Friday, 3 July 2020

Exam Success: Human or Alien?

I have recently been reviewing all of the most recent research and guidance on the SATS / 11+ Exams for English and wanted to share with you what I found. Parents often ask how they can support their child, or feel they need to have a better understanding of what their English tutor is trying to achieve. I’ve collected some of the best research on exam preparation so that you can share some of the secrets of success. The main theme is the deep connection between reading and creative writing skills and how effectively they improve comprehension and vocabulary.

Focus on the Exam

It might sound obvious that children should only focus on the exam, which means that all the teaching and all the learning should consist of exam tests on comprehension, missing words (cloze), vocabulary, and shuffled sentences. One of the perceptions is that deviation from the exam is distraction; while it could be enjoyable it’s not really needed to pass the exam. However, it’s important to note that pleasure is a strong motivator during the stressful exam journey, which often starts when a child is seven or eight.

If a child is not doing well in comprehension or shuffled sentences (based on tests), it’s very tempting to demand “more work on comprehension or shuffled sentences.” After three more months of even more intensive work on comprehension or shuffled sentences, I’m likely to hear that there has not been much improvement, so we need to do “more work on comprehension or shuffled sentences.” It quickly becomes a vicious circle where the child becomes increasingly anxious and humiliated and even worse — demotivated and resistant to learning.

Exam focus is essential. I agree. However, the route to success is not a narrow road. Being excessively goal-dominated is a misguided approach that can lead to failure. This point will become clearer if we use an analogy: imagine an alien watching a human football match. How do you win?

“Eureka!” says the alien, who has watched a million football matches on Alien TV. “I’ve got it! You win at football by scoring goals. From now on we focus only on scoring goals.”

So the 11 aliens form a team and devote all their time to scoring goals. They are shocked when they lose their first match against the humans, and the second, and the third... Yet they are brilliant at scoring goals...

What went wrong? The first point is that the aliens did not understand passing the ball. Or working as a team. Or general fitness. Or learning from their mistakes. Or analysing past matches. Or playing real games. The aliens had learned a key skill but they failed to understand real success in the game.

In my experience the most successful SATS / 11+ English students have spent more than half their exam preparation time reading for pleasure and doing creative writing. The fact is that these activities enhance and develop the key skills needed to be successful in the exam. Even in the late stages of exam prep (the last 3 months), time should still be allocated for writing and reading for pleasure.

Controversially, the examiners are trying to test beyond rote learning of vocabulary; they are trying to test for a deeper understanding, not just exam tricks. However, there is also evidence that supportive parents and tutors can still make a significant difference (see below: Context, last page), if the approach to the exam involves an emphasis on reading and writing skills, rather than a regime of exam practice only.

Reading and writing skills could give your child that winning streak, putting them ahead of the competition who have been narrowly tutored. Comprehension skills can be developed by learning to express your ideas and emotions through writing. As a result, a child will be better equipped to understand someone else’s ideas and emotions in a comprehension test.

A writing task might involve simply writing a summary of what you read. Another might involve retelling a story from a different character’s point of view. Or re-writing a story in another form, such as a letter or as a newspaper article, which builds understanding of genre, bias, and objectivity. In other words, comprehension is based on emotional and intellectual skills, as much as on understanding form and style. There is now considerable evidence (see the Carnegie report below), that various forms of writing can support and improve comprehension skills. Likewise, a child who only writes in simple sentences will only be able to shuffle a simple sentence. The Carnegie Report (2010, p. 6) noted: “teaching writing not only improves how well students write; it also enhances students’ ability to read a text accurately, fluently, and with comprehension. Finally, having students spend more time writing has a positive impact on reading, increasing how well students comprehend texts written by others.”

Obviously, learning vocabulary (with cards, or a dictionary) helps with understanding, alongside understanding of grammar. However, reading is the main activity that you should encourage if you want your child to improve. A child who has been reading for 20-minutes daily will have read 1,800,000 words by year 6 and could reach the highest 10% in standardised tests, whereas a child who has been reading for 1-minute daily will only have read 8,000 words by year 6 and will typically be placed in the lowest 10% in standardised tests (see the chart below).

In the information below there is further information on active reading and how you can be supportive as a parent (see pages 8-14). Whether the exam is 3 months or 3 years in the future, I’d recommend at least 5 hours / week of personal reading (including 1 hour of reading/discussing with a parent or older sister/brother).

Further Information