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Strategic curriculum leadership phase 3: what’s been learned?

This post, the third of three, details the process carried out to reform the curriculum upon taking up my Headship back in July 2018.  Every school’s needs are different so it is important to set the process I carried out into context.  The school I took over was judged as requires improvement in March 2017.  Between then and my appointment, there was a time of leadership instability.  Initial visits to the school revealed that there was a lack of any curriculum leadership – no subject overviews, no progression across the key stage and no shared understanding of how any subject should be taught.

In the first part of this series, I set out the thinking about the big picture of curriculum design and this can be summarised with three key insights:

  1. Subject leaders need to do the thinking themselves.  The value is in leaders enacting the process and learning along the way, not in buying in a commercial curriculum that is not tailored the school’s needs.
  2. The curriculum is the progress model.  If children are keeping pace with a curriculum that increases in complexity, then they are making progress.
  3. Clarify the desired outcome for each unit of work.  With periodic outcomes in mind for each unit of work, it is far easier to set children up for success in producing purposeful high quality work.

In the second  part of this series, I detailed the components of medium plans and explained the decision to write these for teachers to ease workload and to ensure that curriculum intent is enacted.


Strategic curriculum leadership 

Phase 3: What has been learned?


Senior leaders and teachers need to know what children have learned because this is the only true measure of how effective a curriculum is.  Some subjects are assessed more than others so for the purposes of this process, I’m referring to non core subjects that are not assessed in the same way as English and maths.

I’d go one step further in defining the success of a curriculum.  We must focus on the children that are most disadvantaged in any cohort.  If they are are not learning what we intend, then we’re not succeeding.  The learning of these children is the real measure of how successful a school is.

I’m proposing a set of indicators that can be used to judge the effectiveness of a curriculum.  These are not formal assessments but when looked at in conjunction with one another can give us an idea of the extent to which the curriculum has been learned.

Low stakes testing 

Regular opportunities for children to recall what they have learned serves the purpose of signposting what they do and do not understand as well as reinforcing memories making use of the testing effect.  These can take the form of a review of previous learning in each lesson, a multiple choice quiz dropped in at any point in the sequence of learning or a short answer quiz used in the same way.  Cursory glances over children’s responses, particularly those of the most disadvantaged, will reveal what has been understood and what has been misunderstood.

Vocabulary check

If medium plans stipulate the key vocabulary that children are to learn in a unit of work, then checking children’s understanding of those words are asking children to use them in context is useful.  A great way to do this can be in conversation with a sample of children, perhaps with their books in front of them, perhaps not.

Composite end task

The high quality piece of work that children produce as a result of the work done in that unit, although not independent, can nonetheless add to the bigger picture of what children do and do not understand.  After all, if, despite the scaffolding and support, children still misrepresent key ideas, we know that they have not fully understood them.

Reading comprehension

If children have developed a good schema over a unit of work, then their general knowledge will have been broadened.  Considering that most reading comprehension can arguable be a measure of knowledge of a subject, one option to judge how much children have understood is to provide some reading material around the topic that has been learned to see if they can answer a range of comprehension questions.

When?

Some of these indicators can be monitored during or at the end of a unit of work but if learning can be defined in a change in long term memory, perhaps we need to look at the indicators away from the point of teaching, for example in the weeks after a unit of work has been completed.


So what?

These possibilities can give leaders and teachers a good idea of what has been learned and what has not.  The important part of this process though is what we then do with that information. If we do not act on the information gathered, there is no point gathering it in the first place.  Plainly, if we have spent a chunk of curriculum time on teaching a particular unit of work and children have not understood it all, the rest of the carefully sequenced curriculum can fall down.  Concepts that have not been remembered well can be interleaved into the reviews of previous learning during lessons in the next unit of work.  However, if it is an understanding issue, a couple of lessons might need editing and reteaching, perhaps at the beginning of the next unit of work.

The other equally important action from judging the effectiveness of the curriculum is to adapt to make it more effective for the next cohort.  If there is a pattern of children misunderstanding a particular component of a unit of work, then perhaps the way that component has been taught needs to be adapted.  Leaders may even need to cut some of the content because too much had been planned, or add to the content if it came up short.  The sequence may need to be altered after teachers find that a different way made more sense.  Through the course of teaching the unit, teachers may have found better tasks, photos, sources, video clips than were originally included in the plans and so adapting the plan upon reviewing the extent to which children have learned the intent is crucial to give the next cohort an even better chance of learning and retaining what has been set out.

In summary, monitoring these indicators should result in the edition of future plans for that particular class as well as the plans to be used for children in the future.

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Strategic curriculum leadership phase 1: the big picture

Context

This post, the first of three, details the process carried out to reform the curriculum upon taking up my Headship back in July 2018.  Every school’s needs are different so it is important to set the process I carried out into context.  The school I took over was judged as requires improvement in March 2017.  Between then and my appointment, there was a time of leadership instability.  Initial visits to the school revealed that there was a lack of any curriculum leadership – no subject overviews, no progression across the key stage and no shared understanding of how any subject should be taught.


Strategic curriculum leadership 

Phase 1: The big picture


Curriculum design principles

The first task was to settle upon a set of principles to guide any decision making on curriculum choices.  Dylan Wiliam’s Principled Curriculum Design was incredibly useful here and I settled on the following:

If the circumstances were different, for example inheriting an established senior leadership team, then this would have ideally been done in collaboration with other leaders.  In this case, working with colleagues external to the school to challenge my thinking was the only option to address the urgency of change due to having a very small and new to post senior leadership team.

Subject overviews

The national curriculum was the necessary first port of call for subject specifics.  This served two purposes.  The first was to sequence the content across KS2 (we’re a junior school).  Some subjects were more straightforward to sequence, for example history is broadly chronological from year 3 to year 6.  The second purpose was to determine the key concepts that threaded through the key stage – the big ideas that children ought to leave in Y6 with a thorough knowledge of.  I checked in against the curriculum design principles at this point to ensure that what had been arranged met the conditions for a great curriculum.  Carrying out this work and discussing progress with others in different schools led to the first key insight about curriculum development:

School leaders need to do the thinking themselves.

There are many off the peg curricula for schools to buy.  Doing this is a mistake.  Although there will be many common features, a relevant curriculum looks different for a school in Cornwall than it does for a school in Birmingham city centre because alongside meeting statutory requirements, it must meet the needs of the children in the school and the communities that they live in.

The end result of this phase of strategic curriculum leadership is to have curriculum overviews for each subject where each unit of work’s existence can be justified by answering two simple questions:

  1. Why this?
  2. Why now?

The first question relates to the content choice.  Much of this is driven by the national curriculum but there will be some that is not.  Consideration also needs to be given to the type of content and the role it play in the bigger picture of what it means to have a deep understanding of each subject.  If the content is hierarchical, then the acquisition of knowledge further down the line will be dependent upon it.  For example, children need to know how to multiply and divide by powers of 10 before they can convert between different units of measurement.  The choice of content can be made for a few main reasons:

  • it is in the national curriculum,
  • it is not in the national curriculum but nonetheless interesting and therefore worth teaching and
  • it is a necessary component to develop a larger composite schema at some point in the future.

Alternatively, if the content is cumulative, it serves a purpose to build a broader understanding of the subject as a whole but other units may be dependent upon it.  For example, the KS2 history national curriculum stipulates the study of an aspect or theme in British history that extends pupils’ chronological knowledge beyond 1066, but the decision on which aspect or theme could stand independent of the rest of the history content.  Swapping it out with another aspect or theme may not affect the curriculum as a whole.  Leaders’ choice of content should be driven by the school’s local context.  For example, an estate near my school has roads named after aircraft and is called the Bomber Estate, hence our choice to include a unit on the role that that the Battle of Britain played in WWII.

The second question (Why now?) relates to the order in which the subject content is arranged.  With the national curriculum stipulating that the subject content needs to be learned by the end of the key stage (despite for some subjects being organised by year group), mapping out the order of units of work across the key stage by terms or half terms needs deliberate thought.  Some concepts may suit a particular phase but each decision about where in the key stage a unit of work fits should include how it builds on what children already know and how this unit contributes to a more sophisticated understanding further down the line.  This exemplifies the second key insight about curriculum development:

The curriculum is the progress model.

If the curriculum has been designed well enough, with good content choices arranged in a logical order, then its gets progressively harder year on year.  Therefore, just by keeping up with the expectations of the curriculum, children will be making progress.

There are some decisions to be made about links across subjects at this stage of curriculum planning.  Christine Counsell words this memorably as crazy cross curricularity vs intelligent interdisciplinarity.  An example of crazy cross curricularity would be forcing links between subjects to adhere to a topic theme.  I chose to implement subjects as individual disciplines, making links where they naturally arise.  I also took it a step further in an attempt to give children multiple opportunities to interact with subject content across the key stage.  It was originally rather tempting to  to fit those natural links together in the same term, for example doing some Egyptian themed art work in the same term and year group as the Egyptian history unit.  Instead, these links are spaced out so that after children have learned about Ancient Egyptian history in the summer of year 3, they learn about ancient Egyptian art in the Autumn of year 4.  Teachers can use this opportunity to encourage children to recall what they learned about Ancient Egypt as well as adding a layer of understanding to their general knowledge with the art unit.  Trips were planned in the same way.  By moving them out of the term or half term where the unit of work was being taught, we increased the frequency of interaction with the content with the goal of making it more memorable over time.

Composite tasks for each unit of work

The ‘Why this?  Why now?’ consideration was also applied to the sequence of learning in each unit of work.  In researching different schools’ curricula before embarking on this work, I was surprised to see how common it was for leaders to provide teachers with titles for units of work followed by little more than statements copied and pasted from the national curriculum.  If teachers are expected to write medium term plans from subject overviews, how can the curriculum be deliberately built over key stages?  It is because of this that our subject overviews include a sequence of learning for that half term – key components that children need to learn about in order to learn what is required in the national curriculum.  After writing a few of these in conjunction with colleagues from other schools, it led to the third key insight about curriculum development:

Clarify the desired outcome for each unit of work first.

Sequences of learning can then be sketched out to build towards these end points.  Each component in the sequence of learning contributes to children being able to produce a high quality piece of work at the end of each unit.

This part of the process was particularly interesting and the outcome was a good idea of the end product for each unit of work in every subject.  They take two forms.  The first is an authentic cross curricular piece of writing.  We stipulated the purpose based on the English curriculum, for example at the end of a Y3 science unit of work on rocks and soils, children would write to inform about the different rocks and soils with illustrated examples.  The second form of end product is subject specific, for example a scientific enquiry into electrical circuits or a two point perspective drawing.  For some units of work, we looked for a combination, such as a watercolour painting of Japanese cherry blossom with an accompanying written piece explaining the artistic decision making.

These pieces of work are not intended to be independent  and as such they are not there for assessment.   They are there for two reasons.  The first is that producing work of high quality as a result of the build up of learning over a period of time is a great experience for children.  They can see that what they do lesson by lesson is going somewhere.  Success breeds motivation too.  The second reason is that the quality of this work, particularly from our most vulnerable children, provides us with feedback about how well the curriculum has been implemented.  We take a good look at the pieces of work that have been produced alongside professional conversations and as a result, make adjustments to the sequences of learning in order to increase the likelihood that the next cohort produce work that is even better.  Pieces of work become models of excellence for future cohorts.

With a clear idea of what the end goal is, leaders can make far better decisions about content choices and how they are sequenced over a unit of work to best enable all children to be able to produce high quality work.  These sequences form the basis of medium term plans which are written for teachers.  The rationale behind providing detailed medium term plans for teachers is described in the next post.

 

 

 

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What makes a good reading strategy?

When it comes to a school’s curriculum, reading is first among equals. Any reading strategy must be driven by what it is that the school’s curriculum seeks to achieve. It’s hard to argue with intent such as fostering a love of books, reading and language and access to great children’s literature, both physically through a well-stocked library and intellectually through great teaching.  To achieve that, a strategy should include the following.

Address phonics and fluency needs quickly

Without adequate knowledge of phonics and skill in decoding, segmenting and blending, children will not be able to crack the code of written English that will enable them to experience the joy of books. Children need a systematic approach to learning the phonetic code from the first day of Reception. Where children are older and have not yet mastered this, schools need rigorous screening processes to identify gaps and teach them until children are fluent. Where children are in the process of systematically growing their knowledge of the phonetic code, they’ll need phonetically decodable books to practise reading with success. Blending the code into words and fluently reading sentences must also be deliberately practised for children to master the mechanics of reading.

Fluency is about more than speedily translating code into sound though. The inflections and emphases that are part of quality spoken language must also be learned and applied to by children when they read independently. When children know typical patterns of prosody and can read with appropriate expression, they are far more able to extract meaning from text than if the reading is robotic.

Provide a rich diet of literature and language

The books that form the reading curriculum will make or break a reading strategy. Real page turners with great story lines will make learning to read a pleasure and there are many decisions for school leaders to make. There needs to be a good blend of modern and classic fiction, a variety of authors beyond the mainstream or well-known and these titles need to be supplemented with related fiction and non-fiction. Great non-fiction helps children to pick up general knowledge which in turn helps them to make sense of the content in the fiction – this link can be powerful. A rich diet of language should also include great picture books and great poetry too. It is not only the literature that needs a high profile but language itself. Celebrating language through modelling interest in words and turns of phrases draws attention to language and will more likely result in children mimicking that interest. Song lyrics and rhetoric are great vehicles for this
too. Many children sing along to words in songs without necessarily thinking about their meaning but those words are often so carefully chosen for effect that they are well worth examining in detail.

Oral language comprehension

The simple view of reading explains the relationship between decoding and comprehension and there is much research to show that working on oral language comprehension is effective in improving reading comprehension, not least the York Reading for Meaning Project. This can be as simple as reading aloud or telling children a story. Capture their interest. Retell it in different ways. At this point, it is important for teachers to know what children have understood but by asking questions, all we really know is whether they are capable of comprehending, not whether they actually comprehend independent of us. Before any specific questioning, it would be useful to get an idea of what they have understood by asking them to tell you broadly about what they’ve just heard.  The decisions they make about what they say reveal what they think is important and you can also judge the accuracy of their literal and inferential comprehension. Difficulty decoding should not be a barrier to children experiencing
and understanding age appropriate texts. Doug Lemov puts this beautifully:

Low readers are often balkanised to reading only lower level texts, fed on a diet of only what’s accessbile to them – they’re consigned to lower standards from the outset by our very efforts to help them.
Lemov (Reading Reconsidered)

Listening to texts and using open questions to prompt discussions ensures that the focus in on language development in a way that is not restricted by poor decoding.

Varied question styles

If the goal of a reading strategy is to ensure that children fully understand what they’re reading when they do so independently, then the questions we ask are important. These questions develop habits of how children think about what they have read. The first layer of open questions that prompt good think about what has been read are Aiden Chambers’ questions in his book Tell me. He proposes four basic questions:

  • Tell me about what you liked.
  • Tell me about what you disliked.
  • Tell me about what puzzled you.
  • Tell me about any connections you noticed.

There are other particularly good questions, such as ‘Tell me about how long the story took to happen,’ which can prompt a great discussion about the passing of time and how we know. For more specific questions, using old SATS questions, keeping the format but changing the context to suit the text that children are reading is a good way to ensure variety whilst still keeping a focus on key indicators of comprehension such as literal and inferential understanding, prediction etc.

Modelling the reader’s thought processes

Reading is an activity that is mostly done in the reader’s head and there are many thought processes that competent readers initiate. This isn’t simply reading the text from beginning to end; reading will be interspersed with commentary, explanation or making links to general knowledge. These frequent pauses for analysis allow the teacher to show children that good readers think while they read in order to achieve an acceptable standard of coherence. As children get older and texts get longer, teachers can’t lead shared reading of the whole text, so by initially earmarking sections that children are likely to misunderstand, shared reading can be focused on addressing misconceptions.

 

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What I think about…reading

Moving schools and with more than an eye on headship is sure to get you reflecting. The following posts are what I think about various things, in no particular order. Previous posts were about displays, learning generally and maths. Next up – reading.

I’m proposing a model for teaching reading grounded in the various books that I’ve read. The examples will be for a fiction text but I think the principles apply to teaching non fiction too.

Reading model

Some principles

The first principle to be mindful of is that the teaching of reading is not the asking and answering of questions about a text: that’s testing comprehension.  Sure, asking and answering questions is an important part of developing comprehension – it’s one way we get children to think hard about what they have heard or read – but there is much more to it than that.  Any reader constructs a mental model of the content of what they have read – we don’t usually remember text verbatim without rereading many times and deliberately trying to remember it word for word. Poor comprehenders construct weaker, less detailed and perhaps outright inaccurate mental models whereas good comprehenders construct more accurate and elaborate ones.  One goal of teaching reading then is to ensure children construct good mental models of what they have read. I’m making the assumption here that children can decode fluently and focusing solely on the development of language comprehension.

Simple view of reading

Good readers combine word recognition with language comprehension to be able to decode the print and understand the language it yields. Once fluent in decoding, it is depth and breadth of vocabulary and general knowledge that contribute to comprehension and so the teaching of reading must develop vocabulary and background knowledge.

Developing reading comprehension

Poor comprehenders share many similar characteristics which we need to understand and use to drive the teaching of reading.  Poor comprehenders:

  • have limited general knowledge
  • have a limited knowledge of story structure or don’t relate events in a story to its general structure
  • have a narrow vocabulary and don’t know the meaning of important words
  • read too slowly, without fluency or enough prosody to understand the content
  • focus on word reading without focusing on content
  • make incorrect pronoun references
  • don’t make links between events in the text
  • don’t monitor their own understanding of what they’ve read
  • don’t see the wider context in which the text is set
  • don’t build up a secure understanding of the main events in a story
  • misunderstand figurative language

When it comes to vocabulary, we can’t teach every word or phrase that children might not know and neither should we. If we do, not only would it be incredibly time consuming but we’d also greatly reduce the experience that children have of deciphering meaning from contextual cues. Some words and phrases need to be taught explicitly before or during reading while others can be learned implicitly during reading.  Either way, if children are to master the language, they must think hard over time about its use.  Put the dictionaries away and don’t start off with ‘Who knows what x means?’  These are both particularly inefficient uses of time and are ineffective.  Instead:

  • Model the use of the word in its most common form
  • Use an image (this post from Phil Stock is excellent)
  • Act it out
  • Model other common uses
  • Explain word partners (for example, if teaching the word announce you often see make an announcement together)
  • Show various forms of words including prefixes and suffixes
  • Show words that are similar to and different from the focus word

Lemov (Reading Reconsidered)

That last bullet point is not the same as using the synonym model for teaching word meaning.  Telling  a child that melancholy means sad robs them of the beauty of shades of meaning because it is similar to, not the same as sad.

Memory is key. We remember what we think about, so part of teaching reading needs to be giving children plenty of spaced practice in remembering word meanings, general knowledge, events from the text and details of the characters that are crucial to developing a sufficient mental model of the text. It could well be the case that a child who has shown poor understanding of a text is not unable to comprehend it, they just can’t remember what’s necessary to comprehend. Regular low stakes testing of key knowledge from the text is a strategy to ensure this retention and readiness to mind.  Joe Kirby’s knowledge organisers are very useful for this and here’s one I made for Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights. 


Stage 1 – oral comprehension

Prepared reading, or providing a brief structural overview, ensures that no child hears the story without some prior knowledge.  In the first instance, read aloud or tell children the story. Capture their interest. Retell it, perhaps in different ways.   Lemov, in Reading Reconsideredidentifies different types of reading and here I’d go for what he calls contiguous reading – reading without interruption from start to finish, experiencing the text as a whole.  It may be sensible to teach the meaning of some words that are crucial for overall understanding of the text but not too many at this stage.  I’ve compiled some thoughts on introducing texts and teaching vocabulary here.

What have children understood?

Clearly it is tricky for teachers to know what children have understood and by asking questions all we really know is whether they are capable of comprehending, not whether they actually comprehend independent of us. Before any specific questioning, it would be useful to get an idea of what they have understood by asking them to tell you about what they’ve just read. The decisions they make about what they say (or write)  reveal what they think is important and you can also judge the accuracy of their literal and inferential comprehension. Aidan Chambers’ Tell me gives advice on developing this in a slightly more structured way whilst still retaining the importance of open questioning.

The key to this stage of reading is the focus on oral language comprehension.  Difficulty decoding should not be a barrier to children experiencing and understanding age appropriate texts.  Lemov puts this beautifully:

Low readers are often balkanised to reading only lower level texts, fed on a diet of only what’s accessbile to them – they’re consigned to lower standards from the outset by our very efforts to help them.

Lemov (Reading Reconsidered)

This is one of the reasons why I’m in favour of the whole class teaching of reading and not the carousel type ‘guided reading’.  Listening to texts and using open questions to prompt discussions ensures that the focus in on language development in a way that is not restricted by poor decoding.  Having said that, those children who are not decoding to the standard expected will still need some sort of intervention running concurrently to this so that they catch up.  The benefits of focusing on oral language comprehension have been shown in the results of the York Reading for Meaning Project, written about in Developing Reading Comprehension by Clarke, Truelove, Hulme and Snowling and here.


Stage 2 – modelling the reader’s thought processes and shared reading 

The information that teachers can gather from the open questioning in stage 1 then focuses modelled and shared reading on specific parts of the text. The teacher can model the reader’s thought processes, and get children thinking about the tricky bits. This isn’t simply reading the text from beginning to end; reading will be interspersed with commentary, explanation or making links to general knowledge.  Lemov calls this line by line reading, with frequent pauses for analysis and allowing the teacher to show children that good readers think while they read in order to achieve an acceptable standard of coherence.  As children get older and texts get longer, teachers can’t lead shared reading of the whole text, so by initially earmarking sections that children are likely to misunderstand and by using information gathered from stage 1, shared reading can be focused on addressing misconceptions.  Again, Lemov puts it succinctly:

Shared reading mitigates the risk of misreading.

Lemov (Reading Reconsidered)

I’d expect children to then read the text independently, drawing on what they’ve heard from the teacher’s modelling and all the oral language work. Children should have the opportunities for multiple readings of at least the tricky bits.  These bouts of reading become iterative: children build layers of understating with each reading.  For those children whose decoding is weak, they can be directed to smaller extracts, practising decoding and fluency with a text that they should have a decent understanding of following all of the language work.  It’s important to continue to get children thinking about new words that were taught in stage 1.  If that vocabulary is to be reliably internalised, they’ll need multiple interactions.

This is also an ideal point to make some links to non-fiction that can supplement understanding of the fiction. Questioning that involves deliberate comparison between the fiction and non fiction complements understanding of both.  For example, if reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, spending some time on books or extracts such as below will significantly aid comprehension.

Non fiction links

Written responses

Writing is thinking, and to paraphrase Lemov in Reading Reconsidered, not being able to record their thoughts about what they’ve read on paper does not make them invalid, but children are at a significant disadvantage if they are unable to craft an articulate, effective sentence explaining what they have understood.  To this end, returning to those original open questions and working with children to refine their responses and write them effectively is a valuable use of time.  The teacher can model scanning the text for the part needed to refine an idea, or to check a detail, and then children should also be expected to behave in that way.  This post by Lemov makes very interesting reading on that topic.


Stage 3 – targeted questioning

It’s standard practice to ask questions of a text after it’s been read but a great deal of care needs to be taken in choosing or discarding already written questions, or in writing them ourselves. Questions need to be text dependent, otherwise what we’re really doing is getting children to activate general knowledge. An example of this, from Understanding and teaching reading comprehension by Oakhill, Cain and Elbro, is:

Where does Linda’s pet hamster live?

  1. In a bed
  2. In a cage
  3. In a bag
  4. In a hat

The possibility of guessing the right answer here would tell the teacher very little of the child’s ability to comprehend text and so asking questions where understanding is dependent on what’s written or what must be inferred from the text is a must. Doug Lemov espouses the importance of text dependent questions in Reading Reconsidered.

When designing questions, teachers must also use knowledge of the characteristics of poor comprehenders in order to model corrective thought processes and to ensure children think in a way that helps them to comprehend more reliably.  For example, we should give them plenty of practice in working out to what or whom pronouns refer.

The education system we work within requires examinations to be passed which then provides opportunities.  Preparing children for success is morally imperative. Write questions in the style of SATs questions about the text, model the thinking process behind successful responses and give children practice doing just that.


Stage 4 – fluency and prosody

Don’t misunderstand – children should be supported continually to read fluently with appropriate intonation and expression. It’s just that to do that well, a reader needs to understand the text. At this stage, that should be the case. Reading for fluency and intonation using a text that children know very well should yield great results and not only that, it provides another opportunity to glean previously missed understanding.

So there it is. A model for teaching a text that moves from oral to printed comprehension; general to specific questioning; and oral to written responses, all the while practising fluency and developing language.

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