Reading re-envisaged

    Published: 25 July 2016

    Following recent blogs on the KS2 reading paper and the lessons we might draw from it, here we share some  good reading resources from a while back and a conceptual model of the skills involved in comprehending.

    Penny Slater is Assistant Lead Adviser for English at Herts for Learning.

    The art of teaching reading comprehension is a troublesome business. For years, I tussled with my lack of clarity in this area, questioning why I found it so difficult to teach something that I found so easy to do. And of course the answer is clear: I struggled to teach the processes involved in comprehension because I was unable to fully articulate the processes that I myself employed when comprehending. Doubtless, I was very good at comprehending – in fact, I would go as far as describing myself as ‘a very good comprehender’ – but  as teachers our confidence is often our downfall because sometimes the better we are at something, the harder we find it to teach. When I actually asked myself what I was doing when comprehending a text, I struggled to identify the steps that I was working through, let alone to name those steps. Clearly, this is not an ideal position for a teacher to find themselves in. After all, if I was going to model these steps to my children so that they could mimic them, I needed to know what to show them, and what to call them. Troublesome indeed!

    Thankfully a set of documents were handed to me back in 2005 which helped to set me on a clearer path. The Comprehension Fliers (pri_en_read_comp1, pri_lit_read_comp_2_131105 and pri_lit_read_comp_3_131105)   (as they have come to be known) are a set of three double page documents outlining in teacher-friendly detail the skills involved in becoming a good comprehender. To say that I found these incredibly useful would be an understatement! Most importantly for me, they gave me a language with which I could begin talking about the silent and invisible processes involved in comprehension. There were also very practical. I valued having a list of activities that I could use with my class, knowing that each one would be helping to develop a certain aspect of reading comprehension.  They are an easily accessible and wonderfully usable addition to your teaching resource bank.

    My relationship with teaching reading comprehension was beginning to become less troublesome. I was now convinced that although the act of comprehension was the result of many cognitive processes working together, my children would be best supported in developing their skills if I taught each skill in isolation. In this way, they could actually focus on honing one skill at a time before applying it. I likened this to the way that I may have taught maths e.g. I would teach the skill of subtraction in isolation before asking the children to apply this skill to a problem solving context.

    This felt much more comfortable and my children were reaping the rewards in terms of confidence and enjoyment. However, I still felt that there was work to be done and specifically in relation to the KS2 reading test. This introduced a whole new raft of language that needed to be assimilated into my developing understanding of reading comprehension. I knew that I didn’t want to teach solely to the test, but I was acutely aware of the fact that the domains outlined in the test development materials would be the aspects of reading that my children would ultimately be judged on. So my teaching had to prepare them for a successful jump through that hoop otherwise I would have a raft of children who had a heightened awareness of the skills involved in comprehension, but who couldn’t actually deliver the goods when needed!

    The ‘English reading test framework 2016’ sets out how elements of the curriculum will be defined for test development purposes.

    2a give / explain the meaning of words in context
    2b retrieve and record information / identify key details from fiction and non-fiction
    2c summarise main ideas from more than one paragraph
    2d make inferences from the text / explain and justify inferences with evidence from the text
    2e predict what might happen from details stated and implied
    2f identify / explain how information / narrative content is related and contributes to meaning as a whole
    2g identify / explain how meaning is enhanced through choice of words and phrases
    2h make comparisons within the text

    Herts for Learning helpfully re-organised these into a more accessible format, and re-named them in order to make the terms more usable in the classroom.


    Still, despite the language being refined for us, and the skills being neatly positioned along a horizontal axis, I was still not confident that all the information available had been pulled together in a workable fashion to support teachers in the classroom. Teaching each skill in isolation felt ok, but surely there should be a hierarchy of skills involved? Should some receive more air-time than others? Did some logically precede others? Was it possible in fact to teach each skill discretely? Inference for example, caused me more than a moment of pause for thought. The longer I spent trying to model this skill, the more I came to the realisation that inference was actually the culmination of many skills working together and that teaching it in isolation was both misleading and unsuccessful.

    And so, with these questions in my mind, I set about pulling all the strands of reading comprehension together into a visual form that performed several functions. Fundamentally I wanted a model that:

    • Showed how the interrelating aspects of effective reading comprehension can be positioned to show a hierarchy – or journey – of skills
    • Mirrored the language of the test domains, but cushioned these terms within more useful ‘skills-based’ language that would support wider learning in the classroom
    • Included reference to other recognised reading skills that went beyond those outlined in the test development materials

    This is the model that I now use to support teachers to develop their understanding of how the skills of reading comprehension inter-relate. Teachers who I have worked with have found it particularly useful to see how the skill of inferring is in fact an end-point, and that in order to support our children in being able to infer, we must first pay attention to the other skills that inference relies on. Teachers have also appreciated how the model signifies the importance of vocabulary knowledge. If we consider each circle to be a moat which the children must cross before they are able to access the skills within the innermost circles, then we see clearly that they will not get very far if they do not understand the meanings on the words on the page. This chimes with what teachers are finding in their classrooms: lack of knowledge of vocabulary is a complete blocker. You can’t make any inroads into comprehension without addressing this issue first.


    Please feel free to download an A4 printable of the model (Conceptual model for reading comprehension) if you would like to share this back in school.  The model will be included in our forthcoming KS2 Guided Reading Toolkit – due to be published on our subscription site in September.   You may also want to  look out for our range of research-informed, highly practical courses devoted to reading on our bookings page. Thank you for reading.  Do get in touch via our Twitter profile if you have any queries.


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