A tweet this week (and every practice paper we attempt in Year 6) remind me of a well-known, frustrating and exasperating conundrum all Year 6 teachers face often.
READ THE QUESTION!!
I seem to spout the same sentence individually, in a group and in whole class discussion every week. I have even said it and heard it said in a couple of staff meetings. I have also muttered it to myself when I have made the same mistake. It seems this pandemic is a global problem, no matter the ability, progress, cultural background or age of the person. But why does this happen.
The Documented Problem of Reading the Question
‘Underline key words’
It is a researched fact that in exams and tests one of the biggest issues that occurs is that students, from primary all the way up to university level, often trip with reading the actual question.
When revising, students often rehearse answers in their head. says Roy Jackson, course leader in religion, philosophy and ethics at the University of Gloucestershire. “Although we don’t deliberately intend to catch them out in exams, we do set questions that requires them to think and reflect under timed conditions. But instead students will often pick up key words in the question and write out a rehearsed response.”
In education we are obsessed with key vocabulary, and rightly so. Learning, understanding and categorising key language can underpin a lot of key concepts and skills in many, if not all, subject areas. Angle, adjective, hypothesis, artery, evidence, source, hemisphere, continent, analyse, evaluate, strokes, pivot, endurance…we throw all sorts of weird and frankly wonderful words at out learners to assist them in becoming more proficient in each of these subject areas. The grasp of key words is important in this endeavour. However, this fascination over key language seems to permeate into exam ‘practice’. This may help…but is it also a hindrance?
Many primary and Maths teachers will be aware of the acronym ‘RUCSAC’. I’m calling it out. I know many others have cast this aside for many reason, however I’m accusing this seemingly helpful skill of causing more problems in actually understanding the question.
I’ve seen the ‘U’ stand for one of two things – Understand or Underline. Understand: if I could get children to understand questions by just telling them to ‘Understand’ I would make a fortune. ‘Underline’ seems a bit more helpful but even this can cause problems…
Take this question for example: ‘I am going to share 3 boxes of chocolates between 5 friends. There are 30 chocolates in each box. How many chocolates are there to share?’ On the surface a very straightforward question.
However, as we know in Year 2, 6 and other high-stakes exam years, a lot of time is spent practising tests. If a child is trained to ‘underline’ key vocabulary and use THAT to identify the next stage (C – Choose operation) then they may misread the question. The higher attainers and rapid graspers (whatever phrase you’re using these days) will contextualise the problem and realise they need to multiply 3 by 30. However, the lower attainers and some middle attainers who are clinging on, will follow the strategy as they have been taught and identify one word – ‘share’. Now, all the followers of the RUCSAC strategy will know ‘share’ means one thing – divide. If children are taught to look for key words and phrases and to follow a strict guideline of how to solve, they will become stuck. They haven’t read the question properly and make the mistake.
The ‘cramming before examming’ culture in academic exam years is also geared toward short-term memory. Scientific American says:
“Memories like what you had for dinner are stored in visual short-term memory—particularly, in a kind of short-term memory often called “visual working memory.” Visual working memory is where visual images are temporarily stored while your mind works away at other tasks—like a whiteboard on which things are briefly written and then wiped away.”
We teach children mnemonics, quick tricks and rehearsed answers to help them gain procedural understanding. However, in teaching this way, whilst we may gain lots of marks on some papers, that understanding is extremely limited. Conceptual understanding, the kind of understanding that enables children to see the bigger picture of a question, is lacking. This means they will read a question and struggle to contextualise it. No wonder they don’t ‘read the question properly’! They can read it but their short-term memory is trained to look for the procedure to answer the question.
Take 1/3 x 5/7. Every child in my Year 6 class would tell you the answer is 5/21. What does that ACUTALLY mean?
However, give them this question: “3/4 of a pan of brownies was sitting on the counter. You decided to eat 1/3 of the brownies in the pan. How much of the whole pan of brownies did you eat?” and see the confusion settle in…
And we wonder after a solid couple of terms on this method at least why there are drops in progress or attainment in Year 3 and 7…
A solution is worth searching for. Children may lose marks and not attain their potential not through a lack of understanding but just simply not having processed the question, or even their own working carefully. I have seen a child not achieve a Level 5 and then in later years miss out on Expected by one mark, both because they added decimals perfectly in their working but then forgot to include the decimal in their answer!!
Unfortunately I have no better solution to this problem of reading the question properly other than quality first teaching (or whatever phrase you use for that). I am also a hypocrite wilst saying this. Whilst I am now trying to help children understand the concept properly first more so now before showing them the ‘trick’ – I am still reverting back to little tips and tricks as we get ever closer to the SATs.
One thing I have done though which does open the children’s eyes a little bit to tackling this issue is this document which I found a few years ago which I share with you. Try it yourself…just read the question carefully 😉 (Answer at the bottom of the page so…spoilers down there if you want to try it yourself)!
It’s best if you get all children to promise to only say what they have to from the sheet, no helping or speaking to each other…
If you haven’t gathered, the children who read the sheet correctly will end up watching their classmates with smugness complete the ridiculous list of 19 or so challenges on this sheet until they realise they mistake at the end. Everyone else will look daft and you will have to control your desire to chuckle as one by one they say their name and eventually stand up and declare proudly ‘I HAVE FINISHED’…and then look in shock at the final sentences. Hopefully the ones who are fooled will look slyly at you at the end and keep quiet and enjoy watching the rest of their classmates fall into the same trap.
In three years of teaching Year 6…no one has completed it properly…let me know how it goes with you. DM me @Mroberts90Matt if you want this sheet on a Word document.