Showing posts with label reading. Show all posts
Showing posts with label reading. Show all posts

Friday, 8 June 2018

More Books That Encourage Children To #ReadForEmpathy

Last year for Empathy Day, organised by Empathy Lab UK, I recommended 6 books that encourage children to read for empathy: 'The Unforgotten Coat' by Frank Cottrell Boyce; 'Oranges in No Man's Land' by Elizabeth Laird; 'The Goldfish Boy' by Lisa Thompson; 'My Dad's A Birdman' by David Almond; 'Tall Story' by Candy Gourlay; and 'Noah Barleywater Runs Away' by John Boyne.

Back in October I led a workshop at the Reading Rocks conference entitled 'The More-ness Of Reading'. In it I provided a more extensive list of books that are great for developing empathy as well as whole host of quotes and research explaining why reading for empathy is such a good idea: https://wherereadingrocks.wordpress.com/2017/10/14/the-more-ness-of-reading-by-thatboycanteach/

Since then I've read rather a few more books that easily fall into the category of books that develop empathy in their readers. And with the second Empathy Day taking place on June 12th 2018 it seemed right to produce another list.

Given that my last list contained no non-fiction, I'd like to begin by highlighting a few titles, which, whilst still narratives, tell the stories of real life people.

Coming To England: An Autobiography - Floella Benjamin

Although open and honest about the difficult experiences of a child moving to a new country, this book is written in such a simple way that it is very accessible for young readers - I'd recommend it for emotionally ready year 3 children and upwards. It is fairly hard-hitting - younger readers will definitely benefit from being able to discuss their reading with an adult - but is a great gateway to helping children understand how others feel when they arrive in a strange place where they experience prejudice and hardship. Given that this is a live issue for the UK it is important that children up and down the country understand as they help their new classmates to settle in.

Dear World - Bana Alabed

Another autobiography, this time written by then 8 year old Syrian Bana Alabed. Whilst still in Syria and experiencing firsthand the terrors of civil war in Aleppo Bana took to Twitter in order to share her story - her first tweet read 'I need peace'. As with 'Coming To England' this book is written in a simple way making it accessible to children the same age as Bana and upwards. It is a truly moving account - I admit to crying several times - and is the book I remember more than any others when I consider what I can do to help those fleeing such crises. People who seek refuge in the UK need to be welcomed by open arms, especially the children, and it is books like this that will help our children to resist the racist rhetoric that can be so pervasive and instead show kindness to those who are fleeing their homes.

Malala Yousafzai - Claire Throp

Presented in the usual non-fiction format that you'd typically find in a school library this informative book tells Malala's life story. It's both eye-opening and inspiring, and whilst being an obvious heroine for Muslims and girls there is encouragement to all our young people in the account of Malala's life. As with the previous two books, this volume explains carefully another reason why people might leaving their country in search of another life - to learn about the prejudice and oppression Malala faced from the Taliban in her own country should prompt children to assess their own attitudes towards women and minority groups.

And now for some fiction:

The Kites Are Flying! - Michael Murpurgo

Set in the West Bank this short story explores how Jewish and Palestinian children live in the shadow of the wall and the war that divides them. Contains such a tingle down the spine moment that this is absolutely essential reading. This is a story that will begin to give children an idea of the unrest that goes on overseas, as well as an idea of how this affects children such as themselves. This is 'The Kite Runner' for children.

Skeleton Tree - Kim Ventrella

Death. A tricky, tricky subject for children's books. From my review: "Ventrella cleverly explores the very real experience of how mixed emotions come into play during the loss of a loved one. The skeleton is funny (there are laugh-out-loud moments) and he brings some light relief to what is otherwise a very sad story... The book may help some children to explore the emotions felt during a bereavement."

The Light Jar - Lisa Thompson

This book tackles a rare subject in children's literature: domestic abuse. From my review: "'The Light Jar' is a book that digs deep into human emotion, validating the gamut of thoughts and feelings that children the world over will feel on a day-to-day basis. And with all the current news of young people's mental health issues, books like these are crucial in normalising and validating the responses our children have to difficult life circumstances; 'The Light Jar' will provide illumination in the darkness of some of its readers' lives."

Sky Song - Abi Elphinstone

From my review: "Sky Song is an important lesson in why tribalism, whilst comfortable, will not save the day - a political message that might give children a starting point to thinking about what their role on the world stage might be. Flint's character provides hope that people can change their ideological views in order to become more mindful of others. The character of his sister Blu, based on Elphinstone's own relative who has Down's Syndrome, is also a possible discussion starter for readers to explore and change their thoughts about those with genetic disorders and resulting learning difficulties."

The Wonderling - Mira Bartok

The Wonderling is an Oliver Twist-style adventure with, er... a twist. It is set in a world inhabited by humans, animals and humanoid mixed-breed creatures - foundlings - who are despised by the others. It focuses on the adventures of one such orphan foundling as he escapes the workhouse in order to discover who he really is. This book is a great starting point for empathising with children of the Victorian era who suffered in poverty but it also has modern parallels to children still living in similar situations all over the world.

How To Bee - Bren MacDibble

This difficult yet compelling read is a great dystopian exploration of the gap that exists between rich and poor and as such would be a good way to help children feel empathy for children and adults les fortunate than themselves. From my review: "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."

The Phantom Lollipop Man - Pamela Butchart

From my review: "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... 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..."

The Fox Girl And The White Gazelle - Victoria Williamson

Featuring a Syrian refugee and a girl experiencing severe domestic issues this book is a must-read for upper key stage two children. From my review: "This is a book that I wish every child would read. Politically and socially our children need to be living the out the story in this book if the world is going to have any sort of peaceful future. The book's dual message that differences ought to be celebrated and common ground should be sought is too important for this generation to miss out on. Books such as this are a safe space in which to explore the everyday issues that children might face - we must get these books into their hands."

The Mystery Of The Colour Thief - Ewa Jozefkowich

This is book about how a child deals with the illness of a parent. It also features a positive-thinking wheelchair user and a whole lot of kindness and hope. From my review: "In this beautifully-written story debut author Ewa Jozefkowicz deftly explores issues that young children may well come up against in real life. 'The Mystery of the Colour Thief' will bring comfort to those with similar experiences to those portrayed and will help those who haven't to be that little bit more understanding of those who have."

Illegal - Eoin Colfer, Andrew Donkin and Giovanni Rigano

As Andrew Donkin explains in his guest blog post for me: "We wanted to show our readers the situations that Ebo and Kwame find themselves in and invite our readers to imagine how the brothers might be feeling. We wanted to ask our readers to empathise with them and to imagine how they would feel in their place." From my review: "Rather than seeking to cash in, as the media did for a while, Eoin Colfer, Andrew Donkin and Giovanni Rigano seek to humanise the stories from the news reports. Human beings respond well to narratives and by telling the story of Ebo and Kwame, two brothers attempting to make it from Africa to Europe, the creators of 'Illegal' succeed in making real two of the nameless, faceless victims of whom we read in our newspapers."


Max and the Millions - Ross Montgomery

From my review: "Max loves making models; he’s also deaf. This representation of a ‘minority group’ is important in children’s literature. Montgomery writes sensitively and convincingly about the trials a deaf child might face making this an important lesson in empathy for young readers... [children will] be caused to think about how first impressions don’t always count, how kindness and selflessness are key characteristics to develop in oneself and how forgiveness is an essential ingredient for peace and friendship."

Thursday, 7 June 2018

Guest Post: 'Illegal': Reading For Empathy by Andrew Donkin


Our new graphic novel, ILLEGAL, started life with a desire to make our readers feel empathy for people in a very unusual and terrible situation.

Andrew Donkin
It was about four years ago and my co-writer, Eoin Colfer, and I were following postage stamp-sized reports about the sinking of boats full of would-be migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea. The reports were short, impersonal, and just carried an approximate number of people thought to be missing or dead. It made for grim reading.

We followed the story and dug deeper. When you read a report that says “It’s believed that 217 people died in the sinking” it’s very easy to get lost in the numbers. What do 217 people look like? How many classrooms would they fill? Or how many double decker buses? It’s easy to forget that each one of those 217 is a person just like me and just like you.

These days, everyone has seen the photographs of the so-called “cathedral boats” where every single inch of deck space is packed with a human being desperate to escape their old life or to begin a new one. As I said, it’s easy to get lost in the sheer numbers, and what we wanted to do with ILLEGAL, was to take one person on that dodgy, unseaworthy boat and tell their story. We figured that if we could make our readers feel empathy for one person in the boat, then that would perhaps change the head-numbing statistics into human beings.

ILLEGAL follows the story of two brothers, Ebo and Kwame, as they leave their home and attempt to travel across the Sahara Desert towards the northern coast of Africa where they eventually put their lives in the hands of people traffickers on a boat to Europe.

From the very beginning we knew that we wanted to tell the story of ILLEGAL as a graphic novel rather than a more traditional prose novel. One of the many reasons for this was that we wanted to avoid telling the readers how our characters felt. We wanted to show our readers the situations that Ebo and Kwame find themselves in and invite our readers to imagine how the brothers might be feeling. We wanted to ask our readers to empathise with them and to imagine how they would feel in their place.

My friend and co-writer, Eoin Colfer wrote recently that “travel broadens the mind, but books broaden the heart.” That’s never been truer of a book than the experience of reading ILLEGAL. Nobody would want to undergo the terrible journey that our characters undertake, but by reading the book in the safety of your own home or school or library, a reader can perhaps take away a small piece, perhaps if we’re really lucky, one-millionth of the real life experience.

Giovanni Rigano
Eoin Colfer
In many ways the job of a writer is feeling empathy for a living. How else could writers get inside the head of their many and varied characters to pen their tales? Writing fiction is a strange alchemy of sometimes transposing your own experiences into the head of other characters, but more often putting your characters in situations you’ve never experienced yourself.

For ILLEGAL, Eoin, myself and our artist Giovanni Rigano did more research than for any other book that we have ever published. Although the story is fictional, every single bit of it is true. Every bit of it happened to someone – usually to many people. Meeting and listening to the survivors of such journeys was a moving and humbling experience as we worked on the book.

The last few years have seen several very divisive political events and movements sweep across the west. It seems to me that books and graphic novels with their ability to transport you not just across time and space, but more importantly into the experiences of another human being are more vital than ever.

Monday, 21 May 2018

Guest Post: Who Gets to Tell the Story? Empathy vs Exploitation by Victoria Williamson


In today's guest blog post, and as part of her blog tour, Victoria Williamson, author of 'The Fox Girl and The White Gazelle' (see my review), discusses how stories can help children to understand things from the perspective of others. In her own book the story is told by two characters, each with their own point of view on the same events - this device is a helpful way into exploring how different people see and interpret the same events differently.

In a world of competing twenty-four hour news channels, adverts and infomercials that stretch the definition of truth, scientific data sponsored by self-interested corporations, and ‘fake news’ pedalled on Facebook and Twitter with countless celebrity ‘likes’, how do we separate the fact from the fiction, the objective reality from the subjective opinion?

Learning to sift through all of the available sources and select the most reliable ones is a vital skill for students to learn. One of the best ways to introduce them to this is through fiction. Children’s books are full of unreliable narrators, characters who see the world only from their point of view and get things wrong as a result. Caylin and Reema in The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle are no exception. Seen though Reema’s eyes, Caylin is a mean school bully, a talentless thug and an untrustworthy thief with no redeeming qualities. From Caylin’s point of view, Reema is a foreigner who speaks a strange language and eats weird food, an outsider she couldn’t possibly have anything in common with. At first their own prejudice colours every interaction, to the point where they experience the same events in completely different ways.

In Chapters 16 and 17 Caylin and Reema race each other in gym class, and both come away with a very different opinion of how that race turned out. Reema thinks:

I have won. I have proved to them all that I am the White Gazelle, and I am fast.
Caylin may be faster than me over a short distance, but that is alright, because I am stronger.
I will always outrun her in the end.

While Caylin says:

I totally beat her. If Miss Lindsey hadn’t made us run a stupid marathon instead of a straight race then I would’ve crossed the finish miles ahead of Reema.
It wasn’t a fair contest.
            [...] As long as I know I can outrun Reema, that’s all that matters.

It’s only when the two girls overcome their initial mistrust and start to work together to look after the family of foxes in the back yard of their apartment building that they realise they’re not so very different after all. It’s only by sharing their experiences with each other, and looking at the world from the others’ point of view, that they come to see the whole picture.

When discussing refugee issues in the classroom, the ‘whole picture’ exercise is a very useful one to get students thinking about who is being allowed to tell the story, and whose point of view is being left out entirely. I ask groups to look at a picture that is half covered with paper, and ask them to describe what they think the other hidden half looks like. The most useful picture for this exercise is the Reuters photograph by Jose Palazon showing golfers on an expensive course in Spain on one side, while migrants attempting to make it across the Spain-Morocco border to start a new life in Europe are seen climbing the high fence in the background. When the background is covered and we only see the point of view of the golfers, it looks like a beautiful, tranquil scene on a plush course lined by palm trees. Only when it is seen from the point of view of the migrants perched precariously on top of the fence does the difference in wealth, situation and life chances become clear.

This exercise is a great introduction to further activities looking at newspaper headlines and news stories. Who is telling the story? Is it written from the point of view of a resident of that country or a displaced person seeking a refuge? Is it sympathetic or hostile? Is the story being told with empathy, or is it exploitative, full of click-bait headlines and inflammatory phrases to draw readers in, regardless of the dehumanising effect this has on the people being described?

As teachers we need to ensure that students have access to a wide range of sources in our classes that describe historical and current affairs events from all points of view, not just the mainstream or ‘accepted’ version. As authors, we have a duty to represent a range of different characters and voices in our books, and not always default to writing characters just like us whose life experiences mirror our own. The ability to empathise with others may be something we are all born with, but like most skills, it has to be nurtured and practised. It’s only by seeing the world through the eyes of others that we get to exercise this important skill fully, and reading fiction with a diverse range of characters and voices is one of the best places to begin.

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Book Review: 'The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle' by Victoria Williamson

'The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle' deserves to be one of 2018's most lauded books. Tackling racism, discrimination and bullying head-on in a book aimed at upper primary children is no mean feat, but Victoria Williamson does it with great sensitivity.

Reema and Caylin both have their back stories. One is a refugee from Syria, the other lives with her alcoholic mum and is the school bully. Reema pines for home, is worried about her missing brother and is having to start a new school and learn a new language. Caylin looks after her mum, wishes her mum would look after her and feels like she is no good at anything. But they happen to be neighbours and an unlikely friendship develops. But Williamson writes the slowly-flourishing relationship in such a convincing way that 'unlikely' becomes 'blindingly obvious'.

This is achieved by the back-and-forth nature of the story's narration. The girls take it in turn to tell their side of the story, the reader in the middle willing them both to discover their commonalities: they are both unknowingly looking after the same injured fox; they both love, and excel at, running; more importantly, they both desperately need a friend.

With some very stark and honest passages, this book pulls no punches. Clearly Williamson believes that children can hack the reality - a racist criminal setting his dog on Reema for wearing her hijab is not just a fictional occurrence. For children to really grasp the desperate plight of those subject to racism in the UK, such parts of the book are essential. However, the book almost glows with hope and optimism, even at the moments when it seems like things can't get any worse.

And it is not just empathy for Reema as a refugee that is important. Caylin's character is written in such a way that light is shed on the background of a child in need; a child whose needs manifest in bad behaviour. Children with a more privileged upbringing need to empathise with children less fortunate than themselves just as much as they need to empathise with those fleeing violence and oppression (and so do teachers).

This is a book that I wish every child would read. Politically and socially our children need to be living the out the story in this book if the world is going to have any sort of peaceful future. The book's dual message that differences ought to be celebrated and common ground should be sought is too important for this generation to miss out on. Books such as this are a safe space in which to explore the everyday issues that children might face - we must get these books into their hands.

Perfect Partners:

'All The Things That Could Go Wrong' - Stuart Foster - another story narrated in turn, this time by two boys, one with challenging life circumstances and one with OCD, who eventually become friends
'Dear World' - Bana Alabed - this autobiography of a Syrian refugee will help children get a feel for what Reema has escaped
'Oranges In No Man's Land' - Elizabeth Baird - a fictional account of life as a child in a war zone; another opportunity for children to consider the horrors of war that refugees flee

Monday, 14 May 2018

Teaching Reading Comprehension: Modelling and Practise (Example Lessons)

I’ve been thinking, reading and writing a lot lately about how we teach reading strategies and skills in primary schools. I won’t bore you with all the details but thought I’d simply share some lessons that I’ve prepared for some year 3 teachers at the schools I work in. If you want to find out more about what I’ve been discovering, and the thinking behind the lessons I’ve planned, I’ve provided some links at the end of this blog post.

These lessons, although not fully-formed (I didn’t want to dictate everything), are a good representation of how I think teachers should model the use of reading strategies and skills in a lesson and how children can be given practise of using the same strategies and skills that their teachers have modelled. The lessons involve both opportunities for oral and written comprehension activities; the written activity can just as well be worked on orally, although it is designed so that children can work on it independently by giving written answers.

Some of the lessons you will see here were based on versions of Aesop's Fables written by Michael Morpurgo and illustrated by Emma Chichester Clark, published by Orchard Books. Although the book hadn't been chosen with inference-making in mind, it was serendipitous that there were plenty of opportunities to focus a few lessons on that particular skill. Hopefully these examples will show that, even whilst having a focus on a particular strategy or skill, other strategies and skills might be used in support whilst developing the skill which is the focus of the lesson (in this case inference-making).

For each lesson I outlined the L.O. (based on the National Curriculum POS for year 3/4 in this instance) and some introductory questions and items for discussion:



I then suggested some exemplar questions for the teacher to model which focus on the lesson's L.O.:

All of the above could be done as a whole class reading lesson, or as a guided group. The point of all of the above is to have discussions about the text and to orally develop strategies such as clarifying (what do the words mean?) and inferencing (why do the characters do what they do?). The intention is that children will then be better prepared to have a go at some similar questions themselves without the teacher having already answered them by way of demonstration.

In this particular example the questions are focused around multiple choice answers with the hope that children will consider each option in order to decide whether or not it is good evidence for the character's motives. Notice that not all the questions are inference questions; other questions are asked which might support the child's understanding so that they are able to make the more difficult inferences (see my blog posts on scaffolding for more information on this idea).




For more information on the symbols/colours use in this example, please read the following: http://www.thatboycanteach.co.uk/2016/12/reading-roles-cognitive-domains-made.html

This part of the lesson could be done as an independent written activity or as part of a guided group. The multiple choice questions should spark some good discussion about why the correct one is correct and about the reasons children have for selecting their answers. If this was being completed as an independent written task there is the potential for a follow-up written task asking children to give their reasons for their selection.

Following this, and in order to practice another strategy, I suggested the following:

The following lesson follows a similar structure:




You can download these resources on TES - they are editable so even if you don't have the book, you can use the activities as a template: https://www.tes.com/teaching-resource/aesop-s-fables-reading-comprehension-teacher-notes-and-pupil-activities-11900274

These two lessons represent the first two in a potential sequence where children might move beyond being given multiple choice options. In another sequence of lessons based on David Almond's 'My Dad's A Birdman' children moved onto giving spoken and written answers to inference questions (which throughout the sequence all focused on characters' actions only). To begin with they answered questions with a structure that had been provided and modelled to them, as exemplified in the teacher notes:


They then answered their own questions. Again, this could be done independently, collaboratively or as part of a guided group with a teacher:

The children spent two lessons practising this before being shown how to further add to their answer, as demonstrated in the teacher notes:


The children then practised using this addition to the answer structure (although they only practised one as this was a chance for teachers to assess children's attempts at what is quite an advanced skill for year 3 children):

In the sequence of lessons on My Dad's a Birdman children spent 5 sessions focusing just on making inferences about character's actions followed by another 5 sessions focusing on making inferences about characters' feelings. For more on why there was such a sustained focus please read my blog post entitled 'Reading Comprehension: A Structured Way Of Teaching Inference-Making'. Along the way the children also exercised other reading comprehension strategies and skills in order to support their inference making and general understanding of the text. They also spent time just reading the book and enjoying - teachers and children alike kept telling me how much they loved the book. The fact that they had spent time completing such activities as outlined above enabled them to enjoy the book, rather than spoiling their enjoyment of it.
See my blog post entitled 'Giving the Gift of Reading: Activities That Promote Reading for Pleasure' for more on this.

You can download these resources on TES - they are also editable so even if you don't have the book, you can use the activities as a template: https://www.tes.com/teaching-resource/inference-questions-for-my-dad-s-a-birdman-by-david-almond-chapters-1-to-10-inc-teacher-notes-11842172

Further reading from my blog on teaching reading in primary schools:

Teaching Reading: A Simple Approach
Reading Roles: Elements Of The Content Domain Made Memorable
Reading Roles PLUS: Teaching Metacognitive Reading Comprehension Strategies (not exemplified in this blog post)
Questions To Ask When Teaching Inference-Making
Should We Teach Reading Strategies In Isolation Or In Combination?

Friday, 16 March 2018

Comprehension Strategies And The KS2 Reading Test - What and How Should We Teach?

Comprehension Strategies And The KS2 Reading Test - What and How Should We Teach?
In my first blog post in this series I explored the difference between reading comprehension strategies and reading skills. I noted that many of the skills that are tested in the KS2 SATs also have a matching reading comprehension strategy. With the conclusion that the deliberate use of strategies develops and embeds skills, I posed a question to myself:

Is there a way to teach comprehension strategies that prepares children well for the KS2 reading test?

In answering my second question I had to consider that which is different about the reading test. Whereas the commonly-used comprehension strategies do not require children to give written answers to questions they ask or generate themselves, the test does. This is the main difference. In addition to this, the year 5/6 National Curriculum objectives mention no requirement for children to provide written answers to questions and many of the objectives aren't tested at all by the SATs. The objectives circled in red aren't tested by SATs; the ones outlined in blue are.
Without having any evidence back this up with, I believe that there are children who, having been taught strategies which have become skills, are able to complete the reading test, confidently giving written answers to the questions it asks. I suspect that these children are also able writers and they have probably had a healthy relationship with literacy in general from an early age. There is a potential argument here for a sole focus on teaching comprehension strategies and never asking children to spend time practising giving written answers to comprehension questions.

But, I also think that there are probably children for whom some explicit instruction about how to give written answers to comprehension questions will be useful and necessary (if they are to have a chance of demonstrating their reading skills in a test, which all year 6 children are). Again, I have no research evidence to back this up, only anecdotal experience. However, there is research evidence to back up the idea that particular written activities do support reading comprehension.

I turned to Steve Graham and Michael Hebert's 'Writing to Read' report which states:

"Writing-about-text activities had a positive impact on struggling students’ understanding of a text. An important key to success in using these activities with lower-achieving students was to provide them with ongoing practice and explicit instruction."

The report recommends that students do write in response to things they have read and outlines a series of recommendations of activities. One of the recommendations is that teachers should have students answer questions about a text in writing, or create and answer written questions about a text:

"Answering questions about a text can be done verbally, but there is greater benefit from performing such activities in writing. Writing answers to text questions makes them more memorable, as writing an answer provides a second form of rehearsal. This practice should further enhance the quality of students’ responses, as written answers are available for review, reevaluation, and reconstruction (Emig, 1977).

For generating or responding to questions in writing, students either answered questions about a text in writing; received practice doing so; wrote their own questions about text read; or learned how to locate main ideas in a text, generated written questions for them, and then answered them in writing. These practices had a small but consistently positive impact on improving the reading comprehension of students in grade 6–12 when compared to reading or reading instruction."

Lemov et al's 'Reading Reconsidered' also provides plenty of classroom evidence that writing supports reading comprehension. They summarise:

"...the strategic use of writing made reading and discussions of reading- the other core activities of English class—more rigorous, focused, productive and engaging- ‘better’ in short.  Writing is a deeply valuable endeavor in its own right, but it is also an endeavor that works in synergy with reading in specific ways."

From 'Writing To Read'
Activities other than answering questions include responding to a text through writing personal reactions or analyses/interpretations of the text, writing summaries of a text, taking notes on a text, and creating and/or answering questions about a text in writing. Actually, all of these activities have a greater effect size than answering questions and therefore should be explored further in the primary classroom - another blog post for another time!

What does come through both the 'Writing To Read' report and Lemov et al's 'Reading Reconsidered' chapter entitled 'Writing For Reading' is an emphasis on explicit teaching: if we want children to be able to write well about the things they read in order to develop a better understanding of what they read, we must explicitly teach these skills - they must be modelled well by the teacher.

What I have found is that evidence from both research and successful classroom practice shows that an approach to teaching reading strategies which includes giving children the opportunities to practise giving written answers to comprehension questions (in order to prepare them well for a test) is not something we should avoid, but is something that, if done right, could be beneficial to the children we teach.
From the IES guide
So, is there a way to teach comprehension strategies that prepares children well for the KS2 reading test? Yes, I think so. As long as there is modelling, discussion (book talk) and time for children to practise, a sequence of learning that will improve reading skills can (and should) focus both on teaching reading comprehension strategies (as outlined in the EEF and IES guidance) and the elements of the National Curriculum (as outlined in the content domain in the KS2 test developers' framework) as they can act reciprocally due to similarities between the skills and the strategies. Reading instruction which includes, amongst other things, teachers, asking children to respond in writing to well-written questions based on a manageable amount of text is a good idea when preparing children for KS2 tests. It shouldn't be the only element of reading instruction but it should help. Where children lack particular skills it will be best to focus modelling and practise on those particular skills.

If children are only given written comprehension activities the comprehension strategies are not likely to be employed or developed. But if the written comprehension activities are backed up with explicit teaching of the supporting strategies (as well as vocabulary, any other necessary background knowledge and how to write answers), then comprehension strategies should be developed. Such explicit teaching (including modelling and discussion) should focus on ensuring that children know what the strategy is, how it is used and why and when to use it. Children can be shown how to use the strategies when completing written comprehension activities.

The York Reading for Meaning Project assessed three reading comprehension interventions delivered by teaching assistants in 20 primary schools. The three interventions were carried out with children who had been identified as having the poor comprehender profile - the three interventions were intended to help children who struggled with reading comprehension to overcome their problems. The three interventions differed:
  • Oral Language Programme: vocabulary, reciprocal teaching with spoken language, figurative language and spoken narrative
  • Text Level Programme: metacognitive strategies, reciprocal teaching with written language, inferencing from text and written narrative
  • Combined Programme: all of the above (vocabulary, reciprocal teaching with spoken language, figurative language, spoken narrative, metacognitive strategies, reciprocal teaching with written language, inferencing from text and written narrative)
Based on the findings, the report concludes that 'the Oral Language intervention overall was the most effective of the three programmes. Theoretically, this finding provides strong support for the theory that the reading comprehension difficulties seen in those who show the poor comprehender profile are a secondary consequence of these children’s oral language weaknesses.'.

Here then is evidence that children who are struggling with reading comprehension, and are falling behind, will benefit from an oral language programme as intervention. In the context of this blog post - which focuses on teaching all children (including those are aren't struggling with comprehension but are still learning new skills and strategies) - it is worth questioning whether these research findings bear relevance - should we scrap writing as part of first teaching of reading and focus solely on an oral approach?
Examples of combined programmes from The York Reading for Meaning Project: An Overview


However, the outcomes of the project also show that 'all three interventions (Text Level, Oral Language and Combined) improved children’s reading comprehension skills'. In this blog post I have been suggesting what is essentially a combined programme for everyday classroom-based reading instruction (see the examples above). The question the research doesn't answer is, where first teaching of reading comprehension is concerned (i.e. not interventions for poor comprehenders), whether or not the benefits of writing discussed above are still outweighed by only focusing on an oral-only approach.

What is potentially telling is that 'the children who received the Combined programme experienced all components but at half the quantity of the other two intervention programmes'. What if children were given a whole quantity of both oral and written approaches? Isn't this something that a reading lesson, with an adequate amount of time given over to it, could offer children that an intervention (in this study set at 30 minutes long) could not?

It would be interesting to know which approach (oral, text or combined) shows the best results for all learners rather than interventions for poor comprehenders . For teachers working on helping children to be prepared for KS2 testing it would be good to see research which focuses on first teaching for all learners where the results are taken from SATs performance. Whether you are in support of year 6 testing or not, they are currently a feature of the UK's education system. In order for children to feel prepared (and hopefully not stressed by uncertainty about the tests) and in order for schools to demonstrate accurately the reading ability of their children, most schools will want to allow children to practise giving written answers to comprehension questions. Would it be too much of a gamble in this case for schools to take an oral-only approach?

Expanding on some of the ideas in this blog post, in previous blog posts I have written about...

Reading Strategies vs. Reading Skills - What's The Difference?

Reading Strategies vs. Reading Skills - What's The Difference?
After my last post about reading (Should We Teach Reading Strategies In Isolation Or In Combination?) I was led to think more clearly about what exactly I meant by strategies. Martin Galway challenged me on my potential year 6 bias (i.e. teaching to help children access the KS2 tests) when discussing strategies. When talking about teaching reading comprehension strategies in isolation did I actually mean teaching the skills that the SATs assess (as laid out in the KS2 Test Framework document)? On reflection, I probably was thinking more about giving children practise of answering specific types of questions similar to those found in the tests rather than the widely-accepted comprehension strategies laid out in documents such as the EEF KS2 Literacy Guidance or the IES Improving Reading Comprehension in Kindergarten Through 3rd Grade guide.

Why had I not distinguished well enough between the areas of the content domain and the most commonly-known reading strategies? Probably because some of them are similar (words in bold are comprehension strategies, words in brackets are areas of the content domain as laid out by the English reading test framework):
  • Prediction (2e predict what might happen from details stated and implied)
  • Questioning
  • Clarifying/Monitoring/Fix-up (2a give/explain the meaning of words in context; 2g identify/explain how meaning is enhanced through choice of words and phrases; 2f identify/explain how information/narrative content is related and contributes to meaning as a whole)
  • Summarising/Retelling (2c summarise main ideas from more than one paragraph)
  • Inference (2d make inferences from the text / explain and justify inferences with evidence from the text)
  • Activating prior knowledge
  • Visualisation
There were two questions I had to answer:
  1. What is the difference between a strategy and a skill?
  2. Is there a way to teach comprehension strategies that prepares children well for the KS2 reading test?
What is the difference between a strategy and a skill?

In answering my first question a couple of documents were useful:
  1. Clarifying Differences Between Reading Skills and Reading Strategies - Peter Afflerbach, P. David Pearson, Scott G. Paris
  2. Reading Strategies Versus Reading Skills: Two Faces of the Same Coin - Polyxeni Manoli, Maria Papadopoulou
A quotation from Afflerbach et al to summarise the conclusions of both papers:

"A concrete example may clarify the distinction. Suppose a student determines he or she has only a vague understanding of a paragraph as he or she reaches the end of it. The student wants to do something to clarify his or her comprehension so the student slows down and asks, “Does that make sense?” after every sentence. This is a reading strategy—a deliberate, conscious, metacognitive act. The strategy is prompted by the student’s vague feeling of poor comprehension, and it is characterized by a slower rate of reading and a deliberate act of self-questioning that serves the student’s goal of monitoring and building better comprehension. Now imagine that the strategy works and the student continues to use it throughout the school year. With months of practice, the strategy requires less deliberate attention, and the student uses it more quickly and more efficiently. When it becomes effortless and automatic (i.e., the student is in the habit of asking “Does that make sense?” automatically), the reading strategy has become a reading skill. In this developmental example, skill and strategy differ in their intentionality and their automatic and nonautomatic status." (p368)

And one from Manoli and Papadopoulou:

"After all, we should bear in mind that, while automatic use of reading skills is a goal of reading instruction, a reading skill was once preceded by a period of deliberate and conscious application (Afflerbach et al., 2008). Thus, we can consider their relation to be two faces of the same coin, that is two sides of any reading process or task, since skills are strategies that have become automatic through practice whereas strategies 'are skills under consideration' (Paris et al.,1983: 295)."

So, by teaching strategies we develop skills. Strategies are used deliberately and skills are used automatically. During a KS2 reading test children might use strategies deliberately in order to answer questions or they might demonstrate that they possess particular reading skills by answering questions without much deliberate thought. There is a reason why the skills tested by the tests are similar to the strategies that can be taught to aid comprehension: in teaching those strategies, children gain those skills.

In their article Afflerbach et al touch upon the focus of my last blog post:

"Teaching skills involves practice and feedback to improve speed and efficiency, which taken together amount to what we call fluency. One challenge for teachers of reading is fully investigating the strategy–skill connection and determining how an effortful strategy can become an automatic skillA related challenge is designing instruction that makes clear the steps of strategies while providing practice so that strategies may transform themselves into skills." (p372)

We want children to gain reading skills and to do this we teach them strategies. As teachers it is important that we engage in this challenge of planning our teaching so that strategies are taught well - the word challenge is telling: this is not an easy task and it is one we must put a lot of thought into. Simply turning up to a lesson and reading a book is not going to develop necessary reading skills in all children. I would also continue to argue that teaching a reading lesson where a range of strategies are expected to be used, or a range of skills are expected to be demonstrated, to children who do not yet know how to use those strategies or demonstrate those skills is going to have little impact on their development of strategies and skills. As such, I still believe that, for children such as these, strategies should be taught in isolation until they become skills at which point they can begin to employ a multi-strategy/skill approach when reading.

To find out the answer to me second question, follow this link: Is there a way to teach comprehension strategies that prepares children well for the KS2 reading test?

Monday, 12 March 2018

Should We Teach Reading Strategies In Isolation Or In Combination?

I recently posted a thread on Twitter which attracted some opposition. The thread went like this:

If you are currently planning reading lessons that don't have a focus on developing just one strategy (i.e. retrieval or inference) then I suggest that you might revisit your plans, changing them so that only one strategy is focused on at a time. I would suggest that one lesson spent on one reading strategy followed by another lesson on a different strategy is not enough for teaching children the strategies they need to be able to comprehend well. A sequence of lessons focused on just one strategy is preferable. 

Within reading teaching sequences that focus solely on one strategy ensure that you model answering questions and give children chance to practise answering similar questions with similar answer structures. If you truly want children to improve their reading strategies make sure plenty of your lessons are focused solely on one main strategy rather than always asking a range of questions. 

Planning lessons that expect children to exercise a range of strategies will help them to understand the whole text BUT won't provide the best opportunities to focus on the development of a particular strategy, meaning they are less likely to improve in their use of it. For example, if you want children to become better at making inferences plan several lessons where ALL the questions you ask are inference questions EXCEPT where retrieval and vocabulary questions will help children to make better inferences. 

When teaching reading strategies it is my belief that whole sequences of lessons should focus on just ONE of those skills UNLESS using other strategies helps children to practice the focus strategy of the lesson.

Whilst replying to people who opposed my ideas I found it necessary to clarify some matters:
  • within such a lesson other strategies may be employed, but usually in support of the focus strategy
  • by using the word focus I mean that that strategy would be in the spotlight being the thing you intend children to improve at, but that this would not mean other strategies weren't used in support
  • such lessons should only be taught when wanting children to improve their use of a particular strategy and shouldn't be imposed on children who can already sufficiently use the strategies
  • in such a lesson, a teacher wouldn't attempt to suppress the use of already strong strategies that children wanted to use
  • this shouldn't be the only reading provision that a child receives - there should be plenty of additional opportunities for children to naturally employ a full range of reading strategies whilst reading
  • these lessons should be taught with a view to children eventually becoming independently responsible for using the strategy alongside a range of other strategies in their reading

The EEF guidance report 'Improving Literacy in Key Stage 2' says that 'the following strategies should be modelled and practised to ensure they become embedded and fluent: prediction, questioning, clarifying, summarising, inference, activating prior knowledge'. It goes on to suggest that for each strategy children should 'learn three things: what the strategy is, how the strategy is used, and why and when to use the strategy.' It goes on to state: 'Developing each of the strategies requires explicit instruction and extensive practice... These strategies can be introduced in isolation, but pupils should also be taught how to integrate combinations of strategies to develop effective comprehension of different texts'

And it is the aforementioned isolated introduction with which I am concerned. By singling strategies out for those not yet adept at using them, then explicitly modelling how they can be used and then giving children time to practise using them, children will improve their ability to use particular reading strategies in combination with others.

And, as already mentioned, I think it is difficult to develop such independence in the combining of strategies by only spending the odd lesson on each one. Sustained modelling and practise of the same strategy which follows the gradual release of responsibility model (an explicit description of the strategy and when and how it should be used; modelling of the strategy in action by teachers and/ or pupils; collaborative use of the strategy in action; guided practice using the strategy with gradual release of responsibility; and independent use of the strategy) is surely more likely to have an impact.

A few contributors to the thread provided some interesting additional reading:

Daniel Willingham's 'Infer this...' blog post discusses the findings from some research and how it supports his interpretation of the effect of comprehension instruction in that, in the case of teaching inference-making as a strategy, 'it alerts students to the importance of making inferences, and perhaps more broadly (for less skilled readers) that it is important to THINK while you read. But practising inferences does not lead to a general inferencing skill for two reasons. One, as noted, inferencing depends on the particular text, and two, whatever cognitive processes contribute to inferencing are already well practised from use in oral language---we continually draw inferences in conversation.' He summarises saying 'comprehension instruction is a great idea, because research consistently shows a large benefit of such instruction. But just as consistently, it shows that brief instruction leads to the same outcome as longer instruction'.
Tim Shanahan's 'Teaching Reading and Reading Comprehension Strategies' blog post summarises: 
'I would definitely teach comprehension strategies. The way I think of strategies most basically is that they give readers some tools they can use independently to make sense of what they read... Some programs [teach and gradually release responsibility] with multiple strategies, all at one time, and others teach the strategies one at a time, adding them together as you go (both approaches work—but I find the latter to be simpler and easier to teach). You can usually teach a strategy well in 3-4 weeks if you have students practising with lots of different texts... Summarising a newspaper article is different than summarising a story, and both are different than a science chapter. Make sure that the students are learning not only the strategy, but the content of the texts too. Finally, remind the kids from time to time to use their strategies or engage them in strategies discussions.'

The IES Practice Guide 'Improving Reading Comprehension in Kindergarten Through 3rd Grade'  has as its first recommendation that we 'Teach students how to use reading comprehension strategies'. It states: "Good readers use many forms of thinking and analysing text as they read. It is therefore important to teach beginning readers strategies for constructing meaning from text. A strategy is the intentional application of a cognitive routine by a reader before, during, or after reading a text  Comprehension strategies help readers enhance their understanding, overcome difficulties in comprehending text, and compensate for weak or imperfect knowledge related to the text. The strategies may be taught one by one or in combination. Both approaches can improve reading comprehension, so the panel recommends that teachers choose the approach they are most comfortable with in the classroom. Teachers should also help students learn how to use comprehension strategies independently through the gradual release of responsibility. When releasing responsibility to students, however, be mindful that students differ in the extent of modelling or support they need from teachers in order to use strategies effectively."

Although all three resources go into more detail than the quotations I've included here, and I'd recommend that you read them for yourselves, there are some general things I'd like to pull out of what we've read:
  • It would seem that whilst Willingham agrees that comprehension strategies should be taught, he also thinks that research shows that the amount of practise time children get is not important. He points out that the main outcome we should be aiming for is that children remember to use strategies - in this view, the only benefit of repeated practice of particular strategies then is that children will have practised them so often that they never forget to employ them. But with inference-making for example, if children are not aware of the vast array of possible questions they might ask of a text in order to infer necessary information they might never know to ask those questions of a text, even when they do remember that they should ask questions of a text to ensure they have made necessary inferences. It is only possible to expose children to such a vast array of possible questions through a whole sequence of lessons, or, admittedly, a range of disconnected one-off lessons or questions within lessons over a longer period of time. A one-off lesson or question, with little time spent on it, is surely less likely to prompt a child to remember to use inference-making strategies than the recollection of a whole sequence of focused lessons.
  • Both Shanahan and the IES guide state that strategies can be taught in isolation (as does the EEF guidance report) but that strategies can also be taught in combination and that the choice is down to teachers. So perhaps, my belief in teaching strategies in isolation is just a personal preference - mine and Tim Shanahan's! To my mind though, that intentional application of a cognitive routine is a lot easier to approach as a teacher if I, and the children, are only having to think about one cognitive routine whilst we are teaching it and learning it. The potential benefit in doing this is that it limits the cognitive overload that might come with trying to learn and practise too many new strategies all at once when you aren't sufficient in using one, some or all of them.
  • The IES guide recognises that some students will need different amounts of modelling and practise before they can apply it independently and consistently. It will be the case that, if you teach strategies in isolation, some children will move beyond the need for this and therefore will not need to be involved in such activity as the explicit teaching of isolated strategies - this is common sense.
Whilst I know there are still many out there who would disagree with me, I think I would still advocate the teaching of reading strategies in isolation for readers who are not yet strong in the use of particular strategies. Certainly, for teachers who are hoping that, for example, children in their class get better at making inferences, I would recommend, instead of asking the odd, random inference question in a discussion or as part of a written reading comprehension, that lessons are more focused on the modelling and practise of particular kinds of inference questions about a range of texts. Without taking this approach teachers leave the learning of particular strategies to chance, hoping that children gain certain skills as a result of random exposure to infrequent opportunities to practise those strategies.

I've not fully thought through the implications of the following analogy but it's one a few have used in support of my position. We wouldn't teach children to solve a complex maths problem that required the use of several different maths facts and strategies until children were able to each one individually. Imagine a problem that required children to complete some multiplication, some division and to have a good idea about percentages and measures - we would first teach extensive learning sequences on each of the constituent parts before expecting a child to understand how to complete the question.

In reading, we are not afforded the luxury of being able to teach things in such isolation - a spiral curriculum approach is necessary, partly facilitated by increasing the complexity of the text. For example, decodable books used in the Early Years and KS1 require very little comprehension, for example, whereas whole novels used in KS2 require children to decode, recognise words, utilise background knowledge, retrieve and infer information, summarise and so on. Along a continuum in the middle of those two extremes children use age-appropriate books which allow them to exercise existing word recognition and language comprehension strategies and skills.

However, at any point along that continuum a child might struggle with any one of the strategies that they usually use. It might be that one child finds themselves in this position, it might be a group of children and it may be a whole class. At this point it might be useful to isolate the strategy they are particular struggling with and teach them accordingly, modelling and giving practise time across a range of age-appropriate texts whilst releasing the responsibility to them so that they can eventually use the strategy independently in the texts they are currently reading.

Whether or not we will all agree with my stance, I'm sure that more of us would agree that a great deal of thought needs to be put into how we go about teaching children to read. Over the years I have been guilty of expecting children, particularly those with limited reading experience, to just absorb the ability to comprehend well through the odd read aloud and the rare comprehension task - this didn't work. My reaction to this has been to seek structured approaches to teaching children the strategies they need to be able to read well, the focus of this blog post being one of them.