Updated: Jul 22
At the academy trust where I was a deputy head in the primary phase, all year 6 children were given the chance to complete past SATs papers at particular points in the year. After looking at the outcomes of these tests we noticed that children were doing well on 1- and 2-mark questions, but were struggling with, or avoiding altogether, the 3-mark questions.
We decided to do something about it.
We were confident in the way that we have been teaching reading, having embedded a good sequence of reading instruction and practice (maybe another blog post for another time), but wanted to address the need that appeared to be arising after the test.
The questions that the children were not doing as well on were the ones where they were asked for an 'impression' of a character, object or place.
What can often happen in lessons is that we ask a wide variety of questions, some of which we model answering, some of which children are left to answer on their own. Sometimes children don't get to practise a particular kind of question enough times to actually get good at answering them.
It's Not All About SATs
Now, before we continue, I'm not all about the SATs - we don't narrow our curriculum, we don't hot-house, but we believe in giving children a fair chance as it can be pretty stressful on the day if they haven't had the relevant experiences (hence why I created my SATs reading booklets - see below this paragraph for links). I also believe that it is a useful skill to be able to interpret the feelings and thoughts that we get about other people based on the clues we are presented with - getting an impression of others and being able to explain how you feel about them is just a good skill to have for life.
In order to address the need I cracked open a couple of my own resources - the inference question and answer structures which I put together, and the editable reading SATs questions:
Modelling Explicitly and Exactly
I put together a sequence of 6 lessons based on WW2-themed books to fit in with the history unit the children are currently completing (reading lessons are just one of the ways that we help to immerse our children in learning in their other subjects). Each of the 6 lessons focuses in on the impressions that the reader might get of the characters in the excerpts.
In every one of the sessions I selected a character to model with and then followed this up with exactly the same questions but about others of the characters. This way, the question and answer that the teacher modelled is a true, actual model of what the children have to do in their own guided or independent practice.
I chose to use the following answer structure to model:
In the text it says _____________________ which suggests that the character is ________________________. It also says that __________________________ which makes the character seem/makes me think that ______________________.
Front-loading The Evidence
One reason why I chose this is because it front-loads the inclusion of the evidence from the text. In the past I have seen children who have given an answer for the impression they get, but have not given information from the text to say why they get that impression.
The front-loading of the evidence meant that children naturally attended to the need for evidence first. They got the evidence marks in the bag and then went on to include information about the impressions that they got.
An Unintended Positive Consequence
In a small group of less confident readers that I worked with, there was an unintended positive consequence of this front-loading. I noticed that some children, after text marking the text to identify information relating to the relevant character, were first choosing a quote from the text and then thinking about the impressions that they got. They did not have an idea of their impression until they had isolated a quote.
In isolating a quote in this way it is possible that they removed the distraction of the rest of the text and were able to think more clearly about what the information was telling them. Whilst this isn't something I'd necessarily recommend for all children, it may be worth trying with those who feel overwhelmed by a huge chunk of text. It is also worth encouraging that children check that their impressions from an isolated piece of text are more widely supported by the rest of the text.
Before we got going with thinking about the impressions we got, we defined 'impression':
An impression is something that you think about someone or something without the text telling you exactly/directly e.g. by using adjectives. When asked for an impression you might give an adjective as an answer, or an expanded noun phrase or a group of words which explain an adjective.
We revisited this definition every lesson.
We then modelled an example question and answer:
What impressions do you get of Will?
Give two impressions, supporting your answer with evidence from the text.
Model the answer structure, first of all using text marking to highlight all mentions of Will.
1. In the text it says ‘Will was eating fish for the first time’ which suggests that Will is inexperienced and has not experienced eating lots of different types of food.
For the second part, we modelled different impressions based on the same quote:
2. It also says that ‘It astounded Will that anyone should have a special room for having a bath in’ which makes me think that Will is poor because he doesn’t have a bathroom at his house/which makes Will seem not very clever because he doesn’t know what bathrooms are.
Supporting Lower Prior Attainers
After a couple of lessons we realised that children with limited vocabulary were struggling to succinctly put into words, or one word, the impressions that they were getting. I adapted the sequence to include suggested adjectives to support children in choosing an impression during their independent practice. Simply, we provided the children with relevant adjectives for them to choose from e.g. kind, organised, knowledgeable, clever, talkative, annoying, weird, observant, easy-going, introverted, quiet, polite.
These words were also intended to support children who were making more informal word choices which, although conveyed meaning, may not be accepted as answers on SATs mark schemes. We found that some of these children were actually ones who had scored highly on past papers, but were struggling to achieve marks on the longer answer questions.
Anyway, that's probably enough of me rambling on about this - if it has piqued your interest then why not download the resources and try them out yourself. Adapt them to fit with current texts you are reading (you literally just have to pick a good extract and then change the name in the question!) or use them as they are. You can find the resources here, bundled with 25 other reading lessons based on WW2 and featuring less focused sets of questions (i.e. they come from a range of domains and are focused on understanding of the text):