From Pandas to the Piper: A Deeper Comparative of 2018 and 2019 KS2 Reading SATs Papers

While walking around the room observing a year 6 cohort take the 2019 reading test, I read over their shoulders and glimpsed at the text types, questions and written responses making visual mental comparatives to 2018. I noted quickly that the first two texts this year seemed easy enough and was relieved to say the least, that this year featured no poetry (although I could have almost bet some heavy dosh that it would have). The children worked at steady pace through the first text and though slightly slower on text two were more at ease this year than the previous cohort. I also noted that the layout of the questions seemed straightforward this year so crossed my fingers the children could tackle. Of course, by text three I spotted the first paragraph and phrases like "widening cracks in the grey scrub-pine planks", " tarnished silver" and "the metal lay warm and comfortable against her skin" did raise my brows. OK - so it was apparent this was the greater depth text so vocabulary like this was to be expected but the appearance of it was dense and intimidating to say the least. Although 2 pages long while last year's Albion's Dream was 3, the paragraphs were packed and no pictures to aid understanding. Definitely tough and definitely demanded stamina to complete. This text started to separate the effort of the children. Many had by this point slowed right down to snail's pace and the ever-surging desire to scream 'Keep Going! You can do it!' had to be stifled.

So let us take an in depth look at 2018 vrs 2019 KS2 Reading SATs:

Text 1

The Giant Panda Bear of 2018 was an easily accessible non-fiction text and questions were a total of 3 vocabulary (3 marks), 8 retrieval/ identify key details (9 marks) , 1 summarise (1 mark), 2 inferences (2 marks) and 1 comparison (2 marks). Total 15 questions with 17 marks.

The Park of 2019 featured very British non-standard English and was a very true-to-life and culture fictional text which almost seemed linked to our current political Brexit climate in its theme of progress, unwanted change and the burdened labouring class. The questions were 3 vocabulary (3 marks), 6 retrieval (7 marks), 3 inferences (3 marks) and 1 comparison (1 mark). Total 13 questions with 14 marks.

Less questions in 2019, with only a slightly higher cognitive demand with inference but overall an easier start for the children.

Text 2

The dreaded poem of 2018, Grannie, was no joke. This text had some tricky vocabulary ("faint scent", similes: "The way her smile seemed, somehow, to enfold my whole world like a warm, protective shawl", metaphorical language: "stand mountainous between me and my fear", tricky phrases like "praised me lavishly", "seized the chance" and "love lit up the day") that would have thrown many of our EAL children and stretched others considerably. This text had 3 vocabulary (4 marks), 3 retrieval (4 marks), 1 summarise (1 mark) and 7 inferences (9 marks) questions. A total of 14 questions worth 18 marks.

Fact Sheet: About Bumble Bees of 2019 was a longer first person written non-fiction text featuring some tier 2 vocabulary ("essential part of summertime", "modern world of paved gardens and intensive farming", " bees are instantly recognisable but there are distinct differences", "perfectly suited", "large quantities", "conserve bumblebee habitats and raise public awareness"), tier 3 technical vocabulary (extinct, pollen, nectar, climates, "buzz pollination", lifeline, "artificial nectar". With structure of language appearing in the form of rhetorical questions as subheadings, use of a pun ("Don’t 'bee' confused"), captioned images and a web page reference. This text had 2 vocabulary (2 marks), 6 retrieval/ key information (9 marks), 1 summarise (1 mark), 4 inferences (6 marks) and 1 meaning through choice of words and phrases (1 mark). A total of 14 questions worth 19 marks.

Less questions in 2019 but a slightly higher cognitive requirement to retrieve and identify information surpassing inference. Which should lend itself to a better result for the children who struggle with inference.

Text 3

Albion's Dream, 2018 was an extract of 11 paragraphs of challenging tier 2 vocabulary ("which smelt of a past that held extraordinary fascination for me", "windows where unknown ancestors had sat on autumn evenings", "a great generosity of space", "the poignant smells of animals and harvests of a bygone age", "an elderly spinster", "the dark recesses of the shelf", "fashioned by hand", "the faces was precisely even", " ten years’ worth of assorted debris", "thick network of cobwebs", "came forward with frightening intensity", "a stronger sense of justice broke out in me" to name a few). The language in this text seemed aloof from year 6's everyday vocabulary with words like horse chestnut, ought certainly some that drew a blank for some EAL pupils. Images aided to make this an easier read. The text had 3 vocabulary (3 marks), 1 retrieve (1 mark), 1 summarise (1 mark), 6 inferences (11 marks - including 2 three markers appearing at the end at question 38 and 40). A total of 11 questions worth 16 marks.

Music Box, 2019 was an extract of 14 paragraphs of challenging tier 2 vocabulary ("debris from other worlds fell", "restlessness kept her awake", " widening cracks", "tarnished silver", "watch ticked on steadily", "wind blew a harsh breath of snow", "fixed a look of annoyance", "I’m stunned stiff", "the air already reeked", "a comfortable nest in the middle of my bed", "reclined on a strip of grass", similes such as: "making the clouds around it look like swelling bruises on the sky" and "a tree full to bursting with pink blossoms that hung over her like a veil", "his fingers lingering on the lid", "could practically smell the flowers", "look at the musical components", "seen contraptions like these before", "flecks of dirt still caked the comb", and this bomb of a personification, "strangled notes of a song trying to play" at the end). In addition to the extended length of this year's text 3 was not only tier 2 vocabulary that challenged but the mixing in of tier 3 words that really stretched comprehension ("meteor storm", "scrub-pine planks", "cast-iron stove", "kerosene lamp", " Piston rings", "hand-painted in white, coral, and cerise", "metal cylinder", " teeth of a steel comb while the cylinder turned", "crater"). Then the addition of a rather far reaching idiom "a buyer with a stiff hip" which certainly most would never have heard before. The text had 1 vocabulary (1 mark), 4 retrieve (5 marks), 5 inferences (9 marks including 2 three markers further apart at questions 32 and 39) and 2 meaning enhanced through choice of words and phrases questions (2 marks). A total of 12 questions worth 17 marks.

Text 3 was more difficult in 2019 in terms of the complex overlap of vocabulary types which pointed to the curriculum drive of knowledge rich learning. Reading encapsulated knowledge of Geography, Design Technology, Art and even musical elements.

So what does this all mean? In summary there is still a high cognitive demand on inference and an even more pointed need for children to retrieve and identify key details accurately this year. Vocabulary still hasn't lost the plot and there is certainly a deeper drive in 2019 for children to be aware of English culture in both formal and non-standard forms no matter the text type. Despite there being less vocabulary and meanings questions and marks the increase on the strand of choice of language and the effect on meaning makes up for this. Here is a table to help you quickly understand it all:

Bright I'Scores and cognitive domain strands comparison - 2018/2019

Question stems:

Question stems have certainly been simplified for 2019. Complicated stems like 'according to' and 'closest in meaning' has not reared their ugly heads this year, 'reasons' is nowhere to be seen while 'impressions' remains a steady ask (2 questions as in 2018) as well as 'suggests' (which appeared an increased 5 times in 2019) with the use of 'ways' included once. 'Find and copy' in 2019 has been narrowed to one word answers as opposed to interchanging between one and group of words for 2018. There were no big box type questions either (phew!) and responses were broken down for children to link clear evidence and understanding (thank you STA). Let us hope this is an ongoing pattern as this really gives children the chance to focus on their understanding as opposed to structured writing which can detract from what they know.

Apart from text 3- I think this paper was doable in the time given. Perhaps a less dense paper 2 would have given a fair chance to those who struggle with higher vocabulary and certainly removing one question was not enough to give the children an equal shot at getting to the end with gusto. All in all, we did our best fellow teachers and our targets remain unwavering. Inference must really be underpinned by deeper knowledge in the broader curriculum and reading widely remains high on the agenda. Stamina is a target for all. We know what this is about: intent, implementation and impact and reading is no exception but the anchor. Roll on 2020!

Kala Williams is a Primary based Education Consultant specialising in the teaching of reading for mastery who works across primary schools in the West Midlands, UK. She teaches to train, provides whole school CPD and coaches teachers daily to be their best reading teacher in the classroom. Follow her on twitter - @rogue_reading or contact her via FaceBook @brightideasedconsult