13a. Blackburn College

Using digital readers to engage and build confidence in reading

Blackburn College

This project wanted to investigate how Microsoft Immersive Reader (IR) could be used to build reading confidence and help learners access more difficult texts. We began by exploring possibilities for classroom use and then moved on to explore its use with the help of Additional Learning Support (ALS) staff.

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


At Blackburn College many learners who begin study programmes have not yet achieved

Using MS Immersive Reader to support students with reading

the required grade 9 – 4 in English language and must resit their GCSE English. In 2021-22 learners retaking English numbered 620 and of those learners 22% were identified as having additional learning support needs. Key to helping our learners obtain this qualification and move on to successful further study is the building of confidence in reading and improved comprehension skills.
Many of our learners are reluctant readers, easily put off by the length of texts and the sheer amount of new vocabulary that some GCSE as well as vocational reading requires. To aid with this, we spend a lot of time helping learners to break texts up, explore context to help understanding, and demonstrate how it isn’t necessary to understand every word. However, we felt that by exploring the use of IR with its built-in dictionary, translator and chunking function we might also make the task of reading more interesting.

Following the written text as it is read aloud can aid comprehension, as well as helping with the pronunciation of unknown words, the spelling of words which they recognise or use in speech and in doing so build fluency. Alongside these functions the tool also allows learners to customise their reading experience by speeding up or slowing it down, limiting the amount of text seen at one time, changing letter size and font, as well as background colour.
We felt these features not only stimulate engagement with the text but encourage learners to reflect on the strategies that work best for them and to take responsibility for these when reading.

Immerse Reader in use

Ultimately, our aim was to get learners reading, to encourage them to read more extensively to build up their confidence, and to support them to manage the more challenging 19th century texts in their GCSE as well as to prepare them for the different text types on their vocational programmes. Several empirical studies have shown that extensive reading, i.e. reading large quantities of varied text types purely for reading fluency rather than to complete a task, has positive effects on language acquisition and understanding (Mart, 2015) and is an effective way to enhance language proficiency (Maley, 2005). Although there has not been a great deal of research into the use of IR, one American study reported that teachers had found that the tool did facilitate access to a wider range of materials which in turn, ‘helped teachers find content aligned with their learners’ interests, at comprehension levels that were challenging and previously inaccessible.’ (McKnight, 2018, p.6).

Other Contextual Information

Blackburn College is a large General Further Education College (FE) and Higher Education (HE) provider based in the Northwest of England. The two biggest departments that meet with the most learners across college are Additional Learning Support (ALS) and English and Maths. Both departments we felt were uniquely positioned to explore the use of the tool and would be in the ideal position to share what was learned across the college.

For the purposes of this project, we worked with four English GCSE resit classes; two classes of 14 learners, with grade 3 teacher assessed grades (TAG) and two classes of 12 learners who had achieved a grade 2 TAG. Across these classes, 14 learners had been identified as having additional learning support needs. All classes were working on the Pearson Edexcel 2.0 lift curriculum with the target of moving up by a minimum of one grade and were from a variety of vocational backgrounds including Hairdressing, Motor Vehicle, Construction, Business, Art, Childcare and Health and Social Care. We then worked with 11 Additional Learning Support Assistants (ALSAs) who supported learners across the college.


The research was a mixed method, learner and teacher focused plan that investigated how training, awareness and use of IR in the classrooms could impact on the learner learning experience both in the English classroom and, as the research progressed, across the wider college as learners transferred their usage of IR to vocational lessons. The intention was to evaluate how easily IR could be introduced in classrooms, how user friendly and portable it was and if it encouraged learners to read with more confidence.

  • Setting up the project
  • Initial strategy
  • Revised strategy
  • Evaluating impact
  • Sharing and next steps
  • • Initial assessment of what the tool could do, what learners would need to access it (Appendix 3).
    •Created a project description to explain to staff and learners what we were aiming to do.
    •Identified how the tool could be used in different ways, both in and out of lessons.
    •Set up a Padlet to collate materials at the end of the project.
  • •Principal researchers implemented the integration of IR activities into English classes.
    •Verbal feedback from staff and learners on how easy the tool was to use as a classroom
    learning tool/ learners’ reactions/any impact on reading confidence and comprehension.
    •Analysis of findings led to a new approach which then focused on individual learners and
    widening participation into other departments supported by ALSAs.
  • •Training in the use of IR for English teachers and Additional Learning Support Assistants
    (ALSAs) to facilitate the roll out of the trial (Appendix 3e).
    •MS Teams page set up to support roll out and provide technical support (Appendix 3f).
    •English teachers and ALSAs asked to identify which learners might be interested in or benefit
    from using this technology.
    •Referrals identified and researchers attended learners’ English classes to help them adapt and
    include IR technology through use of their mobile phones during regular classroom time.
  • •We collected feedback from group tasks on flipchart paper (reading task and evaluation of the
    IR too)
    •We spoke with the individual learners we worked with and collected verbal feedback.
    •2 case studies were identified ( Appendix 2).
    •We collected feedback from ALSA sthrough Microsoft Forms and a Padlet (Appendix 3g and
  • •Continue to work with the ALSAs to reflect on IRs usefulness in different learning situations and
    how the tool responds to their learners’ specific needs.
    •Share findings with quality leads and amplify English reading skills through cross college
    •Expand and reinforce the use of the tool by training up personal tutors and appointing IR
    champions to support the sustainablity of the approach.
    •Review impact of IR on individual learner’s confidence and reading comprehension.

Outcomes and Impact

Teaching, Learning and Assessment

We began to explore the IR tool as part of whole class activities encouraging learners to experiment with the tool and tell us whether they thought that it helped them to understand the texts more easily. They were shown a short video explaining how to use the tool and we highlighted functions which we thought might interest them and be of use in practising for their GCSE English exam, e.g. identifying word class which is now a requirement on the language question on both GCSE English papers.

Feedback from learners on first being introduced to the tool was mixed. In some sessions learners said that they found listening to the software through headphones difficult and it limited their participation in the wider classroom. Similarly, some found the voice “really irritating”, and asked if it could be changed, while another noted that the reading aloud of text line numbers and punctuation was also annoying and interrupted the flow of the text.

“It is quite good but the line numbers are really irritating, can you take them out before the next lesson?”

We were pleased to find that learners were interested and quite happy to tell us whether they found the tool useful. In one class learners were asked to use IR to read a 19th century non-fiction text, a text type which had proved extremely challenging in a previous class. Learners were introduced to IR and shown how to access it through Microsoft Teams but they also had paper copies in their GCSE booklets. They were asked to work in groups to identify the main themes and ideas from the text and record their answers on flipchart paper (Appendix 3d). The tutor noted that the learners approached the reading with more enthusiasm and were far more animated in the group task than they had been in the previous session. They completed the task more swiftly and were keen to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of using the tool:

“It was really useful to know about this. It would have helped during lockdown when we working from home”.

Reflecting on how the session went and on the feedback from learners, tutors said that they were surprised to find out that learners who struggled more with reading found the tool distracting and “too simple” while stronger readers recognised that reading and listening aided their understanding as it was “helpfull (sic) to understand the situation”. Tutors thought that having a paper copy might have been more of a distraction which resulted in some less confident readers not really following the electronic version or engaging with the different functions. We now feel a more scaffolded approach which allows these learners to explore the functions in stages might make the process less confusing. We did find out however, that 3 learners from the class have gone on to use it in their vocational classes.

Other tutors have reflected on the difficulty of preparing resources for using the IR, e.g. having to extract line numbers, uploading texts to Teams, preparing learners to use the resource.

To address some of these barriers, we adapted our research strategy to implement the use of IR for use with individuals in lessons. Training in the use of the tool for both English teachers and ALSAs was then provided.

The feedback we have received from ALSAs who have been using IR with their learners has been very useful. The vast majority have found the tool easy to use, having had the training, and said that learners have been engaged. The different functions of the tool have been used in far more targeted ways by the ALSAs. Here are some of the comments fed back so far:

Working with one second language learner:

“I showed him how to translate task instructions using it to aid understanding”.

With another learner who needs to be more independent in his learning the ALSA said:

“I used it to help increase font size and also to block out text helping to chunk the reading”.

Another ALSA working with a learner with Autism reported:

“Helping a learner with their IT work, they were using Word and struggled with recalling information. So I typed the information within Immersive Reader and they used it that way. We would talk about what it was that they wanted to write about and then they could put it into their own words on the computer”.

We will be continuing to monitor how useful the IR is with our case study learners and are planning to continue this research until the end of the next term, when we are likely to have more specific data.

Professional Development

The project has provided us with a wonderful opportunity to build positive and collaborative relationships with colleagues who support our learners both in English classes and across the whole provision. We approached the manager of the ALS team and they were keen to accept training and explore the use of the Immersive Reader with us and have since suggested collaboration on other pilot projects. Reciprocal relationships are being developed on this to work more closely for the benefit of learners.

The training was well received. The 2nd group of ALSAs told us that they were really looking forward to their session as following the first session they said that there had been a real ‘buzz around the office’ with colleagues saying that the training was ‘really good’ and ‘CPD worth doing’. One of the ALSAs said:

“The immersive reader training was very insightful. It proves to be a useful tool for everyday use because it is simple to use. The additional tools such as translating, pace of reader and adjustable font size makes it even more helpful.”

All in all, the ALSAs were keen to explore the use of the tool as there were so many functions that could be of use to learners with specific learning difficulties and second language learners:

“I used immersive reader to translate a document for a student as English wasn’t their first language. A very useful tool.”

And another staff member said:
“It works well with Visually Impaired students as it allows them to highlight only relevant text.”

This project also provided the opportunity and impetus to explore research into the latest digital reading technology and build on the practices that had been forced through due to online learning in the COVID-19 lockdowns. This project also provided the opportunity and impetus to explore research into the latest digital reading technology and build on the practices that had been forced through due to online learning in the COVID-19 lockdowns.

Although many teachers could appreciate the possible uses of the tool within their classes, especially to inspire and motivate learners, who tend to switch off when tackling archaic text types, we took their feedback regarding time constraints on board. In the summer we will be preparing off the shelf whole class sessions to help engage learners with 19th century texts as well as more scaffolded introductory sessions.

Organisational Development

The project has allowed us to work in collaboration with colleagues who support learners across all of our provision as well as vocational staff. The further involvement of the ALSAs has the potential to carry the use of digital reading technologies across all areas of the college. Its integration into classes could not only be a very useful aid for those with learning difficulties but also help reluctant readers access high level and varied content, ‘creating equity through access to learning materials.’ (McKnight, 2018, p.17). We believe the tool would be useful in theory lessons across the curriculum to support learners in Hairdressing, Plumbing, Motor Vehicle, Catering, to name but a few, to facilitate their understanding and interpretation of subject specific terminology to match their practical skills.

Learning from this project

The project has afforded the opportunity for English and Learning Support staff to work together more closely and provided us both with more time to reflect on how we can best support our learners and ensure that they get the most out of their classes. We will be collating further feedback on the impact of the tool from ALSAs later in the year and look forward to working together on other projects, inspired by this work, which are now in the pipeline.

The project has taught us that technology in classrooms can only be used productively once fully researched and with full support and training of those both using and facilitating access to the tools. At the beginning of the project, the use of IR proved problematic as there are several conditions that needed to be met for the software to be used effectively. Additional research and training were undertaken to prepare smart boards and computers to avoid problems when rolled out for use with other staff and learners.

Reactions from learners have also highlighted the significance of training at the right time of year. For example, Learner MP struggled to engage with a new tool midway through his programme and Learner FS seemed reluctant to engage in something that not everyone was using. Scaffolded sessions in which all learners are encouraged to explore the usefulness of the tool and share their experiences with each other should not only encourage confident use of the tool but reduce any sense of embarrassment in class.

We have taken feedback on board from teachers regarding the time implications of using the tool and we believe that by developing ready-to-go materials for English teachers to use in the summer we can encourage them to explore the use of the tool more thoroughly in whole class contexts. We also believe that a more scaffolded approach in which teachers and ALSAs gradually introduce the functions of the tool would encourage less confident readers to reassess its usefulness.

We have also learned that whilst it can enhance both access to learning and the learner experience, even free technology has cost implications. Not only the necessary hardware requirements and other software packages that are licensed and chargeable, but it needs to be run online to be most effective. Although this is covered in college, asking learners to use it outside of lessons will have an impact on more economically disadvantaged learners who do not have unrestricted access to the internet or have limited data allowances.

We have learned that no matter how exciting and shiny some digital tools may appear or how high your expectations are, both learner and facilitator have to find them engaging and worthwhile and the only way to really do this is to keep asking what’s working and responding to their feedback. Rather than be daunted by initial criticisms, we took comments on board, adjusted training, and adapted our approach to make sure the full use of the tool will be evaluated for its usefulness.


Appendix 2: Learner Case Studies

Appendix 3: Project Resources


Maley, A. (2005). Review of extensive reading activities for the second language classroom. ELT Journal, 59(4), pp.354-355.

Mart, C.T. (2015). Combining extensive and intensive reading to reinforce language learning. Journal of Educational and Instructional Studies in the World, 5(4), pp.85-90.

McKnight, K. (2018). Levelling the Playing Field with Microsoft Learning Tools. [online]. Available at: (Accessed: 23/03/2022).

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.

6a: Burton and South Derbyshire College

Exploring digital approaches to reading
and writing

Burton and South Derbyshire College

This project aimed to investigate the validity of new digital approaches deployed in the Learning Resource Centre (LRC), focusing on enhancing digital reading and writing development.

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


This research sought to determine the validity, relevance and impact of digital approaches which strive to improve and develop reading engagement and writing for learners within vocational areas. Learner observation indicated that awareness of valuable digital resources such as the e-textbooks could be pivotal to improving learners’ attainment and understanding, as well as enabling greater digital access to our LRC collections and services. Using collaborative digital writing platforms to promote learner confidence in writing was another area of exploration, with the aim to upskill learners’ digital capabilities further and develop confident understanding and use of digital technology for improving levels of literacy.

Other Contextual Information

Our action research was part of the Education and Training Foundation’s OTLA 8 Programme. The research engaged participants from different departments across our FE College. The first approach was developing reading skills and access to our digital textbooks with a Level 2 Health and Social Care group. Secondly, we explored the improvement of writing using digital approaches with an Entry Level ESOL group and, finally, we worked with vocational learners from across the college to develop their digital reading skills.


The project leader, in collaboration with the Health and Social Care department, identified a suitable group for the study. The Level 2 Health and Social Care group were selected as their tutor recognised a clear need for the learners to become more familiar with their online textbook to increase their awareness of researching online and improve their digital reading habits. A short survey with the learners was conducted to ascertain their current reading habits and approaches to reading as well as exploring their thoughts about reading and wellbeing themes (Appendix 3a). Sessions on reading and accessing digital textbooks were delivered with the group and data was obtained through surveys to capture their thoughts on this initiative.

As part of the College’s Digital Wellness week, the Health and Social Care group also participated in the new Essential Digital Skills programme, which was supported by LRC staff. The new online digital course included content that required significant online reading to be conducted before assessment. Learners were observed and interviewed as they participated in the course.

Module data generated from the programme was gathered to reflect on the pace of reading, specifically if the design of the content was accessible and how the course impacted on teaching, learning and assessment practices and how digital access could be improved.

We also ran a ‘writing camp’ with an Entry Level ESOL group who worked collaboratively (supported by LRC staff and an external organisation Higher Horizons) to write a novel within one week using an online programme. Higher Horizons are an organisation enabling engagement with Higher Education through outreach work. The one-week camp involved the learners planning a novel collaboratively and writing using a digital programme through Google docs, especially adapted so writers could write, edit and collaborate in different chapters to collectively author the novel ‘The Unwelcome Newcomers’ (Cooks, 2022).

Case studies and semi-structured interviews were used to capture learners’ feedback, as well as observation of participants composing and creating the novel. Discussion with tutors, support staff and learners ascertained whether the participants’ confidence levels had improved and provided an opportunity to investigate whether the structure of the week had engaged their interest and encouraged them to develop their writing skills.

Outcomes and Impact

Teaching, Learning and Assessment

The focus on digital reading highlighted the importance of building and maintaining personal reading habits that can be a crucial aspect of success for learners. In the session, the inclusive features of ebooks were explored (Appendix 3b), such as highlighting, audio options and notetaking facilities, allowing learners to extrapolate and engage with text whilst simultaneously utilising digital literacies.

Giving learners directed instructions (Appendix 3c) allowed them to explore the features of these digital texts and they commented upon the usefulness of formulating questions prior to reading the extracts to master their understanding. The intervention clearly indicated that there was scope to develop the reading extracts and perhaps incorporate further sessions with elements of study skills e.g., advanced notetaking techniques whilst reading the text.

Data analysis from the Essential Digital Skills programme (Appendix 3d) indicates interesting results about the demands of reading online. Learners were scanning the information rather than employing detailed reading strategies and engaged more with the interactive elements, such as quizzes, which demonstrates that further integration of these assessment techniques would potentially enhance engagement. Reducing the text for each module and improving the layout of the information would assist with engagement and accessibility (Appendix 3e).

Developing Entry Level ESOL learners’ writing skills using a digital approach demonstrated that the initiative had a positive impact on the selected learners’ writing skills. Learners commented that they found the first day of planning difficult. Interestingly, no digital applications were used at this stage to help them formulate the plot. Once they were writing in the LRC, using computers and the Google docs layout provided more comfort; they mentioned the security of typing and access to tools such as the spellchecker to improve their writing. The digital approach and the interface of the document allowed them to design the text with ease, and, more importantly, it may demonstrate that the thinking process is occurring more naturally through digital practice. The process of drafting, improving, and checking revealed that the digital approach provided learners with the confidence to view themselves seriously as writers.

Organisational Development

More effective communication and working practices have emerged as a result of the supportive collaboration between curriculum and support staff. One tutor commented that several of the learners are now more confident using narrative tenses and are happier to share written stories.

The ESOL tutors also commented on and recognised the positive effect on their learners’ autonomy as a result of working with wider college teams and spaces. The recognition that others in the organisation can support the learner journey gives both learners and teaching staff an enriching dimension and allows learners to feel they are part of a wider learning community. Following the relinquishing of Covid restrictions, learners felt energised using the LRC and breaking away from classrooms. The presence of both groups increased in the LRC, especially during non-timetable periods (breaks and lunchtime) and they were more likely to come and ask for assistance as they became familiar with LRC staff.

Learning from this project

The research has provided insights into the study skills needs of learners; their responses showed that they needed support in being more motivated, developing concentration and remembering. These observations suggest that these topics should become the foundation of future study skills and reading sessions. Many respondents perceived reading as unimportant and the preferred activity was using their phones, which presents both a challenge and an opportunity to develop new sessions to explore the rapidly transforming models of accessing reading materials.

Learner access to relevant digital resources and textbooks has increased and this has had a positive impact on learner achievement through increased usage and assimilation within assignment work, with learners using the interactive tools to highlight, copy and search. Learners commented that using ebooks was:

Very very useful, [a] great aspect on my course.
… really good. I really enjoy my time as it is easy to understand.

These techniques can be further developed with the focus on more active methods such as making notes, taking the key ideas to paraphrase and writing summaries of chapters. We hope that this will lead to learners further developing the skills of analysing and critiquing what they read.

Embedding digital information skills into the curriculum means that LRC staff have upskilled their digital capabilities to deliver new methods of information literacy. This has also highlighted the need to develop a better technology-rich environment with greater mobile devices to enable collaboration.

Some writers found writing fiction challenging as they were used to producing transactional writing as the norm. The majority enjoyed the freedom of this approach and excelled in the chance to explore and apply their creative talents to produce a novel in less than a week and discover the merits of self-publishing (Appendix 3f).

The writing camp showcased the affordances offered by technology to support writing. The framework of the programme nestled within the Google documents allowed the novelists to work through and collaborate on multiple chapters, adding characters, scenes and plot twists with ease. Learners remarked that they preferred the digital approach as they had access to the editing tools to refine their words, improving grammar and spelling as they wrote.
The adoption of digital tools and techniques offers a unique opportunity to extend the reading and writing skills of learners.

Professional Development

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

  • 15. Promote the benefits of technologies and support learners in their use of new technologies

    Our project had the aim and focus of engaging learners as active users of digital technologies to further enhance their reading and writing skills. The technologies such as e-books, Google docs and a bespoke platform were utilised to engage learners at scale to achieve their aims. Through research, we investigated learners’ engagement with these technologies and how they allowed learners agency to become confident users.

  • 20. Contribute to organisational development and quality improvement through collaboration with others

    The project has supported important strategic developments. One element of the College Skills Promise is to develop learners as Digital Experts. Having knowledge of, and skills in, the latest digital technologies will set learners up for their career in the 21st century workforce. In recognition of this Burton and South Derbyshire College (BSDC) has developed an Essential Digital Skills programme which the LRC team have supported by previewing and checking the content. During the college-wide Digital Wellness week LRC staff supported learners to enrol and participate in the course. Reflecting upon learner engagement will further enhance the quality of the resource as well as collaborating with other colleges who have also started to use the course to develop their learners’ digital skills.

6c: Suffolks New College

Developing reading for pleasure

Suffolk New College

This project sought to address the negative feelings that some of our students have about reading. We wanted to nurture a love of reading and ‘reading for pleasure’ throughout our college by introducing a student book club. We found that the book club inspired a love of reading as well as improving students’ confidence and establishing new friendships.

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


Many studies cite big reductions in the amount of time that young people spend reading, and ‘daily reading levels have fallen for young people aged 16 to 18’ (National Literacy Trust, 2020). At Suffolk New College we can see that most of our students are still not reading for pleasure, which results in them having a limited vocabulary that inevitably holds them back from achieving higher grades in English. There is a growing body of evidence that illustrates the importance of reading for pleasure for both educational purposes as well as personal development (Clark and Rumbold, 2006).

Other Contextual Information

Our action research was part of the Education and Training Foundation’s OTLA 8 Programme and took place within our FE college. Ten students joined the book club during the course of the project. They came from different vocational areas and had varying levels of English. Two were studying Functional Skills, seven were resitting GCSE English and one had completed GCSE English in November.
For the purpose of this project the definition of ‘reading for pleasure’ has been defined by the National Literacy Trust as:

Reading that we do of our own free will, anticipating the satisfaction that we will get from the act of reading. It also refers to reading that having begun at someone else’s request we continue because we are interested in it.
– Clark and Rumbold, National Literacy Trust, 2006

When this report discusses a ‘reading culture’ it is an ‘environment where reading is championed, valued, respected, and encouraged’ (Hawthorne, 2001).

Approachphoto of a book

We promoted the book club to all students at the college from the start of the new academic year. We made a PowerPoint presentation and sent it to the vocational teachers at the college, who then shared this with students as part of the college induction week. The PowerPoint included a contact email address and students were asked to send an email if they were interested in joining. We ensured that it was advertised to all students in induction week, regardless of their level of English. We wanted to nurture that love of reading they may already have had to promote a shift to a whole college reading culture.

Our first meeting was in the college library. We used A3 paper and post-it notes to gather information about the students’ reading habits and preferences and why they wanted to join the book club (see Appendix 2b). We also asked them where they would like to meet and how they would like to keep in touch between meetings.

At the students’ request, we set up a Google chat and Google classroom for everyone in the book club to keep in touch between meetings. We also used the poll function within Google chat to ask students’ views about book choices and meeting times (see appendices 2c and d).

We met once a month during the college lunch hour in a free classroom (as the students wanted somewhere quieter than the library). The meetings provided a friendly, inclusive space (complete with biscuits!) where students could discuss specific questions relating to the book, and then choose the next one to read. This provided an opportunity for students to voice their opinions in relation to the issues and topics that feature in the books. We used dialogic teaching to address social injustice and to empower our students (see Appendix 2f).
Questions that were very open and encouraged discussion worked well; they often focused on the characters’ morals or how the students would react if they were placed in similar situations. Sometimes the questions would be more challenging for example: “How does the need to endlessly move and consume create inequality?” (based on the Mortal Engines novel).

Before the first meeting, we had chosen four books that we knew were accessible, explored open themes and were available on Kindle and as PDF and audiobook versions to ensure accessibility. The project leader chose the first book (Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo) as students were quite shy at the start. We purchased enough copies of the books to ensure that everyone had their own.

We continually took on board students’ views on the running of the club and the literature we would read. Their ideas were captured on Google chat as well as being recorded in the monthly meetings. This allowed all participants to feel involved throughout the project.
Students were encouraged to tell their friends about the book club and, as a result, the number of students attending increased from five to ten as the word spread.
Between October and March, the students in the book club had read four different books (see Appendix 2e).

Outcomes and Impact

Teaching, Learning and Assessment

Promoted from the start of year, the opportunity to attend a book club provided a more accessible approach to the teaching of reading, which can often be seen as an intimidating aspect of English. A dialogic teaching structure was needed, to ensure that the conversation was focused on the books we read. Questions taken from sites (see Appendix 2f), allowed teachers to create a more question and answer- based discussion with the students. Once the students had seen this modelled, teachers were able to ask one student each month to lead the questions themselves. This had a positive impact as this ensured that the meetings were less like a teacher-led lesson and more like a relaxed conversation between like-minded peers.

The teachers’ promotion of the book club gave students access to good quality, contemporary books. Some of the students worked collaboratively after having read the book and were able to offer suggestions to their teacher and fellow students on the text in question. Students offered suggestions about what books to read next, these were based on books they had heard of or were keen to read themselves.

While we envisaged that the students would complete more peer learning outside of the classroom as a result of the book club, this was not easily assessed and social interactions were the main interactions that continued, with students sharing what they were reading outside of the book club (see Appendix 2h).

We wanted the sharing of best practice to extend to other partner institutions to help promote reading for all students. The project lead has already liaised with one other college about running their own book club. We discussed with them what had worked well and, in return, they gave us some ideas on how we could improve this group even further and link it more to the curriculum in the future.

Attendance was monitored and feedback from the students gathered. Over the course of the action research project, there was a steady increase in attendance to 10 participants in total. To understand why and what it was that they enjoyed about the book club we asked students in Google Chat ‘Are you enjoying book club and if so, why?’ Here are a couple of the students’ responses:

Yes, I am enjoying it because it is a chance to make friends and talk about something I am interested in, I like reading. The book discussions are also fun, especially discussing the characters and the storylines. Also a chance to find new authors and books I may like.

– Book Club Student

I’m enjoying book club because we have some good discussions about the books we read and how well the characters in the books are presented.

– Book Club Student

Organisational Development

Our project was inclusive because we made sure the book club was available to all students at the college and we promoted it widely. There was also a strong focus on student voice throughout, as we actively sought their views at every stage, from when and how to meet to which books to read.

The project encouraged collaboration between the English department and staff from other areas of the college as the English teachers spoke to vocational teachers to ask them to promote the book club in their lessons.

The project promoted and celebrated different voices, perspectives and insights through the books we read and the discussions that followed at our weekly meetings. One student said that these meetings were:

A great place to talk about [how] I kind of picture the events in the book because of [my] autism, I picture it in my head like a movie, only quite blurry and fuzzy and a lot of the time I can only really imagine silhouettes of characters and images rather than actual detailed characters and objects. That said, if a character is actually described really well and sounds similar to a character from another story of media that I like, like an anime character, video game character, etc. then I tend to picture the described character as the character it reminds me of throughout the whole book. It was nice to hear that I’m not the only person who imagines things like this when we read.

Learning from this project

One aspect of the project that worked well was the use of Google Chat, which enabled us to monitor attendance, gauge how far along in the book they were and allowed all participants a chance to voice their opinions on the book. As time went on, we noticed that students gained confidence and engaged in discussions with less prompting than they did at the start. After a few months, some were confident enough to lead the questioning themselves.

We decided to work collaboratively with the students to select books, which worked well as it ensured the books covered a range of different genres. However, it did mean that the book lengths varied and some were simply too long for the students to read in a month.
If we were to begin this project again, it would be interesting to see if this book club had an effect on the students’ ability to analyse language on paper, as well as verbally. Ideally, we could have created an assessment at the beginning of the project and then at the end to compare results.

The project leader noticed that, as the book club went on and better relationships were formed, students were more willing to express individual opinions, even when those differed from the opinions of others in the group. This demonstrates the importance of getting relationships right within a classroom setting, to allow students to build their confidence in responding to questions honestly.

Initially, we had planned to work collaboratively with the library services at the college to carry out the promotion of the reading for pleasure book club and linking these to aspects of the classroom teaching. We hoped to work together with the County Council Local Libraries to widen participation, access to books and other community services. Unfortunately, this was not viable; instead, we had to order books in and the participants found our library to be too crowded for our purposes. The County Council Library did not have enough copies ready and so we decided to pay for books. This didn’t always work well as some months we waited a while for the books to arrive. Ideally, we would like to secure some funding from the college every year for this going forward. However, preferably, we would love to continue to work with the County Council with the eventual aim of being able to secure books from the County Library.

One of the main issues that we faced was the organising of the club around the students’ timetables. Students from different courses around the college have different timetables and some weren’t always able to attend. Ideally, in the future, we would love the college to be able to run three or four different book club groups in order to accommodate the timetable needs of as many different students as possible. In the future, it would be more beneficial to ensure we have one base room for the monthly meetings as this project has seen us use empty classrooms, which has not been ideal. Ideally, we would like to secure one classroom that can be used for the college book club going forward. We would love to be able to have one consistent classroom that could be used to host the meetings of different book clubs on different days.

Professional Development

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

  • 1. Reflect on what works best in your teaching and learning to meet the diverse needs of learners.

    Our project provided us with the opportunity to offer a range of different text types to suit the students’ needs. We ensured that all books were available as audiobooks or PDFs if they had Irlens syndrome and needed a colour that suited their needs.

  • 3. Inspire, motivate and raise aspirations of learners through your enthusiasm and knowledge

    Participants reported that they were more inclined to read outside of the classroom because of this group. The dialogic questioning used in the meetings inspired and motivated students to discuss themes, characters and vocabulary.

  • + Encourage pupils to take a responsible and conscientious attitude to their own work and study.

    Participants were encouraged to keep track of the reading they were doing in the form of a tracker and to write reviews of the books they had finished. Making notes in their books too.


Appendix 2: Learner Case StudiesAppendix

2a: Student responses to ‘Are you enjoying book club and why?’

Appendix 2b:Students’ responses to ‘Why did you want to join book club’?

Appendix 2c: Students’ responses to ‘what genres would you like to read/do you enjoy reading currently?’

Appendix 2d: An example of how Polly Bot was created and used in Google Chat to involve students.

Appendix 2e: A photo of some of the books different books the students read between October and March.

Appendix 2F: Questions used to guide discussion on Mortal Engines

Appendix 2g. An example of a student using Google Chat to refer a friend to the club

Appendix 2h. An example of a student using Google Chat


Clark, C., and Teravainen-Goff, A. (2020). ‘Children and young people’s reading in 2019. Findings from our annual literacy survey.’ National Literacy Trust: London.
Clark, C., and Rumbold, K. (2006). ‘Reading for pleasure: a research overview’. National Literacy Trust: London.

Hawthorne, H. (2021). High Speed Training. ‘How to promote a reading culture in schools’. Available at: [accessed 30.3.22].

Scholastic (2018) Mortal Engines. Available at: [Accessed 13.10.21]

University of Cambridge (2022). What is Dialogic Teaching? Available at:,%2C%20not%20just%20teacher%2Dpresentation. [accessed 13.5.22].