Supporting English-related teaching and learning at all levels

Some notes on the NAAE conference October 6th 2018, Jane Davies

It was extremely heartening to see a room full of colleagues who had travelled to EMC on a Saturday morning in order to attend the NAAE conference. Thanks to our two speakers, David Reedy and Barbara Bleiman, we were able to spend time reflecting on and discussing two of the key issues facing schools (and those that work with them): the teaching of reading and how to support vocabulary development. Thanks to EMC for hosting – it felt absolutely right to be thinking about key pedagogical issues in the heart of an organisation that has supported the development of pedagogy in English for years.

David Reedy emphasised the importance of developing both engagement and skills when teaching reading – something that I think concerns a number of colleagues when they think about what reading can be reduced to if the curriculum is driven by test and exam performance. He also highlighted the importance of the understanding of reading comprehension strategies – and a repertoire of teacher talk which supports scaffolding the learners through discussion and dialogue.

As we unpicked how experienced readers are able to understand texts, the importance of inference and the key role of questions to support inference were highlighted:

‘The questions we ask should be designed to develop key kinds of inference.’

It was useful to consider the 3 types of questions that enable learners to make meaning from texts and link them to the three key areas:
• Literal (looking questions)
• Connections within the text (clue questions)
• Connections beyond the text (thinking questions)

and to have an opportunity to apply them to two different texts. The poem about swallowing spiders caused a great deal of discussion!

Barbara Bleiman focused on vocabulary – picking up from her recent article Overemphasising the Vocabulary Challenge? She was clear that she wanted to pose questions and open up a debate in the context of a great deal of discussion on Twitter in response to her original article. She was at pains to emphasise that she was not critical of teachers and students or anti the teaching of vocabulary – particularly as it is an essential element of reading. Rather, she wanted to focus on some of the research and send out some challenges in relation to an over emphasis on vocabulary at the expense of the other skills that are critical for skilled reading.

Having reviewed some of the research, she then posed some very thought provoking questions.

In response to the idea that readers need to understand 95% of words to understand a text, she asked, “Are all texts the same? Are all readers?’ and focused on the fact that some words are more critical to understanding a text than others. She demonstrated that actually, as a reader, you could manage without knowing some of the vocabulary, depending on the questions you ask of the text.

Another challenge she posed was whether vocabulary (or lack of it) was the reason that leaners struggled with texts. As any GCSE student struggling to make sense of an unseen 19th century text could tell you, it’s as likely to be the syntax causing the problems with understanding the text as much as the vocabulary.

Finally, we explored the dangers of an over emphasis on vocabulary in relation to learners’ own reading and writing. Having seen the way in which a desire to use ‘ambitious’ vocabulary can lead to tortured expression and writing that obscures meaning rather than engaging the reader, the danger of decontextualized vocabulary teaching becomes clear. In my mind, what matters is what E.D. Hirsch describes as ‘massive immersion in the world of language and knowledge’ and learners being able to enjoy, explore, use and refine their reading of and use of words in meaningful contexts.

The next NAAE Saturday conference will be on the 30th March 2019 in Birmingham. The keynote speaker will be Teresa Cremin and the focus will be writing.