Let’s start with a little reading…

Is it familiar? The ‘Way of the Dodo’ text lives in infamy as a SATS 2016 reading paper extract that was so difficult that it made some pupils cry. 

It is a reading extract that also exposes a key problem in classrooms everywhere: the difficulty for pupils – primary or secondary age – in reading complex informational texts. 

What made the dodo text so difficult? Most obviously, the vocabulary and background knowledge demand is sky-high. ‘Parched environments’, ‘receding waters’, and subtle metaphorical references to rehabilitating the image of the extinct bird, put huge comprehension knowledge demands on eleven-year-old readers.

Not only that, the sentences and overall structure of the text prove challenging too. There are no helpful sub-headings to overtly chunk down the text and help to make it more cohesive. In sentence length terms, the longest sentence was a snakingly-long 35 words, with a substantial average sentence length of 19 words. Additionally, half of the sentences were comprised of three clauses – itself a handy barometer of a tricky sentence and reading challenge. 

The dodo text is an apt example of why so many informational texts trip over pupils who are not already highly knowledgeable and skilled readers. It is no surprise then that in 2016 international reading assessments (the PIRLS assessment), English year 5 pupils performed worse on informational texts compared to reading fiction texts (whereas pupils from countries like Singapore manage to buck that trend).

Do we need to increase the reading of informational texts? 

We need to understand the challenge of reading informational texts at every key stage in school. 

In the US, researchers have described a ‘fourth grade slump’ when it comes to reading (particularly for disadvantaged pupils). Put simply, it describes the shift from when pupils focus on ‘learning to read’ (such as the crucial process of learning to decode words via systematic synthetic phonics) and go on to ‘read to learn’, around aged 10, but – crucially – how pupils at this point can struggle as the reading content begins to change. As pupils move into, and through, key stage two, the demand on background knowledge and vocabulary knowledge becomes much higher in informational texts and many pupils begin to struggle

It is important to know the difference between reading stories and informational texts. The very nature of the language and the text structures are different in informational texts

Though you need a deep background knowledge to access tall tales, they can represent concepts that are familiar, such as character traits and emotions. When it comes to words in stories, you can describe light in a multitude of ways in a story (flickering, glimmering, glittering or gleamed). This is tricky and requires broad and deep word knowledge, but the meaning of these words are helpfully clustered together and familiar. By contrast, the single word ‘refraction’ – which would feature in a typical science informational text – is dense with meaning, often separate from a concrete ‘setting’, and so requires elaboration in the classroom to make sense of it. In short, words are routinely bigger and more complex in informational texts.

Of course, pupils benefit by reading fiction. The ‘fiction effect’ describes older pupils who read fiction more routinely and prove stronger readers for it when compared to informational texts in magazines or newspapers. No sane person would recommend not reading fiction – but we should consider the balance of reading narratives and informational texts in the school curriculum at every stage.

What about how reading changes again in secondary school?

A simple fact is that pupils can go from a varied diet of fiction and informational texts in primary school, but then experience a radically different reading experience in secondary school. 

Invariably, in secondary school, pupils spend most of their time reading informational texts. Worksheets and textbooks are the norm. The frequency and complexity of informational text reading increases, but many pupils are ill-equipped for the challenge.

In a recent  report by OUP and the Centre for Education and Youth (CfEY), on ‘Bridging the Word Gap at Transition’, Professor Alice Deignan, from Leeds University, shared their emerging research on the increased demand on language in the secondary school classroom: 

“In an average day at secondary school, pupils are exposed to three or four times as much language as at primary school, purely in terms of quantity. With such a massive increase in the quantity of language, the number of unknown words fired at pupils during a lesson increases similarly. These reach a level where pupils cannot use normal strategies to work out their meaning, such as using overall context. Pupils are being pushed far out of their comfort zone academically.”

Of course, so much of the secondary school curriculum is mediated by reading. In computer science, history, geography, in the sciences, and more, reading informational texts becomes the norm. For pupils who didn’t make sense of the dodo text, it reveals a significant problem…quickly. 

Questions and solutions:

When reading gets more complex, pupils must become more knowledgeable and more strategic. There is no easy, quick intervention to address this challenge. We may begin with some questions to grapple with at every key stage:

  • Does our approach to reading balance a diet of narrative and informational texts?
  • How do we ensure that pupils can access the complex language and structures of the text? 
  • Do we pre-teach key vocabulary that can unlock concepts in an informational text?
  • Do we chunk down the text (using structural signposts like sub-headings) and help pupils gradually build their understanding (and their independent reading stamina)? 
  • What ‘funds of knowledge’ do pupils bring to the text and how do we activate it successfully to ensure reading comprehension?
  • How do we best support pupils to cohere, connect and, crucially, consolidate their understanding of complex informational texts?

We can explore the following possible solutions:

  • Read more extended informational texts. Reading an endless diet of short (one page) extracts doesn’t help our pupils to build the habit of grappling with cohering and connecting words, ideas and concepts across an extended text. Can we instead build towards reading longer informational texts that pupils must strategically chunk down and habitually work to cohere their understanding? (The notion of TL:DR is corrosive and wrong!)
  • Read related informational texts. Many topics related to informational texts use the same repertoire of specialist language and central concepts. If you are reading about birds, you may be repeatedly exposed to words and concepts like ‘vertebrates’, ‘reproduction’ or ‘homeotherms’. Such repetition helpfully builds background knowledge, which aids comprehension, and ultimately grows pupils’ confidence. Identifying ‘reading clusters’ is then key for curriculum development.
  • Explicitly teach reading comprehension strategies. There is ample evidence to suggest that teaching strategies like summarising and clarifying vocabulary helps with hard reading (indeed, you only need such scaffolds when the text is difficult). Too often though, this results in flawed notions – such as teaching ‘summarising’ as a separate skill. Instead, we should start with the informational text at hand (what complexities and structural supports it offers), before scaffolding pupils to be strategic when needed. For instance, we may begin reading the dodo text by getting pupils to summarise their understanding of ‘extinction’, before clarifying any vocabulary items they are unsure about. This is the stuff of explicit reading comprehension strategies that are sensitive to the text at hand. 
  • Explicitly teach text structures. Informational texts do typically offer structural features like headings and graphics to help mediate their meaning. Too often though, struggling readers don’t utilise these supports – ironically, they can appear to add confusion. Devoting time to teaching structural features (such as using graphic organisers to illustrate ‘problem solution’ text structures and similar) and discourse markers (such as first, second, consequently, however, etc) can pay off with sophisticated informational texts.