Reflections on year 6 reading attainment

Written by: Sarah Gibb | Published:
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The key stage 2 national curriculum tests can give us far greater insights than just a scaled score. Sarah Gibb explores what individual question data can tell us about which skills pupils successfully demonstrate in year 6 and which areas prove more challenging

Trying to cover the breadth of the English national curriculum presents a substantial challenge for any year 6 teacher. Determining which aspects of the subject and which skills to focus on during precious literacy time can be difficult: everything seems to warrant attention, especially with the need to be ready for end of key stage national curriculum tests.

To support year 6 teachers with their curriculum planning, the NFER has scrutinised the data and the papers from the 2017 and 2018 key stage 2 national curriculum tests and combined these findings with some of the key diagnostic points from our own year 6 NFER tests.

In this article you will see which skills have generally been well-embedded by the end of primary education, which tend to be a work-in-progress, and which require more substantial focus and teaching.

Pupils can...

One reading skill confidently demonstrated by pupils in the 2018 national curriculum tests was scanning for discrete information in straightforward texts.

Pupils were able to use headings/sub-headings within a text to help locate information, as well as locate information that featured at the very beginning of a text. Pupils were also able to show understanding of the most explicit ideas presented. For instance, 87 per cent were able to draw-out two reasons for pandas being under threat from the given text.

When looking at short sections of text, the majority of pupils were also capable of sequencing events. However, results from the NFER year 6 tests reveal that this capability diminishes when sequencing events across a whole text, especially when ordering less memorable details.

For instance, the autumn test required pupils to identify several things that occurred on a journey and was only answered correctly by nine per cent; in contrast, when dealing with shorter sections of text in the 2017/18 national curriculum tests, 84 per cent gained the mark.

Pupils find it harder to...

One key skill that year 6 pupils are still developing at the end of key stage 2 is inference. Although pupils can often make simple inferences which are grounded in basic general knowledge, many struggle with more demanding inferences. Pupils seem more confident in drawing inferences about character/personality rather than something more abstract, such as the mysterious nature of an animal. This was demonstrated in the both the 2017 and 2018 tests as pupils were more likely to attempt to answer character-based questions.

Many pupils were also able to support characteristics already identified in a question with suitable evidence. However, the diagnostic commentary from the NFER tests highlights that confidence in how to do this differs between ability groups, i.e. whether to paraphrase or use quotations.

Lower achieving pupils appear less likely to lift quotations directly from the text than middle and higher achieving groups, perhaps indicating a lower level of confidence in this area.

Turning now to language, pupils’ ability to identify words or phrases with similar meanings was a little inconsistent. As is to be expected, they were more likely to be able to do this in the context of a multiple-choice question, where the correct answer was offered along with some other, incorrect possibilities.

In the NFER test, for example, almost three-quarters of pupils were able to select synonyms of words such as “draped” and “critically”. In contrast, only 49 per cent of pupils correctly chose “seemed” from a paragraph when asked to identify a word that suggested something may not be true, with almost half of lower achieving pupils not attempting the question.

Pupils find it hardest to...

By the end of year 6, many pupils are still somewhat limited by their vocabulary, which feeds into their ability to explain their inferences. A common error made on both three mark questions in NFER’s year 6 autumn test was providing textual evidence on its own, without also offering an acceptable point. While pupils can identify the evidence and see the text at work, they are unable to synthesise this into a statement which summarises their overall understanding.

Pupils also struggle with making multiple inferences: in the 2018 national curriculum tests, only some pupils were able to make two points about a character’s personality traits. It is quite probable that they struggled to distinguish different traits from each other, such as “understanding” and “tolerant”, which were both on the mark scheme.

Similarly, making inferences about characters’ motivations is difficult, even when texts provide multiple possibilities. This difficulty increases when the question requires pupils to make mental leaps from evidence in the text to explaining a character’s thoughts and feelings, such as in 2018 when only 34 per cent of pupils were able to explain the reasons for a character’s hesitation in a poem. Empathy is clearly a crucial element, so tasks allowing pupils to develop this skill are likely to be beneficial.

Moving forwards

Overall, it is evident that most pupils need to develop their skills and/or resilience when searching for ideas in more extensive texts with fewer structural pointers.

They should therefore be encouraged to draw links and comparisons between information and ideas in disparate, localised sections of texts to allow them to attain a more in-depth and coherent understanding of texts as a whole.

The ability to express ideas, synthesising what they have gleaned from a text into an effective summary, is also a particularly demanding aspect of reading that pupils need support with.

As such, time spent enriching pupils’ vocabularies and providing opportunities for them to practise explaining more abstract concepts can only be helpful, and may prove more fruitful than repeatedly attempting to answer practice question after practice question.

Empathy, too, is a crucial skill, especially when exploring character-based texts, as is the ability to view texts from different angles in order to try to perceive alternative meanings and interpretations.

  • Sarah Gibb is a research manager at the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER). Follow @NFERClassroom

Further information & research

  • For further information on the points raised here, visit the NFER Classroom Assessment Hub to read the free “implications for teaching” summary alongside a series of complementary articles:
  • National curriculum test handbook: 2016 and 2017, Standards and Testing Agency, December 2017.
  • 2018 national curriculum test handbook, Standards and Testing Agency, December 2017.
  • National curriculum assessments: Practice materials (practice materials for the phonics screening check, key stage 1 and key stage 2 national curriculum tests, including past test papers), Standards and Testing Agency (last updated July 2019):
  • NFER tests (autumn): Year 6 reading booklet, NFER, 2019.
  • Year 6 reading diagnostic guide (autumn), NFER, 2019.

NFER Research Insights

This article was published as part of Headteacher Update’s NFER Research Insights series. A free pdf of the latest Research Insights best practice and advisory articles can be downloaded from the Knowledge Bank section of the Headteacher Update website:

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