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.