Reading Influencer

Northampton College

This project was a collaboration between English teachers, academic coaches and vocational staff to boost the reading confidence of GCSE English Language students using audio extracts. It enhanced English teaching methodology, had a proven impact on student reading ages, highlighted a focus on reading and brought together college staff from a number of disciplines.

You can download a PDF of this report on the Excellence Gateway.


Northampton College is the leading further education provider in the South East Midlands with approximately 1200 students enrolled to GCSE English Language. In 2021 the college decided to move its provision for 16 -19 year old study programme students, with no GCSE or a grade 1 to 2, from Functional Skills to GCSE English Language. Some of these students are doing GCSE for the first time but the majority are resitting the qualification. The groups are split into GCSE (with a qualification on entry of grade 3) and GCSE + (with a qualification on entry of a grade 2 or below).

The project was run with the cohort of students who had primarily achieved a grade 2 or below in GCSE English (approximately 400). The initial idea was for vocational tutors to read extracts and to use those with the relevant vocational students.

Stakeholders involved in the project included an Assistant Principal, a governor, vocational teachers, English teachers and students (see Appendix 1).


For those students with a grade 2 and below who would now be studying GCSE English Language an alternative approach to delivering the curriculum needed to be developed, one

Reading Influencer feedback

Reading Influencer feedback

that was engaging and accessible to all, building confidence in the basics, enabling students to improve by at least one grade. This cohort is already demotivated by not achieving the government-approved ‘pass’ of a grade 4 and often have additional support needs not addressed in previous educational settings.

The Project Lead has a background in Specific Learning Difficulties and after teaching the GCSE specification since its introduction, it was clear that reading confidence was an area that needed addressing using a variety of methods. The project narrowed its focus to encouraging reading and understanding by using audio recordings of texts.

According to a study conducted by ‘Reading while listening improves comprehension by 76%’ (Audio Pub, 2016) which can significantly help students with SpLD and those with recognised differences in learning.

‘Listening to an audio … while following along with the text can actually help bridge the gap between decoding words and assigning meaning …. Receiving information both visually and audibly reinforces word recognition, improves fluency, builds vocabulary and supports the development of higher-level comprehension skills.’ (, 2004).

To gain even further engagement from the students it was thought that the audios should be delivered by familiar voices, from vocational areas, demonstrating that it is not only English teachers who read but also people who have a background in music, catering, science, etc.


There were three main phases with activities scheduled to take place throughout the life span of the project. The three phases were coincided to start at the beginning of each half term in September 2021, October 2020 and January 2021; every six weeks.

Image of Phase 1

Phase 1

An email was sent to all staff at Northampton College on 1st July 2020 asking for volunteers to record an audio extract. Suitable extracts (see Appendix 2 & 3), together with comprehension, vocabulary and extension writing tasks (see Appendix 4) were sourced.

After posting a tweet on Twitter, the Project Lead was approached by the editor of Times Educational Supplement (FE) and asked to write an article about the project. The article was published in the TES outlining the project on the 18th September 2020 (see Appendix 5).

A Google form (see Appendix 4) was created for each of the extracts/audios from the sourced booklet and posted onto a Google Classroom page for teachers to then post as an assignment to their own classroom pages.

A small group of L1 IT students was identified to use as a study group for the project.

Image of Phase 2

Phase 2

Two vocational teachers (a drama teacher and a music teacher) were recruited from the original list of volunteers to record two fiction extracts from previous AQA GCSE papers. These extracts were: AQA GCSE English Language 8700 Specimen paper from 2016 City of the Beasts by Isabel Allende (see Appendix 7) and AQA GCSE English Language 8700 paper from June 2018 Jigs and Reels by Joanne Harris (see Appendix 8). The audios created from these extracts were used in the classroom as part of English lessons. Additional vocational teachers were approached but all declined due to time constraints or uncertainty about reading out loud.

A Baseline Toe by Toe Reading Age Test was undertaken by an Academic Coach with a small group of IT Level 1 students on the 16th November 2020 (see Appendix 9).

Students were to be recruited to read non-fiction extracts from previous GCSE English papers and used as part of English lessons. Only 1 student volunteered so volunteers were sourced from the English department and a teacher who also ran a Guide group, volunteered two teenagers to record an audio.

Image of Phase 3

Phase 3

This period was during national lockdown three and so the audios were used remotely by playing through Google Classroom with students reading the extracts online while listening.

The project was shared with other English and maths teachers at an ETF Collaborative Practice event on the 5th February 2021 and at a Practice Development Group event on the 3rd March 2021.

A discussion took place with the pilot group of students on the 18th March 2020 (see Appendix 12).

The second Toe by Toe Reading Age Test undertaken by an Academic Coach on 22nd of March 2021 (see Appendix 10).

A podcast interview has been booked with FE Research Meet on 26th May 2021 to share the project (see Appendix 18).

Professional Learning: Evidence of changes in teaching, learning and assessment practices

The project encouraged the Project Lead to undertake academic reading in the area of

English teachers' feedback

English teachers’ feedback

reading development which deepened her understanding of the internal processes involved in reading and how teachers can develop them in reluctant readers. It helped the team to reflect on what would work for the diverse needs of the students.

When asked whether the audios helped, one student stated: ‘Yes they did help a little more because if I got lost reading it would help me pick up where I might have left off.’ (see Appendix 12).

English teachers involved in the project have said they will be using audios in class in the coming year as it has helped bring a lively pace to the lesson and allows for all students to participate equally. One teacher said:

“Less confident students feel that they are not left behind and are more equal to their peers in this setting.”

(see Appendix 14).

Whilst another said:

“I have asked almost all of my classes and there hasn’t been any negative feedback!”

(see Appendix 14).

Alongside The Reading Influencers Project there has been an improved focus on reading for meaning by using the fiction extracts, including the audios, in funded intervention sessions run by Academic Coaches within the maths and English department as well as in the School of Additional Learning Support department after the project was shared by a Vice Principal.

After presenting a Literacy and Dyslexia session to students on the Initial Teacher Training (ITT) course at Northampton College in February the Project Lead held discussions with the ITT course leader about teaching and leading on the action research unit from May 2021and will be sharing knowledge gained from the ETF OTLA project.

As a result of the positive feedback from students and teachers, audios of extracts were used with all GCSE students for the Paper 2 Reading assessments that were completed in early May 2020 as part of the teacher assessed grades assessments.

Evidence of improved collaboration and changes in organisation practices

The project has encouraged discussion with vocational teachers about GCSE English. Vocational teachers are still volunteering to read for the next academic year. New extracts will be sourced and sent out to new volunteers for recording.

Reading Influencers enjoyed taking part in the project. One vocational teacher said:

“I think I’ve found my new vocation …”,

whilst it encouraged another to read more:

“It’s broadened my horizons, too; I found a cut-price copy of ‘100 years of Solitude’ and I’m halfway through.”

(see Appendix 13).

The project will continue to be used as part of a skills lesson that will be run in parallel to GCSE English in 2021/22.

Additional Learning Support have adopted elements of the project which have been, and will continue to be, used in funded intervention sessions.

Being part of the project has allowed the Project Lead to encourage other English teachers to take part in other ETF activity such as teach meets, digital collaboration programmes and to start thinking about how they can develop their own action research projects.

Following an external review of the maths and English provision, where the project and the TES article were shared with the reviewer, the Vice Principal is now keen to encourage teachers to take part in action research projects.

An idea for CPD for vocational staff was emailed to the Curriculum Manager for English and the Assistant Principal for maths and English. The CPD included an idea for a fun voice coaching lesson leading to further confidence for teachers to read out loud which may, again, lead to more vocational teachers volunteering for the Reading Influencer Project in 2021/22.

Evidence of improvement in learners’ achievements, retention and progression

The Toe by Toe Reading Age tests that were undertaken with the small study group showed an increase of at least one reading age year in all students and, in some cases, two years (see Appendix 15).

The GCSE starting points and predicted end points of the student study group has shown that each student’s results should increase by at least 1 grade (see Appendix 16).

Students with SpLD and those with dyslexic traits could keep up with the extract and it also helped ESOL students with understanding words that they may heard before but did not know how to read as one student stated:

‘They helped me a lot so that I can learn the pronunciation.‘ (see Appendix 12).

Another student explained:

‘… they did help a little more because if I got lost reading it would help me pick up where I might have left off.’ (see Appendix 12).

Some students did not realise that they could access audios for texts and may use them in the future with one saying:

‘I think it will be eas[ier] to listen to some audios, that will make me more focused.’ (see Appendix 12).

Learning from this project

The main constraint on the project was the impact of lockdown three in January 2021. Reading Paper 2 was meant to be taught during this period which involves a lot of reading alongside the lessons. After trialling the reading at home during the first week of remote learning, it was found to be too overwhelming for many students, so extracts were cut down into shorter paragraphs.

Student involvement in recording extracts at an earlier stage would have helped with recruitment of volunteers.

It was difficult to recruit vocational teachers after August as their commitments were focused on their own teaching. It was interesting to note that a few of the vocational teachers who were approached to take part in the project disclosed that they did not feel confident about reading out loud. These disclosures spurred on the idea for the cross college CPD session mentioned in the ‘Improved Collaboration’ section above.

Students really enjoyed being read to and find it immensely helpful to aid understanding. One student said: “When I had to highlight the text I could find the answers easier because we had listened to the text first.” (see Appendix 11 & 12).

Teachers also loved the idea of audios as it allowed all students to work at the same pace (see Appendix 14).

The project has encouraged discussions with the Additional Supported Learning department and has really brought reading, and reading for meaning, to the forefront of the English agenda.

Discussions are ongoing with the manager of the college library to see if students can access more audio books as the ones currently in the library are on CD and the range is limited.

The Project Lead has done extensive wider reading on how reading can be encouraged in an educational setting. This has led to professional discussions on Twitter and to a podcast review of Closing the Reading Gap by Alex Quigley (see Appendix 17).

A podcast interview took place on the 26th May with FE Research Meet to discuss the project and will be available towards the middle of July (see Appendix 18). The interview inspired reflection on how the impact of the project could have been demonstrated further with more focused student feedback and how students could have been encouraged to play more of a collaborative part in the process.

Next year the teaching in English will focus on reading for meaning and it is envisaged that The Reading Influencer Project will be extended to include audios of extracts used in weekly ‘Skills Focus’ lessons together with complimentary audio reviews of some of the books to entice students to read further. Students will also be encouraged to do audio reviews of books they have read and pick their favourite section to share on a centralised easily accessible system.