Parents and NAPLAN: how concerned should you be?

NAPLAN tests in literacy and numeracy will take place on May 14, 15 and 16 for all students in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9.
Both before and after those dates the media will probably feature a fair few negative articles about the test, and you might even wonder whether you should withdraw your child from the testing process.
But how much should you worry?
Firstly, it’s important to understand the purpose of the NAPLAN tests.  They’re designed
• to measure whether Australian students are meeting the outcomes outlined in the Australian Curriculum,
• to provide information about the achievements of individual students so that schools can be specific about meeting their needs, and
• to provide schools and education departments with information about the effectiveness of their educational programs.

Of course you are most interested in the impact on your child, so what’s the deal with NAPLAN?

The important thing to recognise is that NAPLAN assessment is just one part of a school’s assessment program. In no way does it provide a comprehensive picture of your child’s achievement and progress, and nor does it try to. It can, however, provide useful information about aspects of your child’s literacy and numeracy progress which might need further support. Importantly, in analysing the data provided by the NAPLAN results, schools draw on their own more extensive knowledge of individual students as part of their evaluation.
You can be reassured about this because there are various reasons why a child might not ‘perform’ on the day. Perhaps he or she is overly anxious or not feeling well, for instance. For this reason, attaching too much significance to the results can be misleading.
Having said that, I would reiterate that the information derived from NAPLAN can be extremely useful, so how can you help your child to prepare?
• Reassure children, but only if they seem to need that reassurance. If you link NAPLAN with stress, then maybe this will actually create anxiety. You know your child best, and you will know whether or not they need reassurance.
• Play down the significance of the tests, emphasising that they are just one part of the school’s assessment program and explain why they are held.
• Remind children that the focus is on effort, on doing their best, rather than on worrying about results.
• On a practical note, make sure they get a good night’s sleep before the test and a good breakfast in the morning.
Teachers will have shared examples of NAPLAN tests so that children are familiar with them. They will probably have practised answering questions.
There are four individual tests. The first one tests children’s knowledge of language conventions (spelling, grammar and punctuation); the second one asks children to complete a piece of persuasive writing on a particular topic; the third one tests reading skills, and the final one tests numeracy. The specific skills that are being tested reflect the Australian Curriculum.
Otisa offers children the opportunity to practise the skills described in the Australian Curriculum.


Whoever said ‘You can’t judge a book by its cover’?

‘Good’ readers already know a great deal about a book before they begin to read it.

They look at the title of the book.

  • They ask themselves ‘What might this book be about?’
  • They ask themselves if it reminds them of anything else they’ve read before.

They look at the picture on the cover to discover more information.

  • Perhaps the picture depicts characters or setting, and so they know who the book is about, or where the action of the book will take place.

The colours on the cover, and the font in which the title is printed, can also be important.

  • Good readers can often tell that the book belongs to a particular genre or type.  Bright colours and cartoon-like figures might tell them that this is a funny book.  Dark colours might mean that the book is scary or sad, and other design features will provide further clues about the content of the book.  If the font appears to drip with blood, for example, good readers know that this is going to be a horror book.

Good readers read the blurb on the back cover.

  • They know that it is designed to entice them to read the book, but they also know that it provides extra information about character, plot or genre.

Good readers have favourite authors.

  • They recognize the author’s name on the cover of the book, and know whether this is likely to be a book that they want to read.

Good readers don’t just pick up a book and start reading, hoping that it will turn out to be something they like.  They check it out very thoroughly, first.  Here are the kinds of questions you might ask to make your child more aware and to help build comprehension skills:

  • How does the title of this book tell you what it might be about?
  • Does this title remind you of any other books you have read?
    Did you like those books?
  • What kind of book do you think this is going to be? (ie, what genre?)
    How can you tell?  (What are the clues on the cover that tell you this?)
  • Do you know the author of this book?
    If so, do you know what kind (genre) of books s/he usually writes?
    Have you read any other books s/he has written?
    Did you like it/them?
  • Who do you think wrote this blurb?
    Why was it written?
    How does it want you to think about the book? (For example, that the book  is very exciting/sad/frightening/mysterious etc.)
    What extra information does it give you about the contents of the book?
    Now that you’ve read the blurb, do you think you would like to read the book?

 After your child has finished reading the book, or you have finished reading it together, come back to some of the predictions he or she made after examining the cover.  Ask questions like these:

  • How accurate were the predictions you made before you started reading?
  • Now that you know what the book is about, do you think the title was appropriate?
    Is there another title that you think would have been better?
  • If you were the author would you like your book to have a different cover?  What do you think should be on the cover?

So … whoever did say, ‘You can’t judge a book by its cover’??

Strategies for reading non-fiction texts

For parents

Most of the books that children need to read at school will in fact be non-fiction books – books that inform, explain or instruct. At higher levels of school some of these will be textbooks. Others will be books they use to find out information for a project, for example.

Good readers are able to use their knowledge of the features of a non-fiction book to help them choose the most useful book in the first place.

They know, for example, that the table of contents and the index are both good places in which to find out whether the book has the information they need.They know that a single page reference in the index probably means that their topic is just mentioned there, whereas multiple page references (113 – 118, eg) mean that this is where they are likely to find the most information about their topic.

They look at the headings that the author has given to each chapter or section to find out what to expect there.

They look at the drawings or photographs accompanying the written information and read the captions that explain the picture or diagram.

They focus on any words that are printed in bold on the page because these might be important ones. Sometimes the bolded words indicate that they are contained in a glossary that explains their meanings.

They read the insets on the page because they know that these will give quick facts and perhaps provide more detail.

 Help children to find the information they need, by showing how these features can assist  them.

First check the book to make sure that it is not too difficult for the child.  The five-finger test is an easy one to use here.  Tell the child to start reading the part that seems to contain the needed information.  Every time an unfamiliar word is encountered, the child raises a finger. If he or she puts up five fingers on a page then the level of language is probably too difficult, and it would be more sensible to search for another book that contains the same information but presents it in simpler language.

Although I’ve been talking here about non-fiction books and their features, a lot of children’s reading will actually occur on the Internet.  It’s important, therefore, that children understand the features of a website and are able to use them to find information.

Children need to understand that a webpage will have various kinds of hyperlinks – headings, graphics, illustrations, italic print, differently coloured words, underlined words – and that each of these will lead to further information.

The top or sidebar menu with hyperlinks is the equivalent of a table of contents. Show children how these work and, in particular, how to get back to the homepage quickly and efficiently.  A great deal of time can otherwise be wasted.

If necessary,  note-taking from the Internet can be done by cutting and pasting into a Word document or by using a program such as Scrible.

Because it is important that children acknowledge the source of their information, encourage them to copy the URL at the same time.  When they are using a book, they should note the author, the title and the publisher.

When children rephrase the words from the text into their own words this not only avoids plagiarism, but also helps to consolidate their understanding of the material.

Using the reading strategy: Making connections

For parents
This builds on last week’s blog which explored how you can improve children’s comprehension by asking them to ‘make connections’.

Text-to-self connections
As you read to or with your child you can demonstrate this strategy by thinking out loud, making your own connections. For example,

‘I think I saw a monkey like that at the zoo.  I remember that the zoo-keeper was feeding him lots of vegetables.’
‘I can remember when my mother did something like that!  I was very cross!’
‘This reminds me of …’

(But, of course, don’t overdo it.  If you’re reading with your child the strategies that you demonstrate shouldn’t take away from the pleasure of the reading itself.)

After you have made a connection as you think aloud, you could go on to say something that helps your child to understand the value of the connection:

‘So I already know what monkeys eat.  But I don’t know where they come from, or how long they live.  Let’s see if this book tells us about that.’
‘That helps me to understand how the girl in this story feels’.

 When you do this, you’re showing your child how to make connections that help reading comprehension.

Choose books that reflect close-to-home experiences, ones with which the child can identify, so that you have an opportunity to encourage the making of connections.  You can prompt your child to make his/her own connections by asking questions such as

  • ‘Have you ever felt like that?’
  • ‘Has anything like that ever happened to you?’
  • ‘Why do you think X behaved like that?’
  • ‘How many different kinds of  (dogs/spiders/whatever is the focus of the informative book) do you know?

And to make sure that they understand how the connection helps them to understand, you can ask:
‘How do you think that will that help you to understand this book/character?’

At first they might not be able to do this, but with frequent practice and assistance from you they will come to see how making connections helps their understanding. Good readers often make the connections unconsciously, but some children will need help to do so.

Text-to-text connections
You can assist your child to make text-to-text connections by choosing:

  • books by the same author that have the same character
  • short stories of a similar genre (adventure, horror, comedy, mystery etc)
  • poems that follow a similar theme (eg poems about animals or a similar idea)
  • books by the same illustrator (eg Shaun Tan, Graeme Base)
  • books that provide different versions of familiar stories (eg The Three  Little Pigs)
  • resources that present comparable information  (eg a couple of books on whales or dinosaurs, two websites on the same topic).

When reading with your child, ask questions such as:

  • Do you think that Harry is different in this book?  Why?  Why not?
  • Isn’t this book a bit like that other one we read?
  • Which book/website do you think is more useful to you?  Why?
  • Which Anthony Browne book do you like best? Why?
  • What are some of the things that are the same/different about these two stories?

Text-to-world connections
It is only to a very small extent that our own experience helps us to learn about the world, the people in it and the events that occur.  Most of what we learn about the world we learn from books, magazines, television programs, film and the Internet.

So for readers to be able to make text-to-world connections, they need a reasonable knowledge of the world.

  • Have conversations with your children about (appropriate) things that happen in the news.
  • Encourage them to watch documentaries appropriate to their age group and talk about what they have learned.  Re-telling in their own words what they have read or viewed is another strategy that can be used to help develop understanding.
  • When reading a book with your child, ask questions such as
    – Have you heard this idea before?
    – Have you heard about this problem before? What do you remember about it?
    – Is this what happens in the world?  Would people really behave that way?  Does this make sense?
  • Make your own text-to-world connections in order to demonstrate how it is done:
    – This is like what I heard about on the news the other night …
    – I read about this in the newspaper …

Teachers try to develop these text-to-world connections in all aspects of the curriculum.  Helping your child to build his or her background knowledge in order to be able to develop these connections will increase understanding in many school subjects.

Why am I reading this?

Good readers know that why they are reading will determine how they read.

Why they are reading will decide how quickly they read.
If they are reading something that they need to remember, perhaps for a test, then they read slowly.
If they are reading something that it is important that they understand, then they will not only read slowly, but they will also re-read to make certain they have understood.
If they are reading for pleasure, then the rate of reading is not important, and they might read much more quickly.
Why they are reading will decide how carefully they read.
If they are reading something in order to get the ‘big picture’, to work out what the magazine or newspaper article is all about, then they will skim the words rather than read each one individually. They will focus on the opening paragraph, on the opening sentence of other paragraphs, and on the concluding paragraph. The rate of reading will be fairly quick.

If they are reading for a particular piece of information then they will scan the article or chapter, searching for key words. When they find those key words  they will stop and read the surrounding sentences or paragraph carefully to see if they information they require is to be found there.

Readers who lack confidence tend to waste a lot of time, and create a lot of anxiety for themselves, by thinking that they have to read every word no matter what their purpose is in reading. You can help your child to read more efficiently, by (a) identifying their purpose in reading and then (b) showing them what kind of reading is going to be most appropriate for that purpose.

10 ways to help your children learn their spelling lists

Most children bring home spelling lists to be learned by a certain date.

The best kinds of spelling lists contain words that the children are going to encounter in their other school work – vocabulary related to a topic they are studying, for instance. This is the best kind of list because the meaning of the words will be of relevance to the children, and they will be encountered several times in the classroom, thus helping to reinforce both meaning and spelling.

Other useful spelling lists are individual ones, based on the spelling difficulties your child has demonstrated in his or her writing.

You might like to try some of these strategies at home to help your child remember how to spell the words on a spelling list:

  1. Do a pre-test so that you and your child work out which words you need to concentrate on.  There’s no point in going over the words that he or she can already spell, and it makes the list shorter, which is a feel-good factor.
  2. Where relevant, use highlighters to mark words inside words. The word ‘recently’ contains the word ‘cent’.  Together, make up a sentence to act as a mnemonic – a reminder to help recall. For example, ‘Recently I lost a cent down the sink.’
  3. Say each of the words aloud three times, asking your child to repeat them after you. First say the word normally. Then say the word slowly, in syllables, to make sure your child hears each of the sounds.  Finally repeat the word again normally. (For example, 1. ‘recently’  2. ‘re-cent-ly’  3. ‘recently’.)
  4. Make sure that your child understands the meaning of each word and can use it in a sentence that shows its meaning. Ask if the word is like another one he or she already knows.  Making connections helps children to remember, and understanding the meaning of a word helps children to spell it correctly.
  5. Play games such as hangman or make a word search using the spelling list words.
  6. Ask your child to look carefully at each word in turn before closing his/her eyes and trying to visualise the shape of the word.  Ask him or her to notice where the short letters (the vowels and c, m, n, r, s, v, w, x, z) occur in the word, and  to identify the tall letters (b, d, f, h, k, l, t ) and the letters that go below the line (g, j, p, q, y).
  7. If there is a pattern to the words in the spelling list, help your child to identify the pattern and to highlight where it occurs in each word. For example, the pattern might be that the words all contain a digraph (that is, two vowels combined to make one sound such as ‘ea’, ‘aw’, ‘ ie’ or ‘ou’).
  8. Put the spelling list on the refrigerator or somewhere easy to access. Test your child on the words in the spelling list more than once, but don’t test all of the words at once.  Do them in groups at random times, so that the whole thing doesn’t become too painful.  Try to make it into a game.
  9. If the spelling list is based on a specific spelling rule, identify the rule and highlight the part of the word that applies the rule.  Ask your child to think of other words that use the same spelling rule.
  10. Get your child to use this strategy to help him or her remember the spelling:  Look.  Say. Cover.  Write.  Check.

    First look carefully at the word, noting the letters and the shape of the word.  Then say the word aloud, first in full and then in syllables.  Cover the word and then write it down.  Check to see whether you have written the word correctly.
    If your child makes a mistake, look at the incorrectly written word to see where the error has occurred.  Is a letter omitted? Is a syllable omitted? (If so, practise ‘sounding out’ the word aloud so that your child can hear each of the sounds individually.) Has your child represented a sound by an incorrect combination of letters? (For example, the sound ‘ay’ can be represented by the letters ‘ai’, ‘ay’ and ‘ane’.  A child might write the word ‘complain’ as ‘complane’ or – less likely – ‘complayne’.)

(The Spelling element at contains a series of activities based on common spelling rules and strategies for learning to spell.)


Ideas for reading aloud to your children

For parents

Just because your children are growing up, this doesn’t mean you have to stop reading to and with them. But perhaps what you read can change.

What you can read to your children

  • Older children enjoy having chapter books read to them.  Nine-year-olds, for example, who cannot read Harry Potter independently are very happy to listen to a parent’s reading.  Involve your child in the choice of book and establish how and when you will read.
  • Older children who have not ‘taken’ to reading independently often prefer to be read non-fiction books on a topic that interests them.  Science and nature books, and books on sports, are often popular with boys, for instance. And when you talk together about the book content, you are also encouraging the development of their oral and thinking skills.
  • Reading need not be confined to books.  Many older readers are reading material on the Internet.  You can explore a website with your child, helping him or her to recognize hyperlinks and to navigate around the website in a useful  way.  Since navigation of websites often involves  ‘wrong’ choices and the need to backtrack in order to find information, exploring a website together is a good way to demonstrate how this is done in a meaningful rather than a random way.
  • Don’t overlook picture books.  There are lots of picture books that are suitable for older readers and which will stimulate a great deal of discussion.

How you can read to your children 
Read in a way that provides your listening child with extra clues to help him or her  understand what you are reading.

  •  Read at a moderate pace to give the listener time to absorb what you’re reading.
  • Pause at full-stops.
  • Read with intonation that indicates, for example, the mood of a speaking character.  If the character is angry, use a tone that expresses this.
  • Raise your voice at the end of a sentence that asks a question.
  • If reading a book with pictures, photographs or diagrams, stop to ask questions and discuss.
  • If reading a story, perhaps change your voice to reflect the character who is speaking.
  • Ask questions about what you’re reading:  ‘What do you think will happen next?’  ‘Why do you think he did that?’
  • If reading a chapter book, try to stop at a suspenseful point, one that leaves them wanting to find out what happens next.  Create a sense of anticipation.