Tuesday, 17 October 2017

How To Write Good Comprehension Questions

Many of the commercially available reading tests often have some questions which are poorly written, so poor that it is unclear as to what the questioner is getting at. These ambiguously written questions can hardly help children to develop their ability to understand what they have read, nor can they be a useful assessment of what they understand. The problem is that asking good comprehension questions that make sense to children is really difficult – it’s an art we have to practice, and that we might not always get right. But what can we do to ensure that we provide the best questions possible in our reading lessons?

Choose Texts Carefully

Before thinking about the questions, you need to select the text carefully. If you know that you want to practise a particular reading skill then the text you choose needs to support that. For example, there would be very little point in choosing an instructional text to teach and practise inference skills. That is an extreme example, but it makes the point - make sure the text you choose supports the skills you want to teach.

Of course, sometimes you might select a text and the focus of that lesson will be simply understanding the text as a whole - in a lesson like this you wouldn't want to focus solely on teaching one particular skill, you'd want to ask the necessary questions which really ensure that children are reading for meaning.

Plan Ahead

Even the most experienced teachers run the risk of asking superficial and poorly-worded questions if they have not pre-read their text and planned out the questions they are going to ask. The tendency also is to ask low-level literal questions (retrieval) rather than any other kinds of questions which probe deeper into a text. Write down the questions you want to ask.

At this point I should point out that when I refer to writing good comprehension questions I don't necessarily mean questions that will be presented to children in written form. The questions that you write might only go as far as your planning sheet - in an actual lesson they will be questions that you pose orally. The same goes for the answers that children might give - they could be written or oral.

Use SATs Question Stems

One thing I would have to say in favour of the SATs is that at least they are well written and to a proficient reader the answers, however difficult, are not ambiguous. Sometimes perhaps the mark schemes are a little narrow, and children don’t get marks when they clearly have shown understanding, but that is not to do with the way the questions are asked.

We can learn how to write better questions by studying the KS1 and KS2 tests but unfortunately not all teacher in all year groups are familiar enough with them. Several useful documents have been produced containing the question stems from the most recent tests:
The questions in the documents above are organised into the different content domains – for an easy way to remember these content domains, please see my blog on the Reading Roles.

Use Different Response Formats

Many comprehension activities set by teachers are in the simple form of a written question. A quick flick through a test will provide plenty of other ideas for how to present questions:
  • Multiple Choice (tick or circle)
  • Ordering Events by Numbering
  • True or False
  • Matching
Some examples (the colours and symbols here relate to the Reading Roles):





It is well worth creating a word document that contains some pre-made questions like this to copy and paste each time you create a reading comprehension activity. I have plenty of examples available on TES so you don’t even need to create them yourself.

Although not featured recently in tests, not in their strictest form anyway, cloze tasks are a good way to test reading comprehension. When creating a cloze procedure it is best to remove words that are crucial to the meaning of the original text that children read. Cloze procedures can also include a multiple choice element if the line for the missing word is followed by a choice of several words for children to choose from.

In their book Understanding and Teaching Reading Comprehension, Jane Oakhill, Kate Cain and Carsten Elbro recommend true/false, multiple choice and cloze task questioning formats, but point out that the different formats lend themselves better to differen question types. For example, true/false judgements are better for retrieval questions, whereas a multiple choice question might help children to recognise an inference that can be made from what they have read.

Research shows that presenting questions in a true/false format is also good for children for whom English is an additional language. Click here to read more on this.

Focus on a Particular Skill

The temptation is to just ask the first questions that come into one’s head when reading the text intended for the reading lesson. This is fine for a summative assessment (that mixture of question types and skills is how the SATs are presented) and for understanding a text, but isn’t great for teaching children specific comprehension skills. If children are only ever presented with a scattering of questions across the content domains there is little opportunity for deliberate teaching and practice of particular skills such as inferring, summarising or predicting.

Most lessons should focus on one skill; sometimes a whole sequence of lessons will be focused on the teaching and practise of one skill.

Scaffold Answers

There are several ways to do this so that you support children. I have written a lot about scaffolding inference by first asking vocabulary and retrieval questions, but there are other scaffolding structures, too.

Here's an example of scaffolding inference:


Before being able to make plausible predictions children might first need to answer relevant questions about vocabulary, they will then need to be able to retrieve information and make inferences based on them – prediction is a form of inference.

In order for children to answer questions about author’s purpose they might need to first answer well-crafted questions about vocabulary, retrieval and/or inference.

Similarly, in order to summarise information children may need to go through the process of answering relevant questions about vocabulary, retrieval, inference, author’s purpose before they can give an accurate summary of a text.

When writing sequences of questions like this it is a good idea to start with the final question you want children to answer, and to work backwards from there – the children should be able to draw on all the information they have given in previous questions to answer the final question.

I intend to dedicate another blog post to exploring these structures.

Give Relevant Information

Don’t leave children searching forever for the place in the text where they might find their answer. Give them pointers such as:
  • Look at this sentence: 
  • Look at the paragraph beginning 
  • At the top of page it says…
Some examples:



Even the tests provide this sort of information. Children cannot demonstrate their comprehension skills any better without this information, although by giving no such clues children may practise their scanning skills.


Checking Your Questions

Once you have written your questions it is a good idea to either get another teacher to have a look through them, or to return to them later and read them with fresh eyes: Do they make sense? Is it clear what the answers should be? Do they need re-wording? Ask yourself these kinds of questions and edit accordingly - you don't want children to be turned off answering the questions due to a lack of clarity.

As Oakhill et al point out in 'Understanding and Teaching Reading Comprehension', it is important to check that the questions you have written actually check comprehension of the text. They outline how some questions could be answered using prior knowledge solely, without reference to the text at all.

Pie Corbett made a few salient points to me on this issue which I'll use to conclude:

"You have to be able to find a text worth reading then design questions (or focuses) that challenge and begin to deepen thinking. It is worth thinking about questions that are worth asking and ones that are not worth asking."

Monday, 16 October 2017

Reading Roles Testimonials



What Is Reading Roles?

The concept of 'Reading Roles' (resources available on TES resources) is to assign a well-known job, role or profession to each of the reading content domains. Most children will already understand what the jobs entail in real life and therefore will fairly immediately be able to gain an understanding of each cognitive domain.

Each domain has a symbol and is colour-coded so that there are further ways for the children to remember the domains and what they mean.

These could be used to colour-code questions used in class - the symbols could also be assigned to written comprehension questions so children begin to identify question types.

Click here to read more in my original blog post about Reading Roles.

What are the benefits of using Reading Roles?

Unlike other similar systems that are available, teachers and children already have a good idea of what each role entails because they are familiar with what people with those jobs do in real life. Therefore, they only have to attach the new understanding of the different domains to previously-held understanding, rather than learning two new sets of information - usually an abstract name for each domain, and its meaning.

Reading Roles help teachers to be more deliberate in their teaching of reading skills. Rather than just ask a question inspired by the text, teachers can be more deliberate about asking particular kinds of questions, making their lessons more focused. For example, a teacher might spend a day or a week, asking only 'Editor' questions (summarising) ensuring that they model and children practise that particular skill. Other similar systems advocate a less focused approach where lessons are not focused on particular skills.

Teachers and children are able to use different cues to remember the different content domains: some remember them by colour, some by the symbol and others by the name. Each Reading Role has a child-friendly explanation of what the domain entails.

Can I See Some Examples of How They Are Used?

Yes, here:

Click here for examples of reading comprehensions (based on RJ Palacio's 'Wonder') which use the Reading Roles.

Click here for examples of reading comprehension (based on Sandi Toksvig's 'Hitler's Canary') which use the Reading Roles.

All the questions in the above examples were generated using question stems from the Key Stage 2 tests. Alison Philipson, a Literacy consultant in Bradford, has put together some very useful documents containing question stems taken from the KS1 and KS2 SATs which are all organised by the domains. These documents have been invaluable in our implementation of the Reading Roles.

What Do Others Think of The Reading Roles?

@son1bun discovered the Reading Roles via Twitter and had this to say:
"With the 2014 Curriculum, came the realisation that the Assessment focuses (AFs) for reading, which we had become so used to, were on longer 'in'. With a sharp intake of breath, we all began to tentatively use the words, Cognitive Domains (CDs). After the Frameworks for the KS2 tests were released and it finally dawned on us, that our beloved AFs had been buried. 
As the English lead for my school, I set about supporting my staff to get to grips with the CDs. We had always placed a great emphasis on teaching comprehension strategies, from Reception to Year 6, so it was just about finding an interesting way to do it. That's where Twitter came in. 
That Boy Can Teach (TBCT) is a prevalent voice on Edutwitter (which is where I first came across him). With his, 'golden nuggets' about writing, reading and all things education, he quickly became a favourite of mine. 
He did a series of blogs about reading and when I came across the Reading Roles, it was a eureka moment. TBCT stated, 'the concept of 'Reading Roles' is to assign a well-known job, role or profession to each of the domains'. It literally was a simple as that!

I introduced this to staff in the spring term and the response from teachers was 100 % positive. Most importantly though, the children love them. It is amazing how quickly they remembered the role and the domain it linked to...even in Reception. The roles are so easy to say and the children really relate to all the roles, as they are familiar to them.

I would strongly recommend this resource. It does what it says on the tin. If you want to get your children engaged in taking ownership of their reading comprehension, in a fun way, reading roles work... simple! Thanks TBCT!"
@rachstebbs (a teacher at my own school) had this to say:
"The introduction of Reading Roles to my class has helped me as a teacher to develop whole class reading sessions and think much more about the questions I am asking. Each one aligns to a domain and so I can be sure that I teach all necessary skills in a structured way. 
For children who had yet to reach the expected level, I initially focused on the Translator and Reporter skills. This meant that I could ensure they had understood the vocabulary in the text and were able to apply that vocabulary when retrieving answers. Initially this took them a significant proportion of the lesson, but I found that their speed increased as they became more adept at investigating the vocabulary (reading for context, using a dictionary etc). Gradually the vocabulary became less of a question focus because they were able to quickly analyse unfamiliar words using the same strategies, without needing the scaffold of an actual question.  
This meant they could begin to use other reading roles to answer a wider range of questions. Each role was taught explicitly, and the class quickly became familiar with the roles, as well as their associated colours and images. Initially, I stuck with a few limited question stems, but as the skills became more embedded, I could use a wider variety. This variety meant that children could practice one skill without it boring them! 
For those who were working at or above ARE, the reading roles developed their independence and confidence in answering questions. All answers were edited before marking, so after a discussion children could expand or change their responses if they wished."
Ben Trevail (@BenTrevail), Assistant Head at Edward Feild Primary School, has used Reading Roles too:
"Reading Roles have played a crucial part in the success of our move towards whole class reading across the school from Year 2 to Year 6. They provide a common language for abstract skills used by teachers and pupils and have been shared with parents too.
Each lesson focuses on one specific skill and using the roles has helped pupils understand the content domains to be taught and later assessed. There's advice in the EEF Improving Literacy in KS2 document about the gradual release of responsibility model and the explicit teaching of each skill so that's what we're trying to do. After Christmas the plan is for children to practise multiple roles in one lesson based on a stimulus. 
We also use them as our reading targets, building up a picture of pupils as readers by assessing their competence in each role."

Book Review: '100 Ideas for Primary Teachers: Mindfulness in the Classroom' by Tammie Prince

Previously, when I thought of mindfulness, I didn't really know what it was. I thought it was hippy mumbo jumbo mixed in with some kind of eastern mysticism. But then I began to notice that a good few folk in my online network were sold on the idea of mindfulness - some of them even assured me that I probably practised some sort of mindfulness unknowingly. I deduced that I must subconsciously be quite mindful, but I still didn't know what it was.

Tammie Prince defines mindfulness simply as 'the mental state achieved by focusing on the present moment while also accepting our feelings, thoughts and bodily sensations.' The book's premise is that 'the development of mindfulness in the classroom arms our children with lifelong skills that support their support their current and future mental health and well-being'  and it mentions that studies show there are positive benefits to children learning and using mindfulness techniques. As I understand it there isn't a lot of research into the impact of using mindfulness techniques in the classroom but many of the ideas in the book just seem like common sense - many of them I recognise as things that have helped me to feel less worried and stressed in my own life. However, one recent study on mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) showed that 16 juvenile delinquents who underwent an 8-week programme of MBSR showed increased grey matter in the left hippocampi, a part of the brain involved in learning and memory processes as well as emotion regulation and perspective-taking.

The book is spilt into ten parts, and sceptics, before you read the list, take note of this: 'not all strategies will work for all people'. The ten sections are Breathing; Guided Meditation; Active Meditations; Gratitude; Yoga; Emotional Intelligence; Mindful Colouring and Doodling; Calm Down and Relax; Mindful Walking; Teacher's Mindfulness.

As the title promises, the book contains 100 different mindfulness techniques or ideas to try in the primary classroom. Reading through there were definitely things that I couldn't imagine myself doing with a class but then there were plenty of ideas that seemed only to be tweaks of things I already do. The book contains methods suitable for a range of ages, although some techniques appear to be more suited to particular ages or levels of maturity.

The ideas that impressed me most were the ones that I could see having multiple benefits - there are plenty of techniques with links to the curriculum - reading, writing, drama, PE, music and art, for example. The fact that many of the ideas can be adapted to fit into curriculum time means that the book is more likely to achieve one of its aims: '...that the children will start to use what they have been taught independently...' - in my own experience whenever something is part of the daily routine, children are more likely to internalise it than if it were taught in isolation.

This is a book which is full of practical activities; there is something for everyone here – even the sceptic. With clear links to different curriculum areas, mindful practice can easily be embedded using the ideas in this book. A great starters’ guide to mindfulness.

The book, released 19th October 2017, is available to pre-order/buy here: https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/100-ideas-for-primary-teachers-mindfulness-in-the-classroom-9781472944955/

Saturday, 14 October 2017

The More-ness Of Reading

A blog version of my Reading Rocks 2017 workshop:

The purpose of reading

What is the purpose of reading? Most people would say that we read for enjoyment and to learn. There will be those who think some books are for enjoying, and some are for learning from. Other folk will agree that the act of reading in order to learn something is enjoyable. Some readers will only do it for one reason or the other.

Children’s novels are ostensibly written so that children gain pleasure from them, and from the act of reading. But if we actually considered some of the books that children read, and if we scratch beneath the surface, we will find that children’s books are for so much more than pleasure and enjoyment. In fact, they are for learning.

Reading is for more than enjoyment and learning

Learning about what? What can made up characters in made up places doing made up things be possibly teaching children? Well, when it comes to making my point, quotations abound – from researchers, authors and children who read:

https://wherereadingrocks.wordpress.com/2017/10/14/the-more-ness-of-reading-by-thatboycanteach/

Friday, 13 October 2017

From The @TES: Throw A Spanner In The Workload

Unless you completed your teacher training in a parallel universe, where everything is perfect, you will have picked up on the fact that “workload” and “wellbeing” within schools are kind of a big deal right now. You’ll have heard about education’s recruitment and retention crisis, and you’ll know that many teachers complain that their wellbeing is affected by the amount of hours they do. According to a 2016 NASUWT survey, 74 per cent of teachers have considered leaving the profession, with 90 per cent citing workload as a problem.

But as an NQT, full of enthusiasm and not yet infected by the cynicism that is rife...

https://www.tes.com/news/tes-magazine/tes-magazine/throw-a-spanner-workload

Sunday, 8 October 2017

From The @TES Blog: Shine Bright But Don't Burn Out

Are you forever striving to teach flashbulb lessons? The ones that wow the students and leave any observers dazzled?

They're usually the ones you spend longer than average preparing for and that often aren't representative of your everyday way of teaching. They're brilliant and the kids love them, but if they miss the mark, it was a lot of effort for very little return.

And they can leave you – and your students – with the sense that all of your other lessons aren't good enough. You can get into a spiral of trying to replicate the whizzes and bangs more often than you can possibly manage.

https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-views/we-do-have-shine-brightly-students-shine-too-brightly-and-we-might

Monday, 2 October 2017

The Right(est) Way To Teach Spelling (part 1)

Why words ought to be spelled correctly is an opinion piece best left for another time (or never at all). For now, let's assume that we want children to be able to spell correctly for no other reason than to be able to communicate efficiently in the written form. Yes, language evolves over time, but not usually as the result of the odd child sitting in a primary school who sometimes overcompensates by adding an 'h' into 'went'.

One aim of the teaching and learning of spelling is that children's encoding skills become more fluent, thus allowing them to focus more on composition when they are writing. For the same reason, most teachers care about children having good handwriting (let's not get into that one here, either). In order for children to write interesting, thought-provoking, engaging pieces of writing they need not to be hindered by atroshus poor spelling skills. And if you agree with me up to this point, you'll probably agree that teachers need to do something about the teaching spelling - for most, the ability to spell well does not come naturally.

Most teachers will have some ideas about what good spelling instruction looks like but 'there is limited evidence about what constitutes effective approaches to teaching spelling.' And for a blog post all about what the research shows about teaching spelling, that's highly inconvenient. But we will push on.

The EEF report on improving Literacy in KS1 does have this to say: 'Some approaches do have some evidence to support them, especially when evaluated on the basis of improvements to the spelling of individual words. It is less clear which approaches lead to better spelling in the context of pupils’ composition of full texts.' So, if you were hoping for a silver bullet to get children to spell correctly when they're actually composing pieces of writing, then perhaps you'd better stop reading now! However, surely the best bet in this case is to at least ensure they can spell individual words with a hope that this will eventually feed into their longer written pieces? I think so, especially if there's no obvious other way.

Choosing Developmentally-Appropriate Spellings

In their work 'American Spelling Instruction: What History Tells Us' Schlagal and Trathen (1998) concluded that providing levelled spellings was particularly effective in improving the skills of low and mid-level ability spellers. In an article by Bear and Templeton entitled 'Explorations in developmental spelling: Foundations for learning and teaching phonics, spelling, and vocabulary' they report that one of three important structural practices for spellings is that 'students should be grouped appropriately for spelling and word study'.

With the National Curriculum's prescribed word lists for each year group (I can find absolutely no information about how these spelling lists were generated) it is very tempting for teachers to give children spelling lists based on their age, rather than their current level of spelling achievement. With other research showing that setting children by level of attainment is not good for their development, many teachers are beginning to 'teach to the top', including in spelling, meaning that children are potentially being provided with spelling lists of words that are not suitable for their level.

It is best for teachers to assess children's spelling level in order to inform the kinds of words they are then asked to learn. Bear and Templeton are keen to point out that this is not 'for creating a label' but that it is to serve as a starting point for spelling instruction. Children who are seen to forget how to spell words, even if they spelled them correctly in a test after a week of teaching, are usually ones for whom the spellings have been pitched too high.

Schlagal and Trathen make sense of why children don't learn spellings when they are pitched too high:'some children may have insufficiently developed word knowledge for a given level of words'. If we think of spelling being like a building, children need foundations on which to build and these phases of building, according to the research, cannot be skipped.

Selecting Known Words

Bear and Templeton also propose that 'students should examine known words' and the EEF report on improving Literacy in KS1 suggests that 'the teaching of spelling is likely to work best when the spellings are related to the current content being studied in school and when teachers encourage active use of any new spellings in pupils’ writing.' However, at this point it is worth remembering that words selected from reading books, topics or children's spoken vocabulary should also be developmentally appropriate. Bear and Templeton point out that 'if theme is the sole criterion for selecting words... then students are reduced to learning how to spell one word at a time, with no opportunity to discover or explore the spelling patterns that apply to many words.' (more on spelling patterns later)

Testing As A Memory Aid

So, from this (which is based on a whole tonne of research and has been written about an awful lot) we might surmise that testing is a key part of the learning process when it comes to spelling.
  • young spellers studied high frequency words;
  • students corrected their own spelling (under teacher supervision);
  • teachers used the pretest-teach-test method of delivery and assessment; and
  • spelling was allotted between 60 and 75 minutes of instructional time per week.
So, in between the pre-test and the test, teachers should be teaching children to look for and identify spelling patterns in the selected words - this is called word study. Bear and Templeton outline different stages of spelling and suggest a progression of focuses for word study based on each developmental stage (these can be found on pages 225-226 in the article).
This could be summarised into three main areas around which our explanations, instruction and any learning activities should be based upon:
  • word origin and history (etymology);
  • syllable patterns and units of meaning (morphology); 
  • letter patterns (phonics).
A simple timetable can sum up what we've seen so far from the research on teaching spelling. This structure can be applied to children working at different developmental levels of spelling with different lists of spellings:

How Do We Learn?

Let's look at learning in a broader sense and ask ourselves, how do we learn? Without going into too much detail, one of the most effective techniques is to work on the recall of information from our long term memories. In Clare Sealy's super-helpful blog post 'Memory Not Memories - Teaching For Long Term Memory' she summarises research that shows that 'we can strengthen our ability to recall long-term memories by retrieving them.' This is called 'the retrieval effect' or 'the testing effect' and is where testing becomes a learning tool rather than an assessment tool. Clare goes on to explain that 'the more times we try and retrieve something, the stronger the memory gets. But it is the struggle that is important. If we reteach content instead of getting children to try and retrieve stuff they’ve probably forgotten, the memory does not get strengthened in the same way.' 

In his 2006 literature review 'Characteristics of Effective Spelling Instruction' in Reading Horizons, Randall R. Wallace, based on the work of Fitzsimmons and Loomer (1978), reports that spelling lessons offered in a word list format were effective when teachers followed the following guidelines:
In 'Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology' by Dunlosky et al, it is reported that, based on much research, low stakes practice testing (p26) 'enhances learning and retention': pre-testing is an example of this practice testing.

Focusing in on the middle two points made by Wallace and linking that to what we know about recall of information from the long term memory, it would make sense that during a week children are pre-tested, taught and then tested again. To make this practical, we might say that they are pre-tested on their spellings on, say, a Monday, and that on that day they correct their spelling mistakes whilst self-marking their test. On the Friday of the same week, after being taught the spellings in between, the children are then tested again. If the process is left at this point then children are likely to forget the spellings learned in that particular week. It seems that the key to aid retention of the spellings from any given week would be to keep including past spellings in future tests, particularly those spellings which children find tricky.

Teaching Spelling Explicitly
    So far we've discussed selecting words and using testing at either end of a week. But what happens in between? Do we just send lists home and get children to somehow magically learn them? No. The EEF guidance simply says 'Spelling should be explicitly taught'.

    The third of Bear and Templeton's three important structural practices is that 'students should be guided towards discovering patterns and generalisations among the words they examine'. The EEF in their guidance for improving literacy in KS1 are a little less sure: 'there is some evidence to suggest that teaching word patterns may help with spelling.'

    Examining Spelling Patterns

    In a language notorious for having many exceptions to the rules, what sort of patterns are we looking for?

    In their 2008 article 'How Words Cast Their Spell' Joshi and Moats write 'good spellers develop insights into how words are spelled based on sound/letter correspondences, meaningful parts of words (like the root 'bio' and the suffix 'logy'), and word origins and history. This knowledge, in turn, supports a specialized memory system - memory for letters in words. The technical term for this is “orthographic memory,” and it’s developed in tandem with awareness of a word’s internal structure—its sounds, syllables, meaningful parts, oddities, history, and so forth. Therefore, explicit instruction in language structure, and especially sound structure, is essential to learning to spell.'

    When it comes to using etymology as a strategy for teaching spelling Bear and Templeton suggest that this only comes when children are at an advanced stage of development reading and writing (aged 10 and up). This should not stop etymology being a part of vocabulary instruction earlier on, indeed, it is likely that this practice is a possible stepping stone for using etymology as a spelling strategy.

    Goodwin's meta-analysis (2010) of morphological interventions for spelling shows that this method of teaching spelling is successful. A simple definition of morphology can be found on wikipedia:
    'the study of words, how they are formed, and their relationship to other words in the same language.It analyzes the structure of words and parts of words, such as stems, root words, prefixes, and suffixes.' The National Curriculum appendix gives a good breakdown of the spelling patterns that children should be learning. This seems to be the area that most research agrees on as being the main focus for spelling instruction.

    Looking at letter patterns is helpful to a point but Fitzsimmons and Loomer reported that heavily depending on phonic rules is ineffective and intuitively we know that to be true - many misspellings we come across in children's work are as a result of spelling phonically without applying knowledge of other rules.

    In Summary (So Far)


    In the next blog post we will look at research-based, practical ways of teaching spelling on the days between the tests and we will add to our weekly timetable.