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Profile6th April 2022

Teaching reading is teaching for equity

Literacy is fundamental to achieving your full potential, and literacy levels can impact earnings, health and even life expectancy. Being literate is a human right, and we are determined to secure this for all our children.

We spoke with Johanna Klinsky, Director of Teacher Development who’s also leading on our network reading strategy, about her journey into teaching and Ark and about our three-year reading strategy to improve our children’s ability to read at their chronological age. This is the latest in our #ArkPeople series.

Journey into teaching

I’m originally from Chicago and I’m a career changer. Becoming a teacher was never part of my original plan. Initially, after graduating from university, I became a commodities trader for a multinational food company and earned an MBA. It seemed like the right thing to do at the time, but I hated it! My days felt pointless. I would drive home after work thinking, “Is this what the rest of my life will be like. Is this what it’s all about?” That experience taught me a valuable lesson. I learned how important it is for me to have purpose and meaning in what I do.

My turn towards teaching was an incredible fluke. My best friend is Colombian, and he knew how much I disliked my job. He offered me the chance to move to Colombia for a few months, all expenses paid! I can never pass up an incredible opportunity, so I gave notice, closed down my house, packed a bag and moved to Bogota. The day after arriving, I signed up for Spanish lessons, and they offered me a job teaching English to adults at an advertising company. I would go to their office every morning and try to teach English to a group of ad directors, producers and writers. They are creative people, and the topics they wanted to learn in English were spontaneous and diverse. It was wild. I didn’t know what I was doing and was making it up as I went along, but it was so much fun. I was hooked on the teaching bug.

After moving back to Chicago, I returned to university, obtained a Master’s in Education, and started teaching. I wanted to work in high needs schools, and it was challenging work, but I loved it! I finally found purpose and meaning in my career. After being clueless about teaching in Bogota, I felt like I owed it to my students to give them the absolute best education, one that was as rigorous and demanding as children in the highest performing schools receive. While I was a good teacher, I wanted to stretch myself, so I worked on my craft and earned National Board Certified Teacher status. I was asked to join the Academy for Urban School Leadership and became a mentor teacher and leader in the first teacher residency programme in the USA. I was then asked to open a new high school in Chicago which has become the highest performing neighbourhood high school in Illinois for high-minority, high-poverty students. I’m incredibly proud of that work. The school continues to accumulate impressive achievements and is a real game-changer for the students and the community.

Joining Ark 

After working at the high school, I felt like I had climbed that mountain and was ready for the next challenge. My husband and I were discussing that it was time to make a change in our lives, the “If not now, when?” conversation. I told my colleagues at my school and the Academy for Urban School Leadership that I was looking to make a radical change, including the possibility of moving abroad.

I had worked with Brian Sims for many years, and he told me that he had accepted an offer to move to the UK and work for Ark as the Director of Education, so we started the conversation. Coming to Ark was a great match. I feel fortunate to have a background of amazing professional experiences from National Board teaching to founding a high performing school and leading on teacher training that I can bring to working at a high-performing network like Ark.

Why reading matters

The National Literacy Trust report in 2018 highlighted a real crisis in health outcomes related to literacy levels in England, especially for disadvantaged children. This is a concern for Ark schools as we serve high numbers of disadvantaged children. We strongly believe that children who attend Ark schools should expect to be able to read at or above their chronological age – it is their entitlement and our responsibility. When we examined our data, we found it was very similar to the national picture; approximately half of our pupils were not reading at their chronological age. Additionally, we found that the pandemic exacerbated the reading gap. Though we far exceed the national average in the phonics screening at the end of Year 1, almost a third are not secure in phonics at the start of Year 2. At secondary, more than one in ten of our Year 7 to 10 students are four or more years below their chronological reading age.

To close this gap, we developed a reading strategy focused on:

This will help our children to:

  1. Keep up: children reading at their chronological age must make 12 months of progress/year​
  2. Catch up: All children reading below their chronological age need to make at least 16 months progress/year at primary and 15 months progress/year at secondary

Making the right decisions for our children 

One of the things I’ve learned from working in education is that it’s so important to make the right decisions and then, once they’ve been decided, to do them well. There are so many options in education on which to focus; it’s easy to take on too much.

Our network priority on improving our children’s reading ability is absolutely the right decision. The ability to read is a gatekeeper for our children and life. The research has shown that literacy impacts children’s education, lifetime earnings, and even life expectancy! It’s so important that we get this right.

The energy for implementing this strategy has already been significant. We held an Ark Reads INSET day where we trained every teacher and teaching assistant in understanding their children’s reading data and the implications for teaching. Participants reported a 25% increase in their knowledge of understanding the reading needs of their pupils.

We’ve delivered specialised training for primary and secondary reading leads, early years, and phonics. With our Chromebook device initiative, we’ve been able to roll out digital tools such as Lexia and MS Reading Progress. Access to high-quality, easy to use data is so important for our schools, so we’ve created a Reading Dashboard where schools can track the progress of all their children.

We’ve already done so much this year to improve our children’s reading ability. The schools are 100% on board, and people are proud to be a part of a network where this is a real focus. We’re already seeing the impact in our mid-year reading results.

I’m immensely proud of our progress so far, and there’s so much enthusiasm to get this right. The actions we’re taking now will make a massive difference to our children’s futures.

I’m looking forward to finishing this year strong and doing an even better job next year and the year after. I genuinely believe that our work on reading is one of our finest moments as a network.

This year, Ark launched its Closing gaps, Opening doors appeal. With your support and generous donations, you can help us give every Ark student a great library and books that inspire and open their minds to new worlds.