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An investigation into non-fiction texts at Hallam Fields Junior School: What barriers to comprehension do some Year 3 pupils experience? What strategies can help?

About our school

'Hallam Fields Junior School has 240 children on role.  We are a 'Thrive' school. Our school motto is 'Growing, Learning, Achieving Together'.  

The school has spent the last four years building up an Active Reading ethos.  Following training, we developed the Inference Intervention strategies in whole class reading lessons as well in interventions and guided sessions.  Barriers to literacy for some of our pupils include limited reading miles and a narrow vocabulary.  When using narrative, we noticed that the children appeared to be more aware of the range of Active Reading strategies but both staff and pupils were less confident when using them for non-fiction. We noticed that many non-fiction texts were being used across school for retrieval and literal questioning only. By choosing non-fiction texts that were accessible yet challenging, we wanted to see what the challenges were and how we could overcome them.'

Aims

'In Summer 2018, our aims were:

- to identify the specific challenges pupils encounter when reading non-fiction texts

- to plan how to equip staff with teaching strategies to overcome those challenges in Autumn 2018

- to broaden and balance the range of texts we use across school.

In the lesson we filmed, I aimed to include: explicit description of the strategy; modelling; collaborative use of the strategy in action; guided practice; opportunity for more independent application.'

Timescale

'The explicit teaching of comprehension strategies takes place each week in a 1 hour whole class lesson. These strategies are then used across the curriculum throughout the rest of the week. The film clips are from a lesson in July 2018, at the end of Year 3. It was the second in a series of 2 lessons.'

Outline

Sheena's commentary is in bold. Commentary on the film clips is by Nic O’Donnell, Lead: Project READ, who filmed Lesson 2 and edited the clips. The clips are 'highlights' from the lesson and do not represent the complete teaching sequence. 

Lesson 1 
'I had initially planned two non-fiction texts based around our topic on the local area during World War 2.  However, as it was the end of the year and the children were excited about the World Cup, I changed the first lesson so that the content was based around the theft of the World Cup in 1966 and Pickles the dog.  I used a free TES newspaper article and wanted to see how the children approached the context by explicitly modelling how to check understanding.  I knew that there would be confusion over the concept of time so I directed the questions towards finding key words and phrases that placed the news article as written in 1966 and not modern day. 

The children were easily able to identify features of a non-fiction news article such as headlines, subheadings and captions, which showed that they understood what to expect.  However, they did need support to locate the subtler key phrases such as the reference to stamp collections, the small amount of ransom money and the fact that it mentioned the World Cup as being staged in England.  This showed that they needed support to find all of the key words and phrases to make full sense of the text.  I decided that the next step was to see how well they were monitoring cohesion between sentences, making global links across paragraphs and using cohesive ties such as connectives.'

Lesson 2
Film clip 1: Why I chose to focus on cohesion Sheena explains that she has noticed that many of the pupils need support to make connections between words, sentences and paragraphs as they read, particularly when they read non-fiction.

Film clip 2: 'Does it make sense?'  Sheena begins the lesson with a sequence of activities on 3 different short non-fiction texts. The aim is for the pupils to become increasingly skilled at making connections between words and sentences. For each text, Sheena asks the learners to check: 'Does it make sense?'

Sheena explains: 'I gave the children 3 quick warm-up activities. I wanted to assess the children’s ability to use cohesive ties to spot meaning breakdowns at a word and sentence level.  More importantly, I wanted to see if they could spot a theme in a passage and carry it through to the end of a paragraph. So, for example, I chose the theme about the benefits of drinking water to see if they could cue themselves in to use their background knowledge to anticipate what they would expect in instruction writing.

I purposefully set tasks rather than giving the children a non-fiction text with fixed questions. I wanted to explore whether this would improve their understanding of the texts in order to manage inference higher order questions using the skills modelled. I feel that if we continually set pupils questions to answer, then they are only exposed to assessment of their understanding. Instead, we need to give them the tools to be successful.' 

Sheena then explains the text she chose to use for the rest of the lesson: 'It was three days to go until the end of the year, and I felt the children needed a main text that would be familiar, yet challenging. I decided to use a letter on our history website from an elderly gentleman who used to attend the school as a child.  It made links between our local studies and our World War 2 topic and contained challenging vocabulary.'

Film clip 3: Modelling-how to make sense of tricky words Following an initial reading of the text, Sheena 'thinks aloud' to demonstrate how she makes sense of the challenging words in this sentence. 

Film clip 4: Asking questions Sheena encourages the pupils to say their questions about the text. The emphasis here is on generating questions in order to  monitor comprehension rather than on answering the questions. 

Film clip 5: 'What does 'mature' mean?' The pupils 'think aloud' together to clarify the meaning of the phrase 'mature trees'. 

Film clip 6: 'Reading on' to clarify meaning Sheena challenges the pupils to 'read on' to clarify the meaning of the word 'sanatorium'. Sheena emphasises that this is a strategy which we can use to help understand the text.

Film clip 7: Summarising the writer's memories Towards the end of the session, Sheena challenges the pupils to select key words and to draw a quick picture to summarise the content of the letter. Sheena provides the pupils with a graphic organiser to help them to organise their response.

Impact

'It was difficult to assess the impact of this input at the end of Year 3. However, following discussion with the Year 4 staff in Autumn 2018, I feel that we still need to support the children to monitor cohesion between sentences, to make global links across paragraphs and to use cohesive ties such as connectives. This has now been given a higher profile in teaching reading skills in Year 4 and we have picked it up with the new cohort in Year 3.'  

Next steps

'As well as the areas mentioned above, one area we are now working on as a school is to use a broader range of texts to incorporate more non-fiction. This has meant further training for staff in order to use graphic organisers more effectively.'

Contributor

Sheena Cowley, English Co-ordinator, Hallam Fields Junior School. enquiries@hallamfields.derbyshire.sch.uk

Additional information

Would you like to take part in a comprehension project in your school? Project Comprehension EYFS - Year 6 is a collaborative CPD opportunity available to primary school clusters in Derbyshire. It builds on the robust foundations of Project READ. It will enable schools not involved in the original project to participate in similar, collaborative school improvement projects. Participating schools work in partnership with Derbyshire's Teaching, Learning and Assessment Consultants and with Specialist Leaders of Education from Derbyshire's Teaching Schools. Contact EIS@derbyshire.gov.uk for more information.

1. Why I chose to focus on cohesion. Password for all clips: projectread
2. 'Does it make sense?' Cohesion in 3 short texts
3. Modelling-how to make sense of tricky words
4. Asking questions
5. 'What does 'mature' mean?'
6. 'Reading on' to clarify meaning
7. Summarising the writer's memories
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