Martin Galway is an English Teaching and Learning Adviser for Herts for Learning.
I thought twice about the title of this blog. In fact I thought thrice. I had second thoughts because I am anxious not to come across as facetious or glib when, for many, the outcomes of this year’s reading test are still being processed and digested and the fuller picture of what the scores happen to mean will not be known until after the summer holidays. I thought a third time because it is such an “out there” title that it is unlikely to do our blog any favours in terms of search results or casual views. I mean, it reads like Enid Blyton by way of the Beat Generation. Can you imagine pitching it as a book?
” Well now. Where to begin? It’s called Giraffe-Girl and the Row-boat Rascals and…”
“Woah, let me just stop you right there – you had me at Giraffe-Girl, but Row-boat Rascals? It’s just not our demographic. It sounds a bit throwback.”
“Ah but that’s just it, it’s edgy, it’s new, but retro, it’s riddled with bizarre juxtapositions – it’s a dash of Edith Nesbitt and a splash of Dali.”
“I love it. Let’s talk numbers.”
Well now, I ‘ve almost talked myself into writing the blessed thing. It’s just struck me, too, that this could be the world’s most odd-looking in-joke – reserved for only those of us brave or foolish enough to dabble in the world of Key Stage 2 testing. Dear casual reader, I am referring to the three texts that comprised this year’s KS2 reading test. You can check them out here.
I don’t intend to make any detailed observations about the test here and now; those will come some time in the near future as we look closer at how the mark scheme has been applied, where marks were won and lost, what patterns and lessons we can discern and whether there are any pointers that indicate how we might better yet teach our children to read with greater confidence, fluency and insight. [It’s worth noting at this point that fluency in its fullest sense is going to be a key area to develop and we will continue working on materials and guidance to further support this key aim of our work] It seems we can all agree that the test was, at the very least, very challenging. Perhaps more subjectively – but nonetheless commonly – many seem to agree that it did not feel very “4b”ish. It also seems that many of us agree that it made some heavy demands in terms of vocabulary. For a good number of questions that were not ostensibly about vocabulary, the lexical demands they placed upon pupils were often significant.
As a team, we believe firmly that we shouldn’t be dodging the vocabulary bullet – whether it be the explicit use of the meta-language of phonics or of grammar or of poetry analysis – this language that we use in our shared discussions and formative assessments (teacher and pupils), or in our sharing of Tier 3 words across the curriculum, or the Tier 2 words that enliven our composition: we know the critical importance of developing a broad (range) and deep (application and understanding) of the widest possible bank of words. Critically, too, we know the importance of developing the tools that support us in deriving meaning (and then understanding): for example, the learning around affixes that stretches across the curriculum – teach one root word and, with sufficient knowledge and understanding of the behaviour of prefixes and suffixes, a host of others are more likely to be understood on first encounter or soon thereafter.
At this point, it might be worth pointing out our earlier Primary English newsletter autumn 2015 that took vocabulary as its focus. Hopefully you might find some of its ideas and activities helpful. Actually, now I mention it, you might fancy reading/saving this too – english newsletter summer – on reading, funnily enough.
We’ll return to the very specific topic of vocabulary and how it has been tested in this year’s paper in the near future. Jane Andrews, a fellow adviser on the team, has been analysing the questions in this year’s paper and has evaluated the overt, the implicit, and the relative levels of challenge that they present. She has put together some question stems for use in the classroom, and an accompanying blog, that will help you to explore vocabulary with your children in both a direct and more indirect way.
What else might help in the here and now (or rather in the here and now and from September onwards)?
Here are a few quick pointers:
Pitch of text is clearly critical. We are looking at readability measures in relation to the test papers and at the frequency/likelihood of encounter in relation to words that questions hinge on. This work will take a little time, so do bear with us.
In the meantime, we can (once again) heartily recommend Bob Cox’s Opening Doors to Famous Poetry and Prose as an excellent resource to support you in providing access for all to a range of challenging texts. That review hopefully sheds light on the nature of this wonderful, teacher and pupil-centred resource. I have been fortunate enough to read preview copies of both the volumes for 6- to-9 year olds and the volume for 10-to-13 year olds, due to be published later this summer. In a nutshell, dear literacy/English subject lead, an essential purchase.
Other great texts to help develop practice across the school with particular reference to drawing out thoughtful, perceptive responses to texts include Mary Roche’s Developing Children’s Critical Thinking Through Picturebooks. In this wonderful book, Roche outlines how picturebooks can support our children in developing their thinking in all kinds of direction. There is no getting away from the fact that the reading test in KS2 is something of a lottery – we can never know the content domains that our children will have to negotiate (no GCSE set texts here; more the unseen poetry). It is something of a lottery too in terms of the vocabulary that it might choose to alight on. There is no way of circumnavigating this fact. All the more reason for developing agility in responding to texts (and I would include the visual arts here – a fantastic route into deeper comprehension). In the face of a lottery, we need options in our thought processes and outcomes in order that we may weigh up, eliminate, and come to the best possible answer. Mary’s approaches (together with the likes of Adrian Chambers in his seminal Tell Me and the work of Robin Alexander) are precisely attuned to these multi-faceted levels of thinking.
Recently published and more explicitly entwined with our primary concerns here, Wayne Tennent’s Understanding Reading Comprehension has research, classroom practice and theory as its lifeblood. Well worth purchasing for English leads or the school’s nominal ambassador for reading, Tennent explores in detail the processes of reading comprehension and outlines practices geared towards having good impact.
Tennent briefly touches upon Reciprocal Teaching – a practice that has been used (and, I’m afraid, abused) here and there in the UK for strong decoders/weak comprehenders. Reciprocal teaching in its original form is heavily research-informed and has been shown to have good impact where children’s comprehension places them in the bottom-right quadrant in relation to the simple view of reading:
If you’d like some further entry-level details around this practice, see my article in this newsletter. If it is of interest, and something that you would like to explore further, it would be lovely to have you along for my course that explores the process and includes a modelled session – details here. Other reading courses can be found under the English header here.
All of the above share one thing in common – talk. High quality talk. The pressures of responding to a high-stakes test regime can lead to flight or fight responses. Resist the flight into test drilling and practice papers. For one thing, it is still relatively early days into the new regime of NC 2014 testing – however long the last year may have felt. The more experienced amongst us will know that published materials take a while to stabilise into reliability following major curricular changes. Bide your time. By all means use this year’s paper to gauge next year’s trajectory but hold on to the best of what we know about developing children as readers and fight this challenge through high quality reading instruction :
- Attend to decoding needs – swift, regular, qualified support for struggling decoders. Consider fluency in its fullest sense – is the intonation/expression/prosody there? Is phrasing as we would want it? Is meaning and understanding sustained?
- Use challenging, varied, interesting texts. I need to stress the challenging. We sometimes do not know how far we can go, unless we’re given the opportunity to travel there. We should also aim for challenging in terms of content. Children need and deserve a rich and varied reading diet that provides them with the opportunity to safely encounter a range of emotions and new insights. Once again, our newsletter on reading contains details of some fantastic web resources that can support you in finding just the right texts for your children, such as the rather marvellous Shakespeare and More site – a rich source of texts that meet this particular brief.
- Deploy expert – but carefully measured – questioning: a single question that sets off a chain of deep and getting-deeper responses (with high child-to-adult speaking ratio) is far better than a game of literal retrieval, 20 questions in 20 minutes, adult vs child ping pong;
- Offer enticing, challenging, exciting, troubling, and pleasing teacher read aloud sessions – critically followed by discussion. You can some thoughts on reading aloud in parts one and two of the blog ‘Do the Voices’ – I wrote it from the heart so forgive the length;
- Pay careful attention to where children are at in terms of the language comprehension/word recognition continuums of the simple view of reading – a lack of true fluency can often be masked by a smooth, optimal-words-per minute delivery. Check. Understanding. Always.
- Provide talk-rich classrooms – be brave – perhaps let your initial guided/group reading sessions centre on a rich visual stimulus – developing decoders will be given a voice from the outset and this is immensely important. You will most likely also find that your higher attaining readers will benefit from a greater multiplicity of thoughts and viewpoints across the classroom’s unique demographic. Of course, reading sessions need to focus on reading – we cannot spend forever and a day on film, pictures and the like- but they are an incredibly powerful tool in our reading provision.
- Avoid the trap of looking at data, undertaking question-level analysis and then thinking purely in terms of what to fix in year 6. Do the analysis but look at overall provision. Fluency is a long term concern; vocabulary development longer still. Any lessons derived from statutory assessment that will be genuinely beneficial to pupils are most likely going to apply in some way across the school context. Of course, accountability measures will mean that a careful eye (preferably a careful set of eyes including the year 6 teaching team, who must feel supported and enabled) will rest upon the children entering year 6 in September and what their needs are. Thoughtful transition work with year 5 colleagues and strong formative assessment across autumn term will be key. Still, question-level analysis of this year’s paper is important: what might we need to do differently next time around? What does it suggest might be an area to develop in reading across the school? Are there lessons for other year groups?
I really and truly hope this is helpful. A final note: you’re not alone. Far from it. We’re in this together and we’re a pretty formidable force to be reckoned with. Feel free to get in touch via twitter: @HfLPrimaryEng