Lost queens and dodos: some reflections on knowledge, comprehension and how we teach reading

Reading is built on knowledge. But it’s a bit more complicated than that.

This post was co-written with Barbara Bleiman (@BarbaraBleiman), and is also published on the English and Media Centre blog.


In 2016, the passages on the new-look Key Stage 2 ‘Reading’ test caused some controversy, seen by many as being too demanding for too many pupils. They have since been used widely to illustrate the argument for a ‘knowledge-rich’ curriculum in primary schools, and – perhaps more significantly and concerningly – as a rationale for teaching factual knowledge (sometimes called cultural literacy) as a major plank in the teaching of reading.

Continue reading “Lost queens and dodos: some reflections on knowledge, comprehension and how we teach reading”

Resuming the curriculum, September 2020

Questions for subject leaders and teams

Subject leaders and subject teams are already working hard on planning for September – for what they will teach, in what order and in what way – in order to meet the challenges of a return to full-time school.

It will not be possible just to switch the curriculum back on. Most pupils will be returning after an extended break from regular teaching and learning, and will have made very different rates of progress during this time. Some may have made little, and some may not have retained all of what they learned before. Planning within subjects will need to take all of this into account.

Continue reading “Resuming the curriculum, September 2020”

The power of exploratory writing

The piece below was written many years ago by a Year 9 pupil, Kanika, for a colleague of mine (@craigbmorrison) at Parkside Community College, Cambridge. It illustrates, I think, some features of what might be termed ‘exploratory’ writing – developing response, understanding and expression without recourse to P.E.E or P.E.T.A.L. or other formulae, and without adherence to the conventions of an ‘analytical paragraph’, of ‘academic style’, or of an exam ‘answer’. Emerging from talk, it maintains, throughout, a sense of dialogue – between the pupil and herself, and between the pupil and the text.

Continue reading “The power of exploratory writing”

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”

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

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Colleagues and I 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”

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, colleagues and I have 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”

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