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The National Curriculum sets out a clear, full and statutory entitlement to learning for all pupils up to the age of 16. It determines the content of what will be taught and sets attainment targets for learning. This investigation is concerned with Key Stage 2 reading skills. Consequently an overview will be provided of the curriculum content that covers this area.
The next section will critically evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the current assessment methods that are used to measure a child's reading ability. Finally consideration will be given to how new and more effective strategies can be formulated to improve a child's performance in this vital area.
1. Key Stage 2 (KS2) - Reading Ability - Curriculum Content
During KS2 pupils read enthusiastically a range of materials and use their knowledge of words, sentences and texts to understand and respond to their meaning. They increase their ability to read challenging and lengthy texts independently. They reflect on the meaning of texts, analysing discussing them with others. Pupils learn to change the way they speak and write to suit different situations, purposes and audiences. They explore the use of language in literary and non-literary texts and learn how language works.
2. Attainment Targets
There are eight levels of attainment. At level 1 - pupils recognise familiar words in single texts. They use their knowledge of letters and sound symbol relationships in order to read words and to establish meaning when reading aloud. In these activities they sometimes require support. They express their response to poems, stories and non-fiction by identifying aspects they like.
At level 8 - pupils' response is shown in their appreciation of, and comment on, a range of texts, and they evaluate how authors achieve their effects through the use of linguistic, structural and presentational devices. They select and analyse information and ideas, and comment on how they are conveyed in different texts.
These National Curriculum levels measure each child's progress in each subject. They are like the rungs of a ladder. Children move up through the levels, year-by-year. By the end of Key Stage 2 - pupils should achieve level 4 in each subject.
3. KS2 Classroom Assessment Methods
Examples of methods for the assessment of reading skills in guided reading sessions (for pupils who are intermediate readers):
Reading Area Being Assessed
Assessment Method 1
Assessment Method 2
Letter-sound (phoneme - grapheme) correspondence; (A - Z; consonant digraphs; consonant clusters; vowel phonemes)
Can identify initial consonant digraphs in words
Can identify final initial consonant digraphs in words
Punctuation (Full stops, capital letters, commas)
Recognises and understands use of taught punctuation in text
Correspondence between spoken and written word
Can point to each word as he / she reads
Can point to syllables and letter clusters in words as he / she reads
Examples of methods for the assessment of reading skills in guided reading sessions (for pupils who are approaching fluency):
Reading Area Being Assessed
Assessment Method 1
Assessment Method 2
Visual recognition of words
Has sight recognition of most high frequency words in the NLS framework for teaching
Has sight recognition of subject related words in age-appropriate material
Use of phonic strategies to aid reading
Can segment spoken words into syllables
Can segment written words into syllables
Punctuation (Full stops, capital letters, commas)
Can use knowledge of basic punctuation to aid understanding of the text
Source: www.halton.gov.uk/schools/english/english-assess-ks1andks2.htm - Halton Borough Council 2006
4. Standards of Achievement and Pupils' Progress
The methods highlighted above have been used for many years to assess pupils' reading abilities. However, between the end of Second World War and the mid-1990s the standards of literacy did not change significantly. In 1996 only 57% of 11 year-olds reached the standard expected for their age in English. In this year - The Literacy Task Force was launched, with the objective of raising achievement in all levels of education.
A key aspect of the new approach towards teaching literacy was the launch of national school tests - often called SATS - are taken in England by pupils when aged 7, 11 and 14. The results of the tests are published and used to draw up league tables. The purpose of these tests is to provide a uniform method of testing throughout the UK. This makes it easier to measure the changes in reading abilities from one year to the next. Plus it also allows the performance of schools to be critically evaluated.
Between 1999 and 2000 the proportion of pupils reaching Level 4 or above in English at the end of KS2 rose by 4% from 71% to 75%. There were also significant increases over this 2-year period in the proportion of pupils achieving Level 5. 28% of pupils achieved Level 5 in 2000 and now over one-third of girls now transfer to secondary education having attained this higher level. The greatest improvements at Level 4 and above have been in reading, in which attainment rose by 5% in 2000.
In addition, a considerable gender gap remains. The overall attainment of girls in English is 9% ahead of that of boys at the end of KS2. The gap between the attainment of boys and girls narrowed to 6% in reading in 2000, but remained at 15% in writing. This is despite an increased focus on the teaching of writing during 1999/2000 and the intervention strategies put in place for KS2 pupils. Further gains overall are likely to become progressively more difficult to achieve without substantial improvement in writing, particularly that of boys.
In 2004 approximately 600,000 pupils took the year 6 English test of reading. 8% achieved level 3, 44% achieved level 4 and 39% achieved level 5.
5. The Limitations of SATS as an Assessment Method
More than 90% of teachers want to boycott national tests for 7-year-olds, according to a poll carried out by the National Union of Teachers. And 84% want to abandon all national testing at 7, 11 and 14 because of the narrowing focus the government-led initiatives in literacy and numeracy have on the curriculum. Two-thirds said the tests were not educationally worthwhile for their pupils.
Fewer than 20% said they helped identify areas of improvement for their pupils and almost 44% said they did not allow pupils to demonstrate what they had learnt and understood. Critics of the testing system say other areas of the curriculum get neglected. The head of school inspections in England, David Bell, highlighted what he called the problem of a two-tier curriculum, with Maths and English being better taught than other subjects.
6. Can Assessment Raise Standards?
The answer to this question is yes? Assessment is one of the most powerful educational tools for promoting effective learning. But it must be used in the right way. There is no evidence that increasing the amount of testing will enhance learning. Instead the focus needs to be on helping teachers use assessment, in ways that will raise pupils' achievement.
There is an urgent need to examine current policy and practice in the light of important new research evidence that assessment as a regular element in classroom work holds the key to better learning. The research tells that successful learning occurs when students have ownership of their learning; when they understand the goals they are aiming for; when, crucially, they are motivated and have the skills to achieve success. Not only are these essential features of day-to-day learning in the classroom, they are the key ingredients of successful lifelong learning.
Evidence from research into the impact of the National Curriculum and from inspectors' reports in England - show that much of the current classroom practice falls short of providing assessment for learning. A clear distinction should be made between assessment of learning for the purposes of grading and reporting, which has its own well-established procedures, and assessment for learning which calls for different priorities, new procedures and a new commitment.
In the recent past, policy priorities have arguably resulted in too much attention being given to finding reliable ways of comparing children, teachers and schools. The important message now confronting the educational community is that assessment, which is explicitly designed to promote learning, is now the most single powerful tool we have for both raising standards and empowering lifelong learners.
7. Developing Assessment for Learning in the Classroom
Teachers connect effective classroom practice with the expectations embedded in the literacy and numeracy initiatives and with best practice across all learning areas. The matrix below illustrates how the principles of assessment for learning could be developed within the teaching of literacy.
Professional Development / Methodology Implications
Sharing learning outcomes with pupils
Share learning outcomes at the beginning of the lesson and where appropriate during the hour, in language that the pupils can understand
These objectives should form the basis for questioning and feedback during the plenary, and inform future planning
Involving pupils in self assessment
Pupils talk about what they have learned
Use of feedback and marking linked to learning outcomes
Pupils discussing together or working together
Time given to reflect on learning
Next steps identified on a group or individual basis
Help pupils to know and recognise the standards they are aiming for
Showing work that has met criteria
Giving clear success criteria to pupils. These will match the learning outcomes
Teacher modelling good writing and reading
Next steps identified for group or individuals
Provide feedback which leads to pupils recognising their next steps and how to take them
Oral feedback is the most effective
Identify what the pupil has done well, what they need to do to improve and how to do it
Setting next steps for groups or individuals
Source: Guidelines for Primary Assessment Co-ordinators - Association of Assessment Inspectors and Advisers (www.rmplc.co.uk/orgs/aaia)
Teachers need to identify and reflect on their own and each other's classroom daily activities to help children learn through clarifying expectations, providing specific, constructive and timely feedback and identifying next steps. Here are some questions teachers can use to reflect on their own classroom practice.
Is the teacher clear about the expected learning outcomes and are these shared with the pupils at the start of the teaching?
Does the teacher show and model what "good" work looks like, to help illustrate these expected outcomes in practice?
When work is "marked" does the marking suggest how the work can be improved?
Are teachers and children talking about how feedback leads to next steps for learning improvement?
Are these next steps referred to, as a guide to improving both learning and teaching?
Do teachers use they find out from assessment to adjust their plans?
In section 3, an overview of classroom methods for assessing pupils' reading abilities was presented. These methods have been in use for a number of years. However, between the end of the Second World War and the mid 1990s, there was no significant change in literacy standards. To provide a uniform system of testing throughout the country, SATS were introduced.
These tests have a number of limitations. Notably too much emphasis is placed on pupils performing well within these tests. And broader considerations, such as encouraging pupils to take responsibility for their own learning have become of secondary importance.
It has now been recognised, that while the assessment of learning is important - of greater significance is the assessment for learning. The key to improving the reading ability of KS2 pupils is to engage them in the learning process. As outlined, pupils will become more motivated, more self-confident and will learn at a faster rate, if they fully understand what they are trying to achieve.
The classroom assessment methods and SATS, explored in this investigation, will continue to play their part in improving literacy standards. Of greater importance is the need to develop coherent and workable strategies with regard to the assessment for learning as it occurs in the classroom.