Category Archives: Curriculum

What makes a good reading strategy?

When it comes to a school’s curriculum, reading is first among equals. Any reading strategy must be driven by what it is that the school’s curriculum seeks to achieve. It’s hard to argue with intent such as fostering a love of books, reading and language and access to great children’s literature, both physically through a well-stocked library and intellectually through great teaching.  To achieve that, a strategy should include the following.

Address phonics and fluency needs quickly

Without adequate knowledge of phonics and skill in decoding, segmenting and blending, children will not be able to crack the code of written English that will enable them to experience the joy of books. Children need a systematic approach to learning the phonetic code from the first day of Reception. Where children are older and have not yet mastered this, schools need rigorous screening processes to identify gaps and teach them until children are fluent. Where children are in the process of systematically growing their knowledge of the phonetic code, they’ll need phonetically decodable books to practise reading with success. Blending the code into words and fluently reading sentences must also be deliberately practised for children to master the mechanics of reading.

Fluency is about more than speedily translating code into sound though. The inflections and emphases that are part of quality spoken language must also be learned and applied to by children when they read independently. When children know typical patterns of prosody and can read with appropriate expression, they are far more able to extract meaning from text than if the reading is robotic.

Provide a rich diet of literature and language

The books that form the reading curriculum will make or break a reading strategy. Real page turners with great story lines will make learning to read a pleasure and there are many decisions for school leaders to make. There needs to be a good blend of modern and classic fiction, a variety of authors beyond the mainstream or well-known and these titles need to be supplemented with related fiction and non-fiction. Great non-fiction helps children to pick up general knowledge which in turn helps them to make sense of the content in the fiction – this link can be powerful. A rich diet of language should also include great picture books and great poetry too. It is not only the literature that needs a high profile but language itself. Celebrating language through modelling interest in words and turns of phrases draws attention to language and will more likely result in children mimicking that interest. Song lyrics and rhetoric are great vehicles for this
too. Many children sing along to words in songs without necessarily thinking about their meaning but those words are often so carefully chosen for effect that they are well worth examining in detail.

Oral language comprehension

The simple view of reading explains the relationship between decoding and comprehension and there is much research to show that working on oral language comprehension is effective in improving reading comprehension, not least the York Reading for Meaning Project. This can be as simple as reading aloud or telling children a story. Capture their interest. Retell it in different ways. At this point, it is important for teachers to know what children have understood but by asking questions, all we really know is whether they are capable of comprehending, not whether they actually comprehend independent of us. Before any specific questioning, it would be useful to get an idea of what they have understood by asking them to tell you broadly about what they’ve just heard.  The decisions they make about what they say reveal what they think is important and you can also judge the accuracy of their literal and inferential comprehension. Difficulty decoding should not be a barrier to children experiencing
and understanding age appropriate texts. Doug Lemov puts this beautifully:

Low readers are often balkanised to reading only lower level texts, fed on a diet of only what’s accessbile to them – they’re consigned to lower standards from the outset by our very efforts to help them.
Lemov (Reading Reconsidered)

Listening to texts and using open questions to prompt discussions ensures that the focus in on language development in a way that is not restricted by poor decoding.

Varied question styles

If the goal of a reading strategy is to ensure that children fully understand what they’re reading when they do so independently, then the questions we ask are important. These questions develop habits of how children think about what they have read. The first layer of open questions that prompt good think about what has been read are Aiden Chambers’ questions in his book Tell me. He proposes four basic questions:

  • Tell me about what you liked.
  • Tell me about what you disliked.
  • Tell me about what puzzled you.
  • Tell me about any connections you noticed.

There are other particularly good questions, such as ‘Tell me about how long the story took to happen,’ which can prompt a great discussion about the passing of time and how we know. For more specific questions, using old SATS questions, keeping the format but changing the context to suit the text that children are reading is a good way to ensure variety whilst still keeping a focus on key indicators of comprehension such as literal and inferential understanding, prediction etc.

Modelling the reader’s thought processes

Reading is an activity that is mostly done in the reader’s head and there are many thought processes that competent readers initiate. This isn’t simply reading the text from beginning to end; reading will be interspersed with commentary, explanation or making links to general knowledge. These frequent pauses for analysis allow the teacher to show children that good readers think while they read in order to achieve an acceptable standard of coherence. As children get older and texts get longer, teachers can’t lead shared reading of the whole text, so by initially earmarking sections that children are likely to misunderstand, shared reading can be focused on addressing misconceptions.

 

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Success criteria in maths

I vividly recall maths lessons as a child.  I was in the bottom set and I remember a general feeling of bafflement as it appeared to me that others seemed to know what to do while tasks remained a mystery to me.  I don’t remember anything being explained and years later as an NQT, reading the numeracy strategy unit plans, I had a moment of realisation that there were ways of calculating in your head.  In your head!  All I’d known was formal written methods. For everything! What I needed whilst at school was to be let in to the secret of how to do maths.

Continue reading here.

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Principles and practices of effective homework

Homework can have quite a negative reputation.  It is often the source of familial tension as parents make sure their little ones have done it, not to mention the effect on teacher workload.  Research organisations like the EEF have not found it to be too effective either.  That said, research can only judge the effectiveness of existing practices so the job of teachers and school leaders is to find better ways of doing it.  When it is done well, homework can undoubtedly have a positive effect on learning.  The EEF states that effective homework is associated with short, focused tasks which relate directly to what is being taught and is built upon in school.  It also recognises the importance of parental involvement.  With these conditions in mind, here is a set of principles and practices for making homework as effective as possible. 
Read the rest of the article on the Rising Stars website…

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Before, then, now – modelling additive reasoning

One of the parts of the NCETM’s Calculation Guidance for Primary Schools is the ‘Before, Then, Now’ structure for contextualising maths problems for additive reasoning.  This is a very useful structure as by using it, children could develop deep understanding of mathematical problems, fluency of number and also language patterns and comprehension.

The first stage is to model telling the story.  We cannot take for granted that children, particularly vulnerable children in Key Stage 1, will know or can read the words ‘before’, ‘then’ and ‘now’.  Some work needs to be done to explain that this is the order in which events happened.  Using a toy bus, or failing that, an appropriate picture of a bus, we would talk through each part of the structure, moving the bus from left to right and modelling the story with small figures:

FullSizeRender

Before, there were four people on the bus. Then, three people got on the bus. Now there are seven people on the bus.

 

The child could then retell the story themselves, manipulating the people and the bus to show what is happening.  For the first few attempts, the child should get used to the structure but before long we should insist on them using full, accurate sentences, including the correct tense, when they are telling the story.

I have chosen a ten frame to represent the windows on the bus, which enables plenty of opportunity to talk about each stage of the problem in greater depth and to practise manipulating numbers.  For example, in the ‘Before’ stage, there were four people on the bus: if the child could manage it, it would be interesting to talk about the number of seats on the bus altogether and the number of empty seats.  By doing so, they are practising thinking about number facts to ten and building their fluency with recall of those facts.   The task could easily be adapted to use a five frame or a twenty frame.

The next stage could be to tell children a story and while they are listening, they model what is happening with the people and the bus.  After each stage, or once we have modelled the whole story, they could retell it themselves.  Of course, the adult would only tell the ‘Before’ and the ‘Then’ parts of the story as the child should be expected to finish the story having solved the problem.

When the child is more fluent with the language and they understand the structure of the problems, we can show them how it looks abstractly.  For the ‘Before’ part, the child would only record a number – how many on the bus.  For the ‘Then’ part, we would need to show the child how to record not only the number of people that got on or off the bus but the appropriate sign too – if three people got on they would write +3 and if two people got off they would write -2.  Finally, for the ‘Now’ part, they would need not only the number of people on the bus but the ‘is equal to’ sign before the number.  Cue lots of practise telling and listening to stories whilst modelling it and writing the calculation.

10

A more subtle level of abstraction might be to repeat the same problems but rather than the child modelling them using the bus and people, they could use another manipulative such as multi-link cubes or Numicon.  They could also draw a picture of each stage – multiple representations of the same problem provide the opportunity for deeper conceptual understanding.

The scaffolding that the structure and the multiple representations provide allows for some deeper thinking too.  In the problems described so far, the unknown has always been the ‘Now’ stage or the whole (as opposed to one of the parts). It is fairly straight forward to make the ‘Then’ stage unknown with a story like this:

Before, there were ten people were on the bus.

Then, some people got off the bus.

9

Now, seven people are on the bus.

This could be modelled by the teacher, who asks the child to look away at the ‘Then’ stage.  Starting with ten people on the bus and using a ten frame is a deliberate scaffold – deducing how many people got off the bus is a matter of looking at how many ‘empty seats’ are represented by the empty boxes on the ten frame in the ‘Now’ stage.  A progression is to not use a full bus in the ‘Before’ stage – it is another level of difficulty to keep that number in mind and calculate how many got on or off the bus.

Another progression is to make the ‘Before’ stage unknown.  The child will need a different strategy to those already explained in order to solve this kind of problem.  Then story would have to be started with: ‘Before, there were some people on the bus.’  Of course, the adult would not show the child this with the bus and toy people, but they would show the completed ‘Then’ stage: ‘Then, four people got on the bus.’  Finally, the adult would model moving the bus to the ‘Now’ stage and completing the story: ‘Now, there are eleven people on the bus.’  The child would have to keep in mind that four people had got on and now there are eleven, before working backwards.  They would have to be shown that if four had got on, then working out how the story started would mean four people getting off the bus.  They could be shown to run the story in reverse, ending up with seven people on the bus in the ‘Before’ stage.

This task has the potential to take children from a poor understanding of number facts, calculating and knowledge of problem structures to a much deeper understanding.  The familiar context can be used as a scaffold to build fluency and think hard about complex problems with varied unknowns.

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Enumerating possibilities of combinations of two variables

With Year 6 children expected to work on the objective ‘enumerate possibilities of combinations of two variables’, we should be clear on the difference between the underlying concept and the algebraic representation of it.  

2g + w = 10

For questions such as this, children should first have a secure understanding of the part, part, whole model.  We can show that 2 lots of something add one lot of something else is equal to 10 by using a concrete manipulative such as Numicon.  First, children represent the whole, in this case 10. Then they can speculate on the two equal parts (2g), trying out g=1 before finding the Numicon piece that fills the gap and therefore is equal to w:

  
Having found one solution, they can continue to work systematically to find alternative solutions.  Trying g = 2 is logical:

  
Lining up solutions beneath the whole reinforces the idea that the expressions are equivalent.  Children can continue to work systematically:

  
This also provides a scaffold for questions of greater depth, such as ‘What is the greatest number that g can represent?  Explain…’  
Subtraction?  Not a problem, although in this case, children must know that for subtraction, you always do so from the whole.

10 = 3g – w

In this question, the whole is 3g and the parts are 10 and w:

  
What is not clear from this model is the trial and error that went into it.  Children may well try 3 ones and quickly realise that it is already less than 10, so subtracting from it will not give a valid solution.  There is lots of scope here for discussion about the smallest number that g could represent.  

The use of Numicon leads nicely into children representing problems as bar models.  Here are the two examples used so far:

   
    
 

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Single and multi clause sentences – an analogy

The new national curriculum this year brought with it some changes in grammatical terminology. One of these changes saw simple, compound and complex sentences become single clause, multi clause coordinated and multi clause subordinated sentences. This post explains an analogy to teach this aspect of grammar. 

   
The analogy (and a smattering of storytelling – good for memory, you know) is to do with living arrangements. The first picture is of Serena. She is an adult who lives by herself, earning money, buying food etc. This is a bit like a single clause sentence: one main clause makes up the sentence. 

The second picture is of Mike and Jean, two adults who could live alone if they wanted to but they choose to live together, sharing all the responsibilities that come with having your own home. This is a bit like a multi clause coordinated sentence: multiple main clauses can be joined in a sentence by coordinating conjunctions. The final picture is of Hardeep and her infant son Gurnek. She is an adult who could live alone, but the child cannot. The child needs the adult. This is a bit like a multi clause subordinated sentence: a main clause is joined to (a) subordinate clause(s) by a subordinating conjunction. 
When children get to know these characters and their situations well, they can link the grammatical terminology to that knowledge. Through lots of spaced practice, in the context of a story or text they know well, they can begin to build their concept of sentence types.

One type of practice can be sorting sentences, modelled first:

  A possible scaffold is to text mark important features for some children, then gradually remove the text marking. Main clauses, subordinated clauses or conjunctions can be underlined, italicised etc. 

The challenge can be increased by changing the context. Grammar through well known picture books is a fruitful strategy not just to work on grammar, but to deepen their understanding of story. The task below uses ‘Leon and the Place Between’:

  
The next screenshot is of some development work on multi clause coordinated sentences: children weren’t familiar with the use of the conjunction ‘for’:

  
Many children still needed a lot of explanation and practice thinking about the difference between main and subordinated clauses, again in the context of a well known story:

   
 Children seemed to found it useful, to begin with, to analyse the sentences using the analogy. Which part of the sentence is a like Hardeep, the mum? Why? Which bit is like Gurnek, the baby? Why? Gradually, the analogy makes way for the grammatical terminology. This strategy was also useful to talk about about the use of a comm a as a clause boundary when the subordinate clause starts the sentence. 

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Multiplying fractions and integers

This is an account of a particularly successful topic from Y5 on multiplying fractions and integers. It’s fast becoming one of my favourite concepts to teach.
I showed multiple representations of a calculation, showing how to make it with cubes:

  
In this example, it was important to make four lots of two thirds first before rearranging the coloured cubes: later when they draw it on a number line, they’ll need to be thinking of four jumps of two thirds. The language of number of parts, size of each part and whole was supported by the bar model and came in handy for the empty box problems later.
Children needed to make other examples of calculations, talking about it with a partner:

  
Most children were fine with this and ready to move on to pictorial representation on a number line. Some needed a bit more consolidation with how the cubes represent a calculation. This is of a set of scaffolded questions where children made the calculation with cubes, then drew it:

  
For those ready for a number line, I explained a worked example before modelling how to do one from scratch:

  
The explanation had to be clear on how to construct the number line accurately, which involved making decisions about how many squares to leave between each whole number (using the denominator of the ‘size of each part’), and how many squares each jump needed to be (using the numerator of the ‘size of each part’). The final decision to make was how many jumps to draw, using the number of equal parts. The whole, and the answer to this particular calculation, was where the last jump ended up in the number line.

When children practised doing this, they chose from using a scaffold of minimally different questions or tackling varied questions:
  
Some children needed a few lessons to keep practising this and each time we returned to it, I started by showing multiple representations of the same calculation:

   

 Some children grasped this concept quickly and needed to work on deeper tasks. I made some subtle changes to the language I used to describe what was happening (bottom right corner of the above image) and used the same bar model to introduce inverse operations with aim of learning to solve empty box multiplication of fractions:

  
Bar models helped to explain what was known and what was unknown, using the language of whole, number of parts and size of each part. I showed how it looked on a number line too:

  
Some managed to get on to dividing fractions and whole numbers, using bar models (which they were familiar with for integer multiplication and division) and number lines to show what was happening:

   
 All the while, more children began to move from basic multiplication of fractions to some deeper thinking about multiplicative reasoning and fractions.

A few weeks later, children worked out the area of rectangles involving fractions and had internalised much of the language to be able to represent questions like this:

  

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