For the past few years I have been accidentally corroborating a study that shows reading ability is linked to intelligence. The evidence is fairly dramatic when it reveals itself and I’d be chuffed if other primary teachers also contributed to my informal study (it takes minimal time and can be done without children knowing)! Disclaimer: I am just a primary teacher and not a full time researcher. I can’t do thousands of replicates, but I’m always looking for patterns and understanding of the children I teach. I do read the results of far more serious research, but I’m also curious about what my own class can reveal. Rest assured, nobody in my class gets pigeon-holed and if you take that message from this blogette, then you’re getting the wrong end of the stick.
Who is in the primary classroom but not in the secondary classroom?
In any primary class you will have a huge range of ability, even if the class only has one year group in it (many will be mixed year groups). Added to this, you will also have a higher ratio of children with SEN, particularly those with statements, than in secondary schools. This is because it is very common for those with the greatest needs to either be taught at home from the age of 11, or to go into a special school at that age. At the other end of the spectrum, the most intelligent and hard working will go on to the grammars or perhaps take up a scholarship/assisted place at a good local private school. Secondary schools therefore receive a year 7 cohort with a narrower range of intellectual ability, and then of course the range of ability in any class will be further narrowed by the use of streaming.
What can the primary teacher do?
Although I have been told not to arrange the group tables in my class by ability, I find that some subjects seem to necessitate it, otherwise how would I be able to work with a group, direct the TA to work with a group or easily give out the different worksheets? Mixed ability seating is sometimes virtually impossible when you consider that at KS2 you will have a few children who are so far behind and so unable to cope on their own that you have to have an adult with them, and my conscience would not cope well if I used higher ability pupils to look after them. My argument is that if ability banding happens in secondary schools, but on a bigger scale, why should the primary teacher be prevented from occasionally arranging the children in this practical way?
How do I manage with such a huge range of ability?
On taking a new class, I had, as usual, received a bunch of data for each child and I normally used this to put children into groups. The groups might only exist in my planning so that I could make sure the teaching/learning/work was differentiated and for regularly updating target tracker (half termly) or various spreadsheets (weekly), but for guided reading I did (and still do) actually work with groups on a carousel system as per school policy. Of course, children change as they develop and I was starting to think maybe my reading groups weren’t quite right. I didn’t have the time or the energy to have the children sit a comprehension test and then spend hours marking and deriving levels from the data generated, so I needed to do something quickly. I had read about various studies showing that reading ability and amount of time spent reading was positively correlated with intelligence and was also painfully aware that the children in my class had different levels of reading fluency. It struck me that there were so many who were, despite the system saying ‘They can read’, not truly fluent readers, but had been ‘moved on’ and I wondered what the real scale of this problem was. Maybe I should just measure the fluency?
To my mind, the lack of reading fluency had parallels with a common lack of basic number bond and times tables knowledge that so many children come up to KS2 with. Just as a child struggles to understand and calculate KS2 maths skills because they have to spend so much time using their fingers to count, it seems that so many children struggle with comprehension because they are stuck with slow reading that prevents them from getting the whole sense of a sentence and the storyline. My solution for the children who lack maths prowess is to make them practice using and applying the basic knowledge until it is in the long term memory, ready for instant recall, and this has proven extremely effective (and to any mathematician this makes perfect sense, but not to those in primary education who overtly detest ‘rote learning’). The standard solution in primary ed for lack of comprehension skills is for the teacher to ‘teach’ higher order thinking skills, but I was thinking that perhaps the slow readers simply needed to do more reading and become more fluent?
So, I asked the TA to find a text appropriate to the age group I taught and to photocopy it just once. On one copy she marked the number of words in each sentence, and the unmarked copy was to be given to a child to read. One by one, the children were asked to read for a minute out of earshot of the rest of the class and the children were not told what exactly we were looking for or measuring, other than ‘We need to check your reading’. There was no stopwatch either as the TA surreptitiously looked at her watch and immediately afterwards she would note how many words that child had read on a simple list of names. This was also an opportunity for the children to let the TA know about anything that is troubling them, so it served a social purpose too (TAs are very important for this). She then gave me the data and I popped it into a spreadsheet.
And then, when the children were out at break, I arranged the numbers low to high.
I invited the TA to have a look as I arranged the numbers and it was at this point we were stunned into silence. Essentially, what was revealed was an exact order of children by intelligence. It was uncanny and it was horrifying in its implications.
How do I know how intelligent the children are anyway?
Oh come on. You can tell! We all can. Surely? I think where some primary teachers might find it difficult to tell is with the highly intelligent children; I’ve had conversations about astrophysics, going to Cambridge, how Latin feeds into our language and the finer points of medieval church architecture with some 10 year olds that really brighten up my day! But I’m not sure many primary teachers would be able to talk about astrophysics? Also, I think that if many primary teachers go into teaching wanting to promote wellbeing rather than academic prowess, they therefore might be more likely to tune into measures other than intelligence? However, I find that the ecosystem of teacher and pupils morphs together such that the teacher unconsciously modifies types of questioning for each child and I use my knowledge of the type of conversation (and questions) I can have with that child (whether it be in lesson or at breaks) as a proxy measure of intelligence. Primary teachers do get to know each child very well; I could identify in a fraction of a second children who should be given the opportunity to go to a grammar, an overtly academic school such as MCS or to take up a scholarship place at a private school.
What this data showed was that if reading fluency was correlated with intelligence as well as reading comprehension skills, and if reading fluency was determined by amount of time practising reading, then I needed to get the slow readers to be fluent readers by getting them to read more. Subsequent checks over the years have revealed that the most intelligent children are prolific readers and this kind of makes sense: if you’re reading more, you are spending more time quietly concentrating and focusing the mind on one thing (good training for being able to concentrate in general) at the same time as increasing the rate of vocabulary, idiom and general knowledge assimilation relative to other children who read less per unit of time. I’ve also found that children who read more and who are therefore more fluent also tend to be good at spelling, regardless of the spelling lessons I teach. This is probably because the more fluent readers are inadvertently studying the spelling rules of the English language without even realising it.
The simple data set, which could (and should) have been improved with more replicates to make it statistically significant, also showed me that of reading comprehension goes hand in hand with reading fluency and time spent reading, then my guided reading ‘lessons’, where children read for a mere minute or two each to be followed by questioning linked to Bloom’s Taxonomy, were/are possibly pointless? Have a little chew on that, fellow primary teacher!
I think more needs to be done in primary schools to tackle lack of reading fluency. As I have said on twitter, nobody got better at anything by doing nothing about it. Children need to read more and they need to be forced to read until they are truly fluent because this is the point where true joy of reading, and choosing to read for pleasure, really takes off. When children reach this stage, lots of different kinds of books need to be made available and children need to be given/encouraged to read quietly for a good half an hour a day (or more!). Also, I have found whole class reading, where I read and the children follow using a reading strip and pointing with their finger (asking questions about vocab along the way) to be incredibly useful, particularly for non-fiction texts and when I ask slower readers to re-read paragraphs that I have just read (going over the same words helps with speed of recall and instant decoding).
It is horrifying to consider that children just don’t read enough. It is also horrifying when we consider that children read less in primary school than they used to; the use of iPads, complete lack of textbooks, lack of silent concentrating during periods of writing or reading coupled with lack of reading opportunities and habits at home conspire to produce a generation of children who not only cannot comprehend, but it seems that their average intelligence is affected too.
Children need to read more.
Who’s with me?