Disrupting hierarchies in school-based reading: a conference paper

Presentation to the Educational Inequalities Conference, Erasmus MaCE, University of Cumbria, 4&5 June, 2020


My name is Jess Anderson and I am doing a Collaborative ESRC-funded PhD with Renfrewshire Council, in Scotland. I’m based in the School of Education at the University of Strathclyde. I’ve worked in education, particularly literacy education, for the last 25 years, as a Primary teacher, teacher-educator and researcher. And all of it led me to doing this PhD, which explores the experience of children who are placed in what is commonly referred to as “the bottom reading group” in Primary school. All names I use here for children and groups are not their real names, but pseudonyms chosen by the children.

The Study

The research took place in three Scottish Primary classes, across two schools. The children were between six and nine-years old. Both schools have a high number of children who live in SIMD 1 and 2, on the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation. The index goes from 1 to 9, with SIMD 1 being the most socioeconomically deprived. Most were of White-Scottish heritage, and a small number were of Polish, Pakistani, and Nigerian heritage.

This is a study that foregrounds children’s voices, all be it mediated through the researcher’s lens. I am interested in how they experience reading and learning in hierarchical reading groups The study is ethnographic, which means I hung out in the classrooms over a sustained period of time, listening, observing, interacting, keeping field notes, doing activities and conducting audio-taped conversations with children.

The researcher questions posed in the study included:

· Does ‘ability’ grouping for reading affect children’s identities, as human beings, learners and readers, and if so, in what ways?

– How do structural inequalities, particularly around class and race, intersect with the practice of ‘ability-grouping’ for reading development?

Another question that formulated in the course of the research, on noticing different ways that reading hierarchies formed and were maintained through organisation, through pedagogy, through the reading resources that were available, and through the children’s perpetuation of hierarchies, and the question I think holds most radical potential for challenging educational inequality is:

– How might literacy pedagogy change if it is driven by a commitment to disrupting hierarchies that limit some children’s literacy experiences and futures?

And this is the one I would ask you to keep in mind when you listen to this presentation, particularly if you are a teacher or other kind of literacy practitioner or theorist, what does it or might it mean for you if literacy pedagogy is driven by a commitment to disrupting hierarchies that limit some children’s literacy experiences and futures? And it would be great have that discussion on Paddle.

Personal and Political Origins of Study

We know, through extensive research into ability-grouping, from the work of people like Diane Reay and Becky Francis, that ability-grouping reinforces educational inequalities around class and race. And yet, there has been virtually no research over the past 20 years that specifically examines ability-grouping in the context of reading in Primary schools. And I think there are historical reasons for that.

With the introduction of the National Literacy Strategy in England, in 1998, and to an extent similar developments in Scotland, listening to children read in groups (called guided reading groups) became the norm. From my experience as a teacher, it was and is a method that aims to do valuable work in terms of developing children’s response and comprehension through group discussion. And a lot of the rich research into reading over this period, like that of Hobsbaum, Reedy and Gamble (2010), has been focussed on exactly that.

Yet, it seems to me, that this research and the practice of guided reading fails to engage with an elephant in the room…. and that is that guided reading is a form of ability grouping that separates children based on their reading material, and as such it may suffer from all the limitations we know ability-grouping has in challenging social inequity. But reading instruction does pose specific challenges to mixed-attainment learning. We know from the work of Marie Clay, among others, that a key support in learning to read is to read books at, what Clay calls, the level of ‘easy difficulty’. If each child is reading books at the optimum level for them, then there will be others in the class reading at the same level and this easily translates into hierarchical reading groups.

Although as a teacher I was aware of the tension between guided reading and my commitment to mixed-attainment learning I couldn’t see a way of teaching reading that didn’t rely on grouping by levels of reading fluency. And it was years later, working on a research project led by Professor Sue Ellis at Strathclyde, that I heard of a way of doing group reading that allowed children to come together in mixed-attainment reading groups.

The method is simple, and in its essence it is this: children choose or are given a reading book that they can read at a level of easy difficulty. The teacher then randomly invites children who are reading different books to come together in a mixed-attainment group. The instruction takes the form of discussing strategies that help decipher words and make sense of what you read. Everyone in the group gets to contribute and to learn from each other. Then the children read aloud to themselves while the teacher moves round, listening to and coaching each child. Then in a plenary, the teacher and children share instances, for example of when they were stuck and how they worked out it out.

Now, it’s not possible in this model to discuss layers of comprehension and response, because they’re reading different books, so it is a practice that needs to work in conjunction, I would say, with really good quality whole class shared reading, response and discussion.

Hearing about this method made me think a lot about children who, as a teacher, I’d placed in ‘the bottom reading group’ and how little I’d known of how they experienced that. And it was from here the idea for the study developed.

The Pandemic Pause

So after seven months of exploring experiences of ability-grouped reading, the teachers and I had recently moved on to explore mixed-attainment reading and other ways to disrupt reading hierarchies that we had noticed, when the schools closed because of the pandemic. And it’s not clear at this point if it’s going to be possible to complete this part of the fieldwork.

I moved on-line with the research, recording stories to share with the children and keeping in touch with the teachers. But I know that not all children will be able to access the stories because of lack of devices and connection. And this is against a wider background of distress that some parents feel they lack the educational resources to support their children as they desperately want to do. And this is coming through from what the teachers are telling me.

Two Stories: part one

But coming back to the project and what has been learned so far, there are many stories that I could choose to tell of the children’s experience of ability-grouped reading. I chose two, juxtaposed for the complexities they convey of ability-grouped reading from the children’s perspective.

Before the study, many people had spoken to me of the negative effect on their self-belief and life trajectories of been seen as a poor reader in hierarchical reading groups, and I expected to hear this, loud and clear, from the children in the study. But most children that I got to know in the lowest attaining reading groups didn’t express dissatisfaction about their position or a sense of stigmatisation. Although some expressed a lack of confidence in reading, many talked of their positive trajectory in learning to read. One such story is Millie’s, that I think suggests a more agentic experience than those recalled from the hindsight of adulthood in studies like Vicky Duckworth’s (2014) study of adult basic skills learners.

I will share a short extract from a vignette that I think captures her agency, her confidence but also I think a fragility in her self-view as a reader, without these things cancelling each other out.

The vignette

Millie is 7 years old and in the lowest-attaining reading group. She remembers the first word she learnt to read, she tells me. The word was the and she learnt it between the ages of four and five. She says,

When I was in P1 that was ma first word because I was really close to finishing it. And then I was a wee bit older, in P1, and then I was, em, I tried the again and I got it (her voice becomes stronger, these words punched out).

When I ask her how she feels about her group she whispers “good”. Her group, she says, is the smallest group and she likes this. If she could be in any group she would choose the group she’s in. It gives her practice with easier books and through this she will be able to read harder books next year. Yet, I also notice that these reasons are expressed with a stillness in her body and a quietness of voice, often whispered, that could still suggest a fragility in her self-perception as a reader in class. In contrast, when she talks of other things, like her family life, her voice projects, she elaborates and her body is animated.

Reading is not the bee all and end all of Millie’s rich life. In my conversation with her and her friend Ellie, I can hear how reading fits into the matrix of her life as a daughter, a sister, a reader and a future adult self. Reading is neither stressful, absent or singularly defining in the way she talks about her life. She has a few books at home, some got from trips to McDonalds, the fast-food restaurant, and she reads them, she tells me, mainly by herself. If she is not reading it is because there are other things that she wants to do, things she sees others do in her family. When her sisters come over at the weekend she would rather play with them than read a book. I ask whether she thinks she will read a lot when she is an adult and her response again illustrates the comfortable non-dominant place that reading occupies in her life. She says,

Em, maybe not because when you’re older … you would have something else that you really like. And like you might want to go out and all that and you like to go places … When you’re older you can, you’ll have a car… I don’t think I want to drive when… I’m really bigger so I want to when I’m a teenager because my sister did.

It is easy for literacy researchers, like myself, who bring to their research an almost religious belief in the emotionally, intellectually and economically transformative power of reading books, to perceive a deficit in Millie’s story that is not there, to focus on what I think she might be missing out on rather than what she actually says. Millie talks of a rich life, full of people, activities and things she values and enjoys. She gives convincing agentic reasons for being happy in her reading group. Learning to read fits in with her rich life but does not dominate. Yet, her quietness and stillness of body when she speaks of reading in school suggest to me that there may be more tension in her relationship with reading and how she is positioned than her words might convey. To understand more of how she is positioned I think we need to hear from those who are in what is commonly referred to as the ‘top reading group’. And this brings me to my second story.

Two Stories: part two

Kayla, Claudia and Alexa are friends. They are 8 years old and in the ‘top’ reading group. Speaking to them I see the fault lines that maroon readers in ability-groups that wasn’t so evident in Millie’s words. In the extract that I’ll read out the three friends talk about their position in Purple Group, the highest-attaining reading group and how they see those in Yellow Group, the lowest attaining group in their class.

Kayla says “So the Yellow Group are like very nice and kind and thoughtful boys and girls but like…we did the books they’re on in P1 and P2. In P3 we started to move onto like chapter books …”

Alexa chips in, “Yeh, big ones, half as thick as that” ,pointing to a novel sitting in front of us.

Kayla, with the sound of a smile in her words, as the other two quietly giggle, says, “So like our group is like the more confident people…we feel like sometimes …the children in Yellow are like, aww, sometimes they look a bit sad and we feel a bit bad for that.”

I ask why they feel sad.

And Kayla says “Cos like we are in the other group and I think they really want to get to our level.”

Claudia says “They just, any time they do read they like, they don’t show their confidence. It’s like they’re shy.”

I ask them to imagine how children in the different reading groups might be when they are adults.

Claudia says “So I think they would be like more like, they would be better but like they would still need quite a lot of, like not help, but like sometimes they would still need help.”

And Alexa says “because not all adults are that smart enough to know everything.”

I think here we can see more how children in the lowest-attaining groups are fixed in place by how others position them, a position that at this point in their lives they may resist. And it also points up how personal characteristics, unrelated to reading, get attached to children in different groups, characteristics like maturity and immaturity, shyness and confidence, and in other conversations there were frequent connections made between intelligence and being a good reader.

I think the extract also points to the long tail this positioning may have, the idea that children in the bottom reading group will become unconfident adult readers. And what concerns me aboutthe psychological coupling of children in the lower attaining reading groups with qualities like immaturity and shyness is how strongly it’s echoed in the words of adults who have been positioned as poor writer and readers at school, again like the participants in Duckworth’s study.So this stigmatisation in the early encounters with literacy for children in the bottom reading group may play out for a very long time.

What might literacy pedagogy look like if driven by a commitment to disrupt hierarchies?

So to come back to my original question of how literacy pedagogy might change if it is driven by a commitment to disrupt the hierarchies that limit some children’s literacy experiences and futures, and how radical this could be, I would love to hear your thoughts and stories. Does it chime with action you are already engaged in? Can you envisage making any changes after hearing some of the children’s perspectives in this study?

For my part, I have talked of one of them here, that of mixed-attainment reading. I think the biggest thing is finding a way that works to teach reading in non-hierarchical groups, that allows children to develop as readers at their own pace, with books that match their fluency, that allow children to learn from each other regardless of where they are on the reading journey, that don’t fix them in place as ‘unconfident readers’. And I think this could hold radical promise in challenging educational inequities.


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  1. I loved reading this and it triggered all kinds of thoughts. I am a maths teacher/teacher educator and have spent decades engaging in debate about the proactice of setting and the expereinces of learners who are labelled and put into bottom sets. The high attaining girls reminded me so strongly of a pair of girls (I can even remember one was called Emily) who featured in a TV education experiment Dylan Wiliam did called “The Classroom Experiment”. For me what I saw loud and clear was powerful, high attaining children positioning low attainers as weak and slightly to be pitied. Emily and her friend changed their perspective as a result of the insistence of teachers to use strategies that gave these weak children time to speak and contribute in lessons even if they didn’t know the ‘correct’ answer straight off. There is a very shocking interview where essentially the girls say they accept that these people do have something interesting and worthwhile to contribute after all. I thought what a HUGE difference that might make to how those girls behaved later when they (inevitably) became the boss or the manager. It’s almost a kind of delayed damage. I have been thinking about how the way in which children feel about themselves as learners of English and maths starts to spill out when they get older into how they think of themselves as people, citizens. The lack of confidence becomes debilitating unless you have something else with huge social capital.
    It seems to me it is the same power dynamic we see in the dated language of “less developed countries” who are to be pitied and whose contribution is not to be taken seriously.

    I wonder what happens when people who were in the bottom sets become teachers – if they ever do?