# Infernal Inference

I’ve always found it much harder to teach how to infer meaning than how to decode. With decoding there’s a clear routemap. With some children, it takes a bit longer to travel that route, but if you stick to the path, in the end you will get there.[1]  But with inference…some children just get it and some really, really don’t.  And when they don’t, it’s really hard to move them on. You show them some text, you point out what you can infer from what you’ve read, they nod (on a good day) but when you ask them to have a go, they are just as clueless. It doesn’t seem to stick. Why is this?

Daniel Willingham, the cognitive scientist explains why. It seems that inference as a skill doesn’t really exist.  No wonder it’s so hard to teach! It’s a bit of a shame then that in the KS reading SATS paper between 16%-50% of the marks are allowed to come from ‘explaining and justifying inferences with evidence from the text.’   In 2016, 36% of the total marks came from questions that involved inference (18 marks out of 50).  I’m not alone in finding inference an area where children struggle.  Nationally, if we just consider the marks available for inference, the average score was just under 9 marks, or 49%.  So this year, alongside vocabulary, across the nation, improving the ability to infer has become the thing we are all working on.

What does Willingham actually mean then, and how might it help us?  In a previous blogpost I quoted Daniel Willingham on this in some detail. The quotes really stayed with me and I’ve been reflecting on them ever since,  and reading more of his writing, so although this post is covering similar ground, I hope it is still useful. Or interesting. Both would be great! So to recap, Willingham explains that inference is more of a trick than a skill. With a trick, once you know it, you won’t get any better by practising it over and over again. Skills on the other hand, improve with practice.

Willingham says that when we teach inference what we are really doing is teaching children to connect ideas, filling in the missing bits the author has left out.  That’s more or less it all there is to it as a technique; connect one idea, one sentence possibly, with another, by filling in the bits the author has left out. Authors always leave bits out; they don’t explain every last detail in the same way that when we speak, we make certain assumptions about the person listening, assuming they already know stuff and so can join the dots. The difficulty with this when it comes to reading rather than talking, is that when we talk to someone, we monitor if they are understanding us. We will look at the person we are speaking to from time to time to check for signs that they understand.   The person listening will give us some useful feedback, maybe nodding or saying ‘mhm’ or ‘uh-huh’; what linguists call giving ‘acceptance signals’ to show they get it.  If we have assumed too much and the listener doesn’t understand, they will send us a signal by saying something like ‘huh?’ or by looking baffled. This is our cue to provide more detail.  The thing about books is that they just don’t care if we ‘get’ what they are saying or not. They don’t monitor our acceptance signals, even though we might nod along as we read a recipe or set of instructions and they certainly don’t rephrase what they are saying if we exclaim ‘huh?’

Trick number one: notice if you understand what you are reading

So then, the first thing we need to teach children about inference is their own crucial role in checking they are understanding what the text is saying as they read.  The book isn’t going to stop and repeat itself or explain in more detail if they don’t understand.  Successful readers expect to understand what they read and know what to do when they spot themselves not understanding. We need to explicitly teach children to check that what they are reading makes sense to them; to nod along as they read in the same way we nod along when someone is talking to us. If something doesn’t make sense they should say ‘huh?’ to themselves and stop and reread the last sentence or two more slowly, to see if that helps. If someone was speaking, we’d ask them to repeat what they had said. Unfortunately, a book can’t rephrase was is written, but if we reread, we might find the bit that is tricky and then be able to make more sense of it.

Trick number two: fill in the gaps by connecting ideas

Teachers need to help children understand how to do this by ‘thinking out loud’ as they read aloud to pupils, by asking themselves questions to show how they are monitoring their own understanding and seeking to make connections between different elements of the text, thus making explicit the thought processes involved in making inferences.

Global inference

The situation can be even more complicated with good stories.  Sometimes the writer will deliberately leave loads of information out.  In fact, it’s the leaving out of key bits of information that makes them so good. For example, let’s look at the beginning of the book The Imaginary by A.F Harrold and add in the extra information the writer assumes the reader already knows.

The words were like a hole in his chest, like a well he was falling down.

Writers – thank God – leave stuff out and expect us to fill in the gaps. Children need to understand this. So when they don’t understand, they know they need ask themselves what is it that the writer is assuming that I know that I don’t.  Or maybe the writer is just playing with me…

The joy of inference

Developing Vocabulary

It is hard to make connections if you don’t know what some of the words mean, so teachers need to develop children’s vocabularies.    I’ve written before about ways of doing this so I won’t repeat that here, beyond mentioning that if you haven’t yet read Isabel Beck’s Bringing Words to Life then you are missing a trick. To state the obvious, children need to encounter lots of unfamiliar words in meaningful contexts, especially the kinds of words that occur more frequently in books than in the spoken word.  Children need to be read to a lot and to read to themselves a lot and to enjoy reading so much that they want to do more and more of it.

The inference problem is really a knowledge problem

Willingham wants teachers to know about the research on inference.   This says that while teaching children how to infer is quite important, there is little benefit to be had in teaching this for more than a few lessons because the techniques of monitoring ones understanding and then trying to make connections are easily learnt within a few hours of instruction. No additional benefit is gained by spending any more time on mastering these techniques beyond this.  To which most teachers I know would respond ‘easily learnt my ****!’   as inference does not seem to come easily.  But the meta-analysis is clear; once you know to monitor your understanding and to make connections and have spent a few hours working on that, further practice does not make you any better and is time wasted.  That’s because once you know these tricks, what will get in the way of understanding texts is gaps in your life experience, general knowledge and vocabulary. You will realise you don’t understand something and try and make the necessary connections, but still fail because you don’t have the knowledge to know how the things you are trying to connect actually relate.  Now the very same teachers nod in agreement; it’s not that children don’t know they should try and make connections; they just don’t know what the connection is on this occasion. Or the next. Or the one after that.

I’ve used this example before; it’s from an old reading sats paper.

The old bear roared in frustration and waved at the empty air with his huge paws, then reared up on his hind legs .’

The children I was teaching didn’t know the meaning of the words ‘frustration; ‘paw, ‘reared up’ or ‘hind’.    They found the term ‘empty air’ confusing.  They were meant to be inferring why the bear ‘reared up.’  We didn’t get very far.  It was not the most successful lesson I’ve ever taught.  All the teaching in the world about monitoring your understanding and trying to connect ideas won’t help when so many words are unknown.  So instead of spending too much time on teaching children how to infer – Willingham says about 10 hours is enough – acquiring a broad vocabulary and a rich base of background knowledge will yield more substantial and longer-term benefits.’  As children need to be fluent decoders before teaching the tricks of inference is really pertinent, Willingham concedes that since children develop at different rates, a little bit of inference and other reading comprehension teaching in the fourth, fifth and sixth grade (years 5, 6 and 7 in the UK system) is a sensible use of time, but beyond that, it is time wasted.

It is interesting that the recent Education Endowment Foundation Guidance Report on improving literacy at key stage 2 hardly mentions developing this ‘rich base of background’ knowledge at all, beyond including Scarborough’s Reading Rope, where background knowledge is the first strand mentioned (not because it is top priority, I think the layout of the strands within the ‘language comprehension aspect is fairly arbitrary and it is just chance that background knowledge was placed on top).

The report says that the Reading Rope model can be used as a diagnostic tool to identify areas to focus on. What Willingham is cautioning us against is over-diagnosing problems with inference at the expense of the real culprits; lack of background knowledge and under-developed vocabulary.  In the report’s section on teaching comprehension strategies, it suggests it is useful to ‘activate prior knowledge.’  But the crucial point missed here is that for many of our pupils who struggle to understand texts, they don’t have this ‘prior knowledge’ to activate in the first place! In fact, the same section recommends ‘extensive practice’ of exactly the sort of specific strategies that Willingham warns should only be used for short periods of time, as further practice once the strategy is learnt is fruitless.

This is very scary for primary headteachers and ks2 teachers who are held accountable via a reading comprehension text, for it is saying that what we are mainly being tested on is our students’ vocabulary and background knowledge.   But since we never know in advance which knowledge and vocabulary our pupils will be tested on – white giraffes, warthogs and dodos last year, who knows what in a week’s time[2] – how can we make sure they know enough to do well?

This is where we need to take deep breaths and be brave. We are here to teach children to be good readers for the rest of their lives, not to teach children to appear to be good readers one Monday in May.  Sure, we’d be foolish not to spend a fair bit of time in the immediate run up to the tests practising test technique.[3] But we can’t let the stupidity that is the reading comprehension test warp the whole of the way we teach reading in ks2.

If having rich background knowledge is key to becoming a successful reader, then accumulating that knowledge needs to start as early as possible.  We need more non-fiction reading aloud to children in the early years and key stage1, alongside fabulous stories. The emphasis on spoken language in the early years is crucial, but we must remember to give them interesting, memorable stuff to talk about; not just great stories.  The ‘understanding the world’ strand should be the driving force underpinning the early years’ curriculum.  Practitioners should know what vocabulary and general knowledge children will have acquired as a result of their topic on ‘pirates’, for example.  Particularly in a context where children are disadvantaged and may have limited life experienced, we need to expand children’s horizons in all year groups, taking them on trips, bringing visitors into school and fully appreciating just how urgently our children need to acquire the kind of general knowledge middle class children are routinely exposed to at home. We need to understand that the humanities and science lessons are the main places where children will gain this knowledge and make sure our curriculum and pedagogy ensure that knowledge is imparted and retained.  Those children should have known what a paw was and what hind leg means. Cutting back on foundation subjects to improve reading is a false economy.

We should  also devote prime curriculum time to reading amazing books to children, expanding their vocabularies and doing all we can to get them to want to read for themselves. We need great libraries, teachers who are knowledgeable about children’s literature and who can help every child find the book that they will fall in love with; time in the curriculum for both reading to children and for children to read to themselves. And we need lots and lots of books.

[1] In 99.9% of the time. I’ll concede that for maybe 0.1% of children you eventually need to try another approach. Stressing eventually here.

[2] I’m writing this the week before the 2017 key stage 2 reading sats test. Indeed, this time in a week, the completed tests will be safely in their grey plastic bag, awaiting collection. *gulp*

[3] I saw a hilarious lesson last week where the teacher told them that the reason instructions to ‘tick ONE box’  were written in bold was because the markers were fed up with children sometimes ticking two, so the bold was the marker shouting at us to make us remember.

# How to enjoy reading more by understanding what you read more deeply

Like many primary schools this year, reading is the focus of our development plan. Despite my frustrations with this year’s ks2 reading sats, which I’ve written about here, our children did ok. Slightly above average.  And we are an inner city, deprived, multi-cultural, multi-linguistic, multi-story carpark kind of school. But that’s 20% below how they did in maths.  Now that gap may have more to do with test design than inadequacies in our teaching, but it still infuriates me.  If we can do it in maths we should be able to do it in reading…

However, thatboycanteach’s post – which was incredibly useful – set twitter mulling over ‘reading comprehension’ as a thing, particularly with regards to fiction.  Why can’t children just read and enjoy a story – why analyse to death, why answer turgid sats style ‘inference’ questions?  While I fly no flag for the ks2 reading sats paper, I would respond that inference in general is a vital life skill. Children who cannot infer, who cannot see beyond literal surface features, are children with social and communication problems. Socially skilled children, in contrast, are excellent at spotting the subtle signs that indicate to the initiated that all is not what it seems. Whether in the playground or in the pages of a book, the ability to ‘read’ people is an incredibly useful skill.

I fear there is a triple constraint going on here.  In the same way that holidays can be cheap and exotic but not relaxing, or relaxing and cheap at the expense of being exotic, or relaxing and exotic but ever so expensive, it appears we can only have 2 out of any 3 here. So a text can be decodable and exciting (Alien Adventures) but not literature. Or it can be exciting and literary (Frank Cottrell Boyce’s Unforgotten Coat) but you need to be a fluent reader to access. Or I suppose it could possibly be both literary and decodable but not immediately gripping – again many poems are perfectly readable in terms of the individual words, and no one doubts their literary pedigree, but while we may perhaps entice our children, or some of our children, to love them, they are unlikely to become avid readers on a diet of these alone. They are, perhaps, the literary equivalent of stilton.

In an ideal world, we’d spend the first 20 minutes either learning to spell or learning to decode, followed by 45 minutes of high quality shared reading for all where the teacher modelled their thinking out loud as they read an aspirational text – gradually transferring more and more work to the class as the lesson progressed and the children thought hard about the texts they were studying’ including written answers. Then we would do some longer writing linked in some way to the shared text for an hour, with more teacher modelling, explicit grammar teaching, peer feedback, 10 minutes handwriting practice and finally 30 minutes to read our own self chosen – though guided by an expert librarian or knowledgeable teacher – text, as well as going to assembly, having a break and doing an hour’s maths. And having 30 minutes of story time at the end of the day. That leaves 5 hours a week left for the rest of the curriculum – and that’s without swimming – that time sink that swallows 2 hours time per every 30 minutes actually, er, swimming. Or nativity plays. Or trips. Or having half the class out at a hockey tournament.

So that’s not going to happen.

We haven’t started doing either approach yet so I’m not going to the stake for what is, at this stage, a hunch, and we are going to do a mixed approach (I think, things are still tentative at this stage) where in years 4-6, 3 days a week are teacher led using one text, and the remaining two have no teacher input and are old fashioned independent reading of self-chosen books, but with the teacher working with a group on whatever aspect of reading they deem necessary. Those who need decoding practice come to the first teacher led lesson, but then have their TA led reading intervention the rest of the week. The children will sit in mixed ability pairs.  The text the teacher will use might be a revisiting of the current class end of day story – so the text can be analysed in the kind of way that would ruin a good storytelling, or a book the class are using in literacy for their writing –  a version of Beowulf say, (with this easier version used in some lessons), or The Wedding Ghost perhaps.  Or they might use an extract from a non-fiction text based on their humanities or science topic, or a poem.  In case you haven’t come across it, Opening Doors to  Famous Poetry and Prose by Bob Cox is an amazing resource, and he has recently published two versions for younger children (the one I’ve linked to is aimed at ks3, but usable with year 6). It is more about using famous – and demanding texts as a springboard for writing, but obviously includes unpacking the texts themselves.

Which brings me, (finally, the reader gasps) to my title.

How to deepen understanding of reading by teaching children how to enjoy it better.

Or possibly

How to enjoy reading more by understanding what you read more deeply.

Is it possible to teach children how to enjoy reading? Surely they either enjoy it or they don’t. maybe we can facilitate that enjoyment but setting up the necessary pre conditions, decoding, fluency, vocabulary development etc., but whether or not a child enjoys a text is surely an intimate matter shared between the author and the reader?

Actually yes you can teach children how to enjoy reading. We ourselves were taught how to enjoy it. I know this is not true for every teacher, but I think I’m pretty safe in assuming most of us grew up in a family where young children were read to. If so, we probably don’t remember our mum or dad or whoever saying things along the way such as…’oh no, Little Red Riding Hood’s gone of the path. Her mum told her not to. I think that means something bad is about to happen!’ (hamming it all up). Or maybe that happened for you at primary school. Either way, without expert reader input, you would not have realised to feel scared for LRRH because we realised she was now in danger – a danger, what is more, that our protagonist is oblivious to.

An aside. When my husband was training to be a teacher his tutor relayed the true tale of the delights of teaching in an inner city classroom. We are in year one, and the teacher is, with great theatre, reading the story of the three little pigs to the class. There is at least one little boy who has never heard the story before, but whom is greatly taken up with the drama of the plot. The teacher reads ‘and he huffed and he puffed and he blew the house down.’  To which our apprentice reader exclaimed ‘fucking bastard!’  (Tick whatever box you now have to tick to record that you now have evidence that the child can understand character motivation). I’ve dined out on that story, and I wasn’t even there.

Anyway, we teach children to enjoy stories by fantastic hammy story telling and by the asides we make that point out the secret clues that alert us to something hidden within the text, a kind of literary Easter egg.   Well, dear reader, there exists a book that describes exactly what these clues are and tells you how to teach them to children. And that book is, Notice and Notes: Strategies for Close Reading by Kylene Beers .

It really is very clever.  What Beers has done is identify 6 tropes frequently found within stories that give the reader a heads-up ‘stop, take notice here, this is important’ information. It is full-fat, text level inference we are talking here.  The first, and most useful one is, ‘contrasts and contradictions’.  We teach the children that when you’re reading and a character says or does something that’s opposite (contradicts) what s/he has been saying or doing all along, you should stop and ask yourself, ‘Why is the character doing that?’  The answer could help you make a prediction or make an inference about the plot or the conflict in the text.

The next signpost is the Aha moment. When a character suddenly realises, understands or finally figures something out, you should stop and ask yourself, ’How might this change things?’  For if a character just figured out a problem, then you have discovered the central conflict in the story. Or if the character understood a life lesson, you probably now understand the central theme of the book. For example, when Felix in Once finally loses his naivety and makes the horrified realisation that the Nazi’s actually hate Jews, that’s an Aha moment. It serves to amplify his resilience; the life lesson of this amazing book. Or this blog describes several great picture books that have great Aha moments in them. It’s American, so I didn’t know quite a few of the books, although some were familiar. But it made me think of all those great books we use to teach acceptance, whether of different others or of oneself; Giraffes can’t dance, for example. Gerald the giraffe has an Aha moment when he realised he can dance. Or Elmer learning to accept his multi coloured true self in a world where everybody else is grey. Which again reminded me of the CHIPS project (Combatting Homophobia in Primary School)  series of book based lesson plans.

The ‘Again and Again’ signpost is when you notice a word, phrase or situation mentioned over and over again. It is a signpost telling you to stop and ask yourself, ‘Why does this keep happening again and again?’ Your answer might tell you about the theme and conflict in the text or might foreshadow later events.  Pernille Ripp, our American blogger again has some picturebook examples. In Holes, the whole recurring family curse motif is central to the denouement.  Two phrases from ‘the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ spring to mind; ‘always winter, never Christmas,’ and ‘he’s not a tame lion’.

In some ways similar, we have Memory Moment, when the author interrupts the action to tell you about a memory. When you come across a Memory Moment then stop and ask yourself, ‘Why is the author telling me this now? Why might it be important?’ The answer might foreshadow later events, or might tell us about the theme and conflict in our text. The family curse in Holes in a Memory Moment used Again and Again, and indeed does foreshadow the climax.

Then we have ‘the Words of the Wiser; when a wiser, and usually older character takes our protagonist aside and offers serious advice. When we read this we should stop and ask ourselves ’What’s the life lesson and how might it affect the character?’    They tell us about the central theme of the text; about how character and plot interact. Sometimes I get Words of the Wiser muddled up with Aha moments. The key difference being Aha moments are discovered by the character themselves and often have the text saying something like ‘I suddenly realised that…’, whereas in Words of the Wiser, someone else gives advice. Someone like Yoda or Dumbledore.

Finally, we have Tough Questions, when the protagonist asks themselves something very difficult. This should cause us to stop and ask ourselves ‘What does this question make me wonder about?’ and will help us understand the central conflict of the story and help us think about what might happen later in the story. In some ways these are the mirror images of Aha moments.  The protagonist asks themselves ‘how will I ever fit in?’ whereas in the Aha moment the character might discover they don’t need to change to fit in; it’s the tight limits on what constitutes ‘fitting in’ that needs to change, not the protagonist. Or the tough question ‘how will I ever survive?’ might have a later aha moment ‘I will survive because I now realise that…’

The book is gives a model, almost scripted lesson for each signpost.  As the book is American and pitched towards middle school, while these lessons are great for teacher inset, they are not immediately usable with British primary aged children. But the general principles definitely are. The internet is also awash with useful bookmarks and posters to help you implement this approach; this one for example has further links to a whole raft of resources. It’s a much bigger thing in the US as the demands for close reading in the Common Core change how reading is taught in the US. Here in England the new curriculum is also causing us to rethink old ways.

I think the ‘Notice and Note’ approach is really useful in explicitly showing students the breadcrumb trails authors want readers to find in their work.  It is difficult for us expert readers to remember what it was like before we just knew that certain types of event or phrases were vital clues to the whole book, let alone give them names or number them in a list. But as we all know, many students find inference really hard -possibly because they didn’t have parents making a metacognitive commentary – ‘oh no, how will the pigs survive now they can’t live with their mummy?’ – as they share a book at bedtime. But better than that, it really does help some children finally ‘get’ why reading can be pleasurable.  Once you know the author is playing with you, you can play along too.

It’s not the whole answer. It doesn’t solve the triple constraint or tell us how to plan our lessons. There won’t be any questions about it on the ks2 sats paper. But it might help them to learn to love books. And children who love reading are much, much more likely to do well academically aged 16. One study from the Institute of Education found that

‘The combined effect on children’s progress of reading books often, going to the library regularly and reading newspapers at 16 was four times greater than the advantage children gained from having a parent with a degree.’

So worth a punt, I reckon.

# Milling around in bewilderment: that reading comprehension.

The day started well; dawn casting spun-gold threads across a rosy sky.  The long wait was over; sats week was finally here.  And it looked like summer had arrived. Year 6 tripped in to classrooms  while head teachers fumbled skittishly with secret keys in hidden cupboards.  Eventually teachers across the nation ripped open plastic packets.Perhaps at first their fears were calmed, for the text – or what you can glean about it from reading snippets here and there as you patrol the rows – didn’t seem too bad. In previous weeks children had struggled with excerpts from the Lady of Shalott, Moonfleet, Shakespeare.  The language here looked far more contemporary.

But no. Upon completion children declared the test was hard – really hard. Many hadn’t finished – including  children who usually tore through tests like a…white giraffe? What is more, the texts didn’t seem to be in any kind of order. We had drilled into them, as per the test specification guide, that the texts would increase in difficulty throughout the paper (section 6.2) Yet the middle text was almost universally found to be the hardest.  Some declared the final text the easiest. What was going on?

Flawed as the previous reading tests were, they did not stack the cards against  schools serving language-poor populations. The trouble with using vocabulary as a measure is that it that each individual word is so specific. Usually what we teach is generalisable from one context to another. Learning words however has to be done on a case by case basis. I recently taught year 6 somnolent, distraught and clandestine, among many others. I love teaching children new words, and they love acquiring them.  But unless there is some sort of finite list against which we are to be judged, I’d rather not have our school judged by a test that is hard to pass without an expansive and sophisticated vocabulary. With the maths and SPAG tests, we know exactly what is going to be tested. The domain is finite. We worry about how to teach it so it is understood and remembered, but we do not worry that some arcane bit of maths will worm its way into the test.  Nautical miles, for example.  Not so with reading. Any word within the English language is fair game – including several that don’t regularly appear in the vocabulary of the average adult. There may be very good reasons for the government to want to ascertain the breadth of vocabulary acquisition across the nation. In which case, they could instigate a vocabulary test – maybe something along the lines of this.  But that shouldn’t be confused with the ability to read. To return to our earlier example, my colleagues three-year-old may have an impressive vocabulary but she can’t actually read much  at all yet. Whereas our 11-year-olds may not know as many words but are happily enjoying reading  the Morris Glietzman ‘Once’ series.

It is becoming accepted that  reading is not just the orchestration of a set of skills, but requires knowledge of the context for the reader to make sense of the bigger picture.  But that’s not what happened here.  It’s not the case that children found the texts difficult because they lacked knowledge of the context. The context of the first text was two children exploring outdoors. True only 50% of our present year 6 knew what a monument was at the outset – a bit tricky since this was pretty central to the test – but by the end of the story they sort of worked it out for themselves. The second text featured a  young girl disobeying her grandmother and taking risks. And a giraffe. Well I reckon this is pretty familiar territory (grandmothers and risks, I mean) and while we do not meet giraffes everyday in Bethnal Green, we know what they are.  The third and final text told us all about dodos and how they may have been unfairly maligned by Victorian scientists. So that was a bit more remote from every day experience but no so terribly outlandish as to render the text impenetrable. The third text is meant to be harder. The children are meant to have studied evolution and extinction by then in science anyway.   So it wasn’t that the Sitz im Leben was so abstruse as to render comprehension impossible. The problem was the words used within the texts and the high number of questions which were dependent upon knowing what those words meant. The  rather convoluted sentence structure in the  second text didn’t help either – but if the words had been more familiar, children might have stood more of a fighting chance.

According to the test specification, questions can be difficult in one of five different ways. These five ways are based on research commissioned by the PISA guys. It’s an interesting  and informative read – so I’m not arguing with the methodology per se.  I don’t know nearly enough to even attempt that. Amateur though I am, I do argue with the relative proportions allocated to each of the five strategies in this test.

With three of these, I have no quarrel. Firstly,  ( and my ordering is different from that in the document)  questions can be made easier or harder in terms of accessibility; how easy is it to find the information? Is the student signposted to it (e.g. see the first paragraph on page 2).   Or is the question difficulty raised by not signposting and possibly by having distractor items to lure students down dead ends?  I think we have little to complain about here. e.g. question 30 has clear signposting…’Look at the paragraph beginning:  Then, in 2005…’ whereas  in question 33  the relevant information is much harder to find – it’s a ‘match the summary of the paragraph to the order in which they occur’ question.

Secondly, questions may vary in terms of task-specific complexity. How much work does the student have to do to answer the question?  Is it a simple information retrieval task or does the pupil have to use inference?

For example, question 7 is easy in this regards.’ Write down three things you are told about the oak tree.’   The text clearly says the oak tree was ‘ancient’.  I haven’t checked the mark scheme as it’s not yet published as I write, but I am assuming that’s enough to earn you 1 mark. Whereas question 3 is a bit harder. ‘How can you tell that Maria was very keen to get to the island?  Students need to infer  this from the fact that she she said  something ‘impatiently’.   There are far fewer of this kind of question under this new regime – but we were expecting that and the sample paper demonstrated that. Again – no complaints.  Indeed the test specification does  share the relative weightings of different skills (in section 6.2.2, table 9), but the bands are so wide its all a bit meaningless. Inference questions can make up between 16% and 50% of all questions, for example.

Thirdly, the response strategy can be more or less demanding, a one word answer versus a three-marker explain your opinion question.

The two final ways to make questions more or less difficult are by either varying the extent of knowledge of vocabulary required by the question (strategy 5 in the specification document) or by varying  the complexity of the target information that is needed to answer the question.  (Strategy 2) The document goes on to explain that this means by varying

• the lexico-grammatical density of the stimulus

• the level of concreteness / abstractness of the target information

• the level of familiarity of the information needed to answer the question

and that …’There is a low level of semantic match between task wording and relevant information in the text.’

I’m not quite sure what the difference is between ‘lexico-grammatical density’  (strategy 2) and knowledge of vocabulary required by the question (strategy 5), but  the whole thrust of this piece is that texts were pretty dense lexico-grammatically and in terms of vocabulary needed to answer the questions. When compared with the sample test for example, the contrast is stark. Now I’m no expert in linguistics or test question methodology. I’m just a headteacher with an axe to grind, a weekend to waste and access to google.  But this has infuriated me enough to do a fair bit of reading around the subject.

Anyway, be that as it may, I decided to do some readability tests of various bits and pieces of the sats paper.  And this is what I discovered. (texts listed in order of alleged difficulty)

The Lost Queen first paragraph:  13-15 year olds

Wild Ride first paragraph:              13-15 year olds

Wild Ride ‘bewildered’ paragraph     18-22 year olds

Way of the Dodo first paragraph          13-15 year olds  (and lower score than The Lost Queen)

Way of the Dodo 2nd paragraph         13-15 year olds.

So there you have it, insofar as Flesch Kincaid has any reliability, the supposedly hardest text was in fact the easiest, the middle text was the hardest.

I did the same with the the sample paper. The first had a readability level of a 11-12 year-old and the second 13 – 15. I had lost the will to live by then so didn’t do the third text – but it is clearly much more demanding than the previous two  – as it should be.

I also used the automated reading index and while this gave slightly different age ranges, the relative difficulty was the same and all the texts were for children older than 11, the easiest being… the first part of the way of the dodo.

However,  it was also clear from my reading that readability tests are designed to help people writing, say pamphlets for the NHS, make the writing as transparent and easy as possible. In other words, they are intended to make reading simple so people who aren’t very good at it can understand stuff that may be very important. It struck me that maybe this wasn’t exactly what we should be aiming for in a reading assessment. After all, we do want some really challenging questions at some point. We just want them  at the end, where they are meant to be. We need readability tests because previous generations have not been taught well enough to be presented with demanding information. We want better for the children we now teach.

Which brought me to discover this site, which ranks words by their relative frequency in the English language.  If we are going to be held accountable for the sophistication of the vocabulary are children can comprehend, then surely there should be some bounds on that.  While the authority of this is contested, it seems to be generally held that the average adult knows about 20,000 words. You can test yours here.   How many words the average 11 year old does or should know I did not discover – so here are my ball park suggestions.

For the first text – the one that is meant to be easier – there should be a cap on words ranked occurring below 10,000. (I’m assuming here we understand that as words are used less frequently their ranking falls but the actual number rises: a ranking of 20,000 is lower than a ranking of 10,000. If this is not the correct convention for such matters, I apologise). Definitions should be given for low frequency words, especially if understanding them is critical to answering specific questions. In the same way in which Savannah was explained at the introduction to Wild Ride

Then in the second text words could be limited to 15,000, and in the third 20,000 – representing the average adult’s vocabulary. I have plucked these figures from the air. I would not go to the stake for them. But you get my meaning. We need to pin down the domain of ‘vocabulary’ if we are to be held accountable when it is tested.

For what it is worth, I asked our year 6 after the test to tell me which words they did not know. There are 30 children in the class. Words where half the class or more did not know the meaning included  from the first text: monument, haze, weathered (as a verb); from the second text: jockey, dam, promptly, sedately (zero children), counselled, arthritic, nasal, pranced, skittishly (zero children), milled, bewildered, spindly, momentum; from the third list haven, oasis ( they knew this was a brand of drink though), parched, receding, rehabilitate and anatomy. My Geordie partner tells me they would have known parched if they were northern because that’s Geordie for ‘I’m really thirsty.’  Here we can see again that the middle passage had the highest number of unknown words in my obviously unrepresentative sample. In fact, it was the first paragraph on page 8, which henceforth shall be known as the bewildering paragraph that seemed to have the highest lexico-grammatical density.  As the mud flats entrapped the Mauritian dodos, so did this paragraph ensnare our readers, slowing them down to the extent that they failed to finish the questions pertaining to the relatively easy  final text.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe when the statistics are finally in, there won’t be a starker-than-usual demarcation along class lines. I’d love to be wrong. Let’s hope I am.

And finally, what you’ve all been waiting for – what was the lowest ranking word?  Well yes of course, it was ‘skittishly‘;  so rare it doesn’t even appear in the data base of 60,000 words I was using. But suitable for 11 year olds, apparently.

In case you are interested, here’s the full rankings. Where the word might be more familiar as a different part of speech I have included a ranking for that word too, in italics. The words I chose to rank were just those my deputy and I thought children might find tricky.

By way of contrast I did the same with the sample text. In the first text there were no words I thought were hard enough to check. In the second there were 4: cover (15,363), pitiful (13,211), brittle (10,462) and emerald (12,749).  In the third and final passage there were 8:triumphantly (16,3,43), glade (20,257), unwieldy (16,922), sapling (16,313, foliage 7,465, lurch (9339), ecstasy (9629) and finally, ranking off the scale below 60,000 gambols.

# Wurdz.

The old bear roared in frustration and waved at the empty air with his huge paws, then reared up on his hind legs .’

It’s the Easter holidays. Reading booster revision class for year 6.  I have a group of 4 children. They need to get a level 4. It’s not going well. The bear in question has recently changed his behaviour – we are medddant to be describing how. And why.  I’m settling for how in the first instance.

‘So,’  I enquire, with that  strained upbeat  tone adopted by teachers when the odds are against us, ‘can anybody tell me what it means when it said the bear  ‘reared up?

Blank looks.    Someone says that rear means your bottom – which is sort of encouraging – though not particularly helpful in this context. Mental note to self:-must make sure we teach them the words ‘rear up’.   Time for a spot of drama. I rear up out of my chair and we all practice rearing up and think about what sort of occasions might make us want to rear up. Not taking a bottom group booster class three weeks before sats, that’s for sure. All though I am – like the bear – frustrated.  Quick check that we know ‘frustration’. Nominalisation is a problem – they know frustrated but don’t automatically make the link. Mental note to self:-must make sure we teach them more about nominalisation, root words, looking for links.

‘Ok, are we all clear now about the meaning of all the other words in the sentence?’

A pupil enquires, ‘what does hind mean?’  How come they don’t  know they word ‘hind?’ We do lots of stuff about animals. Surely it came up somewhere.  I check if they know the word ‘fore’.   Nope. Don’t know that either.

I reread our sentence, one more time, confident now that every word is now understood by my four pupils and that we can begin to answer our 2 mark question. So if we were, by some sort of miracle, to get a very similar sort of passage in the real test, where someone reared up in frustration – possibly on his hind legs – we might even be able to glean a mark or two.

‘Miss…? The undulating tone indicates a question is coming. ‘What’s a paw?’ Some of the group are excited now because they know this.  They rear up in excitement. ‘I know, I know, it’s what you call an animal’s foot!’ Mental note to self:-must make sure we teach them the word paw. Surely we teach them the word ‘paw’. Surely in the early years during ‘people who help us’ the vet makes paws better? I’m sure we learn ‘paw’ in phonics.  Despondently I turn and  reread the sentence yet again. My face a mask of fake brightness as I strain to erase any hint of sarcasm from my voice I enquire, ‘we are all sure what a bear is – right?’

By the way, I ought to point out, only some of this group are EAL. Others speak English at home. Allegedly. It’s a different kind of English though. Standard English is definitely a foreign tongue.

Look, I’ve got as  big a ‘growth mindset’ as the next ‘ResearchEd’ nerd, but there is something about trying to increase children’s vocabulary that drains every last scrap of optimism out of me. With just about everything else in education, it is simply a case of finding the right technique and then practicing the living daylights out of it. Actually that’s the grossest of gross generalisations. It is not simple for a start. And there’s infinitely more to education than just mastering basic literacy and numeracy. There is creativity and wonder and stuffing your brain with glorious morsels of knowledge. There’ s critical thinking and problem solving  and reasoning and immersing yourself in the imaginary worlds of brilliant stories.  But to get to all that properly you need to read, write and be numerate at least a little bit. And there are techniques like phonics in reading and using the concrete-pictorial- abstract approach in maths that have a proven track record of being pretty efficient.  I like the way the universe has been even handed here: favouring traditional phonics on the one hand and trendy ‘cpa’ on the other.

When it comes to increasing a child’s vocabulary, the way ahead is so much more mysterious. Something like phonics is, for the most part, generalisable.  Once you know the 44 grapheme: phoneme correspondences and how to blend and segment them – you’ve got that skill for life. You can transfer that skill onto any other phonetic language you encounter. Sure the gpc’s may vary a bit or even a lot, so you may need to upgrade you knowledge of those, or learn to decode from right to left if you learn Arabic, but the basic skill is there: it doesn’t need to go on being taught over and over once securely grasped.

Maths is pretty much the same. Once you understand the base 10 place value system, you don’t need to have it explained afresh each time we increase or decrease a factor of 10. It’s quite a complicated and abstract principle so may take some time to really understand, but once it is done, it is done for ever.  Same with the four operations. Yes we apply them in ever more complicated situations, but addition is always addition, whether it’s 2+3, 233+32.3  or  2a +(-3b).  Obviously there is a lot more to both, but you get the point. In both there’s an element of the really hard work being done in the early years and ks1.  After that, it’s mainly applying what you already know in new, more demanding situations. But words are so damn specific.  If today I teach you ‘paw’ that  doesn’t help you know ‘hoof’ tomorrow. If today’s character ‘rears up in frustration’, tomorrow’s will ‘slump in deep despondency’. Am I meant to have some sort of list- starting perhaps with aardvark and ending with zygote?

It has always struck me as miraculous that any child ever learns to speak at all. It’s creation ex nihilo par excellence. One minute you have a babbling baby who can’t say or understand anything and the next they start issuing orders like ‘more’ and ‘milk’. Before you know it they’ve moved beyond giving orders and labelling objects to generating their own, unique sentences- beyond just copying and into innovation. Watching a young child learn to speak is exciting and enthralling; no wonder parents bore everyone else senseless with news of the latest cute thing their genius  two year old has just said.

I am sure those who have EAL new arrivals turn up in February into year 4 /8/11 ( insert numeral of choice) have often witnessed the same miracle. One minute you are announcing to the class ‘here is a new boy,Yan Ye. He doesn’t speak any English yet’ and arranging a buddy system  to get him through geography and the next he gets a level five in his English reading sats. So- and here is the million dollar question, how come Yan Ye can learn English in little more than two years when he only really gets to speak it at school whereas some of this classmates have been surrounded by English since birth, been to the same school for 8 years and don’t yet know what ‘frustration’ means? Unlike their teachers. Why does this everyday miracle fail to ‘take’ for some children and what can we do about it?

Of course it is linked to disadvantage. For a variety of reasons, there is a much higher risk of growing up within a family with a limited language environment if that family is also poor. It’s absolutely by no means inevitable, but statistically, if you are poor, the odds of you being raised in a language rich environment are just lower.  When comparing  the exposure to language of the richest and poorest children, a seminal American study that makes me want to weep describes the grim reality that a child from a high-income family will experience 30 million more words within the first four years of life than a child from a low-income family. But it is also true that socioeconomic status is not destiny and that there are a variety of providers out there working with parents of babies and toddlers to empower them to break the inter- generational cycle of deprivation.  But what about the children already in the system? How can we help them?

Much more usable is the work of Isabel Beck  . She divides words up into three tiers. Tier one words are everyday words that do not need teaching- table, house, book etc.  Tier three words are specific to certain domains and are fairly low frequency, words like isotope. Words like this are taught fairly easily as they occur in the curriculum. But it’s tier two words where the action is.  These are words that don’t usually come up in spoken language but are high frequency in written texts and give the learner a more mature, nuanced way of expression a concept they already understand. A child who knows ‘sad’ can be taught the word ‘forlorn’, for example.  Rather than providing a definitive list, she teaches teachers how to identify and choose suitable tier two words for explicit word work. she explains this well here.  There are two books by her that are definitely worth reading; Bringing Words to Life and Creating Robust Vocabulary. (Although the phrase ‘robust vocabulary’ brings a smile to my face: no need to put any effort into teaching that!)

Beck (and colleagues) explain that children don’t easily pick up new vocabulary just from the context and from their reading. Rather they need explicit instruction and creative ways to practice what they have been taught. Katie Ashcroft from the fascinating Michaela school explains how they are explicitly teaching vocabulary there.    How does this contrast with current practice in primary schools?

In my experience (almost entirely based in schools in Tower Hamlets), schools work very hard to provide language rich environments. We have to, since our population is predominantly EAL and those who are not EAL tend to number among the word poor.  We all know our BICS from our CALP.  Thinking of my own school, starting with the early years promoting high quality communication is our top priority.  We’ve done ‘Every Child A Talker‘ and refresh our memories its key messages every couple of years. We have a speech therapist on the payroll who regularly observes practitioners to develop their practice. We run interventions such as TalkBoost and Speech Bubble. We value speech as integral to learning. Talk partners are a completely routine part of every lesson from Nursery onwards. We expect children to answer in full sentences. We use sentence frames and dictogloss. We orally rehearse before we write and use drama across the curriculum. We talk for writing and internalise key texts. We spend a lot on our library which has high quality non fictions well as fiction.  Each year a group of children who have read widely get to visit the book wholesalers and spent a budget of thousands electing new books for our library. Authors come and visit.  We insist children read daily for homework.  We read to them daily.  Key vocabulary is highlighted and explained. Yet still, frustratingly, vocabulary problems rear up.

Upon reflection, I reckon we explain too much vocabulary too fast.  If I am reading Beck et al correctly, less is more. Fewer words, carefully identified and revisited over a series of activities.  This is something we can change.  We magpie literature, ‘stealing’ good words. We list ‘wow’ words and ‘star words’ and ‘powerful verbs’.  Beck’s tier framework provides real scope here to revisit our practice.  Those ‘powerful verbs’ are bound to be tier two words. Time for them to come down from our working walls and be rehearsed in the ways Beck recommends.

Beck’s recipe is as follows:

First introduce a new word in context. I think this is pretty standard primary practice. I don’t think primary schools tend to just dole out list of edifying words to learn. I hope not anyway.

Secondly, provide a friendly explanation. Not a dictionary definition unless it is from something like the Collins COBUILD Dictionary that defines words in full sentences. Beck suggests explaining words with sentences that use words such as someone, something, if and you. For example,’ if someone is jaded,me has or has seen so much of something that he begins to dislike it.’ (p24 Creating Robust Vocabulary). I think, given time, this is the sort of explanation most of us would tend to give. The trouble is, because our vocabulary teaching tends to be so ad hoc as we encounter words in the middle of stories, we try to articulate a coherent definition on the hoof and fail miserably, coming up with something garbled.

But even in programmes such as Success For All that go out of their way to highlight and define high value vocabulary, this goes nowhere unless the students have opportunities to encounter this word several more times over a series of days. So step three is that old favourite spaced repetition.  Beck suggests spending  a few minutes over 5 days on a few words. After introducing the word and briefly defining it, on subsequent days, children can be given opportunities to process the new words mentally in a variety of ways. One technique is called example/ nonexample. Here students are asked to decide if various sentences illustrate the target word or not.

If any of the things I say might be sleek, say ‘smooth man’. If not, don’t say anything.

a porcupine

a duck

a leaf

a car

Another technique is word associations. This is basically matching. A card sort really- though maybe without the cards.

The next activity she suggests involves  generating situations, contexts and examples.

How might a …..cook……a musician…..a basketball player……..a teacher show they are:

versatile

industrious

clever

expert

And so on.  Then at the end of the week,mother words go in a word back. Each week, three ‘old words’ are drawn from the bank to jog those memories. That way, they stick and might actually get used.

I’m not sure why it is secondary school teachers who are leading the way here (or maybe they are just the ones blogging about it) but there is some inspiring practice being developed.   As well as Katie Ashcroft, l have also found this by Josie Mingay on using root words as our bread and butter teaching. We already do this is spelling – so why not in vocabulary instruction too? Joey Bagstock  – a colleague of Josie’s – is worth reading too.  Which brings me back to nominalisation.  This term foxed loads of primary teachers when it first appeared in the writing APP grid for level 6. It’s only now after reading this brilliant blog ( nominalisation comes right at the end) I realise it is a great way of turning an ordinary sounding verb into a much posher sounding noun and making your writing seem so much more intelligent. Contrast ‘when the Romans arrived’ with ‘The arrival of the Romans’.

Of course, I can bet my bottom dollar that however many words I successfully teach my charges, when it comes to test time, those words won’t be in the test.  ‘If only I had taught them frugal instead of exuberant’,’  we will exclaim.  And when it’s a test we are talking about, that arbitrariness remains. But we are teaching these words for life and not for the test. Be nice if they coincided though- just this once.