Penny Slater is Assistant-Lead Adviser for the Herts for Learning Primary English Team.
Don’t dissect the dodo!
There is no doubt that the final text in the 2016 reading paper was a bit of a challenge (to say the least)! Not only was it awash with tricky language and complex sentence constructions that went on…and on…and on! Let’s not forget that by the time the children got onto answering questions about this text, they had already waded through two other texts, neither of which could be described as ‘easy’. However, to gain some perspective, it is worth noting that in order to achieve the necessary marks to pass the test, the children didn’t actually need to go anywhere near the final text.
In fact, by achieving just over half the marks available from answering questions on texts 1 and 2, a child would have gained the marks necessary to be considered as working at the expected standard. With this in mind, I would suggest that it is not worth spending too much time lamenting the obvious challenge of the final text, and analysing the children’s answers and errors to the Nth degree. Time could be spent much more wisely unpicking where the children struggled with the two more ‘accessible’ texts where we might have expected more children to have had greater success.
Don’t blame the texts (blame the questions!)
Although there is potential for argument here, it could be said that the texts selected for the 2016 paper weren’t actually that different in terms of challenge from texts used in previous reading papers. Certainly from the perspective of semantic challenge, and difficulty of vocabulary, the texts were pretty much comparable to texts used in the 2016 sample papers and the 2015 test. But that is not to say that this year’s test didn’t rank up the challenge elsewhere. It certainly did just that. The challenge however came from a different source: namely, the complexity of the questions. Most notably, the questions were relentless in their use of synonyms to refer to words used within the reading texts, thus requiring children to display their broad vocabulary knowledge throughout (e.g. where the question referred to a ‘fight’, the text referred to a ‘struggle’). To add to this challenge, each question required a vast amount of reading to gain the information needed to provide a sufficient answer. Unlike in previous years, in order to gain single marks, the
children were required to read whole paragraphs… indeed several paragraphs… and in some cases, to skim back through the whole text. Stamina was required in bucket loads!
Do get summarising
Despite the texts not providing considerably more challenge in terms of semantics and vocabulary choice than texts selected for previous tests, they did differ quite markedly in one other aspect, that being, the use of sub-headings. In the 2016 paper, they were notable by their absence. Not a single sub-heading graced the test paper. This omission would have no doubt ranked up the challenge of the test as without these little helpful summarising pit-stops, the children were left to their own devices to read, digest and segment the text into meaningful, memorable chunks.
The simple solution here then is to ensure that children know that in the absence of sub-headings, they must add them themselves. So the rule would be that after reading every paragraph, the child adds a short (single word ideally) sub-heading that summarises the passage just read. Suddenly the text has some meaningful markers within it and navigating becomes a potentially easier task.
Do re-brand your WOW word wall
Bearing in mind how unremitting this test was in using vocabulary in the questions that could not be found in the text, now might be a good time to re-evaluate the impact of your WOW word board. In fact, it might be a good time for a shift away from a focus on WOW words – impress me by using a word that I wouldn’t expect a child of your age to use! – to a drive towards a Synonym Showdown – give me 5 alternatives for this commonly used word. This takes us back to the ‘fight’ example used earlier. A WOW word alternative might be ‘fracas’, but in fact to answer the question, the children needed to know a common alternative for this word e.g. ‘struggle’. So other words that might be useful to know as a synonym for ‘fight’ would be brawl, scuffle, scrap…none of these would probably be worthy for a place on our WOW word board, but would certainly find a place on our synonym shelf. This message fits with what we know about the intentions of the new curriculum – ‘breadth’ is after all a key word. The children need therefore to be encouraged to flex their vocabulary muscles to breaking point. So rather than asking the children if they can give you a synonym for a word you are considering using in shared writing, instead we would ask if they could give us 5 synonyms…indeed can they go as far as 10 synonyms! Then they might have a ‘fighting’ chance of facing the ‘struggle’ of the reading test 2017.
Further musings on the lessons learnt from the reading test to follow shortly.
Our earlier musings on the reading paper include: