Be a bank robber

... and Huw Thomas prepares Year 6 pupils for the reading tests.

Every year I ask Year 6: "How do you rob a bank?" We talk about tunnels, rooftops and disguises. Then I give them my theory: Sats comprehension is like robbing a bank. The marks are in there and we need good plans to get them out. I have little respect for these tests. The subject on which we are about to embark is exam technique, not literature. But, for what it's worth, here's my little list of ways in to where those marks are held.

Know the facts

A secure grasp of the facts is needed for the information retrieval questions. It also provides the foundation for answering more interpretative questions and provides a stimulating agenda for the allocated 15 minutes' reading time.

Watch for bogeys

Those not prepared for bogeys lose marks. In this context, a bogey is a wrong answer that is close to the right one. In the 1998 comprehension test the first question asked children to complete the sentence:

"Clara was in bed when her mother, Lotte, came to..."

and the options included the correct answer, "talk to her", as well as a bogey, "wake her up". A lot of pupils answered with the latter. After all, it said she was in bed and her mum came in. However in the text Clara said "I'm not asleep", when her mum enters. During practice lessons I ask children to pick out the bogeys as well as giving correct answers - an instruction they tend to remember.

Look at the marks

Encourage children to look at whether it's one, two or three marks for an answer. If it's one it's usually a basic fact or a quote. Two and three marks give an indication that more is wanted.

Watch the time

Probably one of the most alien lessons for children to learn before Sats is that they are timed. I usually give them the indication that they are looking at three to four minutes per page. When stuck, they need to let go of questions, returning once they've worked through ones they can do.

More space, more to say

We plant a bean. I ask them to tell me what I've done and what will happen in future. They tell me a lot about the bean. I point out they neglected to mention the soil.

This is the image I use for those questions that have two and three marks attached. There is often something obvious to say. For example, in 1998, when explaining why the young refugee is excited at his impending train journey children received one mark for identifying the source of his excitement - a train journey. The second mark was for that fuller answer that recognised his lack of awareness of the seriousness of the situation.

I ask children to think around that first fact and say a bit more about it.

If it's a three-line answer, if it's got two or three marks, write a bit more than you first put down.

Oddities? Work out how they work

Most tests feature odd questions - tables, charts, and, last year, a picture to label. The message is "Don't panic", they are often quite simple. Take last year's paper. There was a table to complete, but it was just a fact-finding task; the picture children had to interpret involved simple matching. Take time and figure out what the question wants us to do.

Think: "why the writer?"

To answer questions about why the writer used a certain phrase, or why a character does something, we need to ask "Why would I?" When words are in bold or italics, and the question asks why, readers need to ask "why would I have done that?"

Use text language

When, last year, we were asked how Sharon the lorry driver made her cab feel like home, the words providing answers were all in the text:

"microwave", "phoned", "TV", "music", "cosy cab". A reference to any of those gained one of the two marks available.

There's a balance to strike here. Copying loses marks. Remind them to take the text's language and weave it into their own.


It's the old secondary-essay acronym, but it works here as well. Make your Point, give an Example and provide some Explanation. When faced with those big boxes of lines for those larger questions I think this gives children something they can latch on to. At the very least it gives some security and a structure to the act of "having a go".


The most important pointer, not just for Sats but for the rest of their reading lives. As readers they need to think of their own response and give that. It is often the ingredient that bags the extra marks, yet children often hold back. They need to know that they will have a response, learn to reflect on what it is, however scrappily they may word it, and then be told to use it in their answers.

Put it in - don't leave it out

And don't forget to remind them that they are great learners, with inspiring ideas. It's just a shame someone thought the best way to test that was the Sats. Show it the same respect the robber shows the bank.

Let's get 'em.

Huw Thomas is a headteacher in Sheffield

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