Further thoughts (building on yesterday’s blog)  in response to this year’s statutory KS2 reading assessment from Penny Slater, Assistant Lead Adviser for Primary English, Herts for Learning

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Don’t be blinded by inference

Anyone who has been involved in the business of analysing children’s responses to reading tests before will know that one testing domain always rears its head as an area of weakness: no prizes for guessing that it is our old friend Inference. This year’s test was no different. Saying that, two testing domains did actually fare worse than inference this year, namely strand 3 (Summarise main ideas from more than one paragraph) and strand 5 (Predict what might happen from details stated and implied). However, when you look at the detail, you quickly work out that in total there were 4 questions testing these domains across the whole paper, equating to a potential of 8% of the marks. When you compare this to the third weakest domain, inference, and work out that there were 18 questions worth 36% of the total marks at stake here, we realise that there are bigger fish to fry, so to speak.

So, ‘Inference’…we meet again! Bearing in mind that children’s ability to infer has been a sticking point for several years, it might be worth taking some time to re-familiarise ourselves with this skill in order to consider how best we can support our children to get better at it. For this, I will refer you back to an earlier blog where I introduced a new conceptual model of reading. Instead of considering inference as a stand-alone skill, this model positions the skill of inferring within the context of other skills upon which it relies. Essentially, the model shows that the ability to infer relies on strength within other cognitive domains (e.g. visualizing, connecting, predicting, and so on). Therefore, if a child is showing a weakness in their ability to infer, it may be due to the fact that they have a weakness in one of the other cognitive domains that inference relies on. More importantly however, this model shows that before considering which of these cognitive domains may need attention, we have to consider if the child has managed to traverse the first hurdle (represented by the outermost circle in the model), that is, do they know what the words they are reading mean? Without knowing what the words mean, you cannot begin to activate one of the cognitive processes shown in the innermost circle. You have fallen at the first hurdle! So, to return to the sub-title of this section: don’t be blinded by inference. It may be that your analysis unpicks inference as an area for development, but in reality, it may well be vocabulary knowledge that it letting your children down.

Our analysis of the test strengthens this argument. Although the test acknowledges that 20% of the questions directly test knowledge of vocabulary, by our reckoning, 58% is a more realistic figure. This is based on the fact that there is a word in the question that is a complete blocker if the child doesn’t know its meaning. All the usual tricks that we suggest to a child: read on and see if you can work out what the word means; try substituting the word for another word and seeing if it makes sense; look carefully at the word – does it remind you of another word – none of these techniques would help you. As I said before, you would have failed at the first hurdle!

 

Do realise the power of shared reading

When else, after all, will the children get to indulge in quality age-appropriate texts with you – an experienced, helping hand – there to help and guide them through? They might well have an opportunity during your guided reading session, but for many children, they will be working on lower pitched texts during this time seeing as this is your opportunity for meeting the children’s reading needs through differentiating the challenge of the text. With this in mind, your shared reading sessions in year 6 become an essential opportunity to expose all the children to the kind of language patterns and sentence structures that they may well encounter in the test. The worst case scenario would be that children would be encountering this level of challenge for the very first time on the test day! Provide tissues a-plenty if this be the case!

Although what to read with your children during these sessions to help them become accustomed to the challenge of the test is a debateable issue – and one that I intend to save for another blog – it is worth noting that the final text in the test, ‘The Way of the Dodo’ was adapted from an article featured in The Guardian. So there we have a wealth of reading material with an impressive back-catalogue and reasonable priced – judiciously selected of course – ready to go!

 

Don’t ignore the reader in the writer

I have a theory that may account in some part for the challenge that children faced this year with the reading test, and rather counter-intuitively, it comes down to an issue with the teaching of writing rather than the teaching of reading. In my experience of working in schools over the last year, writing has had the lion’s share of the focus in Y6. Not surprising really when you consider that the requirements for meeting the expected standard in this area were the most transparent, and therefore the area within which teachers felt like they had the most control in getting the children a good outcome. I would have done exactly the same. The problem is that whereas in the past, a focus on writing may well have had the desirable impact of also improving the reading, because of this year’s skills-based statements, the teaching of writing over the last year has not had the added advantage of impacting reading standards. Let’s unpick this a little more…in the past, a child’s writing ability was judged not just on their ability to shoe-horn in a range of grammatical features, but whether or not those features worked together to have an effect on the reader. In fact, this phrase ‘effect on the reader’ was littered throughout the APP statements. It was at the forefront of teacher’s and children’s minds whenever they wrote. Therefore whilst teaching writing, the teachers would continuously encourage the children to consider the effect of their writing: would an expanded noun phrases help to add clarity for the reader there; would a passive construction help to rank up the tension for the reader here; does the use of a semi-colon there reduce the flow for the reader? Ultimately, the writer’s success came down to their ability to channel the thoughts and feelings of the reader. All this talk of the reader whilst engaging in the writing process would no doubt have gone some way towards strengthening the child’s reading skills. The skill of constantly asking ourselves questions like: how does this feel to read? What is the writer making me think/feel at this point and how? have perhaps been lost now that the composition and effect element has all but been eradicated from the ITAFs. A costly loss, I think!