Monday, 30 April 2018

Reading Roles PLUS: Teaching Metacognitive Reading Comprehension Strategies

Reading Roles PLUS is a resource designed to aid children’s metacognition when reading. Metacognition can be defined simply as ‘thinking about thinking’. Reading Roles PLUS takes familiar job titles and assigns them to reading strategies and skills thus giving children an easy-to-refer-to system for being more deliberate with their thinking during reading, with the ultimate goal of being able to comprehend texts. Alongside the job title (or role) there is a symbol which can be used as a further way to prompt certain kinds of thinking – some children may find these easier to remember. The Reading Roles developed from the areas of the content domain in the KS2 test framework are also colour-coded in order to be another memory aid (more information here: http://www.thatboycanteach.co.uk/2016/12/reading-roles-cognitive-domains-made.html).

Each of the Reading Roles promotes a different metacognitive strategy which children can actively use as they read. Below is a summary of each strategy but for more details and ideas a quick google search will arm you with plenty more information – these strategies are well-known and borne out by research.

To download this blog post as a PDF as well as other supporting materials, including an outline of all the Reading Roles please visit my TES resources page: https://www.tes.com/teaching-resource/reading-roles-plus-teaching-metacognitive-reading-comprehension-strategies-11890964

Student – clarifying/monitoring

This Reading Role encourages children to stop and think about things that they don’t immediately understand. Some children are content to skip over what they don’t understand which can lead to holes in their understanding – this strategy helps to avoid that happening.

Children should be taught to identify and parts of text that they need to clarify and then to do something to help their understanding. To do this they can:
  • Ask questions of themselves, such as: What does this word mean? How can I find out its meaning? What does this phrase mean in this context?
  • Re-read the parts they didn’t understand (sometimes reading out loud or hearing it read aloud will help them to understand something better)
  • Read ahead to see if it brings clarity to the parts they didn’t understand
  • Ask others for help
  • Begin to read more slowly and carefully
Professor - using prior/background knowledge

As this article points out ‘We've had our share of lively debates in the field of reading, but not on this particular topic: background knowledge. There is a virtual consensus that background knowledge is essential for reading comprehension.’ When we read we need background knowledge of word and phrase meanings, text type and for making inferences.

D.T. Willingham gives good examples of how having background knowledge is essential to comprehension. Look at the following excerpt:

“John’s face fell as he looked down at his protruding belly. The invitation specified ‘black tie’ and he hadn’t worn his tux since his own wedding, 20 years earlier.”

Of this he writes:

‘…. [having] background knowledge …means that there is a greater probability that you will have the knowledge to successfully make the necessary inferences to understand a text (e.g., you will know that people are often heavier 20 years after their wedding and, thus, John is worried that his tux won’t fit).’ (https://www.aft.org/periodical/american-educator/spring-2006/how-knowledge-helps)

This strategy can be employed easily in the classroom by asking questions such as:
  • What information do you already know about…?
  • Where have you seen something like this before?
  • What prior knowledge do you have that has helped you to understand? Where did this prior knowledge come from? Experience? Another book? A film?
Encouraging children to think deliberately about connections they are making should eventually lead to this strategy being an automatic skill.

There is an overlap with this Reading Role and others, most notably Translator – vocabulary and Interpreter – authorial intent. It helps to have prior knowledge of words and phrases in order to exercise these skills. The use of prior knowledge is also a significant component in making inferences (Detective – inferring).

Quiz Master – questioning

Questioning is a key part of other reading strategies which goes to show how important this strategy is for reading comprehension. Questions help us to engage with a text and this engagement leads to greater comprehension.

‘Numerous studies have shown that training students in self-questioning enhances comprehension (Andre and Anderson, 1979; Nolte and Singer, 1985; Palincsar, 1984; Singer and Donlan, 1982; Yopp, 1987). As Singer (1978) and Yopp (1988) have argued, the process of self-questioning, or active comprehension, facilitates comprehension because it requires students to use their metacognitive capacities and activates their background knowledge.’ 
(https://scholarworks.wmich.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1459&context=reading_horizons)

In addition to questioning their own understanding of the text (see Student – clarifying/monitoring) children should be taught to ask questions about the text as they read. Examples of these questions might include:
  • What is the author hiding from me?
  • What is going to happen next? Why do I think that?
  • I wonder why the character feels that way?
  • What would I do if I was in that situation?
  • What other stories does this remind me of?
  • How does the author want the reader to feel right now?
  • Why did the character do that?
  • How will the character solve this problem?
It’s impossible to give a definitive list of questions that might be asked as every text should provoke different lines of questioning. The best way to teach this will be for the teacher to think aloud as they read, modelling the questions that they ask themselves when reading. The classic ‘W’ words are a good starting point for the development of questions about a text.

Director – visualising

Picturebooks are brilliant for comprehension – the pictures often deliberately give extra information that the text does not. Children who learn to read with picturebooks are usually quite good at using pictures to help them with their understanding. But what happens when they begin to read books with fewer pictures? They will need to learn to create their own pictures in their head, or ‘mind movies’.

This strategy is concerned with building a good mental image – the better a text has been comprehended the better the mental image (or visualisation) will be. But the act of deliberately trying to visualise a text means that readers are paying more attention and exerting more effort into the comprehension which actually ends up improving the levels of comprehension. This Reading Role could easily have been called Artist but stories in books are more akin to stories in movies as the story moves along.

The Reading Rockets website has a good example of how teachers might develop this strategy with children: http://www.readingrockets.org/article/picture-using-mental-imagery-while-reading

Philosopher – thinking

Asking and answering philosophical questions about a text allows children to engage further with what they have read. Doing this has the potential to improve comprehension for the same reasons as we have discussed under other Reading Roles: the deliberate act of thinking about what has been read can lead to better comprehension.

Philosophical questioning and discussion should encourage children to ask and talk about more open-ended questions – questions of morality, questions about life and the universe and so on. Often these questions will touch on curriculum areas such as religious education and personal, social, health, cultural education (PSHCE).

SAPERE’s Philosophy For Children, Colleges and Communities (P4C) resource website is a useful starting point when teaching children to think philosophically.

SAPERE outline that philosophical questions:
  • Should be open to examination, further questioning and enquiry
  • Can't be answered by appealing only to scientific investigation or sense experience
  • Are questions about meaning, truth, value, knowledge and reality
Many children’s books lend themselves well to asking questions that fall into those categories. Teachers can look out for opportunities but should also be aware that children might surprise them with philosophical questions prompted by what they’ve read, especially if they have been trained to ask them.

Click here to see Philosopher exemplified.

In addition to the Reading Roles outlined above, the following are also important reading strategies to teach:

Weather Forecaster – predicting
Editor – summarising
Detective – inferring (for more on inference click here)

For more on teaching reading:

Reading Roles Testimonials - find out about the impact from others who have already been using Reading Roles in the classroom

Should We Teach Reading Strategies In Isolation Or In Combination? - a look at how best to use the different Reading Roles in your teaching

Reading Strategies vs. Reading Skills - What's The Difference? - an exploration of the terminology used when discussing teaching reading

How to write good comprehension questions - advice on preparing questions to aid children with their understanding

Thursday, 26 April 2018

Guest Post: Vasilisa the Beautiful (on ambiguous villains) by Sophie Anderson

In which Sophie Anderson, author of the wonderful 'The House With Chicken Legs' (read my review here), writes about how in some stories, particularly where villains and heroes are concerned, things might not always be as they seem. In children's books I think it is particularly important that the concept of 3-dimensional characters and events are explored in this way, especially as it is more true to life. I'll let Sophie explain it better, with the help of a Russian fairy tale:

‘In a certain kingdom there lived a merchant …’

In this Russian fairy tale, collected and published by Alexander Afanasyev in 1855, a merchant has one daughter, Vasilisa the Beautiful.

When she is eight-years-old Vasilisa’s mother gives her a magic doll and says,

‘Remember and heed my words. I am dying, and together with my maternal blessing I leave you this doll. Always keep it with you and do not show it to anyone; if you get into trouble, give the doll food, and ask its advice.’

Then Vasilisa’s mother kisses her and dies. After some time, Vasilisa’s father remarries – a widow with two daughters of her own. Vasilisa’s stepmother and stepsisters are jealous of her beauty. They torment her and give her endless work to do. But, Vasilisa’s magic doll comforts her and helps her do the work.

Then one day, the merchant leaves on business and Vasilisa’s stepmother and stepsisters plot to get rid of Vasilisa. They snuff out all the candles in the house and send Vasilisa to Baba Yaga’s hut to ask for a light.

Vasilisa is scared that Baba Yaga will eat her, but the magic doll says it will keep her safe. So, Vasilisa travels through the forest to Baba Yaga’s hut, which is surrounded by a fence of skulls and bones.

Baba Yaga agrees to give Vasilisa a light on the condition she stays and works for her – and threatens to eat her if she does not. Then Baba Yaga makes Vasilisa serve her an enormous meal, and goes to bed, leaving Vasilisa with a seemingly impossible number of chores to do; including sorting a bushel of wheat.

Vasilisa feeds her doll a few crumbs and explains her troubles. The doll replies,

‘Fear not, Vasilisa the Beautiful! Eat your supper, say your prayers, and go to sleep; the morning is wiser than the evening.’

And in the morning, all the work is done. The next day, Baba Yaga gives Vasilisa another seemingly impossible number of chores to do; including sorting poppy seeds from dust. Once again, Vasilisa’s doll does the work for her.

Baba Yaga asks Vasilisa how she managed to do all this work, and Vasilisa replies, ‘I am helped by the blessing of my mother.’

‘So that is what it is,’ shrieks Baba Yaga. ‘Get you gone, blessed daughter! I want no blessed ones in my house!’ And Baba Yaga send Vasilisa on her way – but before she leaves she gives her a skull with burning eyes from her fence, saying, ‘Here is the light for your stepsisters.’

Vasilisa returns home, and is about to throw away the skull, thinking her stepfamily will not need it anymore, but a voice from the skull says, ‘Do not throw me away, take me to your stepmother.’ Inside the house, the skull stares at the stepmother and stepdaughters and burns them. They try to hide but the eyes follow them, and by morning they are burned to ashes.

The tale continues with Vasilisa moving to town, completing more difficult tasks with the help of her doll, and eventually marrying the tsar, but Baba Yaga does not feature again.

I love the Baba Yaga in this tale, as it is one of the first times I glimpsed the wise woman behind the evil old crone archetype. Baba Yaga’s role in this story is ambiguous, as she could be considered a villain, or a helper.

Although Baba Yaga gives Vasilisa seemingly impossible tasks to do and threatens to eat her if she does not complete them, ultimately Baba Yaga gives Vasilisa the burning skull that frees her from her evil stepfamily – the real villains in the tale.

In ‘Women Who Run With The Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype’ by Clarissa Pinkola Estés there is a thorough and fascinating analysis of this tale, which Estés believes is rich in symbolism and metaphor.

Estés writes Vasilisa is ‘about the realization that most things are not as they seem’ and that ‘Vasilisa is a story of handing down the blessing on women’s power of intuition from mother to daughter.’

Estés describes how Vasilisa’s journey takes her from subservience to strength and independence, through facing fear and by learning from Baba Yaga, who represents the wild feminine nature.

This tale was the start of a long journey for me, which began with the realisation that Baba Yaga is not just the cannibalistic villain she is so often depicted as. She is a fascinating, complex character; a wild woman of folklore, fierce and formidable, watchful and wise. She can be a maternal benefactress or a dangerous witch and decides on a case by case basis how she will treat the visitors to her hut.

Her origins are ancient; linked to Pagan Goddesses associated with life, death, the forest and Earth itself; and the history of her portrayal reflects societies’ attitudes to woman and paganism. I am still fascinated by Baba Yaga and have found no matter how much I read, there is always more to learn about her, and from her.


Vasilisa the Beautiful and Baba Yaga, written by Alexander Afanasyev, is available in a gorgeous edition with Ivan Bilibin’s iconic illustrations from 1899, published by The Planet.

There is also a beautiful picture book of this tale, Vasilisa the Beautiful, written by Anthea Bell and illustrated by Anna Morgunova, published by Minedition.

The House with Chicken Legs by Sophie Anderson publishes in paperback, 3 May, £6.99 from Usborne. Cover art by Melissa Castrillón and inside black and white illustrations by Elisa Paganelli.

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Book Review: 'The Phantom Lollipop Man' by Pamela Butchart

I’m always dubious of the quality of books aimed at the 7 – 9 age bracket, especially ones which feature lurid cartoonish illustrations and crazy typesetting. It can sometimes seem like funny books are the only thing available to children who are just getting into reading longer books, especially when it comes to newly-published material.

And so it was with a degree of forced open-mindedness and some trepidation that I embarked on my reading of ‘The Phantom Lollipop Man’ by Pamela Butchart, illustrated throughout by Thomas Flintham. But, spoiler alert, I loved it and you will too.

I immediately devoured half the book, even laughing out loud in places where Butchart has clearly written with adults in mind. The fact that the author is a teacher and the book is set in a school (as are the other books in the series) makes for some hilariously insightful gags, all delivered with a touch of real affection – everyone who knows schools will identify with the deputy head who thinks they’re the head teacher, the office ladies who know everything and the teacher who spends lunchtime secretly eating sweets in their classroom.

As is usual with children’s books school life is a touch exaggerated – the children have a den under the stairs in school which they seem to find plenty of time to visit during school hours, Zach carries a smartphone at all times and the group of friends seem to spend a lot of time haring around the corridors. But it is exactly this that children will love; it’s what makes the story more exciting. And after all, Izzy and her friends are getting up to nothing like the Famous 5 and Secret 7 used to – they’re just having adventures that children can relate to more as the setting is so familiar. I quickly introduced it to my children – taking a book to read to them on a train journey was a stroke of genius, I must say – they told me they imagined the whole thing taking place in their own school.

Reading the book aloud was a little bit of a challenge: Izzy’s breathless and tangential narration means assuming the character of an excited year 4 child is a must. But it is this writing style which makes ‘The Phantom Lollipop Man’ an endearing read, particularly as a parent of three girls and the teacher of many more primary-aged children.

Despite this looking like a funny book, it actually tackles quite a serious subject matter – so much so that I actually almost had a little cry at the end. The story involves a group of children trying to solve the mystery of where their normal lollipop man has got to. They misinterpret information from the office ladies and believe him to be dead; sightings of him lead to their conclusion that he is dead, has come back as a ghost and has unfinished business that they must help him with. Adults reading the book will understand their blunder, but children might not. It ends up as an exploration of loneliness and old age and is a gentle reminder to any reader to value all members of society, especially those at risk of becoming marginalised. This aspect of the book makes it fully rounded and a perfect read for anyone in lower key stage two – vocabulary-wise it is perfectly pitched for this age group too with enough new words to explore without it becoming too much.

As a family we’ve already begun reading the only other Pamela Butchart book in the house – her World Book Day offering ‘The Baby Brother From Outer Space!’ – such was our collective love for ‘The Phantom Lollipop Man’. I suspect that next time we visit a bookshop/library we shall be purchasing/borrowing a few more! I will also be less suspicious about brightly-coloured books with words written in bold surrounded by clouds and flashes – lesson learnt.

Friday, 13 April 2018

From Teach Primary Magazine: KS2 World Cup Maths Lesson


I wrote a lesson plan for Teach Primary Magazine to go along with their feature on lessons inspired by the World Cup.

This lesson was one I taught during the last World Cup - an event which also coincided with an Ofter inspection at my the school where I was working at the time. The inspectors commented that they hadn't seen much use of ICT so of course being the computing lead I was asked to tweak a lesson for the next day. Whether or not I'd agree with this sort of thing these days is another matter but suffice to say I met the request and this lesson is what I came up with.

If I remember correctly (I do but I'm trying to be modest) the school's maths lead and one of the inspectors couldn't really find any 'next steps' for me when they gave feedback and only had positive things to say. That's not to say that this is a failsafe Ofsted outstanding lesson - there's no such thing, and it's mostly in the delivery - but that hopefully it will provide a good starting point for a lesson for other teachers.

The whole lesson plan/article is available online so you don't have to squint at the photo above.

https://www.teachwire.net/teaching-resources/ks2-lesson-plan-make-predictions-using-real-time-statistics-from-the-2018-football-world-cup

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Book Review: 'How To Bee' by Bren MacDibble

Children’s publishing seems to be experiencing a time of growth; the shelves of book shops are bursting with newly-published books for kids – so much so that it can be hard to choose which books to read. Some seem to garner much attention whilst others arrive quietly, waiting to be picked up and discovered.

‘How To Bee’ is new to the UK market but has already been doing very well in its native Australia. And it would be a real shame if it did not take off here too. Set in a future Australia where honey bees are all but extinct, this is a book about family, friendship, courage and survival and features an extremely strong, but not invincible, female lead character.

Despite being pegged as a dystopian novel, the story portrays a world not dissimilar to the one we live in now. And this is what makes this book so disturbingly successful. Although the story is a chain of largely dismal events, the reader is sucked into Peony’s life – Bren MacDibble makes it impossible for the reader not to be rooting for her as she pursues her dream of becoming a bee – a hand pollinator. But ‘How To Be’ is not without its moments of light and hope – it would be a hard read if it wasn’t. However, with an ending that is weighted more towards the bitter end of the bittersweet scale, it is an important read for those who only ever experience happily-ever-after endings.

Peony’s abduction by her mother and her cruel partner sees her removed from the countryside and placed into a rich household in the city. There Peony is witness to a way of life far removed from her simple, often harsh, but enjoyable life of sleeping in a shed and working amongst the fruit trees. The author cleverly contrasts these two lifestyles in such a way that merit can be seen in both – in the home of the Pasquales Peony experiences a loving marital relationship – a far cry from the relationships her mother has been in; but she also sees how the poor are exploited in order to provide a lavish lifestyle for the rich – there are several other such contrasts. As with any good dystopian fiction, current affairs are explored and commented on in the context of a fabricated domain.

Although sold as a children’s book, with an age recommendation of 9-12, the subject of domestic abuse – both physical and emotional, towards adults and children – makes this a tough read in places, particularly for the aforementioned age bracket. I would suggest that this book is better suited to teenage readers for this reason.

There is no reason why this challenging read shouldn’t be celebrated – it is well-written, introduces children to other ways of life (and a new dialect) and despite being brutal in places is told with a very gentle touch. With its well-formed and believable characters – some loveable, some hateable – ‘How To Bee’ is a book really to get into – I found it hard to put down, such was the grip it had on me.

Thursday, 5 April 2018

Book Review: 'To The Edge Of The World' by Julia Green

When it comes to evoking a sense of place Julia Green has done an excellent job in her latest book 'To The Edge Of The World'. The islands and seas of the Outer Hebrides are conjured in the mind of the reader as they read of the journey Jamie and Mara’s friendship takes. With the island setting and a dose of sailing jargon readers of Morpurgo and Ransome will find something they’re at home with here.

Jamie lives on the island with his family although he misses Dad who works away on the mainland during the week. Mara lives on the island too, but away from other people. Mara’s mum is suffering from mental illness (this is hinted at throughout the story) and she too misses her father whom she hasn’t heard from in years. An unlikely pair, Jamie and Mara become friends, but always with a difficult, awkward relationship, and embark (accidentally on Jamie’s part) on a daring and dangerous adventure. Along with the well-developed settings, the fact that Julia Green tackles real-life issues that many young people face is a strength of this book.

Although the story has the reckless voyage to St. Kilda, the Outer Hebrides’ furthest islands, and the friendship dimension to commend it, readers might be left wishing for a little more: compared to other similar stories it isn’t as well-rounded and has the potential to fall a little flat. Also, the story is narrated by Jamie and as such the writing is clipped: the short sentences characterise a young teenage boy well, but aren’t always easy to read.

Having said this, ‘To The Edge Of The World’ will certainly appeal to readers who love reading about friendship or who particularly enjoy stories about island life and seafaring – certainly those who have been charmed by Morpurgo’s tales about the Isles of Scilly. In the classroom, ‘To The Edge Of The World’ might be used to great effect alongside other similar books, particularly as a source of descriptive passages for children to use as inspiration for their own writing.

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

From The @TES Blog: 5 Things To Do Instead Of Revising For SATs

From The @TES Blog: 5 Things To Do Instead Of Revising For SATsThis might come across as idealistic or cynical. It might even sound hypocritical to those who’ve taught Year 6 alongside me. But there really is more to Year 6 than Sats revision – even in Sats week.

Regardless of your views on key stage 2 testing, it’s the system with which we’re currently lumbered. And I would always advise that children are prepared for them.

But by preparing, I don’t mean drilled to within an inch of their life: Easter booster classes, daily past papers, hours of homework and the like. There are other ways of helping children to be ready for that week of testing in May – ways that prepare them mentally; ways that ensure they remain emotionally intact.

Here are five suggestions:

Click here to read the whole article: https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-views/five-things-do-instead-sats-revision

From The @TES Blog: Teacher Development: The Balance Bike Approach

So far, I’ve successfully taught two of my three daughters to ride a two-wheeled pedal bike. While I learned to cycle the traditional way, by using stabilisers and then ditching them once I was a bit more confident, I've eschewed that for my own children and instead followed the current trend for balance bikes.

It really does work, reducing the complexity of the learning process. And it made me think: when we develop teachers’ skills, either during initial training or as part of ongoing professional development, should we use a balance bike approach, or should we bolt on stabilisers?

Allow me to flesh out the analogy...

Click here to read the whole article: https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-views/how-a-balance-bike-approach-training-will-give-us-better-teachers