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"We can make a competent reader by doing what competent readers do. Read a lot of words. Read words accurately, be confident; think about the words on the page - make them make sense."

Making the Total Words Learning System

Knowing that two million students in the UK need to increase their reading skills, we know there is not going to be a solution that works for everybody, but everybody can find a solution that works for them. We know we need a system approach and schools need a flexible resource to generate solutions for their students.

We believe a system that maximises effective learning is the best way to produce skilled, competent readers. Evidence that shows what and how a child can learn rather than what they have learnt means teachers can proactively manage rates of progress, and evidence that shows children how they are learning builds their confidence and motivation for achievement.

Total Words takes a simple, positive, effective approach for learning to read. We don’t believe one method of learning fits all. We believe in maximising each child’s progress by ensuring all elements of the learning experience are positive and effective: resources, learning exchanges and evidence of progress. 


We simply ask: Has this child made progress today? What do we need to do increase progress?

Boys at School

Eddie and Caleb, Year 6
How to make reading real?

Reading bespoke texts they could connect to.

"Eddie and Caleb were two boys in year 6 when I met them. At no time in all the years that they had been at school had they been able to show any measurable progress in writing or reading. When their teacher told them to take out a book to read, they took out a chapter book and sat looking at the same page day after day.


They didn't know what 'real' reading was.

That changed in 10 weeks. Nothing fancy—no hours of phonic drills, no more professional assessments, just books that Eddie and Caleb were interested in, and a strict diet of a set number of words to read each day. 


They read. We made sure they read at least 350 words a day. We made sure they read them accurately. And when they could read the first 350 words accurately, we gave them more stories, more words to read each day."

We developed the Total Words Reading System in two stages

Stage 1: Doing reading differently meant that we could learn what is possible.

Stage 2: Delivering what is possible meant that we could create the system to make a difference for learning.

By working with children and teachers across multiple UK primary schools, all of them with lower-than-expected reading skills, we were able to learn what was possible when we took a different approach to learning to read.

Stage 1
Learn What is Possible

What we learnt:

  • Students can make rapid progress when supported in an effective learning process and given the opportunity to show us what they can achieve. 

  • The number of words read each day are critically important to the rate of progress.

  • By immediately telling children any words they did not know, there was no stress, learning was positive, unknown words were not a sign of inability, were simply waiting to be learnt; the focus was always on progress and building confidence.  

  • 75% of children made more than double expected progress over 10 weeks.

  • Adults loved being able to see children’s enthusiasm.

  • Data that records the number of words that can be learnt each week means we can increase the amount of text being read week-by-week (knowing that a child an cope with learning 20-30 words or more a week.)

  • The length of books is more important than any ‘level of vocabulary difficulty’.

  • We don't need any assessment of the 'reason' for the slow progress in reading, doing reading every day results in significant progress.

  • Children who read in a group of three (eg. reading 1/3 of the words that they could be reading, made less progress.)

  • Children love knowing how many words they have read every day and every week.

  • When children read for meaning; they know immediately when text hasn’t made sense and can correct themselves. They want to show adults (mainly the headteachers) how they can read.

  • Writing skills also increase (more than expected) without any specific additional teaching.

Tablet Learning

Stage 2
Deliver the Possibilities

A learning system that lets schools:

  • Avoid delays in identifying children who need to increase their rate of progress;

  • Know within a week if the programme is having an impact.

  • Use books that have been designed for easy, clear data collection and that maximise opportunities for correct skill practices.

  • Gather progress data every day with software that records progress as an increase in the number of new words that have been learnt.

  • Manage the factors that we know make an impact on learning and the rate of progress.

  • Design and deliver rapid progress interventions, based on robust evidence.

  • Learn how to make an effective process for making progress with their specific school population.

  • Have easy access to classroom reading and progress analysis in all classrooms, for all students.

  • Manage the allocation of teaching resources, targeting specific groups or students, when and where support is needed.

  • Produce evidence of progress for students to share.

  • Show what teaching resources are needed in order for students to make progress. 

Making Our Story


The building blocks of Total Words started with an effective literacy intervention programme in UK schools. A new approach was needed for certain pupils, and sometimes entire schools, locked into a pathway of slow progress. Through a series of interventions led by our co-founder Allyson, an educational psychologist, consistent success stories began to emerge.

The data was really positive. The programme had been effective. The questions had been: 


How can we make confident readers? And, how can we make the process of learning to read as efficient as possible? Clearly, an effective learning process was critical. 


Children in a local school had completed 10 weeks of a bespoke Learn-to-Read programme.  All had made over 6 months progress, two thirds of the group had made over one year’s progress. These children were showing us the progress that they could achieve with a new learning model. They were breaking away from the path of slow progress that had held them back. 


They loved it. The teachers loved it. Their day-by-day achievements fed their enthusiasm. We were making confident readers by showing them how to read, showing them that they could read. 


But there was more that we could do. The books. The books could be better. Reading fiction stories about irrelevant content just didn’t inspire us, or them. So we turned to writing content that was relevant to them. Allyson teamed up with Kiri, an artist and designer, producing a weekly magazine for the school, with short articles on the topics that they were studying. Together we added the crucial detail—the number of words in each article. Now children could be precise.


‘I read 480 words today.’ ‘I read 620.’ ‘I read about the wild flowers and the bees that are just around the corner from school. Did you know…?’


Effective Books + Efficient Learning Process = Reading Success. 

Total Words had begun — real children in real schools, reading real content, making real progress.

Girl in Class

Kaya, Year 3
How to make reading matter?

Being motivated by evidence of daily success.

"Kaya arrived into year three unable to read a word. She wanted to read Cinderella. At her current rate of progress, she was going to be an old lady before she would have the reading skills. A new approach was needed. We needed to break the loop: She can't read because she doesn't read; because she doesn't read, she can't read. 

Not knowing any words in a text did not matter. If she didn't know 50 words in a text, it was just an opportunity for her to gain 50 words into her vocabulary.

So the intervention began. Kaya needed to read words correctly, and read a high number of words each day so that she had enough practices to learn to recognise the words she was reading. She couldn't do this on her own so we would show her.


Daily reading sessions, repetition of the same text and recording the increase of the number of words she could read by herself, inspired Kaya and the TA.


After just one week, Kaya could read not just one book of 150 words, but two, in each session and the momentum continued..

Long story short... It took 15 weeks for Kaya to be reading 1000 words a day, and on the first reading assessment in Year 4, she achieved ‘expected’ level."

Making Real Readers: A Forward-Focussed Learning Model

New possibilities: Our learning model opens up exciting possibilities for education. We now have a ‘recipe’ for 'making a reality': select the actions that we want, repeat, stabilise and give them a meaning that we can all agree is ‘real’ - this enables us to create highly effective learning systems.


By selecting the learning outcome that we want, we can make that outcome through repeated practices, and we can check that the process is having an impact as we go. This means learning can focus forward – it is now possible to focus on what a child can learn, not on what they have learnt. At the same time, we can collect data that shows us which parts of the learning process are working well for them or which parts need to be adjusted.


New ways of doing learning: By combining tech with this new learning model, Total Words is now a comprehensive system for learning to read - progress is made transparent and evidence of effective learning is clear. Data tells teachers, caregivers and pupils what progress is being made and what is required in order for progress to be sustained and, we can now ask forward-focussed questions, such as "how many words does this child need to read in order to increase their reading vocabulary, accuracy and reading speed?" - instead of, "why can't this child read?". More importantly, expertise in effective learning is firmly located in the classroom, on a laptop, tablet or across the kitchen table in the daily exchanges where learning happens.

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