lessons of PE a week and that’s the only one where they get any practical time, we’ve managed to work around that for them as well. We had one boy who wouldn’t come because we were hitting all his favourite lessons, so we swapped it, and he still didn’t come, so his mum took his playstation away! That’s the guy who turned up this morning, and he’s now coming three times a week, without any problem at all.

In terms of academic impact, everybody is remarking on the amount of focus in the classroom that these children seem to have gained, that they are able to sit and concentrate on their work - and some of them have been quite disruptive in the past. And it’s had a really positive effect on their behaviour as well. I think they’re getting past that initial, "ugh, do I really have to do this?" because we almost force them to get on with it as soon as they walk in. As you said, there’s no 'wriggle room'. They can’t get away with it. But that is starting to transfer over into their behaviour in other lessons. That’s been a big thing for us - that increased focus. But with that has come increased confidence as well. That’s what the impact has been for us, really – watching these children flourish.

And I liked the story about the girl that you were teaching . . .

Yes, she was reading the Gorillas book. Some the vocabulary words she’d read in that book were 'squabbling' and 'foraging' – which are not words you’re going to come across every day, let’s face it. And she was really taken with these two words. She was still repeating them to herself as she went out of the room. But she said to me, "I’ve got a piece of coursework that I need to do next week and I promise you that I’m going to get those two words into it somehow". She came down the next week and brought the work to me, and she had, she’d got both of them in, but she’d used them in a completely different context from what she had seen in the book, so she’d obviously got the understanding of the words as well. To be able to manipulate words like that  - it was one of those golden moments, really.

I’m thinking about Stanovich, when he talks about how reading improves your vocabulary much more than oral language – she might never have encountered those words.

To find a child who is reading around about ten, when she was getting on for about fourteen, fifteen, who is so taken with words that she can’t stop saying them, that really is something.

Anything else that you want to add?

No – just that I’m so glad that we took the plunge. It’s been brilliant, a really positive experience from start to finish.

Well, I’ve absolutely loved working out here. It’s been great! 

*We unexpectedly met Emmanuel as we were leaving the school at the end of the visit.