In the initial wake of the revised national curriculum – both at primary and secondary – I admit to having felt an excitement. Like Emily Dickinson’s ‘House of Possibilities,’ I could see the potential for schools to design journeys through challenging and engaging tapestries of texts. Texts could now be selected for their literary merit and the depth in the human dilemmas and values they explore. I have worked with teachers to seize the opportunity of exploring whole texts with whole classes, with all of the potential benefits this offers: building the community of enquiry necessary for collaborative reasoning, exploration of values and beliefs, and not least the analysis and evaluation of how writers make meanings for all children, not just the highest attainers. I still believe this approach sits at the core of good English teaching, good progress and outcomes for pupils.
The revised Programmes of Study genuinely offer choices and freedoms but equally set the bar very high in terms of the depth of reasoning they expect readers to have achieved in independent reading contexts. The revised reading SATs question strands are not the curriculum. They test assessable outcomes – filtering out curriculum provision and outcomes that are hard to assess in a national test. Explaining the meaning of a word, retrieving a fact or summarising a paragraph are not skills, they are outcomes that allow us to generate assessment information from the reading process.
Whether the SATs are indeed valid and reliable tests of the current curriculum is currently under some review (have your say here.) In the mean time, teachers are using the 2016 papers as their weather-vane and wondering how they can best prepare their children to be successful.
Nationally, 2016 KS2 SAT results dipped by 20% and KS1 results by 24% compared to L4 and L2 attainment respectively in 2015. The comparison is not statistically valid – the curriculum and means of assessment have changed – yet the direction of travel is clear. Children who took these tests had been taught largely under the legacy curriculum and a greater number were not prepared for the revised assessments.
With this context in mind, I can turn to my main point. Understandably, teachers and school leaders were somewhat shaken by the 2016 dip and want to act to improve outcomes in 2017. There are some actions and reactions being recommended and retweeted in the blogosphere that are:
- solely focused on developing skill strands in the tests, decontextualised from the provision that needs to be in place for these skills to develop,
- likely to be ineffective in improving performance in the tests and
- reducing children’s curriculum entitlement.
We can all be a victim to teaching to the test, but the revised reading tests, as much as the revised GCSE Language papers are not quickfire, unitary knowledge and skill tests. Reading comprehension of challenging texts – and those 2016 papers were challenging in their vocabulary, sentence complexity and sheer length – relies on focused and intentional problem-solving. Readers have to activate a number of processes to construct meaning. This is particularly acute with texts that demand inference: 36% of marks in the KS2 paper were allocated to inference skills in the 2016 paper.
Here, I am outlining the synthesis of my interpretation of the revised national curriculum, my research reading (references below) and analysis of the demands of the papers. I actually think the solutions we need to improve children’s reading skills lie in professional learning groups (read my principles here,) exploring, reflecting on and reshaping practice collaboratively and in their own contexts. I will be facilitating such groups at Hordle Primary, a designated National Support School, and through the ETC and Aspire learning alliances in Hampshire. Do get in touch if you are interested.
What are the increased demands and how could we meet them?
Reading stamina, accuracy and speed of processing
There seem to be two avenues to take here – and I think they can be mutually beneficial.
Firstly, to become more fluent and effective comprehenders, readers need to read frequently. This practice does, however, need to be purposeful – readers who do not monitor comprehension as they read, summarising, visualising and mapping the journey as they read are not more likely to do this well, if they simply practice doing it badly in their own heads. Purposeful practice needs to happen in a context in which a more knowledgeable other can model, prompt, probe and scaffold strategy regulation. This is like jogging with a motivating friend, who jogs more often than you do and offers helpful tips.
Secondly, all readers need access to and interaction with texts that present a greater challenge than their ‘1 in 10 word struggle’ instructional texts – and this is not just to fuel good comprehension. Readers of all ages need exposure to and interaction with texts that build ‘the big shapes of stories,’ as well as ‘the little shapes of letters’ (Meeke, 1987.) We need to enable exposure to the rhythms and vocabulary of well written texts and invite affective and interpretative responses. Instructional texts are not likely to play this role. Blended reading provision has to pay respect to the affective mode that ignites the hunger for reading. It is in literary, often poetic texts with language and rhythms that feel like riches on the tongue and stories that shape our thinking where readers find the words that help them to understand themselves, their lives and the lives of others.
Literary texts, moreover, are meant to be ‘inconsiderate’ to the reader. The deliberate challenge they present of multiple and problematic meanings are part of why they stand the test of time. They admit and explore the complexity of life. This offers huge potential to the learner:
- Puzzles and conflict stimulate progress in thinking – particularly if they are shared and discussed
- When meanings are meant to be multiple, weaker readers can begin to feel they have just as much to offer as fluent readers. The fact that there is not one answer can be liberating.
- Problems tend to be inferential and involve dilemmas, issues, values and conflict: there is potential growth on a spiritual and moral plane as well as social and cognitive.
It is literary texts that feed writers’ linguistic store, their contexts for writing and often their desire to write. If we return to the jogging metaphor, these sessions will feel more like tough circuit training. Enjoyable struggle for deep gain.
What I would like to explore with colleagues is how this is possible in whole class, guided, paired and one-to-one contexts – and to explore the relative strengths and benefits of each of these reading contexts. This links to:
Monitoring comprehension and ongoing summary
Readers needed to be able to retrieve information from across texts to construct a summary and to make plausible, deductive inferences based on harvesting several of clues. Having a mental map or model of the text is the necessary foundation for inferences to take place. Mental ‘schemas’ are built on more than reading in the moment. Good readers have expectations of different genre and text types which in turn support them to build the specific mental map of the text in front of them, compared to their more general experience of ‘this kind of story.’ A curriculum deliberately constructed of rich and various genres is still a big part of the answer. However, readers also need to reason about text type and genre (What kind of a text do I think I am in and why?) in a way that goes deeper than spotting text type features. The KS2 curriculum includes comparison and evaluation of texts for this very reason. These domains are not just for higher attaining readers, but for all. I would argue they should also be included at KS1. The Let’s Think in English programme and Bob Cox’s Opening Doors sequences and approach are to my knowledge two of the best models for achieving this. Knowledge of genre models takes us to:
Context knowledge and connections with self
It seems that researchers with their roots in both psychology and education are championing the need to teach ‘world knowledge’ to improve comprehension. I would not disagree. Year 6 readers who knew something about dodos (unusual concrete noun) and extinction (abstract concept) were at a clear advantage this summer. I aim to explore the effect of weaving context knowledge in to reading journeys and the extent to which this raises not just levels of comprehension but also the self-efficacy of readers who might have felt themselves struggling without that prior knowledge. Feeling like you can keep going in the face of a challenging text comes from the memory of having succeeded in previous challenges. This is more than teaching knowledge – it calls for habitual metacognitive reflection that looks backwards and forwards across reading journeys and experiences. Embedded within this knowledge base is the need for:
The work of Isabel Beck et al has been influential and compelling in raising the importance of tier 2 vocabulary for progress in academic life, not just reading. Tier 2 refers to more academic and nuanced synonyms for everyday ideas: like descend for go down, or variety for lots of. Some time ago I renamed my spelling courses ‘Word study,’ to encourage and support teachers to link time spent on knowledge of how to build words for spelling, to building webs of meaning. This is not new ground, but with the words descended, isolated, defenseless and relative (is that as a noun, or an adjective?) in the dreaded dodo text, the need for vocabulary building is perhaps more acute. It is worth mentioning what happened with that final example, ‘relative,’ as this is something that happens all too often when reading English. I don’t just ‘know’ a word, I have to activate its meaning in context. Our messy, beautiful, hybrid language has begged, borrowed and stolen units of meaning from all corners of the globe and these meanings often shift according to context. Again, colleagues, we return to readers needing to apply their active, intentional reasoning to build meanings. Making meanings while reading is more like constructing a diamond than mining for one. On that note, the strand in which most children seemed to struggle:
There were 36% marks for inference questions in the KS2 test. Inference is not a learned skill – it is a reasoning process. There are layers of relative ease and difficulty involved in making different kinds of inferences which I will not go in to in depth here, except to say that with each novel reading encounter, I am not sure which cues and clues a writer is prompting me to draw on to generate a meaning that is not stated but implied. Read this great example of a narrative text from Oakhill et al’s book published last year:
Clara looked up at the ceiling and sought out her favourite stain, the blotchy brown one that looked like a hen. She knew that the days of her hen were numbered because her mother had called a roofer and a decorator to do the repairs. Clara did not wish to go to sleep just yet. Her hen winked an eye and gently shook its feathers.
Now imagine the question: How does the writer present Clara as an imaginative child? A reader would be helped by the world knowledge that leaky roofs can lead to blotchy stains on the ceiling of an upstairs bedroom – but that is just for literal comprehension. I am only a little closer to answering the question. I need to understand that the stain is just a stain, to begin to reason why the writer chooses the line, ‘Her hen winked an eye and gently shook its feathers.’ The lack of literal information ‘Clara imagine that her hen winked…’ is critical. To activate the necessary, exploratory inference, the reader probably needs to activate experience of seeing shapes in clouds and in the patterns of wallpaper and imaging them as creatures and faces. The reader has to reason through possibilities in the face of an inconsistency in the text. The stain looks like a hen – it is not a hen – but now it is winking and shaking its feathers. Why might that be? She’s an imaginative kind of girl…I wonder if there is anything else I can learn about her?…
There are strategies that I can teach that build the instinct for inference, like asking a question and standing in a character’s shoes, here, or predicting, empathising, sensing mood. They draw on all of the domains listed above and more: language knowledge and skills, making connections with other texts, knowledge of the world and personal experience whilst activating strategies, all in the moment.
I can model how I think when I infer, but it takes time for learners to tune in to ways of thinking, practice them and test them out through dialogue before they will become fluent, internal processes. Readers need to practise reasoning aloud through dialogue to improve. If this is managed skillfully by the teacher in a community of enquiry, the effects can be transformative for all.
In summary, there are potential implications for:
- What we teach – knowledge, skills and processes and the texts we choose as our content and our vehicle.
- How we teach – what are the most effective ways to support readers to inherit ways of thinking so that they can activate context and vocabulary knowledge in the process of comprehension.
- The contexts in which we teach – when and why should I teach reading in whole class, guided, reciprocal, paired or one-to-one contexts? Curriculum time and access to the teacher, ‘the more knowledgeable other’ is precious. Provision should be deliberate and informed by research evidence.
If you would like to be involved in one of the learning communities exploring these very real, but surmountable challenges, click the ‘Booking now’ icon on the home page of my website, following the ‘Blended reading for mastery’ links. Or just get in touch.
Beck, I. McKeown, M. and Kucan, L. (2013) Bringing words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction, The Guildford Press
Lanning, L. (2009) Four powerful strategies for struggling readers grades 3-8, Corwin Press and International Reading Association
Meek, M, (1987) How texts teach what readers learn.
Palincsar, A. S., & Brown, A. L. (1984) Reciprocal teaching of comprehension-fostering and comprehension-monitoring activities. Cognition and Instruction
Oakhill, J. Cain, K. Elbro, C. (2015) Understanding and teaching reading comprehension: a handbook, Routledge
Schunk, D., & Zimmerman, B. (2007) Influencing Children’s Self-Efficacy and Self-Regulation of Reading and Writing Through Modeling. Reading & Writing Quarterly, 23
Tennant, W. (2015) Understanding reading comprehension: processes and practices, SAGE publications