Read More – Write Better: walking in a writer’s shoes and understanding perspective

Macclesfield College

This project explored strategies to create classroom routines which encourage students’ engagement with and their reading of non-fiction texts. Students’ lack of reading experience is the elephant in the resit FE classroom. It quietly looms its head in all lessons – but what can we do about it? We focused on getting students to read more, to choose their reading material and to embed regular reading into every class. We found that embedding a reading routine into our lessons had a positive effect on our learners – helping lower their anxiety over reading non-fiction texts.

You can download a PDF of this report on the Excellence Gateway (link pending).


The vast majority of our GCSE English language resit students don’t read. We know this as they tell us (often with pride) that they don’t read, alongside published research: the 2018 Taking Part Survey: Free Time Activities Focus Report found only 46% of 16–24-year-olds read in their free time. We also found that our learners lack experience in reading non-fiction texts, and these types of texts account for 50% of the qualification.

In the English Language examination students are expected to read over 1200 words. On average around 10% of these words are complex and the texts require a reading age of 15+. As less experienced readers, the reading and analysing of challenging texts required for GCSE is often off-putting for resit students. Having already missed the pass-mark, lots of students develop a dislike of reading and demonstrate low levels of resilience. This barrier is further compounded as current students have lost stamina and concentration due to COVID lockdowns. As Ofsted observed in their 2020 COVID-19 briefing ‘some pupils’ concentration or their mental and physical stamina have reduced. Some leaders said pupils were fatigued, ‘disconnected’ from learning or struggling to stay awake and alert.’ (Ofsted, 2020)

Other Contextual Information

Our action research took place in the English Department of our FE college. Macclesfield College is a provider of Further Education, Higher Education and skills training; serving the Cheshire East area and beyond. The project was led by two members of the English GCSE teaching team. We worked with two groups of resitting GCSE English Language learners, aged 16-19 from a range of main course subjects.


Learners at Macclesfield College have two 1.5-hour English lessons per week. We identified two groups and the key focus of the first session was to share the action research ideas and ascertain greater insights into student attitudes to ‘reading for pleasure’ and reading in leisure time. In introducing the project, we were transparent and open. We wanted students to feel a part of the action research project and this had a positive effect as the students felt a sense of importance and responsibility.

Once groups were identified, we began by asking students to complete a questionnaire (see Appendix 3). 100% of learners felt reading was good for them. However, 80% said they read for less than an hour per week, the other 20% said they read for less than 2 hours per week.

We collated a bank of short, bite-sized reading materials of approximately 300-400 words as we felt the length of extracts given in exams can overwhelm students. Our aim was to improve reading stamina and resilience. We asked students to identify a range of topics that would appeal to and inspire them. Topics suggested by participants provided a range of subjects: real crime, music, Formula One, mystery, teenage drama, ‘my story’, computing, space. These areas of interest were used when selecting extracts for reading. Eventually, we asked students to download and print an article on a topic of personal interest to develop their sense of ownership. (See Appendix 3 for some examples.)

creating a safe place for reading and discussionReading sessions were implemented as routine to provide regular mental exercise in reading. We tried to keep the ‘routine’ fixed so students came to expect it. These reading slots took place at the start of each lesson and lasted approximately 15 minutes. Students read the text together and completed a ‘low stakes’ discussion task. To enable a different ‘head space’ and move away from the familiar classroom set-up, we asked students to sit in circle or to turn inwards so we could see each other and create a different space. After some initial mild resistance to this change, students accepted this as a part of the ‘routine’. This was designed to separate the reading from the main content of the lesson, creating a safe space for reading and discussion.

We wanted to avoid any overt ‘exam focus’ and capture student responses and initial thoughts about texts. We used the same set of discussion questions for each text in order to reinforce the routine. These were deliberately informal and ‘low-stakes’. Later in the project, more detailed conversations focussed on the writer’s thoughts and feelings. What is happening? What is it about? What feelings are present? Post reading discussions were always open-ended but we did draw a link to writer’s perspective but without the ‘pressure’ to write up analytical responses. After the first couple of discussions, it became apparent discussions were stifled by students’ lack of discursive vocabulary, so we provided some key vocabulary and sentence starters to assist students in verbalising their opinions. The PowerPoint slide below was displayed during each discussion activity:

Discussion questions for learners (What is being written about here? What is the writer trying to get us to think about? What is the writer's opinion/ message? What interests/ stands out to you in this text?)

As the project developed, we did ask students to write some brief notes to record their initial response. Responses provided some useful and interesting insights, for example, a short extract from a letter from a 16yr old to a newspaper provided strong responses: ‘I agree with her, adults need to realise that when we grow up we ARE going to change and NOT stay how we are now – when we are young.’ We ensured this was low stakes by not assessing the notes and gave students the option to keep their notes private.

Finally, we were able to exploit existing, strong links with curriculum areas across the college. This helped in the identification of subject specific texts for the routine reading slots e.g., Health and Social Care – mental health and well-being during lock-down learning was a topic many students felt invested in and reading around the topic was of interest.

Outcomes and Impact

Teaching, Learning and Assessment

It took time to establish routines but as students came to expect it, they settled more quickly. Students began to enter the classroom and ask, ‘What are we reading about today?’. The routine gave students exposure to different types of non-fiction texts and discussion helped them respond more quickly and in more detail to questions about writer’s viewpoint.

We trialled the routine at the beginning or at the end of the session. It quickly became clear; students were more engaged and focused when the activity was at the start of the lesson. At the end of the 90-minute lesson, students were less enthused about the task and contributed very little. At the start of the lesson, they were more motivated to take part in the activity. It also meant we were presenting reading and discussion to students as a valued and important activity, not something ‘tacked on’ at the end of a lesson.

I like reading texts that I’d chosenThe ‘low stakes’ nature of the discussions encouraged greater confidence and participation from students. As the project progressed, students became more willing to share their thoughts and ideas and this filtered into main parts of lessons where students were more willing to offer their ideas. A student commented, ‘I feel less worried about saying something.’

The regularity of the task encouraged more reticent students to join in. Students were from a range of main courses and initially were not comfortable together but the routine helped to create a stronger group dynamic. As the project progressed, students began to discuss with less need for teacher facilitation.

Involving students with the project from the outset gave students a sense of ownership of their own learning and this empowered reticent and unconfident learners; ‘I liked reading texts that I’d chosen’. Allowing the students to choose texts showed us what If I could sit the exam on this text, I would get a grade 6students actually want to read about. This was often not what we expected and we noted that, on the whole, texts were rather light-hearted and positive in nature. This stood out to us because, as practitioners, we are often drawn to more gritty texts to share with students, often believing this will engage them more. It was interesting to note this preference for more uplifting texts and has made us think more deeply about the texts we use in class.

Finally, it was clear for some students, confidence in their own academic ability had increased. Reading of texts selected by themselves and therefore ‘relatable’, appeared to facilitate more engagement and connection. For example, when reading an article about Formula One, students easily picked out interesting aspects of language, When reading about Taylor Swift, ‘She can carve into something’, they were easily able to explain how this linked to the writer’s perspective. One student said after one of the routine reading activities, ‘If I could sit the exam on this text I would get a grade 6!

Organisational Development

There were two Project Leads both from the English team – this helped facilitate greater collaboration and sharing of ideas within the English curriculum area. The action research model encouraged us to work collaboratively and demonstrate the strategies to the wider department. Having an ‘active’ action research project meant that we gave more time to reflecting on the activities together. As staff, we found we spent more time discussing learning and pedagogy, rather than the usual management/admin tasks. The project helped to develop links with curriculum areas and colleagues from other areas in the college by more direct and specific reaching out to departments such as Health and Social Care to ask for examples of non-fiction texts or current topics they are exploring with students.

By removing the exam focus and making more activities low risk, our project has initiated new thinking around student mind-set. As a result, we believe we can we create a greater sense of freedom and risk in our organisation to embed this approach elsewhere.

Learning from this project

“Finally, a reading activity that actually engages the students. I feel like I’m teaching reading constructively.”

Overall, the project had a number of successes. The introduction of reading routines created a low stakes environment which encouraged and supported students in sharing ideas and thoughts. Student participation in group discussion increased and better group dynamics Students developed  more of a ‘can try’ attitudedeveloped. Students developed more of a ‘can try’ attitude when faced with reading non-fiction texts. Students who at the outset had been overloaded and abandoned the reading of texts were more prepared to read and discuss a text. When studying paper 2 in their main lessons, students were less fearful of attempting Q4 – which focuses on viewpoints. They were also less intimidated by reading pairs of non-fiction texts.

Students’ ability to identify writers’ viewpoints improved and their understanding of multiple perspectives increased. This was evident when compared to other groups who had not experienced the reading routine of the project groups.

We want to roll out this strategy to the whole GCSE resit cohort in the next academic year and further develop it to include reading fiction writing. We would also seek to develop using student text choices further as this was the area that produced a lot of students’ buy-in.

Professional Development

Using the ETF’s Professional Standards for teachers and trainers. Please note, this report refers to the 2014-2022 standards.

  • 4. Be creative and innovative in selecting and adapting strategies to help learners to learn.

    It created time to trial a range of strategies to introduce a reading routine for students. By asking for students’ perspectives, we could evaluate students’ experience and learning preferences and take these into account when categorising strategies. As the project progressed, we made modifications to improve students’ experiences: displaying sentence starts to overcome students’ verbal barriers; introducing more opinion pieces as it became clear students were struggling to relate to these.

  • 13. Motivate and inspire learners to promote achievement and develop their skills to enable progression.

    Our project enabled students to become acquainted with, and used to reading, non-fiction texts. Low stakes, consistent questioning of each text developed a routine that enabled students to build their confidence when handling non-fiction texts. This greater confidence assisted students when studying Paper 2, enabling them to tackle the paper with greater confidence and more experiences of identifying viewpoints.

  • 17. Enable learners to share responsibility for their own learning and assessment, setting goals that stretch and challenge.

    Students were made aware of the project from the beginning. Engaging them in the project empowered students to try activities they would usually be uneasy with. Our project enabled students to select materials for the class to study. This gave the opportunity for learning to be relevant and gave students ownership of their own learning. Students were often challenging themselves with longer texts. As the project progressed, discussion developed and the levels of stretch and challenge increased through the quality of discussion.


Appendix 1: The project team

Appendix 2: Learner case studies

Appendix 3: Learning materials


GOV.UK. 2022. Taking Part 2018/19: statistical release. [online] Available at: [Accessed 16 July 2021].

GOV.UK. 2020. OFSTED. COVID-19 Series: briefing on schools, October 2020. [online] Available at: [Accessed 5 May 2022].