Penny Slater unpicks the 2017 reading paper and concludes that despite the concepts within the texts being more easily accessible for most children, the challenge of the reading test remains high.

Following last week’s SATs, we now have two tests that we can analyse in order to gain a better understanding of what the DFE mean by ‘greater challenge’. What follows is an attempt to unpick this year’s reading test, and gain a better understanding of where those elusive assessment goal posts now stand.

The first text offering in 2017 was ‘Gaby to the rescue’ – an extract from ‘Gaby, Lost and Found’ by Angela Cervantes. I am focusing my analysis exclusively on this text for now on the basis that, if the mark scheme aligns with last year, children could have passed the test if they had gained near full marks on the questions relating to this text, plus a smattering of marks from across the rest of the paper. At this point, I am focusing on the challenge presented by the text, rather than the questions (that task remains for a later date!).

On opening the paper, the children were greeted with the image of a cat: now, who doesn’t love a cat? Ok, so not everyone loves cats but at least most children have seen one! It’s probably more familiar and less visually disconcerting than an image of a girl swinging from a giraffe whilst being circled by a group of hairy pig-type-things! And this is where we first get a hint of a major difference between 2016 and 2017. The difference being that of familiarity of context.

If we are to believe that familiarity of context makes the whole job of comprehending easier – which I firmly believe it does – then 2017 was hands-down a lot more accessible for the majority of children than last year’s offering. In order to feel at home with the first text from 2016 (The Lost Queen), it would have helped to have some familiarity (be it through personal or vicarious experience) with the following notions: garden parties; houses with large grounds (including lakes with islands); adventures without adult supervision (on a lake… with no life-jackets!); family crests – aristocratic traditions; monuments/inscriptions; ancestors; rowing; family rivalries; struggles for the throne. Not your daily topics of conversation for the vast majority of children, you’ll most likely agree! Compare that with 2017 and we have the following notions to contend with: cats getting stuck up trees; money worries – not wanting to ruin clothes; being home alone (mum and dad at work?); bilingual households; water fights; climbing trees; cat behaviour. All well served by the day-to-day experience of a greater number of 11 year-olds, I would imagine. Already we can surmise that most children would have a greater ability to make a meaningful connection with the concepts in the 2017 text, compared to the first text in the 2016 paper.

However, one could argue – as I have done on many occasions – that children shouldn’t simply be expected to understand things that they have had direct experience of. That is why we have books! So that children can walk in others’ shoes; they can experience different life circumstances without stepping outside the confines of their bedroom. There is of course proof in this argument in the form of Harry Potter: most children are quite capable of making a connection with this text despite never having set foot in a boarding school. This is no doubt due to the fact that wizards and wizardry; boarding schools; strict teachers and mean uncles have been the stalwarts of children’s literature for many years. Children will have been reading about (and watching on their screens) these concepts long before they delve into their first Harry Potter experience. So what was so different about the concepts in the 2016 paper – were they really that obscure? Sure enough, most children would not have had direct experience of many of the notions, but they must have read books that touch upon them. For an answer to this, we can turn to the Children’s Printed Word Database (created by Materson et al), which records the frequency of words used across a huge range of children’s literature. This reveals that out of the concrete nouns listed in the first 100 words of The Lost Queen, three of the nouns received zero references in the children’s literature that they trawled. This tells us that despite being avid readers of good quality, age-appropriate literature, children are unlikely to regularly (or even occasionally) meet the concepts of ‘shallows’, ‘monuments’ and ‘ancestors’. Conversely, all of the concrete nouns listed in the first 100 words of the 2017 text are logged in the database, with ‘cardigan’ receiving the least number of references (its lack of reference in literature would surely be counteracted by the number of times a child hears it at home on a daily basis as they get ready for school)!

So, on the surface of things, test 2017 certainly seems to have been more accessible in terms of presenting children with more familiar contexts, and making use of more commonplace, less multi- layered vocabulary (this second point is not only reinforced by data from the printed word database, but also from a morphemic analysis of the word choices in the first 100 words of each text – see chart below). But, was it actually easier in any other respect?

In my opinion: no. In fact, I would argue that in almost every other aspect, the 2017 text was comparable with the challenge presented by the 2016 text, or indeed was harder.

To start with the obvious, the 2017 text was considerably longer, thus requiring more stamina to get through it (385 vs 599 words). The 2017 text can also boast the longest sentence of the two texts (a whopping 34 words, compared to just 21). There was also a slightly lower percentage of single clause sentences in the 2017 text (39% compared to 45%), meaning that, this year, readers were frequently battling through more complex sentence constructions.

But in my opinion, the real challenge of 2017 came from two sources: pronouns and verb phrases. Let’s take pronouns to begin with. In the first 100 words alone there were 12, compared to 4 in The Lost Queen (three times more!). Each of these pronouns offered the reader an opportunity to misinterpret the situation, unless read carefully with unremitting self-regulation to address potential misunderstandings. How many of your children, for example, might have fallen into the trap of believing that the cat was wearing a cardigan? Unlikely: yes! Impossible: perhaps not. All of those repeated pronouns: ‘she’, ‘it’ and ‘her’, may have been just enough to get the unquestioning reader into a pickle.

Now to consider the verb phrases. Despite the obvious stumbling blocks caused by the unrelenting use of multi-syllabic vocabulary in the 2016 text, it did at least present fairly straightforward verb constructions, mainly utilising the simple past tense e.g. examples of verb forms from the opening paragraphs: they found, there was, Maria suggested, Oliver looked. Compare this with 2017, and we quickly see that one verb seems not to be enough: ‘her father would have’ (verb phrase used twice in the first paragraph); ‘the cat would be’; ‘Gaby had climbed. Although these may not seem challenging when taken out of context and in isolation, when taken into consideration with the rest of the syntactic challenges presented by the text, it is just one more grammatical concept to grapple with in an already challenging read.

To summarise, in certain respects, the first text in the 2017 test could be classed as easier than the comparable 2016 text choice. Certainly it presented a story set within a more familiar context, and the vocabulary was more common-place and less dense (words generally had fewer morphemes and syllables in 2017), but from a syntactic perspective, the challenge has definitely been ramped up a notch.

If your children found it easier, chances are they were comforted by the familiar context and concepts, and they were not bamboozled by an unremitting torrent of unknown words. This may have been enough to help them continue with tenacity through a longer text which presented more syntactic challenge – maybe all that modelling of complex sentence structures has paid off after all? Thankfully, your children weren’t thrown off course by a dizzying range of conjunctions and a smorgasbord of sentence constructions, not to mention the unwieldy number of pronouns, which could have made the first paragraph a minefield of potential misunderstanding.

If they did struggle however, maybe these syntactic challenges were just a step beyond their current confidence level, and the familiar context, no matter how reassuring, simply couldn’t make up for their lack of reading fluency.

What we can be certain of is that there will be lots for teachers to think about when they unpick the results of the 2017 reading paper.

The following table provides some facts and figures relating to the first text in the 2016 and 2017 reading papers. The red indicates the greater challenge.

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For more insights into the 2017 reading test, and suggestions for to support your children to rise to the challenge, why not attend one of our reading training sessions (please click on the links below to book):

17ENG/043P Teaching and assessing reading comprehension BOOK 03 Nov 2017
17ENG/049P Guided reading at Key Stage 2: developing thinking readers BOOK 15 Nov 2017
17ENG/039P Securing age-related expectations in English – Year 6 BOOK 12 Oct 2017