Re-thinking ‘success criteria’: a simple device to support pupils’ writing

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The @NorthYorksEng team have been working with primary schools to develop an alternative to listed ‘success criteria’ for writing, which we call ‘boxed’ or ‘expanding success criteria’ (or often just ‘the rectangles thing.’) It is very easy to adopt, and teachers have been finding that it can transform how writing is talked about and approached in the classroom, with an immediate impact on the quality of what pupils are producing. (That is something which we now need to research properly!)

Continue reading “Re-thinking ‘success criteria’: a simple device to support pupils’ writing”

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‘In this school, English is about…’

Practical tools for reflecting on the what, why and how of English teaching

Venn.JPGA friend’s nephew, when in Year 8, remarked to him: “I used to enjoy English, but all we do now is write PEE paragraphs.” If this is a pupil’s view (even an unfair one) of English in their school, then something has gone badly wrong. It’s extreme, but it is – I think – indicative of a trend in secondary English, in which the narrow imperatives of external assessment are dominating planning and thinking, and when GCSE ‘AOs’ are busily colonising Key Stage 3. Meanwhile, tests and secure-fit assessment frameworks are increasingly dominating primary teachers’ thinking about the teaching of reading and writing.

In this post, I offer two simple tools which I have used with both primary and secondary teachers for reflecting on the principles behind English as a subject. This might be as part of a process of curriculum renewal, of the revitalising of practice, or of a deliberate attempt to build cohesion and shared purpose. Or it might just be to to stimulate professional discussion about some basics – on what they are doing, how they are doing it, and why.

Continue reading “‘In this school, English is about…’”

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Developing critical readers: preparing students for GCSE English Language reading papers

Thoughts on how students are taught to write critically about texts in exams

This post was originally an article for NATE‘s Teaching English (Issue 12, Autumn 2016.) It has been edited slightly.

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Preparing for the new English GCSEs has compelled English departments to put their Key Stage 4 curriculum through yet another revision. For many, this has been taken as an opportunity to be creative with the curriculum, to devise fresh practice and to sharpen classroom teaching of knowledge and skills. However, the combination of a short time frame and a highly pressurised environment has pushed some departments towards an anxious, somewhat mechanistic approach to the specifications, with teachers focusing narrowly on the hoops through which students will have to jump. Continue reading “Developing critical readers: preparing students for GCSE English Language reading papers”

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Objectives and purpose in English

Thoughts on learning objectives and on the way we frame learning in English

This post was originally an article for NATE‘s Teaching English (Issue 8, Summer 2015)

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‘Is that what you went into English teaching to do?’ Reflecting with English teachers on their planning, whether for lessons or whole schemes of learning, I often find myself asking them this question. It isn’t asked in a despairing sense but as a sort of a litmus test of the real value, integrity or power of an ‘objective’ (or an ‘aim’, or an ‘assessed outcome’.) For example, no English teacher went into the profession to get children to ‘practise expanding adverbial phrases’. No one followed a calling to help students to ‘make comparisons between texts’. Of course, these are important but they are not really an end in themselves; they are a means to students developing power in expression and critical awareness and discrimination as readers. They should not be the start and the end of English lessons. Continue reading “Objectives and purpose in English”

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Teaching talk

Classroom strategies for the explicit teaching of spoken expression

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When we think about how to develop pupils’ talk in the classroom, it is natural to focus on the ‘opportunities’ we’re providing for pupils to practise speaking. We also know that developing vocabulary and subject knowledge, the raw material for talk, is key. These are essential, of course. But just as we actively and deliberately teach pupils how to write, we can and should also be teaching pupils explicitly how to be effective talkers – not just letting that develop.

And talk is complicated. This excellent schematic from Voice 21 sets out very clearly the multiple dimensions of talk – the physical, linguistic, cognitive, and social and emotional – and the various elements within these.

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Below are some suggested principles for the explicit teaching of talk and spoken expression, in any subject. Importantly, these approaches can mostly be woven into or made part of existing practice. They are not about extra activities, or extra curriculum: they are about good subject teaching.

Continue reading “Teaching talk”

Some thoughts on ‘pace’

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A notoriously unhelpful piece of lesson observation feedback is that there was insufficient ‘pace’. Of course, in discussion this might be teased out and made sense of, but sometimes it is left unclear, or (worse) it can reflect a misunderstanding of what the teacher was doing, or of how a subject works.

The difficulty, of course, is that ‘pace’ (in any meaningful sense) is about things that are subjective.

Pace has been written about a lot, but – in case it’s of any use or interest – here is my own take on it. Nothing original – just some accumulated thoughts.

(Image from The Æsop for Children, illustrated by Milo Winter, Project Gutenburg) Continue reading “Some thoughts on ‘pace’”

Quick talk about texts

Short-burst pair or group talk activities which can be woven into reading lessons

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In other posts, I’ve suggested that the most effective whole-class reading sessions allow for seamless weaving together of whole-class discussion, individual thinking time and pair or small group talk. below are some examples of typical, short pair or group talk activities (30 seconds to a couple of minutes) which can be woven into reading lessons so that pupils are required to retrieve and to rehearse knowledge, to develop and refine understandings, and to practise the articulation of these things, as well as develop their independence and their personal and social confidence as readers. Continue reading “Quick talk about texts”

Reading as writers; writing as readers: an account of a Year 5/6 teaching sequence

This is an example of an approach to a text, which is designed specifically to help all pupils to develop their writing of literary narrative without recourse to the ‘features of descriptive writing’ or to checklists of literary devices. Over a series of sessions, it integrates whole-class reading practice with the planning and drafting of a piece of extended writing.

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We often talk about the importance of pupils ‘reading as writers, and writing as readers’. It’s a powerful idea which doesn’t translate simply into a list of practices, but which is more about the culture of the classroom: the way pupils are encouraged always to think about their reading and their writing as in dialogue with each other; the way they are encouraged to develop a certain sense of control when they are reading and when they are writing. Continue reading “Reading as writers; writing as readers: an account of a Year 5/6 teaching sequence”

Whole-class reading: a planning tool

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See also Whole-class reading: an example lesson and a menu of approaches  and Whole-class reading: another example lesson

Recently, @NorthYorksEng has been working hard with schools to develop whole-class reading practice which is both challenging and inclusive. This is a particularly current issue in primary schools, but is – of course – also pertinent to secondary English.

Many teachers and schools are moving towards quite a formalised approach, with a similar agenda for every session or series of sessions. Pupils might move through a fairly fixed set of activities; texts might be subjected to quite repetitive kinds of interrogation, with pupils asking and answering similar questions each time. (Such an approach can develop out of a focus on preparation for assessment, often defaulting to ‘content domains’ in primary, or to GCSE ‘AOs’ in secondary.) Such repetition, while reassuring, can also be limiting, denying the potential of individual texts to teach particular aspects of reading, to demand particular kinds of thinking, to invite different kinds of response, to suggest a variety of engaging, classroom activities, and to offer new pleasures and experiences to pupils as real readers.

The contrasting approach is to have no set formula for whole-class reading sessions, but to let planning be flexible, led by the the text’s ‘potential’, by the shifting needs of the pupils, by the class’s developing relationship with the text as readers and – of course – by the inventiveness and resourcefulness of the teacher.

Such a flexible approach can make it easier for teachers to follow the following principles, which we believe underlie the best whole-class reading practice.

  1. Enjoy reading challenging texts with children
  2. Let the text lead
  3. Have rich conversations about texts
  4. Pitch high & scaffold for all
  5. Build talk around personal response
  6. Keep it varied
  7. Integrate the teaching of reading, writing & grammar

Continue reading “Whole-class reading: a planning tool”

The primary English subject leader: overseer, monitor, director or trusted expert?

Graphic.JPGRecently, as part of our work with English subject leaders from across the county, the North Yorkshire English Advisory Team have been looking at how the subject is led differently in primary schools. English or literacy subject leaders tend to be talked about as a group, yet we know that what they actually do varies enormously.

We have been particularly interested in the role that subject leaders have in the planning of teaching and of what is taught. This has arisen out of an increasing sense that raising standards in English and literacy requires focusing on curriculum and on effective long and medium term planning. It has also arisen out of the perceived, urgent need to address teacher workload, including through the efficiencies afforded by ‘collaborative’ and centralised planning. (This was a point emphasised by the Independent Teacher Workload Review Group in 2016.)

Complex relationships

To an extent, the exact role of the English subject leader depends on school size. Leading a core subject in a four-form entry school (rare in North Yorkshire) is clearly different from in a school with a total roll of just 60, or even just 20. (Our smallest school has one pupil.) The role is also complicated by the fact that schools usually have other people involved in ‘leading’ planning and teaching. Continue reading “The primary English subject leader: overseer, monitor, director or trusted expert?”

Fear of grammar and the grammar of fear

Injecting challenge at Key Stages 3 and 4, using Key Stage 2 knowledge about grammar

Capture.JPGThe not-so-new-now grammar curriculum at Key Stage 2 has resulted in pupils arriving in secondary school with a knowledge of grammatical terms which, even to some specialist English teachers, can be a little intimidating. It can also be confusing to teachers used to different terminology: pupils are unlikely to know about definite and indefinite articles, but they will know about ‘determiners’; they will have been drilled not to refer to ‘connectives’, although they will know about adverbials and about subordinating and coordinating conjunctions. They will know that ‘pretty’ can be an adjective or it can be an adverb, because grammar is all about function. They won’t just know about past, present and future tenses; they will also know about progressive and perfect and subjunctive forms. (Useful for inventing new ghosts for A Christmas Carol, such as ‘The Ghost of Christmas Future Perfect Subjunctive’, who will show Scrooge what would have happened were he not to have changed his ways.) Continue reading “Fear of grammar and the grammar of fear”

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