Closing the Reading Gap in Religious Education

 Why should we promote reading?

  • Reading is an essential element in all stages of education
  • Reading should be prioritised to allow access to the full curriculum offer
  • 90% of vocabulary is encountered in reading, not day-to-day speech
  • Fiction does not give access to more academic vocabulary used for GCSE and beyond
  • Primary students learn to read, secondary students read to learn
  • Secondary children need to be reading books appropriate for their age (often not the case in secondary – particularly for boys)
  • In addition to teaching vocabulary explicitly, teachers need to model how expert readers read actively including monitoring their understanding, asking questions, making predictions and summarising (Rosenshine)

So how does a Religious Studies student read?

This is a vital question for teachers of religious studies/education yet it is rarely given any consideration in primary or secondary training.

Take the following example as given in ‘Closing the reading Gap’ by Alex Quigley.

“The third pillar of Islam is Zakah. This means giving alms (giving money to the poor). For Muslims who have enough savings it is compulsory to give 2.5 percent of those savings every year to help the poor.  Many Muslims will work out how much they owe and give the money at the end of Ramadan.

By giving Zakah, Muslims are acknowledging that everything they own comes from God and belongs to him and they should use their wealth to remember God and give to those in need. It frees people from desire and teaches self-discipline and honesty.

Zakah literally means to purify or to cleanse.  Muslims believe that giving Zakah helps to purify the soul, removing selfishness and greed.”

You will probably recognise that you are using your background knowledge about Islam (tier 3 vocabulary –subject-specific).  You will also be using your understanding of words that are so familiar to us that we often do not notice pupils will not know them for example ‘compulsory’, ‘acknowledging’, ‘self-discipline’ (tier 2 vocabulary –academic vocabulary)

To read this single passage demands knowledge of the world or reading of text structures and word knowledge.  If a teacher has not considered the teaching of reading, it can be hard to know whether pupils are understanding what has been read at all! To comprehend a text, you need to understand 95% of the words. An average text contains 300 words a page so that means 15 words may be unknown even if the gist of the text is understood.

We need to ask ourselves:

  • How ‘word conscious’ are we in our lessons?
  • Has tier 2 & 3 vocabulary been considered as part of a sequence in our schemes of learning and assessment?

So what practical strategies can we adopt?

1. Keyword vocabulary lists with quick quiz tests.
Key concept Definition
Trinity The Christian belief that there is One God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit
Nicene Creed A Christian statement of faith primarily about the nature of God. Accepted by the majority of Christians
Creation The Creation of the universe regarded as an act of God
Benevolent All-loving
Omnipotent All-powerful
Resurrection The belief that Jesus rose from the dead after three days. The belief that the body stays in the grave until the end of the world when it is raised and judged
Atonement The reconciliation of God and humanity accomplished through the life, suffering, and death of Christ
2. Consider strategies for teaching tier 2 vocabulary

Teach synonyms

Required – have to, Tend – look after, Fortunate – lucky, Benevolent – kind

The ‘golden triangle’ of recognition, pronunciation and definition

Recognition – how is the word spelt? The ability to use phonics to decode new vocabulary and then to be able to reproduce the spelling makes a big difference.

Pronunciation – how is the word said? Making pupils say it aloud and use it in a sentence increases the likelihood they will remember it.

Definition – what does the word mean? It might sound obvious, but if you know the meaning of a word, you are much more likely to remember it.

Here is an example on an RS exam paper with a lack of understanding of tier 2 vocabulary

3.Explicitly modelling what expert readers do: activating prior knowledge, predicting, questioning, clarifying, summarising
4. Setting reading homework

At The Queen Katherine School, we have attempted to make reading routine by carefully planning it home works that link with the Scheme of Learning.

3,2,1 Readers are questioning, evaluating and connecting what they read. For example, three essential points to consider, connect and remember, two key vocabulary items to know, use and remember and one big idea to understand, explain and remember.

The resource ‘The Day’ is invaluable at supporting this.

5. Include more planned reading in the lessons

In consultation with our fabulous librarian, we have chosen short stories that complement our Schemes of Learning at KS3. Students will read a short excerpt in the first 5 mins of the lesson and as a class, we will discuss 3 planned questions based on the reading.  These books are age-specific for our learners.


Alex Quigley makes the point, ‘it is important to view academic reading through a subject-specific lens in all phases of schooling.’

By paying attention to the disciplinary lenses used in RE we can best support our students to use subject-specific reading strategies alongside general reading strategies. However, does this open up another can of worms! What ‘different ways’ should religion and world views be studied?  The Commission talks about Theology, Human and Social Science and Philosophy (Mark Chater Reforming RE Chapter 9)  yet this does still remain contested. ‘See Disciplinary literacy in religious education: the role and relevance of reading

See also

How does your school promote reading?

  • in the wider curriculum
  • in departments
  • in your classrooms

With thanks to Alex Quigley ‘Closing the Reading Gap’

Katherine France a Head of Faculty at The Queen Katherine School and North Regional Ambassador @KathFrance1975


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