Kathy Roe explores the balance between literature and literacy in this blog.
In 2019, the Phonics Screening Check score remained high at 83%, yet the KS1 reading TA data hovered stubbornly at 75%. This blog explores my thoughts about why this gap exists and what can be done about it.
Could it be that young children are sometimes being taught the mechanics of how to read and not how to acquire knowledge (eg historical, scientific, literary) from the act of reading? Are they only learning the ‘code’ of reading and not applying that skill regularly enough to the act of reading literature?
Knowledge and skill are not mutually exclusive when it comes to reading (or anything else, I am coming to realise). They need to hold hands and take children through school together. Knowledge layers. If I hadn’t read books featuring wonderfully figurative language as a child, then I wouldn’t recognise it when I bump into it now in much harder literature. Doug Lemov in Reading Reconsidered recommends presenting children with what he calls pre-complex texts to pave the way for greater complexity further down the line. I read Lord of the Flies as a teenager and loved it. I understood it. I remember bits of it and, looking back, realise that I could hook the events in the book on my own life experiences and on other books that I had chosen and read as a child. (I loved modern American fiction). I recognised Piggy as the victim and Jack as the bully. I could see little touches of the pack mentality and survival of the fittest stuff going on in the playground. I read Animal Farm and while I don’t recall disliking it, I don’t really recall much about it at all. For such an ‘important book’, why didn’t it resonate or leave a trace? I wonder if this is because I knew nothing about communism or capitalism. I was reading it in the English lesson and hadn’t got to that bit in history class yet. Those inference skills that I surely possessed didn’t fire up because the knowledge was missing for me.
So what do these (pre-complex) books look like at key stage one? Let’s take a look at Stanley’s Stick by the poet John Hegley. I was reading it with a group of 6 year olds recently and one little boy gasped, tears in his eyes, as Stanley hurled his precious stick into the ‘wide tide’. “It’s heart-breaking.” he said. He could hook Stanley’s loss onto his own experience of loss, and that which he has read or heard read in other rich children’s literature. He had the de-coding skills to read this book ‘fluently’ but his connection with it, and comprehension of it, came from knowledge.
Fairly quickly, we come to expect conventionality in books, and indeed film and TV. Bad things happen to the bad characters. The lost item is usually mourned, or found. Then when a book comes along that surprises us – I want my hat back by Jon Klassen or Stuck by Oliver Jeffers; and the lost item is handled altogether differently; then the child will understand that the author is playing a little trick on us, and they’ll find it funny or surprising -or cathartic in the case of Stanley’s Stick. They need the knowledge of that huge bank of literature sitting underneath – a bedrock of prototypical texts, if you like - in order to get the joke. So going back to Stanley’s Stick, a repeat re-read of this book that the aforementioned child loves, because he related to it, will then teach him poetic story-telling language by the back door; it will leave a trace and resonate with him on some level and when he sees it again, he’ll appreciate it and feel drawn to that book. It will also help him ultimately to be a better writer. Yes, we need to teach children the strategies to explore vocabulary, and more, but we also need to give them marvellous, challenging books that they can access so that the code that they’ve learned reveals the beautiful picture underneath.
The STA know it too. Look at Winter’s Child by Angela McAllister which is used in the exemplification video for expected standard at year 2. The text is largely phonetically readable but so beautiful and full of literary vocabulary and phrasing that we don’t use in speech. (‘He took Tom to a forest where glistening icicles hung like chimes… Together, they filled the snow-hushed air with tinkling notes’.) This sort of book will provide good preparation for a child to read Tom’s Midnight Garden in year 6 or Neil Gaiman into adulthood. The Beginning of the Armadillos from Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling is read by a year 2 child to exemplify reading at greater depth. Accessible archaic texts from an early age support children to hear and comprehend language structures outside of those we use in speech. A bit of Kipling in KS1 will pave a path leading to Shakespeare by the end of KS2.
In addition to the essential high quality scheme books that will allow children to grow stamina and confidence when applying their developing phonic skills, children also have the right to access real, literary books. This is the cultural capital that they are entitled to. Wonderful books needn’t be the privilege of the already-culturally-wealthy. All children need to read these books. (Ofsted says inspectors will be looking for leaders take on or construct a curriculum that is ambitious and designed to give all learners, particularly the most disadvantaged and those with special educational needs and/or disabilities (SEND) or high needs, the knowledge and cultural capital they need to succeed in life)
So how do we balance this delicate meeting of these 2 aims? As Ofsted reminds us, quite rightly, we must ensure young children’s reading materials are closely matched to learners’ phonics knowledge so that they can swiftly learn the skill of reading and learn to read with good accuracy. They do all need rigorous and well-taught phonics instruction. They also need, as part of their reading diet, to read real literature so that they understand the point of all that phonics (books are wonderful – this is why we learn to read). They also need to be read to in order to support this developing appreciation for quality literature, widely and often - the national curriculum says this too. The balance between these two can be sought. We need to feed children a diet rich in rigorous phonics and rich in knowledge - acquired through amazing literature. Many schools are managing this balancing act most gracefully. In these schools, children learn swiftly how to decode, but more importantly, why they should be motivated to do so in the first place.
For further exploration into reading at KS1, please join us for our spring round of the impactful Key Stage 1 Reading Fluency Project, launching in January.
Lemov, D et al (2016) Reading Reconsidered
Ofsted : The education inspection framework (2019)
STA: 2018 national curriculum assessments. Key stage 1 Teacher assessment exemplification
National curriculum in England: primary curriculum (2014)