Reading in the national tests: how can we rise to the challenge?

Thanks to Deputy Headteacher Michael Tidd for this article. 

It seems that the 2016 reading test may well go down as one of those test papers that we all talk about for years. Like the traumas of “Caves and Caving in Davely Dale” or that wretched ‘fried-egg’ Venn diagram of a few years ago, there are some papers that take on an almost legendary quality. Jemmy the Giraffe is sure to have such fame. The challenge in the key stage 1 test was similarly daunting.

There is almost universal agreement that the texts were more difficult than those we’d seen in the sample test papers. But we need to be careful not to dismiss it as a one-off, pinning our hopes on easier tasks next year. The direction of travel has been clear for a while, and we need to do the best we can to prepare our pupils for challenging texts. While the 2016 paper may have been a particularly difficult paper, the thresholds have clearly shown that the DfE intends for the test to be hard. So, what can be done?

It’s clear from the new tests – and indeed the samples – that more challenging texts will be chosen for reading test papers at both key stages. Perhaps this is a reflection of the government’s intention that children read earlier, more frequently and more widely throughout primary schooling. Certainly this seems a likely outcome of the changes. Schools would do well to look at how they can broaden their children’s reading experience. It’s worth remembering that the National Curriculum clearly sets out that children should be exposed to books and stories which are beyond their reading level. 

Choose the right texts

Getting the balance right between full texts and extracts will be important. Children are expected to begin to develop their ability to draw comparisons across a text by the end of key stage 2, so full texts at an appropriate level will be important. However, extracts can play an important role in teaching specific skills, and introducing some challenging language in the context of a small piece.

Some schools are choosing to use whole class reading lessons to support this shift, particularly in key stage 2. While small group reading can be very powerful – particularly for those needing additional support with phonics and basic decoding – whole class reading texts can allow opportunities for all pupils to access higher-level language and to consider the sort of depth of questioning that comes in the reading tests.

Choose the right questions

There have been some clear shifts in emphasis in the new tests. The Implications for Teaching documents for the KS2 tests show some of the new questions types which appeared this year.  Firstly, there has been a considerable increase in the number of marks available for questions which require children to explain new vocabulary. Furthermore, some of the more challenging inference questions also depend on children’s knowledge of complex language. Tackling these sorts of questions require good language knowledge, but also experience of the question type. The Rising Stars Progress Tests and Optional Tests offer good practice of these materials, across the key stages. Pupils in Year 6 will also find the Achieve 100 revision materials useful.

Get the right answers

Many teachers found themselves disappointed this year after marking appeals were returned with no improvement. Again, there seems a clear shift in expectations here. In the past, rules around answers allowed for suitable answers which indicated an understanding of the text. This year, many appeals failed because of the very stringent rules being used to judge against the mark scheme. Whatever we might think of that process, it will be important for teachers to train their students to use precise and well-supported responses to their texts. This isn’t necessarily about teaching a standard structure for answers (the PEE technique is popular, but not particularly well-suited to primary tests), but about ensuring that children’s answers clearly match the question being asked, and use supporting evidence with care. Perhaps we should start to use some of the editing and improving techniques we currently use in writing, to improve our answers in reading tasks.

There’s plenty of change in the new curriculum, and the reading tests are clearly more challenging in the past. It won’t be easy, but teachers and pupils are bound to rise to the challenge.


english, formative assessment, grammar, key stage 1, key stage 2, reading, summative assessment

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