Where it all began
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 an educational psychologist, consistent success stories began to emerge.
The data was really good; 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 a good learning process was critical.
Children in a local school had completed 10 weeks of a Total Words 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 an effective learning programme. They were breaking away from the path of slow progress that had held them back.
They loved it. The teacher loved it. Their achievements day-by-day 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 didn’t help. Reading fiction stories about irrelevant content just didn’t inspire us, or them.
So we turned to writing content that was relevant to them. We produced a weekly magazine for the school, with short articles on the topics that they were studying. And 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…?’
Books plus the programme = success.
Total Words had begun — real children in real schools, reading real content, making real progress.
Here are some of those real stories.
Eddie & Caleb
"A new approach was needed"
Sarah, Year 3
What needed to change?
Reading a high number of words each day.
Reading words correctly - not practising errors
Repetition over 3 - 5 days
Recording progress day-by-day
Listing new words learned
Motivated by evidence of daily success
Sarah 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. Sarah 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 Sarah and the TA. After just one week, Sarah 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 Sarah to be reading 1000 words a day, and on the first reading assessment in Year 4, she achieved ‘expected’ level.
Eddie and Caleb, Year 6
How to make reading real?
Reading bespoke texts that they could connect to.
A strict diet of a set number of words to read each day.
Reading words that they would use in real life correctly - not practising errors.
Repetition over 3 - 5 days.
Recording progress day-by-day.
Self-motivated reading - no more embarrassment.
Inspired by evidence of daily success.
Eddie and Caleb's Success
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.
Ahmed, Year 5
How to show the
purpose of reading?
Meaningful content matters.
Concise texts with real information are motivating.
Actual evidence of reading skills can reveal more ability than has been previously seen.
Being self-motivated feeds the desire to read.
Respecting children's desire for knowledge.
Ahmed’s Mother said he couldn’t read. She sat and watched him read Under the Sea, Making Tsunamis.
He read 548 words. He needed a prompt for 10 words in the whole book. He remembered words that were repeated in the text.
He could read. His mum could see that he could read.
Ahmed asked if the tsunami really had happened, if it was real. Yes.
When he was interested and motivated, he could read.
Reading about real events was important for him.