What Part Don’t You Get? Part 2

In my last blog, I wrote about the four reasons why many of my secondary students couldn’t learn science through reading. The four principal reasons were fluency and accuracy, general vocabulary, science knowledge and the style that science texts are written in.

In this blog, I describe what I have learnt from my primary colleagues about assessing reading. There is no substitute for a 1:1 read out loud. Try it with you best readers and your worst. The four obstacles can be identified quickly and easily.

1: In a 1:1 read aloud, you will know in a minute if your reader is fluent and reading accurately. It isn’t always who you expect. Some pupils who are very articulate and insightful verbally, struggle with reading. They will find it difficult to progress unless they continue to practise reading in your subject.

2: Vocabulary is often a surprise. I had assumed that any level 4 reader will be able to understand common functional language like however and furthermore. The truth, however, is that this knowledge isn’t always embedded. Functional words obscure the meaning of the text if learners have to work out what they mean each time. The way to find this out is to ask – I make it part of the 1:1 and plan these questions before the assessment.

3. The next obstacle is the background knowledge. It is simple and instructive to ask questions about the key vocabulary – often these words are known because they are taught well. But many students get stuck on the concepts. As part of the 1:1, ask your reader to tell you what the text says. This is the single most revealing part of the 1:1 and it doesn’t take long. With a little questioning, you will learn a lot about what each pupil really needs to be taught next.

4. Finally, the read out loud will tell you whether your reader understands how the text layout works. Science texts are often fragmented and scattered like a jigsaw across the page. I find text boxes and labeled diagrams often confuse readers – it is very hard to make sense of a text if you read it out of sequence. Assessing and then teaching students how to sequence their reading makes simple texts understandable.

Assessing your students’ reading skills shouldn’t take long. The whole assessment can take less than 5 minutes. I always learn something interesting and I change my lesson plans as a result. Investing class time reading helps develop life-long independent learners. 



What Part Don’t You Get?

A message to my secondary school self…

In my 18 years of secondary science teaching, I went through at least two swings of the school literacy pendulum.  I always prioritised scientific literacy – I just couldn’t make it work.

I wanted to give my students a well written science text to say what I wanted to say, but better than I could say it. Then I would support them to understand it and appreciate every last drop. In 18 years it never happened like that.

I left secondary teaching last year to become a primary school teacher…. and now I understand why my students couldn’t read those texts. In fact I now know four reasons why they couldn’t.

Reason 1: many of my students weren’t able to read fluently and accurately enough to keep the information straight. If you read a word three times to get it right, you’ve lost the thread.

Reason 2: many of my students weren’t confident with the vocabulary. I don’t mean the science vocabulary – that comes under reason 3 – but general English words. Words like however, furthermore and despite will trip a good number of secondary students.

Reason 3: science knowledge. I thought I had this covered, but I bet I didn’t. There are key concepts that students won’t be able to progress without. Have a look at the old KS3 booster material (here) for the sort of concepts I mean. I know there were students in year 11 who still never fully comprehend concepts I taught them in year 7.

Reason 4: unfamiliar styles. Science editors do odd things. Many good textbooks are relentless in chopping the text into tiny pieces and scattering them across the page.The language is different too. Science writers often use the passive tense (the test tube was heated) because it is genuinely important that the experiment gives the same results regardless of who carried it out. Science texts are just different to other texts.

These are the four reasons my science literacy lessons failed. Despite using brilliant texts, my students made better progress if I just taught it. As a secondary teacher, I suspected I was doing my students a disservice. As a primary teacher, I am convinced. In my next two blogs, I describe what I have learnt about reading from my primary colleagues this year. The first blog is about assessing reading quickly and effectively. The second blog is how I could have supported my students better. 


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