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2023 KS2 Reading SAT analysis QLA

Updated: Jan 11

A detailed review of the 2023 Key Stage 2 Reading SAT including QLA

Nationally, 73% of pupils achieved the expected standard in reading in KS2 in 2023. How can analysing the 2023 paper and pupil responses help inform school improvement plans for reading? How can analysing the 2023 KS2 reading paper support teachers increase their impact?

This blog is designed for school leaders and reading leaders to help them engage in a deep level of professional thinking dialogue in relation to increasing the number of pupils who achieve the expected standard in KS2 reading. As such, it is broken into five parts.

You can download a handy PDF printable version of the blog here:

  • Part 1: How can I use the KS2 Reading SAT outcomes in my school?

  • Part 2: Details of the KS2 reading assessment framework all leaders should be aware of.

  • Part 3: How pupils performed nationally against the 8 reading domains assessed in the KS2 reading SAT paper.

  • Part 4: An analysis of the paper and details of the questions pupils found most difficult in the 2023 paper;

  • Part 5: Typical question stems to help you write your own KS2 reading questions.

Will it take effort to read and digest? Yes, it will. This blog post is not designed to be a quick read, instead it is designed to aid improvements through deep thinking. If you are committed to increasing outcomes in KS2 SATs, reading this blog and engaging in professional dialogue will be worth the effort!

Part 1: How can I use the KS2 Reading SAT outcomes?

There are many different ways to engage with data - how many do you use and how does this drive improvements? Consider each of the 10 steps.

Imagine a spiral - you start at the top with the broad headline figures, and then you drill down and down and down. What level of data analysis do you perform. Are you tapping into all the data sources?

The school ASP system and the DfE gateway provide access to your school's marked papers and statistics. If you are not accessing these, speak to your headteacher about access.

  1. Start with the headline figures compared to national, alongside progress scores and trend information. This can support leaders to assess how important it may be to take action to improve reading outcomes.

  2. Drilling down into specific pupil groups (e.g. disadvantaged pupils, EAL, SEND, gender) can help leaders to judge the effectiveness of current actions for different types of pupil. This may lead to reviewing reading through a specific pupil lens.

  3. The ASP system enables schools to compare performance to national figures across the eight domains assessed in the test (e.g. words in context, retrieval, inference, summarising). This can help the reading leader to consider if there are any training needs related to a particular domain. It can also lead the reading leader to consider the strategy and approach used across the school that ensures pupils make progress within a particular domain, such as how inference skills develop over KS1 and KS2. It is also important for leaders to consider what is not assessed in the KS2 SAT, but is still extremely important in creating successful readers who are ready for the next stage in education. How can test outcomes be combined with other internal knowledge of pupils to consider the effectiveness of reading from a rounded perspective. Are teachers and leaders clear as to the ‘criteria’ and goals for creating ‘good readers’ at the end of Year 6?

  4. Some manual processing and interrogation of the data will also help the reading leader to consider the pupil skill levels in reading different types of text, e.g. a range of nonfiction, poetry, stories. For example, if as a school you need to improve outcomes in non-fiction reading, then increasing the use of nonfiction in foundation subjects with a focus on ‘reading to learn’, coupled with a stronger emphasis on unpicking nonfiction texts in writing lessons with a focus on ‘reading as a writer’ might support pupils levels of comprehension when using nonfiction texts in reading lessons and tests. The reading leader may need to take action related to the ‘diet’ of reading to ensure both the wider goals of becoming a successful reader and high test outcomes are achieved. For example: Are pupils exposed to enough short stories? Are pupils exposed to stories in a wide range of settings and from different cultural perspectives? Do pupils read texts from a different era?

  5. The ASP system will also show how many pupils attempted / omitted a particular question (including how this related to national data). Even before this data is available, teachers are likely to have observed pupils' test behaviours as they were sitting the test. One common factor is pupils not completing the whole test and missing out questions towards the end of the paper. It is important to ascertain which questions were not completed due to inability to answer, and which were due to running out of time. Word reading speed ideally needs to be between 140 and 180 words per minute to allow pupils time to read the texts, read the questions, think and compose an answer. Word reading speed is particularly important not only to the test but more generally for success in reading and academic progress. Leaders may wish to a) increase their own and others’ knowledge of the impact slow reading speeds can have on pupil outcomes; b) take action to ensure they know which pupils in every year group are falling below year group word reading speed thresholds; c) reviewing the in-class approaches to improving word reading speed & accuracy; d) review the interventions used for improving word reading speeds to ensure the school is harnessing research on interventions; e) ensure pupils have good techniques for using their time in the examination, and ensuring any access arrangements have been put in place for pupils who need additional time. The reading leader may wish to consider research on how word reading develops (both relating to phonics and beyond this to consider more generally orthographic mapping).

  6. Adults working in KS2 should be familiar with the test paper, e.g. what is assessed / not assessed, types of question, demands on the reader, mark allocations. Ideally, all teachers and TAs have completed at least one KS2 SAT paper, and then unpicked the types of question, difficulties, demands on the pupil etc., with their peers. This can help teachers understand points of progression across KS2 and appreciate the standards that need to be reached. It can also help all adults to have greater appreciation for the types of question, e.g. that retrieval is not simply finding facts in a text, but that it also includes ‘interpretation’, and it can help adults to understand different types of inference question.

  7. As inference is one of the most important factors in understanding any text, and as it is a large part of the KS2 SATs, the reading leader may wish to consider the knowledge base of teachers and TAs in understanding what inference is, how it develops and what can impact on a pupils’ ability to make inferences. Unpicking just the inference questions in the test paper can be a useful way of exploring what a reader is required to do when they make inferences.

  8. Test developers have to adhere to a test framework when writing the tests, and teachers, particularly those in Year 6 need to have knowledge of that framework. The test framework details the percentage of marks for each domain, e.g. the meaning of words in context must be 10-20% of the total marks; the type of questions and the percentage of each type of question (such as true/false, ordering events, short answer); the distribution of marks per question (e.g. the number of 3 mark questions that can be included in the test); the cognitive demands of the questions (e.g. how easy it is to find the relevant information in the text).

  9. Teachers in Year 6 need to be particularly knowledgeable about the types of question and what is and what is not usually accepted as answers. The ASP system shows the schools’ question level analysis. Teachers can consider which questions their pupils struggled or excelled with compared to national. This can be helpful in redesigning lessons and pinpointing specific actions for development at classroom level. Considering which questions pupils struggled with nationally can add further insights that are useful for teachers in planning lessons and considering their teacher practice. The DfE gateway provides access to the completed pupil scripts and teachers can consider how individuals performed, and how this knowledge might help improve outcomes for the next cohort.

  10. Examining in close detail the papers of pupils who did not achieve the expected standard can be revealing in many ways, not just in improving reading performance. For example, the teachers may be able to draw links between the answers provided in the reading test and the difficulties pupils have in writing stories and nonfiction texts, and performance on specific questions in the grammar paper. It is unlikely that performance of pupils will particularly improve without looking carefully at HOW pupils answered incorrect or provided partially correct answers. Gain knowledge of typical difficulties and school specific issues through reading pupil answers.

Part two: KS2 Reading assessment framework

When the tests are written, the developers have to adhere to the test specification.

Part A of the table below shows the eight domains assessed through the test (2a to 2h) and the mark boundaries that must be followed by test developers. Part B provides the actual number of marks available in test papers from 2016 to 2023 against those domains.

The test specification can change, so keep an eye out for any developments, particularly since teacher assessment for reading at the end of KS2 is no longer submitted to DfE. However, making inferences is always likely to play a key part in examinations because it is critical to reading comprehension and the best indicator that pupils have understood the text. There will be variance between the tests, e.g. the percentage for inference can be anywhere from 15-50%, this is because the choice of texts goes some way to determine what questions it is possible to ask. The test developers will obviously be looking for texts that give them the best chance of testing the domains and being comparable over time. We can see that over time, the percentage of mark for inference is usually between 35% and 45% of the paper.

Many areas of the National Curriculum for reading are not tested in the reading paper. One reason for this is that some elements are more difficult to assess through a written test. In fact, there are just three key areas in the SATs assessment:

  • 2a give / explain the meaning of words in context

  • 2b retrieve and record information / identify key details from fiction and non-fiction

  • 2d make inferences from the text / explain and justify inferences with evidence form the text

It is worth noting that ‘retrieval’ is usually ‘retrieval with interpretation’. (See examples later in on in this document and appendix for lists of typical question types.)

This does not mean that other aspects of pupil performance are not as important, it just means that these skills are not tested in the paper. It is important that teachers support pupils to have all the skills, knowledge and understanding they need to succeed with reading, develop a love of reading and be able to access a wide range of texts for a variety of purposes. Teachers are preparing pupils for later success, not just to successfully complete a test.

It is also worth noting that the test is summative, and whilst studying pupil answers can help to identify next steps for pupil development, diagnostic assessment should be considered for pupils who are struggling to achieve the expected standard.

There may be issues that impact on performance that may not at first seem obvious.

Consider if pupils struggle with any of the following:

Difficulties pupils can have with reading that interfere with comprehension
Common difficulties - which might apply in your school?

There is a pattern to the tests based on the test specification:

The test specification dictates that most of the marks (22-33 marks) will be drawn from 1 mark questions, 10-20 marks will be drawn from 2 mark questions and 3-12 marks will be from 3 mark questions.

  • 10-30% of the test will be multiple choice, ranking / ordering questions, matching and labelling.

  • 40-60% of the test will be short constructed responses, e.g. find and copy one word which suggests…, What does the bear eat?

  • 20-40% of the test will be extended constructed answers with an open ended responses (which quite often requires pupils to provide evidence from the text).

There will be questions that require pupils to find an answer from more than one part of the test. As a competent reader, we do need pupils to be able to extract less straightforward meaning and information from a text.

More details regarding the test paper specifications can be found here:

It is worth considering who has knowledge of the test framework.

Advice on reading the examination texts:

Word reading rate will play a part in pupils being able to complete the test in the allocated time. Teachers should seek additional time for pupils who are eligible. Pupils with an EHC plan automatically qualify for up to 25% additional time. 100% additional time is available for pupils with a modified large print or braille version of the paper. Additional time may be considered for pupils operating below 90 words per minute – see advice on access arrangements.

Word reading speed is probably more important than you realise, not just for test performance but because of the impact it has on how much pupils read both in and out of class over their time at school. We know from extensive research that quantity of reading impacts on comprehension levels, knowledge of the world, knowledge of genre conventions, typical story formats and vocabulary. Whilst 90 words per minute (with reasonable accuracy) may be the threshold for not needing additional time, in reality, pupils who are operating below 140 words per minute will find the paper challenging, not just in terms of reading the examination text in the allotted time, but also because these pupils are likely to be low consumers of text both in class and out of class. You could argue, that speed is designed to be an element of the test because it is likely at be a useful indicator of reading success as a whole, and will influence later progress and attainment in reading if not addressed. Personally, I believe no test paper should be a speed test, and I would like to see this changed, but let this not distract from the larger issue. Please do not associate Year 6 pupils being able to read at 140-180 words per minute with speed reading, nor sweep the issue aside with arguments regarding the value of reading slowly. If you are not familiar with all the ramifications of pupils having limited word reading speeds, please see blog post on ‘How fast should we read?’

The amount of text to read in the tests does vary, as was illustrated in a report by the

In the reading booklet, children were asked to read a total of 2,106 words split into three separate texts. This is one of the longest reading booklets ever used in the KS2 tests - and almost at the limit of the 2,300 words for the texts that is set as the maximum number. It would therefore take a pupil reading at 90 words a minute approximately 23 minutes to read the text, approximately 15 minutes when reading at 140 words a minute and approximately 13 minutes when reading at 160 words a minute. This does not include reading the questions, which covered 1,337 words. At 90 words per minute, that is approximately 15 minutes. It is clear that pupils with low reading speeds had very little time to think and respond to questions.

Other elements regarding reading the text:

It is likely that teachers have supported pupil with test preparation, e.g. providing advice about types of question, modelling and support focused on how to achieve full marks on a multi-mark question, advice about accuracy of answers, test technique, opportunities to undertake past papers and receive feedback on their performance.

When reading the examination texts, it is also important to draw pupils’ attention to the importance of any text at the top of the page before the main body of the text.

Whilst it may seem obvious to pay attention to the text in these boxes, pupils in their rush to get started can miss this important information.

It is also important to draw pupils’ attention to reading any headings and subheadings, as pupils can often omit to read these too!

The 2023 examination paper: the three texts

The context for each text were quite challenging for pupils who did not have a wide knowledge base and a range of experiences.

Text 1: Camping, countryside, farming - the text mentions specific cultural elements like farms, vehicles, and actions (e.g., stealing sheep) that might require some cultural knowledge to fully comprehend the text.

Text 2: USA, bats.

Text 3: The wilderness of ‘The Barrens’ in Scotland. Some would argue that background knowledge is essential for inference, and whilst it certainly a factor, it perhaps over simplifies the issue. (See blog post on ‘can inference be taught’)

Key 'take aways' from the 2023 paper

Key message for pupils: 1. Be specific in how the answer is worded. 2. Ensure the answer exactly matches the question.

Test technique difficulties for pupils operating at the lower end of the attainment spectrum

Pupils who generally struggle with both reading and writing can find it difficult to be sufficiently specific in their answers. For example, in the following pupil script, the pupil stated ‘her heart was beating’ when they needed to say ‘her heart was beating fast’. And pupils would only be credited for something disturbed her if it related to how she was feel nervous, for example 'she woke with a start'.

‘How can you tell…’ is a very standard question stem. Pupils need to be aware that it is not just anything in the text, but has to be directly related to Priya's feelings.

Pupils who have difficulty forming sentences can struggle to provide accurate answers. In the following example the pupil needed to extend their answer to show that Priya or ‘they’ had only seen a couple of cars all day. Omitted from the answer is ‘who’ and the word ‘seen’. = 'Because they had only seen a couple of cars all day'.

‘Why’ question stems are frequently used with inference questions.

And sometimes pupils have difficulty in using the information that is a) actually contained in the text, b) information that directly links to a character rather than general information. This is illustrated below. Correct answers needed to relate specifically to why Priya found it surprising (e.g. that she had not heard or seen many cars that day), not what would make it surprising, and therefore answers about being in the night were not credited.

These are very common issues for pupils who do not score above half marks in the test.

Vocabulary is nearly always an issue for pupils who score low marks on the test, either because of vocabulary in the text itself or in the question stems. Whilst there is action teachers can take to help pupil mitigate against vocabulary issues, ultimately vocabulary, like word reading speeds can only really be improved through long-term actions. Vocabulary depth and breadth is generally acquired through reading often and widely. Audiobooks may offer some pupils an excellent way of supplementing what is read outside of class time.

There are usually questions that are ‘find and copy’ one word. Things that can go wrong with this type of question– sometimes pupils will write down more than one word, sometimes pupils will omit the answer entirely, and sometimes pupils will record the wrong answer, e.g. some pupils wrote ‘home’ to the above question rather than 'colony'. What makes this question particularly difficulty is that the word 'colony' is in the second paragraph rather than in the first paragraph. Pupils should note that when it directs them to a section of the text, it is the 'section' not just the paragraph.

For non-fiction texts, pupils are often asked to extract information from more than one paragraph.

There are many different ways pupils may be asked to extract information from the text. They are often asked for reasons, benefits, similarities, differences (etc) as a way of identifying key information. The answer usually requires a degree of interpretation. Pupils who read and unpick nonfiction texts across the curriculum are likely to find retrieval questions on a nonfiction text quite straightforward. Schools may be under resourced, e.g. a lack of class sets for nonfiction text, and this can mean that there are limits on the type of classwork that can be undertaken with books.

Part three: 2023 KS2 Reading outcomes

National performance

In the ASP (Assessing School Performance) system you will be able to compare how well your class performed on each question compared to the national average. This, alongside looking at specific answer papers (via the Primary Gateway), will be useful in tweaking lessons and teaching approaches. The ASP system will also provide you with information about questions that were not attempted. Omitted answers can be very enlightening. Increasing the number of attempted questions is likely to boost the number of pupils achieving the expected standard.

Nationally, pupils clearly found inference challenging with 57% of answers achieving a correct response.

Pupils also struggled with summarising, but with only 1 mark allocated to the content domain it is difficult to assess if this is an issue with summarising or this specific question.

The summarise question required pupils to put the events in order (question 35):

How did your school data compare to national? Gaps in performance between the school and the national can help identify training needs and/or indicate that the strategy from Year 1 upwards needs to be reviewed and tweaked.

Which questions did pupils nationally struggle with?

Less than 50% of answers were correct for the following questions starting with the weakest: Q36, Q30, Q38, Q15, Q38, Q37,

and in the next bracket pupils achieving 50-60% correct answers Q11, Q26, Q20b, Q23, Q32a, Q32b.

As the test both in texts and questions gets progressively harder, it is not unexpected that the percentage of pupils attempting questions reduced past question 30. However, as commented on earlier, some pupils may have had insufficient time to complete the test due to word reading speeds, or perhaps had greater difficulty in completing the test in the time allocated due to cognitive processing speeds or other behavioural factors.

As well as considering which questions were challenging for pupils to answer correctly, teachers should consider patterns for individual pupils, e.g. are they better at answering fiction or non-fiction questions, are they better at inference or retrieval, which question types do they find easier / more challenging (e.g. true/false, tick the box, match the statements, find the evidence).

Question interpretation is particularly important and can be the reason that pupils answer incorrectly, e.g. omitting a word when reading the question which then changes the meaning of the whole question; providing a general answer when a more precise answer was required; over emphasis on key words in the question leading to extracting the wrong information; failing to fully comprehend the question; difficulty with reding and retaining all the information in a multi-line question, general issues such as ticking one option when it asks for two.

Many questions in the narrative texts relate to understand a characters actions or feelings, e.g. ‘How can you tell…’ and questions asking ‘why’ a character was feeling a particular way. Questions often ask pupils to explain why a character says something or does something. Pupils regularly have to give ‘evidence’ from the text and this is an important skill. Typically there is at least one question that asks pupils to put events into order. By using past papers (e.g. timed tests to consider speed issues, modelling answers to questions, unpicking why an answer achieved 2 rather than 3 marks, group and individual feedback on answers, practicing question types) pupils should be familiar with the test paper format before they take the test.

There is a list of example questions from past papers at the end of this document.

Part four: Question level analysis 2023 KS2 Reading

Question related to text 1

Text 1 is a 590 word narrative. Other than a few more challenging or unfamiliar words (such as rustlers, throbbing, wriggled, emerged, cattle grid, unfastened, valley, binoculars) for which in many cases pupils could use text and image clues to support their understanding, the vocabulary was more straight forward than it has been in some previous tests, but pupils may have found extra challenge if the context (camping and countryside) unfamiliar.

The text presents a clear and linear narrative that begins with Priya waking up in her tent and feeling disturbed, progressing to her observations of the night and the mysterious sounds outside. The text introduces the characters, Priya and Abby, and good readers will connect with them and understand their roles in the story. The relationship between characters is important for understanding any story. The text uses descriptive language to create imagery and set the scene, such as the mention of the night-light, the moon, and the valley in the moonlight. This enhances the reader's ability to visualise the setting, particularly if they have experience of the countryside. The setting is particularly relevant to the story. The narrative provides insight into Priya's thoughts and emotions as she tries to rationalise the unusual sounds she hears. This adds depth to her character and good readers should be able to empathise with her. The text builds suspense gradually, with the introduction of various sounds and the passing vehicles, creating a sense of anticipation and curiosity. The dialogue between Priya and Abby serves to move the plot forward, and from the dialogue readers can convey the characters concerns and actions.

  • Pupils who have used story maps and story lines will probably find tracking the plot fairly straight forward.

  • Pupils do have to pay attention to the specific details - and this is a challenge for some pupils.

  • Pupils who regularly discuss a characters inner dialogue, think about what the character is noticing in their environment, and make links between how the characters is thinking and their actions - will be well prepared for tackling this type of text.

  • Pupils who have studied dialogue, and are apt at writing their own dialogue in stories, will be able to see how the dialogue moves the story forward and will easily track who is speaking. Notice the lack of dialogue tags and the range of dialogue tags.

28% of the marks (12 questions in total) were based on text 1 (1 mark for words in context, 5 marks were retrieval related, 8 marks linked to inference). Success across the questions ranged from 51%-89% correct answers nationally. Questions 4, 6, 7, 10 and 11 being at the lower end of this bracket.

For example, some pupils struggled to put the events in order. The question required pupils to track the vehicle movement across more than one paragraph. Some pupils may just have found the number of items to keep in mind whilst cross referencing to the text challenging, particularly if working memory was taken up with word reading difficulties. Is this type of question particularly challenging for pupils will low reading speeds?

Sometimes pupils fell into the trap of answering more generally from the gist of the text rather than the specifics. Hearing the noise from the road is relevant, but the point at which she decided to take a look outside actually related to hearing the engine stop.

Question 7 Pupils was tricky because it required pupils to understand what ‘it’ was in the sentence.

It required inference. ‘Then it hit her’. It required pupils to make the connection to the character’s mental state. Answers included that she now understood the situation, that she had come to a realisation, that she thought they were sheep rustlers.

In order to be able to answer this question, pupils also need to have a good grasp of pronouns.

In the 2017 test paper a swimmer was referred to in many different ways, e.g. Captain Matthew Webb, Twenty-seven-year old Webb, he, lone swimmer, Webb, Matthew Web. Good readers are skilled in tracking pronouns and alternative nouns (e.g. dog, Beagle, man's best friend, loveable creature). Pupils need to be aware that pronouns can relate to people, things, situations, events and concepts. They are important in both fiction and non-fiction.

Idiomatic expressions like "woke with a start," "took a deep breath," and "it hit her," may not be immediately transparent to non-native speakers.

Since only 62 percent of answers provided the correct response, it suggests that developing pupils’ understanding of pronouns, not just for test preparation but for understanding any text, may be worth consideration.

Q11: Why was Abby worried? Pupils sometimes struggled with question 11 because they were not specific enough in their answer. They needed to show understanding that Abbey was not just worried ‘about the sheep’ but about the sheep being stolen / hurt / in danger, or that she didn’t know what to do or how to help Mr Jones. (Looking at the answers, it is likely that pupils did understand the text).

Generally speaking, there were many ‘typical’ questions in section 1:

  • Why questions that ask the pupils to explain a character’s actions, such as in question 9 ‘Why does Abby say this to Priya?’

  • Write one piece of evidence, as in question 5, ‘Write one piece of evidence that shows Abby was shocked by what she saw.’

  • Tick the box true / false question.

  • A question that requires the pupils to put elements of the story in order.

  • ‘How can you tell’ questions, such as question 1 ‘How can you tell that Priya is feeling nervous?’

  • A question stem that pupils may be less familiar with is one using the word ‘realise’ as in question 3, ‘What made Priya realise that one of the vehicles was not a car?’

Questions related to text 2

A nonfiction text is to be expected. The style and nature of the text will not be the same in each examination paper. This time it was a Q & A.

About the text in the 2023 paper: This was a 820 word non-fiction text that was presented in a question and answer interview style. Pupils familiar with a wide range of nonfiction texts would be comfortable with the presentation of the information. The text begins by describing the Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin USA and its transformation into a bat hotspot at night. The text provides detailed information about the bats living under the bridge, their behaviour, the reasons for their population growth, and their importance. It also addresses common misconceptions about bats and highlights their benefits to humans. The text uses analogies, such as comparing the number of insects bats eat to the weight of elephants. The text includes persuasive elements, encouraging readers to view bats as beneficial creatures and suggesting actions they can take to support bats in their own areas. This call to action is aimed at enhancing reader engagement.

Non-fiction reading should be a regular part of reading comprehension lessons. Pupils should be taught how to approach texts with different layouts, and be instructed on typical ways of attacking the text.

For example, how many pupils complete the following steps before reading the text:

· Scanned the whole piece first.

· Look at how the page is divided into sections.

· Considered the images.

· Read the heading and sub-headings.

· Considered what they already know about the topic.

· Determined the style and nature of the text.

· Look for any key words / words in bold.

When reading, how many pupils:

· Identified the main sentence in each paragraph.

· Underlined key supporting information.

Pupils need to understand the importance of the reference ‘according to the text’ in questions. It is important that pupils do not give a general knowledge answer but that the information is actually contained in the text.

· According to the text – is a very important phrase. Anywhere where it says ‘according to the text’ means picking out information from the text rather than using own background knowledge.

In the 2023 paper, the ‘according to the text’ questions based on the nonfiction paper were generally well answered, but this is certainly something to consider when working with past papers and preparing pupils for the examination.

It is important to recognise that the skills pupils use in comprehending fiction texts are often equally applicable to nonfiction texts. For example, pupils who employ visualisation when they read the introduction to the nonfiction 2023 text will find it easier to comprehend the text.

  • Teachers can ensure that when they teach and use nonfiction texts they ask pupils to engage in visualisation.

  • Teachers can ask pupils what helps them to visualise the scene.

  • Teachers can also ask pupils to consider what other knowledge they are drawing on to help them to visualise the scene, e.g. their knowledge of bats, their knowledge of what a bat looks like. When pupils have a lack of general experience, it can be more difficult to visualise. For example, if pupils live near a large bridge or have ever stood underneath a large bridge they will find it easier to imagine the gaps that the author talks about as being ideal for a bat habitat.

Nonfiction texts can be challenging for a variety of reasons. For example, in the above extract pupils need to be aware of different points being made within the same paragraph – some that are about bats (needing warmth, needing time to grow and develop before travelling south, being born hairless, understanding the relationship between energy and warmth) and some that are about the environment (trapping in heat, gaps under the bridge). Pupils who use nonfiction texts regularly will be used to processing such information and will be able to hold in their heads the two elements and see how they connect, whilst pupils who only use simple nonfiction texts or lack expose to nonfiction texts will struggle.

The examination once again highlights the importance of pupils being able to engage in ‘reading to learn’. Pupils are at an advantage both in the examination and as they transfer to secondary school if:

  • They are regularly exposed to a wide range of nonfiction across the curriculum, utilising the content and reading for meaning;

  • Regularly unpick nonfiction texts in writing lessons from standpoint of ‘read as a writer’ e.g. analysing content, sentence structures, fact/opinion, paragraph construction, sequencing of points, use of examples and analogies, use of numerical information, layout and organisation of text, topic sentences;

  • Read a wide range of genres;

  • Have plenty of opportunity to analyse nonfiction texts in reading comprehension lesson including learning how to apply inference skills, summarise, extract information, and consider the meaning of vocabulary.

Marks allocated to the second text: 15 questions were associated with text 2 accounting for 40% of the marks for the paper. 5 marks related to understanding words in context, 9 marks related to retrieval, 5 marks linked to inference, and 1 mark was related to how content contributed to overall meaning.

Question types in the second text: the questions typically included questions that required pupils to extract information, give evidence, true/false, find and copy one word, tick the option.

Vocabulary became more challenging, e.g. dreary, plumes, paradise, eradicated, prejudice, persecuting, vulnerable, harmful, tormented, allies, concrete, colony, swarming, uninvited, tornado, fascinating, campaigned, mosquitoes.

Question difficulties: pupils found questions 15, 20b, 23 and 26 particularly difficult.

Many pupils struggled with ‘hotspots’ in question 15. Perhaps they lacked experience in answering a question that required them to understand how a word was being used to mean different things within the same text (one meaning by the interviewer, and one meaning being used by the expert answering the question).

Pupils achieving low scores overall often gave an incorrect answer to this question, perhaps pointing to the overall impact a lack of vocabulary has on pupil outcomes. Whilst pupils operating at the top end of mark spectrum had little difficulty in securing the marks.

Pupils struggled with question 23. Pupils were possibly recalling questions about ‘facts and opinions’ rather than ‘true and false’. Some pupils perhaps rushed to tick a box rather than looking very closely at the phrasing of each statement. Some pupils failed to achieve the marks because three correct answers were needed for 1 mark and four correct answers were needed for two marks.

The phrases in the question do not always correspond those used in the text. As this was less of an issue in the 2023 paper, I have included an example from the 2017 paper.

2017, question 7, the test paper says ‘Recent studies show that…’ whereas the actual text said ‘Until recently, scientists…’. The question says ‘some giant pandas live in the same area’ whereas in the text it uses the term ‘territory’. This is an example of a retrieval question that also requires interpretation.

(2017 test paper example question)

It is important for pupils to understand terminology associated with non-fiction texts, e.g.

This was not tested in the 2023 paper but has been in previous papers. I have therefore included an example from the 2017 paper below.

How many pupils are regularly asked about the gist? How many pupils are asked to read texts and decide for themselves what an appropriate title / subheading should be? How many pupils use the above terms when answering questions in class?

This was particularly important in some test papers on non-fiction, such as the 2017 paper.

Pupils are likely to be asked 1 mark, 2 mark and 3 mark questions on the nonfiction text. The 2023 paper included a 3 mark question at the end which required pupils to give evidence from the text.

Award 2 marks for either two acceptable points, or one acceptable point with evidence.

It is important that the pupil recognises that it is the positive messages ‘Harriet wants readers to understand’ not just positive messages contained or gleaned from the text as a whole.

Another common question format in the reading paper is a matching exercise. The majority (more than 75%) of pupils correctly answered this question. It does draw attention to the need for pupils to be familiar with numerical information in non-fiction texts.

Questions related to text 3

Text 3 is 890 words. The story extract begins with Innis Munro hearing a wolf-like howl, which shouldn’t be possible because there are no wolves on the island. He encounters a wolf and a strange, unfriendly boy. It combines elements of mystery and adventure.

Inner dialogue is important in understanding many stories and is very relevant to this text. This includes recognising when the character is trying to convince themselves of something as part of inner dialogue. For example:

To some pupils, it may not be obvious when inner dialogue is occurring. Sometimes there may be a direct clue, e.g. ‘he thought’ ‘he told himself’. Sometimes it is less obvious.

Pupils need to be able to make the link between what the character is thinking and feeling with the actions they are taking, e.g. turning in full circle and scanning the landscape are related to the nervousness the character was feeling.

Pupils also need to be able to track different events as the story unfolds. For example, recognising that when it says ‘Closer this time’ it is the noise of the wolf howls that the author is referring to.

The author builds tension in a number of ways, including describing the howls, e.g. bloodcurdling, and leading the reader to understand that the howls are coming from different directions and moving closer / further away.

How does quantity of reading impact on the pupils' ability to comprehend the third text? Pupils who study stories form a ‘story construction’ point of view will benefit not only when they come to write their own stories, but also when they are reading stories.

It is very difficult for pupils to be successful in the examination unless they read many stories. This requires a commitment by schools, pupils and parents to invest in the ‘quantity’ of reading as well as quality of stories. For pupils struggling with the speed of reading may find reading at home laborious and unpleasurable. For these pupils, much can be gained from supplementing hardcopy books with audio books. With greater exposure to many short stories, pupils are likely to be exposed to: different settings; different types of plot; different ways the author may build tension; how the author mixes together character thoughts, feelings, actions, description (etc). As pupils move through KS2 it is important to read both short stories and novels, and to read stories set in different eras (as the language structure and vocabulary is often very different in ‘classics’ compared to modern day stories).

Vocabulary: There are some words in the 2023 paper that pupils may be unfamiliar with, and as such find them challenging, e.g. silhouette, boggy, rasping, ooze, probed, mainlander, bleak, ridiculous, actually, muster, whirled, splayed, unmistakable, haul.

32% of the marks were attached to text three. 3 marks related to words in context, 2 marks related to retrieval, 10 marks linked to inference, and 1 mark associated with summarising.

The percentage of pupils attempting the questions dropped. Typically the end of the paper is designed to be more challenging than the early questions. And the text is generally harder.

Pupils particularly found questions 30, 32a, 32b, 36, 37, 38 difficult to answer correctly.

Question 30:

A number of pupils failed to correctly identify both things that made it hard for Innis to trust his own senses, and a number of pupils only ticked one box.

Question 32b requires the pupil to understand the evidence in the story that leads them to think that Innis is worried. Not only that, but that as the howls continue, his feelings of worry continue and grow.

The question asks pupils to give evidence that Innis was worried after the first wolf how:

· Innis stopping – it made him stop in his tracks.

· Innis speeding up – he started to walk faster.

· Innis being able to hear his heart beating.

· Innis reassuring himself that there were no wolves in Scotland.

· Innis listening intently, he listened carefully.

When reading stories, pupils often have to draw on their experiences, e.g. of being worried or frightened and how it makes them feel or how it might make them act.

The question asks pupils to give evidence that Innis was worried after the second wolf how:

· Innis holding his breath – caught his breath and held it.

· Innis stopping – he stopped again.

· Innis turning in full circle to check his surroundings / scan the area.

· Reference to ‘bloodcurdling’ sound of the howl.

· He reassured himself.

Pupils were not credited in part b for saying he walked faster because the question relates to specific point in the story, not just evidence that he was worried.

Question 33 is another example of when pupils had to be specific, this time about how they knew the wolf was moving. Three elements were acceptable: points that referenced the sound of the howl getting closer or being further away from Innis; points about the changes to the volume of the howl, and the howl coming from different places, directions, everywhere. No credit was given from just stating ‘he could hear it’, ‘because of the sound’, or 'by the howls’ as there were too general.

Many pupils struggled with question 36:

A considerable number of pupils either did not attempt this question or failed to gain full marks. Some pupils thought about why Innis might have been surprised ‘by’ the boy, rather than surprised ‘to see’ the boy. For example:

Or they focused on what was surprising ‘about the boy’ rather than Innis being surprised to see the boy e.g.

This illustrates the importance of pupils being able to read and fully understand the question, particularly pupils who generally struggle with reading tests.

The examiners accepted answers from four different angles:

  • The remoteness and difficulty of the terrain, e.g. the boy was in the middle of nowhere, it was far from settlements, the landscape was desolate.

  • The appearance of the boy was sudden, e.g. he arrived unexpectedly;

  • Innis was expecting to see a wolf rather than a boy;

  • Points related to it getting dark / poor weather conditions.

One of the questions near the end of the paper is typically a three mark question that requires evidence and perhaps asks a challenging inference question, e.g. about the personality of the character. In this paper, it was question 38. Pupils achieved marks across the range of 0, 1, 2 and 3 marks.

Personality points the examiners were looking for included:

  • He is unfriendly / rude / surly – unfriendly eyes, strode off without another word, didn’t look at Innis when he was speaking.

  • Independent / brave / calm – he was on his own in a desolate environment, he was not concerned that he was walking towards a wolf, he didn’t seem shocked that there was a wolf.

  • He is curious – he asks questions about the wolf, he stops when Innis mentions the wolf.

  • He is mysterious / strange – he doesn’t talk much, he appeared out of nowhere,

  • He is secretive / defensive – ‘What’s it to you?’, strode off without another word.

  • He is determined / single minded – he was only interested in the wolf, he only interacted with Innis when he thought he had information about the wolf.

Is this a question that your pupils struggled with?

Inference usually fits into three main categories:

Actionswhy does a character do this action (motives / feelings / character traits) – how do you know – give examples?

Feelingshow do you know they feel like this (e.g surprised, worried) – give examples or evidence from the text (to support your answer)?

Impressionwhat type of person / character / object / place do you think this is and what clues/evidence is there to support your impression?

Sometimes the inference might be about AN OBJECT – What does the character think it is? Is there anything unusual about the object? What clues are there as to what the object is? Does the characters interpretation/view of the object change during the story?

Sometimes the inference might be about A PLACE – What type of place is it, e.g. spooky, dangerous, safe. What does it say in the text that gives you this impression or what makes the character think it is this type of place.

Sometimes the inference is about a PERSON – What are the motives and feelings? Why do they act in a certain way? What type of character are they?

Sometimes the inference is about an EVENT – What factors led to something happening / why do you think this happened?

You may wish to dig deeper into how pupils make progress with developing inference skills (see separate blog).


Across all the papers:

  • Pupils must be exposed to a wide range of different types of text.

  • They must read texts as well as hear texts read aloud.

  • They must use plenty of non-fiction in their wider studies.

  • Group work and pair work with a focus on high quality discussion, and opportunities to work collaboratively on the construction of high quality answers, may be beneficial to pupils.

  • Many children can explain verbally but then struggle to construct a written answer. Therefore there must be plenty of opportunity for them to write.

  • Lots of classroom talk, particularly about VISUALISATION and how clues in the text can be used to imagine the scene. There is a need for this visualisation sometimes to be very specific, depending on what the author has written.

  • Lots of classroom talk about characters feelings, motivates and actions.

  • A focus on ‘show not tell’ in stories.

  • Awareness of how author’s use character ‘inner dialogue’ in stories. That stories are often a mix of thoughts, dialogue, description, and action.

  • Ability to track and understand complex dialogue.

  • Excellent understanding of pronouns and alternative nouns.

  • Excellent understanding of subordinating conjunctions.

  • VOCABULARY – teach strategies for working out the meaning of vocabulary. Encourage independent reading to ensure pupils are exposed to a high volume of words in different contexts.

  • EVIDENCEING – make sure pupils regularly are asked to pick out evidence from a text to support their answer.

  • Studying author’s style and the techniques used is beneficial and learning to ‘read like a writer’. Unpicking paragraphs and sentences, and evaluating the impact of literary techniques such as similes is useful for the development of writing as well as reading.

  • There are often overlays in success / difficulties with elements of the grammar paper and the reading paper.

  • Ensure teaching focuses on inference (including inference across a series of sentences and inference in nonfiction texts).

  • Quite often the non-fiction text involves elements of persuasion. Pupils who appreciate different motives and goals authors may have for creating a nonfiction text may be better prepared for whatever the nature if of the nonfiction text.

Part 5: Typical question stems to help you write your own questions

Inferences, impressions and retrieving information – example questions from 2016 paper


What impressions of the island do you get from these two paragraph?

…they crossed the glassy surface of the lake. Give two impressions this gives you of the water.


How can you tell that Maria was very keen to get to the island?

Why did Oliver find it hard to read the inscription on the monument?

How do you know that Martine wanted to keep this ride a secret?

What evidence is there of Martine being stubborn in the way she behaved with her grandmother?

What evidence is there of Marine being determined when she met the warthogs?

Explain what this description suggests about baby warthogs.

What evidence is there that warthogs can be dangerous? Give two examples.

Why was she so triumphant?

Do you think that Martine will change her behaviour on future giraffe rides? Explain your choice fully, using evidence from the text.

In what ways might Martine’s character appeal to many readers? Explain fully, referring to the text in your answer.

According to the text, how did the discovery of the dodos’ bones help to change the image of the dodo?

Retrieving and recording information from the text

What did he have to do to read the inscription?

What were Martine’s grandmother’s rules about riding the giraffe?

What helped Martine to get safely on Jemmy’s back after the warthogs attached?


Give two reasons why Mauritius was a paradise for animals before humans arrived.

Give two reasons why the dodo became extinct after humans arrived.

Why were artists’ drawings from the time of the dodo not always accurate?

Question stems from 2017 paper examples

22 marks come from domain: Make inferences from the text / explain and justify inferences with evidence from the text.

14 marks come from domain: Retrieve and record information / identify key details from fiction and non-fiction.

10 marks come from domain: Give / explain the meaning of words in context.

Vocabulary / definitions

What does secured her feet and hands mean?

Look at the paragraph beginning: She knew the universal rule... What does the word universal tell you about the rule?

She resettled on the branch, considering her options. What does considering her options mean in this sentence?

Nearly twenty-two hours later, the exhausted man staggered onto French soil at Calais and became an instant hero. Find and copy two different words from the sentence above that show how tired Matthew Webb was.

Look at the paragraph beginning: Twenty-seven-year-old Webb… Find and copy one word from this paragraph that is closest in meaning to ‘motivated’.

Find and copy a group of words that tells you that the drinks of ale, brandy and beef tea given to Matthew Webb would be considered unusual today.

Find and copy one word which shows that swimming the Channel is illegal in France

…like a toy sitting on a glass table. What does this description suggest about the boat?

Find and copy two different words that show Michael enjoyed the feeling of the cool water.

Inference / explaining

Why does Gaby do this?

In what way does Gaby think the cat is out of luck?

What does Gaby think that the cat is trying to say when it meows?

What are three ways the cat shows it does not enjoy Gaby trying to rescue it? (interpreting the meaning of actions)

David Walliams was determined to be successful in his attempt to swim the English Channel. Give one piece of evidence from the text which shows this. (interpreting actions)

What was unusual for Michael about this day?

How is the whale made to seem mysterious? Explain two ways, giving evidence from the text to support your answer.

When Michael touched the whale it felt smooth. (a) According to the text on page 9, why might he have expected it to feel smooth? (b) According to the text on page 10, why might he not have expected it to feel smooth?

Where was the whale?

Look at the paragraph beginning: Carefully, Michael leaned... What does this paragraph tell you about Michael’s character?

The whale did not seem to be alarmed by meeting Michael. How can you tell this from its actions? Give two ways.

Like a sleeper waking from a dream, he looked around, dazed. This tells us that at the end of the story Michael felt that…

Retrieval questions / get detail from the text

Why had Gaby climbed the tree the previous summer?

Gaby thinks she makes two mistakes while trying to rescue the cat. What is the first mistake that Gaby makes while trying to rescue the cat?

Look at the paragraph beginning: Well, she’d just have to not fall... The cat was too shiny. Too chubby. What conclusion does Gaby draw from this?

Give one piece of advice that Gaby’s mother gives her for dealing with cats.

Gaby uses the Spanish word gato for cat. Who else in the story speaks Spanish?

What event made Matthew Webb want to swim the English Channel?

Name two of the hardships that Matthew Webb faced in swimming the English Channel and explain how he dealt with them.

Why do slow Channel swimmers swim further than faster swimmers?

How long did the fastest swim across the Channel take?

In what year did the French authorities make it illegal for people to swim from France to England?

Question stems from 2018 paper examples

22 marks come from domain: Make inferences from the text / explain and justify inferences with evidence from the text.

13 marks come from domain: Retrieve and record information / identify key details from fiction and non-fiction.

10 marks come from domain: Give / explain the meaning of words in context.

Vocabulary / definitions

Find and copy one word which shows there are lots of things we do not yet know about giant pandas. (Answer : puzzling)

…cutting off vital food supply. What does the word vital mean in this sentence? (options given)

Look at the second headed: What about the future? Find and copy one word that shows that helping the giant panda is not easy. (Answer : challenging)

Find and copy one word from the first verse that shows that the poet’s grannie made him feel safe when he was a boy. (Answer : protective – although also could have had engulf, warm and smile)

Find and copy a group of words that means the same as ‘took the opportunity’. (Answer : seized the chance)

She came. And I still vividly recall… What do the words vividly recall mean? (Answer: remembers clearly or strongly remembers or remembers as if it was happening now)

Left to my own devices… This means Edward… (options provided).

When Edward was exploring the bookcase, he noticed something in the dark recesses of the shelf. Which of the following words is closest in meaning to recesses (options provided).

Inference / explaining questions

Pandas grow up to 1.5 metres and weigh up to 150 kilograms. What else in the text tells us that giant pandas could be dangerous animals. (Answer: razor-like claws and powerful jaws)

The poet describes his grannie as standing mountainous between me and my fear. This makes her sound big and powerful. What other impressions do you get of his grannie in the same verse?

Explain what the poet finds ‘weird’ about his grannie in the last verse.

What is one thing that did not change about his grannie as he got older.

Find and copy a group of words that shows that his grannie makes a difference to the poet during her visit.

Tick the two verses that are mainly about the poet’s adult life.

What suggests that inside the old farmhouse was not very well looked after?

Find and copy one word which shows that Em Sharp was in charge of the house.

How can you tell that Edward was determined to find the game? Give one piece of evidence that shows his determination.

What impression do you get of Em Sharp at this point in the extract? Give two impressions, using evidence from the text to support your answer.

In the last paragraph, Edward does not want to give the game to Em Sharp. Give two reasons why he does not want to part with it.

Edward found a game. How can you tell that there is something strange about the game. Explain two ways, using evidence form the text to support your answer.

2023 paper – Example question stems

23 marks come from domain: Make inferences from the text / explain and justify inferences with evidence from the text.

16 marks come from domain: Retrieve and record information / identify key details from fiction and non-fiction.

9 marks come from domain: Give / explain the meaning of words in context.

Vocabulary questions

Find and copy one word that is closest to meaning ‘eat’.

Find and copy one word which means ‘a group of bats living together’.

Which of the following (tick the box) is the closest in meaning to vulnerable (answer ‘at risk’).

What does ‘pressed on’ mean in this context?

‘The Barrens’ was the name for… (tick one).

It was the unmistakable silhouette of a wolf. Which of the following is closest to unmistakable (answer – definite).

Retrieval questions

Number the locations 1-4 to show the order in which Priya thought she heard the vehicles travel.

True / false questions, e.g. The binoculars belonged to Priya. At the beginning of the story, Priya know what had woken her up.

In which American state is the Congress Avenue Bridge found?

What else attracts bats to Texas?

According to Harriet, why did some people in Auston dislike bats?

How can you tell that Harriet thinks insects are pests?

Link the two pieces of information (e.g. an amount on the left such as fifteen thousand, and a fact on the right).

Inference / explaining questions

How can you tell Priya was feeling nervous? Write two ways.

Why did Priya find it surprising to hear two vehicles drive by?

How can you tell the moonlight was very bright?

Why does Abby say this to Priya?

Write one piece of evidence that shows Abby was shocked by what she saw.

Why was Abby worried?

How can you tell Innis was familiar with the area?

How can you tell the wolf was moving all the time?

Why else might Innis have been surprised to see the boy?

Why did Innis want to know where the boy was going?

What do you learn about the boy’s personality? Give two things, using evidence from the text to support you.

You can also download a copy FREE of the 2017 and 2018 Reading paper analysis from the shop.

Thanks for reading.

You can book professional dialogue and training sessions for reading leaders by contacting Sessions can be as short as 90 minutes, or a programme of continued support throughout the year. Get in touch to see how I can help.

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