We’re Not in the Dark!

Lindsay Pickton

Jumping into the unknown

We are all probably familiar with the fear of the blank page when writing: we know that many children experience it; we may even feel it ourselves sometimes.

It’s possible that something similar happens when insecure, struggling, or simply young readers look at a previously-unseen text: a daunting fear of the unknown, and a consequent shut-down of the ability to think and comprehend clearly. The place this may be observed most clearly is in a comprehension assessment: you can watch children who should be just-about able to deal with the level of difficulty become confounded by the task before they’ve even got going. This was the experience for many Year 6 children facing the national test last year. We believe that the same thing may be happening in day-to-day reading: worry about the unknown – what may have to be read and comprehended – stopping some children from launching into even accessible texts.

This could be one explanation for the popularity of familiar and recurring characters, whether those are Max, Cat, Ant and Tiger, or Harry, Hermione and Ron – or the Wimpy Kid or Horrid Henry series…and so on. It tends to be the confident readers who will embrace the unfamiliar and experience greater breadth in their reading; these children will jump into anything – including cross-curricular non-fiction – with a self-fulfilling confidence that contrasts so markedly with the self-destructive fear of the others. They feel secure that they have the skills to deal with whatever the text throws at them.

The experience of starting a new text might be compared with the experience of jumping into a swimming pool: which children are going to leap in gleefully, and which are going to hang back, dip toes nervously, make excuses…?

Finding the clues

When we, as accomplished and experienced readers, approach a new and possibly daunting text – for the sake of example, let’s say a detailed and technical article in The Economist exploring implications of our exit from the EU – we also face the unknown…but it’s not completely unknown, is it? We approach it with some prior knowledge of context and we know that there will be details about the strength of currency, interest rates, commodity prices and property values. We also know that there will likely be some unfamiliar language, but we know that we’ll be able to get the gist, at any rate.

Similarly, a child faced with a story like Asteroid Adventure (OUP Project X) should be able to tell us that the story will involve asteroids, and it will be an adventure; from the cover illustration, it will be clear to them that the plot will involve great and deadly peril, and if they are familiar with the Project X characters, they will know that Tiger will do something daring. If they know anything about asteroids, their prior knowledge will give them even more clues about what this story will contain.

Perhaps we need to make a bigger deal of showing children how activating prior knowledge helps whenever we approach a new piece of text, in any context. Teachers have always been great at encouraging children to make predictions based on cover, blurb, etc etc (and this should never stop); however, here we are talking not about evidence-based speculation but about identifying what can be known as absolute fact before the reading begins. Looking at the title (of the book, the page, the chapter) and any picture/illustrations, what do we know for sure? Where’s it set? Who will be in it? What will they face? Not predictions: knowledge. (We might liken this to the way we’d encourage children to approach a mathematical problem: what do we already know?)

A hand to hold in the dark

We believe confident and successful comprehenders do this more-or-less unconsciously. Most teachers do this so automatically that it may not occur to us to teach it. But in looking at the knowns we are reducing the unknowns; we are reducing the fear. Like beginning a new book but knowing that Horrid Henry will definitely be in it; and knowing exactly the kind of thing he’ll get up to, this knowledge is a toe-hold, a buoyancy-aid, a hand to hold in the dark.


Lindsay Pickton is an experienced Teaching and Learning Advisor specialising in Primary Literacy. He leads inspiring and practical training for all aspects of English teaching, from guided reading to drama and reading for pleasure. Hear from Lindsay at a free event this term, focusing on how effective guided reading using Project X Origins can help you meet the higher standards of the new National Curriculum.

Christine Chen is an experienced Literacy Consultant and Learning and Teaching Advisor, specialising in quality first teaching, curriculum development and leadership coaching. She has held teaching and senior leadership posts. Christine has recently co-authored  Project X Teaching Handbooks for Years 3-4 and Years 5-6.