Thursday, 22 December 2016

Teaching Reading: A Simple Approach

In response to the 2016 KS2 Reading Test I've spent quite a bit of time researching and re-thinking my approach to teaching reading. This has resulted in the creation of a few resources which I've already blogged about. I have been asked a few times about the context in which I use these resources   - this blog post will outline what a basic reading lesson might look like. Following the links throughout will lead you to more thorough information about the techniques and ideas mentioned.

Timetabling - my reading lessons happen on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday from 8:45 - 9:45. The children come in to a 'Do Now' which usually involves reading the day's chapter/passage/excerpt independently (more on this later). On those mornings I also teach writing-focused English for the following hour and then 1.5 hours of maths after break.

Whole-Class Reading - I do not have a 'traditional' carousel of activities. All children read and answer questions about the same text; research shows that children benefit from being exposed to higher level texts (when the teacher reads it aloud to them before they answer questions on it). Many of my reading lessons are based on a class novel which we read over a half term or a term; to facilitate this we have 'class sets' of many quality texts. For more on the ideology behind whole-class reading please read Rhoda Wilson's blog post about it.

Lesson Sequence - During these sessions I ask the children to first read the chapter/excerpt independently, then I read the same passage aloud, then without discussion the children attempt to independently work through the questions giving written answers. Once the majority of children have done this we hold a whole-class discussion and I (or children who have written good answers) model best answers and children edit what they have written (in purple so as to distinguish their original answer from their edited answer). This sequence was inspired by Reading Reconsidered by Doug Lemov. This will usually be followed by a period of reading aloud the next part of the text (usually by me but I plan to begin to ask children to read aloud more often) which is always accompanied by lots of discussion and modelling of my thought processes as a reader.

Comprehension Activities - I use the various question stem documents which are available to set my questions, and I colour-code each question and put the relevant Reading Roles symbol with them (see below for more on Reading Roles). Many of these comprehension activities will follow my Scaffolding Inference structure (see below) although I do teach other lessons which focus on the other cognitive domains. Examples of these activities can be found here.

Reading Roles - help children and staff understand the 8 cognitive domains. Each of the cognitive domains is colour-coded and has a symbol assigned - as mentioned, we use these colours and symbols when designing our comprehension activities.

Scaffolding Inference - this is something I've designed and developed based on research and findings from last year's SATs. Please see the quick reference guide which outlines this approach. I would say that this is the most effective thing I have done as it focuses on the reading test's three key areas: vocabulary, retrieval and inference.

EAL reading activity structure - this is an activity (again, linked to the Reading Roles) which I have designed based on research on how to support EAL learners when accessing new texts.

Pairing non-fiction texts with fiction texts - this increases understanding of both the fiction text and the non-fiction text and has sparked some really deep conversations about moral, ethical and religious issues.

We also use these resources in English lessons (with our Talk 4 Writing texts) and topic lessons - much of our work centres around texts so these activities help to ensure children comprehend the information.

The fruit of this approach is that in December over 50% of children in my group taking the 2016 KS2  Reading Test were working at or above average (according to the test's thresholds) after one term of year 6. This is a dramatic increase when compared to my results in last year's END of year results based on the same test.

If there is something you feel I've not covered, please ask and I will edit this to give a fuller picture of my approach. I'm not assuming it to be a silver bullet but am seeing good results after teaching in this way for a term.

Click here to read about how following these approaches impacted on our SATs results.

Further reading about reading from my blog:

5 Ways To Make Texts With Unfamiliar Contexts More Accessible To Children

Being A Reading Teacher

Reading: 2 Things All Parents and Teachers Must Do

Reading: Attacking Children's Immunity To Imaginative Literature

Reading for Pleasure

Changing Hearts, Minds, Lives and the Future: Reading With Children For Empathy

The Best RE Lesson I Ever Taught (Spoiler: It Was A Reading Lesson)

The Unexplainable Joy of Comparing Books

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Structuring Reading Comprehension for EAL Learners

Three staples of guided reading, be that a whole class session or a ‘carousel’ of activities, are the provision of high-quality texts, teacher reading aloud to children and the subsequent talk about texts.

The British Council website expands on these three pillars:
Reading as a collaborative activity is very beneficial to EAL learners:
  • Read aloud to learners. Recent research has shown that being read to for as little as ten minutes a day can make a significant difference to a learner’s reading ability.
  • Talk about what is being read. Pinpoint specific elements in the text through discussion. EAL learners need practice in reading between and behind the lines: they need to see that text may imply more than it actually says.
  • Make available high-quality texts (picture books/short novels/poetry/manga/illustrated non-fiction) that will encourage EAL learners to read for pleasure.
The British Council website makes other recommendations more specific to EAL learners (a catch-all term I know, but useful for brevity) which are not always incorporated into guided reading lessons:
For reading at paragraph or longer text level:
  • Give learners a clear idea of what to expect from the text, and give them plenty of time to engage with it. Consider providing a brief summary, in pictures or in straightforward English.
  • Prepare for reading: check text in advance, to work out which vocabulary items and structures may be challenging, not only for EAL learners but for others. Consider pre-teaching these.
  • Be aware of familiar vocabulary used in ways which may obscure meaning. What’s a ‘piggy bank’? What happened when the King ‘gave someone his daughter’s hand in marriage’? Also, be aware that texts designed for less able monolingual readers may pose substantial difficulties for EAL learners. The increased use of prepositional verbs and colloquial expressions (‘Oh, I give up!’) can make these texts easy to decode but difficult to understand.
  • Ask learners to say whether discrete sentences (taken from the text, or paraphrases) are true or false.
  • Give learners a number of false sentences, and ask them to reword the sentences to make them true.
The ASCD website also suggests:
  • Use informal comprehension checks: To test students' ability to put materials in sequence, for example, print sentences from a section of the text on paper strips, mix the strips, and have students put them in order.
And the Reading Rockets website adds:
  • The best kinds of activities for building background knowledge are those that get students involved in manipulating language and concepts, rather than just receiving information from the teacher. These include experiential activities such as science experiments, classification activities, role playing, previewing a reading and generating questions about it, and sharing predictions about the answers to those questions.
In order to make meeting these demands a little easier I put together a basic structure for an EAL reading activity. It can be used as a standalone activity or as a pre-cursor to further activities and questioning. It should always be used in conjunction with those three pillars mentioned at the beginning – particularly the pillar of discussion: the activity sheet should not be completed totally independently by the children. In addition to this, it should be noted that once children have made an attempt at reading the text independently (if capable) then the teacher should read aloud the same text to them.

The colour-coding and symbols in the proforma relate to my ‘Reading Roles’ resource which is designed to make the cognitive domains more memorable for staff and children alike - click here to read my blog post about it..

Download the resource here from TES Resources.

Click here to download an example of how this resource might be used - this resource is based on David Walliams' 'The Boy in the Dress'.

Friday, 2 December 2016

Reading the Warning Signs


We’ve all experienced the moment when, mid-work, the computer begins to automatically shut-down; it needs its updates and a restart.

Our bodies send the same messages, often in code and rarely in the glaringly obvious written-across-the-screen way of digital devices. No, our bodies are more subtle and there are positives and negatives to that.

Continue reading here at www.integritycoaching.co.uk

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Reading Roles: Cognitive Domains Made Memorable

A few years ago there were many resources available supporting children's understanding of the Assessment Focuses. Teachers found it beneficial to help children to identify the kinds of questions they were being asked about texts. The idea behind making children aware of the question type is that they might have a better idea of what the answer should look like in order to give better verbal and written answers.

With the recent introduction of the cognitive domains (as set out in the English Reading Test Framework) and the upset caused by the difficulty of last year's KS2 reading test I set about reviving an idea that an old colleague of mine and I had a few years ago. Back then, we joked about conceiving it and setting up as consultants, peddling it around the local area but it wasn't even worth creating the resource as there were so many out there already that did the job just fine. Others out there are devising ways to help children understand the cognitive domains however I believe the simple resource I have devised has some merits.

The concept of 'Reading Roles' is to assign a well-known job, role or profession to each of the 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. We have been trialing this for a number of weeks now and the children are already able to articulate what questions in each domain require of them. There is still work to be done - confidence in identifying question types consistently, but they now have the tool to do so.

Here are the 8 cognitive domains and their assigned 'roles' (written for KS2):


This resource can be downloaded here, along with its KS1 counterpart and posters for both KS1 and KS2 containing one domain/role on each page.

As is obvious each domain is colour-coded and is assigned a simple symbol as a memory aid. We have used the colours and symbols to identify question types in the comprehension tasks we have set - the aim of this is to familiarise the children with the question types. Eventually we will remove the colours and symbols and focus more on question type identification. See here for examples of the comprehension tasks I've set in this way.

Click here for some testimonials from people who have used Reading Roles effectively in their school.

Again, as with the Scaffolding Inference technique, I'd love to hear from anyone who begins to use this. It'd be very interesting to see how this helps other children and in what ways it can be developed and used.

With thanks to Herts for Learning for the focus of each cognitive domain.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

TBCT Interview @ Schoolwell.co.uk

SchoolWell, a school staff wellbeing directory, asked me a few questions about wellbeing, marking, Twitter, reading and #OptimisticEd; the full interview is posted on their site at: http://schoolwell.co.uk/exclusive-interview-thatboycanteach/.

"I am always conscious of how hard the work can be and that part of my job is to ensure that my own colleagues’ wellbeing is prioritised"

"I’ve found it really beneficial to read before I sleep: it takes my mind off all the things I’ve been doing during the day. If I don’t read I often have vivid dreams about those things which leads to a restless night and tiredness the next day."

"What schools should focus on is their expectations of teachers: of the amount of planning, marking, preparation that is explicitly expected. Every new initiative needs to be passed through a filter to ensure that it is purposeful and efficient"

To read the full interview, click here to be taken to the SchoolWell website.

My Ambition Isn't Just About Me

Hungarian composer and pianist Franz Liszt once said “It is my fervent wish and my greatest ambition to leave a work with a few useful instructions for the pianists after me.” And that’s my ambition too. Well, apart from the pianists bit.

Leaving a few useful instructions actually sounds a little unambitious, but in essence that’s what education’s all about. If those ‘few instructions’ were how to multiply two digit numbers by four digit numbers and how to hyphenate words then, as a teacher, I’d be lacking in ambition. But if they are how to be confident in your own abilities, how to be respect others and perhaps ultimately how to be ambitious, then my ambition is great.

Click to continue reading this article on the Ambition School Leadership website.

Monday, 28 November 2016

Dogs & Sledges: Harnessing Action To Clarity Of Vision

Inferring information from a text. Vocabulary building. Mental recall strategies. Written methods for calculations. Reasoning. Test skills. Attitude to learning. Accelerated progress. Improved combined ARE scores. Mastery. Greater depth. Inclusion. Just a few of my priorities this year. All things my team and I are working full-throttle to ensure are embedded in our lessons and culture. We look for as many opportunities as possible to address these issues, always trying to safeguard the children from feeling the pressure of all this. And I work hard to shield my team from all of the pressure, too, even when I have a sleepless Sunday night because it's all turning over in my mind. 

Imagine these 'priorities' as husky dogs running amok in an Alaskan landscape, wild-eyed, full of energy but lacking in purpose. Some of them are gainfully employed, hunting, rearing their young, but others are tearing around aimlessly, chasing their own tails, never achieving much of any use.

Simon Sinek encourages us to 'start with why'. His main idea is that leaders and organisations can inspire others by being clear on their purpose; by having clarity of vision. According to his website 'Simon Sinek believes in a bright future and our ability to build it together.' But without a clear purpose and a shared vision it is very difficult for collaboration and teamwork to take place, let alone building together for a bright future. And this is particularly difficult in schools where it is often perceived that everything is a priority. In schools we can be spinning so many plates that it's hard to tell which ones are actually contributing towards the vision that the school has. Patrick Lencioni's book 'The Advantage' (click here for a summary) proposes that organisations, and that can include schools, should think through the answers to six questions. The first of these is 'Why do we exist?': start with why. 

Suppose we see 'why' as a sled. A team of husky dogs properly employed will be guided by their leader from the seat of the sled. The purpose of the dogs comes from the sled and its driver, but the dogs are the ones who do the work, pulling the sled to its destination. All our actions to improve the issues outlined earlier should be harnessed to a purpose, otherwise they are just actions; actions which may achieve something, but are never destined to definitely have specific outcomes.

Patrick Lencioni recommends that once that first question 'Why do we exist?' has been answered leaders can then go on to ask themselves 'How do we behave?', 'What do we do?', 'How will we succeed?', 'What is most important, right now?' and 'Who must do what?'. In schools, we often have deeply entrenched answers to these questions and we carry on in those ways regardless of whether we know our 'why' or not. Look at my list in the opening paragraph - we definitely know what we do! We are also fairly clear on how we behave and who must do what, but often none of this is aligned to a clear vision of what we are trying to achieve. As a result we perhaps lose sight of what is most important right now - it's hard to tell if all the things we are doing are actually useful and having an impact.

We must start with why. We must start with our sled and its driver. In schools we have to think 'What is the end of the journey?' Where does our sled need to go? Steven Covey cites the importance of planning backwards: 'Begin with the end in mind.' Without a sled a distant arctic destination would be very difficult to reach; without the 'why' an aspirational goal will similarly be a struggle to achieve. And Lencioni does recommend that when answering the first question we have to be 'completely idealistic' and that the 'why' that we arrive at should be 'grand and aspirational'. We should be setting an optimistic vision initially.

Lencioni also outlines six possible categories for the question 'Why do we exist?': customer, industry, greater cause, community, employees and wealth. There are some of these categories that we can rule out right away: we don't run schools to make money, our schools don't exist simply to give employees a job and although many consider teaching to be vocational, we don't do it because we love the industry of teaching. That leaves three categories: customer, greater cause and community. The 'why' of the community category is making 'a specific geographical place better'; I'd argue that to be an indicator of success for a school, but not it's main purpose (although for some schools, this might be their main purpose). Which means the 'why' of a school is either about our customers, the children, or a greater cause. The greater cause of education might be seen as, rather than educating for education's sake, focusing on the reasons why we educate - and those reasons are many, depending on who you are. So it is possible that a school's 'why' is probably a mix of existing for the customer and a greater cause. 

Once an optimistic vision of the future has been set, once the sled has been prepared, it is then time to begin to harness those huskies: which dogs would work best towards a common goal? Which ones would work together well? Which ones would pull off in another direction? Which ones would be too weak to provide enough pulling power? Which ones would require disproportionate amount of sustenance to their output? Our analogy points towards a reassessment of all the things that we do just because that's what we do. Schools need to work out whether the things they are madly doing actually contribute to achieving their goals. They need to decide whether the overall vision is being realised by all the actions that are taking place: the interventions, the CPD, the focus of planning and teaching, the conversations SLT are having, etcetera, etcetera. It might be that some of the dogs have to be turned loose - sadly, as arctic explorers know, there is no allowance for sentiment. There is no point in doing things in schools simply because we love doing them - everything must have a purpose greater than tradition or romance.

During the summer I attended the Teaching Leaders (now Ambition School Leadership) residential as a fellow of the programme (only having to complete the second year of the two-year programme). I was challenged by some inspirational leaders to ensure that I was clear in my vision. Steve Radcliffe, coach to powerful and influential figures the world over encouraged me first to think of the future before engaging others in that vision of the future. Andy Buck told me to focus on one thing in order to gain clarity. Baroness Sue Campbell reiterated the need to be clear on where we are going, asking me to consider if everyone gets my vision and wants to follow me. She also caused me to consider whether my targets were good enough and whether or not I knew what great looked like. James Toop discussed creating culture - my key piece of learning from that session: 'Be clear on what my vision is', I wrote in my Moleskine - I knew that without a clear vision I would struggle to create a culture within my own team. Sir David Carter issued a performance challenge, the first point of which was to 'de-clutter' - cutting loose those dogs which are not helping to pull the sled in a common direction in huge pursuit of a common destination.

Walt Disney said 'Of all the things I've done, the most vital is coordinating those who work with me and aiming their efforts at a certain goal.' And so, I have come to a place where I have an analogy to help me to begin to think through my answer to the question 'Why do we exist?' Perhaps if I were opening a new school I might find that question easier to answer but as it is I'm working in a fully-functioning school complete with it's embedded practice and so I have to begin by ignoring what all those dogs (remember the dogs are the things we are busy doing, not the people themselves!) are doing for the time being and focusing on what they could achieve if they were harnessed to just the one sled. My current thinking needs to revolve not around what we can do next, but around what we want to achieve by doing all the things we are doing. Once I have clarity it will be my job to communicate that clear vision and to begin to de-clutter and streamline, letting go those practices which don't contribute to the vision and carefully implementing new ones that truly align to the goals we set.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Scaffolding Inference (Quick Reference Guide)

Inference skills in the new cognitive domains are summarised as:

2d: make inferences from the text / explain and justify inferences with evidence from the text

Penny Slater's helpful article 'Reading Re-envisaged' explores the links between vocabulary knowledge and inference skills. Her conceptual model (pictured left) represents how inference skills rely on good knowledge and understanding of vocabulary. In her own words:

"...the model signifies the importance of vocabulary knowledge. If we consider each circle to be a moat which the children must cross before they are able to access the skills within the innermost circles, then we see clearly that they will not get very far if they do not understand the meanings on the words on the page. This chimes with what teachers are finding in their classrooms: lack of knowledge of vocabulary is a complete blocker. You can’t make any inroads into comprehension without addressing this issue first."

So, another cognitive domain comes into play, one which children must be confident with if they are going to be able to make inferences:

2a: give / explain the meaning of words in context

This approach also explore the possibility that development of inference skills could be supported through the use of retrieval skills.

2b: retrieve and record information / identify key details from fiction and non-fiction

The Theory

The theory that I have been trialing is that inference skills can be taught by first studying the vocabulary used and then retrieving relevant information before going on to make inferences about a text. If inference is 'a conclusion reached on the basis of evidence and reasoning' then first a reader must be able to identify where the evidence is (retrieval) and before that the reader needs to understand the words used to present the evidence. In the model I propose (see right) the understanding of vocabulary is the foundation on which information retrieval is built, which in turn provides the support for making inferences.

The Practice


1. Decide on an inference question (2d); the question stems based on the 2016 KS2 reading test made available by Herts for Learning on their blog are really useful for this.
2. Begin to work backwards - work out where in the text the children need to go to locate useful evidence and ask a suitable retrieval question (2b).
3. Continue to work backwards - which words or phrases do the children need to understand in order to be able to understand the evidence then ask a careful vocabulary question (2a).
4. Once this process is complete (it may take a while at first), check that the 2a and 2b questions will adequately lead the children into answering the 2d question. If not, go back and tweak the questions.

For a more in-depth exploration of this technique, including examples of questions: http://thatboycanteach.blogspot.co.uk/2016/10/scaffolding-inference-trialling.html
Many of the examples from the blogpost are available for download here:
https://www.tes.com/teaching-resource/-11416437

Friday, 28 October 2016

From the TES Magazine: Teachers Who Just Want To Teach


This article was published in the TES magazine on 28th October. It explores how to support teachers who have no desire to do anything but remain in the classroom and teach. I was particularly chuffed that my second outing in the magazine was accompanied by a picture of the late, great Robin Williams in his masterpiece 'Dead Poets Society'.

Many teachers choose not to climb the career ladder up into the ivory tower of senior leadership. For most, their reasons are admirable: they got into teaching to work with children and that’s the way that they want it to stay. And who can knock that as an ambition?

To continue reading, follow the link: https://www.tes.com/news/tes-magazine/tes-magazine/teachers-who-just-want-teach You will need a TES subscription to read this article.

Monday, 10 October 2016

Why I Care So Much About Wellbeing


I have been known to write about, and comment upon, wellbeing (possible understatement). My interest in reducing workload - my own and that of others - is very much linked to my interest in the issue of wellbeing. In fact, so is my obsession with optimism and positivity as opposed to negativity; if you are optimistic about reducing your workload and improving your wellbeing you will look for, and indeed find, ways of doing it.

But why am I so bothered?

Two reasons:

One, it saddens me to see so many teachers struggling with what can be a really amazing job. I believe teachers can have a good work/life balance - I do - and I want to help them to have it. Why? Because if we are all well then our hard work will be more effective. And because no-one should have to work to the point where they are made ill - be that physically or mentally. Which leads me onto my second reason...

Two, as a teenager my dad took early retirement due to workplace-related stress. Diagnosed with depression, I saw him become a different person. When your big, strong, fun dad bursts into the kitchen struggling through tears to breath after battling for hours with a usually-simple task you are affected for life; that's not a point I want to get to. When the man who used to get down on the floor and build the best Lego castles with you retreats and becomes distant, you, even as a child, know that things aren't right - and you don't forget it.

I have seen first hand, and lived with the effects and consequences of, how a job can come close to killing a person. He was a successful doctor at a young age; it was a job that he once enjoyed - spending your days driving the scenic roads of the Yorkshire Dales visiting patients in a classic Daimler sounds idyllic, but this is no James Herriot story. It was a job which crept in and took control - I had an inkling at the time that his boss had rather a lot to so with his decline in health. I love and respect my dad but I know the depression and associated medication has changed him. He would not wish it on anyone - it's certainly something that, suffice to say, I'm fairly keen to avoid. If I can at all avoid it, I'd rather not be a dad who goes missing for hours at a time on a winter's evening, leaving his children at home fearing for daddy's life.

So if in future you read my blog or tweets and question why sometimes I come across as forthright and opinionated, you'll know why. It's fine for you to question my authority - who am I to make suggestions about how you live your life and approach your work? But instantly dismissing my advice, and that of others, as unworkable and unrealistic could be to your detriment. I don't claim to have all the answers but my experiences have hard-wired me to seek solutions to avoid becoming overworked, stressed and even depressed. My dad would not wish upon me that which he experienced (and still lives with today). He would not wish it upon anybody.

We teachers must speak up about these issues - not in the moany, ranty way that seems to have become commonplace, but in a way that secures support and seeks change. Friends, partners, colleagues, line managers and doctors are a good place to start - they will all be able to help you in different ways. The thought that taking such actions could actually begin to be of help is often poo-pooed; I've seen it so many times on social media when I've suggested that talking to the boss might help. The thing is, by not speaking out you are making a choice - you are choosing to subject yourself to something such as my dad experienced. You are choosing to subject your loved ones to something such as I experienced. Why is that the preferred option? I do understand the difficulties involved in talking about such delicate issues but I also understand the result of the alternative; it's really not worth it.

Please, if you are a teacher experiencing unacceptable levels of workplace-related stress, get the help you need. If you are a teacher who believes you are working more than you should have to (yes, we all do some overtime, I get that), then reassess and try to make changes in your work/life balance and if you've done all you can, then you must take it further and speak to those who have the power to make changes for you. The possible results of not doing this can be devastating, even if you're not feeling it right now, that erosion of your mental health could be on its way.

I know I am not the only one attempting to do my bit for better mental health and wellbeing in education and I'd be willing to bet that most who are have similar, or worse, stories to tell. Listen to those voices - they are not against you; they are for you. Their words are impassioned because they really do care, not because they think they've got it sussed and are better than you.

Please explore the links I've included at the beginning of this blog post as they all point to other things I've written that explore some of these themes in more detail. If you would like to chat about anything then please do get in touch.

This blog post was re-blogged on the TES blog on 11th October entitled 'If all we do is rant to each other about workload, rather than seeking help, we're choosing to subject ourselves to stress': https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-views/if-all-we-do-rant-each-other-about-workload-rather-seeking-help-were

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Scaffolding Inference: Trialling a Teaching Technique

If you are short of time but would like to get the gist of this technique, please see my Quick Reference Guide: http://thatboycanteach.blogspot.co.uk/2016/11/scaffolding-inference-quick-reference.html


With inference being the most-assessed skill in the Key Stage 2 reading tests it is no wonder that teachers spend a lot of time attempting to teach children how to infer meaning from texts, with varying degrees of success. It's the sort of skill that readers (by that I mean those who make a regular habit of reading, and enjoy it) possess without really learning. Because of this, it is a skill that is hard to teach; many teachers infer naturally so deconstructing how they do it in order to teach a process to children can be difficult.

In case you missed it, the reading test framework has rearranged reading skills into eight cognitive domains. The fourth domain, the one we are concerned with here, is: 
2d: make inferences from the text / explain and justify inferences with evidence from the text
Background Reading

The chapter in 'Reading Reconsidered' entitled 'Writing for Reading' (read an excerpt here) discusses the various structures a teacher might use within a reading session. The ideas presented widen the scope of how different task sequences can support the development of different skills. This made me think more carefully about how the teaching and learning sequence could build to help children to infer more successfully.

Penny Slater's helpful article 'Reading Re-envisaged' explores the links between vocabulary knowledge and inference skills initiated the thinking that led to my development and trial of this method. Her conceptual model (pictured left) represents how inference skills rely on good knowledge and understanding of vocabulary. In her own words: 
"...the model signifies the importance of vocabulary knowledge. If we consider each circle to be a moat which the children must cross before they are able to access the skills within the innermost circles, then we see clearly that they will not get very far if they do not understand the meanings on the words on the page. This chimes with what teachers are finding in their classrooms: lack of knowledge of vocabulary is a complete blocker. You can’t make any inroads into comprehension without addressing this issue first."
Anne Kispal's 'Effective Teaching of Inference Skills for Reading', in section 2.3 (page 26) goes into more detail on this and the document as a whole is an informative read.

So, another cognitive domain comes into play, one which children must be confident with if they are going to be able to make inferences:
2a: give / explain the meaning of words in context
I also had an inkling that development of inference skills could be supported through the use of retrieval skills.
2b: retrieve and record information / identify key details from fiction and non-fiction
Children usually find retrieval easier than inference, however it is worth noting that in the 2016 KS2 tests even some of the retrieval questions were difficult, often because of the vocabulary skills that are needed in order to retrieve information. There are plenty of places to learn about how to improve vocabulary skills, so I won't go into detail on that in this article, but I must stress that it is important that children are taught skills such as contextual and morphemic analysis before they attempt the process I suggest. Before my own trial I spent around 4 weeks focusing on teaching vocabulary skills, allowing the children plenty of time to practice.

The Theory

The theory that I have been trialing is that inference skills can be taught by first studying the vocabulary used and then retrieving relevant information before going on to make inferences about a text. If inference is 'a conclusion reached on the basis of evidence and reasoning' then first a reader must be able to identify where the evidence is (retrieval) and before that the reader needs to understand the words used to present the evidence. In the model I propose (see right) the understanding of vocabulary is the foundation on which information retrieval is built, which in turn provides the support for making inferences.

The Practice

In short:
  1. Decide on an inference question (2d); the question stems based on the 2016 KS2 reading test made available by Herts for Learning on their blog are really useful for this.
  2. Begin to work backwards - work out where in the text the children need to go to locate useful evidence and ask a suitable retrieval question (2b).
  3. Continue to work backwards - which words or phrases do the children need to understand in order to be able to understand the evidence then ask a careful vocabulary question (2a).
  4. Once this process is complete (it may take a while at first), check that the 2a and 2b questions will adequately lead the children into answering the 2d question. If not, go back and tweak the questions.
There are different ways in which the 2a and 2b questions might provide a scaffold for answering the 2b question. In order to explain this I will share some examples. All the examples are based on 'Wonder' by R.J. Palacio. I chose 'Wonder' as our first class novel because although it is fairly heavy in subject matter, it is easy-going with its vocabulary. I wanted to begin by supporting children's acquisition of vocabulary skills in a non-threatening manner before we started to read novels with more advanced language.

The first excerpt takes place in the chapter entitled 'The Summer Table' in which a girl named Summer joins August who is alone at a lunch table on his first day at school.


In the first example (pictured above ) the scaffolding structure can be seen clearly: question 1 is a 2a question, question 2 is a 2b question and question 3 is a 2d question. There is a very obvious grammar discussion to be had to surrounding common nouns and proper nouns - the children asked for clarification on this despite the words in question 1 not being capitalised. The discussion we had cleared up possible later misconceptions that Summer meant the table was only for people named Summer - a misconception which would have been at odds with the basic fact that August was also sitting at the table. I've noticed that test questions are often set about texts with potential misconceptions so I try to take opportunities to incorporate similar tricky bits in my teaching.

The second example is taken from the same chapter; the text follows directly the previous excerpt:



The second example does not lead the children directly to the answer for question 3 but it does provide background knowledge which should inform their own thoughts on the motivation for Summer's actions. In answering question 1 the children realised that there was a long list of names and by answering question 2 they began to get the sense that the quote in question 3 was true; they gained their own insight into why August says that most of the names weren't actually summer names. Questions 1 and 2 allowed the children to understand what Summer was doing (making a long list, bending the rule that only children with summer names could sit on the table) before they began to think about why she was doing it.

Question 3 actually also requires previous knowledge of the text - the children must have already grasped that August (a boy with facial birth defects) is sitting alone on his first ever day in school whilst children whisper about his looks in order to infer that Summer agrees that so many children can sit with them so that he finds more friends. The more perceptive children might also realise that Summer also wants him to have fun so that he forgets about his situation and so that he feels like all the other children. I was satisfied that our previous reading and dialogic discussion (thanks Mat Tobin for the terminology) meant that they understood the whole text well enough to approach this question.

It should also be noted that here there are two retrieval questions and no vocabulary-based question; the vocabulary they needed had been covered in the previous set of questions.

Here is an example of a child's work. This task was undertaken independently directly after completing the previous task (see above). The first task was completed independently prior to a whole-class discussion and then children edited their answers (with a purple pen) based on the discussion that was had. This example contains no edits - the child was able to answer question 3 successfully first time. It is worth noting that this child is one of the best readers in my class - for her the scaffold has had almost immediate impact. In further blog posts on this subject I will provide before and after evidence.


For the next examples I must give credit to Rhoda Wilson for her excellent 'Moving Beyond Comprehension Sheets' resource as I used it along with the Herts for Learning question stems to vary the question styles in these activities.

Here's an example of a very scaffolded set of questions - the scaffold questions (questions 1, 2 and 3) make the answer to question 4 very obvious.


This one worked so successfully that I actually encouraged the children to further their answers for number 4 by explaining how the evidence showed that the children were unsure how to treat August - this was not initially required of them, and when compared to similar questions in the 2016 KS2 test, this would be classed as an inference (2d) question without the addition of an explanation. It also made me contemplate giving them the inference question to answer before the scaffold questions, as well as after, in order to compare the difference and the impact the scaffold questions have on the quality of answer.

Some more activity examples:


Here is an example of child's work. This child entered year 6 in September assessed at a year 4 standard for reading. This method appears to have been very successful for him, even after only a few times working in this way.


One more example:
What Next?

If this way of scaffolding inference questions works for the children in my class then I will begin to adapt it in order to support the development of skills outlined in the other cognitive domains:
2c; summarise main ideas from more than one paragraph
2e: predict what might happen from details stated and implied
2f: identify / explain how information / narrative content is related and contributes to meaning as a whole
2g: identify / explain how meaning is enhanced through choice of words and phrases
2h: make comparisons within the text
It will also be important to begin to remove the scaffolding - for some children sooner than others - in order to encourage children to use the skills independently; one question often raised against methods such as this is how will this approach help children when the structure is removed, for example, in the SATs reading test? And it's a good question. My hope is that it will provide them with a method for answering inference questions; a method which will be embedded in their way of working. If this technique is successful then children will naturally make inferences using their ability to understand the vocabulary (these skills will need to be taught in addition to this method of scaffolding questions) and their ability to locate and retrieve information from the text.

The trial of this technique for scaffolding inference is in its infancy. As such I will follow up this blog post with others including commentary on what I learn, further examples of questions and some more examples of children's work showing the impact.

I would also love to engage in discussion on this idea - please use the comments section to tell me where I am going wrong, to point me in the direction of relevant research or additional reading or to share your own examples if you decide to try it!

Click here to read a testimonial from one teacher who used the technique.

Click here to read about how this, and other changes made to the way we teach reading, impacted on our SATs results.

Monday, 26 September 2016

Teachers! Be More Batman!


You'll be unaware, but across the internet a debate rages: is Batman a superhero or not? The first result from a google search adamantly suggests that "In the strictest sense, Batman isn't a superhero because he has no "amazing" powers (e.g. powers that are magical or pseudo-scientific)." 

Superman was born with a whole range of amazing powers: super-human strength, the ability to fly and X-Ray vision to name a few. Spider-Man was imbued with powers by a radioactive spider, mutating to possess precognitive spider senses and the ability to cling to most surfaces, among other capabilities. But Batman is just human like the rest of us; perhaps why he has probably enjoyed so much success as a fictional character.

If Batman doesn't have powers, what does he have? Abilities. He has genius-level intellect, peak physical and mental condition, is a master martial artist and hand-to-hand combatant, a skilled detective and he utilises high-tech equipment and weapons. Yes, his vast fortune helps with the last one, but otherwise his abilities are all realistically attainable to a certain extent.

Teachers often have very high expectations of themselves. This may result from the pressure put on them 'from above' to perform. But it often comes from a personal sense of responsibility, stemming from the same emotional place that led them into education in the first place. Teachers expect themselves to be superheroes, amazing powers and all. And it is unrealistic and damaging to their health. A superhero without actual superpowers who tries to behave like he has wouldn't last long. If Batman flung himself from the top of a building (without a gadget) he'd meet an unfortunate end: if Superman did the same, he'd swoop off into the horizon, a silhouette passing the setting sun. When teachers try to live life as if they are super-human, the consequences are potentially disastrous for themselves, their families and their pupils.

"With great power comes great responsibility" is a true enough maxim. But how true is "With great responsibility comes great power"? Not true at all. The responsibility we are given doesn't come with a free helping of superpowers, yet so many of us are pushing our human abilities to the limits, expecting to be able to do what only super-humans could.

Yet we have a job to do. An important one and a difficult one. Whilst Batman battles to clean up crime in Gotham City, we have our own dark enemies to face as we protect the innocent ones from their influence. And we must do it all with human ability only.

So how can we be Batman-like teachers? What are those shortcuts to becoming a superhero teacher without actually having superpowers and without killing oneself in the process of trying? Let's revisit his list of abilities:

  1. Genius-level intellect - perhaps we don't quite need to be geniuses but a good amount of knowledge and understanding are key to operating as a teacher. As JL Dutaut once put it so eloquently: 'We need to be knowledgeable as teachers, not just about our subject, but also about pedagogies, not just about practice but about policies. And the knowledge we as a body have and create every day in classrooms should be heard, and should inform those that make the policies, because teaching is an informed profession.'' There is no need to expect yourself to innately know everything about how to teach but there is a wealth of information out there which will begin to inform your practice. Read the blogs, the articles, the magazines, the books. Listen to your colleagues, your boss, the guy doing the training day. Consult the research that's already been done for you.This is your first step to becoming a Batman-like teacher.
  2. Peak human physical and mental condition - at risk of sounding like a broken record, I must reiterate in the context of this article that these things are important. We need to be doing all we can to ensure that we are well. And yes, our leaders must ensure this too. Being rested and alert can make or break a lesson, regardless of time spent planning it (in fact if you've stayed up late planning it, chances are it'll go to pot if you're tired as a result). As difficult as it may be to prioritise wellbeing it is absolutely essential that it is top of your list: without being well you'll struggle to teach well. Even Batman takes time off from fighting crime in Gotham when he gets a bit bashed up; when you're feeling a bit worse for wear the best preparation you can do is get a good night's sleep then reassess in the morning. Getting rest, eating well, exercising regularly, spending time doing things you love and with family and friends are all essential to your success as a Batman-like teacher. I've written about wellbeing a lot - follow this link to read more.
  3. Master martial artist and hand-to-hand combatant - right now, many teachers feel they are in the midst of battle. Our colleagues the country over are feeling oppressed. Whilst some would advocate political engagement, I think quicker gains can be made by challenging the status quo in our own schools. We have much more chance of changing policy and expectations by directly petitioning the leaders in our own schools. Sometimes it won't even take a battle - sometimes your senior leaders just need to know that one of their edicts is difficult to put into practice, or that you are struggling to complete all your tasks and that you'd appreciate some extra time. Many teachers are afraid to be honest about these matters - if they were willing to stand up for themselves, fighting hand-to-hand (however peacefully) they could effect personally beneficial change. And if they fight with stealth and patience, as any martial artists would, suggesting solutions to problems, showing willing and a positive attitude and perseverance, they are even more likely to win over their leaders in order to bring about improvements leaving you with more time to focus on what really matters: the children. Perhaps a tenuous link, but there are many who would testify to the success of this type of combat. For more on this read my post 'Rise Up! (Being Militant Teachers)'
  4. Master detective - there is nothing more like sleuthing in teaching than assessment. Putting more effort into assessment allows a teacher to spend less time on planning. If you are making effective use of time in lesson to continually assess children's needs then their next steps become more obvious; you won't need to agonise over what to do in the next lesson, you will just know. Keeping a record of all this - nothing more detective-like than a notebook - can make following steps in the teaching cycle much simpler. More time spent assessing and giving feedback in lessons also means less time spent marking books after school. This one works well with the first point: the more you read about your subject and pedagogy, the easier it will be to recognise the clues which will help you to work out what children need and how to teach it to them. If Batman were a teacher he would definitely know his data!
  5. Utilises high-tech equipment and weapons - I have to be careful here; no way am I wading into the debate about the use of tech in classrooms. Nor will I speak on any kind of pedagogy. We all have our weapons - our go-to tools - and successful teachers have a particular tried-and-tested arsenal of methods which ensure children learn, time is not wasted and behaviour is managed well. These Batpeople of the classroom will also have tools which make their lives easier too: the ones that keep them in peak condition. In order to survive, and have the appearance of a superhero, you will need to build your own batcave and fill it with equipment (physical and metaphorical) that you know supports the way you teach and the way pupils learn. It's worth remembering that with every new Batman incarnation comes a bigger and better car, the addition of helicopter or whatever else: our arsenal can always be improving, especially if step 1 is followed.
Teacher, no matter how great you are, you are not a superhero with super powers. You are a human being with great responsibilities who, admittedly, might often be expected to deliver super-human results. You do not have powers, but Batteacher, you have abilities - don't be afraid, or ashamed, to use them. Please don't kill yourself in the process of trying what is humanly impossible - your citizens need you in one piece. 

And they won't quibble over whether you have super powers or whether you simply have abilities.

Monday, 12 September 2016

Greener Grass (or 'Finding A Better School')

Reading Keziah Fetherstone's piece in the New Teachers supplement from the TES (Friday 9th September) reminded me of this interview I did with a teacher who left one school for another and found that actually the grass is sometimes greener on the other side.

Having qualified in 2011 our interviewee is in their 6th year teaching. They have taught across Key Stage 2 in two schools: the one they left, and the one where they work currently. The interview explores the differences between the two schools and provides an insight into the experience of someone who has made the leap because they were unhappy in their school:

How did you feel working at your old school?

In the beginning of working at my old school I loved it! It was the only place I had applied for because it was the one I felt was closest to my own views of teaching. University gave us a great chance to form our own beliefs, and I really feel like I stuck to them when searching for a school to start my career.

Towards the end however, it simply wasn't the school I joined. So much had changed. I was trying to stick to the methods that I knew worked, methods I had been praised and commended for, yet somehow they were no longer allowed and I was suddenly seen as a poor teacher; not because the children weren't learning anymore, but because of how it looked. It became very superficial. I tried to follow the strategies I was being criticised for not using, but because I didn't believe in them, that came through my teaching and progress decreased from the high rate I was used to. The children were 'doing' lots (which therefore, superficially, looked great on the surface. But I could see they weren't learning anything; any independence I tried to give them was wasted, because they didn't have the skills to apply to anything (although their sparkling book looked like they could!) Those who had been there longer than me were a lot smarter at 'playing the game' but I was unwilling to join because it felt wrong. I thought 'these little people need to leave here capable of achieving a job, or we have failed them'. In order to do that, they needed to be equipped through good teaching and ample opportunity to learn; not listen and copy because their page is more important for the moderation coming up.

Anything I was doing in class was based on everything we'd be told at our rousing annual first INSET day of the year. Every year there was a big presentation, the school's aims and such, and I left wanting to try these ideas in my classroom. That's what started it all. I think, once they saw these ideas in practice, they got scared because it was something they'd never seen before; all the ideas were from Shirley Clarke's 'Outstanding Formative Assessment'.

Did you ever think of leaving the teaching profession as a result?

As a result of how I was treated, and the awful feedback I was getting, I fully expected to receive a terrible reference. For this reason only, I did consider other careers, although I did only apply to teaching jobs eventually. All applications I sent were successful, and I turned down all offers other than for post I am now in - I still wanted to stick to my values. My reference was great although I was, to my surprise, asked to stay. This made me feel like anything I had been told wasn't really true; as if my time as "the teacher to support" was over and they'd move on to "upskilling" someone else. It made a lot of what had happened seem worthless. A tick box exercise for "Staff Discipline" or someone else's chance to boast at Performance Management about their generous input into my seeming improvement, thus evidencing their own contributions as a Leader.

Has moving school changed your perspective?

My new school hasn't changed my perspective in the sense that I enjoy my job; I mostly always have. But it has motivated me again.

What is it about your new school that is different?


My school is different because teachers have so much freedom, but still with the expectation to do a good job! I think the fear for SLT is that freedom makes lazy teachers who don't work. My school is full of hard workers, making sensible sequences of lessons that their class benefit from. Although the pressures and the workload are still exactly the same, the atmosphere is totally different, making for happier staff able to deliver better lessons. I know personally, that if I have put my heart and soul into a plan, or sequence, or strongly believe something will work, it will come across. In the same way that not believing in what I was asked to do previously came across.

What are the characteristics of a school that you should leave? How can you tell that you need to leave a school?


For me, it was once I was receiving conflicting feedback that I realised it was time to go. I couldn't perform when the criteria for a lesson was the complete opposite of the pointers I had been given previously. I was being judged on that - the school's leaders were forming opinions of me based on that. If you're in a situation like that then, depending on the ethos of your school, the impact that opinion has on you, and those around you, can have a big negative effect.

The feedback I was getting wasn't really based on anything. I guess the easiest feedback to give, is to advise you to do the opposite of what you're doing. And giving feedback makes people feel important, "I told them to do that" - but ultimately, the effects of you acting on what they say (managing the change, teaching and learning implications and associated data trends), aren't seen as their problem.

What were the tell-tale signs (when you went to look round and when you went for interview) that your new school was going to be a better place to work? What was the initial impression compared to your old school?

Firstly, after a few years of full time teaching, the 'walk round' is so totally different to when you're an NQT. I could feel myself asking different questions and looking for different things.

That said, I asked every single school I looked at about their approaches to classroom layout and lesson design. From my experiences, I wanted to make sure that my new school was a place that valued differences among the children, and were encouraging teachers to act on those differences in order to make the best learning.

The Head, (my new boss) showed me round and he had such a good sense of humour; I'd never known anything like it! It really is a great place to be. I spoke to children, looked through books and got a feel of their expectations of me should I be successful.

However, I also looked for things that I could make an impact on and change. I think one of the things about my previous school is that I was always seen as the new boy, so a position of responsibility was almost laughable; an awful prediction that I had nothing to offer. Yet here I saw and heard things that I knew I could do something about in time, and I made that known.

The tour, interview and interview lesson, were enjoyable. Although it's important to say, when I started at my new school, I went through this strange transition in the first few weeks of trying to teach in the way I had been forced to, as if I had forgotten the methods I used best. Of course, I carried some strategies over but I needed to return to the core of what I used to do, the methods that were successful before someone quite simply changed their mind, based on what was "fashionable", and I was no longer good enough.

As a person, I needed a short period of reinvention; I felt very worn down by my experiences. Being told you're not good enough, yet seeing so much misconduct being swept under the carpet was almost humiliating. It made no sense to me and I found it difficult to brush off. Being asked to stay was even more confusing as I didn't understand why! Why would you want me here if I've been doing such a bad job?

A change of scene was very much needed and a fresh outlook on what my primary objectives are; to teach children the skills to apply to various challenges independently. Yes, they will be assessed. But their life goes on after that stupid week in May, and we need to do our bit in preparing them for that life.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

5 Ways To Make Texts With Unfamiliar Contexts More Accessible To Children


Recently, the author Tom Palmer sent me a copy of his latest book Wings: Typhoon. It's a great read aimed at 8 to 10 year olds and is a stereotype-breaking brew of the supernatural, football, fighter jets and the relationship between two sisters. But before I knew all of that I was intrigued to find that the covers of the book extend to contain a cut-out-and-make Typhoon aeroplane model. Is this a gimmick, or is there something more to it?

One of the complaints about the 2016 Key Stage 2 SATs reading paper was that many children would not be able to relate to or understand the contexts of the narratives that were used; certainly none of the children I taught last year have rowed a boat to an island or ridden an albino giraffe across the Savannah. I wrote a lot about this issue in this blog post and concluded that "stories are the means by which we experience events and happenings that our everyday lives could not possibly provide" and therefore we should be exposing children to narratives with unfamiliar contexts. 

So, as teachers (and parents too, if you're reading this), we must ask ourselves how we can make these texts more accessible to children. Importantly, we want them to get the maximum enjoyment out of the books they read, and without understanding what you are reading it's hard to enjoy it.

And that's where Tom Palmer's book comes in. Imagine reading about a Typhoon fighter jet when you have no idea what one looks like. A child might imagine something more akin to a Boeing 747 -  a more typical plane for a child to visualise; they are more common and more present in other contexts. The more inquisitive child these days would probably Google an image of a Typhoon in an instant, but many wouldn't and some couldn't. So it's ideal that before reading the book (or during) a child could construct a 3D model of the jet in question, thus enabling them to easily visualise a key object in the story. Without giving too much away, if a child were imagining a passenger plane whilst reading the story, they'd be a bit confused as to how on earth some of the action could take place!

Many moons ago someone hit on a bit of a genius idea by which readers are granted better access to the texts they read: illustrations. As I finished reading 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe' I reflected on the role of its illustrations: they clarify to the reader the appearance of the mythical beasts described (beautifully) in the text. The illustrations in 'Wings: Typhoon' are excellent too - their two-tone comic book style really help to convey action as well as appearance. It's quite obvious why we start children on their reading journey with books dominated by pictures but it's a shame that by the time they reach the age of 11 they are expected to read challenging and diverse texts totally unsupported by images.

One of the key hindrances to comprehension is vocabulary. If a child does not know what the word 'creek' refers to then this sentence is less illuminating than it could be: 'In those days, far south in Calormen on a little creek of the sea, there lived a poor fisherman named Arsheesh...'. A child might wonder how someone could live on the sound that a door makes when it needs oiling, or they might imagine a creek to be something quite different to a little inlet or bay. And even if you then used those terms to describe it to a child you may have to then define the words 'inlet' and 'bay'. If at word level there is little understanding, there is no hope for sentence, paragraph or whole text level comprehension. Whether one is looking to retrieve information or infer it, a good grasp of vocabulary is needed.

Back to our question: how can we make these texts (particularly ones without pictures whose contexts are outside of the experience of the children we teach) more accessible to children? 

A list (not exhaustive) containing the most obvious ideas, and some more creative ones too: 

1. Use images - photographs, drawings, paintings, stills, illustrations from other books, 3D models. If using a text in class, pre-read the intended portion and collect images (particularly of nouns) to support and enhance a child's visualisation and understanding. This goes a long way to bringing a child into the realms of a book - even one set in a basic setting, such as a seaside town where quays and harbours, lobster pots and yachts might be alien objects to some of the children we teach. Just because a children's book is not illustrated, it doesn't mean we shouldn't provide those images ourselves.

2. Use film - archive footage, movies, documentaries, news stories. I would make a similar point here to the one made above regarding images. In addition, film has the power to convey more than appearance, moving beyond into action and sounds too - film can provide a very immersive experience which stimulates more senses than an image can. Because of this, film moves beyond supporting just word and sentence level comprehension, giving a sense of the bigger picture. For example, newsreel footage of children being evacuated helps modern-day children to understand the beginnings of 'Carrie's War', 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe' or 'Goodnight Mr. Tom', not to mention the movie versions of those books.

3. Use other texts - books (both non-fiction and fiction), newspaper or magazine articles, webpages. In 'Reading Reconsidered' Lemov et al suggest that when texts are paired (ie a non-fiction text about the holocaust paired with 'The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas) children better comprehend the novel and they also absorb more of the supporting nonfiction text (Chapter 3: Reading Nonfiction, and the Challenge of Background Knowledge). When considering paired texts it does not always need to be a fiction and a non-fiction; you might choose a graphic novel or a picture book to support a novel, a diary entry to support a non-fiction text - the combinations are limitless but the main point is that other texts can help children learn the context needed to full access another text. It is also worth considering how linked topic work in a cross-curricular approach can really support children's comprehension - choose your novels to fit with your science, history or geography curriculum and use those lessons in part to provide background knowledge for the narratives you are reading.

4. Use drama and real-life experience - act out movements to help children understand new verbs and adverbs, pull faces to show how characters are feeling, go on museum visits to see recreations of story settings and historical artefacts, go on trips to old mills, little villages, steam railways, the countryside, the coast... make the stories come as alive as you possibly can by giving children the experiences that will help them to engage more deeply in a text. Perhaps you can't visit an entirely fictional solar system, but booking a StarDome portable planetarium to begin read your new sci-fi novel in isn't a bad idea (especially if your Science work ties in). Even slightly dramatising the way you read aloud can have an impact - do the voices, pay attention to your dynamics and tone, make gestures to mirror the characters' actions - there is a lot that can be done beyond sitting in a chair and speaking aloud words on a page.

5. Use dictionaries - if vocabulary is a key to understanding new contexts, then dictionary work is a fairly obvious inclusion. Once the words have been looked up and defined there are plenty of follow-up activities that could aid children in their understanding of a whole text: rewrite a line of this poem in your own words to explain what it means, draw the setting that the author is describing, discussions as to why the author has chosen the particular word rather than on of its synonyms or basic written answers to comprehension questions. It may be that prior to using dictionaries, children could write their own definitions of words they don't know using contextual or morphemic analysis (both key word learning strategies - but that's for another blog post altogether!) and then compare their definition to the real one. Those are just a few ideas and there is much more to be said on the subject of teaching vocabulary.  

If we regularly built opportunities like these into our teaching sequences then we would be helping children to connect with and better understand the novels they are reading. The more you understand what you read, the more likely you are to enjoy it and the more you enjoy books, the more you want to read. The Matthew Effect says that the rich get richer - if we can make our children rich in reading skills then they will go on to become richer, even without our ongoing instruction. Even if our children have never been stranded on a desert island, trapped in an apocalyptic landscape or hunted by nightmare creatures, we can use the strategies above to bring books and children closer together to place where unfamiliar contexts become places of new experience and learning.

Having said all this, Anne Kispal's 'Effective Teaching of Inference Skills for Reading', on page 35, states that 'The research conducted by Barnes et al. (1996) and Cain et al. (2001) suggests that knowledge acquired just prior to reading is not as useful for inferencing as that which is well embedded in the reader’s long-term schemata. Cain et al. arrived at the conclusion that …even when they had the requisite knowledge base from which to generate an inference, the less skilled comprehenders did not make these inferences as readily as their skilled peers did. Knowledge availability is therefore not a sufficient condition for inferencing (p. 857).' So it remains that we cannot expect to provide the above experiences in isolation or even just in relation to particular texts, but that we should always be seeking to expand the knowledge-base of our pupils, making links where possible, if we want them to become better when it comes to comprehending a tex

A version of this article was published on the TES blog on 19th April 2017. Click here to read it: https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-views/five-ways-make-books-unfamiliar-contexts-accessible