Sparx Reader

"I now know that my students are reading"

Paddington Academy, a feted United Learning training school, is a high-performing school in central London with an Outstanding Ofsted grading (2023). Serving a diverse population, 45.6% of the student body qualifies for FSM and many pupils have English as an additional language.

Fiona Beeby, the Sparx Reader Leader and KS3 Assistant English Lead outlines the barriers to strong literacy that confront many of Paddington’s pupils: “some of them find [reading] hard, and they struggle with it [...]; it becomes a laborious, really difficult thing. I think a big part of it is vocabulary.” Fiona is only too aware of the threat posed by the vicious cycle of low literacy; many of her students find that they are not equipped to articulate their ideas in writing and often become discouraged by this, becoming trapped by “the struggle and challenge”. Added to this is the significant challenge of cultural capital: “a lot of the time when some students are reading things, even if they understand what the word is, if it's in a certain context that they can't picture or imagine they don't know what that actually means.”

“It’s been beneficial in all of them just persevering with their reading and holding them to account with it, because I think so many of them just otherwise wouldn't read every week.”

Given these circumstances, it is even more extraordinary that Paddington’s pupils perform so well at GCSE (+0.79 P8 in 2023). The staff work hard to transform their students’ life chances and the school’s reading culture is central to that, despite having many students who struggle to access texts independently. Through their wide-ranging whole-school literacy programme, Paddington’s teachers have ensured that all pupils are actively improving their reading and writing at every turn. Just some elements of this programme include: DEAR, tutor time reading, explicit vocabulary and grammar instruction, and Sparx Reader.

Improved accountability and focus

Sparx Reader has been an integral part of life at Paddington for several years; since launching it, Fiona has seen her pupils’ reading habits tangibly change for the better. She now sees them reading with intent, knowing when not to get waylaid by less relevant details. This important skill of knowing which details build meaning improves students’ overall ability to grasp the central events and ideas of the text, as they become more proficient in “deciphering what the key things are that they are probably going to be asked about”.

“I think it's a great tool for practising improving reading”

In addition to improved comprehension capacity, Fiona has seen an uptick in her pupils’ perseverance and resilience levels, as well as a generally improved habit culture. Much of this derives from the visibility and structure that Sparx Reader offers teachers and pupils, as Fiona explains: with conventional homework, “I can tell when [pupils] have not put any effort into that, but I can't give [them] a detention because it's done, whereas with Sparx I know [they’ve] had to sit there for 30 minutes and put effort into it.”

The knowledge that their pupils are all reading every week is extremely reassuring for teachers at Paddington, and this visibility extends to parents as well: for everyone, “Sparx is a really handy tool for accountability”. Fiona notes that parental engagement with home learning has also improved as Sparx Reader gives parents something substantive when they want to support and track their children’s independent reading - a question that crops up so frequently at parents’ evenings in conversations with English and literacy teachers.

“I now know that at least my students are reading. And it is the one thing that I think they don't do enough of.”

When interviewed about their experience of using Sparx Reader, Paddington’s pupils commented that they find the section lengths and question breaks suit their memory capacity well. The students felt that the questions come at the perfect moment in the story and aren’t disruptive to the flow of reading; these eager young learners mentioned that the questions can even be fun to answer! Despite not always favouring the genre of book they are offered at first, the consensus among pupils is that their Sparx Reader homework is enjoyable to complete. Many of the pupils were surprised to find themselves absorbed in reading a genre Sparx Reader offered them, that they wouldn’t have ordinarily chosen for themselves.


With robust systems in place for both supporting and sanctioning students, Paddington is able to hold pupils to account for their Sparx Reader homework using its existing frameworks; students are clearly used to their teachers’ high expectations of their work outside of lessons. Sparx Reader is used across all year groups at KS3 as one strand of a tripartite homework system, and Fiona has orchestrated the same hand-in day for all year groups in the spirit of keeping the messaging centralised and clear for all.

“In the long run, it will be so beneficial for them to just get into good habits.”

At the moment, an area of priority for Paddington Academy is how best they can support those pupils who are struggling to complete their Sparx Reader homework. From weekly competitions between students and class groups - with class rankings displayed on prominent leaderboards - to a public celebration of the ten readers who go above and beyond their SRP allocation, staff strive to motivate and support their pupils at every turn. This drive for completion is further strengthened by the SLT and Heads of Year, who are knowledgeable, fully invested and tenacious; they are always poised to quiz students about whether they have completed their Sparx Reader homework. As Sparx Reader Leader, Fiona has oversight of its daily operation, but the alignment, approval and energy of the wider staff team keeps momentum strong.

“Just having somewhere they can always go and find a book that they could read is a really important tool that is given to them for free.”

Fiona’s English lesson (with a class of low prior attaining Y7 pupils) exemplified how her encouragement and their camaraderie drive Sparx Reader completion rates up. It was evident that her pupils feel as though they are part of a team; when Fiona revealed the Sparx Reader hand-in page in advance of the deadline, she was highly specific in her commentary, meting out praise for those who had already begun - especially so for those who were doing it in chunks and managing their time well: “we’ve made improvements - look - we’re no longer at the bottom, but we haven’t proven ourselves yet! Everyone contributes to our success!”


Fiona commented on how Sparx Reader provides “somewhere [students] can always go and find a book that they could read. I think that's a really important tool that is given to them for free.” She is optimistic that the shift in the pupils’ affective behaviours - as well as their increasingly focused approach to reading itself - will start to close the gap for the more disadvantaged pupils. It follows that the pupils mentioned that they felt they were becoming better readers across the board, and were able to grasp knowledge faster in reading in History, for example: “I feel like my attention to detail is a lot sharper.”

“I feel like my attention to detail is a lot sharper.” Pupil

Paddington Academy is just one of the many schools for whom Sparx Reader is making a huge impact. As Fiona explains, the increased visibility of reading is leading to an increase in homework completion and pupil accountability, and - better yet - a tangible difference in their pupils’ reading habits: a fundamental academic skill that would otherwise be incredibly hard for teachers to monitor and for pupils to feel successful in.