The hot topic on every educator’s lips this week is, of course, SATs. Love them or loathe them, these tests are a fact of life in primary schools and, as we all know, there has been much controversy over them in recent years. In an ideal world, SATs would consist of a range of fun, entertaining, exciting activities that could showcase children’s skills and talents in a relaxed and enjoyable way. Sadly, we live in a world that is decidedly less than ideal.
Last year’s reading tests in particular were a perfect example of the less than ideal, leaving many children in tears, with questions that were described as ‘ridiculously hard from the start’. With the 2016 reading paper described as a ‘demoralising’ experience; ‘one of the hardest’ tests teacher had ever seen; and including ‘nuances and depth of language’ across texts that ‘baffled many’ children, it is hardly surprising that many teachers and children were awaiting yesterday’s test with a considerable amount of trepidation.
‘More accessible’ texts
I’m happy to report, therefore, that most teachers I have spoken to regarding yesterday’s paper are of the opinion that the texts used this year were much more suitable, describing them as ‘more accessible’. Naturally, I can’t go into the actual content of the texts or the questions here, as they are still live until Friday. However, what I can say is that while the texts are widely described as ‘a big improvement’ and the test itself as ‘a little kinder’, it would appear that there is still skepticism over the language of the questions.
Questions that ‘trip too many kids up’
Comments on the TES forum regarding the questions include: ‘there were a few cleverly worded questions that could catch you out though if not read properly’; ‘I thought the last section questions were really tricky, and open to too much interpretation’; ‘questions written in such a way as to trip too many kids up’; ‘still a challenging paper, although the texts were certainly more accessible this year’ and ‘even my better readers 15yrs+ only just finished in time’.
How can we help?
So the question is: what can we do to support children so that they feel confident and less under pressure when they have to face these tests? How can we help? Let’s break it down and look at what the issues are:
These three seem to be the main areas in which teachers feel that children are struggling. So, what can we do? What skills do the children need in order to be able to work faster and more efficiently, and interpret the questions effectively?
Well, it’s comprehension-monitoring skills. These are the skills that will enable children to overcome these obstacles. Often, comprehension-monitoring skills are ones that are not overtly taught in schools. It’s easy to assume that children will learn how to skim, scan and précis texts organically, as their reading becomes swifter and more fluent. We may discuss their predictions and inferences of the texts they read (or those we read with/to them), but do we overtly teach them the procedural skills they need to be able to make predictions and inferences of more complex materials? These are the skills that will help them in their SATs. Giving them the procedural knowledge of how to approach a text – how to scan for information, how to infer information efficiently – this is the best way we can help our children succeed. This will help to reduce anxiety in the tests (because they know that they know how to do it!), increase their working speed (because they have a system to follow) and ensure reliable interpretation of the questions.
Overt teaching of these skills
It’s not for me, here and now, to discuss the appropriateness or otherwise of the SATs in general. That’s a larger discussion. But if you want your children to feel more confident, less stressed and more in control of what they are doing when they take their reading tests, my advice to you is to focus more on overt teaching of these comprehension-monitoring skills. They are important skills for literacy in general, not simply for exam-passing or box-ticking, so you can feel confident that you are giving your children their very best chance at success both in reading more generally and their SATs. At the end of the day, children who enjoy their education achieve more highly - this we know. So yes, let's help our children prepare for SATs, but let's do it in a gentle, supportive way, ensuring that the skills we teach them are actually useful in a broader sense, over and above the passing of exams.
For fun, enjoyable, exciting teaching tips and ideas on how to cover these skills in an interesting way in your classrooms, please bear in mind TT Education’s Raising Attainment in Reading course. All of the comprehension-monitoring skills children need to learn are covered in this outstanding course.
Published on 12 December 2019