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Improving KS2 reading outcomes

Questions for school leaders

Conversations and thinking prompts for raising standards in KS2 Reading

2023 Reading KS2 statistics:

in 2023 73% of pupils achieved the expected standard in reading in KS2 in 2023.

Trends over time for KS2 reading outcomes
KS2 reading outcomes in 2023

We might consider thinking about this in terms of pupils.

489,020 eligible pupils achieved the expected standard. For a variety of reasons 184,344 did not. (provisional KS2 pupil characteristic data published by DfE 12/09/2023).

Teachers and leaders in schools have worked tirelessly to support pupils to recover lost learning, but despite all the effort, there are still many pupils this year (and in previous years) who have struggled to achieve success in reading.

The number of pupils who achieved the expected standard
We can't settle for this number of pupils not achieving KS2 reading

Of course, we know, that this year, as in other years, disadvantaged pupils do not perform as well as non-disadvantaged pupils.

How many disadvantaged pupils achieved the expected standard in KS2 in 2023?

60% of disadvantaged pupils achieved the expected standard in KS2 reading compared to 78% of non-disadvantaged pupils.

In pupil numbers this is 81,507 disadvantaged pupils who did not meet the expected standard.

18% gap for disadvantaged pupils in reading in 2023
Too large a gap in reading outcomes

Top level view of the KS2 Reading data:


  • How much higher would the results have been without the pandemic?

  • When you consider the reasons why pupils in your school did not achieve the expected standard, would you attribute all, some or none of the reason to the disruption to education?

Whilst we should consider how the pandemic has influenced test results, we should also consider that outcomes in reading have shown limited variation in recent years, hovering between 72% and 75% since 2017. There has been substantial investment and changes in reading practices, and it will take time for these changes to filter through to results, but is enough being done to raise the overall success rate? Where do you feel gains have been made in school and what are the current sticking points?

I would imagine, that regardless of whether your school is above or below national, and regardless of the progress pupils have achieved, you want ALL your pupils to succeed in reading, and by this I mean more than just achieving an outcome in a test!

Reading research is making its way from academic circles into schools, but developing reading ability is complex, multifaceted and weaves its way across year groups / stages of development. Do we devote enough time to studying the development of reading?


  • Does your school (or across a group of schools) have a ‘strategic reading group’ that works at a high level to consider how the school is tackling hard to shift elements of reading attainment and progress? How is the knowledge base and thinking of this group supported?

  • How knowledgeable is the reading leader? What training have they undertaken? What ongoing support do they access that helps them to maximise their impact? Is their knowledge sufficiently deep and broad? What access does the reading leader have to senior leaders to help them shift practices? What exactly is their remit? Do they have sufficient support to operate strategically? And the finances required?

When many schools are tackling the same issues, it suggests the issues are ‘hard to crack’. When this is the case, there is usually three problems in school: 1) the problem involves multiple variables or elements which means it is complex, 2) insufficient time is devoted to leaders achieving a deep understanding the issues and potential solutions; 3) insufficient time is devoted to achieving the change needed at a classroom level (right goal but not fulfilled as intended in every classroom). Time out of the classroom, and time to work collaborative both in and out of the classroom, are required for complex problems to be successfully challenged. How might you finance 'time' so that colleagues can be better placed to crack the harder issues?

There are some elements of reading research that are very complex and require careful unpicking.

  • Is it possible that you are not getting to the depth of thinking required to unblock barriers and attain higher standards in reading?

  • Is it possible that you have set the right goals but are struggling to ensure that practice is achieved in the classroom as intended?

To achieve success, consider how to ensure there is DEEP EXPERTISE AND BROAD KNOWLEDGE BASE for leaders and teachers.

  • What training, support and coaching do teachers access that helps them to a) be more knowledgeable about teaching reading effectively, b) assess and improve their practice. How can you support teachers when they are at differing stages of knowledge, experience and expertise, as well as operating in different year groups? One size training will only get you so far!

  • Are developments needed at whole school level, phase specific, individual teacher level?

  • Is the school sufficiently knowledgeable about typical difficulties and how to address the issues? How shared is this knowledge, e.g. reading leader, pupil premium leader, SEND leader, teachers?

  • How well trained and knowledgeable are teaching assistants and is this matched to the needs of the pupils they are supporting?

Considering high attainment in reading

This year witnessed the highest percentage of students reaching the higher standard since the implementation of the new National Curriculum in 2016 (29%).

  • Consider the rank order of outcomes in your school (either in terms of test outcomes, or in terms of what you know and think about each reader). If reading ability affects attainment in other subjects, what would a shift in reading performance for the whole cohort mean for wider education success in your school (and as the pupils move to secondary)?

You may be interested to know that only 17% of disadvantaged pupils achieved the higher standard in reading compared to 39% of non-disadvantaged pupils.

  • How many disadvantaged pupils achieved the higher standard in your school?

  • Which disadvantaged pupils in your school are target pupils for the higher standard in Years 1 to 6 and what is in place to help them achieve this?

The higher the reading levels, the more likely it is that pupils will engage in reading beyond the classroom because reading is ‘easy’ (word reading speeds are high), working memory is freed up to allow the pupils to engage with the text at a deeper level, skills such as visualisation make reading more engaging, and overall reading becomes more ‘enjoyable’. In turn, the quantity of reading increases comprehension, vocabulary, world knowledge, understanding of author technique, mental health, confidence…etc. An ever increasing circle, upwards and upwards.

The National Literacy Trust’s 2023 annual survey found that just 2 in 5 (43.4%) of children aged 8 to 18 said they enjoy reading in their free time. This is the lowest level since the annual survey began in 2005. And, for disadvantaged pupils, the percentage was just 39.5%. Girls are more likely to enjoy reading. The reading gender gap for those aged 5 to 8 was twice that of those aged 8 to 18. The enjoyment of reading in free time reduces through the primary years: 75.3% in 5 to 8 year olds; 56.2% for 8 to 11 year olds.

Multiple studies suggest that enjoyment is associated with higher reading performance. The 2021 PIRLS data for England showed that the pupils who said they liked reading the most scored, on average, 34 points more than those who said they did not like reading.

  • Would teachers in your school show greater enthusiasm for incorporating non-fiction texts into foundation subjects if reading levels were generally elevated throughout the school?

Since non-fiction texts contribute significantly to vocabulary gains, this would be an advantage to all pupils but particularly so for disadvantaged pupils. One of the elements that many pupils struggle with in KS2 writing is achieving a non-fiction writing style, often because they lack exposure to texts across the curriculum and spend insufficient time unpicking non-fiction texts with a ‘reading as a writer’ focus. Higher levels of general reading ability would enable teachers to use text to generate hard thinking in pupils, one important way in which learning occurs.

  • Is there a focus on reading to learn?

  • Are teachers skilled in utilising non-fiction texts?

  • Do your pupils produce excellent non-fiction writing partly due to the school's approach to using non-fiction texts?

  • Is reading supporting teachers to generate 'hard thinking' in the classroom?

  • Is non-fiction reading linked to fiction to support background knowledge?

  • Do teachers have a clear idea of progression in non-fiction texts from both a reading and writing perspective?

  • What non-fiction genres may need to be strengthened?

  • Are topic books sent home with disadvantaged pupils in advance of the topic?

  • Are multiple copies of non-fiction texts available for class use?

Considering the current practices for reading in your school:

The starting point for reading developments
Creating a map for reading success

When looking at a map, one of the first things I do is look for the ‘you are here’ that helps me to orient myself. To what extent does the school as a whole, and individuals within the school, know their current location in order to orient themselves and plan how to move closer to the goals?

  • For your school, is the focus best placed on doing the existing things better, with greater fidelity, with increased understanding and a more analytical approach? If so, how can this be achieved?

  • If you feel you are paddling hard but not making progress, perhaps you need to take a helicopter view and identify what is holding back developments or consider if a new strategy / solution is needed.

  • Sometimes there are elements that you know should be happening, but are not yet in place, is this the case for your school? If so, this is likely to be about turning the theory into reality?

  • How do you break reading down into components, so that it is easier to define expectations and judge successes, e.g. alphabet automaticity, early foundations, phonics, word reading other than phonics, reading to learn, success with different genres, text availability, bottom 20%, love of reading, classroom practice?

  • How do you break down classroom practice so that teachers can self-assess?

  • Which teachers have moved year groups? What training and support needs for reading are needed when a colleague moves year group?

  • How are you using a wide range of data to set out improvements and celebrate / share successes? How are teachers supported to unpick how their approaches and actions are impacting on specific pupils?

Raising outcomes for disadvantaged pupils

Some roads are narrow, have barriers and pot holes, are shrouded in fog, and are an uphill slog – if you are also trying to navigate this with engine problems and a flat tire, progress will be slow!

60% of disadvantaged pupils achieved the expected standard in KS2 reading tests this year compared to 78% of all other pupils. This is an 18% gap. What does this picture look like in your school?

  • Who is leading ‘closing the gap’ for disadvantaged pupils in reading?

  • Do they have the right knowledge base?

  • Are they able to effectively liaise with other leaders in school who play a part in securing reading outcomes?

  • Is the right finance in place to make a difference?

  • Are the solutions creative enough and sufficiently drawing on research?

  • Are the goals right but the actions not leading to fulfilment of the goals?

  • What has already been tried?

  • Do you need support for assessing plans and revamping your commitment?

Ensuring disadvantaged pupils achieve reading success is about platting together many strands. It is a combination of elements that must come together.

Examples of barriers to making a difference:

  • insufficient time devoted to developing the level of expertise needed for leaders to close the gap;

  • insufficient funding correctly targeted;

  • teachers perceptions of ‘fairness’ – fair is not everyone getting the same, it is everyone getting what they need;

  • lack of time for leaders in school (e.g. EYFS, Pupil Premium, Reading leader, SEND leader, HT) to work together to really think through actions and follow-up throughout the year with developments; insufficient emphasis placed on orthographic mapping / word study / reading speeds in KS2;

  • a lack of success for some pupils in achieving phonics; interventions a mishmash of general comprehension and word reading rather than very specific interventions;

  • not utilising the most effective word reading interventions; a lack of texts – pupils need to actually have texts in their hands;

  • a lack of investment in audiobooks and use of audio recording equipment; insufficient emphasis on developing background knowledge to ensure pupils can access the texts;

  • teachers struggling to plan for the full range of current reading levels; insufficient emphasis on non-fiction (range of texts, number of copies, teacher knowledge of progression in reading to learn, library, home access);

  • quantity of reading.

Do any of the above apply in your school? Can you turn them from a barrier to a reason for your success?

Phonics and beyond

Food for thought: Pupils perform better in reading and writing when they have achieved the phonics screening check. In 2023, 83% of pupils who met phonics checks in Year 1 achieved the expected standard in reading. Approximately half of pupils achieving the phonics checks in Year 2 went on to achieve the expected standard in reading in KS2. There are still a significant number of pupils who do not achieve the phonics checks.

Every school leader is well aware that there is a percentage of pupils who do not achieve phonics and for whom access to word reading remains stubbornly difficult. As a school leader or teacher, you are also probably aware that there are pupils who pass the phonics check, but are still not yet achieving the levels of success with word reading that are needed. There are pupils who have a continuous diet of phonics intervention who make little gains. There are pupils who have very specific phonic gaps well into upper KS2 that are not addressed but could be fixed (often seen in writing as well as reading).

There is research that can help, but schools have to be prepared to fully commit to a) understanding it, b) acting on it.

There are different ‘levels’ of action to consider:

1. Taking ‘core actions’, e.g. training all teachers / TAs in phonics, ensuring lessons are delivered as the programme intends, matching books to pupil reading levels, assessment and tracking of pupils, ensuring the ‘dictation’ / writing elements are strong, increasing ‘dictation’ element for struggling pupils, timely and effective phonics intervention, home support.

2. Taking ‘deeper actions’, e.g. considering the automaticity of the alphabet for younger pupils, building knowledge of orthographic mapping, knowledge of auditory processing delays (which is different from hearing difficulties per say), word reading developments in Year 3 and Year 4, how to assess reading speeds in KS1 and KS2, classroom and intervention approaches for speed of reading based on research, utilisation of technology, fully understanding how to address difficulties.

3. Taking effective action early enough. In EYFS- Is your strategy preventative and proactive enough? Does it action additional support right from the start, rather than waiting for the gaps to emerge? Does EYFS provide the bedrock needed for later success? One of the key reasons why disadvantaged pupils do not achieve a Good Level of Development is due to gaps in literacy. These then continue to hamper early achievement in KS1 with obvious knock-on effects into KS2.

A large sign is flashing above the motorway: If pupils fall below word reading speed thresholds, this will hamper progress in reading (and across all subjects).

How are you addressing this warning?

  1. Have you tested the word reading speeds of all your pupils?

  2. Do you know the thresholds below which attainment will be limited?

  3. Are teachers aware of the impact of slow reading speeds on reading comprehension, progression in reading, and on other subjects?

  4. Are teachers using diagnostic information from word reading assessments to address issues, e.g. supporting an EAL child with function word insertion and omission, supporting a child who has difficulties with certain suffixes?

  5. Are teachers aware of the common difficulties that might be picked up in word reading assessments, particularly when carried out 1:1?

  6. As a school do you know (and implement effectively) the research on how to improve word reading speeds (and accuracy levels) at a classroom level and through intervention?

Some pupils only start to display speed difficulties in Year 4. Even if they have achieved phonics screening check, and even if reading comprehension levels are currently ok, check reading speed and accuracy levels, particularly if they are struggling with writing.

Too few teachers really appreciate the impact of slow reading rates. Could this be true in your school?

Connecting and next steps

How can I help you improve reading outcomes?

My passion is for all pupils to thrive academically, particularly disadvantaged pupils. As such, over the last 15 years I have committed considerable energy and time to building my knowledge base on a large range of issues linked to this goal. One of these issues is reading and I see it as a fundamental element in closing the gap.

Purchase 1:1 professional dialogue and training sessions for your reading leader, a group of senior leaders in your school and/or the leader with responsibility for raising outcomes for disadvantaged pupils and pupil premium strategy. Support can range from a 90 minute session to blocks of time across the year to support leaders in making a difference to the lives of disadvantaged pupils.

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