6b: College of West Anglia

Developing reading in 16-18 year olds

College of West Anglia

This project focused on a small cohort of technology learners and explored their reading ability as well as their attitudes towards reading, with the aim of having a positive influence on both. We aimed to bridge the gap between vocational areas and the English department to normalise reading. We trialled a range of strategies and found that ‘Echo reading’ (Didau, 2021) and the use of an anthology of texts in GCSE English lessons, in particular, had a positive influence on learners’ reading habits.

One of the additional benefits of the project was the use of learner voice – an in-depth insight we had not anticipated.

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


In FE we face the problem of demoralised learners who have come to us with their guards up and their hatred for reading abundantly clear! The aim of this project was to make reading more accessible to learners and to take away some of the fear they have brought with them from school.

The project was influenced by the work of Vivienne Smith (2010) and her interpretative framework. She discusses the idea that learners can revisit texts and ask different questions of it each time as their understanding would be different based on their social and emotional experiences. We aimed to expand on this idea.

It was hoped that as a bare minimum we could improve the relationship between learners and texts and hopefully see an improvement in not only achievement, but enjoyment and engagement.

Other Contextual Information

Our project took place in an FE College, and we focused on two small groups of technology learners studying for GCSE resits – this was around 25-30 learners in total.

Two teachers from the English department were involved in the research along with six technology teachers from across the vocational area. The aim was to keep the project small and manageable so the impact could be monitored more accurately before moving to a wider cohort sample if successful.


We really hit the ground running and started with our biggest changes first. We were eager to have some aspects in place ready for a September start so steps 1-3 below were completed in the summer administration days, with the rest completed during the academic year alongside teaching. We did find it a struggle to persevere in the final months due to staffing issues in our department, so it was a relief we had made so much progress prior to this.

  1. used the results of the learner voice surveys from the academic year 20-21 to gather information around what themes learners enjoy reading about (Appendix 3)
  2. adapted the GCSE Scheme of Learning to incorporate learners’ preferred themes and decided to change these around every six weeks. Themes which relate to real life were selected.
  3. created an anthology of set texts – three texts per theme so all exam skills in that rotation could be covered alongside the allocated theme. (Appendix 4)
  4. trialled reading strategies in class to get learners reading aloud (conducted in the first two weeks of teaching).
  5. purchased L’ Explore Analytics software to explore further reading ability and performed practice assessments with six learners to gain qualified examiner status
  6. met with the technology department to share our research ideas and recruited volunteers to record readings of texts from the anthology
  7. English teachers visited plumbing, carpentry and motor vehicle departments to see learners in their own environments and to see what reading materials were accessible in workshops.
  8. liaised with LRC and sourced a selection of books to use in lessons.
  9. filmed technology teachers reading assessments to normalise reading. We plan to upload the videos to our online learning platform so learners have access.
  10. had conversations with staff in the LRC which resulted in the purchase of books for the anthology texts. These were made available to learners. Posters were created and advertised to learners. (Appendix 5)
  11. populated notice boards outside Motor Vehicle and Plumbing workshops to entice learners to read.
  12. continued to gather learner voice – with the final one at the beginning of May
before and after noticeboard outside motor vehicle (after has lots more posters and relevant articles)

Before and after notice board outside Motor Vehicle

Outcomes and Impact

Teaching, Learning and Assessment

five GCSE learners reading aloud together at the front of the class

A photo showing five GCSE English learners reading aloud together at the front of the class.

The introduction of the anthology has had the most impact at this stage. Learners report they appreciate the reduced number of texts they are faced with and having the opportunity to re-visit texts has allowed greater discussions within the classrooms. Learners have been able to connect their memories and prior knowledge to the texts (Willingham T, 2017). By reducing the number of texts, learners have more time to apply the exam skills to the extracts rather than spending time each lesson trying to comprehend fresh material. Assessment results have improved, as shown in the learner case studies, further evidencing that changes to the approach of teaching are resulting in progress within the classroom.

The themed lessons have had a mixed impact. ‘War and Conflict’ was the learners’ top choice in the last academic year and has so far been the most engaged with theme with this cohort. (Appendix 6).

Trying different strategies to get learners reading aloud has been a positive change to the teaching and learning; learners are becoming more comfortable with reading in front of their peers and holding relevant discussions about the texts. As studies show increased learner discussions and active participation facilitate learning (Kenney & Banerjee, 2011), this is a real strength of the project.

Final learner voice, completed in May 2022, compared to learner voice gathered in February 2021, showed positive overall outcomes with regards to learner enjoyment and understanding of lessons. (Appendix 7).

Gathering learner voice throughout the project became a more impactful tool than anticipated. We were able to identify learners who were not enjoying English, who did not find the work was explained well or did not get on with their teacher. The project lead, who is also the Programme Manager for the English department, withdrew this information and was able to contact the relevant learners, showing a) they are listened to and b) we are willing to help. This allowed opportunity for classes to be changed and additional support to be offered outside of the classroom; a benefit which was unanticipated at the start of the project.

Organisational Development

Visit to the LRC. Higlighting in particular one of our anthology books: 'The Hate U Give'The project has allowed us to build relationships with the technology department (professional standard 20), which, in turn, has demonstrated to learners that English is not a separate entity to their vocational area. This has appeared like a sign of solidarity between us and our technology colleagues and has helped to build collaborative relationships with the learners (professional standard 6). Forming these relationships has engaged and motivated learners within our sessions and may have been a contributing factor in why they feel comfortable reading in our classes.

The videos recorded of the technology teachers are yet to be used properly, and so the impact of this is still to be seen, but we hope that in time they will inspire and motivate learners to read.

We worked with the LRC, something we have not done before, to promote our anthology to learners. We were able to explore what books were already available to learners and acquired several boxes of ‘quick-reads’ to have in our classrooms to support and encourage reading at the start of sessions.

Learning from this project

As a result of hard work and careful planning, we were able to get the anthology out in time for commencement of teaching in September 2021. This was a real strength of the project as it enabled all GCSE learners the chance to focus their attention on the academic skill they needed for the exam, rather than battling to comprehend new material each session and then apply a tricky skill like evaluation, all in the space of ninety minutes.

This was not without its challenges, however. The impact of disrupted learning due to the pandemic on our learners has been profound, not just academically but with behaviour issues we have not faced before. The first theme the learners were reading about was Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI). Reflecting on this, we still believe this is an important topic and the texts chosen worked well, in particular ‘The Hate U Give’. In the next academic year, however, we will push this theme later in the year once learners have matured and fully understand the appropriate way to behave in the FE environment. Unfortunately, some opinions detracted from the lessons and assessing comprehension of the texts became challenging due to lively discussions which would often go off on tangents.

Trialling reading strategies such as ‘Echo reading’ (Didau, 2021) was surprisingly effective. The idea that the teacher reads a small section (a sentence or two) and a reader then repeats this aloud – effectively echoing the teacher – initially sounded a little primary school. However, learners participated and acknowledged why this could be an effective strategy and were able to demonstrate comprehension of the text after reading, so this was a success.

This strategy was particularly influential to us as practitioners as we had to stop and consider the potential cognitive overload of our learners. Reading along with the teacher initially seems like a straightforward task until you stop to consider the effect this can actually have on a learner’s understanding of texts.

feedback from the learners on the projectMoving forward, we have learned to attempt new strategies – even if there is a fear they will not work. With echo reading, we continued to trial this for a while longer; however we slipped back into the routine of learners reading sections out loud rather than echoing the teacher. This is still a success with regards to comprehension, as learners have now developed the confidence to read aloud in class and it is rare for them to refuse.

The L’ Explore Analytics software certainly opened our eyes to the challenges our learners have with reading. Visibly seeing their eyes darting around the screen as they tried to read was a real insight into what their processing was like, and the learners were quite fascinated when we were able to show them a picture of their eye movements. (Appendix 8). It was also interesting to watch learners read the extracts almost fluently yet fail to answer the comprehension questions immediately afterwards; evidence that learners can read words but there is a difference between decoding and comprehending the meaning of those words.
Unfortunately, due to staffing issues within the department, we did not have the capacity to explore this software further this year. We can see huge potential with the system, and the learners really engaged with the experimental phase of the training, so it will be interesting to explore this further in the next academic year.

Reading time (10-15 minutes) was introduced at the start of lessons in place of the current 5-a-day question starter activity. Learners were presented with the ‘quick-reads’ that we acquired from the LRC. Tutor observations were recorded, and learners gave feedback on post-it notes.

All learners chose a book and started reading. Some learners freely discussed details about the book they had read with the class or read out the synopsis. Some commented that they liked the quiet; however, others struggled to remain focused to read and got distracted talking to peers or looking at their phone. Two motor vehicle learners who were not engaged said they would read if there were books or magazines about cars with more pictures in.

There were some real positives that came out of the activity. The task opened discussion about reading with one technology learner sharing that their parent had helped them to set a schedule for reading at home, but he didn’t stick to it. In addition, five learners asked to take the book they had started to read home to continue reading. Others asked if we would do the activity again and asked if they could bring in their own books to do so and this did happen. Another learner mentioned that they thought their book had started well and we discussed how they could use something similar in their own writing.

Out of the twenty-five learners who gave feedback on the task, nine said that they would not like to do the task again with comments such as: [the task was] ‘boring’, ‘did not like reading’ or ‘prefer the 5-a-day activity’. Ten learners were positive about the task, largely saying they would like to do it again and a couple saying that they liked the slower/more relaxed start to lessons.

Feedback was received from the LRC about books that were borrowed from the anthology. The results show that, as shown in learner voice feedback, the war and conflict and EDI topics were the most popular. (Appendix 5).

Professional Development

We have selected three of the ETF’s Professional Standards (for teachers and trainers working in Further Education and Post-16 learning) to illustrate how our project has impacted on our approaches to professional development. 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.

    The project allowed us the time to explore different strategies to help learners to learn. The L’ Explore software showed us the struggle some learners have following even the shortest of texts and being able to retain the information long enough to answer straight forward comprehension questions afterwards. The difference between reading aloud and silently informed our selection of reading strategies to use in the class: E.g. Echo reading.

  • 9. Apply theoretical understanding of effective practice in teaching, learning and assessment drawing on research and other evidence

    We conducted a vast amount of research into reading comprehension in young people. We explored social and economic influences, SEN impact and behavioural impacts. All of this alongside reading strategies and theories relating to cognitive overload, meant we were able to adapt our teaching to take these factors into consideration.

  • 14. Plan and deliver effective learning programmes for diverse groups or individuals in a safe and inclusive environment

    The creation of the anthology was to reduce the cognitive load for learners whilst highlighting important issues which need to be addressed in society. The focus on EDI has been profound and, although received in different ways, has allowed learners to express and celebrate their diversity.

    Lessons were planned to allow and encourage discussions around topics such as equality, relationships and gender roles, and learners demonstrated their understanding and were able to educate one another if views and beliefs were expressed in ways which lacked sensitivity.


Appendix 2: Learner Case Studies

Appendix 3: Learner Voice

Appendix 4: Our anthology of texts

Appendix 5: Project posters

Appendix 6: Analysis of the anthology themes, based on learner voice surveys

Appendix 7: Comparison of learner voice survey results in 2021 and 2022

Appendix 8: L’Explore Analytics software


2021, from Learning Spy:

Kenney, J. L., & Banerjee, P. (2011). “Would Someone Say Something, Please?” Increasing Student Participation in College Classrooms. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 22(4), 57-81.

Smith, V. (2010). Comprehension as a Social Act. In K. Hall, Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Learning to Read. (pp. 63-73). Routledge.

Willingham T, D. (2017). The Reading Mind: A Cogntive Approach to Understanding How the Mind Reads. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated.