Is it all in the words?

Nicola Bloom, Independent Adviser in Literacy and Learning
June 2016
What was it about this year's KS2 reading test that has provoked such a strong response?
In part at least, the problem seems to lie with the vocabulary, with teachers identifying questions testing children’s’ knowledge and understanding of words such as “rival” and “sedately” as problems. In fact, it could be argued that this area is fair game for testers since there is plenty of evidence that understanding of the meaning of individual words contributes greatly to overall comprehension of a text. Specific introduction of vocabulary  and ensuring that children have experience of new words in a wide range of reading material from a variety of genres and styles are both very important aspects of teaching.
However, further investigation into the mark scheme reveals something interesting. This year, the tests are based for the first time on the new national curriculum introduced in 2014, and this means that the mark scheme is no longer based on the old Assessment Focuses for reading (much lamented, at least by me!). Instead, we have “content domain coverage”, divided into eight areas. Of these, two are directly linked to vocabulary: 2a is Give/explain the meaning of words in context and 2g is Identify/explain how meaning is enhanced through choice of words and phrases. 
Given the importance of vocabulary to comprehension, this seems logical at first glance, but there is a mismatch – there are ten marks for 2a, and only two for 2g. This means that most of the emphasis on vocabulary is about knowing the meanings of individual words, and not on how those words enhance and influence the meaning of the text.  It is rather as though children were given a list of individual words to define, rather than being asked to say why the words were important in the text – which surely should be the point of the exercise. Words on their own are not important; words doing a job in a text are.
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the two marks available for question 2g are for question 5 in the first section, The Lost Queen. This text was specially commissioned from an item-writing agency, which itself is a problem, as it really reads like something written for a test: awkward, because it has to fill in the back story in a paragraph, and with lots of self- conscious vocabulary, much of it pointless and even contradictory. (The use of adverbs is especially clumsy; at one point, Maria is glancing behind her nervously, while shortly afterwards she is speaking impatiently.)  It is not a good example of how to use words powerfully and with precision. 
Any national test of comprehension will be fraught with difficulty. The level of understanding we bring to a text is largely dependent on our familiarity with the genre and subject-matter, so finding texts that give all children an equal chance of doing as well as they can is a tall order. That being the case, it is hard to see why, when commissioning a text, the brief was not to write one with a tone and background more familiar to a greater number of children, and which used words as though they meant something.
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