“Those who do want to imitate anything produce nothing.” Salvador Dali
There’s a certain brand of motivational quote that really gets my goat (or I should more accurately say, gets my goat more than any other type of motivational quote gets my goat). It’s the banal creativity quote. The epitome of these is by Herman Melville – “It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.” Really, Melvin? Really? Is it so terrible to take the great and the good and the wonderful, to assimilate it, to learn from it and make something of it that just might approach the original greatness? Or should all instead be creative failures, basking in originality from our pit of despair?
Look, I’m all for creativity, I really am, but as Voltaire wrote, “Originality is nothing but judicious imitation.” Originality doesn’t kick imitation to the floor and stamp on its fingers; originality stands upon the shoulders of imitation, holding her hands lest she topple to the ground. Nobody gets plucked from nothingness and perched on the peaks of creativity; we all must traverse those mountain paths, well-worn by those knowledgeable and creative minds that came before (and beware straying too far from those paths, my friend; there are wolves in those hills) on our journey to the summit, that heady air beyond the clouds. Which is long-winded way of saying that copying the good stuff ain’t so bad really. And which leads me to the title of this blog: Reading Response Frames.
There were times as a teacher when I would despair at the way children would answer reading comprehension questions. They would know an answer but communicate it such a half-formed, chewed-up, upside, round-about way that you’d need the deductive skills of Sherlock Holmes to make any sense it. There’d by half-formed sentences, ill-chosen vocabulary, or a meandering excursion around the outskirts of a point, but failing it to take in the sights. At times like these, it wasn’t their comprehension that was lacking, it was their ability to explain that understanding to others. And what use that understanding if children can’t communicate it to others?
I tried several things. We looked at mark schemes and applied the general principle that a 3 mark answer might require three points to be made. And, on a good day, I get the same point made three times in three sentences with different words in each. Or on a bad day, the same point made three times but with the same words in a different order. We tried PEEing, but like a drunk at a 2am urinal, most of it ended up on the floor. The problem with PEE (make your Point, give Evidence from the text, and Explain the evidence) is that it is too generic a scaffold to respond to all questions. Each question requires a different type of response and shoehorning a singularly structured response to all is akin to Cinderella’s stepsisters cutting off their toes and heels to make them fit the slipper. It’s messy and doesn’t end well for them. What we want is to scaffold children’s responses, but we want those scaffolds to be flexible enough to support children’s responses to a range of questions, and this is where Reading Response Frames comes in.
There’s nothing new about my Reading Response frames. I don’t claim some unique insight, and similar frames have no doubt been used to scaffold children’s talk and writing since the dawn of time, but I hope I can add something to the discourse. In a nutshell, a Reading Response Frame is a sentence scaffold which children use to scaffold a response to a reading comprehension question. [fig.1]
Let’s imagine our question was: What strange vision does Macbeth see at the feast, and why does he see it? Children would use the above frame to scaffold an answer. Anything inside square brackets and labeled [x], [y] or [z] provides the space in which children can develop their answer, keeping the grammatical frame of the sentence in tact, in this case, using a relative clause beginning with the conjunction which, and using a comma correctly to demarcate the two clauses. Using the frame, a child might compose the response in [fig.2]. Please note that the colours in the sentence are my Rainbow Grammar notation, which many schools use to teach sentence structure systematically throughout the primary age range. If you don’t use Rainbow Grammar in your school (and you really should, so get in touch for training). then simply present sentences in black.
Looking back at [fig.1] you can see that the word shows is underlined. this indicates a word that we can swap out for another more precise word. The teacher would provide children with these variations, as in [fig.3].
This example shows that we can replace shows with variations that weakly show (implies, suggests), more neutrally show (conveys, depicts, illustrates, portrays) or strongly show (emphasises, reinforces, underlines). The word that is in brackets to indicate that we may or may not need to use it, depending upon our completed sentence and which variation we select: our answer in [fig.2] did not require it. So, children might use the variations to redraft their sentences as in [fig.4], sharpening their vocabulary up a little in the process.
I have provided a bank of 32 Reading Response as a downloadble PDF at the end of this post (but please don’t skip to the end just yet), with each frame laid out, the frame itself in red, and with vocabulary variations and example responses as in [fig.5].
The frames are divided into several categories, aimed at scaffolding children’s responses to different types of questions:
- first impressions and digging deeper
- examining structure
- locating evidence
- finding the main idea
- contrasting and comparing
- analysing vocabulary
- expressing opinion
- exploring character
I do not claim that these frames are the only sentence scaffolds you will ever need, so feel free to create others. (Please let me know if you do, so I can add it to the bank to share with others.) I rarely use them as is, and tweak the frame to suit the question I am asking (more on that later), so mess around with them as you see fit. Not all frames will be of use to all age groups. I’ve tried to include frames that are simpler and might be used with younger children in key stage 1 and those that are more complex and can be used with older children in key stage 2.
Used well, I think the frames do a few useful things.
First, and most important, they scaffold children’s thinking about their reading. Children often provide answers to questions using simple sentence structures and use fuzzy vocabulary, and simple sentence patterns and fuzzy vocabulary often indicate simple and fuzzy thinking about the text. If we want children to think in in more complex ways, we want them to use complex sentence patterns. The Writing Revolution’s popular ‘but, because, so’ strategy is perhaps the most widely known approach to improve children’s thinking about subject content through the addition of compound and complex patterns using three conjunctions. It’s a wonderful strategy, and you should use it, but the one thing that strikes me about the approach is that it focuses solely on three simple conjunctions (admittedly, three of the most useful and most powerful) that are already the most frequently used (bar and, of course) both in children’s speaking and their writing. But there are other conjunctions, relative pronouns and linking adverbs found in writing (and rarely in everyday speech) that help to scaffold children’s thinking further still, and add nuance and subtlety: that, which, as, when, after, as soon as, whenever, while, by the time, although, whereas, despite, as much as, therefore, consequently, nevertheless, etc. These devices are all used in the Reading Response frames in the downloadable PDF.
Second, they provide a meaningful opportunity for applying sentence structure. For many children, particularly those who are not avid readers, accurate and varied sentence structure doesn’t come easily. They need copious amounts of practice of increasingly complex sentence structures to add them to their writerly toolkit. And grammar oughtn’t to be some abstract idea with no practical application. It should be grounded in meaningful content; we use grammar to express complex thoughts more precisely about this content. And the Reading Response included in the PDF develop much of the grammar specified in the primary national curriculum: coordination and coordinating conjunctions, adverbial clauses and subordinating conjunctions, relative clauses and relative pronouns, fronted adverbials and linking adverbs.
Third, through the use of vocabulary variations, they encourage children to use more precise language to express their thoughts. Instead of my first thoughts about, they might use my initial impression of; instead of the most important bit they might use pivotal moment; instead of makes us think of they might use indicates, evokes or even evinces.
And fourth, and a point that cannot be understated, it gives children a sense of achievement and pride. Children, who otherwise might struggle to express their thinking using complex sentence structures and precise vocabulary, are supported to produce spoken and written responses that sound and read more eloquently.
I use the following sequence, when using Reading Response Frames with children:
- ask and navigate the question
- search for, record and discuss useful information from the text
- show and navigate the the Reading Response Frame
- model using the basic frame (orally / written)
- children use the basic frame (orally / written)
- share children’s responses
- introduce variations and redraft answers
Let’s explore this sequence in more depth using a practical example, an example I used with Year 5 children at Albany Junior School in Nottinghamshire. We were studying Macbeth, using a narrative version by Beverly Birch in her wonderful Shakespeare’s Stories anthology. We had read her narrative retelling of Act I Scene V in which Lady Macbeth receives a letter from her husband informing her of the witches’ prophecies, and later steels Macbeth to the dastardly deeds which must be done to bring those prophecies about. The text is provided in [fig.6]. (Click the text to see a full-sized version.)
As a side note, when teaching reading comprehension, do number the lines in the source text. Nothing quite wastes time like children trying to locate a piece of information within a text that you want to direct their attention to. “Everyone look at line17, please” is such a simple time saver.
Step 1: Ask and Navigate the Question.
As part of the lesson, I wanted children to explore the emotions, tensions and dynamics between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth when they meet at the end of the scene, so I posed the twin questions in [fig.7]
I asked the same question twice, shifting the focus from Macbeth to Lady Macbeth, which allowed me to guide the children through the first question, and then allow them to apply the sentence structure independently to the second question. Note, the introductory fronted adverbial phrase: in one beautiful sentence. In Reading Reconsidered (Lemov, Driggs nd Woolway), an essential read for those interested in improving your reading comprehension teaching, they write:
If you are packing for a trip and have a dozen suitcases to fill, you can leave plenty of space in each. Just toss everything in. But if you have just one bag, you must cleverly tuck small items into larger ones and roll bulky items into tight spirals to fir the space available. Sentences are similar. If you can use an unlimited number of words to express an idea, there is no pressure on your technique. But if you have just one sentence with which to capture an important and complex idea – well, then, as with that suitcase, you must roll and and tuck ideas deftly into the corners of the sentence.
The Reading Response frames are an attempt to encourage children to pack things deftly into s single sentence rather than use as many suitcases as they wish, to craft complex multi-clause structures rather than to string together simple sentences. As such, I often begin questions that require longer responses with a phrase such as in one beautiful sentence or in a single well-crafted sentence. We read the question, ensure they know what it asking and where to look for the answer (I know, it says so in the question, but you can’t take any chances) and move onto the next step. In this question, we explored the phrase ‘how Macbeth is feeling’. We explored how we might know how somebody is sad or happy or angry – through what they might say or do – and so looking for the things that Macbeth says or does might give us a clue to his emotional state.
Step 2: Search for, Record and Discuss useful Information From the Text
At this point, I want children to read the section of text in which useful information is to be found and to record that information. If children are to write a longer, more complex answer to a question, having children record the information they will need to drop into that response makes the process that much simpler, so I explained that these notes would help us to craft a longer, well-written response later in the lesson. I don’t need complete sentences at this point, so typically provide something in which they can organise and record their thoughts, in this case the simple table in [fig.8].
In retrospect, next time I’d place the feeling row last, as children would need to search the text for what the characters say and do before inferring how they felt. Children searched for evidence, filling in the second and third rows of the table for Macbeth only. We then discussed what we might infer about Macbeth’s feelings through these actions and dialogue. I wanted children to use the more formal nominative abstract nouns rather than adjectives so recapped this briefly (they’d be taught this recently), making sure they used anger rather than angry, fear rather than scared. This would make their fully formed written responses read more eloquently later on. [fig.9] shows one the table completed by one of the children, Lillie.
You can see that Lillie has used abstract nouns to record the feelings of both characters, and draws out key actions and quotes from the text to support her thinking.
Step 3: Show and Navigate the Reading Response Frame
Now we have our notes, we are ready to explore the format in which they will compose their longer response. I used the Reading Response Frame in [fig.10], which can be found in the Reasoning section of the downloadable PDF.
Now, I’d never show children the raw version of the frame; it’s simply too abstract so always tailor it to the specific question being asked. I actually presented a more friendly version in [fig.11]. These children were familiar with rainbow Grammar hence the coloured notation.
There was no need to provide then with the option for [x] as all answers would require the use of Macbeth. I separated out says and does because I wanted it to be clear that I wanted both actions and dialogue used as evidence; the children would use rows 2 and 3 of their tables to record this. And [z] has become [feeling] in which they can use the abstract nouns they recorded in row one of the table.
Step 4: Model Using the Basic Frame (Orally / Written)
If children are to use the frames well, then they will need them carefully modelled, so that they know which elements to use from the frame, and where and how to drop in their own ideas and evidence from the text. I will often do this orally first, modelling and reading the frame aloud.
“I need to start my sentence with Macbeth. Now I need to say what he does that shows us how he is feeling. My table will be useful here. I’ve made a note that Lady Macbeth can’t look into Lady Macbeth’s eyes, so I can use this: ‘Macbeth cannot look into his wife’s eyes’. Next, the frame says I need to include what Macbeth says. let’s look at my notes again. He says ‘We will speak further’ which you remember means ‘we’ll talk about it later’ so I can add that, so I now have: Macbeth cannot look into his wife’s eyes and says, ‘We will speak further’. OK, now I need to add the relative clause, using ‘which shows’ and saying how he is feeling. Again, let’s look at the table. I can see that I wrote ‘fear’, ‘nervousness and ‘uncertainty’. Fear and nervousness mean almost the same thing, so I think ‘uncertainty’ is the closest to what Macbeth is feeling, so I will use that, so I can say ‘which shows his uncertainty’. if I put everything together I have, ‘Macbeth cannot look into his wife’s eyes and says ‘We will speak further’, which shows his uncertainty.'”
We then co-constructed a written version as a class, so I might show them how to improve our initial idea, perhaps changing cannot look into his wife’s eyes to the more eloquent cannot meet his wife’s gaze, showing the children how to correctly write a quotation from the text in their answer.
Step 5: Children Use the Basic Frame (Orally / Written)
The children now orally compose their sentence. Paired work is useful here, giving the chance for children to try out their response, weave in the information they’d like to include from their notes, receive feedback and rework things orally until they are satisfied and commit the response to paper. They then write their first draft of the answer, using the frame and drawing upon the evidence they wanted to use from their table. And so onto…
Step 6: Share children’s responses
Now we can share responses as a class, drawing attention to successful responses. As children shared their responses, others could see that some children had used two abstract nouns in their relative clause (shows his fear and uncertainty). Children can now redraft their answers, rephrasing or adding ideas that they have magpied from around the room. And we are at the final step.
Step 6: Introduce variations
In the Reading Response Frame [fig.11] that children have been using to scaffold their answers we have thus far ignored the fact that the word shows is underlined and everyone has used this word as part of their response. But now that all children have a well-crafted written response, we can now introduce some simple variations. [fig.12]
Some variations are simpler than others. One of the Reading Response Frames encourages children to use variations of the word use (The author uses the word…). These include employs and utilises, both of which are direct synonyms and don’t change the essential meaning of the sentence, but only the formality. So, these are simple to use. However, in the [fig.12] example, the choice of word subtly shifts the emphasis, so we discussed whether Macbeth’s actions and words strongly showed his nervousness or anxiety (or whichever abstract noun the individuals had used), or whether it wasn’t that clear. And if the children did felt that the the actions neither strongly nor weakly showed Macbeth’s feelings, they could select a more neutral word. And we discussed individual words: that illustrates means to draw, so the author is drawing us a picture in words; that reinforces comes from the word force so the author is forcefully showing us; and that we underline things to make them stand out, so underlines is the author making Macbeth’s feelings really stand out to the reader. And the children, selected the word they thought best replaced shows in their responses [figs.13, 14, 15].
If the responses of the children were all but identical (and they are), that’s fine. These were heavily scaffolded, including teacher modelling and co-construction. They then worked more independently to answer the same question about Lady Macbeth [figs.16, 17, 18].
Working more independently, the children’s responses, while still having the frame as their core, now draw upon different quotations and highlight Lady Macbeth’s actions in a more varied fashion. And there you have it, children’s responses have been carefully scaffolded and allowed them to produce answers that respond directly to the question, draw upon solid sentence structure, weave in evidence from the text and use more precise vocabulary to better express their thoughts.
A second (Briefer) Example
Later, when reading Beverly Birch’s retelling of Act IV, Scene I, in which Macbeth revisits the witches to have them explain their prophecies, I wanted the children understand which visions appear to Macbeth, what they foretell, how Macbeth reacts to each, and why he does so. The question I put to them is this [fig.19]:
There is a lot to this question and expecting the children to craft a single sentence that explains all four visions and the differing reactions Macbeth has to each would have resulted in a very long-winded answer, so it made sense to answer the question for each vision at a time. And it gave children four chances to use the Reading Response Frame and practise composing sentences using the multi-clause structures that would scaffold their responses. We broke the investigative element of the question into two sections: first, which visions appeared and what did they foretell [fig.20] and second, how did Macbeth react and why [fig.21]. This allowed us to break down a complex question in manageable chunks, and check understanding of the first element before moving onto the next.
The table not only provides children with a structured way of recording their initial thoughts, but also indicates the lines in which they ought to look. Once we had discussed these initial thoughts, I introduced the Reading Response Frame. I drew upon one of the more complex sequencing frames [fig.22].
Again, I didn’t show the frame in its raw form, but rather in a more friendly iteration that was adapted to respond to the specifics of the question being asked. [fig.23]
You can see that I have taken the introductory adverbial clause When [w], and made it more specific to the question by rephrasing it as When the vision of [description] appears. This keeps children’s thoughts focussed on the description of the vision, something they have already recorded in the first table [fig.20]. I then added an additional non-finite clause, saying that [prophecy]. This addition allowed children to explain what the prophecy foretold, again drawing upon the ideas recorded in the first table. [character x] from the raw frame has become Macbeth, as there is no need for children’s input here. does / says / thinks / feels [y] has more simply become [reacts] because it is Macbeth’s reaction to the vision that needs to be drawn out in the children’s answers. And the end of the frame remains the same as the raw version. And for the latter part of their responses children can draw upon their recordings in the table shown in [fig.21].
I decided not to introduce the vocabulary variations for when and because shown in the raw frame, because instead I introduced a new variation, improved vocabulary for the reporting phrase saying that [fig. 24].
It’s a complex frame, making use of four interlinked clauses, but as the children know the individual clause structures from Rainbow Grammar teaching and so can write adverbial and non-finite clauses in their sleep, they are able to construct these complex responses with relative ease, all the while selecting and feeding in their evidence and ideas. One set of responses for each vision is shown in [fig.25]. Click on the image to view a larger version.
Reading Response Frames to Download
Reading Response Frames can be a powerful way to support children who might struggle to communicate complex ideas both orally and in writing, to structure their thinking. Using the same frames multiple times to answer different questions in different texts provides children with extensive practice and helps them to embed grammatically correct and complex sentence structures. Of course, like any scaffold, the frames are not the end goal. We want children to be able to organise their thoughts coherently without the use of sentence frames of any kind, but as a step on the journey towards that independence, they can be a valuable too.
A full set of the Reading Response Frames is included below. Click on the image to download the full PDF. If you find the frames useful, or develop your own frames, let me know in the comments below and I can make them available to all. And should you wish me to support your school in developing the use of frames, or with the teaching of reading comprehension or sentence structure more widely, please get in touch using the contact form.