A closer focus: Language and expressing ideas

By Sarah Gibb, Research Manager

Tuesday 12 November 2019

When it comes to pupils’ ability to answer questions on vocabulary and a writer’s use of language for a particular effect, their own cultural knowledge is vital. This article will reflect on some telling examples from the 2017 and 2018 reading national curriculum tests, as well as examples from NFER’s own year 6 autumn test, which illustrate this point. The limitations of pupils’ own vocabularies and powers of self-expression are also an important factor in performance, apparent both in the quality of their responses and also in some pupils’ reluctance even to tackle questions with unfamiliar terms.

Pupils can...

Comment on simple examples of idiomatic language

Although pupils tended to struggle with interpreting the effects of more complex examples of figurative language in both the 2017 and 2018 tests, 89 per cent of pupils (including two-thirds of lower achieving pupils) successfully interpreted an accessible simile featured in the least challenging text in NFER’s test. This simile Like hawks, they flew… formed part of the description of a chase. In this context it appeared easy to interpret as an expression of the speed with which the characters were moving. This was an open-response question, and from the explanations that some pupils gave in support of their answer, it was clear that some pupils were using their own extrinsic knowledge of hawks to help them to interpret the text. It is also likely that pupils’ familiarity with the term flew, so often used in common parlance to intimate speed, was another key reason for pupils’ success.

Pupils find it harder to...

Identify words/phrases with similar meanings

Pupils’ ability to identify words or phrases which were synonymous with another given word or phrase was a little inconsistent. As is to be expected, they were more likely to be able to do this in the context of a multiple-choice question, where the correct answer was offered along with some other, incorrect, possibilities. In the NFER test, for example, almost three-quarters of pupils were able to select synonyms of words such as draped and critically. However, when asked to Find and copy a word or group of words that convey a particular idea, results varied. For example, in 2018, pupils were asked to locate a word that show[ed] that helping the giant panda is not easy. The target answer, challenge, was correctly selected by 81 per cent of pupils. However, in 2017 the phrase not standard was identified by 68 per cent of pupils when they were asked to Find and copy a group of words that tells you that [a range of drinks] would be considered unusual today. In the NFER test, only 49 per cent of pupils correctly selected the word seemed from a paragraph when asked to identify a word that suggested something may not be true, with almost half of lower achieving pupils opting not to attempt this question.

Pupils find it hardest to...

Define or explain the impact of vocabulary in their own words

In 2017, pupils were asked to explain what the word universal [told] them about [a] rule. Only 45 per cent of pupils were able to express satisfactorily that this meant that the rule was something everyone knows/agrees on or that is known/agreed on everywhere. In 2018 pupils were asked what the words vividly recall mean[t]. This was a 2-mark question, requiring pupils to capture the ideas of both remembrance and clarity in their answers to gain full credit and proved to be similarly challenging. In the NFER test, 57 per cent of pupils were able to answer a question about the impact of the application of the terms nursery, school and university in an unusual context; this suggests that when pupils can refer to their own extrinsic knowledge of the world it can be easier to explain an idea. Nonetheless, this item still proved very challenging for lower achieving pupils with 55 per cent of these pupils omitting to answer. Another question in this test asked pupils to comment on the impression given by the word teetering. Again, because pupils were able to relate this to something more concrete (in this case a headstand) it was successfully answered by 55 per cent of pupils.

Interpret the meaning of figurative language, where comparisons are not commonplace and well-known idioms

As has already been mentioned, many pupils can answer questions which focus on widely used figures of speech with confidence. However, they can struggle with less familiar examples of figurative language. In 2017, pupils were asked to Find and copy a group of words that show[ed] that his grannie [made] a difference to the poet during her visit. The target phrase love lit up the day was only identified correctly by 39 per cent of pupils, even though they were directed to the specific verse by the question. In 2018, less than 50 per cent of pupils were able to offer a valid interpretation of what the simile …like a toy sitting on a glass table suggested about the boat featured in the higher level text.

A note on vocabulary

It seems self-evident that having a wide vocabulary will make answering questions about the meaning of language more straightforward, not to mention de-coding the texts themselves. However, as pupils are frequently expected to engage with some abstract ideas when responding to texts, they also need a full arsenal of words at their disposal if they are to be able to verbalise their thoughts convincingly. It is also noticeable when reflecting on pupils’ performance in these tests that some questions which we may expect pupils to tackle with relative ease often cause problems. In some of these cases, it is the reading demand of the question themselves that pupils may be struggling with if their vocabulary is limited. A good example is a question from 2017 focusing on the mid-level test with an unusually high number of pupils at this point in a test, not attempting to answer. Pupils were asked to name two of the hardships that Matthew Webb faced… and then to explain how he dealt with them. Although the word hardship is used to directly link to the wording of the text, it seems possible that a lack of familiarity with this word may have been off-putting for some pupils, who might otherwise have been assumed to be capable of performing a fairly straightforward information retrieval task.

Moving forwards

Overall, the picture that emerges of Year 6 pupils’ ability to comment on and respond to writer’s language choices is a positive one. It is clear that many pupils can recognise, if not always explain effectively in their own words, the impact of particular words and phrases in a text. It is this ability to capture their interpretations in writing or to find new words to describe what has already been said by a writer in order to show their understanding that is the biggest challenge. As such, time spent enriching pupils’ vocabularies and providing opportunities for them to practise explaining more abstract concepts can only be beneficial and may well prove more fruitful than repeatedly attempting to write interpretations of text after text. Furthering pupils’ knowledge of the world around them through a well-rounded and broad curriculum across subjects is also likely to give them richer points of reference to help them to both comprehend texts and articulate their ideas.

Return to the main Implications for Teaching page to access the handy summaries for year 6 and 7 teachers.