I have a pet hate about difficult readings in class. It is hearing teachers say, “Well that’s great, but my class would never cope with a reading that difficult”. Clearly I understand that context is all and tailoring a reading to your class is important; however, I believe that, given enough time and support, any pupil can access any reading. I also think it’s part of my job to provide strategies for tackling difficult readings, not least because, with a tierless History GCSE that includes a source paper comprising several (often wordy) written sources, I can’t risk them going into the exam and losing their mind in panic.
We’re trialling a new unit in year 8 looking at the British diet since the year 1000 and how exploration and migration has changed it, and this week we reached the Tudor explorers and, most importantly, the potato. I did a bit of background reading about the humble spud and came across this article, which essentially suggests it changed the world by wiping out famine in Europe. Mind. Blown. This is just the sort of history I like for KS3 – seemingly routine facts (the potato arrives in Europe) that lead to big ideas and changes (the growth of western Imperialism, population increase and the Industrial Revolution).
The article is long and verbose. I cut out all the superfluous detail – the section on guano is great but probably not vital for the task – but I was still left with two pages at what Word told me was a Y11 reading age. I remembered that lesson right before Christmas in my PGCE year, when my mentor took the information sheet I had been up until 1am preparing, gave it to a student with a highlighter and an instruction to highlight unknown words, and presented it to me at the end, a riot of colour. More than a decade on and the lesson is still fresh.
Instead of rewriting in easier language, though, I employed a trick our Head of Geography shared at a Hums faculty meeting years ago. I read the paragraphs carefully and wrote a statement that more or less summarised each one. I looked for names and dates, which I find easier to pick out when I’m scanning text.
I presented the task with this slide. (Climbing a mountain is a good simile for doing this reading, but I’d be lying if I said my choice of pictures had nothing to do with the imminent start of the snow sport season.)
I provided the reading in the centre of an A3 sheet and the summary statements on a tick sheet; they did this in pairs. We talked about reading strategies and I taught them my capital-letters-and-numbers trick. One of the students pointed out that names are easier to find in an article like this because they won’t be very common. Brilliant.
I taught it to a top, middle and bottom group within the space of two days, and the results were startling. I really felt it was one of those lessons that might just fall over, and had a second task prepared, but, without exception, they all did a great job. Given half an hour to do the task, my brightest students got about half way through the accompanying questions; they all learned that, when faced with a long and difficult reading, just reading it is not always the best way to go. “I didn’t actually read it, Miss,” said one girl, after answering the questions on the text correctly. “I just picked out the bits you were asking about.” Indeed. Totally not reading it.
1. Not good for cover. I had to go and be in the Y11 photo with my tutor group which took longer than I thought, and I came back to find the poor Maths teacher had resorted to reading the text aloud to a stunned-looking class. They need take-up time and the modelling of applying a statement to the reading.
2. Some words still need explaining. I challenged my lower set to identify the words they didn’t know that were preventing them from doing the task. We were able to agree that not knowing words like Lebanese and promulgating were not holding them back; but famine was one that was quite important. They were able to work this meaning out from questioning about the context, much as they did with the word tuber.
3. This will be followed up with a mini-assessment task on the impact of the potato on Europe. I hope the answers will range from description of who liked the potato and the impact it had on famine, to analysis supported by quotes from modern and contemporary sources. I think this is a benefit of using a more complex reading: it can provide the appropriate level of challenge for all.