Author Pete Ellison explores the motivation and approach taken by the Catapult team during the development of the new Catapult resources.
At a time when the demands of external assessment at KS2 and GCSE have never been higher, we know that many young people are not regularly reading for pleasure (recent research by the National Literacy trust found a significant drop in reading enjoyment between the ages of eight and 16, especially for boys http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-40091650 ). This results in many secondary students who, in other ways are far from unintelligent, arriving in Year 7 with poor vocabulary development and limited knowledge of the world preventing them from reading with the level of understanding that they need to succeed. The Catapult series was designed with these students in mind.
These students are often keen and willing to learn but their poor comprehension of more demanding texts prevents them from making the kind of progress they need to catch up with their peers. We wanted to develop a programme that would support them by providing what they needed most:
- A wide range of engaging, high-quality texts dealing with some of the most important contemporary issues, adding to their general knowledge
- Sophisticated and useful vocabulary (especially Tier 2) that they could incorporate into their writing straight away
- Approaches to enable them to comprehend more complex syntax, especially in nineteenth century texts.
The aim was to provide these students with ways into more demanding and fulfilling reading by giving them tasks which tackle any difficulties head on. The programme would be anything but dumbed down!
So we set about finding engaging texts of the right length and complexity. We wanted every text to be an example of writing of the highest quality – so you’ll find some Dickens and other classic texts in there alongside contemporary writers such as Maggie O’Farrell. Once those were in place, we asked ourselves what barriers might prevent students from fully comprehending them. We then designed the tasks and questioning to address those barriers – making them explicit to the student. We felt that it was important to be honest: if you’re not a good reader, then a Dickens sentence won’t make much sense, so say so and then show them how to make sense of it.
It is generally the case that students who struggle to read mature texts also find it difficult to write convincingly and at length, so in every chapter we have made clear links between reading and writing. Students are encouraged to apply their new vocabulary immediately and, using the texts as models, to try out new writing techniques straight away. These short exercises gradually build until the student is ready to use their newly-learnt techniques and vocabulary in a more sustained piece.
We have tried hard never to patronise students but to be clear about how difficult a piece of reading might be, while giving them the key to unlock its meaning. Consequently, this is often a demanding programme, because, if we want them to catch up, their progress will need to be steep; however, we believe that Catapult’s steady step-by step approach will get them there.
Alongside this expectation of accelerated progress we have endeavoured to give students a sense purpose and achievement. We want them to feel proud of their growing vocabulary and ability to tackle more sophisticated demanding reading as well as their increasing control of written language. Not only that, but we hope that they will enjoy their learning – and who knows, perhaps become lovers of reading!