Comprehension is a long and wide game.


Anybody who knows me will be completely aware of how passionate I am about the importance of reading to make a difference to the children in our schools.

Fact is children don’t get better at reading and understanding by doing lots of comprehension tests. I see lots of schools where comprehension questions are the driver and measure by which reading is judged. Thing is if we do lots of comprehension tests children get better at the techniques associated with comprehension tests. Children may well be really into them if they are getting better scores. This may also  mean that they get better reading test results what it doesn’t mean is that they are better readers.

Fact is there is no easy way to really get better at reading. The more stuff children learn and experience the more they will understand. Teaching children to be fluent readers helps, but it doesn’t mean they are readers who can understand what they read. Practicing the mechanics is a vital part of the process, as is being challenged by texts. Teachers in primary should read to their class everyday in my opinion, equally we should make space to talk about books and dig into them.  In the last couple of years there has been a push towards whole class reading instead of guided reading, some of this is around the management of a guided reading session. The key word there however is guided. Having an expert reader (the teacher) guiding and challenging readers is an incredibly powerful bit of teaching that really drives understanding. We lose this element of reading teaching at our peril.

(I’d recommend looking at Guided Reading- Layers of Meaning by Tennent et al. to look at both guided reading and what we truly should mean by the word comprehension)

The sad fact however is regardless of how much we try to improve pupil understanding without looking at how our curriculum offer builds and develops children’s knowledge and vocabulary we will inevitably fail. Sadly in many schools the starting point is a deficit model. Our curriculum has to address that deficit. A narrowed curriculum may well keep the wolves from the door, but the potential damage in the long-term for those young people could be immense. That’s why really looking at the job our curriculum does is vital. If we want children to understand and know more, then we have to look at our curriculum offer from the moment they enter our school, both in terms of the stuff we teach and ensure children learn and the experiences it offers. This is the thing that will fill the gaps. Our curriculum needs to fill the gaps not create bigger chasms. History/Geography/RE/ Science/ Art / Music all need to be part of that curiculum. Discussions around your curriculum, what you are are teaching and why? and how it builds coherently for your pupils will truly make the difference.

Recht and Leslie “The Baseball Study” 1988

Children who’ve never been to a city, explored a wood, or stood on a beach  will never truly understand the scale or the feel of it. If we want writers, or readers then these experiences many of us take for granted can’t be an afterthought. Experiences help children develop language and meaning. Asking children to write without the material to write about, will only get the results you expect. Read Morpurgo’s ‘Giants necklace’ after a morning on a stormy beach and the whole story becomes a much more frightening proposition. We just have to make sure the teaching around these experiences embrace the opportunities they provide. Planning how we make the most of them and the learning we want from them is key

Lost words

Work inspired by the Lost Words by Robert McFarlane and Jackie Morris. Started in the woods and on the the beach this made the language come alive.

If we get these things right we’ll find the tests are just that and children will do well in them but more importantly they will be more prepared to embrace wider learning opportunities. They may even enjoy it!