There are many effective strategies to help children understand what they read: inferring meaning from the wider context of written materials, summarising or identifying key points in texts, using graphic or semantic organisers, developing questioning strategies, as well as teaching pupils to monitor their own comprehension and identify difficulties for themselves.
These approaches, if delivered well, can improve learning, on average, by an extra five months’ progress over a school year. They are particularly effective for older readers (aged 8 or above) and pupils who are not making expected progress.
As with all teaching strategies, they work best when they are explicitly spelled out: posing a specific question about a text, for example. This might be something like, “What is the main idea?”. Then get pupils to practise applying this question, collaboratively or through peer teaching initially, with specific structured tasks on carefully selected texts.
The aim is that this specific question is practised regularly so that it becomes an automatic skill the reader can use to understand their reading of different types of texts. Most students will benefit from explicit instruction as they progress from learning to read, to reading to learn.
Teachers need to consider carefully which texts are best. It’s an example of education’s “Goldilocks principle”: too little challenge in texts means limited learning, but too much can be overwhelming. What is it that the pupils find difficult to understand? It may be long and complex sentences. It may be unfamiliar vocabulary. It may be that the context or setting is unfamiliar to them.
And which research-based strategy is required for the specific difficulties that pupils face at different stages of their reading development? Some schools have changed from group and guided reading to reciprocal questioning, but have adopted this strategy over the course of a term or even longer. It will become less effective unless pupils are given increasingly challenging texts with more complex questions on which to apply this technique.
International evidence indicates that we underestimate the difficulties some students still have with decoding texts at secondary school. Their skills may not be sufficiently rapid and automatic to be able to think about the meaning of what they read. Another concern at secondary school is that the reading gap is due to a knowledge gap in different subjects of the curriculum.
Successful inference requires knowledge of the setting or context of a piece of writing and knowledge of the specific vocabulary it contains. This varies across the curriculum. The language of different subjects becomes increasingly particular to history or geography or biology, each of which comes with their own terminologies and patterns of reasoning.
Nine and 10-year-olds in England did slightly better in reading comprehension tests in the 2016 Pirls (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study) compared with five years previously. But pupils from less privileged backgrounds continue to lag behind their wealthier peers. The quarter of pupils who reported feeling hungry at school performed poorly in Pirls, compared with those who said they were never hungry.
Even the best comprehension strategies may be less effective on empty stomachs.
Lee Elliot Major is chief executive of the Sutton Trust and Steve Higgins is a professor of education at Durham University. They authored the teaching and learning toolkit, now the Education Endowment Foundation toolkit