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9 ways to put sentences at the heart of the curriculum

This post leans heavily upon the great work by Judith Hochman and Natalie Wexler in The Writing Revolution.  In my school, the least advantaged children are not as competent as their advantaged peers at crafting accurate and effective sentences.  To combat this, we aim to put sentences at the heart of the curriculum, with a number of strategies that can be used not only during English lessons but in any subject using the fascinating content that each subject brings.  After all,  writing is thinking and getting children to think clearly about the curriculum is fundamental to them building schemata.

Understanding children’s misconceptions

The starting point for any strategy selection is to understand the misconceptions that children have around sentences.  From The Writing Revolution, categorising these misconceptions as grammatical or stylistic can be helpful.  These strategies may help children to write better sentences but reading is just as important.  For example, children might use run ons when writing and ignore full stops when reading.  Paired reading, sentence by sentence can ensure that children pause at full stops and hear the demarcation of sentences more clearly.

 

Securing subject knowledge

Teachers need good subject knowledge in order to clearly explain the intricacies of the grammar and stylistic choices that need to be made when forming great sentences.  The following images show some key concepts that the sentence strategies rely on:

The role of oral rehearsal

Children can only write what they can say and the following strategies must be built upon plenty of oral rehearsal.


#1 Fragments for completion

What

Using the subject content from various subjects, provide children with fragments.  These fragments contain the key vocabulary and turns of phrase used in the unit of work.  Remember to set up plenty of oral rehearsal first.

Why

Using a part of a sentence as a focal point of discussion around how it make it complete draws attention to what is and what is not a sentence.  Doing so provides opportunities to talk about what is missing (subject, verb etc) and what those might be in order make a complete sentence.  This task also provides an opportunity for precise thinking about the subject content with the aim of putting across information learned in a concise way.


#2 Because, but, so

What

A main clause is provided and children are encouraged to extend it using a conjunction.  The choice of conjunction is important.  Because prompts a causation; but sets up a contradiction and so leads into a consequence.

Why

The three chosen conjunctions make the sentence take very different turns.  If the initial main clause is selected well enough from the subject content in any given subject, children will have to think hard about completing them to portray the subject content accurately.


#3 Sentence functions

What

Provide prompts for children form one of the 4 functions of a sentence.  Use vocabulary, concepts or ideas from the subject content of the wider curriculum.

Why

Aside from more practice in forming different sentence types, children are given an opportunity to think about subject content in a different way.


#4 Change words and phrases for effect

What

A sentence is chosen from a text and a discussion is prompted about the word choices that the writer has made.  Experiment with adding, removing or changing words and phrases and thinking about the effect that the changes have on the reader.  Consider changing the intended effect – what words or phrases would need to be adapted?

Why

Shared writing at the sentence level helps children to see and hear the thought processes of good writers.  Sometimes this can be lost in writing longer pieces so spending time on the analyse and crafting of individual sentence is time well spent.


#5 Convert the voice

What

Provide sentences in the active voice for children to convert to the passive voice and vice versa.  Once there is a sentence in each voice, consider which voice sounds better.

Why

Choosing between the active and passive voice is important when deciding where the reader’s attention should be directed in a sentence.


#6 Manipulating word classes

What

Provide children with a word that can be classed differently depending on context, drawn from the wider curriculum.  Prompt children to write sentences where the word is classed in different ways.

Why

Words can only be classified in context.  A sentence can come alive with carefully selected words used in the right context.


#7 Adding adverbials

What

Provide a single clause sentence which children develop by adding adverbials.  They’ll need to first choose which information would be valuable to add:

  • when the action happened
  • where it happened
  • why it happened
  • how it happened
  • for how long it happened
  • how often it happened
  • with whom it happened.

A further discussion would be useful about whether the adverbial is best placed at the beginning of the end of the sentence.

Why

A sentence can have complexity whilst still retaining only one clause.  Writers are deliberate in what information is included and how a sentence is organised.


#8 Single to multi clause

What

Provide children with a single clause sentence and experiment with using conjunctions to join further clauses to it.  Choose a coordinating conjunction and a further main clause to make a multi clause coordinated sentence.  Experiment with other coordinating conjunctions and decide which coordinated sentence sounds best.  Choose a subordinating conjunction and a subordinate clause to make a multi clause subordinated sentence.  Try the subordinate clause before and after the main clause and decide which configuration sounds best.  Does the coordinated or the subordinated sentence sound better?

Why

Adding further clauses using different conjunctions enables sentences to put across links between ideas.


#9 Adding a relative clause

What

Provide a main clause and consider what more information might about the subject that a reader might need to know.  Which relative pronoun would be best: which, who or that?

Why

The use of a relative clause combines otherwise separate ideas into one sentence, particular when the extra information about the subject is better coming before the action in a particular sentence.


If you liked this, you might like:

Single and multi clause sentences – an analogy

Suspenseful with a pencil

Memory and Writerly Knowledge

Tweaking Talk for Writing Text Maps

Knowledge, Memory and Writing

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How To Get A Four Year Old To Write – EYFS

Mamuna Ahmed

When children start school in Reception, it is not uncommon for them to have significant difficulties in reading and writing.

I’ve had moments where I’ve found it a struggle to decipher a starting point to build upon and enable me to maintain my sanity, but the truth is that it doesn’t matter where you start as long as you do!

Children are wonderful creatures that will do what they are shown but sometimes we forget to do the showing. If we don’t model the expectations, how can we expect children to meet them? Often we become frustrated because a child ‘isn’t listening’ or ‘won’t do as he/she is told’. If we don’t model what good behaviour is, we mustn’t expect it. If we don’t show children what good sitting is, we shouldn’t complain when they don’t do it.

Writing requires the same strategies: model what you want the children to learn.

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Story time in EYFS

Mamuna Ahmed

The Very Hungry Caterpillar? No.

Goldilocks and the Three Bears? No.

Matilda? YES!

Each year, I ask my class to choose a book from the Roald Dahl collection in our classroom  as a way of exposing children to stories beyond what they can read independently.

Children often look forward to story time as it marks the end of the day when they can wind down, listen to  a story, drink their milk, and prepare to go home. You would imagine that the thought of going home would excite them, but often, they would rather stay in school as they are engrossed in what is unfolding in the story and so that we can ‘read just one more chapter’ together! Their groans as a reaction for being told to get their things and to go home as their parents stand glued to the window bring a different kind of satisfaction. We have the luxury of…

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How can a child catch up to learn times tables in one term?

Children should know all times tables by the end of year 4, but there are children that slip through the net, taking much longer to learn them.  There are also children that may seem to have learned times tables by the end of year 4, but forget and have to work into upper key stage 2 to relearn.

This post describes a plan to get children who are in year 3 and 4 and who are not on track to understand times tables by the end of year 4.  The plan is also for children in year 5 and 6 who still do not know their times tables.

A fact a day for a term

The basic structure of the plan is to work on one fact per day.  Working with commutative facts such as 3 x 4 and 4 x 3 together, and taking into account that familiarity with tasks should accelerate the work the longer it goes, a term is a sensible time frame to work in.  This will be systematic, working from x10 to x5, then x2, x4 and x8, then x3, x6 and x9, finishing with x7, x11 and x12.  This is to enable links to be made between times tables.  Within each times tables, we’ll work in increasing order of times tables (i.e., 10 x 1, 10 x 2, 10 x 3 etc.).  Of course, different children will have different starting points, not all starting with 10 x 1.  As days pass, children will consolidate their understanding of a times tables through repetition, multiple representations, counting and low stakes testing.

Multiple representations

For times tables to stick and to be useful in other areas of maths, they need to be rooted in secure understanding.  To allow this to happen, each fact will be represented in different ways, in the first instance by the teacher but increasingly by the child.  The first representation is Numicon, using the example of 4 x 5:

TT numicon

Using this we can explain that 4 x 5 means 5 lots of 4 and that by counting in multiples, we can find out that 4 x 5 = 20.  Children will have done this for 4 x 1, 4 x 2, 4 x 3 and 4 x 4 in the preceding days so they should be able to count in 4s.  However, they may need to do some skip counting, where they whisper or say in their head each number except for the last on each Numicon piece (1, 2, 3, 4; 5, 6, 7, 8; 9, 10, 11, 12…).  The Numicon also helps to lead into other representations:

Repeated addition: 4 + 4 + 4 + 4 + 4 = 20

Bar model:

TT bars

Number line:

TT number line

All the while, the child is practising counting in 4s, and thinking about how 4 x 5 = 20.

Commutativity

One more representation can lead the child into working on the related commutative fact.  An array gives a little further practice seeing how 4 x 5 =20:

TT Array 1

Rotating the array shows how 5 x 4 has the same product:

TT Array 2

This can lead into counting in 5s to get to 20 and showing that 5 + 5 + 5 + 5 = 20.  Then, repeating the representations of Numicon, a bar model and a number line will help to internalise the commutative fact.

Low stakes testing

Having worked on this new fact (and its commutative relative), the child can then work on remembering facts that have been previously worked on in days gone by.  Practising recalling times tables is of course a great way of ensuring that they come to mind immediately when needed.  Quick, effortless recall means that little cognitive effort is required to summon the knowledge, thereby keeping as much working memory as possible freed up to solve a problem that needs the times table fact in the first place.

There are two ways of working on quick recall of times tables.  The first is if the child has a reliably secure understanding of multiplication.  In this case, simple testing such as asking ‘What is 3 x 5?’ or the use of individual flash cards will be fine.  However, if a child is still not quite there with conceptual understanding, testing by using objects or images can help to get them to think mathematically instead of guessing.  The teacher shows any of the pictorial representations already described to prompt thinking about the number of groups, the size of each group and ultimately quick recall of the whole.

 

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On meeting your new class…

Grow your teacher reputation

Teacher-student relationships exert a strong influential role in personal development. Establishing relationships that will allow the children in your class to learn effectively take time and effort.

  • Assure them that you are great at helping children to learn and that you believe that they can all improve. Your assurances will be backed up by teaching great lessons.
  • Quickly learn and use their names.
  • Tell them stories of past students who have had success with you.
  • Speak with a warm, friendly tone but patrol boundaries consistently and fairly. Have a controlled, firm tone ready for appropriate times.
  • Tell them exactly what behaviours you expect from them – that everything you ask them to do will be chosen carefully and you’ll never waste their time or let them waste theirs.
  • Explain what they can expect from you.

Talk and model the vision

At Penn Wood, better never stops. Having sky high expectations from the first moment will pay dividends later in the year.

  • Explain what ‘Better never stops’ looks like in your classroom.
  • Mastery – the urge to get better and better at something that matters.
  • Telling a story is a great way for them to get to know you and to see that you embody ‘Better never stops’ too.
  • Tell them about your class tree, making links to mindset and vision

Expect a growth mindset

Working harder makes you smarter. It is through struggle that children learn more deeply and they should expect to find work desirably difficult.

  • You’re going to practise lots because that’s how you get better – sustained effort is the route to success.
  • Share stories, photos of work or books that show excellence from your current class.
  • Describe the behaviours for learning that you expect to see.
  • Explain the expectation of standard of work.

Set your working expectations

First impressions last a lifetime. The quality and amount of work that you expect in this session should set the tone for the year ahead.

  • Books are at the heart of our curriculum. Choose quality texts to convey your messages.
  • Expect children to think hard about content.
  • Explain how you expect them to work in your classroom so that everyone can work hard and concentrate.

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I did what I knew. And when I knew better, I did better.

Having signed up to an interesting project called #blogsync, I find myself writing a response to the question: ‘What is the change you’d like to see in education in your lifetime?’ When I think of change I recall a quote from Maya Angelou- I did what I knew. And when I knew better, I did better. This seems to sum up the process of change; how the way we teach and train our teachers can stagnate if we’re not careful.

The question breeds further, much more complex musings. If a great change is required, then one needs to pinpoint the problems or inefficiencies in the current system. It’s easy to regurgitate the popular gripes: teacher workload; Ofsted; exams; politicians; attitudes towards the profession in the media; family life etc but to me this seems a fallacy. Many of these issues are beyond the control of the humble teacher.

Therefore, great teaching has to be the priority. Again, easy to say. Teachers need the time, the trust and the guidance to become truly expert. This is not necessarily achieved through such arguments as aiming to attract the most talented graduates, nor expecting teaching to be a post graduate qualification.

In school CPD has to be sensible, yet brave. Sensible enough to avoid the nonsense, flavour of the month type training, yet brave enough to commit to longer term development. One off days led by educational consultants who are not currently teaching well consistently, and who churn out the same presentations regardless of the school they’re visiting, clearly is not the way. Head teachers would not allow this sort of model for the children they are tasked with educating, so why should it be sufficient for the education of teachers?

CPD can make a difference if it is led well. Teachers should be trusted and supported to develop pedagogies in a way that is appropriate for the children that they teach. One size, contrary to popular belief, does not fit all. Pedagogies that stand up to action research in the classroom and avoid the fate of brain gym and the like take time to develop and need to have a thread through regular CPD in school.

So the change I’d like to see is a sensible, yet brave model for CPD across our schools. Weekly topics arbitrarily decided with little or no follow up development is no longer appropriate to develop excellent teachers.

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