Improving reading, Toe by Toe

School librarian Caroline Fielding reports on her successes using the Toe by Toe reading programme with teenage boys.

Developing reading skills

This year I have been working one to one with some boys from Year 10, aged 14-15, on developing their reading skills. 

I meet them individually in the library three times a week for half an hour, 15 minutes of which is spent on the Toe by Toe programme and the other 15 minutes is spent reading a book that we have chosen from the shelves together.  The progress they’ve made since September 2012 has astonished me.  Toe by Toe is a deceptively simple programme to work through together.  It is a gradual and repetitive build up of phonetically sounding out of letters and developing into syllables, using a mixture of made up and real words, and as pedantic as it sounds it really seems to work!  As you go through, because it gets progressively more challenging, it can feel as if you’re making little progress, but when reading aloud for the second part of the session the increased confidence and speed is a fine demonstration of how much the technique has worked.

We choose to read shorter books together so that it doesn’t take too many sessions to get from the beginning to end, so finding ones of an appropriate interest age but low enough reading age was the first challenge to keep them engaged.  They started with an average reading age of seven but are now reading books written for a reading age of 11 without too much difficulty and are attempting even more challenging things.  Almost every title the pupils have chosen has been either written by David Orme or published by Barrington Stoke.

'Hi-Lo' fiction

Touted as 'hi-lo' fiction and at a very low reading level, I once looked at the proliferation of books by David Orme and thought they must be rubbish for him to churn so many out, but actually he manages to pack some real suspense and drama, as well as a plot, into a few and simple words.  His Zone 13 series has been particularly popular with these boys, with the unanswered questions at the end causing discussion about what could happen next and some wonderful creative thinking. Barrington Stoke books on the other hand are known to be of high quality, with layout and format carefully considered to make them 'dyslexia friendly' and stories by established children’s authors vetted by actual children. 

They’re not all necessarily easy reads, it is the format that matters more than the difficulty, but they do also have 'hi-lo' ranges.  There is a huge variety and we’ve read some truly gripping and thought provoking stories.  Both 'Kill Swap' and 'Ant God' by James Lovegrove stick in my head in particular as one that sparked a huge conversation about how someone could be driven to murder and the other about the influence of a 'higher being' but we’ve enjoyed ghost stories, science fiction, gangland crime, sports, a little bit of romance (but not too much please) and teen angst.

The amount of quality books being written for teenagers that struggle with the mechanics of reading is increasing exponentially, with Barrington Stoke leading the charge and publishers like Ransom and Badger Books taking up the mantle.  Somehow Barrington Stoke books always look much better though!  Now, instead of relying on children’s books to catch up they can find a story that anyone their age could engage with, but how can they find these books without the help of a librarian or knowledgeable teacher?

Caroline Fielding is a school librarian in London, UK.

Photo courtesy of Enokson via Flickr.