Five Ways to Ensure That Your Teaching of Reading is Effective

Teaching children to read is complex. There are many things that schools need to get right for their pupils to flourish as readers. However, from observations in schools and discussions with fellow professionals, it is my belief that there are certain elements of reading teaching that are frequently overlooked despite their importance. Here are five questions that in many primary schools deserve more consideration than they are currently afforded:

  1. How is phonics monitored?

Every primary school is required to teach phonics systematically. It goes without saying that if phonics is not taught well, then children’s reading will suffer. However, the extent to which children’s phonics progress is monitored through year two and beyond varies dramatically between schools. Often, even those children that pass the phonics screening check return to school in year two having forgotten much of the learning content experienced just a few months earlier. In response, schools should ensure that they can explain where every student is on their phonics journey and have systematic phonics interventions in place for those that still struggle despite thorough, responsive phonics teaching, be they in year two or year six.

2. How is reading fluency taught and assessed?

There are several reasons why children in upper key stage two might struggle to comprehend what they have read, and chief among these reasons is slow decoding that prevents understanding.[i] There is a substantial body of evidence to suggest that repeated oral reading of short texts that are towards the upper limits of children’s current reading ability can support children’s development of the components of fluency, which are essential to reading comprehension.[ii]  Nevertheless, this crucial area is too often neglected in primary schools. In year two and lower key stage two, fluency practice should be a major component of reading instruction, either as standalone lessons or as a regular part of reading sessions.[iii] Either way, it should never be dissociated from the ultimate purpose of reading, and well-chosen texts should ensure that the comprehension undertaken during fluency practice is valuable on its own terms.[iv]

Fluency should also be assessed to allow timely responses to the needs of individual children and classes. Tests of reading fluency such as DIBELS assessments, while something of a blunt instrument, are useful when used in conjunction with teacher judgements, which give context to results.[v]

3. How much decoding do children do each week?

This is arguably the most important and overlooked question one can ask about a school’s reading instruction. It may seem prosaic, but the process of learning to read – in particular the development of rapid word recognition – can be considered as statistical;[vi] our brains are pattern spotting machines, and we rely on vast quantities of information to strengthen and hone our command of the patterns in the English language. This means it is essential that children spend lots of time meeting new text every school day, increasing their reading ‘mileage’. You might be thinking, “Isn’t this obvious?” Maybe it is, but this doesn’t stop some children spending as little as 10 or 20 minutes each week processing text while children in similar schools do several times as much. While children’s fluency is still developing, whole-class reading can ensure that reading mileage is prioritised. (I recommend children and adults take turns to read aloud; rulers and quick word checks can be used to ensure that children are focusing and keeping pace, and struggling readers can explore the text in advance during interventions to support this.) Once fluency is relatively established (100+ words per minute oral reading speed with high accuracy), silent reading followed by text-dependent questions is the most efficient method for children to meet new text.

4. How is vocabulary development supported?

Reading comprehension and vocabulary development reinforce one another. Plenty of time spent reading is essential, but vocabulary development can be best supported in two ways – by teaching children particularly useful words and by revealing to them the etymological and morphological structure of the English language. The first of these requires a rationale for which words to choose, and Beck, Mckeown and Kucan attempt to provide one by considering vocabulary as existing in three tiers.[vii] Crucially, what they define as ‘tier two’ words are those that are rare in day-to-day informal language, but are used across the curriculum (i.e. they are not specific to particular subjects or contexts). By combining the concept of tier two vocabulary with the most common words in the English language, it is possible to compile a list of words that can be introduced to children, either in reading sessions, standalone vocabulary sessions or through ‘word-of-the-day’ style teaching.[viii] In addition, a large amount of the morphological and etymological structure of English can be revealed to children by teaching them key Latin and Greek root words (e.g. acro-, meta-) and by highlighting key morphemes that modify English words (e.g. un-, dis-). While this teaching of vocabulary might seem detached from context, trust me when I say that the context will find you; teach children a tier two word like ‘influence’ or a morpheme like ‘dis’, and you won’t have to wait long for children to notice these in texts and class discussions, much to the benefit of their reading. Ideally, however, tier two vocabulary, Latin & Greek root words and morphological awareness can, and should, be integrated into your wider school curriculum, though this is naturally a task that takes a considerable amount of time and thought, so consider teaching discrete vocabulary lessons in the meantime.

5. Does the rest of the curriculum build children’s knowledge of the world?

Reading comprehension relies on background knowledge.[ix] Put simply, high-quality teaching of science, history, geography, etc, is teaching reading. A curriculum that is coherently structured allows the knowledge children gain to become part of a rich network of understanding that they can use in their reading and beyond.


Many elements of the teaching of reading are not included above, not least the power of reading aloud to children. These are just the elements that are most frequently overlooked, despite their importance. Whether you’re a headteacher, a reading coordinator or a class teacher, thinking carefully about the five questions above is a considerable step towards ensuring your students have the best chance of learning to read.


A version of this blog originally appeared in ‘Teach Reading & Writing’ magazine: https://www.theteachco.com/uploads/special-issues/TRW-Issue11-June-20-1.pdf


[i] National Reading Panel (US). (2000). Teaching children to read: Reports of the subgroups. The Panel.

[ii] These components of reading fluency can be described as accuracy, automaticity and prosody. Prosody is concerned with the tone, intonation, stress and rhythm of speech – in this case the idea that these allow oral reading to sound natural and comfortable, akin to spoken language.

[iii] For more on fluency practice, see this article: https://www.teachwire.net/news/i-was-bad-at-teaching-reading-but-then-i-found-a-better-way

[iv] Pikulski, J. J., & Chard, D. J. (2005). Fluency: Bridge between decoding and reading comprehension. The Reading Teacher58(6), 510-519.

[v] For more on DIBELS assessments: https://dibels.uoregon.edu/assessment/dibels/dibels-eighth-edition

[vi] Seidenberg, M. (2017). Language at the Speed of Sight: How we Read, Why so Many Can’t, and what can be done about it. Basic Books.

[vii] Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., & Kucan, L. (2013). Bringing words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction. Guilford Press.

[viii]For just such a list – or guidance on how to compile one – see this blog: https://primarycolour.home.blog/2019/06/14/tier-two-vocabulary-for-primary-teachers-the-3-4-5-list/

[ix] Kendeou, P., & Van Den Broek, P. (2007). The effects of prior knowledge and text structure on comprehension processes during reading of scientific texts. Memory & cognition35(7), 1567-1577.

The research behind reading: where should you start?

Like many others, I taught for several years with almost zero knowledge of how people learn to read. Yes, during my PGCE, I was told that phonics was a good thing, and I was given Letters and Sounds to read, but beyond that? Not much. Thus, it was something of a surprise to learn eventually that the science behind reading is arguably the most thoroughly explored area of cognitive psychology and that well-founded recommendations for pedagogy are available for teachers.

Perhaps you don’t know much about the research into reading, but would like to change that. It can be difficult to know where to begin, and time is precious. This blog is my attempt to match a decent course of action to the amount of time that you have available. I’m no expert, but I hope that I’ve read and digested enough to support your first steps into this area of learning. Trust me: if you are someone who teaches children to read, you won’t regret taking the time to better understand this subject. It will make you a better teacher.


If you effectively have no time to dedicate to this goal at present, then get the ball rolling by following these people on Twitter:

@TheReadingApe

This Twitter account posts about all things phonics and reading. The blogs are concise and informative, with references and further reading for those interested. A case in point: https://www.thereadingape.com/single-post/2019/06/23/Comprende-Reading-comprehension-a-skill-to-be-taught

@ReadingShanahan

Timothy Shanahan was a member of the National Reading Panel in the US, which was responsible for sifting through the mountains of research into reading and coming up with recommendations for educators. His blogs at shanahanonliteracy.com are always worth reading, and his views are informed by an extensive understanding of the current evidence. This one gives a pretty good flavour of what he does: https://shanahanonliteracy.com/blog/how-to-teach-fluency-so-that-it-takes

@c_mackechnie

Charlotte Mackechnie is an advocate for linguistic phonics who tweets and writes very persuasively on the subject. Here is an example from her excellent blog: https://linguisticphonics.wordpress.com/2018/07/01/what-skills-are-required-for-reading-and-spelling/

@SWLiteracy

John Walker is the man responsible for Sounds-Write phonics, and, given this fact, his blog is full of excellent advice for teachers on the subject of early reading: https://theliteracyblog.com/


If you have 1-2 hours only, read this overview of the research – Ending the Reading Wars: Reading Acquisition from Novice to Expert https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/1529100618772271

I can’t really imagine a more efficient way to get to grips with the subject than reading this. It covers everything from the alphabetic principle to different computational models of reading to language comprehension.


Where you go after reading this depends on your priorities…


If you have 5-10 hours and you want to get to grips with all aspects of reading, from phonics to fluency, from comprehension to leading reading across a school, then I’d be a fool not to recommend the book I wrote for precisely this purpose, The Art and Science of Teaching Primary Reading: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Science-Teaching-Primary-Reading-Corwin/dp/1529764165/ref=sr_1_3?keywords=teaching+primary+reading&qid=1621544542&sr=8-3

All royalties are going to the Malaria Consortium, a Give-Well recommended charity.


If you have 5-10 hours and you are most interested in understanding the history of reading (which is surprisingly relevant to understanding how it should be taught), scientific models of reading and where these might lead in the future, then read this book:

Language at the Speed of Sight by Mark Seidenberg.

Language at the Speed of Sight is an entertaining read that takes a broad view of reading acquisition. You will likely spend considerable chunks of the book thinking, “Do I really need to know this in this much detail?” and “Is this really relevant?” All I can say is that the more I learn about how people learn to read, the more I recognise that subjects like orthographic depth and the historical development of different writing systems are relevant and useful to know.


If you have 5-10 hours and you are most interested in the initial acquisition of reading and the pedagogical implications, then read this book:

Early Reading Instruction by Diane McGuinness.

Full of references and breakdowns of relevant research, this book gives a grand tour of the science into early reading. It is, in effect, a deeper exploration of most of the subjects explored in the Corrigendum: Ending the Reading Wars paper discussed above. (It is worth noting that I disagree with McGuinness’s conclusions about dyslexia, which are based on the claim that “for a biological theory [of dyslexia] to be accurate, dyslexia would have to occur at the same rate in all populations.” This seems an inaccurate account of how genes and environment can, and do, interact. The definition of dyslexia advocated in Mark Seidenberg’s Language at the Speed of Sight makes more sense to me.) While it is a little dated and contains the odd dubious claim, it remains an excellent introduction into the research on early reading.


If you have 5-10 hours and you are most interested in immediate practical applications of research into reading, especially in a Key Stage 2 and secondary context, then read these two books:

Reading Reconsidered by Doug Lemov, Colleen Driggs and Erica Woolway

While at first glance this book seems most relevant to a US context, it doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to see how the wealth of experience and strategies contained in this text could be applied in almost any setting where children have a solid level of reading fluency. (For more on what I mean by reading fluency, read this: https://primarycolour.home.blog/2019/08/10/how-i-will-teach-reading-this-year/)

Thinking Reading by James and Dianne Murphy

This short book is one part call to arms for secondary schools who are not yet systematically tackling student’s reading difficulties, one part guide for school leaders and teachers on how to begin to answer that call. It is a perfect companion to Reading Reconsidered as it addresses a key question that Reading Reconsidered leaves unanswered: “What about the kids whose reading is so weak that they can’t engage with these methods?”


If you have 5-10 hours and you are most interested in reading comprehension, then read this book:

Understanding and Reading Teaching Comprehension by Jane Oakhill

This book is a readable guide to the research into all the elements that make up reading comprehension – vocabulary, background knowledge, inference, text structure, cohesive devices and comprehension monitoring – with practical recommendations for how these can be taught. However, bear in mind that most of the strategies considered in the book are best taught quickly and explicitly, with little to be gained from extensive instruction. This is discussed here: http://www.danielwillingham.com/uploads/5/0/0/7/5007325/willingham&lovette_2014_can_reading_comprehension_be_taught_.pdf

and here:

https://www.readingrockets.org/blogs/shanahan-on-literacy/how-much-comprehension-strategy-instruction


If you have 25 hours, then read all four of the books mentioned above. While each might not be directly relevant to your context, as a whole they give a broader view of the research behind reading and its implications for instruction.


If you have more than 25 hours, here are some further options that are well worth your time:

The Science of reading podcasts – hosted by Susan Lambert

The Science of Reading podcasts by Amplify are pacy interviews about reading science and instruction that traverse all areas of the subject. Guests to far include such luminaries as Tim Shanahan, Natalie Wexler, Tim Rasinski and Emily Hanford. Find it here: https://amplify.com/science-of-reading-the-podcast/


Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf

This book covers similar ground to the first section of Language at the Speed of Sight. However, Proust and the Squid provides a more wistful journey through the history and science of reading, along with an engaging and personal (if rose-tinted) exploration of dyslexia and its controversies.


Bringing Words to Life by Isabel Beck, Margaret McKeown and Linda Kucan

This is a fascinating look at the effective ways of teaching vocabulary


The Vocabulary Gap by Alex Quigley

In Closing the Vocabulary Gap, Alex Quigley argues for a thorough, cumulative approach to teaching vocabulary across schools.


Sounds Write – English Spellings: A Lexicon by Dave Philpot, John Walker and Susan Case

This is a detailed discussion and analysis of English spelling from a linguistic phonics perspective.


Words in the Mind by Jean Aitchison

This is an entertaining and informative guide to the best research on how our mind deals with words and the links between background knowledge and vocabulary:


Learn more about the best bets for developing reading fluency from this excellent paper:

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/328784455_A_SYNTHESIS_OF_RESEARCH_ON_READING_FLUENCY_DEVELOMPENT_STUDY_OF_EIGHT_META-ANALYSES


Dive into the weeds of comprehension strategies and inference training by reading these papers:

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/311215549_Activating_Background_Knowledge_An_Effective_Strategy_to_Develop_Reading_Comprehension_Skills

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/313687046_Examining_the_Impact_of_Inference_Instruction_on_the_Literal_and_Inferential_Comprehension_of_Skilled_and_Less_Skilled_Readers_A_Meta-Analytic_Review

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/49176228_An_instructional_study_Improving_the_inferential_comprehension_of_good_and_poor_fourth-grade_readers

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/273162713_Inference_Instruction_for_Struggling_Readers_a_Synthesis_of_Intervention_Research

(It’s worth noting here that some of this research is quite dated; the blog by @TheReadingApe described above is worth reading as context before reading these, as is this blog by @ReadingShanahan, where the sort of inference strategies discussed in the above papers are referred to using the umbrella term “comprehension strategies”: https://shanahanonliteracy.com/blog/comprehension-skills-or-strategies-is-there-a-difference-and-does-it-matter


There is so much more that I could add, but I hope that the reading material above gives a flavour of the reading research to anyone new to the field. Now here’s a shameless plug: my book, The Art and Science of Teaching Primary Reading is my attempt to summarise the research into teaching from the perspective of an experienced teacher and school leader. I think it has something to offer to trainee teachers, experienced teachers, reading coordinators, school leaders and those teaching reading at secondary schools. All royalties will go to the Malaria Consortium, a Give-Well recommended charity.

Feedback is, as ever, appreciated.

How I will teach reading this year


I’m pretty confident that for most of my teaching career I taught reading badly. I assiduously followed whatever structure was handed down from on high – and then ditched it as soon as a new structure was rolled out. As a trainee, I’d read the government-issued Letters and Sounds document, but I didn’t have any idea of how children actually learned to read, which in hindsight seems utterly bonkers. In education we are only ever dealing in best bets, so certainty is always misplaced, but the science behind how people learn to read is arguably the most studied area of cognitive psychology. We should take advantage of that, and this is what I will attempt to do this year.

Here are some key points that I think primary teachers need to understand in order to teach reading well:

  • Solid phonological awareness underpins reading. Some children really struggle with phonics, but make their way towards something resembling fluency through other means (usually decoding the first few letters of a word followed by excellent semantic guesswork). In my experience, many of these children eventually come unstuck as their semantic guesswork increasingly fails when texts become more complex. (I’ve seen this happen in KS3 with children who have scored well on a year 6 SATs reading paper.) If a child’s understanding of phonics is weak, stick with phonics. Even if a child’s grasp of phonics never reaches a high standard, every small step towards that is a major advantage.
  • Reading fluency is an important step between phonics and the skills of reading comprehension. It needs to be explicitly and regularly taught if the vast majority of students are to become fluent. Reading fluency can be thought of as consisting of three elements: automaticity, accuracy and prosody (i.e. fluent readers read quickly, easily and with the patterns and rhythm of spoken language). Reading fluency is best achieved through repeated oral reading.[i] This entails children reading aloud and repeating passages or paragraphs, consciously aiming for fluent reading. Undertaking this with an adult, while ideal, is simply not logistically feasible, but reading aloud in dyadic pairs (described later) is an effective alternative. This is best achieved through the reading of texts that are somewhat beyond the grasp of the children.
  • In order to build up the knowledge and vocabulary upon which their future learning will rely, children need to read independently and often. However, inculcating a love of independent reading in children who are not yet fluent is extremely difficult. It seems to be the case that being a good reader is what initially causes children to develop beneficial independent reading habits rather than vice versa,[ii] though once established the relationship is likely reciprocal.
  • Comprehension and inference can be improved through the teaching of generic reading strategies, but these strategies have their full impact after a very short period and focusing lots of attention on these wastes precious time that could be spent on the real substance of reading, which is…
  • …vocabulary, background knowledge and knowledge of syntax. Along with reading fluency, comprehension is based upon one’s understanding of the words in the text, the concepts to which the words are directly or indirectly referring and the structure of the language. Each of these is a huge and diverse knowledge domain. Due to this, we must understand the importance of text selection. Children should read a wide variety of non-fiction to develop their knowledge of the world along with some fiction. (I’d advocate a greater focus on non-fiction when explicitly teaching reading as children should experience more fiction when teachers share a chapter book with the class each day.)
  • The teaching of spelling rules and morphology is an underrated component of teaching children to read.[iii] (Personally, I would add etymology to this mix, but I’m not sure of the evidence base for this suggestion.)

In contrast, much of the teaching that I have observed (and done) touches on the key points above without ever prioritising them. The reading sessions I have seen instead generally displayed the following attributes:

  • The texts are chosen to match the reading ability of the children and sometimes the topic children are learning about, but they are not chosen for the explicit purpose of building up children’s knowledge of the world.
  • The vocabulary and context of the text is sometimes discussed, but it is seen as secondary to the generic inference or comprehension skills that are apparently being developed in the session.
  • Fluency is rarely the explicit aim. Children may spend some time reading aloud to a teacher or a partner, but this rarely adds up to more than 10-15 minutes of reading aloud per week.

Based on what I have seen, I think a shift in perspective is required: we must focus on developing reading fluency. In addition, we must remember that when children are reading, what is being learned is entirely contained within the vocabulary and knowledge inherent to the text itself. If the text is about volcanoes, then that day’s lesson is about learning the background knowledge and vocabulary relating to volcanoes (along with whatever syntactical structures are contained within the text.) When a child asks where volcanoes are found and the teacher shows a map of the globe with the tectonic plate margins delineated, that is teaching reading as much as discussing why the author chose a specific simile or explaining how to summarise a paragraph. The ability to read is like an ability to see the images described in a pointillist painting where each person sees a different number of dots on their own canvas: experienced readers have enough dots to comprehend the entire image in fine detail; beginning readers can only see a few dots on their canvas. Tempting though the prospect is, trying to directly teach the ‘skill’ of reading comprehension is like trying to explain what the picture shows as if that will make it actually appear. Doing so has brief advantages, but the bulk of our teaching is better conceived as adding as many dots as we can to the children’s canvasses and spreading these dots as widely as possible.

Here’s how I will try to achieve that this year:

1. At the beginning of this year, I will hear each child read to find which of them are fluent readers. (As a rule of thumb, I count children’s reading as fluent when they can read aloud at more than 120 words per minute with good prosody from an age-appropriate text and then answer a basic comprehension question.) Where phonics is an issue, systematic interventions will be put into place or whole-class phonics teaching will be implemented if more than 20% of the children require it. If phonics is necessary, this will naturally require familiarity with my school’s phonics scheme.

2. If fewer than 80% of the children are fluent, as I expect to be the case, I will undertake daily fluency practice in mixed-ability dyadic pairs (a practice outlined in some detail in Timothy Shanahan’s blog.[iv]) This entails children reading to one another from a text aimed at the best readers in the class for 20 minutes in total – 10 minutes each in alternating periods of roughly 5 minutes. All of the children will read the same text. Sometimes the paragraph will be read aloud to the children beforehand; other times they will dive in without this assistance. The children will read designated passages repeatedly – up to three or four times – aiming for fluency. The listening partners will keep track of where the reading partner is up to using a ruler and will be trained to offer support in decoding unfamiliar words. Where neither partner can decode a word, they will be expected to write it down for me to discuss later in the session. All students will gain from explicitly developing their fluency in this way, but the dysfluent will gain the most. The final 10 minutes of these half-hour sessions will be spent sharing the knowledge and vocabulary underpinning the text and discussing questions relating to comprehension, inference and authorial intent. (Where necessary, some of this discussion will take place before the children begin to read, so that the fluency practice is bookended by discussion of vocabulary and knowledge.)

3. If more than 80% of the children are fluent, I will undertake daily fluency practice in a guided group with the few children who are not yet fluent. At the same time, the rest of the class will read longer texts, sometimes in silence, sometimes aloud with a partner, but without the need for repeated reading, something most useful for developing fluency. As before, the final third of the session will be spent discussing unfamiliar vocabulary and the knowledge underpinning the text. There is an argument to be made here that the fluent readers are getting less of my time than those that are dysfluent. While this may be true, it is not to my mind an issue of fairness; the fluent readers can learn while reading independently as long as I discuss the text with them before and/or afterwards; the same is not true for dysfluent readers. If all children reach fluency, we will read a variety of texts together, sometimes in silence and sometimes aloud. At this stage, my key considerations will be mileage (the amount of reading my class is undertaking each day) and content (the knowledge of the language and of the world needed to comprehend the text).

4. Texts are chosen with variety in mind. Through the school year, children will read various texts on subjects from across the curriculum, but many that I choose will go beyond this. Texts might discuss marsupials, hurricanes, Gilgamesh, the history of flight or Mozart. All of these subjects – and the language and knowledge gained – adds a new set of dots to that canvas.

5. Beyond reading sessions, spelling and morphology will be explicitly taught. In particular, the explicit teaching of morphology will use words that the class already know to develop familiarity with the patterns of suffixes and prefixes that they will encounter frequently when they read. Word matrices can be a useful way of showing this:

6. I will spend at least 20 minutes each day reading stories to my class. Sometimes I will pause to discuss unfamiliar vocabulary, metaphors, stylistic features, etc, but more often than not the focus will be on the right pace to encourage engagement. The primary aim here will be to associate reading with enjoyment. Anything else is a bonus. [v]

7. I will do everything in my power to encourage children to read at home independently if they are fluent, including recommending books. (@smithsmm and @MissL_Y5 are both great Twitter people to ask for advice on children’s books. I’d highly recommend that you follow both.) For children who are not fluent, I will discuss how parents can best support their children by reading with them at home, including the basics of fluency practice and how to segment and blend words. (Regardless, it’s worth noting here that parental support is necessary for but not sufficient for many children to learn to read. Lots of children can be read with at home every night in a family that values books and still not necessarily becoming fluent readers. Schools must take ultimate responsibility for children learning to read.) Over the longer term, independent reading is absolutely essential. There simply isn’t enough time in the school day for children to build up the bank of orthographic knowledge that is a requisite of mature reading.


And that’s about it. How I teach reading is a work in progress. It is an attempt to align what I’m doing with the vast body of available research and the interpretations of this research made by experts in the field. I’m fairly confident that my views will evolve through the year, and any advice you can offer – or reading you can direct me towards – that will accelerate that evolution would be much appreciated.


[i] https://www.nichd.nih.gov/sites/default/files/publications/pubs/nrp/Documents/report.pdf

[ii] http://www.shanahanonliteracy.com/blog/isnt-independent-reading-a-research-based-practice#sthash.KsItNrst.dpbs

[iii] The Effects of Morphological Instruction on Literacy Skills: A Systematic Review of the Literature; (Bowers, Kirby & Deacon, 2010)

[iv] http://shanahanonliteracy.com/blog/how-to-teach-fluency-so-that-it-takes#sthash.tRGlpbNw.dpbs

[v] https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/lit.12141

The puzzle of inference in reading

I was always jealous of people who could do cryptic crosswords. Observed up close, their completing of each clue seemed like a small act of genius, the answers appearing from nowhere, usually making some sense only in retrospect. I could see that there was a great deal of skill involved or at least I thought so. My attempts to learn the skill of crosswording began with guides to cryptic crosswords, which revealed that there were only a few different ways that a clue can be formed. For example, one clue type involves breaking down a word into chunks and then signaling each piece elsewhere in the clue. Here are a couple of examples:

Quiet bird has a sign on a strange occurrence (10) PHENOMENON (quiet = p; bird = hen; sign = omen; on = on)

Stop! Everyone on the road. (5) STALL (road = st; everyone = all)

I’ve had some experience of musical notation so the fact that the word ‘quiet’ might signify the letter p made sense. However, road signifying st (from street) caught me off guard. “What other crossword abbreviations might I need to know?” I thought. Fortunately, Wikipedia had me covered.[i] I found to my dismay that there were literally hundreds of abbreviations. Not only that, but the Wikipedia list – according to other crossworders – was nowhere near exhaustive, and this was just one type of clue. With each new clue type that I encountered, there appeared to be an entire language of signifiers and abbreviations. On top of this, solving each clue depended utterly on the limits of my vocabulary. What had appeared from the outset to be a single learnable skill was in fact a vast array of overlapping fragments of knowledge. It was like the famous art gallery scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off when Cameron, a teenager bunking off school, stares deeper and deeper into a pointillist masterpiece and sees the unified scene disintegrate into a multitude of individual coloured dots.[ii]


I know, I know: a truanting teenager choosing to go to the Art Institute of Chicago to contemplate existence in front of a Seurat painting is unrealistic. They’d choose a Rothko. Duh.

I think that my crossword experience can help us understand how to teach other skills that in reality consist of a vast array of overlapping fragments of knowledge, things like inference in reading…

Here is a statement from the national curriculum for year 5:

By the end of year 5, children should be able to understand what they read by drawing inferences such as inferring characters’ feelings, thoughts and motives from their actions, and justifying inferences with evidence.

Assuming that this drawing and justifying of inferences is to be performed using age-appropriate texts, a teacher is left with the same one question that they wrestle with most days: how on Earth do I teach this? Far too often, teachers’ understandable conclusion is to model the supposed skill of inference with one text and then have children mimic the skill with another text, one containing language and background knowledge with which the children are already familiar. This is the equivalent of teaching a novice crossworder by showing one clue and its solution and then giving them a clue of their own to solve, ensuring that the abbreviations, signifiers and vocabulary involved are already understood by the novice. In other words, in attempting to evidence a child’s understanding of a generic skill that doesn’t really exist, teachers – through necessity – avoid introducing children to the new language and background knowledge upon which inference is really based. If this all sounds slightly despairing, then fear not as perhaps our crossword example can shed some light on the methods through which we can develop children’s ability to make inferences while reading.

I found that by far the most effective way to learn how to solve crosswords was to place each question and solution side by side. For every clue that proved impenetrable – at first, this was all of them – I went straight to the answer and attempted to understand how it was derived. Sometimes the entire clue made sense; sometimes only parts did. Nevertheless, the more my own internal store of abbreviations and signifiers grew, the quicker I could isolate and understand those that were a little rarer. (Knowledge assists in the acquisition of more knowledge, a relationship that makes initial learning intimidating, but that eventually encourages mastery.) In short, to get better at answering crossword clues, I had to be shown thousands upon thousands of them, each one adding or reinforcing a fragment of relevant knowledge.

The parallels between this experience and learning to infer while reading are clear. Both crosswording and reading inference are the result of countless accumulated experiences of language, remembered and connected. In both cases we must remember that, first and foremost, we are building knowledge of language and of the world, something that has consequences for how we teach reading:

  1. Ensure that your reading lessons revolve around children encountering and understanding *lots* of text. Do not underestimate the quantitative aspects of reading instruction.

2. Ensure children learn from a wide variety of texts, carefully chosen to develop children’s knowledge of language and of the world.

3. Make explicit connections to where children might have seen particular words or concepts before, perhaps in other texts you have read.

4. Ensure children become familiar with key cohesive devices in written language and how they work, specifically connectives and pronouns. (It might surprise you how rarely some children grasp what is being referred to by a given pronoun.)

5. How much independent work is appropriate will depend on where the children are in their learning journey and the difficulty of the text. When first starting out, the balance between independent practice and explicit explanation will strongly (but not entirely) favour the latter. There is much to value in simply explaining the meaning of some text, but children also need opportunities to grapple with meaning independently.


Thank you for reading. Constructive feedback is appreciated.

[i] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crossword_abbreviations

[ii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ubpRcZNJAnE

[iii] https://learningspy.co.uk/featured/what-do-we-mean-by-skills/

[iv] https://schoolsweek.co.uk/how-i-wish-id-taught-maths-by-craig-barton/