After I finished my teacher training, I thought I knew how to teach reading comprehension. I had been armed with six or so key strategies and I was shown how to model and facilitate meaningful practice of these strategies. Hence, I was pretty good at regular and explicit modelling of inference, predicting, summarising and so on, using a wide and varied selection of texts.
So in my first year as a NQT, I did all this and read daily with the class, and I encouraged reading for pleasure as best I could. I did everything I had been told to do.
And yet, none of it seemed to work.
Fast-forward a decade, and I think I now know why that was. The answer was background knowledge.
A number of research studies suggest that reading comprehension relies heavily on background knowledge. In a study by Recht and Leslie (1988), for example, children were given an article about baseball and then asked a series of comprehension questions. Those children who were assessed as having low reading skills but high levels of background knowledge in baseball outperformed children who were assessed as having high reading skills but a weak background knowledge. The conclusion was that the background knowledge of the context of the article aided comprehension.
Similarly, cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham explains that once children can decode fluently, whether they do or do not understand a text relies heavily on their background knowledge of its context (in Raising Kids Who Read, 2015). And ED Hirsch, in The Knowledge Deficit (2007), suggests that making inferences relies heavily on background knowledge and that the repeated practice of making inferences won’t necessarily make a child any better at reading, but developing their background knowledge will.
It follows, then, that a child who has a broad background knowledge in science, history, geography and so on, is likely to be a more successful reader than a child without that broad knowledge, regardless of how much time they have spent being run through comprehension strategies.
So how have I changed my approach to teaching reading comprehension?
This year, I focused heavily on developing the reading of non-fiction in my Year 6 class in order to develop a broad knowledge base. Following the recommendations of Doug Lemov in Reading Reconsidered (2016), I structured my curriculum so that children would develop their knowledge of the wider curriculum through reading. This led to the best reading Sats results the school has ever had and I witnessed the strongest progress in reading confidence in any class I have ever taught. Key to this success was increasing children’s absorption rate – ie, structuring the reading week so that children could eventually tackle challenging texts with minimal guidance from me.
In our topic on reptiles, for example, we started by reading about crocodilians. The first text we came across as a class was rife with unfamiliar vocabulary (“basking”, “primitive”, “prehistoric”, etc) and also domain-specific knowledge (what did “cold-blooded” mean? What was an “adaptation”?).
We unpicked these challenges as a class through discussion, plenty of Planet Earth clips and mini-lectures. Then children read about snakes, and because they had developed a bit of domain-specific knowledge and had a developing vocabulary, they required less support from me. Then we read about lizards and, by this point, I was working with just a small group of children as the vast majority of the class were tackling challenging texts with ease because they had developed the background knowledge and vocabulary required to do so. They read with confidence and clarity, and produced some superb essays.
Our next topic was big cats. We found that much of the knowledge acquired during our reptiles topic was transferable. Children read about adaptations and inheritance with minimal support from me because they had already developed a strong background knowledge. The children’s knowledge of the hunting techniques of crocodiles, and how these link to their body shape, helped them to understand why cheetahs, lions and leopards hunt in such different ways. Much of the vocabulary was familiar but with their newly increased confidence, children tackled unfamiliar words with glee.
There was a knock-on benefit for our understanding of the fiction we read, too. In the past, I would have spent a lesson or two researching the context of a piece of fiction before reading. This year, we spent several weeks reading non-fiction about the Victorians before we tackled A Christmas Carol. I purposefully steered our history curriculum so that children developed an understanding of the social class system of Scrooge’s Britain.
We studied the conditions of the workhouses, the attitudes towards the poor, crime and punishment and the work of charities such as Barnardo’s. For this Year 6 class, Scrooge’s reply of “Are there no prisons?” had a more significant impact because their understanding of the context highlighted its callousness.
But, throughout all this, the most significant challenge I faced as a teacher was how to assess whether or not children understood the texts we were reading. A few key “check for understanding” activities were required if I was to ensure that I was giving the support and challenge each child required. Here’s what I did.
1. Ask questions
A few well-written, open-ended questions that require a degree of inference, and/or some multiple-choice questions, can be extremely useful when checking for understanding.
2. Concept maps
The topic of the reading sits at the centre of the page. The teacher then litters the rest of the page with phrases showing the key concepts to be taken away from the reading. After reading an article about wolves, the key concepts surrounding this title might be “predator”, “adaptations”, “dominant”, “tails held high”, etc.
Children then link concepts together, annotating the page with an explanation as to how the concepts are linked. In this example, a pupils would link the word “dominant” to “tails held high” with an annotation that states something like “wolves do this to show that they are the leaders of the pack”.
3. Text marking
Provide children with a copy of a text. Ask them to highlight key phrases, sentences or passages that provide information about a specific aspect of the topic being studied. For example, if children were reading about Neolithic life, you may ask them to use a colour key to highlight information about “use of tools”. Once children learn to be discerning in their text marking, this activity provides quick visual feedback for teachers and allows children to practise a key academic skill.
Transformations are an excellent tool to check for understanding and can take various forms. In essence, children read a text, make notes, and then replicate the key information in a different format. For example, children can annotate images or diagrams, create timelines or summarise their understanding in a comparison alley.
Our next step, as a school, is to map out explicitly the knowledge that we wish our children to develop so that they begin secondary school with a broad understanding of the world, having read plenty of non-fiction along the way.
DM Crosby is deputy headteacher at a primary school in Nottinghamshire