Monthly Archives: August 2013

…for who will coach the coaches? Part 3

In two previous posts, I thought about the role of vision and culture in getting coaching up and running in schools, and some of the things that coaches might need in preparation for working with their colleagues. In this post, I consider how coaching could fit into a wider CPD program.

A good CPD program is varied. There is varation in content, for example over a term, there might be sessions on Marking and Feedback, SEN, SIMs etc. There is variation in style, for example, some sessions will be more of a lecture style, some will be the catalyst for some action research etc. There is variation in speakers, for example, SLT, Subject Leaders, external experts etc. There is variation in venue, in that meetings are held in different places around school. Coaching certainly adds to the variety of a good CPD program.

The driver for planning a CPD program is the school’s strategic plan. There will already have been a thorough analysis of what it is that the school needs to work on and this could well quickly fill up weekly INSET slots. The danger here is that by having a weekly focus for CPD, coverage is wide but key ideas do not become embedded in practice. One off INSET sessions may not necessarily lead to sustained improvement in teaching. Rather, teachers need to act their way into thinking to adjust habits. This is where coaching can complement traditional models of CPD programs. When an idea is introduced in an INSET session, coaches can foster work on strategies over the next few weeks. This will not always be appropriate, though, and before long, if every session is followed up with coaching, there will be too much going on and we risk losing focus of the main thing – improving teacher quality.

One option, then, is for school leaders to have a clear vision for what it is that makes great teaching – generic strategies or principles that can be tweaked over time. It might be of use to refer to Hattie’s meta-analysis of teaching interventions to inform this thinking. Quality of feedback must surely be on any school’s list of aspects of great teaching and according to Hattie has one of the highest effect sizes. Teacher clarity also ranks highly – this could include quality of explanations and modelling. With clarity of thinking about what makes great teaching, any weekly CPD focus can be alligned to the values already established and then practised in subsequent coaching sessions. This provides direction and reinforces the message that teaching quality matters most.

The model outlined above takes the prevailing conditions of many CPD programs (weekly topics) and uses coaching to add further conditions that we know are more conducive to effective learning – deliberate practice, spaced learning and feedback. This could work. However, I think that our CPD programs should reflect more what we know about effective learning. The weekly topics structure that has been the basis of many schools’ programs for years is essentially massing as opposed to spacing. Massing can work for performance – cramming the night before a test can mean success, but all is forgotten soon after. Similarly, a situation where an idea is introduced in INSET, expected to be seen in upcoming observations and subsequently ticked off, is just the same. Learning and performance are different and spacing is the driver for learning. No matter how effective coaching is, we risk betraying our values and undermining our intended message if those weekly INSET sessions contradict what we know works in learning.

So, spacing and revision could be planned into the CPD program. A massed CPD program, supported through coaching may look a bit like this:

Week 1 – Marking and Feedback in English. (Coaching: Shared marking).

Week 2 – Modelled and Shared Writing. (Coaching: Modelled writing).

Week 3 – Implications of new curriculum in maths. (Coaching: Joint planning).

A spaced program would need a little more consideration and could look like this:

Example CPD program

Coaching presents a major change in how schools work and this change needs to be thoughtfully managed in order for it to make the impact on teaching quality that it undoubtedly can. For schools to benefit from coaching, there must already be structures in place. A strong vision and clear communication, shared with integrity by school leaders, will pave the way for deliberate practice and quality coaching conversations to take place. Coaches need to be well prepared and knowledgeable so that we can make the best use of time. They must have a range of strategies to draw upon and like any expert, must expect to practise to be as effective as possible. Coaching must also be part of a wider CPD program that reflects the best of what we know about learning.

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…for who will coach the coaches? Part 2

In a previous post, I explained the importance of a school’s vision for coaching matching the already established culture. There are a couple of reasons why I think that talking about coaching in those early weeks of the new school, with that carefully planned language, is necessary:

  • It gives leaders time to match up staff with coaches while giving them time to settle into a new school / room / role / year group etc.
  • It generates a little momentum for when coaching is launched. Think of the busker who scatters his guitar case with a few notes and coins, rather than start with an empty case. This isn’t such a big change – we’ve already started…
  • It creates time to work with coaches on their repertoire of strategies before meeting with their colleagues.

Managing Change

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At this point, any potential barriers need calling out and possible solutions shared. In Dan and Chip Heath’s book ‘Switch’, they talk about the elephant and rider analogy in managing change. The elephant represents emotion and the rider rationality. The elephant will only go where the rider wants it to if it so chooses. The rider cannot force the elephant to do anything. Unless the rider knows where he wants the elephant to go, they will not end up at the desired destination. To manage change, we need to motivate the elephant and direct the rider. We need to understand what it is about coaching that will motivate our colleagues’ elephants. Selling the expectation that it will lead to being a better teacher is a good starting point. We are motivated by the drive to acquire, to bond, to comprehend and to defend. Coaching can lead us to acquiring skills and knowledge about teaching which can make us better teachers. It can lead us to have quality conversations with our colleagues, helping each other to improve and bond along the way. It can lead us to deeper comprehension about effective teaching. It can reinforce the principle that we do the best that we can for the children that we teach, defending their present and their future.

Motivation without direction is useless so we need the attention to detail that the rider provides. What aspect of teaching are we practising? When will it happen? How will we practise the strategies? Which particular coaching strategies are most approproate for this teacher at this time? These details need planning for carefully because our time is valuable and clarity is what the rider needs. Each coach will need a coaching plan and part of the work with the coaches in September will be putting those together.

Along with motivating the elephant and directing the rider, if we want to arrive at a certain destination, the path needs to be clear. We need to remove any barriers so that we can get there. Time and the various other commitments that teachers have are the metaphorical logs blocking the path and must be removed for coaching to work. To start with, the time issue can be addressed by only asking a small time commitment per week – say half an hour. This half an hour cannot be at lunchtime or at 4.30pm on a Friday as that would diminish the status that we want to create for coaching. We have to provide release time from teaching responsibilities, where appropriate, for this to happen. The half an hour could involve twenty minutes of deliberately practising a strategy in class, followed by a ten minute conversation while someone else covers the class. Short and managaeable.

Practising being a coach

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A coach will have a repertoire of support strategies to draw upon to support colleagues. Like any other domain of expertise though, coaches will need to practise their wares in order to be as effective as they can be. There will be a few strategies that a school could identify early on that would yield the best results. Pareto’s principle, or the law of the vital few, is that 80% of the output comes from 20% of the input, that is, a few key strategies could provide the greatest return on improving teacher quality. These key coaching strategies could be:

  • Demonstration lessons
  • Team teaching
  • Quality and timing of feedback
  • Coaching conversations
  • Shared planning and marking

These strategies will need to be practised, with other coaches playing the role of the teaching colleague. So in the first few weeks of term, coaches could meet regularly to practise getting demonstration lessons as clear as possible. When coaches can do this with automaticity, they can focus more upon the reactions of their colleagues, tailoring what they’re doing to meet their needs better. They can practise the subtleties of team teaching – when to step back, when to model a particular strategy. They can practise giving quality feedback in those brief lulls in lessons that would enable their colleague to listen and act immediately by repeating the focus teaching strategy. They can practise the skillful listening and questioning needed to help a colleague solve a problem. If after 3 or 4 weeks back in the new term, coaches have met and practised these strategies, then they are prepared for doing so for real. These strategies need a context to be practised within though. In my school it will include some teaching practice that we deem to be of highest value in terms of outcomes for children:

  • Modelled and shared writing
  • Oral and written feedback on children’s work
  • Co-constructing a writers’ toolkit
  • Modelling mathematical strategies
  • Explicitly addressing misconceptions

Working with coaches in this way enables them to act their way into thinking, and gives them a sound experience in which to frame the language they use to share the vision for coaching and CPD with their colleagues. Also, spacing out the sessions over a few weeks will contribute to maximised retention of the strategies by the coaches. Interspersed with these practices, I’d expect the coaches to be reading in order to build their knowledge. Books like Practice Perfect by Doug Lemov and The Perfect Teacher Coach by Jackie Beere are essential reading, along with great blog posts like these from Alex Quigley @huntingenglish (here, here and here and Shaun Allison @shaunallison (here and here).

In the final post in this series, I’ll be thinking about how coaching can fit into a wider CPD program.

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…for who will coach the coaches? Part 1

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More and more schools are considering the impact that coaching can have on the quality of teaching, and some are already putting structures in place for September to make coaching an integral part of their CPD program, including appointing full time teaching and learning coaches.

These coaches face the exciting, yet daunting prospect of a substantial change in day to day practice. It can be difficult to know where to start, and undoubtedly there will be as many different induction programs as there are schools with coaches.

Definitions of coaching, mentoring and other support strategies show clear differences in approaches, but need we be so picky? I use the term ‘coach’ broadly as someone who supports another in improving their practice. Sometimes, direct instruction will be needed, sometimes the coach can relinquish the role of the expert and, through careful questioning, help a colleague to overcome an obstacle. The coach needs to be able to support in different ways depending on the teacher they’re working with and the situation that the teacher is in.

In this 3 post series, I want to consider what could be done to get coaching up and running effectively.

Culture and Vision

Culture is a direct result of how we talk about things. Careful language choice when talking about coaching will be crucial and will need to reflect the school’s vision. Some reasons why changes fail are that the vision is unclear or not communicated, or that it is not rooted in the culture of the school that has already been established. At my school, our vision is Individualised learning through a tailored curriculum. How we talk about coaching should complement what has already been built. Here’s a starting point for phrases that will be used to match coaching to the already established school vision:

Practise strengths to mastery.

…because we can be even better.

Teacher quality matters most.

Consistent principles, flexible approaches.

I want this to become a shared way of talking about what we’re doing when we’re in coaching conversations, or indeed any aspect of CPD. The same applies to appraisal conversations early in the term. In the past, Performance Management targets have been alsmost exclusively focused on improving on perceived weaknesses. This, of course, will continue to be the case but could the process be more effective with an additional (perhaps main) focus of developing a strength to mastery? I think so.

Change can fail because the vision is under-communicated. For coaching to succeed, the rationale should be neatly summed up with phrases like the ones above and used regularly. But not just from SLT to teachers. Sure, it has to start that way, then we need a core group of staff to continue spreading the memes. This is where middle leaders can be effective, for many will be coaches. Teaching assistants, too, will play significant roles. We must leave it in no doubt that we will use coaching to improve our teaching and support of children, because simply continuing our habits, no matter how effective, may not necessarily lead to improvements in our practice. The relentless sharing of vision, with its carefully planned language, will create urgency and spark thinking about what is currently happening in classrooms, and what needs to be done to improve outcomes for children.

For coaching to be effective, there are some pitfalls to avoid in terms of how it is perceived. Nobody will want to be involved if it is seen as an intervention from above because something is not right. Therefore one approach is to ensure that all teachers (and teaching assistants) have a coach. When experienced teachers and those with leadership responsibilities have coaches, we show that the process matches the rhetoric. The message is: We expect and will support everyone to improve. The time between the start of term and the appraisal targets being confirmed is the time to match up staff with coaches and work with those coaches on ways to support their colleages over the next year. In the next post, I’ll consider the specific preparation that coaches may need before they begin their work. In the final post, I’ll show how coaching can fit into a wider CPD program.

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Knowledge, Memory and Writing

Having considered how retrieval of knowledge that has been encoded to memory plays contributes to the teaching of reading, it seems logical to explore the role of knowledge and memory in the teaching of writing.  In this post, I refer to stages of the Talk for Writing process, which my school has developed extensively over the last few years.  I have not included the whole teaching sequence which makes up the Talk for Writing process, but you can find more information here.  To focus my thinking, I also at times had to refer to specific examples.  For this I have selected a unit of work on narrative, in particular work on warning tales.

Imitation Stage

Assessing Prior Knowledge / Skills

Before the unit of work, children would be set a short writing task so that the teacher could find out what it is that the children know and don’t yet know, and what they can do and can’t yet do. There’s a balance to be struck here: don’t give the children enough of a prompt and what they write could well be of a lower standard than they’re capable of. Similarly, give them too much of a prompt and what they write may not be a true reflection of their current stage of development. Any information garnered might well be pretty inaccurate, providing a false starting point. So, in an attempt to get that balance right, I’d suggest clarifying the intended effect of the writing. For example, the whole point of the writing is to make the reader think that something terrible will happen. Then, using image and discussion around what children already know, give them enough to write about. Doing this well before lesson one of the unit gives the teacher time to analyse the writing and plan accordingly, and it provides a bit of spacing which is known to be a desirable condition for learning.

Providing a Model Text

Once the teacher knows the needs of the children, a main text for the unit of work is selected. Most likely, this will need to be edited by the teacher to ensure children are shown excellence in the areas of writing that they need to develop. For example, the teacher may have noticed that children were not using complex sentences in their writing, or that they used them grammatically inaccurately. The teacher would edit in these features.

Children will memorise this text, so that they can retell it by heart. One reason for this is that effective writers have a wealth of language patterns to daw upon when choosing how to encode their thoughts on paper. Children who are read to regularly, read lots themselves and have quality conversations with adults will develop these language patterns. Unfortunately, there are a lot of children who don’t experience these things. As well as providing these experiences at school, memorising a model text can help children to encode the language patterns into memory. This is why it is important to edit in language patterns that you know children haven’t fully grasped.  They immediately begin work on correcting misconceptions as they repeatedly talk an accurate text.  Another reason for committing a text to memory is to aid the writing process (described in more detail later). One way of helping children to memorise a text is through repeated, structured retelling. To start with, the teacher talks the text. At each retelling, the children join in more and more and the teacher gradually says less and less until children can retell the story on their own. This is supported with a text map like the one below.

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This is one paragraph from the warning tale text. Each sentence is in a box to help children who still haven’t mastered sentence demarcation, and each paragraph is on a separate sheet of flip chart paper for a similar reason. The text map plays the role of the retrieval cue – it’s used to prompt the retelling of the text. Its role as a retrieval cue also becomes important when children come to write their own versions of the text type (more on that later).

It goes without saying that some children will memorise texts quicker and more effectively than others. With this in mind, something I’m trialling from September is to make short videos which children can use to practise retelling, either at home or at school, like this:

So over the course of a week or two, children will have practised retelling the text many times, using the text map as a retrieval cue, to the point where they can retell it by heart. A quick point here about accuracy – I don’t think that they need to retell it word for word. There are many ways to put a message across and as long as it makes sense and is consistent with the original intended effect of the writing, I think that’s fine.

Reading as a reader

Children will have managed to commit the text to memory alongside various other activities and alongside reading more examples of the focus text type.  I have already written about the teaching of reading here. The brevity of this paragraph does not reflect the importance of the content – the link between good reading and effective writing is obvious. Retelling from memory and reading comprehension, in my experience, are complementary.

Reading as a writer

This is essentially analysing writing to figure out what it is that the writer did in order to achieve the intended effect on the reader. These two posts go into more detail. Firstly, the teacher would develop a writer’s toolkit with the children.  In the past, I have shown children how to analyse a text, collate the ideas and display the toolkit on the working wall. I’d refer to it when the children write and encourage them to do so to help them know what they could do to achieve the intended effect.

But I think I missed a trick here. The ideas gathered in a writers’ toolkit are what effective writers have stored away in memory. If children could encode these ideas into their long term memory, then when a suitable retrieval cue is presented they would practise retrieving this essential writers’ knowledge.  This would be great if they could learn to recall it at the point of writing, so the retrieval cue that I use with children needs to be something that is natural in the writing process.  For example, the teacher could model the writer’s thought process: “How could I make the reader think that something terrible will happen?” If at this point, children have practised recalling aspects of the writers’ toolkit, as well as some language patterns for specific ways of doing it, they would have taken a huge leap towards producing effective writing.

The question is, then, how do we get children to encode the information in a writers’ toolkit so that it can be accurately recalled at the point of writing? What follows are some ideas that I haven’t tried with my class but will do so in September.

Taking for granted the modelling explained in this previous post, I’ll focus more on what I’ll get children to do. One option is to get children to reconstruct the toolkit information in a different way. For example, if I model the thinking about generating a toolkit by annotating a text, I could get them to reconstruct that information in a thinking map. I’d remove the annotated model that I showed them, give them the plain texts and get them to practise retrieving the information.  That still won’t be enough for them to commit the toolkit to memory though. They’d need repeated, spaced practice for that. So I’d leave it a day or two, then drop in some multiple choice questions. I’d think carefully about the question because it has to be a good retrieval cue and one that I’ll use with children when they come to write. Something like:

To make the reader think that something terrible will happen, you could:
A. Make the setting dark
B. Make the main character do something relaxing
C. Reveal only part of the threat
D. Make the setting deserted

There is some playing around to do with the content of the options. It has been reported that ‘negative suggestion effect’ can be avoided through the use of explicit feedback. I think I’d also follow this retrieval practice with further study of the text type, perhaps by looking at a different text and finding either further ways to achieve the intended effect, or different language patterns for parts of the toolkit that children have already seen.

It may also be worth doing something similar with the language patterns for certain parts of the toolkit. For example:

Ways of making the setting sound deserted:
A. The place was empty.
B. Not a soul could be seen or heard.
C. Darkness hung in the corridor.

One way of providing feedback would be confirming options A and B as ways of making the setting sound deserted because it is clear that there is nobody else around, but that option C was more about making the setting sound dark.

Alternatively to the multiple choice model of retrieval practice, low stakes testing seems to be effective. A simple: “Write down as many ideas as you can… To make the reader think that something bad will happen, you could…” would work. Children could be encouraged to reconstruct the information in another different format, this time, say, a list.

Now, if children are going to encode a toolkit to memory and deliberately practise retrieving it, spaced over time, there are implications.  Previously, units of work would follow this pattern over a few weeks:

Assess prior knowledge

Work on vocabulary and required knowledge

Learning the text to retell by heart

Reading comprehension

Reading other texts

Revision of previous text types using the content of the current text

Reading as a writer (developing toolkits, planning an adaptation of the main text to write independently)

Writing own version of the main text

Writing text type in a different context

Following this model, there is very little time between generating the toolkit and children writing.  Certainly not enough time for encoding to memory and some spaced, deliberate practice of retrieving the toolkit.  So, one solution is to develop the toolkit cumulatively over the course of the imitation stage rather than have the work massed at the end of the stage.

Innovation and Invention Stages

When the teacher is confident that children know enough to write well, we move into the stage where children will write an adapted version of the text that they have memorised.  This is where the text map’s role as a retrieval cue becomes important.  If the children can look at the text map and recall the model text, it can easily be tweaked to support them to write an adaptation.  For example, if the children have learned the warning tale, which is set at a canal, the setting could be changed to, say, an abandoned warehouse.  Part of the planning process at the end of the imitation stage would be to amend the text map to support this.  Every time there is a reference to the canal, I’d cover it with a post it note and draw a quick symbol for its warehouse equivalent that children will need when they write.  When children see the text map at the point of writing, they’ll be recalling the general pattern of the text, the key language patterns, and also changing it to a different context.

When I model the writing, I’ll also be referring to the writers’ toolkit that we developed and the accompanying possibilities for writing a particular idea.  This bit is very important, because the next time the children write, I’d want to remove a layer of structure to teach independence – I’d remove the text map so that the children are left with the writers’ toolkit as well as any images or saved ideas that relate to the further change of context.

When the unit of work comes to a natural end, I’d plan in some revision sessions as part of the next units of work which give children more, yet further spaced practice of recalling both the text (Remember we learned this warning tale?  Let’s see if we can still tell the story…) and the writers’ toolkit (Remember we learned how to make the reader think that something terrible will happen?  Work with your partner to write down as many ways as you can that could have this effect…).  But they would also be given chances to apply this.  For example, at some point within the warning tale unit of work, we could revise some persuasive writing.  After practising recalling the persuasion toolkit, children could then write in role – What would you say to the main character to persuade him to heed his mother’s warning?

Memorisation and retrieval practice could be effective in children’s development of writing, particularly when it comes to learning texts and internalising what it is that writers could do to achieve a certain effect.  After all, knowing a range of texts and language patterns, plus having a secure idea of what could be written are two domains of knowledge that effective writers benefit from having.

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Knowledge, Memory and Reading

Without appropriate background knowledge, people cannot adequately understand written or spoken language. And unless that knowledge is organised for rapid and efficient deployment, people cannot perform reading tasks of any complexity.

E.D. Hirsch, Cultural Literacy

Knowing what children need to know

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When embarking on reading a new, suitably challenging text, there will be a web of knowledge that the reader will need to have access to in order to make sense of the writing. it is important for teachers to spend some time figuring out what knowledge is needed and plan for children acquiring it before reading a new text. Part of this necessary knowledge includes what E.D. Hirsch calls cultural capital. This is culturally relevant knowledge that a writer assumes of the reader but children may not have acquired yet. Ideally, through carefully planned lessons, children will commit this knowledge to memory. No mean feat in itself. Children will need help to organise the information to be stored. The use of images and thinking maps may be useful here. The key is to set up the storage of knowledge in a way that allows for future links to be made with the new text. To benefit from the spacing effect, this acquiring of knowledge could take the form of a number of short sessions of increasing time between them. Thorough advanced planning would be necessary to organise this effectively. Later, we’ll need children to easily access this knowledge from long term memory so we’ll need to get them to practise this retrieval. This could take many forms, including reconstructing information in a different way, or a good old test.

Linking existing knowledge to the new text

We have done what we can to help children commit to long term memory the knowledge that we know they’ll need in order to understand the new text. Next, we need them to be able to recall it quickly and accurately. Before, we tested children to get them to practise recalling the knowledge. But that was with predictable cues. When children read new texts, the cues will not be so predictable so we may need to teach them to organise searches of their memory based on varied cues. For example, let’s imagine that in the new text, children will need a good knowledge of dragons. Children will have learned information about dragons. They will have practised recalling this knowledge through direct questioning (e.g. What are the distinguishing features of a dragon?). The direct questions are fairly predictable cues but will be unlike the cues that children will come across when reading. What we could do is write some sentences that trigger retrieval of children’s knowledge about dragons:

The beast took flight and the sky darkened.

Discussion about this sentence is an unpredictable cue for children to retrieve the knowledge that dragons have large wingspans. (More on inference later).

In preparation for reading the new text, there are some decisions to make about how we activate children’s prior knowledge. Simply, we could ask them to recall the knowledge that might be useful. A similar exercise to the practice of recalling outlined above would suffice. What we need to be wary of is the opportunity cost of this activity. As Daniel Willingham says in ‘Why Don’t Students Like School?’, key to the planning of any activity is to analyse what the children will be thinking about when they do the activity planned. If children are busy thinking about anything other than the knowledge that you want them to retrieve from memory, then children are working less efficiently and we lose momentum.

A sound way to make links between what is known and what will be learned is through analogies. In the next example, children will have read and understood main events in Street Child by Berlie Doherty. Now, they are reading Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce:

Remember in the story ‘Street Child’, Jim was separated from his family? Well something similar happens in this chapter of Tom’s Midnight Garden. Tom has to leave his family home.

Investing in the new text

Reading is by no means passive, but there are strategies that are arguably more effective at getting children to understand what has been written than simply reading alone. The cognitive load of reading can be excruciatingly high for many children, particularly those with poor decoding. Every teacher will have experienced the painfully slow reading of child who has difficulty decoding words. The child whose entire working memory is engaged in saying the word with none left over for analysing the meaning. Similarly, the child who can read fluently, decoding with ease but does not understand what he or she has read is just as tricky to work with. For the first child, we need to lighten the cognitive load. Systematic teaching of synthetic phonics is crucial, but in this context, practising decoding important or difficult words before the child reads the text will free up some working memory when they come to read the new text. For the second child, showing them the meaning of important or unusual words using images will help them to have a further knowledge base to draw on when reading the new text.

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Clearly show, explain and discuss the meaning of tricky words from the new text before reading.

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Words selected from new text. Point to a word, child practises decoding. Or recalling synonyms. Or explaining meaning.

We need to set up a situation where we minimise the number of new things to think about at the stage of reading the new text.

Reading the new text

Assuming everything else has gone to plan, children will have acquired relevant knowledge, spaced out over time, and committed it to long term memory. They will have practised retrieving that information and will have had analogies explained by the teacher to help them encode new information when they read. They will have practised decoding or recalling meanings of tricky words that are in the new text before reading it, so that working memory is not saturated at the crucial point of reading a text for the first time.

Now they read. Again, we have some options here. We could read it to them. They could read it to themselves silently. They could read it aloud in unison . The teacher could read a sentence, then the children could read the next. Talking partners could use the same structure (I have found this particularly useful with children who ignore full stops and paragraph breaks). Essentially, how it happens is not the issue. What is important is the routines that we model for and expect from children when they read. Barry Smith (@BarryNSmith79) has written on routines that work for him in the context of teaching secondary MFL here. Children need to be taught the habits of effective readers. We need to guide the allocation of their attention by modelling the reader’s behaviours and thought processes.

And then we come across the key concepts in the new text. Time for the all the work on prior knowledge, memory retrieval, reduction of cognitive load and habit building to pay off! At the very least, we’d expect sparks of recognition in their little eyes – something to work with when we teach them some reading comprehension strategies next. It may be that we still need to help some children to organise searches of their memory or, worst case, reteach the initial required knowledge.

Teaching reading comprehension

For children to become expert at comprehending what they have read, they will need to deliberately practise comprehension strategies. First, though, we’d need to model the strategies, providing a commentary on those thought processes that expert readers employ. Literal comprehension of what has been read can sometimes have a missing step between what the child has read and what we ask of them. A simple example of this could be the sentence:

Twenty minutes later, the boys were standing in the kitchen, unable to look mum in the eye.

A question at the level of literal comprehension might be: How long did it take the boys to get home? Many children would have no problem with this particular example but to help children who do have difficulty, the point is to make up the gap between what’s in the text and the meta cognitive language used in the question. To bridge this gap, book talk is useful. While reading the sentence, the teacher would model what the expert reader is thinking using that meta cognitive language:

(Reading aloud) Twenty minutes later, they were standing in the kitchen… (Modelling the book talk) It sounds like the children are at home now. The beginning of the sentence tells us how long it took the children to return home – twenty minutes.

Here, I’d model annotating the text with this meta cognitive language pattern – ‘How long it took them to get home’. To make this as effective as possible for children in terms of committing key parts of the text to memory, this would be done in advance of children answering questions about a new text. That is, reading the text and answering questions about it are not done in the same lesson, rather they are spaced out. During subsequent shared reading sessions, the teacher could then prompt children’s retrieval of key ideas like this: “Point to the bit that tells the reader how long it took for the boys to get home”. All this modelling and carefully planned meta cognitive language choice, combined with the rigorously practised reading habits, enables children to work independently with confidence. This is one example but to achieve mastery through deliberate practice, repetition and feedback are important. One way I have attempted to provide these conditions is through setting a number of literal comprehension questions for children to answer following a lesson on modelling the meta cognitive book talk. This has worked well for the children in my class but I think it can be tweaked to improve it. When I did it, the deliberate practice of literal comprehension lasted one lesson, whereas spacing it out would have made it more memorable for children. So, shorter but more frequent bursts of practise is what I’ll experiment with next term.

Inferential comprehension can be developed in a similar way. Book talk supports thinking about what has been written after the cue of the question. Here’s the example sentence again:

Twenty minutes later, the boys were standing in the kitchen, unable to look mum in the eye.

The trickiest bit to understand in that sentence is the last bit, where the boys cannot look mum in the eye. (Some prior knowledge for you, the reader – in this story, the boys were warned by mum not to do something, they did it anyway and are about to face mum’s wrath). The modelled book talk might look something like this:

(Reading aloud) …unable to look mum in the eye. (Modelling the book talk) That’s unusual. Children usually feel safest and most comfortable around their parents but the boys are unable to look mum in the eye. I don’t think that they are really unable to do it, I think that they won’t look mum in the eye. They are avoiding eye contact. People avoid eye contact when they are uncomfortable. In this case, I think the boys are ashamed because they ignored mum’s warning and they know that mum is disappointed.

Now would be a good time to help children add this part of the text to what they already know about similar situations. Asking something like: Anyone been in a similar situation when they couldn’t look someone in the eye? The responses and discussion will build children’s knowledge of the reasons for the avoidance of eye contact. Another avenue to explore here is other responses to the shame that the boys in the story feel. This may come out of the previous discussion where children consider their own experiences but it may have to be made explicit by the teacher too. I’d ask: “When you were in that situation, do you remember how else you behaved?” Or I’d say: “A similar thing happened to me once, but as well as avoiding eye contact, I wrung my hands and nervously toed the dust in the ground.” And I’d show them what this looked like and get them to act it out. This development of their knowledge would greatly help their own writing as they’d be able to call upon a more varied repertoire of possible actions that show shame. Children may need some help here in organising the new information. A thinking map or a few redrafts of the sentence with varied character actions which show shame are a couple of examples of how this could be done. A few days later, when I ask children to respond to the question: “What does ‘unable to look mum in the eye’ tell you about how the boys are feeling when they are in the kitchen?”, they will be able to draw upon a wider range of ideas and language in their responses.

The literal and inferential questioning described above are one way of developing reading comprehension, and although they are critical skills that children need to develop, it can be argued that they are contrived. There are some more generic comprehension skills that also need to be developed. Firstly, we’ll consider determining what’s important in a text – a key strategy for any reader to learn but hitch does not necessarily follow the same question / answer model. Here, we would need to agree on the idea of importance. A good starting point would be to think about the intended effect of the writing. For example, in a paragraph from a story opening, the writer has the intention of making the main character sound secretive:

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Getting children to memorise key texts so that they can be retold by heart is an important part of teaching them how to comprehend and indeed write, however they will more likely remember salient bits and reconstruct the gist. To help children to do this, we could show them how to delete any bits that are unimportant in terms of making the main character sound secretive.

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What they will be left with is a collection of key sentences and phrases which, if they then reconstruct into a different format, they will be well on the way to encoding in memory the important bits. A very useful skill for any reader.

Another strategy that may be of use when approaching reading comprehension without the ‘Teacher questions, children answer’ model could be the development of questioning by the reader. Alex Quigley (@huntingenglish) has written here on getting children to ask better questions when they are reading and talking. Get them thinking about and asking the right questions – higher level questioning can lead to greater reading comprehension.

Reading is perhaps the most important skill that children will learn so it is crucial to use what has been researched and what is known about memory to make our teaching as effective as it can be.

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