03 Using mixed-ability reading groups to improve achievement for reluctant readers

ERO’s 2013 report, Mathematics in Years 4 to 8: Developing a responsive curriculum, explained how ability groupings within and across classes disadvantaged children in the lower groups who often developed negative attitudes to mathematics.

Teachers of Years 5 and 6 children at WOODEND SCHOOL trialled and then used mixed-ability reading groups. They focused less on children’s reading ages and more on their interests and the skills they should practise.

They found that children working together in a group identified their own strengths and needs and supported each other. Children who had previously been in the lowest reading group improved their self image along with their reading enjoyment and success when working with children that were good at reading.

Children in Years 5 and 6 learned in a modern learning environment with four teachers. Most Years 5 and 6 children at the school achieved well in reading. Generally well over 90 percent achieved at or above the reading expectations by the end of Year 6. Teachers were highly focused on having the few remaining children also achieving success.

Identifying and monitoring achievements

Leaders identified children’s progress and achievement using well-established assessment and monitoring processes. Teachers collaboratively tracked children’s progress and achievement using information from formative assessments, conferencing notes, anecdotal notes, and from the work children completed in their Reading Response workbooks.

Teachers and leaders carefully identified the specific strengths and learning needs of all children that were below expectations in reading. Each child’s reading level was recorded each school term along with the strategies the teacher has used with the child and the progress resulting from the strategies. These were collated in one document where leaders used a colour code to identify which children were well below, below or at the National Standards. (Blue for well below, orange for below and yellow for at.)

Below is an example of the records kept for Years 5 and 6 children. Child A was well below the reading standards at the beginning of the year and Child B was assessed as below.

Strategies / interventions/Planned / Used

Child A needs to be encouraged to build on his reading mileage both at school and at home.

Incentives and encouragement will help in this area. Reading buddies will also help with this. He will be supported to increase his fluency in his reading group.

Child B will continue to be supported this year in decoding and fluency skills as well as developing her comprehension and retell skills. We will work to develop her confidence and build her reading mileage through encouragement and incentives.

Evaluative comments Updated throughout the year

Child A had moved from well below to below. He is trying hard to develop his confidence with reading and is on track to reach the standard.

No longer a priority learner! (At the standard) -19/9/16

Child B No longer a priority learner! 6/5/16

Considerable progress was evident for children previously identified as reluctant readers. In 2016, 18 children were identified as achieving below the expected reading level. At the end of the year, 13 of these children had reached the expected level. ERO investigated the actions that contributed to their success.

Mixed-ability reading groups

One teacher in the Years 5 and 6 teaching team was responsible for all three low-ability reading groups. Previously, she had successfully empowered low achievers through helping them to know what they needed to do to succeed. Early in the year, the teacher had grouped children with similar reading ages and needs. However, part way through the year the teacher decided to trial a mixed-ability reading group approach, and instead worked with groups of children with reading ages from 6.5 to 9 years.

This photo is of a teacher helping a student to read

When working with a group, the teacher used a combination of shared reading and guided reading to increase the children’s repertoire of reading strategies. The children were given chapter books to read. Initially, the teacher read aloud a section with the children following the text in their own copy of the book. This initial reading helped motivate the children.

The teacher explained the reading comprehension strategies the children needed that could be practised while reading the text. Children were directed to make predictions about what might happen next. The discussions helped children think about the vocabulary and concepts they were likely to encounter. They were also supported to make connections with their own experiences and identify the main ideas in the text section they explored. Then they went back to the section and discussed themes and characters, along with new vocabulary introduced in the text. Children were also encouraged to cross check and confirm information they had gained from the text. Over time, children became more confident and read sections independently.

One child had visual problems with reading anything from a distance. Previously, he had often worked alone because he was so far behind. When working in the mixed-ability group he became an expert in some things and started teaching others. He just blossomed. When ERO was in the class, he was supporting a child who had recently transitioned to the school and who needed help with self-management skills. The child that had recently started in the class was reciprocating by helping the child with visual problems to continue to improve his rereading and decoding.

The teacher also focused on developing the children’s reading confidence. These children had struggled with reading for years and had negative attitudes to reading, with many exhibiting high levels of anxiety about reading. Statements about failure and “things I can’t do” were turned into goals. Children began to view failure as ‘something they couldn’t do yet’.

Specific feedback the teacher provided to children in the group meant they were able to recognise each other’s different goals and strengths. Some children got stuck on words and had to practice rereading and decoding while others needed to work on predicting or looking more deeply into what they had read. Children were then able to use their strengths to help others in their group, and became more comfortable asking someone to help them when necessary. The active involvement of children in monitoring their own progress and in getting and giving appropriate feedback about their learning was strongly motivational for them.

ERO met with a child who had previously struggled with reading and at the beginning of the year had been reading junior readers usually enjoyed by children three or four years younger than he was. He talked about the impact of the mixed-ability group reading activities for him.

“We used to read a paragraph a day and then do some work on the sheets, but now we read a chapter a day. It has helped me a lot.

When I was little, I didn’t like reading. I used to read the little kids’ books and they weren’t interesting. I used to be always in a group that was just me. I would work with a teacher aide or a teacher, and it was just me.”

“When I came into this class, Miss B helped me a lot. She told me things to do when I got stuck on a word. I can read on to the end of the sentence and then go back to the word. Or I can look at the word carefully for clues about the beginning or end of the word, or any part of the word I already know. We do lots of really interesting activities and I had to be able to read to do the activities.”

“When we started the chapter books, I became really interested in reading. I didn’t know that books could be so interesting. I like art and I like drawing what I read. Before in reading time when it said to draw something I couldn’t because I couldn’t read what I had to draw.”

“I read more at home now. I really like mystery books, chapter books and ghost books. Mum talked with the teachers about books and stuff and then she started getting me books that I wanted to read.

I read a lot at home now.”

The child showed us his class timetable and his reading group. He said he was in a different group because he loved dogs and the teacher knew this. The teacher put him in the group with the book about dogs. He showed us the chapter book and his Reading Response workbook. He went back to the beginning of the workbook to show how much he had progressed and the standard of work he now was capable of. He was now enthusiastic about reading and his improved level of success was evident.

Other teachers in the team saw the impact the trial had on the reluctant readers during their regular collaborative sharing of data. They extended the mixed-ability groups more widely to enable children to learn through reading about things that interested them.

“We looked at the data and saw what was happening for some of our lower achievers. We could also see it in their levels of confidence. It was working for that teacher’s reading groups. We saw that some of those children were able to teach others and it made them feel really proud. The change has been dramatic. If it’s making such a difference why wouldn’t we try it. We try things and if it works, we extend it.”


When ERO visited, some children continued to work with the teacher originally supporting them to build on and apply what they had learnt recently. These children needed additional time to build their confidence in themselves as readers. The remainder of the original group were working with the other teachers in their learning space. They joined other groups of children reading texts that matched their interests. Many children told us they really liked the interesting reading activities they did. They were learning new things about reading from the other teachers too. Their increased reading confidence was highly evident.

This photo shows a child showing the interesting reading activities they enjoy