As an English teacher, the reading conundrum remains a perpetual source of angst to me. With the recent curriculum reform, the reading demands on pupils in my subject area are greater than ever: three unseen texts, often aimed at a reading age of seventeen plus. Nor is the angst just mine: the students feel it acutely too. As a practitioner, there’s nothing more disheartening than reading an assessed piece, seeing that the pupil has desperately tried to employ the structures that you’ve taught in their response, only for everything to fall apart because the text just wasn’t comprehended or understood. The result? Gross misinterpretation ensues. Marks plummet, alongside confidence.
But it’s not just an English teacher’s problem, is it? Reading is absolutely fundamental to success in any subject area, never mind life. With the demands and ‘rigour’ of the new curriculum being greater than ever, our students have to understand and remember more than ever. The reading demands have increased in every single subject and, as teachers, we can too often make the assumption that, because a child can read relatively fluently, that this naturally equates with an understanding of what is read. To make matters even more complicated, each subject comes laden with its own language and vocabulary. This said, I’ve pondered the reading conundrum more than ever recently and, in search of possible solutions, I’ve immersed myself in the research evidence, notably the EEF’s Literacy Key Stage 2 Guidance Report, Scarborough and Cain, Oakhill and Elbro’s handbook on reading comprehension. For me, Scarborough’s Reading rope perfectly illustrates what is a really knotty concept (no pun intended), dividing skilled reading into two broad strands: language comprehension and word recognition.
Within each strand, there are sub-strands that become entwined as pupils progress in their reading ability, gradually learning to synthesise the different elements. In schools, we often dedicate a great deal of attention – and quite rightly so - on actively teaching word decoding (particularly through phonics) but, though we might include comprehension activities in lessons, language comprehension strategies are not consistently taught or given the extensive coverage they need. Yet it’s language comprehension that will truly unlock meaning for our students (particularly in the later years) and, though it is dependent on a fluent reading style, a greater consistency and understanding is required.
So what, exactly, constitutes ‘language comprehension’ skills?
Cain et al’s handbook defines good reading comprehension as something that will ‘… depend on good language understanding more generally. This requires comprehension of the individual words and sentences they form. However, comprehension typically requires the comprehender to integrate the sense of these words and sentences into a meaningful … mental model’. This ‘mental model’ is, quite simply, an overall representation of a text’s meaning. To build this model well, students need to draw on a range of complex skills:
activating word meanings (vocabulary – look to Huntington Research School for some excellent ideas around this);
an understanding of different sentence structures and how they link to other sentences within the text;
an understanding of a text’s structure;
long-term and working memory.
With the ever-growing demands of the curriculum and exams, it is increasingly clear that these skills are integral to student success in every subject, not just English. And with the latest DfE data (interpreted brilliantly here by the team at Education DataLab) and EEF Reports showing that significant gaps in progress and attainment still exist nationally for key groups of pupils, notably disadvantaged students and boys, the question should surely not be ‘why should it be my problem?’ but ‘how can I afford for it not to be?’.