What’s the big idea? Identify themes in texts

In this article, I take a brief look at supporting children to identify themes in texts.

The National Curriculum asks that children in Year 5 and Year 6 identify and discuss themes and conventions in writing. But what are themes?Themes are not the plot and they are not the genre. Instead, themes are the underlying messages that exist beneath the words written on the page. They are the big ideas that the author is trying to convey to the reader. Note how I say beneath the words written on the page. Themes are not necessarily explicit and they are conveyed by writers through the words and actions of characters as they respond to the situations in which they find themselves. I’ll say it again, beneath the words on the page – it sounds a bit like read between the lines that age old phrase that we use when asking children to infer meaning. And therein lies part of the problem. Identifying the theme in writing requires inference skills and we all know how hard those are to teach.

National Curriculum: Year 5/6 Reading comprehension p.44

Some popular themes in children’s literature are friendship, determination and bravery. These are big ideas and ones inherently bound in notions of emotional intelligence. They are ideas that require an emotional lexicon; something that so many children struggle to access. So how can we help? Certainly, we need to talk about the themes in the books we read and encourage children to identify them. Simply asking, “What’s the theme in this book?” is unlikely to reveal much joy. However, providing children with a range of common themes and asking if any are present in a text is likely to be more successful. Our Primary English Theme Tokens have been produced for just this purpose. These are a collection of common themes in children’s literature for children to colour in and then discuss with friends. There are also spaces for children to add themes they may have identified that are not included in the resource.

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Any questions?

The 2016 KS2 Reading SAT has long gone but the repercussions of ‘that paper’ are still being felt in Y6 classrooms across the land. There has been much written about the paper and I’m not going to add much more. What I can do though, is offer a couple of solutions.

My first solution comes in the form of the Primary English KS2 Question Prompts (see our resources page). This little booklet of reading comprehension questions is one of the most popular downloads from our resources page. It provides plentiful question stems organised by Content Domain and is an essential tool for planning high quality reading comprehension sessions. The reason I suggest this as a solution is this: I think the style of the 2016 questions was more of a concern than the challenge of the texts. This being the case, the Primary English KS2 Question Prompts have had a make-over. They now include question stems based on those found in the 2016 test. You’ll find more of ‘what impression…‘ and less of ‘what thoughts...’ than in the previous edition, which should better help you prepare your pupils for the end of Key Stage tests.

My other solution comes in the form of the Reading Detectives series from Collins Keen Kite. As the series editor and author of the Y6 book, I can guarantee that this series offers a solution to the thorny issue of question style. When writing the Y6 book I constantly referred to the questions in the 2016 SAT and made sure mine were as similar as possible. I also endeavoured to explain how the answers had been derived and the types of skills pupils needed to apply. The Reading Detectives are an essential addition to the KS2 reading comprehension curriculum that will help you familiarise pupils with the high demand of questions in the end of Key Stage tests.Read my blog for Collins Keen Kite here.

Please do click through to our resources page and download a copy of the Primary English KS2 Question Prompts.

Rachel Clarke, Director: Primary English Education

All content on the Primary English website is owned by Rachel Clarke and is protected by copyright.

RIP Assessment Focuses. Hello content domains

In this short blog post, I introduce the updated Primary English suite of materials for reading.

content domainsFrom September 2015 onwards, the new national curriculum has been taught in all year groups across the primary range but it’s not just the old curriculum content that has gone. The Assessment Focuses have also been retired. Of course, this makes total sense; if you’re going to change the curriculum then the criteria for assessing it must also change. So, in this blog post we say RIP Assessment Focuses, and welcome to the world Content Domains.

KS1 Reading Content domain reference KS2 Reading Content domain reference
1a draw on knowledge of vocabulary to understand texts 2a give / explain the meaning of words in context
1b identify / explain key aspects of fiction and non-fiction texts, such as characters, events, titles and information 2b retrieve and record information / identify key details from fiction and non-fiction
1c identify and explain the sequence of events in texts 2c summarise main ideas from more than one paragraph
1d make inferences from the text 2d make inferences from the text / explain and justify inferences with evidence from the text
1e predict what might happen on the basis of what has been read so far 2e predict what might happen from details stated and implied
  2f identify / explain how information / narrative content is related and contributes to meaning as a whole
  2g identify / explain how meaning is enhanced through choice of words and phrases
  2h make comparisons within the text

For more information about the reading content domains click KS1 reading here and KS2 reading here.

The content domains work in much the same way as the old assessment focuses. They’re not the curriculum but the broad headings under which skills have been grouped for assessment. They were initially formulated for test developers so they could ensure their materials covered the range of the curriculum programmes of study. Just like the assessment focuses they are also useful to us as educators for assessing where gaps exist, for analysing formative and summative test data, and then for planning next steps in learning. As I said, they’re not the curriculum but knowing the content domains and how to ensure that they are all covered in teaching and learning is important.

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#FocusOnReading No.8 – Guided Reading Countdown

During our recent #FocusOnReading we’ve written about and promoted the importance of reading comprehension and guided reading several times. Today’s contribution from our associate, Lynne Burns, provides further guidance on how to implement guided reading successfully in your school.

#FocusOnReadingTeachers sometimes say that Guided Reading doesn’t work for them and their class. If you feel this way then try following my top ten tips for ensuring successful Guided Reading sessions.

Choose your book or text carefully

Make sure that the book you choose has no more than 10% of the text that will provide a decoding challenge.  Any more than this and the children will struggle to comprehend what they are reading.  Imagine if you were trying to read a story where every 8th word was blacked out.  You would almost certainly find it difficult to follow the story, especially if the blocked out words were key content words.  You should also choose a text that is well written and is going to engage the children.  For fluent readers you should choose a text which reinforces what the children are learning in their English lessons where possible, but for children who are still developing fluency then choose a book which will help them to develop the specific decoding and comprehension skills that they need to improve.  Also, be creative with what you read.  You can read newspaper articles, websites or blogs, adverts, information leaflets or recipe cards picked up from the supermarket. You can also use extracts from longer novels or books but do make sure that the more able readers also have the opportunity to read longer books in their entirety over a number of weeks.

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#FocusOnReading – No5 – Give guided reading a chance.


Recently I’ve noticed a trend. A small swell of teachers who are saying that guided reading doesn’t work and that teaching reading comprehension to whole classes is a much more effective way to teach reading. As an advocate of guided reading, I struggle to agree with teachers who are dropping it. When given the time and resources, and when taught by a skilled practitioner, I believe that guided reading is the best approach that we have of meeting the learning needs of all young readers. Today’s blog post from our Primary English Associate, Lynne Burns supports this view. Like me, Lynne is experienced enough to remember teaching reading before the widespread introduction of guided reading in the late 1990s. In this heartfelt article she pleads the case for the use of guided reading and the use of both scheme and real books as we open-up the world of reading to children. 

When I first started teaching, far more years ago then I care to remember, it was before the introduction of Guided Reading.  I used to teach reading by listening to each child read one to one at least twice a week, which was equivalent to spending over a day a week teaching reading.  Except, of course, I wasn’t really teaching reading and I definitely wasn’t promoting a love of books.  There was rarely, if ever, time to share a whole book with a child.  The children usually read one or two pages to me while I corrected any decoding errors.  If there was time, I might ask them a couple of questions about the part of the book they had read.  The books the children read were dull, old fashioned reading scheme books; books that I would never have dreamt of reading to the whole class or using as a text in my English lessons. But this was just the way things were done and I was too inexperienced to do otherwise.

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Once upon an ordinary school day

Once upon an ordinary a day an ordinary teacher was looking for an ordinary book to read with her ordinary children during their ordinary guided reading lesson, when..she stumbled across a quite extraordinary book indeed: Once Upon an Ordinary School Day by Colin McNaughton and Satoshi Kitamura.

The ordinary teacher sat down in her ordinary chair, put on her ordinary glasses and started to read the book. She liked it. In fact she loved it and she realised that it would make a perfect text for guided reading with Y2 children.

The first thing that the ordinary teacher did was to make a word cloud using the text from the book. As she expected the largest word was ordinary; and school was quite large too. She knew that this word cloud would make a really extraordinary pre-reading activity for her children and that it would allow them to make predictions about the text that they were going to explore.

The next thing that the ordinary teacher did was to find a way of turning her ordinary children into detectives. Like every good teacher she delved into her ‘bag of magic’, rummaged around for a while and pulled out her very ordinary looking ball of elastic bands. She peeled off elastic bands and wrapped them around her copies of Once Upon an Ordinary Boy so that the children would be unable to open them past the phrase,

Then, something quite out of the ordinary happened…”.

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What’s the Same, what’s different?

What’s the same, what’s different’ is currently one of my favourite activities for anything! It’s a great way to get the children talking; makes a great starter activity or assessment; it’s a perfect post reading guided reading activity and so the list goes on…

What’s the same, what’s different – characters:

Do you need to compare characters in a story? Take Glinda the Good and The Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz – they’re both witches; they both have magical powers; they both wear something on their heads; one is wicked and one is green – you get the picture. Alternatively you may want to encourage children to compare characters across books following guided reading sessions? For example, compare Lila in The Firework Maker’s Daughter and Maia in Journey to the River Sea – they’re both girls; they’re both adventurous; they both end up in boats; Lila has a father but Maia is an orphan; Lila is poor but Maia’s family has money.

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The Selfish Giant – Guided Reading Resource

Here at Primary English HQ we LOVE guided reading and if you read our posts regularly you’ll know that we write about it frequently.

What the national curriculum says

We’ve just finished a round of training and conference workshops where we looked at the place of guided reading in the new national curriculum. Yes, we know guided reading’s not a statutory requirement but when the national curriculum document itself recognises how ‘reading opens up a treasure-house of wonder and joy for young minds’  we know that guided reading needs to be central to your school provision. (Our blog post Guided Reading discusses the importance of quality and enjoyable texts for guided reading.)


Our literary heritage

In our recent work we’ve taken a particular look at the Y5 ad Y6 requirement for children to ‘read books from our literary heritage’. You may currently be reading books by significant children’s authors and older children’s literature with your children; and this new objective is not really so different – so long as you remember that it is about older children’s literature. We emphasis the children’s bit of that statement as on our travels we’ve unearthed a few ‘grown-up’ classic texts with some rather ‘adult‘ content finding their way into primary classrooms. By all means use the classics with children, but do make sure you know the texts well enough to avoid unsuitable themes. Even better still, use some of the fabulous abridged versions available from many of the educational publishers.


The Selfish Giant

By keeping one eye on accessibility and the other on engagement, the text that we’ve been using in our workshops is The Selfish Giant by Oscar Wilde – written in 1888. If you’re unfamiliar with this text it is a rich and evocative story of selfishness and rebirth. It is packed with figurative language and has sufficient challenge to engage the most demanding of Y6s. The version we’ve been using is the Puffin Picture version (illustrated by Michael Foreman and Freire Wright) as the illustrations add a useful scaffold for children who may otherwise struggle to access the syntactical and linguistic challenges of an older text. You can though, use any version or find the text online as it should remain unchanged.


Guided reading activities

Our conference delegates have enjoyed working on reading activities including: making predictions about the text from a word cloud; analysing the text using Aiden Chambers’ Tell me’ structure; and thinking about giants in a variety of children’s literature using our ‘same but different’ thinking frames. We linked each of these activities to the aims statements from the new national curriculum as a way of ensuring that not only were aims met, but they were done so in an engaging and creative manner.

The Selfish Giant is a wonderful text from our literary heritage that we’re certain your children will love reading as a guided group text. Our Selfish Giant – Guided Reading Resource is now available to purchase from our resources area. Just click here

Rachel Clarke – Director, Primary English Education Consultancy Limited


Improving reading comprehension with PEE

Can I have a ‘P’ please Bob?”

Forgive me if you’re not old enough to recognise that particular cultural reference. If you are, then enjoy a little sepia tinged snigger just like you did on weekday teatimes back in the day.

What is PEE?

In this short post we look at how to improve reading comprehension through the use of PEE. Popular in KS3 English classrooms for several years, PEE has now found its way into Y6 classrooms and is an invaluable aide-mémoire to support children working at the higher levels in reading comprehension. In this article we start at the higher levels but also track back from PEE to show how to support children’s reading comprehension at the earlier stages of development.

So, what does PEE stand for?

P – point

E – evidence

E – explain

Very simply, when answering comprehension questions children need to assert the point they are making. The evidence is the quote or quotes from the text that they use to support their point and the explanation is where they expand on their point and if possible give a personal opinion.

Children working at level 5 need to be able to locate specific information from across a text and explain how it supports their point. What we’re asking these children to do is synthesise and analyse text. These are higher order thinking skills at the top of Blooms taxonomyPEE helps them to do this successfully.

Reading comprehension with PEE

This, of course, is lofty stuff for the majority of children in primary schools. However, by tracking back from PEE we can scaffold the skill of reading comprehension so that eventually all children will be able to PEE. What do I mean? Think of those children working at levels 3 and 4. Can they make a point and quote the evidence in the text? And what of the children working at levels 1 and 2. Can they offer an opinion and show you where in the text there is something that supports their idea? “Find it, prove it” as some teachers like to say.

PEE is a universally useful way to support reading comprehension across the key stages so long as we remember to track it back and think about the developmental stages of the children we’re working with. So, next time you’re doing reading comprehension take time to have a PEE!

If you found this post useful you may want to read our posts about AF3 – inference and deductionguided reading, and guided reading from good to great.

Rachel Clarke – Director: Primary English Education Consultancy Limited

All content on the Primary English website is protected by copyright.

Guided Reading #2 (from good to great)

Guided reading

Guided reading is the aspect of Primary English teaching that we’re asked about more than any other. We’ve written about it several times in our articles: guided readingwatching the detectives: inference and deduction and UKEd chat – CPD from the comfort of your own home. As advocates of guided reading; and knowing that it concerns teachers so much, we’ve written this article to help you move your guided reading from good to great.

A recipe for success?

We’re often asked if we have a recipe for the perfect guided reading lesson, something that will get you an outstanding lesson judgement. We haven’t: and we don’t believe that such a thing exists. Lessons are outstanding in the context of the teaching and learning that has preceded them. What we have got though are some ways of integrating imaginative teaching strategies (Ofsted, School inspection handbook: Outstanding grade descriptor – Quality of teaching in the school, p.39) into your guided reading lessons.

Flipping it about

In our article guided reading we introduced the idea of ‘flipping the learning’. That is, giving power to children working within NC levels 4, 5 and 6 so that they come to guided reading sessions having already read the text. By doing this the guided reading session becomes more like a book group discussion. However, children below level 4 still need the structure of the guided reading session. How can you make the most of this session then to ensure that all pupils learn ‘exceptionally well’? We think a creative approach to questioning can offer a solution…

Shaking up questioning – statements

We’ve taught and observed a lot of guided reading sessions which means we’ve heard a lot of questions. We haven’t though heard so many statements; where you take the question, phrase it as a statement and ask the children whether they agree or disagree.

This is a non-chronological report. Agree or disagree.”

Goldilocks was a criminal. Agree or disagree.”

This type of questioning can be used with children at all levels. A child working at level one may tell you that Goldilocks was a criminal because she broke into the three bears’ home. Whereas a child working at level 5 may be able to tell you about a variety of text, sentence and word level features which ensure that the text can’t possibly be a non-chronological report but is an explanation instead. Practise this in the guided session and you may find that you can set this sort of question as an independent task.

Shaking up questioning – right and wrong

Provide children with two opposites. Their task is to decide which is true and how they know.

“Why is this a traditional tale and this not?”

Why is this a good choice of word to describe James and this is not?”

“Why is this a good written response to the question and this is not?”

Imagine choosing a great adjective from a text and then a less effect one to describe James (you could even add one of your own here). Getting children to explore the quality of language by comparing two examples is often more effective than the simple question, “Can you find a good adjective in the text?” The idea of comparing written responses to a question is really just like the practice we use in writing – of comparing a good and not so good example in order to generate success criteria. In guided reading it is a structure which enables us to train children to make a point, find the evidence and explain – PEE as lots of teachers like to call it.

Shaking up the questioning – starting with the answer/the end

This type of question can be tricky to devise but is worth the effort as it facilitates reasoning skills and also makes strong links to children’s prior knowledge.

The answer is a persuasive text. Why?”

Here is my drawing of the main character. What can you see?”

Just think about the knowledge a child must have in order to tell you why the answer is a persuasive text. Imagine how much knowledge they must have about a character to be able to confirm that the drawing is that character; and then tell you where in the text that information has come from.

Finding out more

These ideas for moving guided reading from good to great were inspired by the work of Shirley Clarke in her book Active Learning Through Formative Assessment. It’s a book we turn to regularly and as with all teaching. The ideas we’ve shared here in the context of guided reading can be transferred to good effect across the curriculum. After all great teaching is great teaching, whatever the subject.

You can now download our book of prompts for guided reading absolutely free of charge by visiting our resources page. These are presented as traditional questions but can easily be adapted to the structures shared above.

Rachel Clarke – Director: Primary English Education Consultancy Limited.

All content on the Primary English website is protected by copyright