Showing posts sorted by relevance for query inference. Sort by date Show all posts
Showing posts sorted by relevance for query inference. Sort by date Show all posts

Saturday, 27 January 2018

Reading Comprehension: A Structured Way Of Teaching Inference-Making


Following on from my blog post entitled 'Research Findings: Are There Different Skills Within Inference?' this blog post provides practical advice about how inference-making might be taught in a structured and simple way. If you are interested in the research base for what I put forward in this blog post then do read 'Research Findings: Are There Different Skills Within Inference?' first. 

Based on my reading of research, and on my analysis of my own experience of teaching inference-making, I put forward that when we make inferences we are thinking about why things are or are not so. To break that down I also suggest that:

  • Inference-making can revolve around actions such as what is (or is not) said, done, thought, felt, believed, perceived and so on. Inference-making is also about why, how, when and where these actions take place. These action-based inferences might pertain to actions in the past or the present, or to intended actions.
  • Inference-making might also involve events (or happenings, or occurrences) such as what happens or does not happen. Inference-making is also about why, how, when and where these occurrences take place. There are obvious crossovers here with how the actions of a story's characters, or a text's subject, influence events. Making inferences about events might focus more on things that happen with or without human influence e.g. as a result of natural processes or a sequence of other events.
  • Thirdly, inference-making might be about the state of things. These inferences might refer more to inert, insentient things such as places, buildings and objects and could focus on why things are as they are, what they are, how they came to be and where they are. In a way, Class 8: Instantiation of Noun (see my previous blog post) is actually an example of this. Using the same example, and posing is as a question that a reader might ask themselves: What is breakfast? It is bacon and eggs. In the same way Class 1: Referential is an example of making an inference about a thing's state: What is it? It is a fork.

If at least the majority of inferences that we make whilst reading revolve around a verb, including forms of the verb 'to be', then we have a sensible starting point to teaching inference-making. There may be disagreement about whether or not inference can be learned, but what is certain is that it can be modelled by teachers and practised by children in simple comprehension lessons where questions are posed and answered. Since much of reading instruction follows this process it would make sense to be a little more deliberate about teaching inference-making, especially as it is not always easy to do - the very nature of it means that information is not always explicit and takes more finding.

Reading lessons involving comprehension questions, I'd be willing to bet, often follow one of the two patterns:
  • a sequence of questions that naturally arise from the text, usually a mixture of different reading skills
  • a more deliberate set of questions that aim to allow children to practise a specific set of reading skills
These are fine if your aim is for children to have a complete understanding of a piece of text, or if you are giving children the chance to practise a range of skills after they've had specific skills teaching. What I suggest, at least for lessons where you intend to teach reading skills, is that individual skills are modelled by the teacher and practised by the children. If, for example, you wanted children to get better at making inferences you would model inference-making and then make provision for children to practise inference-making.

But, even this presents a problem: not all inferences are the same. A teacher might model an inference about why something happened and then give children practise questions about how someone feels. This won't allow a child to practise particular skills; only children who are already very skilled in making inferences will be able to answer them and in this case the child would need some more challenging work.

Children will probably benefit best from having the chance to practise specific inferences based on the different types of inference-making listed above. If teachers can provide questions that are of a similar structure, and provide structures for the answers too, then children who are at the learning stage of inference-making might have a better of chance of being able to make inferences whenever they are reading.

If you would like Aidan to work with you on developing reading at your school, please visit his website at https://www.aidansevers.com/services and get in touch via the contact details that can be found there.

This blog post is the second in a series of three:

Part 1: Research Findings: Are There Different Skills Within Inference?
Part 3: Questions To Ask When Teaching Inference-Making

See also:

Scaffolding Inference - my blog post about how first asking vocabulary and retrieval questions can guide children towards answering inference questions.

Monday, 5 February 2018

How To Use Questioning When Teaching Inference-Making


How To Use Questioning When Teaching Inference-Making
In my last blog post on inference-making (Questions To Ask When Teaching Inference-Making) I provided lots of questions which might support inference-making, along with some suggested answer structures for teachers and children to use when answering inference questions. In this blog post we will look at how these questions can be used wisely in lessons so that children's inference-making skills are developed.

Anne Kispal, in her literature review entitled 'Effective Teaching of Inference Skills for Reading', writes: "Underpinning the research reviewed is the assumption that pupils must be explicitly taught the skills they need for comprehension. They cannot be left to pick them up through simple exposure to texts, or through the natural process of maturation." (page 24) It is clear that we should teach children the strategies they need in order to be able to understand what they read - the strategy we are concerned with explicitly teaching here is inference-making.

The questions I shared previously should be used carefully - they are not solely for use in a written comprehension activity which children complete independently. They should also be modelled, discussed, answered orally and asked about aurally-presented texts as well as read texts.

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of the why, I propose a sequence (flexible, of course) to help use inference questions in the most effective way:
  1. Teacher reads aloud a part of the text
  2. Teacher allows children to read the same part of the text
  3. Teacher provides a summary of the text
  4. Teacher models inference-making (which might include clarifying word meanings, locating specific information and discussing necessary prior/background knowledge)
  5. Teacher provides a second summary of the text which takes what has been inferred into consideration
  6. Teacher reads aloud next part of the text
  7. Children read next part of the text themselves
  8. Children summarise text
  9. Children answer inference questions (and any supporting vocabulary, retrieval and background knowledge questions, this could be a written task, or an oral one)
  10. Children summarise text a second time taking into consideration what has been inferred
  11. Teacher models answers and, if written, children edit their work to improve their answers
Now let's see a break down of why it might be a good idea to roughly follow this sequence when using the inference questions:

1. Teacher reads aloud a part of the text

On the Reading Rockets website (a great and accessible online resource) Judith Gold and Akimi Gibson provide an excellent summary of the research on reading aloud:

"Reading aloud is the foundation for literacy development. It is the single most important activity for reading success (Bredekamp, Copple, & Neuman, 2000). It provides children with a demonstration of phrased, fluent reading (Fountas & Pinnell, 1996). It reveals the rewards of reading, and develops the listener's interest in books and desire to be a reader (Mooney, 1990)."

Whether or not you have the children reading along with you is another matter; David Didau, in his blog post 'The Problem With 'Reading Along'', proposes that we don't because the act of listening and reading at the same time can overload the working memory and hinder comprehension of the text. If that is true, then the next step is an important replacement for children reading along.

Note: during this read-through it is best not to stop reading to ask too many questions. Although Kispal summarises that teachers should "practise inferential questions on aurally presented texts" she also provides these cautionary notes on questioning:
  • not to interrupt pupils by asking questions during reading time
  • not to launch into questioning too soon afterwards. The teacher must allow time for consolidation of what has been read as a mental representation
  • practise inferential questions on aurally presented texts

With the first bullet point above in mind Kispal also reports that "the only condition that was found [by Hannon and Daneman (1998)] to significantly encourage inferencing was that of integrating questions into the text combined with allowing longer reading time" (this was in a study of university students rather than young children).

2. Teacher allows children to read the same part of the text

An end goal of reading instruction is to ensure that children can independently decode and understand something. Once the reading has been modelled it is a good idea for children then to have a go themselves in preparation for times when they won't have an adult to read for them. Typically we might ask children to do this in silence, but this isn't the only way. Re-reading aloud to a partner or to themselves has added benefits.

The Key Stage 2 Literacy Guidance Report from the EEF mentions that one way to improve fluency is for children to read aloud the same text that they have just had read to them. It also summarises research that shows that "fluent reading style supports comprehension because pupils’ limited cognitive resources are freed from focusing on word recognition and can be redirected towards comprehending the text." (page 11)

If re-reading a text develops fluency and fluency supports comprehension of the text then that is definitely something we should be building in to our reading lessons. This time spent re-reading also allows children to consolidate what they have heard and read (see Kispal's cautionary notes above).

3. Teacher provides a summary of the text

In his book 'Reading Comprehension: Assisting Children with Learning Difficulties' Gary Wooley outlines how mental models, or representations, are created by the reader:

"While reading, skilled readers normally develop a text-based model, which is a mental representation of the actual text discourse. The text-based model incorporates propositions extracted from the reading of successive sentences that are sometimes supplemented by inferences that are necessary to make the text more coherent."

I suggest that before a teacher models the inference-making that will lead to the creation of a more complex situation model (more on this in step 5) they should model a summary of the text to help children who have not developed a sufficient enough text-based model from which to begin to draw inferences. Providing summaries of the text for children is known to be a useful strategy to help EAL learners and so might they be for others learning reading comprehension strategies.

4. Teacher models inference-making

Kispal writes that "teacher modelling is regarded as the first step in training children to ask and answer questions of this type of themselves... Teachers should attempt to find texts rich in inferencing possibilities and to have in mind which inferences they will elicit in discussion."
(page 30)

The literature review then goes on to suggest that to show inference-making in use teachers should "model inferencing by asking relevant questions aloud and answering them" and that they should "think thoughts aloud to show how teacher arrives at an inference." 
(page 51)

Inference-making relies on the reader having done other things with the text such as clarifying word meanings, locating specific information and discussing necessary prior/background knowledge so these processes may need to be modelled also. When considering the activation of prior knowledge Kispal's review of research makes the following suggestions to take into consideration when discussing questions:
  • pupils generate initial associations 
  • they discuss and clarify their collective knowledge 
  • they reformulate knowledge, clarifying what they now know as a result of discussion

According to Kispal's review of literature, whilst modelling and discussing inference-making teachers should ask "questions about relationships between characters, goals and motivations" and ask "questions that foster comprehension monitoring, such as Is there information that doesn’t agree with what I already know? Are there any ideas that don’t fit together (because of contradictions, ambiguous referents, misleading topic shifts)? Is there any information missing or not clearly explained?" Teachers should always be asking "‘How do you know?’ whenever an inference is generated in discussion of a text." Teachers can also "show examples of how all types of questions can be derived from a text" using the question words (i.e. who, ‘when, why).
(page 38)

Questions that can be used to support systematic and structured teaching of the wide variety of inferences can be downloaded here: https://www.tes.com/teaching-resource/questions-to-support-inference-making-11825987

5. Teacher provides a second summary of the text which takes what has been inferred into consideration

In point 3 we looked at how teachers might share a summary of the text for the purpose of aiding the development of a text-based model. Once a text-based model has been created, and further inferences have been made, a situation model can then be developed.

In his book 'Reading Comprehension: Assisting Children with Learning Difficulties' Gary Wooley outlines how situation models (a kind of mental model or representation) are created by the reader:

"In contrast [to text-based models], situation models include elaborative inferences that integrate prior knowledge with text-based information.teacher modelling is regarded as the first step in training children to ask and answer questions of this type of themselves.

"Thus, the construction of a situation model is a dynamic constructive process that is determined by the interaction of the reader, the text structures, and the semantic content. 

"In constructing a situation model the reader is required to search for coherence at the local and global levels and to infer meanings that are often implied by drawing from their existing background knowledge. While doing this, the reader actively constructs the situation model by using information within the text and also information from stored prior knowledge. Thus, the main difference between text-based and the situation model is assumed to be one of inference making, the text-based model is inferentially light while the situation model is inferentially dense." 

It seems important to reassess the mental models that are created after making new inferences from the text.

6. Teacher reads aloud next part of the text

See point 1

7. Children read next part of the text themselves

See point 2

8. Children summarise text

See point 3. Children, having had this modelled to them, have a chance to practise their own summary to aid their text-based mental model before they answer any inference questions. This could be done in writing or verbally.

9. Children answer inference questions

This could be with support, without support, in pairs, independently, as a group, as a written task or as an oral task. Children may also need to understand the vocabulary used in the text, retrieve information from the text and link their background knowledge to the text - this could be done through discussion or by a structured sequence of questions (see my idea of scaffolding inference).

Kispal summarises that paired or group work allows pupils share the thought processes that led them to make inferences and that the younger the children, the more aural work they should undertake.
Kispal also writes that research on inference-making suggests that we should "train pupils to acquire the habit of asking themselves why-questions occasionally while they are reading, as these are most supportive of understanding". Another suggested strategy is to ask "pupils [to] generate questions using these question words [who, when, why etc] from a text and group members answer."
(page 38)

10. Children summarise text a second time taking into consideration what has been inferred

See point 5. Children, having had this modelled to them, have a chance to practise their own summary to aid their mental situation model once they have answered the inference questions. This could be done in writing or verbally.

Summary

Whilst structures like the one I've suggested can be useful, it is only there as a suggestion and will need to be adapted according to need. Having said that, this sequence takes into account many research-based practices which aid in the teaching of inference-making and therefore should be a good solid starting point for reading lessons that focus on inference-making (and probably other reading comprehension strategies). Use with discretion not because I said so!

For an example of how this might work with a real class novel, please see my planning for the first 10 chapters of 'My Dad's A Birdman' by David Almond. 5 whole lessons are focused on making inferences about characters' motives and a further 5 lessons focus on making inferences about characters' feelings. In the teachers notes I have not included information about the text summaries but every other part of the sequence is detailed.

If you would like Aidan to work with you on developing reading at your school, please visit his website at https://www.aidansevers.com/services and get in touch via the contact details that can be found there.

Saturday, 27 January 2018

Research Findings: Are There Different Skills Within Inference?

In her literature review 'Effective Teaching of Inference Skills for Reading' (https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED501868.pdf) Anne Kispal asks are there different skills within inference? and goes on to define and exemplify the most frequently cited inference types:

Coherence inferences maintain textual integrity. For example, in the sentence 'Peter begged his mother to let him go to the party', the reader would have to realise that the pronouns ‘his’ and ‘him’ refer to Peter to fully understand the meaning.

Elaborative inferences enrich the mental representation of the text, e.g: 'Katy dropped the vase. She ran for the dustpan and brush to sweep up the pieces'. The reader would have to draw upon life experience and general knowledge to realise that the vase broke to supply the connection between these sentences.

Local inferences create a coherent representation at the local level of sentences and paragraphs. This class of inferences includes:

  1. coherence inferences (described above).
  2. “case structure role assignments”, e.g. Dan stood his bike against the tree. The reader needs to realise that the tree is assigned to a location role.
  3. some “antecedent causal” inferences, e.g. He rushed off, leaving his bike unchained. The reader would need to infer that Dan was in a hurry and left his bicycle vulnerable to theft.

Global inferences create a coherent representation covering the whole text. The reader needs to infer overarching ideas about the theme, main point or moral of a text by drawing on local pieces of information (thus supporting my theory that one must be able to make inferences before trying to summarise a piece of text).

In 'Constructing Inferences During Narrative Text Comprehension' Graesser, Singer and Trabasso identify 13 classes of inference:

In all but two (or three) of the inferences in the right-hand column it is interesting to note that each class of inference contains a verb, and therefore is concerned with something being so. We might assume that most inferences are about action, state or occurrence.

The two (or three) classes of inference which appear not be concerned with something being so (or are not about action, state or occurrence) is Class 1: Referential, Class 8: Instantiation of Noun Category and potentially Class 5: Thematic.

These thirteen classes can be linked to Kispal's summary of the most frequently cited inference types:

"The order in which the inference classes are listed in Table 1 is not altogether arbitrary. Inference classes 1, 2, and 3 are needed to establish local coherence, whereas inference classes 3 and 4 are critical for establishing explanations. Classes 4,5, and 6 are important for establishing global coherence. Classes 7 through 11 are elaborative inferences that are not needed for establishing coherent explanatory meaning representations. Classes 12 and 13 address the pragmatic communicative exchange between reader and author." (Graesser, Singer and Trabasso, 1994)

Whilst the authors state that "these classes do not exhaust all of the potential inferences during comprehension" they provide a very good starting point to thinking about teaching inference-making at a primary level.

So, by and large, when we make inferences we are thinking about why things are or are not so.

If you would like Aidan to work with you on developing reading at your school, please visit his website at https://www.aidansevers.com/services and get in touch via the contact details that can be found there.

This blog post is the second in a series of three:

Part 2: Reading Comprehension: A Structured Way Of Teaching Inference-Making
Part 3: Questions To Ask When Teaching Inference-Making

See also:

Scaffolding Inference - my blog post about how first asking vocabulary and retrieval questions can guide children towards answering inference questions.

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 content 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. It has also been shown that 95%-98% of the vocabulary in a text needs to be understood in order to be able to derive a general meaning of the text (Schmitt, Jiang & Grabe, 2011).

So, another content 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 content 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.

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

Monday, 14 May 2018

Teaching Reading Comprehension: Modelling and Practice (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 practice 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 my website - they are editable so even if you don't have the book, you can use the activities as a template: https://www.aidansevers.com/product-page/inference-question-examples-and-templates

If you would like Aidan to work with you on developing reading at your school, please visit his website at https://www.aidansevers.com/services and get in touch via the contact details that can be found there.

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 my website - they are also editable so even if you don't have the book, you can use the activities as a template: https://www.aidansevers.com/product-page/inference-question-examples-and-templates

If you would like Aidan to work with you on developing reading at your school, please visit his website at https://www.aidansevers.com/services and get in touch via the contact details that can be found there.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

UPDATED: 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. Many people ask how the lower prior attainers can be catered for in these sessions - I've written more about that here. 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 often, but not always, accompanied by lots of discussion and modelling of my thought processes as a reader.

Reading For Pleasure - Many school plan elaborate initiatives in an attempt to entice children into reading with the hope that this will lead to them choosing to read for pleasure. My reading lessons always contain a time of just reading the class novel for enjoyment - books are the most powerful tool when it comes to getting children to love and enjoy reading. I've written more about it here in my blog post entitled 'On Why I'll Still Be Dressing Up For World Book Day And The Power Of Books'.

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. I have written a whole blog post entitled 'How To Write Good Comprehension Questions' which gives more insight into how I go about setting questions for reading lessons. In at least some lessons there is a focus on particular reading strategies, such as inference-making which I have written about here: Questions To Ask When Teaching Inference-Making.

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. Reading Roles have been used by other teachers in other schools - some of them have written about it here.

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. Not only can inference be scaffolded, other reading strategies can too: Scaffolding Structures For Reading Comprehension Skills.

Growing Background Knowledge - this isn't always easy to do as background knowledge can vary so much from child to child. What we do know is that our understanding of a text hinges greatly on what we already know - this might be a knowledge of vocabulary or just a more general knowledge. I have written about possible strategies to take when it comes to building children's background knowledge: 5 Ways To Make Texts With Unfamiliar Contexts More Accessible To ChildrenAttacking Children's Immunity To Imaginative Literature.

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. I have also written about this for the TES: Why Every Primary School Needs To Embrace Non-Fiction.

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.

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.

If you would like Aidan to work with you on developing reading at your school, please visit his website at https://www.aidansevers.com/services and get in touch via the contact details that can be found there.