A closer focus: Locating information and understanding ideas
By Sarah Gibb, Research Manager
Monday 14 October 2019
By the end of year 6, the various reading skills that the majority of pupils appear to have mastered mostly fall into two categories: locating information and understanding ideas. However, their ability to do these two things inevitably varies according to text level and density, and whilst they may demonstrate these skills in their responses to questions with very discrete foci (information retrieval, for example) it is also apparent that in questions with a broader focus, pupils do not always utilise these skills so effectively. The examples given below from previous KS2 national curriculum tests  aim to illustrate the types of tasks pupils are generally able to manage, and where the transference of some of these skills begins to become more challenging.
In 2018, pupils were asked to identify, as well as to sequence, a number of facts about giant pandas from a simple non-fiction text. The majority of these questions were answered successfully by over 80 per cent of pupils, regardless of where in the text the target information was to be found. The text itself was divided up into very distinct sections with clear sub-headings, making the location of specific pieces of information more straightforward. For example, pupils were asked ‘…how are people trying to help giant pandas survive?’ and are likely to have navigated to the correct answer via the sub-heading ‘How can people help?’ Likewise, in 2017, 87 per cent of pupils correctly identified how long ‘the fastest swim across the Channel [took]’, with the sub-heading ‘How long does it take to swim across the Channel?’ likely to have been a helpful guide to the relevant information.
Scan for discrete pieces of information in straightforward texts, especially near the beginning of a text
Based on the same text, the first question in 2018 asked pupils to identify ‘approximately how many giant pandas currently live in the wild’. It was answered correctly by 99 per cent of pupils. The target information was located in the first paragraph and easily identifiable given the similarity between the wording of the question and the wording of the text: ‘only around 1600 pandas still survive in the wild’.
Understand the main (most explicit) ideas presented in texts or sections of text
When asked to give two reasons for ‘giant pandas [being] under threat of extinction’, 87 per cent of pupils attained both marks available. Slightly fewer pupils (78%) were also able to identify one of the significant ideas from the poem ‘Grannie’, which featured as a mid-level text in 2018, when asked how ‘the poet’s grannie react[ed] when he behaved badly’.
Sequence simple events across the whole of a straightforward text
The sequencing tasks that appeared in the national curriculum test in 2018 involved ordering a series of facts about giant panda cubs and the main events of the poem ‘Grannie’ and were both answered correctly by 84 per cent of pupils. However, in both cases pupils were looking at a relatively small amount of text; in the case of the panda cub question, all of the facts appeared within one paragraph with the clear sub-heading ‘Cubs’ to guide pupils to the relevant section. In 2017, pupils were asked to order a series of events from the low-level fiction text ‘Gaby to the Rescue’ – a more demanding task covering the whole text which was nonetheless completed successfully by 77 per cent of pupils.
However, results from NFER’s autumn year 6 reading test reveal that pupils’ ability to sequence events appears to diminish when asked to order less memorable or less significant details that are spread more widely through a longer text. For instance, the sequencing question focusing on the higher level text in this test required pupils to identify several things that occurred on the journey the characters were making and was only answered correctly by 9 per cent of pupils. The most common error on the sequencing task targeting the easy text was the confusion of the last two events in the story, both of which were more incidental details. This suggests that scanning for finer details (especially where a question does not use the language of the text verbatim) is a skill that requires further development for many pupils. Levels of pupil motivation and interest, reading speed and concentration may all also be factors that impact upon pupils’ capacity to draw information together from across a whole text, and link very clearly with the locating tasks and processing of ideas that pupils find it harder and hardest to do.
Pupils find it harder to…
Find evidence to support inferences
A good illustration of this is a two-part question from 2017 based upon a higher level fiction text in which the main character realises that he is within touching distance of a whale whilst out fishing. Part a asks pupils to identify a detail from one page of the text that would suggest the whale would ‘feel smooth’, and part b asks pupils to identify a detail from another page that would suggest the whale would not feel smooth. 17 per cent of pupils did not attempt to answer part a and 22 per cent did not attempt part b. Whilst this may be due partially to the somewhat less familiar structure and ‘unfriendly’ look of the question itself, it is also indicative of the difficulties pupils can have with locating evidence to support a point. In order to gain the mark for part a, pupils needed to locate a reference to the whale looking ‘polished’. For part b, pupils needed to make reference to the description of the whale’s damaged skin or the use of the words ‘patchwork’ or ‘wreckage’. As inference is so often intertwined with the precise word choices used by the writer, a pupil’s vocabulary is a significant factor in their ability both to make inferences and to provide evidence for them. The issue of vocabulary will be discussed further in a later article in this series.
The 3-mark questions on the reading national curriculum tests are typically the hardest to gain full credit for, requiring pupils to write more extended responses exploring key ideas in a text and supporting them with evidence. In many of these tasks, two distinct points need to be made, with at least one needing to be supported by valid evidence for pupils to receive full marks. In 2017 there was a considerable difference between the proportions of pupils achieving the second and third marks for the two 3-mark questions on the paper. This would suggest that pupils are either struggling to find evidence for their points or that they are struggling to search across the whole text for a second idea to focus upon. Whilst both are likely to be challenging, data from NFER’s autumn year 6 reading test suggests that it is the latter of these two skills that pupils may find the hardest.
Pupils find it hardest to…
Search for complex / inferential ideas across a whole text
A detailed analysis of one of the 3-mark questions on NFER’s autumn year 6 reading test reveals that focussing on a small section of the text was one of the most common issues limiting pupils’ performance, with only 16 per cent of pupils using balanced evidence from across the whole text in their response. A third of pupils focussed solely on a small section of the text, with a further third focusing primarily on a small section of text with only limited evidence of reference to the wider text. However, the most common error made by pupils of all ability groupings was to provide textual evidence without expressing a clear, acceptable point about what this evidence showed. It would seem therefore that pupils also need help in developing the skill of verbalising their inferences, so as to be able to crystallise exactly what the evidence that they have found is suggesting.
From this exploration alone, it is clear that what may be perceived as discrete reading skills are often intertwined. Further articles in this series will address pupils’ confidence in making inferences of differing complexity, as well as their understanding of language and its effect, ideas which have already been touched upon briefly here.
However, it is already apparent that supporting pupils’ ability to consider a text globally should be a priority. Most pupils need to develop their skills and/or resilience when searching for ideas in more extensive texts with fewer structural pointers. They should also be encouraged to draw links and comparisons between information and ideas in disparate, localised sections of texts. Hopefully, this will allow them to attain a more in-depth and coherent understanding of texts as a whole, rather than being limited to a more disconnected understanding of various piecemeal details.
Return to the main Implications for Teaching page to access the handy summaries for year 6 and 7 teachers.