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A growing vocabulary is the key to unshackling children’s minds

“The limits of my language are the limits of my mind. All I know is what I have words for.”  Ludwig Wittgenstein

I’ve always been fascinated by the point at which a child with EAL switches from thinking and dreaming in their mother tongue to thinking and dreaming in English.

At that point, they’ll may have a wide enough vocabulary to get by, but take a moment to think of all the situations for which they do not yet have the language.

As teachers, it’s vital that we provide all children with the lexical dexterity to make sense of the world and to communicate their understanding.

Continue reading here.


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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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But what *is* guided reading?

I don’t think I’ve ever done Guided Reading ‘properly’.  I’m pretty sure that I’ve helped children to become better readers but there’s always room for pedagogical improvement.  During my earlier years of teaching, it was always one of those things that nobody I came across explained clearly and this irked me so I’m determined to work on it.  Some principles to work from:

Children need to think hard about the text that they’re reading. The quality of the tasks and questions that we present to children will determine how hard children will have to think. Guided Reading at its least effective resulted in groups of children completing shallow tasks without having to think hard about what they’ve read. Effective guided reading involves high expectations of the thinking that children will do about what they’ve read.

Reading skills are not transferrable. Children can only predict and infer if they have sufficient domain knowledge. Once children can decode, we can help them to become skilled readers by building their word knowledge and their general knowledge.   Guided Reading at its least effective assumed that if children could infer when reading one text, then they’d mastered that skill. Effective guided reading will seek to equip children with broad knowledge to comprehend a wide range of texts.

Small group discussions are worth creating. Working in smaller groups can give children a focus for reciprocal reading and the teacher can spend more quality time discussing the text with children. Reciprocal reading itself, although backed as effective in the York Reading for Meaning Project and in other studies, is worth analysing more closely. Children take on a roles which give them a focus while reading. This then helps to structure discussion around the text. The roles suggested are:

  • Questioner: Thinks of questions to ask about the passage.
  • Clarifier: Finds difficult words or ideas and looks for clues to explain them.
  • Summariser: Uses own words to explain the key ideas.
  • Predictor: Makes guesses about what the passage might be about or what might happen next.

My feeling is that there are aspects of it such as metacognition that are more effective than others.

Introducing texts is important, whether children are working alone or with an adult. Although children need to have experience at school of reading a text with minimal input from an adult, most of the time they’ll require at least a basic introduction to the text which could include:

  • A brief summary of the text
  • An explanation of the tier 2 words that they may not know the meaning of
  • An explanation of any general knowledge that children might need to in order to understand the text

Children should read widely. There are countless high quality books from which to choose. Children do not necessarily need to read the whole book / novel. Summaries of key points can be provided so that children can start a book beyond the beginning. Once interest is piqued, we can encourage children to read bits not read in school.

On grouping children… The research on setting does not mean that ‘setting is ineffective’, rather we should find ways of making it effective if we choose to group children by ability. There are times when a fluid grouping of children, based on the type of scaffolding they need to achieve mastery, might be appropriate.

Over the next term, I hope to develop a model of how the application of these principles might look. Comments and suggestion most welcome!


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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.



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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

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.


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


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:


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.


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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