We know from research that the Covid-19 school closures have had an impact on children’s attainment, and for children from socially disadvantaged backgrounds this has frequently led to a widening of the attainment gap.
In primary schools it has been the youngest children who have experienced the most challenges with learning. This is not to say that the areas of challenge are new. In fact, what the closures seem to have done, is to exacerbate the problems that children have traditionally experienced with their learning so that in the case of reading, it has been inference, emotional literacy and emotional vocabulary that they have struggled with most widely.
Going back in time isn’t possible and dwelling on the difficulties we and the children face isn’t going to bring about the positive change we want to see. Instead, we need to look forward and think about what we can put in place to ensure that all our children achieve as highly as they can and become competent, confident readers. In this article, I look at reading, the problems our children have experienced as a consequence of the Covid-19 school closures, and offer some ideas to help you meet their reading needs.
Ensuring that all children are expert decoders
The programme of study set out in the national curriculum is divided into two broad areas: word reading and comprehension. If we’re to ensure that our children become successful readers, they need to experience success in both of these areas. The centrality of Systematic Synthetic Phonics in every school’s literacy provision means that schools are working incredibly hard to ensure that all children are expert decoders and with a good level of success.
This said, there are a few things we can do to ensure that all children learn to decode as quickly as possible
- Start teaching phonics as soon as possible in Reception
- Ensure that phonics is taught discretely every day in Reception and Year 1
- Follow your school’s phonics programme closely
- Assess the children regularly so that you know who needs help
- Put interventions in place promptly to ensure children catch up
- Provide decodable reading books so children can apply their learning at home.
It’s worth reading the DfE’s The reading framework: Teaching the foundations of literacy July 2021 and the recent Ofsted research review series: English to find more advice about how to teach phonics effectively.
The second heading used to organise the reading programme of study in the national curriculum is comprehension. This is an extremely broad heading and includes a range of distinct but interconnected skills such as the ability to activate word meanings, knowing how to retrieve key information, summarising what has been read, inferring meaning and predicting what might happen based on information in the text.
Not all inferences are the same
As teachers, we all know that inference is one of these skills that children find particularly challenging. And if you’re teaching in KS2, and particularly in Year 6, you’ll know just how likely the children are to be tested on this most tricky of skills in the KS2 SAT. That it came out as one of the specific reading skills that children struggled with after the Covid-19 school closures should not, therefore, be that much of a surprise.
You may or may not know that researchers of reading have identified and named over thirty different types of inference! If you’d like to read more about these different types of inferences, I recommend Wayne Tennant’s book Understanding Reading Comprehension: Processes and Practices pub Sage 2015.
Some inferences are made as we read, and they help us to make links between and across sentences. They’re known as coherence inferences. It’s often the case that when children struggle to make sense of what they read, they are struggling to make these inferences that make the text stick together. Linking pronouns to nouns is a typical example of a coherence inference that many less-confident readers struggle with.
E.g., Emma wanted to play on the swings. She went to the park.
In the case of these sentences, the reader needs to link Emma and she to understand that it was Emma that asked to go to the park.
If you have children who would struggle to make this type of coherence inference, there are a couple of things you can do.
- Firstly, teach and display a range of pronouns.
- Secondly, set up exercises where the children need to amend passages to show how pronouns could be used to replace nouns.
E.g., Emma wants to play on the swings. Emma asked her mum if she could go to the park. Emma’s mum said Emma could go. So, Emma and her friends went together.
This type of activity has the bonus of also strengthening children’s written cohesion by encouraging them to look for repeated words, to replace with pronouns and so create more cohesive and flowing writing. It’s not often you get a reading activity that’s also a revising and editing writing activity too! Although I’m going to suggest another later in this article.
Making links across sentences also involves an incredible amount of tracking back and forth that not all children will manage successfully. Take the following example:
Lawn mowed! The children did it.
For you to connect the pronoun it to lawn you will have tracked back while you were reading. You’ll also have held lawn and children (both nouns) in your head but have rejected children because it doesn’t work grammatically with it. You did it incredibly quickly. But any of your children who struggle with pronouns, your early readers who are still learning to decode and any striving readers who don’t yet have automaticity will have struggled. And this is only a six-word text.
What this example does is to reinforce the need to check that children understand how pronouns work but it also makes a wonderful link to phonics and word reading. Without pace and automaticity, children struggle to make sense of what they read.
Some inferences work to help the reader understand a text at a deeper level. These are known as interrogative inferences. These can happen as you read, but also after you’ve read when you might begin to reflect on the text say to think about what might happen next, whether there is a theme to the text or whether you have an opinion about what you’ve been reading.
Visualisation is one such type of inference. This is where we make images in our mind’s eye about what we’ve read such as a scene described by an author. Typically, when we teach children to make visualisations, we ask them to draw pictures of what they can see based upon what they’re read. This is an excellent technique and one that I urge you to use. However, it’s worth considering some of the other things we can do with visualisation and how we can use them to help children build emotional literacy and emotional vocabulary.
Emotional literacy means having the ability to understand and express emotions through words and read those emotions in others. A particularly easy and effective bit of visualisation that reflects what we mean by emotional literacy is to undertake role play as you’re reading where you ask children to show you facial expressions based on the words used by the author such as scowled, grinned, grimaced etc. With older children in KS2 you can pair this activity with writing so that children think about how authors use the reporting clauses accompanying direct speech to develop character. I told you’d I’d suggest another reading/writing crossover activity! If you’d like further ideas for activities to support visualisation, I recommend Strategies That Work: Teaching Compression for Understanding and Engagement by Harvey and Goudvis.
The Covid-19 school closures have had an impact on our children. But I’m hoping that through this article I’ve been able to reassure you that the reading challenges our children face, whilst greater than before, are largely familiar. I’m also hopeful that the ideas I’ve shared in this article will help you meet the needs of all your children whether they are striving to read or are already reading with confidence.
Article written by Rachel Clarke
Rachel is an experienced educational trainer and author with over 10 published titles including the popular Reading Detectives series. Rachel is now the director of the Primary English Education Consultancy; an organisation dedicated to raising standards in literacy.