Q: How do you make a duck sing soul music?
A: Put it in the microwave until its Bill Withers.
My partner enjoyed this joke so much that she spent most of last week retelling it to anyone within earshot. Unfortunately, however, her comedy attempts received a flat reception at her workplace. Two people had never heard of Bill Withers and one, bizarrely, was aware of the soul legend but did not know that a ‘bill’ is a duck’s beak.
This reminded me of a similar teaching moment from earlier this year when my year 11s attempted a practice iGCSE Core exam question based on a piece written about a remote region of eastern Russia, the Kamchatka Peninsula. The task was as follows:
Using your own words, explain what the writer means by the words in italics in the following phrases:
(ii) ‘the terrain is so impenetrable’ (line 33)
Two marks were available, one for each correctly explained word. Answers that read ‘the ground/country is so impassable’ (or similar) were credited with two marks. Of a class of twenty-five 15-16 year-olds – mostly working at about a C – only one achieved both marks and most did not get either. Even though the following discussion made it clear that the majority of class-members were comfortable with the meaning of ‘penetrate’ (don’t ask why!), the fact that most did not understand the word ‘terrain’ in the first place rendered the meaning of ‘impenetrable’ impenetrable.
The Bill Withers joke and iGCSE question cause confusion for the same reason: a lack of knowledge. Once we become fluent decoders of text, comprehension requires good general knowledge and word knowledge. It can be a mistake to think of reading and general knowledge as separate abilities – in reality, they work in tandem. Understanding the Bill Withers joke and the meaning of ‘terrain’ are not measures of reading skill or joke-deciphering skill; they are measures of the scope of your general knowledge. In a mutually beneficial relationship, general knowledge helps us to understand what we read and, in turn, reading helps us to further develop our general knowledge.
E. D. Hirsch’s work is controversial – sullied perhaps by its association with Michael Gove – but his theories about reading make a lot of sense even if you disagree with his solution (a Core Knowledge curriculum). I found these two paragraphs from Hirsch’s The Knowledge Deficit (2007) fascinating:
To understand language, whether spoken or written, we need to construct a situation model consisting of meanings construed from the implicit words of the text as well as meanings inferred or constructed from relevant background knowledge. The spoken and the unspoken taken together constitute the meaning. Without this relevant, unspoken background knowledge, we can’t understand the text.
This is why we are able to understand some texts but not others, no matter how well we can decode the words. We possess the relevant knowledge in some cases, and in those cases we can understand what we are reading, but we lack it in others, and in those cases we cannot comprehend the text. Since relevant, domain-specific knowledge is an absolute requirement for reading comprehension, there is no way around the need for children to gain broad general knowledge in order to gain broad general proficiency in reading. (p. 39)
The idea that a reader needs to construct a ‘situational model’ to comprehend text is relatively new to me. Only in the past year or two have I become acquainted with Hirsch’s work and it is a shame that his ideas do not seem to be well-known amongst English teachers.
I admit I am no expert in reading theory and that the causes of reading difficulties can be complex. I am also aware that there are plenty of other factors that affect a child’s ability to read. I recently read Kathryn Asbury and Robert Plomin’s G is for Genes: The Impact of Genetics on Education and Achievement (2013), a useful introduction to the findings from the Twins Early Development Study (TEDS). Twin studies are revealing more and more about how the complex interplay between genes and environment influences cognitive ability and educational achievement. For instance, recent studies suggest that 60 to 80% of the differences in individual reading ability can be explained by genetic influence. Environmental factors – including the amount of knowledge we have exposed them to – cannot alone fully predict a child’s ability to comprehend a piece of writing.
It would, therefore, be too simplistic to blame all reading difficulty on a lack of exposure to general knowledge. It may well be that the ability to find meaning in an unfamiliar text is partly a function of general cognitive ability. Similarly, some children will learn knowledge more quickly and that’s a fact of life. Nevertheless, Asbury and Plomin are at pains to point out that all children, barring those with severe learning difficulties, should be capable of gaining reading competence with the right support. In other words, by the age of 16, most children should know the word ‘terrain’ and know that ‘bill’ is more than just a nickname for William.
Last week, we looked at the specs for the new AQA English Language exam. Students will sit two exams and will be expected to read and answer questions on unseen fiction and non-fiction extracts, contemporary and 19th century. Ofqual have set the following assessment objectives:
AO1: Identify and interpret explicit and implicit information and ideas; select and synthesise evidence from different texts.
AO2: Explain, comment on and analyse how writers use language and structure to achieve effects and influence readers, using relevant subject terminology to support their views.
AO3: Compare writers’ ideas and perspectives, as well as how these are conveyed, across two or more texts.
AO4: Evaluate texts critically and support this with appropriate textual references.
These are useful, of course, but give little guidance about to how to plan the curriculum and teach sequences of lessons. Abstract objectives and criteria like these have been the lingua franca during the decade I have worked as an English teacher. Implemented poorly, they can lead to the shortcut I call the as-the-crow-flies error, which occurs when we make a beeline to teaching generic reading skills before exposing students to the background knowledge needed to employ these skills. For instance, if I want a child to master AO4 it appears logical to teach them how to ‘evaluate texts critically’; however, the problem lies in that they can only do this if they are able to fully comprehend the text in the first place. Yes, we can teach a child to think, write and speak in an appropriate evaluative and critical style and this will lead to some success but it will not replace background knowledge. Teaching like this is like trying to unscrew the lid of a medicine bottle by pressing alone and forgetting to turn.
Similarly, the as-the-crow-flies error will occur again if we think that by exposing students to a few non-fiction extracts they will become better at reading non-fiction texts. To read these texts with insight they will need a deep and wide-ranging knowledge of the world. Like many schools, we are aiming to teach the new language GCSE almost exclusively through the new literature GCSE. We will expose students to non-fiction that enhances and sheds light on the literature they are reading – i.e. if we are reading A Christmas Carol, we might supplement our reading with Victorian non-fiction texts on the plight of the poor. Sourcing these texts will be the tricky bit. This seems the most sensible approach for two reasons: one, content takes priority over skills; and, two, it will lead to a richer, more fulfilling curriculum. The exam skills can come much later in the course.
So what can we do in our everyday English lessons to help us side-step the as-the-crow-flies error? Here are some ideas (even if they are drops in the ocean):
1. Expose students to challenging literature that extends their knowledge of the world right from key stage 3. The horse has often bolted by key stage 4.
2. Always focus on content understanding and vocabulary knowledge when reading texts. Don’t gloss this over in the hope that focussing on higher-order skills will ‘accelerate their learning’. Instead, it will just leave gaps. Depth over breadth, every time.
3. Remember that exposure to knowledge can come through a range of means such as the richness of teacher explanation and class discussion. Even a well-narrated documentary is fair game for introducing new knowledge and vocabulary.
4. Remember that skills are ultimately ways to manipulate knowledge. Yes, they should be taught explicitly, but not to the detriment of knowledge.
5. And, most importantly, encourage children to read. Exposure to knowledge cannot come through lessons alone
Lastly, schools need to recognise that the responsibility for ensuring that students have the requisite knowledge to comprehend a wide range of reading material cannot depend on English teachers alone. To read and comprehend texts about the past or the present students need to know a lot about the past and the present. I remain convinced that, putting individual differences to one side, a child’s performance in English Language is as much a measure of the quality of their whole education as it is a measure of the quality of the English teaching they have received.
Your comments are very welcome. I am still learning.
(Don’t forget to order your freshly-published copy of Making Every Lesson Count which I have written with Shaun Allison.)