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Leadership, Redesigning Schools

Reading Comprehension: Did You Have an Inter Course Break Too?

I’m honestly not being or meaning to be presumptuous.  Over recent years, myself and Cath have tend to eat our turkey dinner, main course, on Christmas day, tidy away the pots and then go for a walk before coming back for some pudding. 

My Christmas dinner; yes, I like cranberry sauce!

On Skype to our daughter in Melbourne and with the family gathered around, I informed every one of our plan to take a quick break between courses.  It was only the laughter and the shocked look on Cath’s face that led me realise that they had not seen the space between the two key words; in my mind the meaning was different to the one they took.  The problem with language, oral and written, is that it can be ambiguous; in fact, very ambiguous.

In The Reading Mind and this video, Daniel Willingham explains how the mind works to understand sentences.  He uses the example, “Time flies like an arrow”.  The meaning we take from this is that time passes quickly; in the way an arrow flies quickly once released from the bow.  However, he explains how it could be interpreted differenty but never is; there is a certain type of fly, called a time fly, which has a particular fondness for arrows.  It also makes sense to see it as an instruction to time flies with additional helpful information; if unsure, you should time flies in the same way as you would time an arrow in flight.

A writer doesn’t put everything that is in her/his mind on the page.  Part of the challenge of comprehending a passage is having the background knowledge required to fully understand even a few sentences; to fill in the gaps the author has left that links the sentences and paragraphs together.

Photo Credit: TripAdvisor

“Cath can only get time off work in January.  We’ve decided it wasn’t worth going to Tromso to cruise the beautiful fjords.”

Pupils will be able to answer questions about when Cath could get time off work; where we intended to go on holiday and what we wanted to see.  They may have no idea what a fjord or cruise is or where Tromso is.  The most challenging question is why did we decide to that it was not worth going?  Tromso is in northern Norway; it’s dark 24 hours a day in early January hence we wouldn’t be able to see anything.

Reading is a Skill but Mostly A Knowledge Thing

Pupils are helped significantly by having the prior knowledge required to fully understand a text.  On YouTube you’ll find lots of short videos about what cruises and fjords are; these are an easy way to help fill in some gaps.  As Willingham stresses (watch the video; link above), an appropriately sequenced curriculum is essential in order to develop a good reader in both a general sense (wide curriculum knowledge with limited depth) or a domain specific good reader (narrower curriculum knowledge but in greater depth).

Imagine if the pupils, prior to reading the sentences above had studied how the tilt of the Earth changes over the seasons and the impact this has on daylight,  Once told that Tromoso is in Norway; knowing where Norway is they deduce, in January, it will be very cold and dark.  Some bright spark might even suggest we go on holiday and take in the Norther Lights.

Photo Credit: D T Willingham (click the image to go to the video)

Willingham supports his argument – as he does throughout The Reading Mind – using research; poorer readers can outperform better readers when the text requires specific knowledge that they possess.  In the graph above, a pupils’ depth of knowledge about baseball correlated highly with their reading comprehension on a text about baseball; much better than the general reading scores.  Poorer readers could use their prior knowledge to fill in the gaps left by the writer which substantially aided their understanding.  Arguably a reading test is actually a knowledge test.

This also helps explain why many readers enjoy reading books from a series or on topics they already have a knowledge of.  Their enjoyment is linked to being able to access the text with relative ease.  The converse is also true; the infamous Dodo text in the 2016 Key Stage 2 SATs will still be remembered by many.

The implications for schools are multiple and complex.  Once a child can decode fluently; an appropriately sequenced, broad curriculum that systematically builds pupils’ knowledge is the route to better reading.  Vocabulary needs to be explicitly developed; Tier 2 & 3 words. This is challenging enough but pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds will still lag behind their more affluent peers unless we can find ways to support their families to engage in culturally enriching experiences; social mobility will require an investment in families as well as schools in deprived communities.

Click the image to link to the EEF Guidance

The ability to understand a piece of text can be enhanced by developing reading comprehension skills; this tends to be a significant but one off improvement.  I’ll take that as any boos is better than none.

If you’re interested the blogs preceding this are:

What Cognitive Science Can Teaching Us About the Reading Mind (looks at decoding and the ambiguity of sounds)

Happie Nu Yeer Tu U (looks at decoding again and how we gain meaning from context)



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