Category Archives: Memory

Strategic curriculum leadership phase 3: what’s been learned?

This post, the third of three, details the process carried out to reform the curriculum upon taking up my Headship back in July 2018.  Every school’s needs are different so it is important to set the process I carried out into context.  The school I took over was judged as requires improvement in March 2017.  Between then and my appointment, there was a time of leadership instability.  Initial visits to the school revealed that there was a lack of any curriculum leadership – no subject overviews, no progression across the key stage and no shared understanding of how any subject should be taught.

In the first part of this series, I set out the thinking about the big picture of curriculum design and this can be summarised with three key insights:

  1. Subject leaders need to do the thinking themselves.  The value is in leaders enacting the process and learning along the way, not in buying in a commercial curriculum that is not tailored the school’s needs.
  2. The curriculum is the progress model.  If children are keeping pace with a curriculum that increases in complexity, then they are making progress.
  3. Clarify the desired outcome for each unit of work.  With periodic outcomes in mind for each unit of work, it is far easier to set children up for success in producing purposeful high quality work.

In the second  part of this series, I detailed the components of medium plans and explained the decision to write these for teachers to ease workload and to ensure that curriculum intent is enacted.


Strategic curriculum leadership 

Phase 3: What has been learned?


Senior leaders and teachers need to know what children have learned because this is the only true measure of how effective a curriculum is.  Some subjects are assessed more than others so for the purposes of this process, I’m referring to non core subjects that are not assessed in the same way as English and maths.

I’d go one step further in defining the success of a curriculum.  We must focus on the children that are most disadvantaged in any cohort.  If they are are not learning what we intend, then we’re not succeeding.  The learning of these children is the real measure of how successful a school is.

I’m proposing a set of indicators that can be used to judge the effectiveness of a curriculum.  These are not formal assessments but when looked at in conjunction with one another can give us an idea of the extent to which the curriculum has been learned.

Low stakes testing 

Regular opportunities for children to recall what they have learned serves the purpose of signposting what they do and do not understand as well as reinforcing memories making use of the testing effect.  These can take the form of a review of previous learning in each lesson, a multiple choice quiz dropped in at any point in the sequence of learning or a short answer quiz used in the same way.  Cursory glances over children’s responses, particularly those of the most disadvantaged, will reveal what has been understood and what has been misunderstood.

Vocabulary check

If medium plans stipulate the key vocabulary that children are to learn in a unit of work, then checking children’s understanding of those words are asking children to use them in context is useful.  A great way to do this can be in conversation with a sample of children, perhaps with their books in front of them, perhaps not.

Composite end task

The high quality piece of work that children produce as a result of the work done in that unit, although not independent, can nonetheless add to the bigger picture of what children do and do not understand.  After all, if, despite the scaffolding and support, children still misrepresent key ideas, we know that they have not fully understood them.

Reading comprehension

If children have developed a good schema over a unit of work, then their general knowledge will have been broadened.  Considering that most reading comprehension can arguable be a measure of knowledge of a subject, one option to judge how much children have understood is to provide some reading material around the topic that has been learned to see if they can answer a range of comprehension questions.

When?

Some of these indicators can be monitored during or at the end of a unit of work but if learning can be defined in a change in long term memory, perhaps we need to look at the indicators away from the point of teaching, for example in the weeks after a unit of work has been completed.


So what?

These possibilities can give leaders and teachers a good idea of what has been learned and what has not.  The important part of this process though is what we then do with that information. If we do not act on the information gathered, there is no point gathering it in the first place.  Plainly, if we have spent a chunk of curriculum time on teaching a particular unit of work and children have not understood it all, the rest of the carefully sequenced curriculum can fall down.  Concepts that have not been remembered well can be interleaved into the reviews of previous learning during lessons in the next unit of work.  However, if it is an understanding issue, a couple of lessons might need editing and reteaching, perhaps at the beginning of the next unit of work.

The other equally important action from judging the effectiveness of the curriculum is to adapt to make it more effective for the next cohort.  If there is a pattern of children misunderstanding a particular component of a unit of work, then perhaps the way that component has been taught needs to be adapted.  Leaders may even need to cut some of the content because too much had been planned, or add to the content if it came up short.  The sequence may need to be altered after teachers find that a different way made more sense.  Through the course of teaching the unit, teachers may have found better tasks, photos, sources, video clips than were originally included in the plans and so adapting the plan upon reviewing the extent to which children have learned the intent is crucial to give the next cohort an even better chance of learning and retaining what has been set out.

In summary, monitoring these indicators should result in the edition of future plans for that particular class as well as the plans to be used for children in the future.

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Strategic curriculum leadership phase 2: the detail

This post, the second of three, details the process carried out to reform the curriculum upon taking up my Headship back in July 2018.  Every school’s needs are different so it is important to set the process I carried out into context.  The school I took over was judged as requires improvement in March 2017.  Between then and my appointment, there was a time of leadership instability.  Initial visits to the school revealed that there was a lack of any curriculum leadership – no subject overviews, no progression across the key stage and no shared understanding of how any subject should be taught.

In the first part of this series, I set out the thinking about the big picture of curriculum design and this can be summarised with three key insights:

  1. Subject leaders need to do the thinking themselves.  The value is in leaders enacting the process and learning along the way, not in buying in a commercial curriculum that is not tailored the school’s needs.
  2. The curriculum is the progress model.  If children are keeping pace with a curriculum that increases in complexity, then they are making progress.
  3. Clarify the desired outcome for each unit of work.  With periodic outcomes in mind for each unit of work, it is far easier to set children up for success in producing purposeful high quality work.

Once the big picture had been set out, it was time to focus on the details.


Strategic curriculum leadership 

Phase 2: The details


In researching other schools’ curricula, it seemed that many stopped at the big picture and handed over responsibility to teachers to create medium term plans.  This bothered me for two reasons.  The first is the workload associated with writing medium term plans because doing this well requires significant expertise and plenty of time.  If neither are afforded, then we are left with teachers trawling search engines for tasks to do which are then thrown together.  Doing the work to a high enough standard to enact the intended curriculum is not something that a typical primary subject leader, not remunerated specifically for the responsibility nor usually with the knowledge and experience necessary, can be morally expected to do.  The second reason that handing over subject overviews for subject leaders to write medium term plans from bothered me was because of the inevitable breakdown in cohesion.  All the care invested in the content and sequencing choices for each subject could easily be lost.

The resultant decision was to provide detailed medium term plans for teachers for every unit of work in order to increase the likelihood that the intended curriculum became the enacted curriculum as well as to eliminate unnecessary workload.  With so many plans to write and now beginning to train others with the right expertise, a number of criteria were needed to ensure that there was sufficient detail for teachers.

Components that build to the composite end piece of work

Medium term plans are not divided into lessons, they are divided in to components – chunks of understanding that accumulate to enable children to produce that high quality end piece.  Some components may take a couple of lessons for children to master, while some lessons could provide children with the chance to develop more than one component.  The important idea here is that lessons are the wrong unit of measurement.  Teachers need to exercise autonomy in how much time they spend developing each component because splitting the sequence up into lessons can encourage coverage rather than learning.

Each unit of work has a sequence of learning that builds towards a high quality end result.  We frame these as questions that children should be able to answer once the work has been completed.  By setting out what exactly children need to be able to articulate, it allows those writing the plans to consider different ways in which that can be achieved.

Deliberate vocabulary development

With a good overview of the content of a unit of work and where it fits in to the overall curriculum, choosing target vocabulary that children simply must understand serves two purposes.  The first is to ensure that teachers focus vocabulary instruction on that which will contribute most to understanding the key concepts of that unit.  Those with well developed subject knowledge are far better placed to make those decisions than if teachers needed to get to grips with the content and do this themselves.  The second purpose is to give leaders a simple way of monitoring the extent to which the curriculum has been learned and understood.  Sampling children’s understanding of the identified key vocabulary is a great starting point for assessment.  This can be picked up from looking at the quality of articulation of vocabulary in children’s work as well as some good old fashioned questioning.  More on this in part 3.

Identification of necessary prior knowledge

Ideally, each unit of work builds on what children have been taught at some point in the past but it is inevitable that children will forget some of what is necessary to understand the more complex ideas that come later on.  Time at the beginning of a unit of work needs to be set aside to assess and reteach what children should have remembered from those previous units.  Many schools will experience children joining school at different times of the year and at different points in the key stage and so deliberately checking and reteaching required prior knowledge helps those children to succeed too.

A thread of key concepts

Early on in the first phase of strategic curriculum leadership, I used the national curriculum and the work of the subject associations to clarify the key concepts for each subject – the big ideas that often recur at increasing levels of complexity in most year groups.  Examples of key concepts are:

  • position on a number line in maths
  • the effect of writing on a reader in English
  • the idea that a force is required to change an object’s movement in science
  • cause, effect and legacy in history
  • scale in geography
  • worship in RE
  • identity in PSHE
  • performance in music
  • invasion strategy in PE
  • depth in art
  • accent and pronunciation in French
  • debugging in computing

These concepts should be regularly revisited and developed iteratively over the span of a curriculum and drawing explicit attention to them in medium term plans helped to focus the plans on addressing them as well as drawing attention to high level curriculum thinking for teachers reading and using them.

What teachers need to know

Teachers’ subject knowledge is vital to them explaining clearly and enthusing children in each subject.  Proper research into the topics being taught takes time but this burden can be eased by the inclusion of key subject knowledge for teachers on each medium term plan.  Experts compiled extracts, links and videos for teachers to access as a bare minimum to teach the unit well.  This has now become a significant strand of our CPD offer.  The experts writing the medium term plans will occasionally come across some content that clearly requires some high quality face to face training too.  When developing our art plans and talking to the teachers that would be teaching each topic, it became clear that a unit on perspective drawing and a unit on op art would never be successful without structured training because the teachers had no experience at all of them.  Working with a local artist, they showed our teachers how execute certain artistic techniques and as a result, we had far more confident teachers and excellent pieces of art.

Skeleton presentations for teachers

Teachers would need to take the medium term plans that have been written and turn them into what children will see in each lesson.  However this is another example of a key moment when all the careful thinking about curriculum design can go wrong.  It is very easy now to find published presentations, some free and some needing subscription, with a quick online search.  The quality is variable and so is the relevance.  Choosing the right models, images pictures and video clips to show children can be time consuming when done properly.  For this reason, the plan is for those with the time and expertise to source these visuals and compile them for teachers into presentations.  Teachers will be free to use these if they wish and welcome to add to or improve them.

A key consideration throughout all this work is striking the right balance between prescription and autonomy.  Leaning too far towards prescription may ease workload but remove a lot of teacher choice about what is covered and when.  Leaning too far towards autonomy may give teachers more choice but increase their workload and result in a loss of cohesion.  For this reason, the medium term plans that we wrote detail what children need to know, understand and remember.  Ideas are provided for how teachers might achieve that but it is here that teachers have autonomy to do different things.  These decisions are guided by our teaching and learning guidance about what makes great teaching.

In the third part of this series, I describe the information that we gather that informs us of how well the curriculum is being learned and then what we do with that information.

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Strategic curriculum leadership phase 1: the big picture

Context

This post, the first of three, details the process carried out to reform the curriculum upon taking up my Headship back in July 2018.  Every school’s needs are different so it is important to set the process I carried out into context.  The school I took over was judged as requires improvement in March 2017.  Between then and my appointment, there was a time of leadership instability.  Initial visits to the school revealed that there was a lack of any curriculum leadership – no subject overviews, no progression across the key stage and no shared understanding of how any subject should be taught.


Strategic curriculum leadership 

Phase 1: The big picture


Curriculum design principles

The first task was to settle upon a set of principles to guide any decision making on curriculum choices.  Dylan Wiliam’s Principled Curriculum Design was incredibly useful here and I settled on the following:

If the circumstances were different, for example inheriting an established senior leadership team, then this would have ideally been done in collaboration with other leaders.  In this case, working with colleagues external to the school to challenge my thinking was the only option to address the urgency of change due to having a very small and new to post senior leadership team.

Subject overviews

The national curriculum was the necessary first port of call for subject specifics.  This served two purposes.  The first was to sequence the content across KS2 (we’re a junior school).  Some subjects were more straightforward to sequence, for example history is broadly chronological from year 3 to year 6.  The second purpose was to determine the key concepts that threaded through the key stage – the big ideas that children ought to leave in Y6 with a thorough knowledge of.  I checked in against the curriculum design principles at this point to ensure that what had been arranged met the conditions for a great curriculum.  Carrying out this work and discussing progress with others in different schools led to the first key insight about curriculum development:

School leaders need to do the thinking themselves.

There are many off the peg curricula for schools to buy.  Doing this is a mistake.  Although there will be many common features, a relevant curriculum looks different for a school in Cornwall than it does for a school in Birmingham city centre because alongside meeting statutory requirements, it must meet the needs of the children in the school and the communities that they live in.

The end result of this phase of strategic curriculum leadership is to have curriculum overviews for each subject where each unit of work’s existence can be justified by answering two simple questions:

  1. Why this?
  2. Why now?

The first question relates to the content choice.  Much of this is driven by the national curriculum but there will be some that is not.  Consideration also needs to be given to the type of content and the role it play in the bigger picture of what it means to have a deep understanding of each subject.  If the content is hierarchical, then the acquisition of knowledge further down the line will be dependent upon it.  For example, children need to know how to multiply and divide by powers of 10 before they can convert between different units of measurement.  The choice of content can be made for a few main reasons:

  • it is in the national curriculum,
  • it is not in the national curriculum but nonetheless interesting and therefore worth teaching and
  • it is a necessary component to develop a larger composite schema at some point in the future.

Alternatively, if the content is cumulative, it serves a purpose to build a broader understanding of the subject as a whole but other units may be dependent upon it.  For example, the KS2 history national curriculum stipulates the study of an aspect or theme in British history that extends pupils’ chronological knowledge beyond 1066, but the decision on which aspect or theme could stand independent of the rest of the history content.  Swapping it out with another aspect or theme may not affect the curriculum as a whole.  Leaders’ choice of content should be driven by the school’s local context.  For example, an estate near my school has roads named after aircraft and is called the Bomber Estate, hence our choice to include a unit on the role that that the Battle of Britain played in WWII.

The second question (Why now?) relates to the order in which the subject content is arranged.  With the national curriculum stipulating that the subject content needs to be learned by the end of the key stage (despite for some subjects being organised by year group), mapping out the order of units of work across the key stage by terms or half terms needs deliberate thought.  Some concepts may suit a particular phase but each decision about where in the key stage a unit of work fits should include how it builds on what children already know and how this unit contributes to a more sophisticated understanding further down the line.  This exemplifies the second key insight about curriculum development:

The curriculum is the progress model.

If the curriculum has been designed well enough, with good content choices arranged in a logical order, then its gets progressively harder year on year.  Therefore, just by keeping up with the expectations of the curriculum, children will be making progress.

There are some decisions to be made about links across subjects at this stage of curriculum planning.  Christine Counsell words this memorably as crazy cross curricularity vs intelligent interdisciplinarity.  An example of crazy cross curricularity would be forcing links between subjects to adhere to a topic theme.  I chose to implement subjects as individual disciplines, making links where they naturally arise.  I also took it a step further in an attempt to give children multiple opportunities to interact with subject content across the key stage.  It was originally rather tempting to  to fit those natural links together in the same term, for example doing some Egyptian themed art work in the same term and year group as the Egyptian history unit.  Instead, these links are spaced out so that after children have learned about Ancient Egyptian history in the summer of year 3, they learn about ancient Egyptian art in the Autumn of year 4.  Teachers can use this opportunity to encourage children to recall what they learned about Ancient Egypt as well as adding a layer of understanding to their general knowledge with the art unit.  Trips were planned in the same way.  By moving them out of the term or half term where the unit of work was being taught, we increased the frequency of interaction with the content with the goal of making it more memorable over time.

Composite tasks for each unit of work

The ‘Why this?  Why now?’ consideration was also applied to the sequence of learning in each unit of work.  In researching different schools’ curricula before embarking on this work, I was surprised to see how common it was for leaders to provide teachers with titles for units of work followed by little more than statements copied and pasted from the national curriculum.  If teachers are expected to write medium term plans from subject overviews, how can the curriculum be deliberately built over key stages?  It is because of this that our subject overviews include a sequence of learning for that half term – key components that children need to learn about in order to learn what is required in the national curriculum.  After writing a few of these in conjunction with colleagues from other schools, it led to the third key insight about curriculum development:

Clarify the desired outcome for each unit of work first.

Sequences of learning can then be sketched out to build towards these end points.  Each component in the sequence of learning contributes to children being able to produce a high quality piece of work at the end of each unit.

This part of the process was particularly interesting and the outcome was a good idea of the end product for each unit of work in every subject.  They take two forms.  The first is an authentic cross curricular piece of writing.  We stipulated the purpose based on the English curriculum, for example at the end of a Y3 science unit of work on rocks and soils, children would write to inform about the different rocks and soils with illustrated examples.  The second form of end product is subject specific, for example a scientific enquiry into electrical circuits or a two point perspective drawing.  For some units of work, we looked for a combination, such as a watercolour painting of Japanese cherry blossom with an accompanying written piece explaining the artistic decision making.

These pieces of work are not intended to be independent  and as such they are not there for assessment.   They are there for two reasons.  The first is that producing work of high quality as a result of the build up of learning over a period of time is a great experience for children.  They can see that what they do lesson by lesson is going somewhere.  Success breeds motivation too.  The second reason is that the quality of this work, particularly from our most vulnerable children, provides us with feedback about how well the curriculum has been implemented.  We take a good look at the pieces of work that have been produced alongside professional conversations and as a result, make adjustments to the sequences of learning in order to increase the likelihood that the next cohort produce work that is even better.  Pieces of work become models of excellence for future cohorts.

With a clear idea of what the end goal is, leaders can make far better decisions about content choices and how they are sequenced over a unit of work to best enable all children to be able to produce high quality work.  These sequences form the basis of medium term plans which are written for teachers.  The rationale behind providing detailed medium term plans for teachers is described in the next post.

 

 

 

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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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SATs not as hard as it looks!

One of my favourite responses when working with with children on tricky problems is, ‘Oh is that it?  It looked much more difficult!’ As May draws closer, children in Year 2 and Year 6 up and down the country are preparing for end of key stage SATs. Tests often invoke strong opinions among teachers. As adults who have typically done well in the education system, tests may never have been a worry and we may see them as a chance to shine and something to look forward to. Others may hold the view that testing children is barbaric and sucks the life out of curricula as schools teach to the test. Either viewpoint, or any gradation in between, does not change the reality that schools are accountable for the success of children on tests. Perhaps more important than accountability though is ensuring that all children, particularly those who are disadvantaged, are able to graduate from an education system that provides qualifications through examinations and have access to wider opportunities in the future.

Every school will be familiarising children with the upcoming tests, most likely by using practice papers, with the aim of children knowing what to expect and in turn doing the best that they can when the time comes. In my experience, there are a number of strategies to do this well and there are also some strategies that could well do more damage than good.

SATs are the ultimate summative test for primary school children and it can be tempting to recreate these summative conditions when preparing children for them. Practice tests done in exam conditions where they receive an overall score at the end have some value but could well set children up for failure, creating anxiety as the high stakes take their toll. Removing the test conditions gives children a chance to learn how to take tests. If the stakes are made lower still, for example by removing the importance of the score achieved, then we can go some way to normalising test situations and therefore reducing the likelihood of anxiety.

It is very easy to get hold of past papers and although the examples here are maths questions, the principle applies to reading, spelling and grammar tests too. One important first step in teaching test technique is to model what a successful test taker does and verbalise their thoughts. Displaying certain types of question, saying what you’re thinking and showing what is appropriate to record is crucial to encouraging children to do the same. From this modelling and explanation, teachers can co-construct success criteria for how to go about the test. The criteria will be a selection of tools to choose from depending on the question being tackled. Sure, those who are successful in tests know subject content very well but by explicitly showing what it is that successful test takers do, we can unlock the mystery of how to be successful. Looking at the KS2 sample tests, the success criteria for answering those types of questions might be:

paper-1-sc

sc-2

Over time, advice like this can build up and if children can internalise it, they will be equipped to deal with tricky problems. Of course, strategies like this are no use without good content knowledge but when combined, set children up to succeed.

Once strategies have been modelled, children can be set off practising. Again, it’s tempting to give children their own paper and have them complete it as they would have to during the test. However, it becomes a much more valuable exercise if children talk about what they’re doing so getting pairs to complete papers collaboratively gives them an opportunity to talk and hear how someone else goes about tackling a test. A few guidelines help to keep them focused:

  • Both work on the same question.
  • Agree an answer before moving on.
  • If you disagree with your partner, explain why you think you’re right and listen to their explanation too.

One of the stressors of testing is the time constraint. When children are practising test techniques there is no need for such constraints. Over time, they’ll get quicker and the strategies they work on will become more autonomous. At that point, time restraints can be put in. For example, you might set the target of getting to question 6 in 10 minutes or halfway in 15 minutes.

We’ve all experienced that frustration of seeing children answering a question wrong in a test. This doesn’t have to be the case when they are practising and like in any great lesson, teachers react formatively to the information before them. If everyone is struggling with question 4 about fractions of numbers, then stop them and teach them how to do it, give them a few extra practice questions and make a note to return to it soon. If it is just one pair or a handful of children struggling, then a little scaffolding, followed by some more practice will help. The example below comes from the KS1 sample test:

KS1 Maths SATs.png

Having seen that this pair of children did not know how to approach the question, the teacher explained that division can be seen as sharing and that this is asking to share 35 into 5 groups. The teacher, in blue pen, drew five groups and began sharing one at a time before the pair completed the question. Now evidently that won’t be enough for that pair to have understood completely so it can then be followed up with sufficient practice to internalise the idea.

Once children have completed the practice tests, teachers will be keen to know the score they achieved as well as looking for specific detail about which questions and topics children struggled with. The well-worn phrase ‘Check your work’ will I’m sure be repeated countless more times with varying levels of patience but that means nothing unless children are explicitly taught how to do so effectively. The way that test are marked can encourage the habits of checking. The most structured way would be to mark each question with the number of marks awarded:

Mark the page.png

When scripts are marked this way, children can see which questions they were successful in answering and which they got wrong. When the tests are returned, children can look for the questions they got wrong, and if it was a case of making a mistake, can discuss what happened with their partner and make the necessary corrections.

This may be a sensible place to start but of course it makes children reliant on the marking to see where mistakes have been made. A gradual removal of that scaffold could involve marking the score for each page rather than individual questions:

mark-the-page-2

In this example, out of the 3 marks available for the questions on this page, the pair of children scored 1. It is then down to the pair to re-read questions to first of all determine which are incorrect and secondly to work through it again to see what went wrong.

A third option, to remove the support a little further, would be to count up the total marks, only telling children something along the lines of ‘You scored 33 out of 40. Find and correct the mistakes.’ It goes without saying that these marking strategies push for corrections of mistakes and will do no good if the child never knew the content well enough in the first place.

Test papers are valuable resources to use in the classroom, not least because of the teaching opportunities for test technique that they allow. One subtle but significant benefit is the varied practice they provide too. During maths lessons, the focus may be narrowed to one objective or concept, and rightly so to provide focused support and practice. Tests’ varied questions though provide a great opportunity for revision, to interrupt forgetting and to provide teachers with a wealth of information with which to inform future lessons.

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What I think about…learning

Moving schools and with more than an eye on headship is sure to get you reflecting.  The following posts are what I think about various things, in no particular order.  First was displays.  Next up – learning.

Asking teachers what learning is surely throws up disagreements of varying degree from polite dispute to outright warfare.  What makes sense to me is that learning is a change in long term memory.  Too often, children don’t manage to transfer concepts from working memory to long term memory and without that internalisation, we cannot say that they have learned.  All we can say is that they have done some work.  Now that work might well have been good, but teachers and leaders need to be aware of the difference between short term performance and long term internalisation.

Performance vs learning and the importance of desirable difficulties

The key paradox is that to improve long term retention, learning has to be made more difficult in the short term even to the extent of being unsuccessful.  We remember what we think about and learning happens when we have to think hard about content.  If children are thinking about things other than what we have intended for them to learn (a distracting context, for example) then that’s what they’ll remember.  If they haven’t had to think too hard, they may well produce some decent work but the thinking behind it is less likely to be retained.  So what does this mean?  Units of work and individual lessons need to be planned around what it is that children will be thinking about.  Each decision about what the teacher will do and what the children will do needs to be justified with that question mind and amended accordingly.  We all get better at what we habitually do – we become more efficient – so if we require children to be able to remember knowledge, procedures and concepts, we must give them ample opportunities to practise remembering those things.  The efficacy of the testing effect has robust evidence and seems to work because testing (either yourself or a teacher posing questions) triggers memory retrieval and that retrieval strengthens memories.  Flash cards are a perfect example of this in action.

What’s important is that this testing is low stakes – no grade, no mark at the end of it, just practice in remembering and feedback on responses.  Feedback can take two forms.  Firstly the feedback can be from teacher to child and is as simple as telling the child what they were good at and what they misunderstood, then correcting those misconceptions.  Secondly, feedback can be from child to teacher and involves the teacher using the information to plan what to do next to develop understanding further.

Low stakes testing is a desirable difficulty – one way of making learning difficult (but not too difficult) so that children have to think hard.  Other desirable difficulties apply more to curriculum design:

  • Interleaving (switching between topics)
  • Spacing (leaving some time between sessions on a particular topic)
  • Variation (making things slightly unpredictable to capture attention)

By presenting content to children little and often, with increasingly longer spaces in between, teachers can instill the habit of continual revision rather than only revising when some sort of exam is approaching.  As such, concepts are internalised and retained rather than forgotten.  Robert Bjork’s research on desirable difficulties can be found here:

Knowledge

The idea of knowledge can be divisive.  Recalling knowledge is often described as lower order thinking and many are keen, quite rightly, to get children to do higher order thinking. This can be dangerous because knowledge is necessary but not sufficient.  Higher order thinking skills rely on a sound basis of knowledge and memory so teachers must ensure that these aspects are fully developed before expecting success in higher order thinking.  Knowledge needs to be internalised too.  It’s not enough to be able to Google it.  The more a child knows, the easier it is to assimilate new knowledge because more connections can be made:

Knowledge

Scaffolding

Children are more alike than different in how they learn.  Attempting to teach to a child’s perceived learning style is nonsense.  Everyone, no matter what we are learning, requires three things: knowledge, practice, and feedback on how we’re doing.  It is of course true that children come to a lesson with varying levels of prior knowledge and to a certain extent have different needs in order to be successful.  Teachers may have (and many, I’m sure, still do) differentiated tasks three, four or more ways – an unnecessary burden on time and a practice that reinforces inconsistency of expectations, particularly of the perceived ‘lower ability’ children.   For those children that are behind their peers, if they are not supported to keep up with age related expectations, they will be perennially behind and will never catch up:

Keeping up Differentiation

If we only cater for their next small step in development, we’re failing them.  Instead, all children should be expected to think and work at age related expectations.  Teachers should scaffold tasks appropriately so that all can work at that expectation and we do not have a situation where ‘that’ table are doing something completely different.

Scaffolding

For children that grasp concepts quickly (not our ‘most able’ children – heavy lies the crown…), teachers provide opportunities to deepen their understanding before acceleration into subsequent year groups’ content.  Undoubtedly, there are a small number of exceptions to this.  There are some children that have a lot of catching up to do before we can even think of getting them to keep up with age related expectations.  But if they are removed from lessons to carry out this catch up work, then everything will always be new to them – they’ll miss seeing and hearing how children are expected to think and work.  It is much better to precisely teach, and get them to practise, the basics that are not yet internalised in short bursts and often so that they remain with their peers as much as possible, experiencing what they experience but having the support needed to catch up.  This could be basics such as handwriting and number bonds, for example, and teachers should work closely with parents where there is a need to catch up to set short term, focused homework until the basics internalised.

Intervening

When children misunderstand something, when the work in their books is not to the standard expected, is a crucial time.  Paramedics talk of the golden hour – one hour after an accident – where if the right treatment is given, the chances of recovery are significantly higher.  With children’s learning, if we leave misconceptions to embed or even thrive, we’re failing them.  Even if we mark their books and write some wonderful advice for them to look at and act upon the next day or the day after, we leave holes, holes which children can slip through.  When there is a need, we should intervene on the day so that children are ready for the next day’s lesson and are keeping up.  This of course requires flexible and creative used of TAs and non-class based staff but from experience, it works. Interventions focus on the work done that day.  For some children, pre-teaching may be more beneficial.  Before the school day starts, they are shown the main content of the day’s lesson and carry out a couple of practice examples so that when it comes to the lesson later on, they have some prior knowledge which will improve their chances of success in that lesson.  This concept is in contrast to pre-planned, twelve week intervention programmes where children are removed from other lessons for significant periods of time.

Learning is complex and relies on many interrelating and often unpredictable conditions.  That said, there is much that we can control and doing so greatly increases the likelihood that what we intend to learn is learned – really learned.

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Language acquisition and reading comprehension

Understanding the spoken and written word relies on, amongst other things, word knowledge.  Language aquisition then is part of English teaching that we cannot afford to get wrong.  My thinking in this post is a reflection on reading Time to Talk by Gross; Bringing Words to Life by Beck, McKeown and Kucan; Developing Reading Comprehension by Clarke, Truelove, Hulme and Snowling and Teacing Literacy by Wray.

Getting the explanation of the text right

It is undoubtedly sound advice to analyse a text meant for children to study with the following question in mind: Which bits are children likely to find difficult to understand?’ In any text, the background knowledge of the reader contributes significantly to comprehension, so extracting the required knowledge to understand the references is a must. In the text I’m using (Kensuke’s Kingdom extract (Gibbons) – T4W), children need to know the following schemas to make sense of the main events:

  • The ‘deserted on an island, waiting for rescue’ schema
  • The ‘hunting wild animals’ schema

The explanation of these concepts will come first in a simple explanation of the story structure.

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This way, children will have some prior knowledge with which aspects of the story can fit in with. Further knowledge will of course be needed. They’ll need to know what an orang-utan is!

There’ll be some words that children will not know the meaning of which will become the focus on the language acquisition section of the unit. Here, I’m looking for ‘tier 2’ words; words that are tricky but functional.  Words that are unfamilar but the concept is one that children can understand and talk about.  Tier 1 words are common words that most children come across early in learning English, while tier 3 words are domain specific words. More on language acquisition later.

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After words that may hinder comprehension of the text, I’ll look for phrases that may do so. Idiomatic phrases that children may have never come across before can be tricky for native English speakers let alone those with English as a second language. In the story I’m using, the narrator says ‘I had my work cut out at the back.’ I’ll need to show children the clues around that sentence and use them to explain the meaning.

Once the tricky phrases have been identified, I’ll be looking for examples of the writers’ decision making that create particular effects. The effect of this short story is that we feel worried for the characters. Before we read this story together, I’ll want to have a good idea of which bits do that best and which bits don’t work so well.

Finally, I’ll want to draw attention to the bits that the writer includes because they are crucial to the development of the plot. Certain objects or places are mentioned which may seem, to the inexperienced reader, to be irrelevant at the time but as skilled readers, we know that the writer has woven these things into story on purpose and that they must be important. The same goes for the characters’ actions. The writer, with supreme puppetry, has full control over the characters for the development of the plot and children need to know this and what it looks like.

The result of this thinking is an annotated version of the story which clarifies my thinking on the most important bits, the bits that are most likely to hinder children’s reading comprehension. Thinking clarified, this can be shared with colleagues teaching the same text as well as used when a cover teacher is teaching a lesson in the unit.

 

Language acquisition

Before the unit of work will have begun, the tier 2 words (tricky yet functional) will have been identified. Mastery of a language takes years but we aim for marginal improvements and as such, must set up multiple encounters with new words and phrases, where children think hard about their meanings and applications.

Word meanings are best learned in context – asking children to look up words in a dictionary should not be the cornerstone of language acquisition! There is a trade-off though. Language is best acquired in context, say a story, but comprehension of that story relies on, amongst other things, word knowledge. So here’s my idea

1. Summarise the text with a general structure supported by images.  This summary, referred to at the beginning of this post, will do nicely.

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2. Provide the focus word in a sentence from the text.  Children may need a little help allocating the sentence into the appropriate place in the summary, but through summary and sentence, I’m providing a context for the new word.

3. Provide an image and explanation.  Now’s the time to explain the meaning of the word using the image, which will later become a memory prompt for recalling the meaning. It’s important to have a fluid explanation so that children don’t form an incomplete, context specific understanding of the meaning of the word. This is helped by step 4…

4. Show examples from different contexts.  This will help to highlight shades of meaning.

5. Processing of the vocabulary. At this point, having heard a clear explanation of the word, its meaning and its application, children are to think hard about it, for otherwise, it won’t stick. Two ideas are:

  • Relate it to words they already know. For example, ‘When you’re exhausted, you’re really tired. Tell your partner how it feels…’
  • Suggest situations in their lives that relate to the new word. For example, ‘When you’ve just finished PE, you could say that you’re exhausted. When else could you say that you’re exhausted?’

My thinking is that this is necessary before children work on comprehending the text at a deeper level. This preparation, followed by modelled and shared reading, re-reading and retelling, ‘book talk’, annotations and text marking, responding to questions etc will prime children to comprehend the text. When children do all these things, they’ll be using all those focus words, but more will be necessary in order for children to internalise it.

Remembering the vocabulary

If children are to be able to recall the meaning of a word and use it accurately when speaking or writing, then they need to deliberately practise those things. A lot. Here are six ‘low stakes testing’ question styles, taken from ‘Bringing Words to Life’ (Beck, McKeown and Kucan), to get children remembering and thinking about the language:

Review meaning with a question

The quality of the question is in the detail. Asking whether a word means this or that can cause some hard thinking if those two meanings are very similar or centre around known misconceptions.

Does scrambling mean ‘struggling to stay on your feet’ or ‘moving quickly’?

Cloze sentences

This is self explanatory, but the quality is in the subtle shifting of context. When explaining the word ‘gather’, I would not have used the context of gathering up some drawings so this may cause some deliberation within a selection of other sentences

After a few minutes, I decided to _______ up my drawings and head home.  (Children would have a number of sentences and all of the a focus words to choose from.)

Example or non-example?

Again, the quality comes from the minimally different scenarios which zero in on the possible misconception. Children choose which sentence is an example of the word in action and which is not.

aggressive

Mel broke Zac’s toy so she screamed and threw herself to floor.

Mel broke Zac’s toy so she stared at him and marched towards him with her fists clenched.

Word replacement

Quite simply, a sentence where one of the words can be replaced with one of the focus words.

She seemed troubled and Mrs Ricker wanted to help. (The focus word is ‘agitated’, but children will have to select from all of the focus words)

Word association

Which focus word does this make you think of?

The horse looked agitated so the rider patted it on the back and whispered to it. (Reassurance)

Finish the sentence

The beginning of a sentence is given, including the focus word, and children should finish the sentence in a way that demonstrates understanding of the words meaning.

To give her son reassurance, she….

Here’s an example for just one word:

Low stakes testing

Having a variety of questions for each of the focus words, spaced out through the entire unit (and beyond) provides short, focused practise of manipulating the language and mastering the application of those tricky yet functional words that children need in order to comprehend text and communicate clearly and effectively.

 

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