Monthly Archives: August 2014

Language acquisition and reading comprehension

Understanding the spoken and written word relies on, amongst other things, word knowledge.  Language aquisition then is part of English teaching that we cannot afford to get wrong.  My thinking in this post is a reflection on reading Time to Talk by Gross; Bringing Words to Life by Beck, McKeown and Kucan; Developing Reading Comprehension by Clarke, Truelove, Hulme and Snowling and Teacing Literacy by Wray.

Getting the explanation of the text right

It is undoubtedly sound advice to analyse a text meant for children to study with the following question in mind: Which bits are children likely to find difficult to understand?’ In any text, the background knowledge of the reader contributes significantly to comprehension, so extracting the required knowledge to understand the references is a must. In the text I’m using (Kensuke’s Kingdom extract (Gibbons) – T4W), children need to know the following schemas to make sense of the main events:

  • The ‘deserted on an island, waiting for rescue’ schema
  • The ‘hunting wild animals’ schema

The explanation of these concepts will come first in a simple explanation of the story structure.


This way, children will have some prior knowledge with which aspects of the story can fit in with. Further knowledge will of course be needed. They’ll need to know what an orang-utan is!

There’ll be some words that children will not know the meaning of which will become the focus on the language acquisition section of the unit. Here, I’m looking for ‘tier 2’ words; words that are tricky but functional.  Words that are unfamilar but the concept is one that children can understand and talk about.  Tier 1 words are common words that most children come across early in learning English, while tier 3 words are domain specific words. More on language acquisition later.


After words that may hinder comprehension of the text, I’ll look for phrases that may do so. Idiomatic phrases that children may have never come across before can be tricky for native English speakers let alone those with English as a second language. In the story I’m using, the narrator says ‘I had my work cut out at the back.’ I’ll need to show children the clues around that sentence and use them to explain the meaning.

Once the tricky phrases have been identified, I’ll be looking for examples of the writers’ decision making that create particular effects. The effect of this short story is that we feel worried for the characters. Before we read this story together, I’ll want to have a good idea of which bits do that best and which bits don’t work so well.

Finally, I’ll want to draw attention to the bits that the writer includes because they are crucial to the development of the plot. Certain objects or places are mentioned which may seem, to the inexperienced reader, to be irrelevant at the time but as skilled readers, we know that the writer has woven these things into story on purpose and that they must be important. The same goes for the characters’ actions. The writer, with supreme puppetry, has full control over the characters for the development of the plot and children need to know this and what it looks like.

The result of this thinking is an annotated version of the story which clarifies my thinking on the most important bits, the bits that are most likely to hinder children’s reading comprehension. Thinking clarified, this can be shared with colleagues teaching the same text as well as used when a cover teacher is teaching a lesson in the unit.


Language acquisition

Before the unit of work will have begun, the tier 2 words (tricky yet functional) will have been identified. Mastery of a language takes years but we aim for marginal improvements and as such, must set up multiple encounters with new words and phrases, where children think hard about their meanings and applications.

Word meanings are best learned in context – asking children to look up words in a dictionary should not be the cornerstone of language acquisition! There is a trade-off though. Language is best acquired in context, say a story, but comprehension of that story relies on, amongst other things, word knowledge. So here’s my idea

1. Summarise the text with a general structure supported by images.  This summary, referred to at the beginning of this post, will do nicely.


2. Provide the focus word in a sentence from the text.  Children may need a little help allocating the sentence into the appropriate place in the summary, but through summary and sentence, I’m providing a context for the new word.

3. Provide an image and explanation.  Now’s the time to explain the meaning of the word using the image, which will later become a memory prompt for recalling the meaning. It’s important to have a fluid explanation so that children don’t form an incomplete, context specific understanding of the meaning of the word. This is helped by step 4…

4. Show examples from different contexts.  This will help to highlight shades of meaning.

5. Processing of the vocabulary. At this point, having heard a clear explanation of the word, its meaning and its application, children are to think hard about it, for otherwise, it won’t stick. Two ideas are:

  • Relate it to words they already know. For example, ‘When you’re exhausted, you’re really tired. Tell your partner how it feels…’
  • Suggest situations in their lives that relate to the new word. For example, ‘When you’ve just finished PE, you could say that you’re exhausted. When else could you say that you’re exhausted?’

My thinking is that this is necessary before children work on comprehending the text at a deeper level. This preparation, followed by modelled and shared reading, re-reading and retelling, ‘book talk’, annotations and text marking, responding to questions etc will prime children to comprehend the text. When children do all these things, they’ll be using all those focus words, but more will be necessary in order for children to internalise it.

Remembering the vocabulary

If children are to be able to recall the meaning of a word and use it accurately when speaking or writing, then they need to deliberately practise those things. A lot. Here are six ‘low stakes testing’ question styles, taken from ‘Bringing Words to Life’ (Beck, McKeown and Kucan), to get children remembering and thinking about the language:

Review meaning with a question

The quality of the question is in the detail. Asking whether a word means this or that can cause some hard thinking if those two meanings are very similar or centre around known misconceptions.

Does scrambling mean ‘struggling to stay on your feet’ or ‘moving quickly’?

Cloze sentences

This is self explanatory, but the quality is in the subtle shifting of context. When explaining the word ‘gather’, I would not have used the context of gathering up some drawings so this may cause some deliberation within a selection of other sentences

After a few minutes, I decided to _______ up my drawings and head home.  (Children would have a number of sentences and all of the a focus words to choose from.)

Example or non-example?

Again, the quality comes from the minimally different scenarios which zero in on the possible misconception. Children choose which sentence is an example of the word in action and which is not.


Mel broke Zac’s toy so she screamed and threw herself to floor.

Mel broke Zac’s toy so she stared at him and marched towards him with her fists clenched.

Word replacement

Quite simply, a sentence where one of the words can be replaced with one of the focus words.

She seemed troubled and Mrs Ricker wanted to help. (The focus word is ‘agitated’, but children will have to select from all of the focus words)

Word association

Which focus word does this make you think of?

The horse looked agitated so the rider patted it on the back and whispered to it. (Reassurance)

Finish the sentence

The beginning of a sentence is given, including the focus word, and children should finish the sentence in a way that demonstrates understanding of the words meaning.

To give her son reassurance, she….

Here’s an example for just one word:

Low stakes testing

Having a variety of questions for each of the focus words, spaced out through the entire unit (and beyond) provides short, focused practise of manipulating the language and mastering the application of those tricky yet functional words that children need in order to comprehend text and communicate clearly and effectively.



Filed under Memory, Reading