Penny Slater considers the level of challenge surrounding this year’s reading test.  Watch out for a forthcoming blog on the more technical aspects of  readability measures.  This is in the works from Kirsten Snook, who has done a great deal of groundwork for us in this area.

Having lived through the new 2016 reading paper we now at least have a clear view of where the DFE have placed the goal posts in terms of judging children’s reading ability.

And, what is nice of course is that knowledge is power. Now that we have that densely packed, weighty tome in our hands, we can dissect it with the clear intention of ensuring that our children, when the time comes, have the best chance possible to showcase their reading skills. To coin a phrase that has relevance here: better the devil you know than the devil you don’t. The reading paper 2016 is definitely one devilish document that you want to take some time to get to know. So, with that in mind, I would like to take the opportunity to explore one more facet of the reading test that we should endeavour to become familiar with in order to prepare our children for a ‘fair fight’. The facet up for discussion in this blog is the ‘challenge’ of the texts in the 2016 test.

Before I continue, I would like to lay my beliefs bare: I believe very strongly that big things can be said using small words. In the training that I regularly run (Planning units of work for year ¾), I linger on five words that appear at the start of the wonderful text, The Snow Dragon by Vivien French. These words – despite being everyday words, common-as-muck, easily decodable, not worthy of our WOW word board –  tell us everything we need to know about the character in question,  Book. On this first double page spread, we learn that Book shares the valuable information from inside his precious pages only ‘if he feels like it’. Five simple little words! So simple in fact that they are words that a child could so easily whizz past, and in doing so, could miss out on the very description that gets right to the heart of this character’s personality. All we need to know about Book is encapsulated in this pithy phrase: he is obstinate, temperamental, unco-operative, selfish… (the list goes on). As expert readers, we know to pick up on every clue that the author gives us, and so we would not miss out on this nugget of insight, but a less experienced – or engaged – reader may do just that. In my training therefore, we explore many ways of ensuring that the children in our charge are coerced and supported to notice these words, grab them, squeeze them and drain them for all valuable information that they contain.

There are texts appropriate for Year 5 and 6 children where the same can be said: small words, conveying big things. Skellig by David Almond did, and always would, earn a place in my year 6 classroom. The conversations that this book yielded amongst my class were mind altering – for them and me. In my experience, this book changes children. David Almond’s writing is –in my opinion – intoxicating. He writes at a pace, whipping through sentences at a stride not dissimilar to breathing, so that before you acknowledge that you are reading, you have inhaled half the book (and in my experience, a child from year 3 has had to come and remind you that your class was due in assembly 10 minutes ago!). Amongst the many nuggets of gold that bejewel this great text, I recall lingering over the following line from page 3 with my class, where Almond describes the family’s ‘new’ house: ‘Even the bricks were crumbling like they couldn’t bear the weight anymore. It was like the whole thing was sick of itself…’ Once again, this section of text is unlikely to present our children with any challenge in terms of its semantic structure, or indeed with its vocabulary choice. Most children would know the meaning of the words and could give a literal translation of the current state of the house. But of course, this passage is weighted down – if not ‘smothered’- in figurative meaning. A feeling of deep, deep sadness permeates the image in our heads. Again, my children gained so much insight into the feelings of the characters in this book just through a close examination of this neat little passage.

I am pleased to say that after repeatedly working in this way with my children – taking loaded passages from quality texts that I knew they would love and teasing out from deep within them every juicy bit of information – they were pretty good readers. Inference was a particular skill for them. So much so in fact that, had I allowed them to indulge this habit with every text that we read, we would never have got beyond the first few pages.

However, as a year 6 teacher I was acutely aware of the need to ensure that my children could not only perform these marvels of inferring ingenuity during shared and guided reading sessions, but that they also need to prove this skill when working in test conditions on the texts selected by the DFE. And this is where my supreme confidence in my belief that I was doing the ‘right thing’ became dented. They couldn’t. Or, to be fair, they couldn’t do it as well.

The problem lay with my text choice. Yes, my children could infer like mad when tackling a text that was rich in figurative challenge but relatively low in semantic challenge, but they could not perform at the same standard when faced with a text that was both rich in meaning and semantic challenge. In summary, it wasn’t my children’s ability to infer that was letting them down, it was their ability to infer from a semantically challenging text that was proving difficult. What I clearly needed to do was to ensure that alongside building up their skills of inference, I needed to allow them time and space to flex their inferring muscles on a range of increasingly challenging texts, leading ideally to those that mirrored the challenge of the year 6 test materials.

But how, I wondered, could I ensure that I was choosing quality texts that both provide rich opportunities for inferring alongside a good level of semantic challenge. Knowing a little about Lexile ratings can be helpful here. Running the DFE text choices through a Lexile analyser show that the second texts in the reading paper range from about 900-950Lexiles (The White Giraffe, 920L {2016 test}, Charlie Small, 940L {2015 test}), while the ‘hardest’ texts in the papers range from about 1050-1200Lexiles (California’s Unlikely Warriors, 1110L {reading paper 2015}, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, 1080L {DFE exemplification materials 2016 – reaching ARE at KS2}, The Way of the Dodo, 1160L {reading paper 2016}). Now I could see that my choice of Skellig (490L) – although marvellous for sharpening their inferring wits (and for so much more that simply could not be measured by a test!) – was not preparing them for the challenge of the test paper. Put simply: I wasn’t planning for a fair fight.

As I said, Skellig did and would always have a place in my year 6 classroom. Come to mention it, so would The Wolves in the Walls by Neil Gaiman, 500L (a great gothic twist on a traditional tale – far too scary for lower key stage two by my reckoning!); Pig Heart Boy by Malorie Blackman, 600L (real and gritty and utterly gripping – my boys absolutely loved it); and come to think of it, Traction Man by Mini Grey – I don’t even care what the Lexile rating for this is; I have yet to find a more engaging way of introducing the passive voice to a year 6 class! But alongside these beauties, I would also ensure that I found time to explore equally quality literature that presented my children with a sematic challenge that better reflected that which they would be expected to tackle in the test: The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper, 920L (a great read aloud – especially in the autumn term as the nights are drawing in and we approach Christmas), Mortal Engines by Philip Reeves,  990L (a great stepping stone into Terry Pratchett in my opinion – again, my boys loved this), The Phantom Tollbooth by Justin Norton, 1000L (such a clever book – I loved exploring this during guided reading sessions), Boy by Roald Dahl, 1090L (my all-time favourite – terrifying, ridiculous, unbelievable and touching, all in one book). What I wouldn’t be prepared to do, under any circumstances, would be to present the children with poor quality literature simply because it mirrored the semantic challenge of the texts chosen for the test. Of course, nobody would dream of forcing children to read a poorly constructed text just because it provided the right amount of linguistic challenge, would they (The Lost Queen –text 1 in this year’s test – comes to mind, but I shall leave that there…)?

So to summarise, it is most definitely, absolutely not all about Lexiles. It is most definitely, absolutely about teaching children how to read using high quality literature. However, in my endeavour to enable my children to show their true skill and potential, I may well use my knowledge of Lexiles to help me ensure that my children are ready for a fair fight. Now put those boxing gloves on…let’s get ready for 2017!