I sometimes think that a healthy reading habit in a 10-year-old contributes more to educational outcomes than any other factor. Of course it would be a simple task to measure this by exam results, but really, the benefits go a lot further than school achievements and job prospects – reading builds a person’s inner life and widens perceptions.
However, let’s narrow our horizons for a minute. Whilst reading is definitely a huge contributory factor in 11+/ common entrance exam success, there are plenty of other specific literacy skills that are essential when it comes to applying that freshly sharpened pencil to the comprehension paper in the exam room.
Literacy for comprehension can be broken down into a series of skills: inference, looking for information, word meaning from context, prediction, summary and several more. Each skill can be honed. If you have ever wondered why with each past paper your child attempts the marks don’t substantially improve, it is perhaps because they are making similar mistakes each time. Isolating these skills away from the past papers is not only more challenging and fun, it is less repetitive and allows the pupil to build up abstract skills that are essential for GCSE, A-Level, university and beyond.
In a series of blogs for Tavistock I will be outlining just what those skills are and how a parent, even without the help of a teacher or tutor, can work on them. Remember, you never stop improving these skills and adults may find them useful for their own lives.
How was your day?
One of the skills tested on every single comprehension paper is the summary. The good news is that children practice this skill every single day of their lives. Simply by answering the question: how was your day at school today? your child is offering up a summary of that day’s events, even if the answer is simply “fine”! Of course, there are more garrulous examples, but just look at the skills needed to answer that question in the first place:
A sense of chronology – events described may not be in the order in which they happened.
Event selection – no one is going to explain everything that happened – events are selected by assessing their relative merits.
Describing – if they have been somewhere new they may need to set the scene.
Characterizing – they may have to use reported speech, in other words, they might have to repeat what someone said to them and characterize their emotional intent.
Of course, this will all be done unconsciously, but don’t be fobbed off with that brief ‘fine’ – take your time and allow them to express themselves. This is sometimes easier said than done, and you want to avoid an inquisition. That’s why dinner around the table is a great place for a relaxed conversation. Ask plenty of follow up questions.
A digested read
One of the most impressive things I have ever seen happened some while back when a lawyer I knew was a weekend guest. He had warned me that he had a bit of work to do, but said he didn’t mind if I stayed in the room whilst he did it. He then took out a thick A4 manual that must have been at least 500 pages. Now, I have no idea what this brick-heavy volume was about, but for the next 30 minutes my friend briskly flicked through the book, mostly forward, but occasionally tracking back. At the same time, by scribbling quickly in pencil, he filled 10 pages of lined A4 paper.
At the end of the 30 minutes I asked him what he had been doing. He said he had condensed the thick volume to just 10 pages and had extracted all the crucial information. He wasn’t an expert, but he now was sufficiently versed in the subject to be able to talk with a degree of authority in the meeting he had on Monday morning. What was so impressive was the efficiency with which he worked.
Similarly, when it comes to the exam, scanning the text and locating the appropriate paragraph with which to answer the question is a vital ability to have. For example, at random, here are some questions from recent exam papers:
In no more than four sentences explain what is happening in this extract. (2 marks)
Describe what happens in paragraph one in your own words. (2 marks)
Outline the events that led up to the car crash (4 marks)
Skills games to play at home
Take a 250-word article from a newspaper, a specific set of instructions from a DIY manual, or a brief chapter from something like a book on British wildlife. Give your child 5 minutes or so to read it and then ask them to summarise it. Follow this up with a series of specific questions designed to see if they have understood it.
Think of an everyday task they are familiar with – nothing complicated, just something we never really think about like eating an ice cream or making a cup of tea. Ask your child to describe it. The odds are they will miss out a stage or two, for example, what happens when you have licked the ice cream down to the water level. When do you start to bite into the cone? The summary should be succinct.
Scanning for words. Take a 500-word text and ask them to read it. Then, tell them you are going to pick a unique word from the text and their job is to find it as quickly as possible. In order to do this properly they will need a technique – it is no good just searching desperately across the page.
Examine how other people summarise. Watching the news is always a good thing when you are young (however, as an adult it becomes increasingly bad for your blood pressure). The news is supposed to be the perfect summary of events. When the craft of summary becomes part of your muscle memory it is so much easier to answer tricky little comprehension questions.