Fluency is about so much more than reading at speed. Reading swiftly will get you so far, however, master the skill of reading at a good rate whilst attaining to meaning, well, then you are well on the way to reaching a worthwhile destination. Master the ability to do this whilst attuning to the subtle nuances of an age-appropriate text - for example, a richly-worded, multi-clause sentence-wielding text, and then - according to the DFE - you have cracked it! This is no mean feat! In this article, I will explore a practical way to support children in upper key stage 2 to develop their fluency skills in order to allow them to read and understand some of the more challenging texts that we want them to access and enjoy.
Hearing a child read aloud is so revealing; it can tell us so much about their current stage of comprehension. The DFE know this, hence why they released videos of children reading at Age Related Expectation in the lead up to the 2016 KS2 statutory assessments. In one of these videos, we see a Year 6 child giving a fluent reading of the The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. Without asking this child a single question, we know that he ‘gets’ what he is reading. How else would he know to read ‘slowly and deliberately’ at certain points, and to ‘change pace and tempo’ at others when there are no overt clues in the text, other than the words on the page, guiding him to do so (see the exemplification guidance for a full description of his reading)? In order to be able to do this, we can safely assume that the comprehension cogs inside his brain are turning together in slick unison. Thus to say, his Prediction cog is turning enabling him to predict that ‘those sort of people’ are probably going to become the victims in this tale and therefore this phrase requires being spoken with a degree of ‘empathetic expression’. No doubt he is readily making connections on the spot (utilising his Connection cog) as he is able to use intonation to convey Gretel’s child-like and demanding nature – perhaps he has had experience of pre-adolescent girls who are obsessed with playing dolls from characters encountered in previous reading, maybe – or real life experiences, I wonder! Either way, he is able to recognise that the way she would ask questions would be in a naive, almost indignant manner.
What has gone on in the classroom to enable this child to get this good at reading? There have no doubt been countless experiences and teacher practices involved in carving out such a competent comprehender, and without doubt, many of these practices and experiences have occurred throughout his primary schooling, and not just in Y6, but for the purpose of this article I want to focus on one element that has no doubt been a significant influencing factor throughout, and that is ‘modelling’.
We can assume that during his primary schooling, this child has heard a lot of people reading aloud, and doing it rather well. He knows that when reading aloud you should ‘read it like you mean it’! Clearly, he has been taught how to change his intonation in light of the obvious clues, like full stops, exclamation marks, question marks, commas. But he is obviously doing so much more than just paying lip-service to the overt punctuation. We know this because when those obvious clues are missing, he still manages to alter his intonation and pace, for example, in the following sentence: ‘Perhaps a few uncles too and some of those sorts of people who live on their own on everybody’s road but don’t seem to have any relatives at all…’ where the child pauses momentarily after the word ‘too’, and stresses the word ‘all’. So, how does he know to do this? The simple – and rather unhelpful - answer may be that he just does! He may be one of those children who has picked up this skill by osmosis, and, after hearing good readers reading aloud over many years, has now developed an implicit understanding of which words in the sentence hold special meaning and should therefore be stressed, and where additional pauses are likely to be necessary. But what about those children who haven’t yet managed to acquire this understanding by osmosis? For them, we may find it useful to provide explicit teaching alongside modelling.
Let’s take a pithy little sentence from the 2016 reading test as a way of unpicking the kind of explicit teaching that may be necessary:
For a long time Martine had only ever ridden Jemmy at night and in secret, but when her grandmother had found out about her nocturnal adventures she’d promptly banned them, on the grounds that the game’s reserve’s deadliest animals were all in search of dinner after dark and there was nothing they’d like more than to feast on a giraffe-riding eleven-year-old.
Although a little longer than the sentences tackled in the exemplification video, we can imagine that the child in the video would bring more to a read-aloud of this sentence than simply acknowledging the two commas and the final full stop. Indeed, as the teacher, I would model a read-aloud of this to my class by adding a great deal more than the overt punctuation that the author gives me. Specially, I would: add a fleeting pause after the fronted adverbial (‘For a long time’) to fix the time aspect in the listeners head; stress the word ‘and’ in order to reinforce the importance of the association between the ‘riding at night’ and this being ‘a secret’; ensure that the word ‘but’ is clipped and curt signalling the fact that a big reveal is coming up. I would continue in this way, adding the invisible punctuation that I know would add meaning to this piece. I would almost shout the word ‘deadliest’ - perhaps adding a grimace as well – to mimic the exaggeration that Martine’s grandmother would have no doubt used when she was telling Martine about the dangers of late-night riding. And so on… But most importantly from a teaching perspective, I would want the children to be able to tell me exactly what I had done and why. I would begin quite simply by asking an open question: what did you notice about how I read that aloud? From this simple beginning, I would see what came forth. I might need to dig a bit here and there: did you notice what I did with my voice at this bit? Why might I have done that? Then, I would encourage them to begin annotating their copies (I would have enlarged these and perhaps increased the spacing between each word and line). I am going to read it again: can you note on your copies where I make a momentary pause (the children may choose to mark this with a star or arrow- anything that differentiates it from the current punctuation in use on the page)? I would continue with my exploration: why did I do that, do you think? Now, I would like you to listen again and highlight the words that I stress. Look at your partner’s script and compare. Now, look at the words that you have highlighted and underline the ones that I really stress. By this point, the children have created their own annotated performance script, complete with additional markings to aid a confident read-along. Following this, I would want the children to have a go at reading it themselves, ‘like they mean it’, and to hear their partners reading it too. After this, feedback could be offered and improvements made. The next step would be to provide the children with the next sentence from the text and allow them to have a go at repeating the entire activity in pairs, and crucially, with less scaffolding.
The intention is that after working this way over time and on a range of texts, the children bring this heightened awareness of the need to ‘read it like you mean it’ to their own independent reading. A mantra I often used in the classroom with my Year 6 children was ‘read it aloud, but in your head’. In other words, I was reminding the children of the importance of performing the text as a way of bringing additional meaning to the words at the point of reading. The more practice they had at doing this, the better they got at being able to do it ‘on the run’.
I conclude by sharing with you a vivid memory of one of my pupils giving such a committed internal performance whilst tackling the KS2 SATs reading paper that the effort was evident on his face – the eyebrows raised at moments of surprise, the forehead furrowed as he silently read-aloud a moment of great tension, the face softened as the narrative reached a conclusion. Put simply: he read it (albeit, silently and in his head) like he meant it. It won’t surprise you to know that he went on to do very well in the test. I do wonder however if he has, after all these years, managed to restrain those external signs of an internal performance whilst reading. I can just imagine the curious looks he might receive from his fellow passengers as he makes his daily commute whilst getting deeply involved in a good book… !
Join us at one of our national roadshows to find out more about the strategies used on our KS2 Reading Fluency Project - a project designed to support lower attaining readers to ‘read it like they mean it’.
Friday 29th November – Bloxwich, Wallsall, West Midlands. Book online with course code ENG/19/271/P
Wednesday 4th December 2019 - Orpington, Kent. To book, email 19ENG/063P
Monday 9th December, 2019 Tudor Court Primary School, Chafford Hundred, Thurrock, Essex. Book online with course code ENG/19/270/P