One expert says it’s a question too many secondary schools are grappling with, as cohorts of struggling readers and writers sit floundering in classrooms across the country.

Literacy specialist Jessica Colleu Terradas from Catholic Education Archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn, says there is a clear lack of research and experts to guide literacy interventions post-primary school. 

“And there’s not much guidance from departments, ever, about what to do when a Year 7 kid comes into your high school and they either can’t read – or read at a Year 1 reading level,” she tells EducationHQ

“I think there is a lot of misconception, or more assumption, that [students starting high school can read proficiently], but it’s not often the case. 

“PISA results are showing that there’s a growing number of kids at risk in that in that area.”

Launching a network

Keenly aware of the limited professional learning options for secondary educators in this space, Colleu Terradas has teamed up with learning specialist Marley Collins to launch the Literacy Intervention in Secondary Schools (LISS) Network. 

The network is really a platform to network and share best practice via a series of targeted events and featured school case studies, and so far she says the response from educators has been solid, drawing interest from across all states and territories, and even New Zealand. 

“Within two days we got 150 people registering, and now we are up to over 200,” Colleu Terradas says. 

“I was looking at the type of people who just reached out, and there’s a big range – inclusive education, school leaders, literacy support coordinators, literacy specialists, speech pathologists, a couple of researchers, education support specialists and then APs and principals.”

A presenter with grassroots PD movement Sharing Best Practice, the expert noticed more and more secondary educators were reaching out for help following her sessions. 

“They don’t know what screening tools to use or how to identify the kids – even at a cohort level – and how to then implement diagnostic testing and how to integrate that, and [they’re unsure of] ‘how do I make sure my intervention is matching the needs of the kids that I've got in front of me?’”

Above all else, Jessica Colleu Terradas says it's critical that schools nail their Tier 1 instruction. 

Secondary schools up against it 

There are a few core challenges secondary schools face when trying to lift struggling readers, the expert says. 

“One of the biggest [ones] is implementation of effective intervention, because the structure [where you’re working within] silos in departments is not very conducive to having that alignment across all your tiers of intervention,” Colleu Terradas explains. 

It’s often a “very hard gig” for secondary schools to coordinate an effective Multi-Tiered System of Supports framework across all year levels, she adds. 

“The timetabling is a massive issue.

“That’s probably one of the biggest concerns early on, when you chat to or discuss this with schools. 

“Also the knowledge – I don’t think half the teachers are well equipped in terms of helping and supporting order struggling readers, they don’t have the basics of teaching reading and writing, for instance, and that comes down to initial teacher training and the content that is delivered there.” 

Nearly one-in-five Australian students start secondary school at or below minimum standards for literacy.

Meanwhile, last year’s NAPLAN results found one-in-10 students are not meeting new standards in literacy, and those with high levels of socioeconomic disadvantage are even more likely to be slipping behind.

Follow a MTSS model

While there is no silver bullet solution to grasp onto, Colleu Terradas says we do know the key components that make up impactful literacy interventions for teens. 

To this end, presenters at upcoming LISS events will outline exactly how they established a Multi-tiered System of Supports (MTSS) at their school. 

Principal Digby Mercer from Como Secondary College will kick off proceedings, while in Term 3 Literacy Learning Specialist Belinda Melvin will share the MTSS journey at Ballarat’s Mount Rowan Secondary College. 

Colleu Terradas worked under Mercer’s leadership for eight years at Como SC, and describes the principal as a great social justice advocate. 

“I’m just reaching out to those who’ve been successful in [this] area, and making sure that other people can ask questions and hear from other schools who’ve been successful in implementing the MTSS.

“There’s no (one) formula, because I think it’s very dependent on the context of your school, it changes depending on the staff that you’ve got, the budget, your demographic, the kids. 

“So hopefully, by showcasing [these] stories, first it’s positive reinforcement – I don’t want to blame anyone, we want to really show what’s possible and what’s out there. 

“And then you can start identifying the similarities amongst those case studies.”

Former maths teachers and school leader Adam Inder also advocates for secondary schools to follow a MTSS model, with high quality Tier 1 instruction applied to all students, Tier 2 to some, and Tier 3 to those in need of the most intensive support. 

‘High quality’ practices include explicit instruction, spacing and retrieval, and formative assessment, the senior researcher at AERO suggests. 

Emerging research

Currently undertaking a PhD at Australian Catholic University under the supervision of Professor Anne Castles, Colleu Terradas remains positive that emerging research in this under-scoured area will grow. 

Last year Castles won an Australian Research Council Laureate Fellowship involving a $3 million grant that’s being used to investigate reading achievement in secondary schools and the best interventions that bolster those children in need of greater literacy support.

“It’s important because there are no other [Australian] universities that are actually investing into that field,” Colleu Terradas says. 

“…most of the money and the research is devoted to literacy that is aimed at helping younger kids, which is fair, because that’s where you can change the trajectory, and you really want to be preventive rather than reactive.” 

Above all else, the expert warns it’s critical that schools nail their Tier 1 instruction. 

"Tier 1 core instruction is the bedrock of the MTSS support, so without having a solid and very evidence-based teaching and learning practices in Tier 1, that means you have more kids at risk." 

LISS Network's first online event will be held on June 27. Head here to register.