Ben Rogers is a science teacher at Norwich Primary Academy in Norwich, England. He’s also one of the most insightful bloggers we know, especially on the topic of reading, which is fascinating given that he teaches science. (Check his blog out here) He recently shared some reflections about, among other things, his application of some tools from Reading Reconsidered. This post is the first of a two-part series. We think you’ll find his reflections as fascinating and useful as we did.
Last May I sat in a room with a small class of 11-year-olds, watching them struggle with three complex and challenging texts. They were taking a national reading exam.
During this annual exam, a half a million year 6 children (11-year-olds) across England sit a one-hour reading paper. In 2016, the complexity of the texts increased. The children in my class at Norwich Primary Academy (NPA)—which serves a proportion of disadvantaged pupils that exceeds the national average—struggled with the texts. Pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds across England also found the reading exam especially difficult: only 53% achieved the expected standard, compared to 72% of all other pupils. Here’s a snippet of text from the exam that students had difficulty with:
For thousands of years the island of Mauritius was a paradise. It was spat out of the ocean floor by an underwater volcano 8 million years ago. With warm sun, plentiful food and no predators to speak of, the isolated island became a haven for a variety of unusual species, including reptiles and flightless birds.
Extract from the 2016 SATs paper (full paper available here)
We analysed our children’s responses to this extract and found the following challenges:
- “The Island of Mauritius” is an unusual noun phrase structure. Children were familiar with Mersea Island, Treasure Island, Easter Island, but not “the island of….”. Several children interpreted this as an island belonging to a person called Mauritius: a knowledge gap.
- Primary schools in England generally follow a locally agreed upon religious education curriculum. My school’s curriculum does not specifically mention the word “paradise”: a knowledge gap.
- The word “spat” is used to create a metaphor for a volcanic eruption. Pupils might have picked up on this if they had knowledge of how volcanic islands are formed.
- Our pupils were familiar with words like “predators” and “species” from science lessons, but were unfamiliar with “haven”: a vocabulary gap.
If our pupils had more strategies, knowledge, and confidence, more of them would have made a decent attempt at tackling challenging passages like the one I cited. But they didn’t know how to do it. They didn’t know where to start.
The texts in our current literacy scheme were not complex enough. We weren’t giving pupils the opportunity to struggle, to experience the satisfaction of teasing out meaning. And we weren’t building vocabulary and background knowledge quickly enough.
My colleagues and I developed a two-part solution that combined techniques from Reading Reconsidered with a focus on developing knowledge. This blog post covers the first part of that solution.
Our Solution (Part I): Techniques for Teaching Reading
To set our pupils up for success, my colleagues and I needed teaching techniques that would:
- Expose children to more vocabulary
- Expose them to new knowledge and reinforce existing knowledge
- Improve their reading fluency and accuracy
- Improve their confidence and persistence with challenging texts
- Improve their ability to write incisive, accurate, and concise answers.
Reading Reconsidered offers techniques to address these points. I bought the book and started using it as soon as it came out, but working alone, I had difficulty implementing the techniques in an effective way. I needed more support to really make a difference. The first support came last October when I attended a Reading Reconsidered Train the Trainer workshop in London with two of my colleagues. Then, back at school, a group of us started coaching, supporting and challenging each other with these techniques, and we began to see the impact in our classrooms. We practiced the techniques with each other, watched videos to tease out what made them work, and observed each other’s classrooms. So far, we’ve begun implementing three techniques: Control the Game, Art of the Sentence, and Read-Write-Discuss-Revise.
Control the Game
We use this strategy with students during our first read-through of key passages from complex texts to introduce new vocabulary and to boost our children’s confidence in tackling them. Every day, I hear each pupil in my class read aloud, even if it is for just one sentence at a time. I plan who will read each sentence before the lesson, giving anxious and less fluent readers the most straightforward sentences, but ensuring that they read more often than my confident readers.
We have found two main benefits to this strategy. First, our pupils are reading complex texts every day. They are exposed to ideas and vocabulary that they may be familiar with, but can’t reliably use on their own. We prepare good definitions before the lesson because they are better than definitions we make up on the spot. We decide which words to define, which words to provide synonyms for (“I say construction, you say building…”), and which words to ignore. Our Write-the-Definition routine has become a game. Pupils now enjoy trying to predict which words I will define: “Pause. Underline the word…” They are usually correct.
The second principal benefit is that our anxious readers are becoming less anxious; they trust us not to give them sentences they are not prepared for. They know that their public performance will not last long and that it will not be humiliating for them. As a result, they are becoming more fluent readers.
The Art of the Sentence
Caught up in the excitement of writing longer texts, my pupils often forget everything they know about sentences. Therefore, the opportunity to practice writing thoughtful and complex sentences is important. We use Art of the Sentence immediately after reading a text, but before we discuss it. We do this because I want to assess their understanding of the text first—not what they glean from a discussion.
My colleagues have written a list of exam question types, which we often use as the basis for our sentence tasks (e.g., “Write a sentence to explain why…” or “Write a sentence to describe the impression that the word ______ gives you.”) I set a timer—usually for two or three minutes—and they write. It is a messy business, with lots of crossing out. As it should be.
Asking students to write just one sentence makes them far more thoughtful about how they use clauses and phrases. We get great sentences like: “Fearing the rise of a dictator and the loss of their privileges, the Senators assassinated Caesar on the steps.”
As students write about what they’ve read, we examine their work to check for understanding and grammar. We carefully choose two or three sentences and ask their authors to read them out. We might focus on developing information and understanding, or we might concentrate on sharing what makes them effective. Then the pupils rewrite. Below is a typical example.
Task: In one sentence, explain whether you think the Leviathan is a good metaphor for Brunel’s ship, the SS Great Eastern:
First write: It’s a bad metaphor because a ship isn’t a living thing, it is evil with eyes, teeth and skin.
Rewrite: Although the Great Eastern is enormous, like the Leviathan, I think it is a bad metaphor because the Leviathan is a living thing with eyes, teeth and skin and the ship is just a machine.
It is plain to see that the rewrite is better than the first, however, my colleagues and I find that the quality of their first-draft sentences has also improved over time. Previously, many children wrote incoherent sentences with jumbled clauses and punctuation. Now, they generally write sensible first sentences, some more sophisticated than others. Tracking progress over time is simple, because we use the Art of the Sentence so often.
In year six, we repeat the cycle of Control the Game, Art of the Sentence, and Read-Write-Discuss-Revise on an almost daily basis. The same techniques are also being used in years 4 and 5 (8 to 10-year-olds). We are confident that our incoming year 6 students will have the resilience and stamina to read complex texts and more sophisticated vocabulary and knowledge. They will know where to start.