Was the Sats reading paper fair for children with Send?

As schools receive their 2019 key stage 2 Sats results, Send and literacy specialist Kenny Wheeler looks at this year’s reading paper through the eyes of a pupil with literacy difficulties 

Sats reading test

The key stage 2 Sats reading paper contained more than 3,000 words across three extracts and 39 questions. 

To pass the test, pupils needed to be able to read fluently, comprehending the text and make inferences. 

The three extracts – one fact and two fiction – used a range of vocabulary, some of which children might not be familiar with, eg, pollination, geranium, kerosene. Out of the 39 questions, the two main content domains required pupils to: 

  • Retrieve and record information; identify key details from fiction and non-fiction.

  • Make inferences from the text; explain and justify inferences with evidence from the text. 

There is a time limit of one hour that adds urgency to read and understand the text, comprehend the questions and then formulate answers that best convey an individual’s knowledge and understanding.

Sats reading paper

How might this have all felt to children with literacy difficulties?

Literacy difficulties are persistent difficulty in reading, writing, speaking and/or listening that may not be responsive to standard education approaches and require further intervention. 


Quick read: What are the KS1 Sats threshold scores?

Want to know more? Did the reading test meet your expectations?


Around 5 per cent of learners in mainstream education have a diagnosed Send that will significantly impact their literacy skills, so let’s take a step back – what would the challenges be for someone with literacy difficulties? 

  1. Reading the text

  2. Comprehension

  3. Inference

  4. Understanding the questions

  5. Composing answers.

Are the Sats an accurate test?

If a pupil has a slower reading rate of, say, 90 words per minute, then by the time they have read the text they have under one minute to answer each question – that is only one minute to go through stages 2 to 5. 

Even if the pupil is eligible for access arrangements, this only gives, on average, an extra 20 seconds per question. 

So, are we testing the ability to read, understand and respond to questions or are we testing reading speed? Are we making it a fair assessment for pupils who have literacy difficulties? 

Responding to this challenge should not be prompted by the Sats alone. Every day in school we should be supporting these learners with their ongoing literacy independence. Here are three simple things every school should be doing. 

1. Reading as an opportunity to develop vocabulary and comprehension

Firstly, pupils need to move beyond the decoding phase. They need opportunities to not only read text but understand it and have opportunities to discuss and explore what is happening. They will also need access to interesting books, books which appeal to them and challenge them so they are not just relying on sight vocabulary to access them.

Reading together is an opportunity for broadening working vocabulary. The more vocabulary that pupils have available to them will help during class discussions and will also stimulate different ways of thinking and approaching challenges in the future.

2. Identify key vocabulary to develop

Review key vocabulary in schemes of work that learners will need to be aware of. Plan for how this key vocabulary will be introduced in lessons so that it ‘sticks’. Use a variety of models to help learners understand the composition of the word and where it features in particular subjects. 

3. Guide written responses 

Provide tasks that challenge learners to think about how they need to approach designing their response. Consider the initial support in helping learners commit their knowledge to the page. 

Start with scaffolds and remove them over time so that learners are aware of the different approaches they will need when writing their answers. 

The challenge element is important so that learners consciously think about how to construct their response rather than rushing in thinking they know what to do only to run out of ideas or write without answering the question.

Kenny Wheeler is senior consultant teacher at the Driver Youth Trust

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