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Watching the Detectives

Rachel Clarke, November 2016
In this article experienced Primary English consultant and author of the Year 6 Reading Detectives, Rachel Clarke, discusses how solving questions about a text is like being a detective solving a crime.

The Reading Comprehension Constabulary

The word ‘detective’ comes from the Latin root detectus which means to uncover or expose. Police detectives investigate and solve criminal offences by looking for the clues which lead them to uncover the perpetrators of those crimes. Asking children to analyse and respond to texts is rather like being a detective. We’re not asking them to solve crimes. But we are asking them to locate the clues left by writers in order to expose a greater understanding of written texts. 
Put this way, being a reading detective sounds easy. As adults, with our years of experience reading and understanding texts, we can usually answer questions about texts with ease. We know what the evidence is and where to find it. But if you’re a rookie reading detective, it isn’t so easy. You need to learn from a more experienced member of the Reading Comprehension Constabulary. You need a teacher to show you what and where the evidence is and how to interpret it. 
Experienced reading detectives, such as teachers, hone their reading detection skills over time. They understand a wide range of vocabulary; can locate key information; are able to precis what they’ve read; can infer the author’s intent, and predict what might happen next and so on. Experienced reading detectives do all of these things with a degree of automaticity, which is almost subconscious. What this means is: not only are there a range of investigative skills to be learnt but teachers need to be able to isolate each skill and teach their fledgling detectives how to use it. 

Going undercover

We all know that ‘the answers are in the text’ (yes, I’ve said those words too), which of course they are. But reading detectives need to know where to look for them, and even how to look for them. Some investigative skills, such as retrieving a literal response, are written clearly on the page. You can ‘put your finger on the evidence’ or ‘find it, prove it’. But some evidence such as inference is less obviously written in the text. Children need to pull on their Deerstalkers, start telling you ‘it’s all elementary, dear teacher’ and start activating their inner-sleuth. 
And I’ve not written that last sentence without reason. Inference asks children to find clues from the text that are not directly stated. It frequently asks readers to activate prior knowledge. In this case, I was relying on your knowledge of the ultimate literary detective - Sherlock Holmes - to understand my reference to Deerstalker hats and the phrase ‘it’s elementary…’. But inference also inherently requires the reader to solve the clues by employing their understanding of vocabulary. This is why I wrote ‘inner-sleuth’. I wanted you to draw on your knowledge of vocabulary associated with detection and investigation. You will have made the connections; you’re a Chief Inspector of Reading Detection. But would your pupils be able to make those links? And would you be able to explain them? 
In order to teach pupils to infer, we need to teach them to ‘go undercover’. After all, this is what inference is; it’s implied rather than stated. In terms of the 2014 National Curriculum, it’s an extension of Reading Content Domain 1a/2a (vocabulary). It is also one of the most challenging skills for children to master and one of the most tested domains in the national tests. For these reasons, each text in the Keen Kite Reading Detectives includes at least one inference question accompanied by detailed analysis for teaching and assessing.

For example: 

What does the phrase ‘observe this alien world’ suggest about Abu?
He rubbed a small circle on the steamy, grimy window through which he could observe this alien world. His search had begun. (from The Purple Lady from Blackberry Blue and other Fairy Tales by Jamila Gavin: Year Six Reading Detectives)

Teaching assessment advice:

This question requires children to activate their understanding of the word ‘alien’. They should then infer that the use of ‘alien world’ suggests that the city is unfamiliar or foreign to Abu. It suggests that he has just arrived. Accept answers which refer to Abu coming from another place or country.
1 mark (Content Domain 2d) 
By using rich texts such as this one, we can expose children to language they may not encounter in their daily lives. Questions such as these train children to look carefully at unfamiliar words and consider what they are telling them about the wider text. After looking at a quality text such as this, we can then further secure children’s understanding of vocabulary by collecting synonyms for ‘alien’ and encouraging children to use them in their writing. Learning to explore language and expand children’s vocabularies is one way to help children ‘go undercover’. Which is why there are vocabulary and inference questions accompanying each text in the Keen Kite Reading Detectives. 

Knowing the Modus Operandi

All great criminal detectives know the modus operandi of the criminals they are investigating. They know what makes them tick and how they work. In a similar way, reading detectives know the types of reading comprehension questions and the way they are asked. Our job as teachers is to ensure our rookie detectives know that ‘locate’ means ‘find the place in the text’, and that ‘which word suggests’ or ‘what impression...’ point them towards inference. It’s notable that the 2016 KS2 reading SAT used far more of this high-order language than we’ve seen in previous years. To help apprentice reading detectives build recognition of the mode of questioning, the Keen Kite Reading Detectives include a diverse range of questions that utilise the challenging question language of the national tests.
Here are a few from the Y6 Reading Detective book:
What impression do the words ‘brawling’ and ‘quarrelsome’ give you about Romulus and Remus’s relationship with each other?
Which evidence suggests the house is at the top of a hill?
How is Mother and Arthur’s relationship enhanced through the use of the word ‘ally’?
To sum up. It may sound easy to say that being a reading detective simply involves locating the clues left by writers in order to expose a greater understanding of written texts but it isn’t. It’s a tough job. By looking carefully at the skills young detectives need to develop we can scaffold their understanding and so ensure that reading comprehension becomes something they do more automatically. Exposure to quality texts which utilise a range of literary techniques and rich vocabulary, such as those used in the Keen Kite Reading Detectives, will help children to hone their reading comprehension skills. If we can do this, then we should be able to honour our reading detectives and even promote a few of them to Sergeant, Inspector and who knows maybe even Chief Inspector of Reading. 
Chief Superintendent of Reading, Rachel Clarke.
Rachel Clarke is the Director of Primary English Education Consultancy Limited. She has over 20 years’ experience of working in Primary Schools as a teacher, Deputy Head Teacher, Local Authority English Adviser and Freelance Consultant. She writes for several education publishers and trains teachers nationally and internationally on all aspects of Primary English Teaching. 
Twitter: @PrimaryEnglish
Facebook: PrimaryEng
Find out more about Rachel's new series, Reading detectives