Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Book Review: 'The Phantom Lollipop Man' by Pamela Butchart

I’m always dubious of the quality of books aimed at the 7 – 9 age bracket, especially ones which feature lurid cartoonish illustrations and crazy typesetting. It can sometimes seem like funny books are the only thing available to children who are just getting into reading longer books, especially when it comes to newly-published material.

And so it was with a degree of forced open-mindedness and some trepidation that I embarked on my reading of ‘The Phantom Lollipop Man’ by Pamela Butchart, illustrated throughout by Thomas Flintham. But, spoiler alert, I loved it and you will too.

I immediately devoured half the book, even laughing out loud in places where Butchart has clearly written with adults in mind. The fact that the author is a teacher and the book is set in a school (as are the other books in the series) makes for some hilariously insightful gags, all delivered with a touch of real affection – everyone who knows schools will identify with the deputy head who thinks they’re the head teacher, the office ladies who know everything and the teacher who spends lunchtime secretly eating sweets in their classroom.

As is usual with children’s books school life is a touch exaggerated – the children have a den under the stairs in school which they seem to find plenty of time to visit during school hours, Zach carries a smartphone at all times and the group of friends seem to spend a lot of time haring around the corridors. But it is exactly this that children will love; it’s what makes the story more exciting. And after all, Izzy and her friends are getting up to nothing like the Famous 5 and Secret 7 used to – they’re just having adventures that children can relate to more as the setting is so familiar. I quickly introduced it to my children – taking a book to read to them on a train journey was a stroke of genius, I must say – they told me they imagined the whole thing taking place in their own school.

Reading the book aloud was a little bit of a challenge: Izzy’s breathless and tangential narration means assuming the character of an excited year 4 child is a must. But it is this writing style which makes ‘The Phantom Lollipop Man’ an endearing read, particularly as a parent of three girls and the teacher of many more primary-aged children.

Despite this looking like a funny book, it actually tackles quite a serious subject matter – so much so that I actually almost had a little cry at the end. The story involves a group of children trying to solve the mystery of where their normal lollipop man has got to. They misinterpret information from the office ladies and believe him to be dead; sightings of him lead to their conclusion that he is dead, has come back as a ghost and has unfinished business that they must help him with. Adults reading the book will understand their blunder, but children might not. It ends up as an exploration of loneliness and old age and is a gentle reminder to any reader to value all members of society, especially those at risk of becoming marginalised. This aspect of the book makes it fully rounded and a perfect read for anyone in lower key stage two – vocabulary-wise it is perfectly pitched for this age group too with enough new words to explore without it becoming too much.

As a family we’ve already begun reading the only other Pamela Butchart book in the house – her World Book Day offering ‘The Baby Brother From Outer Space!’ – such was our collective love for ‘The Phantom Lollipop Man’. I suspect that next time we visit a bookshop/library we shall be purchasing/borrowing a few more! I will also be less suspicious about brightly-coloured books with words written in bold surrounded by clouds and flashes – lesson learnt.

Friday, 13 April 2018

From Teach Primary Magazine: KS2 World Cup Maths Lesson


I wrote a lesson plan for Teach Primary Magazine to go along with their feature on lessons inspired by the World Cup.

This lesson was one I taught during the last World Cup - an event which also coincided with an Ofter inspection at my the school where I was working at the time. The inspectors commented that they hadn't seen much use of ICT so of course being the computing lead I was asked to tweak a lesson for the next day. Whether or not I'd agree with this sort of thing these days is another matter but suffice to say I met the request and this lesson is what I came up with.

If I remember correctly (I do but I'm trying to be modest) the school's maths lead and one of the inspectors couldn't really find any 'next steps' for me when they gave feedback and only had positive things to say. That's not to say that this is a failsafe Ofsted outstanding lesson - there's no such thing, and it's mostly in the delivery - but that hopefully it will provide a good starting point for a lesson for other teachers.

The whole lesson plan/article is available online so you don't have to squint at the photo above.

https://www.teachwire.net/teaching-resources/ks2-lesson-plan-make-predictions-using-real-time-statistics-from-the-2018-football-world-cup

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Book Review: 'How To Bee' by Bren MacDibble

Children’s publishing seems to be experiencing a time of growth; the shelves of book shops are bursting with newly-published books for kids – so much so that it can be hard to choose which books to read. Some seem to garner much attention whilst others arrive quietly, waiting to be picked up and discovered.

‘How To Bee’ is new to the UK market but has already been doing very well in its native Australia. And it would be a real shame if it did not take off here too. Set in a future Australia where honey bees are all but extinct, this is a book about family, friendship, courage and survival and features an extremely strong, but not invincible, female lead character.

Despite being pegged as a dystopian novel, the story portrays a world not dissimilar to the one we live in now. And this is what makes this book so disturbingly successful. Although the story is a chain of largely dismal events, the reader is sucked into Peony’s life – Bren MacDibble makes it impossible for the reader not to be rooting for her as she pursues her dream of becoming a bee – a hand pollinator. But ‘How To Be’ is not without its moments of light and hope – it would be a hard read if it wasn’t. However, with an ending that is weighted more towards the bitter end of the bittersweet scale, it is an important read for those who only ever experience happily-ever-after endings.

Peony’s abduction by her mother and her cruel partner sees her removed from the countryside and placed into a rich household in the city. There Peony is witness to a way of life far removed from her simple, often harsh, but enjoyable life of sleeping in a shed and working amongst the fruit trees. The author cleverly contrasts these two lifestyles in such a way that merit can be seen in both – in the home of the Pasquales Peony experiences a loving marital relationship – a far cry from the relationships her mother has been in; but she also sees how the poor are exploited in order to provide a lavish lifestyle for the rich – there are several other such contrasts. As with any good dystopian fiction, current affairs are explored and commented on in the context of a fabricated domain.

Although sold as a children’s book, with an age recommendation of 9-12, the subject of domestic abuse – both physical and emotional, towards adults and children – makes this a tough read in places, particularly for the aforementioned age bracket. I would suggest that this book is better suited to teenage readers for this reason.

There is no reason why this challenging read shouldn’t be celebrated – it is well-written, introduces children to other ways of life (and a new dialect) and despite being brutal in places is told with a very gentle touch. With its well-formed and believable characters – some loveable, some hateable – ‘How To Bee’ is a book really to get into – I found it hard to put down, such was the grip it had on me.

Thursday, 5 April 2018

Book Review: 'To The Edge Of The World' by Julia Green

When it comes to evoking a sense of place Julia Green has done an excellent job in her latest book 'To The Edge Of The World'. The islands and seas of the Outer Hebrides are conjured in the mind of the reader as they read of the journey Jamie and Mara’s friendship takes. With the island setting and a dose of sailing jargon readers of Morpurgo and Ransome will find something they’re at home with here.

Jamie lives on the island with his family although he misses Dad who works away on the mainland during the week. Mara lives on the island too, but away from other people. Mara’s mum is suffering from mental illness (this is hinted at throughout the story) and she too misses her father whom she hasn’t heard from in years. An unlikely pair, Jamie and Mara become friends, but always with a difficult, awkward relationship, and embark (accidentally on Jamie’s part) on a daring and dangerous adventure. Along with the well-developed settings, the fact that Julia Green tackles real-life issues that many young people face is a strength of this book.

Although the story has the reckless voyage to St. Kilda, the Outer Hebrides’ furthest islands, and the friendship dimension to commend it, readers might be left wishing for a little more: compared to other similar stories it isn’t as well-rounded and has the potential to fall a little flat. Also, the story is narrated by Jamie and as such the writing is clipped: the short sentences characterise a young teenage boy well, but aren’t always easy to read.

Having said this, ‘To The Edge Of The World’ will certainly appeal to readers who love reading about friendship or who particularly enjoy stories about island life and seafaring – certainly those who have been charmed by Morpurgo’s tales about the Isles of Scilly. In the classroom, ‘To The Edge Of The World’ might be used to great effect alongside other similar books, particularly as a source of descriptive passages for children to use as inspiration for their own writing.

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

From The @TES Blog: 5 Things To Do Instead Of Revising For SATs

From The @TES Blog: 5 Things To Do Instead Of Revising For SATsThis might come across as idealistic or cynical. It might even sound hypocritical to those who’ve taught Year 6 alongside me. But there really is more to Year 6 than Sats revision – even in Sats week.

Regardless of your views on key stage 2 testing, it’s the system with which we’re currently lumbered. And I would always advise that children are prepared for them.

But by preparing, I don’t mean drilled to within an inch of their life: Easter booster classes, daily past papers, hours of homework and the like. There are other ways of helping children to be ready for that week of testing in May – ways that prepare them mentally; ways that ensure they remain emotionally intact.

Here are five suggestions:

Click here to read the whole article: https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-views/five-things-do-instead-sats-revision

From The @TES Blog: Teacher Development: The Balance Bike Approach

So far, I’ve successfully taught two of my three daughters to ride a two-wheeled pedal bike. While I learned to cycle the traditional way, by using stabilisers and then ditching them once I was a bit more confident, I've eschewed that for my own children and instead followed the current trend for balance bikes.

It really does work, reducing the complexity of the learning process. And it made me think: when we develop teachers’ skills, either during initial training or as part of ongoing professional development, should we use a balance bike approach, or should we bolt on stabilisers?

Allow me to flesh out the analogy...

Click here to read the whole article: https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-views/how-a-balance-bike-approach-training-will-give-us-better-teachers

Friday, 16 March 2018

Comprehension Strategies And The KS2 Reading Test - What and How Should We Teach?

Comprehension Strategies And The KS2 Reading Test - What and How Should We Teach?
In my first blog post in this series I explored the difference between reading comprehension strategies and reading skills. I noted that many of the skills that are tested in the KS2 SATs also have a matching reading comprehension strategy. With the conclusion that the deliberate use of strategies develops and embeds skills, I posed a question to myself:

Is there a way to teach comprehension strategies that prepares children well for the KS2 reading test?

In answering my second question I had to consider that which is different about the reading test. Whereas the commonly-used comprehension strategies do not require children to give written answers to questions they ask or generate themselves, the test does. This is the main difference. In addition to this, the year 5/6 National Curriculum objectives mention no requirement for children to provide written answers to questions and many of the objectives aren't tested at all by the SATs. The objectives circled in red aren't tested by SATs; the ones outlined in blue are.
Without having any evidence back this up with, I believe that there are children who, having been taught strategies which have become skills, are able to complete the reading test, confidently giving written answers to the questions it asks. I suspect that these children are also able writers and they have probably had a healthy relationship with literacy in general from an early age. There is a potential argument here for a sole focus on teaching comprehension strategies and never asking children to spend time practising giving written answers to comprehension questions.

But, I also think that there are probably children for whom some explicit instruction about how to give written answers to comprehension questions will be useful and necessary (if they are to have a chance of demonstrating their reading skills in a test, which all year 6 children are). Again, I have no research evidence to back this up, only anecdotal experience. However, there is research evidence to back up the idea that particular written activities do support reading comprehension.

I turned to Steve Graham and Michael Hebert's 'Writing to Read' report which states:

"Writing-about-text activities had a positive impact on struggling students’ understanding of a text. An important key to success in using these activities with lower-achieving students was to provide them with ongoing practice and explicit instruction."

The report recommends that students do write in response to things they have read and outlines a series of recommendations of activities. One of the recommendations is that teachers should have students answer questions about a text in writing, or create and answer written questions about a text:

"Answering questions about a text can be done verbally, but there is greater benefit from performing such activities in writing. Writing answers to text questions makes them more memorable, as writing an answer provides a second form of rehearsal. This practice should further enhance the quality of students’ responses, as written answers are available for review, reevaluation, and reconstruction (Emig, 1977).

For generating or responding to questions in writing, students either answered questions about a text in writing; received practice doing so; wrote their own questions about text read; or learned how to locate main ideas in a text, generated written questions for them, and then answered them in writing. These practices had a small but consistently positive impact on improving the reading comprehension of students in grade 6–12 when compared to reading or reading instruction."

Lemov et al's 'Reading Reconsidered' also provides plenty of classroom evidence that writing supports reading comprehension. They summarise:

"...the strategic use of writing made reading and discussions of reading- the other core activities of English class—more rigorous, focused, productive and engaging- ‘better’ in short.  Writing is a deeply valuable endeavor in its own right, but it is also an endeavor that works in synergy with reading in specific ways."

From 'Writing To Read'
Activities other than answering questions include responding to a text through writing personal reactions or analyses/interpretations of the text, writing summaries of a text, taking notes on a text, and creating and/or answering questions about a text in writing. Actually, all of these activities have a greater effect size than answering questions and therefore should be explored further in the primary classroom - another blog post for another time!

What does come through both the 'Writing To Read' report and Lemov et al's 'Reading Reconsidered' chapter entitled 'Writing For Reading' is an emphasis on explicit teaching: if we want children to be able to write well about the things they read in order to develop a better understanding of what they read, we must explicitly teach these skills - they must be modelled well by the teacher.

What I have found is that evidence from both research and successful classroom practice shows that an approach to teaching reading strategies which includes giving children the opportunities to practise giving written answers to comprehension questions (in order to prepare them well for a test) is not something we should avoid, but is something that, if done right, could be beneficial to the children we teach.
From the IES guide
So, is there a way to teach comprehension strategies that prepares children well for the KS2 reading test? Yes, I think so. As long as there is modelling, discussion (book talk) and time for children to practise, a sequence of learning that will improve reading skills can (and should) focus both on teaching reading comprehension strategies (as outlined in the EEF and IES guidance) and the elements of the National Curriculum (as outlined in the content domain in the KS2 test developers' framework) as they can act reciprocally due to similarities between the skills and the strategies. Reading instruction which includes, amongst other things, teachers, asking children to respond in writing to well-written questions based on a manageable amount of text is a good idea when preparing children for KS2 tests. It shouldn't be the only element of reading instruction but it should help. Where children lack particular skills it will be best to focus modelling and practise on those particular skills.

If children are only given written comprehension activities the comprehension strategies are not likely to be employed or developed. But if the written comprehension activities are backed up with explicit teaching of the supporting strategies (as well as vocabulary, any other necessary background knowledge and how to write answers), then comprehension strategies should be developed. Such explicit teaching (including modelling and discussion) should focus on ensuring that children know what the strategy is, how it is used and why and when to use it. Children can be shown how to use the strategies when completing written comprehension activities.

The York Reading for Meaning Project assessed three reading comprehension interventions delivered by teaching assistants in 20 primary schools. The three interventions were carried out with children who had been identified as having the poor comprehender profile - the three interventions were intended to help children who struggled with reading comprehension to overcome their problems. The three interventions differed:
  • Oral Language Programme: vocabulary, reciprocal teaching with spoken language, figurative language and spoken narrative
  • Text Level Programme: metacognitive strategies, reciprocal teaching with written language, inferencing from text and written narrative
  • Combined Programme: all of the above (vocabulary, reciprocal teaching with spoken language, figurative language, spoken narrative, metacognitive strategies, reciprocal teaching with written language, inferencing from text and written narrative)
Based on the findings, the report concludes that 'the Oral Language intervention overall was the most effective of the three programmes. Theoretically, this finding provides strong support for the theory that the reading comprehension difficulties seen in those who show the poor comprehender profile are a secondary consequence of these children’s oral language weaknesses.'.

Here then is evidence that children who are struggling with reading comprehension, and are falling behind, will benefit from an oral language programme as intervention. In the context of this blog post - which focuses on teaching all children (including those are aren't struggling with comprehension but are still learning new skills and strategies) - it is worth questioning whether these research findings bear relevance - should we scrap writing as part of first teaching of reading and focus solely on an oral approach?
Examples of combined programmes from The York Reading for Meaning Project: An Overview


However, the outcomes of the project also show that 'all three interventions (Text Level, Oral Language and Combined) improved children’s reading comprehension skills'. In this blog post I have been suggesting what is essentially a combined programme for everyday classroom-based reading instruction (see the examples above). The question the research doesn't answer is, where first teaching of reading comprehension is concerned (i.e. not interventions for poor comprehenders), whether or not the benefits of writing discussed above are still outweighed by only focusing on an oral-only approach.

What is potentially telling is that 'the children who received the Combined programme experienced all components but at half the quantity of the other two intervention programmes'. What if children were given a whole quantity of both oral and written approaches? Isn't this something that a reading lesson, with an adequate amount of time given over to it, could offer children that an intervention (in this study set at 30 minutes long) could not?

It would be interesting to know which approach (oral, text or combined) shows the best results for all learners rather than interventions for poor comprehenders . For teachers working on helping children to be prepared for KS2 testing it would be good to see research which focuses on first teaching for all learners where the results are taken from SATs performance. Whether you are in support of year 6 testing or not, they are currently a feature of the UK's education system. In order for children to feel prepared (and hopefully not stressed by uncertainty about the tests) and in order for schools to demonstrate accurately the reading ability of their children, most schools will want to allow children to practise giving written answers to comprehension questions. Would it be too much of a gamble in this case for schools to take an oral-only approach?

Expanding on some of the ideas in this blog post, in previous blog posts I have written about...

Reading Strategies vs. Reading Skills - What's The Difference?

Reading Strategies vs. Reading Skills - What's The Difference?
After my last post about reading (Should We Teach Reading Strategies In Isolation Or In Combination?) I was led to think more clearly about what exactly I meant by strategies. Martin Galway challenged me on my potential year 6 bias (i.e. teaching to help children access the KS2 tests) when discussing strategies. When talking about teaching reading comprehension strategies in isolation did I actually mean teaching the skills that the SATs assess (as laid out in the KS2 Test Framework document)? On reflection, I probably was thinking more about giving children practise of answering specific types of questions similar to those found in the tests rather than the widely-accepted comprehension strategies laid out in documents such as the EEF KS2 Literacy Guidance or the IES Improving Reading Comprehension in Kindergarten Through 3rd Grade guide.

Why had I not distinguished well enough between the areas of the content domain and the most commonly-known reading strategies? Probably because some of them are similar (words in bold are comprehension strategies, words in brackets are areas of the content domain as laid out by the English reading test framework):
  • Prediction (2e predict what might happen from details stated and implied)
  • Questioning
  • Clarifying/Monitoring/Fix-up (2a give/explain the meaning of words in context; 2g identify/explain how meaning is enhanced through choice of words and phrases; 2f identify/explain how information/narrative content is related and contributes to meaning as a whole)
  • Summarising/Retelling (2c summarise main ideas from more than one paragraph)
  • Inference (2d make inferences from the text / explain and justify inferences with evidence from the text)
  • Activating prior knowledge
  • Visualisation
There were two questions I had to answer:
  1. What is the difference between a strategy and a skill?
  2. Is there a way to teach comprehension strategies that prepares children well for the KS2 reading test?
What is the difference between a strategy and a skill?

In answering my first question a couple of documents were useful:
  1. Clarifying Differences Between Reading Skills and Reading Strategies - Peter Afflerbach, P. David Pearson, Scott G. Paris
  2. Reading Strategies Versus Reading Skills: Two Faces of the Same Coin - Polyxeni Manoli, Maria Papadopoulou
A quotation from Afflerbach et al to summarise the conclusions of both papers:

"A concrete example may clarify the distinction. Suppose a student determines he or she has only a vague understanding of a paragraph as he or she reaches the end of it. The student wants to do something to clarify his or her comprehension so the student slows down and asks, “Does that make sense?” after every sentence. This is a reading strategy—a deliberate, conscious, metacognitive act. The strategy is prompted by the student’s vague feeling of poor comprehension, and it is characterized by a slower rate of reading and a deliberate act of self-questioning that serves the student’s goal of monitoring and building better comprehension. Now imagine that the strategy works and the student continues to use it throughout the school year. With months of practice, the strategy requires less deliberate attention, and the student uses it more quickly and more efficiently. When it becomes effortless and automatic (i.e., the student is in the habit of asking “Does that make sense?” automatically), the reading strategy has become a reading skill. In this developmental example, skill and strategy differ in their intentionality and their automatic and nonautomatic status." (p368)

And one from Manoli and Papadopoulou:

"After all, we should bear in mind that, while automatic use of reading skills is a goal of reading instruction, a reading skill was once preceded by a period of deliberate and conscious application (Afflerbach et al., 2008). Thus, we can consider their relation to be two faces of the same coin, that is two sides of any reading process or task, since skills are strategies that have become automatic through practice whereas strategies 'are skills under consideration' (Paris et al.,1983: 295)."

So, by teaching strategies we develop skills. Strategies are used deliberately and skills are used automatically. During a KS2 reading test children might use strategies deliberately in order to answer questions or they might demonstrate that they possess particular reading skills by answering questions without much deliberate thought. There is a reason why the skills tested by the tests are similar to the strategies that can be taught to aid comprehension: in teaching those strategies, children gain those skills.

In their article Afflerbach et al touch upon the focus of my last blog post:

"Teaching skills involves practice and feedback to improve speed and efficiency, which taken together amount to what we call fluency. One challenge for teachers of reading is fully investigating the strategy–skill connection and determining how an effortful strategy can become an automatic skillA related challenge is designing instruction that makes clear the steps of strategies while providing practice so that strategies may transform themselves into skills." (p372)

We want children to gain reading skills and to do this we teach them strategies. As teachers it is important that we engage in this challenge of planning our teaching so that strategies are taught well - the word challenge is telling: this is not an easy task and it is one we must put a lot of thought into. Simply turning up to a lesson and reading a book is not going to develop necessary reading skills in all children. I would also continue to argue that teaching a reading lesson where a range of strategies are expected to be used, or a range of skills are expected to be demonstrated, to children who do not yet know how to use those strategies or demonstrate those skills is going to have little impact on their development of strategies and skills. As such, I still believe that, for children such as these, strategies should be taught in isolation until they become skills at which point they can begin to employ a multi-strategy/skill approach when reading.

To find out the answer to me second question, follow this link: Is there a way to teach comprehension strategies that prepares children well for the KS2 reading test?

From The @thirdspacetweets Blog: What Every KS2 Teacher And Maths Lead Needs To Know About NEW KS1 Maths Assessment Frameworks

From The @thirdspacetweets Blog: What Every KS2 Teacher And Maths Lead Needs To Know About NEW KS1 Maths Assessment Frameworks
Valentine’s Day 14th February 2018 brought KS1 teachers not one but two lovely treats: the teacher assessment frameworks for the 2017/18 academic year and the same document for the 2018/19 academic year.

While there are no changes for the current cohort of Year 2, the current Year 1s will be teacher-assessed on a new and amended framework.

Of course, the biggest question on everyone’s lips is…are the changes to the KS1 assessment framework for Maths an improvement?

To find out more, read on here: https://thirdspacelearning.com/blog/new-ks1-assessment-frameworks-maths-insights-ks2/

Monday, 12 March 2018

Innovate My School Interview: Mental Health, Teacher Workload And Secret Identities

Innovate My School Interview: Mental Health, Teacher Workload And Secret Identities

http://www.innovatemyschool.com/ideas/mental-health-teacher-workload-and-secret-identities-interview

The folks over at Innovate My School got in touch and asked if they could be interview me. Here's how they introduce the interview:

"Until recently, ‘That Boy Can Teach’ was a whisper on the wind of education. Writing under a pseudonym, he quickly became a trusted, popular name in helping teachers and school leaders to reach their full potential (while being humble enough to balk at such a description). Now, however, Iron Man’s helmet has been removed, and Tony Stark - or rather, school leader Aidan Severs - has been revealed to the world.

Given the increasing emphasis in education on tackling issues surrounding teacher workload and mental health, Aidan seemed like just the person to interview..."

To find out what I have to say on a couple of questions I feel hugely unqualified to answer, and a couple that I did know how to answer, follow the link:

http://www.innovatemyschool.com/ideas/mental-health-teacher-workload-and-secret-identities-interview

p.s. that's my knee in the foreground of the picture

Book Review: 'The House With Chicken Legs' by Sophie Anderson

Taking a mainstay of Slavic folklore and re-imagining it for a generation who are most likely ignorant of its origins turns out to be a clever move for ‘The House With Chicken Legs’ author Sophie Anderson. And to write a debut novel for children which is all about death is brave – but Anderson triumphs.

Nina lives in a house with chicken legs with no one but her grandmother, Baba Yaga, and a Jackdaw for company. Apart from, that is, the dead people who visit her house every night. And she has no chance to make any other (living) friends because every time she gets settled somewhere the house literally ups sticks and pelts across the world to find a new location.

Then there’s her destiny: to be the next guardian of The Gate between life and death. A destiny she does not want at all. She hates the thought of guiding the endless stream of dead visitors into the afterlife for the rest of her living days.

I said the book was all about death, but actually ‘The House With Chicken Legs’ is all about life. It’s about not getting what you want, growing up, learning about other people, making friends, experiencing the pain of loss, making mistakes, making the same mistakes again, finding joy in the little things, regret, seeing the beauty of the world, loyalty, betrayal, love, kindness… see what I mean? It’s about life and it will make any reader thankful for theirs and those they share it with.

To read this book, and to journey with Nina, both around the world and through her life, is to understand her every thought and feeling, such is the quality of Anderson’s compelling writing. The book will provoke thought and conversation about life and death, regardless of your beliefs on the matter – in the classroom, or at home, it will provide a good starting point for exploring and understanding traditions and beliefs from around the world.

‘The House With Chicken Legs’ is a beautifully human book that has the potential to draw young readers into the world of literature where real life themes are explored in great detail. Readers who are, like Nina, growing up and beginning to better understand the increasingly adult world around them, will love this coming-of-age story and will no doubt benefit from the lack of clichéd modernity that clogs up other books of the genre. Highly recommended.

Should We Teach Reading Strategies In Isolation Or In Combination?

I recently posted a thread on Twitter which attracted some opposition. The thread went like this:

If you are currently planning reading lessons that don't have a focus on developing just one strategy (i.e. retrieval or inference) then I suggest that you might revisit your plans, changing them so that only one strategy is focused on at a time. I would suggest that one lesson spent on one reading strategy followed by another lesson on a different strategy is not enough for teaching children the strategies they need to be able to comprehend well. A sequence of lessons focused on just one strategy is preferable. 

Within reading teaching sequences that focus solely on one strategy ensure that you model answering questions and give children chance to practise answering similar questions with similar answer structures. If you truly want children to improve their reading strategies make sure plenty of your lessons are focused solely on one main strategy rather than always asking a range of questions. 

Planning lessons that expect children to exercise a range of strategies will help them to understand the whole text BUT won't provide the best opportunities to focus on the development of a particular strategy, meaning they are less likely to improve in their use of it. For example, if you want children to become better at making inferences plan several lessons where ALL the questions you ask are inference questions EXCEPT where retrieval and vocabulary questions will help children to make better inferences. 

When teaching reading strategies it is my belief that whole sequences of lessons should focus on just ONE of those skills UNLESS using other strategies helps children to practice the focus strategy of the lesson.

Whilst replying to people who opposed my ideas I found it necessary to clarify some matters:
  • within such a lesson other strategies may be employed, but usually in support of the focus strategy
  • by using the word focus I mean that that strategy would be in the spotlight being the thing you intend children to improve at, but that this would not mean other strategies weren't used in support
  • such lessons should only be taught when wanting children to improve their use of a particular strategy and shouldn't be imposed on children who can already sufficiently use the strategies
  • in such a lesson, a teacher wouldn't attempt to suppress the use of already strong strategies that children wanted to use
  • this shouldn't be the only reading provision that a child receives - there should be plenty of additional opportunities for children to naturally employ a full range of reading strategies whilst reading
  • these lessons should be taught with a view to children eventually becoming independently responsible for using the strategy alongside a range of other strategies in their reading

The EEF guidance report 'Improving Literacy in Key Stage 2' says that 'the following strategies should be modelled and practised to ensure they become embedded and fluent: prediction, questioning, clarifying, summarising, inference, activating prior knowledge'. It goes on to suggest that for each strategy children should 'learn three things: what the strategy is, how the strategy is used, and why and when to use the strategy.' It goes on to state: 'Developing each of the strategies requires explicit instruction and extensive practice... These strategies can be introduced in isolation, but pupils should also be taught how to integrate combinations of strategies to develop effective comprehension of different texts'

And it is the aforementioned isolated introduction with which I am concerned. By singling strategies out for those not yet adept at using them, then explicitly modelling how they can be used and then giving children time to practise using them, children will improve their ability to use particular reading strategies in combination with others.

And, as already mentioned, I think it is difficult to develop such independence in the combining of strategies by only spending the odd lesson on each one. Sustained modelling and practise of the same strategy which follows the gradual release of responsibility model (an explicit description of the strategy and when and how it should be used; modelling of the strategy in action by teachers and/ or pupils; collaborative use of the strategy in action; guided practice using the strategy with gradual release of responsibility; and independent use of the strategy) is surely more likely to have an impact.

A few contributors to the thread provided some interesting additional reading:

Daniel Willingham's 'Infer this...' blog post discusses the findings from some research and how it supports his interpretation of the effect of comprehension instruction in that, in the case of teaching inference-making as a strategy, 'it alerts students to the importance of making inferences, and perhaps more broadly (for less skilled readers) that it is important to THINK while you read. But practising inferences does not lead to a general inferencing skill for two reasons. One, as noted, inferencing depends on the particular text, and two, whatever cognitive processes contribute to inferencing are already well practised from use in oral language---we continually draw inferences in conversation.' He summarises saying 'comprehension instruction is a great idea, because research consistently shows a large benefit of such instruction. But just as consistently, it shows that brief instruction leads to the same outcome as longer instruction'.
Tim Shanahan's 'Teaching Reading and Reading Comprehension Strategies' blog post summarises: 
'I would definitely teach comprehension strategies. The way I think of strategies most basically is that they give readers some tools they can use independently to make sense of what they read... Some programs [teach and gradually release responsibility] with multiple strategies, all at one time, and others teach the strategies one at a time, adding them together as you go (both approaches work—but I find the latter to be simpler and easier to teach). You can usually teach a strategy well in 3-4 weeks if you have students practising with lots of different texts... Summarising a newspaper article is different than summarising a story, and both are different than a science chapter. Make sure that the students are learning not only the strategy, but the content of the texts too. Finally, remind the kids from time to time to use their strategies or engage them in strategies discussions.'

The IES Practice Guide 'Improving Reading Comprehension in Kindergarten Through 3rd Grade'  has as its first recommendation that we 'Teach students how to use reading comprehension strategies'. It states: "Good readers use many forms of thinking and analysing text as they read. It is therefore important to teach beginning readers strategies for constructing meaning from text. A strategy is the intentional application of a cognitive routine by a reader before, during, or after reading a text  Comprehension strategies help readers enhance their understanding, overcome difficulties in comprehending text, and compensate for weak or imperfect knowledge related to the text. The strategies may be taught one by one or in combination. Both approaches can improve reading comprehension, so the panel recommends that teachers choose the approach they are most comfortable with in the classroom. Teachers should also help students learn how to use comprehension strategies independently through the gradual release of responsibility. When releasing responsibility to students, however, be mindful that students differ in the extent of modelling or support they need from teachers in order to use strategies effectively."

Although all three resources go into more detail than the quotations I've included here, and I'd recommend that you read them for yourselves, there are some general things I'd like to pull out of what we've read:
  • It would seem that whilst Willingham agrees that comprehension strategies should be taught, he also thinks that research shows that the amount of practise time children get is not important. He points out that the main outcome we should be aiming for is that children remember to use strategies - in this view, the only benefit of repeated practice of particular strategies then is that children will have practised them so often that they never forget to employ them. But with inference-making for example, if children are not aware of the vast array of possible questions they might ask of a text in order to infer necessary information they might never know to ask those questions of a text, even when they do remember that they should ask questions of a text to ensure they have made necessary inferences. It is only possible to expose children to such a vast array of possible questions through a whole sequence of lessons, or, admittedly, a range of disconnected one-off lessons or questions within lessons over a longer period of time. A one-off lesson or question, with little time spent on it, is surely less likely to prompt a child to remember to use inference-making strategies than the recollection of a whole sequence of focused lessons.
  • Both Shanahan and the IES guide state that strategies can be taught in isolation (as does the EEF guidance report) but that strategies can also be taught in combination and that the choice is down to teachers. So perhaps, my belief in teaching strategies in isolation is just a personal preference - mine and Tim Shanahan's! To my mind though, that intentional application of a cognitive routine is a lot easier to approach as a teacher if I, and the children, are only having to think about one cognitive routine whilst we are teaching it and learning it. The potential benefit in doing this is that it limits the cognitive overload that might come with trying to learn and practise too many new strategies all at once when you aren't sufficient in using one, some or all of them.
  • The IES guide recognises that some students will need different amounts of modelling and practise before they can apply it independently and consistently. It will be the case that, if you teach strategies in isolation, some children will move beyond the need for this and therefore will not need to be involved in such activity as the explicit teaching of isolated strategies - this is common sense.
Whilst I know there are still many out there who would disagree with me, I think I would still advocate the teaching of reading strategies in isolation for readers who are not yet strong in the use of particular strategies. Certainly, for teachers who are hoping that, for example, children in their class get better at making inferences, I would recommend, instead of asking the odd, random inference question in a discussion or as part of a written reading comprehension, that lessons are more focused on the modelling and practise of particular kinds of inference questions about a range of texts. Without taking this approach teachers leave the learning of particular strategies to chance, hoping that children gain certain skills as a result of random exposure to infrequent opportunities to practise those strategies.

I've not fully thought through the implications of the following analogy but it's one a few have used in support of my position. We wouldn't teach children to solve a complex maths problem that required the use of several different maths facts and strategies until children were able to each one individually. Imagine a problem that required children to complete some multiplication, some division and to have a good idea about percentages and measures - we would first teach extensive learning sequences on each of the constituent parts before expecting a child to understand how to complete the question.

In reading, we are not afforded the luxury of being able to teach things in such isolation - a spiral curriculum approach is necessary, partly facilitated by increasing the complexity of the text. For example, decodable books used in the Early Years and KS1 require very little comprehension, for example, whereas whole novels used in KS2 require children to decode, recognise words, utilise background knowledge, retrieve and infer information, summarise and so on. Along a continuum in the middle of those two extremes children use age-appropriate books which allow them to exercise existing word recognition and language comprehension strategies and skills.

However, at any point along that continuum a child might struggle with any one of the strategies that they usually use. It might be that one child finds themselves in this position, it might be a group of children and it may be a whole class. At this point it might be useful to isolate the strategy they are particular struggling with and teach them accordingly, modelling and giving practise time across a range of age-appropriate texts whilst releasing the responsibility to them so that they can eventually use the strategy independently in the texts they are currently reading.

Whether or not we will all agree with my stance, I'm sure that more of us would agree that a great deal of thought needs to be put into how we go about teaching children to read. Over the years I have been guilty of expecting children, particularly those with limited reading experience, to just absorb the ability to comprehend well through the odd read aloud and the rare comprehension task - this didn't work. My reaction to this has been to seek structured approaches to teaching children the strategies they need to be able to read well, the focus of this blog post being one of them.

Monday, 5 March 2018

Book Review: 'Max and the Millions' By Ross Montgomery

As with all good children’s books these days, this isn’t just a straight yarn. ‘Max and the Millions’ by Ross Montgomery begins by introducing one of the unlikely heroes of the story - a school caretaker with more than just a knack for building intricate models of anything and everything. Next we meet Mr Pitt the typically unlikeable headmaster. And then we encounter the story’s other (full-size) hero: Max, who is hiding in a cupboard. Max loves making models; he’s also deaf. This representation of a ‘minority group’ is important in children’s literature. Montgomery writes sensitively and convincingly about the trials a deaf child might face making this an important lesson in empathy for young readers.

Although this is a story about how a warring society of magically created microscopic people are rescued by a seemingly improbable pair of pre-teen boys and a hoard of pony-obsessed 5 year old girls on a sugar-bender, it is also a story about friendship, fitting in, integrity and small things mattering. Whilst Lower Key Stage 2 children will enjoy the miniature adventures of King Luke and his trusty flea as he fights the Bin King and the Red Queen, they will also be caused to think about how first impressions don’t always count, how kindness and selflessness are key characteristics to develop in oneself and how forgiveness is an essential ingredient for peace and friendship.

The story’s absolute highlight comes when (slight spoiler alert) the tiny Luke becomes king of the united people of The Floor (the minute kingdom the small people inhabit). The power goes to his head and, despite his friend Ivy’s warnings, he forgets the golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you with disastrous consequences. Even if no other part of the book is used as a talking point between adults and children, this part should be; it opens up a safe space in which to discuss politics and has parallels to current situations that are playing out on the world stage. The headmaster’s despotic antics throughout the book also provide opportunities to discuss similar issues.

This well-written book is a great choice for parents and teachers of children who have expressed interest in world affairs but who might be too young to fully understand the complexities and unpleasant details of the situations. It’s also recommended for fans of stories such as Terry Pratchett’s The Carpet People stories – those young but capable readers who are quite at home in stories with impossibly fantastical settings.

Sunday, 4 March 2018

From the @BradResearchSch Blog: 9 Things You Didn’t Know About Being A Fluent Reader

From the @BradResearchSch Blog: 9 Things You Didn’t Know About Being A Fluent Reader

My latest blog post for Bradford Research School takes a look at what's going on behind the scenes when someone is reading fluently. In it I suggest that there are 9 things teachers might not consider when teaching and assessing fluency in children's reading. Each of the 9 points is a development of information provided in the EEF's 'Improving Literacy in Key Stage 2' guidance report. The 9 points are as follows, but you'll have to click through to the Bradford Research School blog to find out a little bit more:
  1. Decoding and sight recognition both have a part to play
  2. There are no quick ways to develop reading fluency
  3. The more you read, the more fluent you’ll be
  4. You’re not a fluent reader unless you understand what you read
  5. In order to read fluently you have to find and infer information
  6. Fluent readers bring more to the text than they realise
  7. A good vocabulary unlocks fluency
  8. Fluency can be modelled
  9. Scarborough’s Reading Rope can be used diagnostically

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

From The @TES Blog: We Should Balance Out, Not Destroy, The Pipe Dreams Of Our Students

From The @TES Blog: We Should Balance Out, Not Destroy, The Pipe Dreams Of Our Students

“I left school at 14 and look at me now: I’m a millionaire!”

“I didn’t get anything higher than a C in my GCSEs but now I’m a celebrated author…”

“I’m rich and famous and I only got one O level!”

As predictable as testing season arriving in schools is the abundance of people telling our students that exam performance does not matter. There are even articles with titles like “These famous people prove you don’t need to do well at school to be highly successful!” and “10 Celebrities who are winning at life despite failing school!” to re-enforce the point...

Click here to read the full article: https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-views/why-we-should-balance-out-not-destroy-pipe-dreams-our-students

Monday, 26 February 2018

Book Review: 'The Children of Castle Rock' by Natasha Farrant

‘The Children of Castle Rock’ is a daring new adventure story in the tradition of all good boarding school novels. Lovers of Harry Potter, Malory Towers and The Worst Witch will immediately find something in this new story that they identify with. The boarding school setting allows for the all-important parentlessness that so often sets up the protagonists of children’s books to have rip-roaring escapades that their parents would never allow. Farrant brings Famous Five-style adventure right up to date with mobile phones and various other trappings of modern life.

Except in Natasha Farrant’s latest book it is some mysterious communication from Alice’s largely-absent dad that prompts her and her friends to abscond from school to embark on a crazy adventure across remote areas of Scotland. The fact that the Stormy Loch’s behaviour management ethos doesn’t follow the normal strictness found in other fictional schools makes matters worse… or better… depending on which way you look at it.

The main theme of this book really is children’s relationships with adults: Alice’s mum has died, her dad is pretty useless, and she’s actually closest to her Auntie, the aptly named Patience. Fergus’ parents have split up and are not amicable and Jesse lives in the shadow of his older brothers and is desperate initially to win his parents’ favour with his violin playing. The teachers at the school are a rag tag bunch headed up by the Major who is quirky, to say the least – a rather progressive ex-army man who challenges all stereotypes of head teachers in children’s fiction. The book crescendos with some unexpected outcomes where children’s relationships to adults are concerned – I won’t spoil it, but this isn’t your typical children’s book ending.

The book has a very strong narrator presence making it unlike any other children’s book I’ve read. Farrant often hints at things are to come, referencing future parts of the story that are relevant to events that are happening at the point of narration. The narration is where the playfulness of this story comes leaving the characters largely to get on with the serious business of embarking on their quest to subvert the orienteering challenge in order to transport a secret package to a rendezvous with Barney, Alice’s shady father. Along the way the children experience the joys of wild swimming, fishing and camping, torrential rain and storms, breaking and entering, food poisoning and being chased by proper baddies, not to mention the highs and lows of pre-teen friendship.

The book is aimed fairly and squarely at children of a similar age to the children in the book – upper key stage two and lower key stage three children will love this story. There are some starred out expletives which give it a little edge, and leave little to the imagination – something to consider when using the book in school or recommending it to children. With a diverse set of characters, themes that are relevant to the lives of many children and a main character who loves writing, there is also definite scope for this being used in the classroom as a stimulus for discussion. A recommended read.

Saturday, 24 February 2018

From The @thirdspacetweets Blog: EEF Report Summary: Putting Evidence To Work


My work with Bradford Research School has really turned me on to the work of the EEF. So when they release another a guidance report I'm always keen to read it first to find out what its implications are. The latests one applies to all subjects and all schools but here, in this blog post for Third Space, I outline how I should have used it had it been published in time, and how I will use it in the future to introduce any new changes.

Winds of change blew in the world of primary Maths when the 2014 National Curriculum was introduced. We now had to teach some things sooner, other things later, some things not at all and there were additions too (hello, Roman numerals!). The ‘new’ holy trinity of Maths teaching and learning were introduced: fluency, problem solving and reasoning.

Then the SATs gradually changed. The calculation paper had already been done away with; next to go was the mental Maths test, replaced by the arithmetic test. And the reasoning tests appeared to begin to assess how pupils were doing on the 2014 curriculum ahead of schedule. The two new reasoning papers were perceived by many to be more difficult than before.

And so, up and down the land, Maths leaders and teachers have been making changes to the way the subject is taught in their schools...

Click here to read on: https://thirdspacelearning.com/blog/eef-putting-evidence-work-report-slt-summary/


Sunday, 11 February 2018

Year 11 Hell: Why More, More, MORE Is Not The Answer


Recently a secondary teacher got in touch with me asking if I'd consider sharing something he had written about something that was going on in his school. The following blog post is what I received. It details some worrying practices which appear to be impacting heavily on both student and teacher wellbeing. I echo the author's summary here: there surely is another way. Is this common practice? Are schools tackling the same issues in better ways? I'd love to hear your own experiences of this.

Year 11 students, their teachers and their parents are at breaking point. The most frustrating thing is that we’ve seen this coming for years, and we’ve done nothing about it.

It’s Saturday afternoon. In our house, the major concerns are who will win the race to the bath to warm up after my son’s football match and whether we should prepare the roast to eat before The Voice or during it. I’m wondering whether I can face the pile of odd socks which are glaring at me from the sofa. This is about as stressful as Saturdays get here.

As I write, year 11 are at school. They had English all morning then moved onto Maths. They’re in every Saturday between now and June. The rest of the school finished at 3.25 each day, but Year 11 have an extra hour at the end of each day. Subjects battle for prime positions – Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Science drew the short straw with Fridays – but the students all come, even if it does mean being rounded up and herded from their previous lesson by a pastoral team with apparent infinite patience, who must be clocking at least 30k steps a day as they prowl corridors to check on non-regular coats and chewing gum.

Last year, a respected group of educators put forward the suggestion that core PE should be pulled for Year 11, to give them more time to focus on core subjects. Thousands of schools have gone with this idea, it would seem. So, instead of running around on a field, students are filtered into English, Maths or English AND Maths depending on which week it is where the moon is in its current cycle. Trying to ensure the right students are in the right places depending on the latest half-termly data available is a feat requiring the skills of an aeronautic engineer.

After the mock results came in, the school went into panic. I can’t remember, in my ten year career, this ever not happening. ‘MORE!’ ‘We need MORE!’ MORE resources, MORE time, MORE Walking Talking mocks!’ say the heads of the core subjects. If we don’t, they’ll all fail! The school will be plunged into Special Measures if we don’t throw every spare moment, every resource, every initiative at Year 11.

So, at the end of December, tutor time for Year 11 was replaced by TTI. That’s tutor time intervention to the rest of you. Instead of spending their morning with the form tutor and fellow tutees most of them have known since Year 11, they go to Maths and Science. Instead of having a chance to read a book, finish off a bit of homework or catch up on the news, they are having extra lessons for half an hour each morning. Instead of sharing a joke or having someone who knows them really well checking in on the latest family challenge or holiday plan, their daily dose of English, Maths or Science rises in some cases to over three hours a day.

It’s a Catch 22. All schools are doing it – or at least, that’s the perception. Whatever the rating of your school, you are under pressure to be keeping up. Perish the thought that you might lose your ‘Outstanding’ rating, drop back into RI when you were only recently deemed ‘Good’ or indeed face your entire SLT replaced by a SWAT team of Future Leaders if your school finds itself once again below par. Should you dare to suggest that Year 11 might have one whole holiday without a single day in school, you might slip behind the rest.

I’m not lucky enough to teach a ‘core’ subject. I’m part of the ‘non-core’ as a historian. But I’m better off than the third tier subjects – the arts. My poor colleagues in Drama! Their new written exams are terrifying. It’s no longer a subject for students to demonstrate their creative strengths. They have to be able to analyse stage directions at length – in writing. There was a great opportunity recently to take our students to the battlefields of Northern France recently. It would have been a long weekend – they’d have missed three lessons in total. One of these would have been Science. I may as well have asked for a year off to perfect my crochet skills. Snowball chance in hell. We didn’t go.

We ‘non-core’ subjects have to fight for time with our students. ‘It’s too late!’ we are told when requesting a half day over half term. Maths, English and Science booked theirs in weeks ago! As if we are somehow being granted a huge favour by being allowed to come and work with students during the holiday we too so desperately need.

Now, there are two schools of thought on this, based on the teachers I’ve talked to. Yes, they may be doing 7 lessons a day, but that’s ALL they’re doing, say some – and we can all picture the student who can never take their coat off or get out their pen without being asked about 500 times. The one who could do with a direct intravenous shot of the sense of urgency that the rest of us are feeling. The boys who regress to the age of 5 – happens at this time of year like clockwork. The ones whose parents learn they’ve been communicating using a series of animal noises throughout the school day. The ones who will do ANYTHING to pretend it’s just not happening.

But there’s also this: I don’t go more than a couple of days these days without finding a hitherto quiet and studious student – the kinds whose name you probably wouldn’t know unless you teach them yourself - crying in a corridor. I sit them down, offer them chocolate (it usually does the trick – at least for a few minutes) and ask what’s wrong. ‘I don’t know!’ is almost always the answer. They are overwhelmed, exhausted and their struggles at home funnily enough haven’t diminished to cater for the extra demands of being in Year 11.

And then there are the students who actually love History, have always worked extremely hard, but who literally are unable to find a couple of hours at home to study, because they’re so wrung out from being stuffed like Christmas turkeys with equations, formulae and quotes from Twelfth Night.

Oh, and the teachers. Yes, them. A colleague of mine with two children under 6 at home is on her fourth Saturday at work. We all know she’s dedicated, but she seems to believe that her dedication will come into question if she doesn’t ‘step up’.

I overheard a parent of a Year 11 student telling a mutual friend that she’d like to ‘crawl into a corner and hide’ until it’s all over. The level of hysteria, the level of panic, is quite simply untenable. Only in ten years, I’ve not seen an alternative. At the moment, we are destined to send out into the workforce a generation of highly-strung individuals who have learned through experience that someone else, rather than sending them off to work independently, will always give up weekends and holidays for them, photocopy a rainforest’s worth of resources and put a pen in their hand if they can’t be bothered to root around in their bag. We bang on about building resilience and independence, but our actions – our constant supply of MORE makes these aims laughable.

Vic Goddard said recently, ‘there is always another way’. We need to find it. Now. Because all we’re doing is pouring oil onto the wreckage of the profession we love.

Friday, 9 February 2018

Book Review: 'How To Survive In Teaching Without Imploding, Exploding Or Walking Away' by Dr. Emma Kell

For a book based around the responses to a survey of around 4000 teachers which revealed that 57% wouldn't recommend teaching to a family member or friend, this is a brilliantly positive and optimistic book. In reporting on her findings Dr. Kell might have focused heavily on the negative outcomes of her research (42% are not happy at work, 82% have experienced work-related anxiety) but what she has produced is actually a rousing, reassuring manifesto for how we as a profession move forwards in tackling the issues revealed.

Dr. Kell skilfully presents her findings alongside advice aimed at all strata of education right from where system-wide change is needed down to what teachers can do on a day-to-day basis to not only survive, but to flourish. There are messages here for policy makers, school leaders, teachers and other school staff members; there are even implications for family members of the above.

'How To Survive In Teaching...' is packed full of little nuggets: little gems of advice and acknowledgement. Some of them provide comforting reassurance that the reader is not alone in the difficulties they are experiencing. Others gently encourage the reader that they aren't powerless in the situation they have found themselves in and give practical advice about what to do.

A constant thread that runs through the book provides a reminder that, in amongst the difficulties and the hardships, teaching is actually a brilliant job (even if it is just a job). It manages to remind the reader every so often why they came into the job in the first place, and what is so special about it. If none of the other advice in the book has an impact, chances are this seam of hope will be what encourages teachers on to find a way to tackle the issues they are facing.

The input from Dr. Kell's interviewees brings the advice fairly and squarely into the realities of everyday school life meaning that this book is not divorced from what is actually going on in staff rooms and classrooms across the country. At no point does the author come across as an idealistic opiner who is out of touch with what's really happening in education - she is as realistic and pragmatic as it gets and the whole tone of the book flows out of this.

If you're looking for some advice for how improving your experience as a teacher, then this is the perfect starting place. If you want to be reminded of what the job should be about then this easy and quick read is also for you. Published by Bloomsbury, it's available to buy now: https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/how-to-survive-in-teaching-9781472941688/

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Revealed: Read For Empathy Guide from EmpathyLab

Those of you who've been reading my blog and interacting with me on Twitter will know my passion for the transformative power of books. One particularly powerful aspect of books is there ability to develop empathy in the reader.

The new Read For Empathy Guide from EmpathyLab is introduced with these brilliant paragraphs:

"Empathy is a human super-power which helps us all understand each other better. It is also an essential social and emotional skill, crucial if children are to thrive.

"We’re not born with a fixed quantity of empathy – it’s a skill we can learn. Excitingly, new research shows that books are a powerful tool to develop it, because in identifying with book characters, children learn to see things from other points of view. So when you read with children you can build their empathy skills at the same time."

At this year's Reading Rocks conference I ran a workshop entitled 'The More-Ness Of Reading' (click the link for a blog version of it) in which the attendees and I explored how books can help us to become more empathetic. I've also written several blog posts on the matter:

Changing Hearts, Minds, Lives and the Future: Reading With Children for Empathy
The Best RE Lesson I Ever Taught (Spoiler: It Was A Reading Lesson)

Many of my book reviews focus in on ways that children's books might be used in the classroom to encourage children to develop empathy:

'The Goldfish Boy' by Lisa Thompson
'All The Things That Could Go Wrong' by Stewart Foster

I'm something of a fan of reading for empathy. So I was excited to find that EmpathyLab have published in their guide a list of 30 books to build children’s empathy and all in good time for Empathy Day on 12th June - we teachers and parents can get reading the selection of books now in time for then.


So far, of this list, I've only read 'Grandad’s Island' by Benji Davies, 'My Name is Not Refugee' by Kate Milner, 'Can I Join your Club?' by John Kelly and illustrated by Steph Laberis and 'The Island at the End of Everything' by Kiran Millwood Hargrave although there are a few there I've had my eye on for a while. With having read only 4 out of the 30 so far I've got a lot to be getting on with. I think I will make it my aim to read all the picture books first - hopefully my excellent local library will have them in.

The guide itself contains mini reviews of each of the books, all of which give an idea of how the book might support the development of empathy. The books which have been chosen explore themes of displacement and migration, experiencing and managing emotions and facing challenging circumstances, such as deafness, autism or bereavement.

EmpathyLab Founder Miranda McKearney OBE says: "It’s time to make far more systematic use of books’ power to tackle society’s empathy deficit. This 2018 Read for Empathy Guide is part of an empathy movement to help us understand each other better. We’re seriously delighted to be working with authors, publishers and Peters to launch it in the run up to Empathy Day on 12 June."

Have you read any of the selected books? How would you use them with children to develop empathy?
Which of the selected books are you particularly looking forward to?
I look forward to hearing from you!

Monday, 5 February 2018

How To Use Questioning When Teaching Inference-Making


How To Use Questioning When Teaching Inference-Making
In my last blog post on inference-making (Questions To Ask When Teaching Inference-Making) I provided lots of questions which might support inference-making, along with some suggested answer structures for teachers and children to use when answering inference questions. In this blog post we will look at how these questions can be used wisely in lessons so that children's inference-making skills are developed.

Anne Kispal, in her literature review entitled 'Effective Teaching of Inference Skills for Reading', writes: "Underpinning the research reviewed is the assumption that pupils must be explicitly taught the skills they need for comprehension. They cannot be left to pick them up through simple exposure to texts, or through the natural process of maturation." (page 24) It is clear that we should teach children the strategies they need in order to be able to understand what they read - the strategy we are concerned with explicitly teaching here is inference-making.

The questions I shared previously should be used carefully - they are not solely for use in a written comprehension activity which children complete independently. They should also be modelled, discussed, answered orally and asked about aurally-presented texts as well as read texts.

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of the why, I propose a sequence (flexible, of course) to help use inference questions in the most effective way:
  1. Teacher reads aloud a part of the text
  2. Teacher allows children to the same part of the text
  3. Teacher provides a summary of the text
  4. Teacher models inference-making (which might include clarifying word meanings, locating specific information and discussing necessary prior/background knowledge)
  5. Teacher provides a second summary of the text which takes what has been inferred into consideration
  6. Teacher reads aloud next part of the text
  7. Children read next part of the text themselves
  8. Children summarise text
  9. Children answer inference questions (and any supporting vocabulary, retrieval and background knowledge questions, this could be a written task, or an oral one)
  10. Children summarise text a second time taking into consideration what has been inferred
  11. Teacher models answers and, if written, children edit their work to improve their answers
Now let's see a break down of why it might be a good idea to roughly follow this sequence when using the inference questions:

1. Teacher reads aloud a part of the text

On the Reading Rockets website (a great and accessible online resource) Judith Gold and Akimi Gibson provide an excellent summary of the research on reading aloud:

"Reading aloud is the foundation for literacy development. It is the single most important activity for reading success (Bredekamp, Copple, & Neuman, 2000). It provides children with a demonstration of phrased, fluent reading (Fountas & Pinnell, 1996). It reveals the rewards of reading, and develops the listener's interest in books and desire to be a reader (Mooney, 1990)."

Whether or not you have the children reading along with you is another matter; David Didau, in his blog post 'The Problem With 'Reading Along'', proposes that we don't because the act of listening and reading at the same time can overload the working memory and hinder comprehension of the text. If that is true, then the next step is an important replacement for children reading along.

Note: during this read-through it is best not to stop reading to ask too many questions. Although Kispal summarises that teachers should "practise inferential questions on aurally presented texts" she also provides these cautionary notes on questioning:
  • not to interrupt pupils by asking questions during reading time
  • not to launch into questioning too soon afterwards. The teacher must allow time for consolidation of what has been read as a mental representation
  • practise inferential questions on aurally presented texts

With the first bullet point above in mind Kispal also reports that "the only condition that was found [by Hannon and Daneman (1998)] to significantly encourage inferencing was that of integrating questions into the text combined with allowing longer reading time" (this was in a study of university students rather than young children).

2. Teacher allows children to read the same part of the text

An end goal of reading instruction is to ensure that children can independently decode and understand something. Once the reading has been modelled it is a good idea for children then to have a go themselves in preparation for times when they won't have an adult to read for them. Typically we might ask children to do this in silence, but this isn't the only way. Re-reading aloud to a partner or to themselves has added benefits.

The Key Stage 2 Literacy Guidance Report from the EEF mentions that one way to improve fluency is for children to read aloud the same text that they have just had read to them. It also summarises research that shows that "fluent reading style supports comprehension because pupils’ limited cognitive resources are freed from focusing on word recognition and can be redirected towards comprehending the text." (page 11)

If re-reading a text develops fluency and fluency supports comprehension of the text then that is definitely something we should be building in to our reading lessons. This time spent re-reading also allows children to consolidate what they have heard and read (see Kispal's cautionary notes above).

3. Teacher provides a summary of the text

In his book 'Reading Comprehension: Assisting Children with Learning Difficulties' Gary Wooley outlines how mental models, or representations, are created by the reader:

"While reading, skilled readers normally develop a text-based model, which is a mental representation of the actual text discourse. The text-based model incorporates propositions extracted from the reading of successive sentences that are sometimes supplemented by inferences that are necessary to make the text more coherent."

I suggest that before a teacher models the inference-making that will lead to the creation of a more complex situation model (more on this in step 5) they should model a summary of the text to help children who have not developed a sufficient enough text-based model from which to begin to draw inferences. Providing summaries of the text for children is known to be a useful strategy to help EAL learners and so might they be for others learning reading comprehension strategies.

4. Teacher models inference-making

Kispal writes that "teacher modelling is regarded as the first step in training children to ask and answer questions of this type of themselves... Teachers should attempt to find texts rich in inferencing possibilities and to have in mind which inferences they will elicit in discussion."
(page 30)

The literature review then goes on to suggest that to show inference-making in use teachers should "model inferencing by asking relevant questions aloud and answering them" and that they should "think thoughts aloud to show how teacher arrives at an inference." 
(page 51)

Inference-making relies on the reader having done other things with the text such as clarifying word meanings, locating specific information and discussing necessary prior/background knowledge so these processes may need to be modelled also. When considering the activation of prior knowledge Kispal's review of research makes the following suggestions to take into consideration when discussing questions:
  • pupils generate initial associations 
  • they discuss and clarify their collective knowledge 
  • they reformulate knowledge, clarifying what they now know as a result of discussion

According to Kispal's review of literature, whilst modelling and discussing inference-making teachers should ask "questions about relationships between characters, goals and motivations" and ask "questions that foster comprehension monitoring, such as Is there information that doesn’t agree with what I already know? Are there any ideas that don’t fit together (because of contradictions, ambiguous referents, misleading topic shifts)? Is there any information missing or not clearly explained?" Teachers should always be asking "‘How do you know?’ whenever an inference is generated in discussion of a text." Teachers can also "show examples of how all types of questions can be derived from a text" using the question words (i.e. who, ‘when, why).
(page 38)

Questions that can be used to support systematic and structured teaching of the wide variety of inferences can be downloaded here: https://www.tes.com/teaching-resource/questions-to-support-inference-making-11825987

5. Teacher provides a second summary of the text which takes what has been inferred into consideration

In point 3 we looked at how teachers might share a summary of the text for the purpose of aiding the development of a text-based model. Once a text-based model has been created, and further inferences have been made, a situation model can then be developed.

In his book 'Reading Comprehension: Assisting Children with Learning Difficulties' Gary Wooley outlines how situation models (a kind of mental model or representation) are created by the reader:

"In contrast [to text-based models], situation models include elaborative inferences that integrate prior knowledge with text-based information.teacher modelling is regarded as the first step in training children to ask and answer questions of this type of themselves.

"Thus, the construction of a situation model is a dynamic constructive process that is determined by the interaction of the reader, the text structures, and the semantic content. 

"In constructing a situation model the reader is required to search for coherence at the local and global levels and to infer meanings that are often implied by drawing from their existing background knowledge. While doing this, the reader actively constructs the situation model by using information within the text and also information from stored prior knowledge. Thus, the main difference between text-based and the situation model is assumed to be one of inference making, the text-based model is inferentially light while the situation model is inferentially dense." 

It seems important to reassess the mental models that are created after making new inferences from the text.

6. Teacher reads aloud next part of the text

See point 1

7. Children read next part of the text themselves

See point 2

8. Children summarise text

See point 3. Children, having had this modelled to them, have a chance to practise their own summary to aid their text-based mental model before they answer any inference questions. This could be done in writing or verbally.

9. Children answer inference questions

This could be with support, without support, in pairs, independently, as a group, as a written task or as an oral task. Children may also need to understand the vocabulary used in the text, retrieve information from the text and link their background knowledge to the text - this could be done through discussion or by a structured sequence of questions (see my idea of scaffolding inference).

Kispal summarises that paired or group work allows pupils share the thought processes that led them to make inferences and that the younger the children, the more aural work they should undertake.
Kispal also writes that research on inference-making suggests that we should "train pupils to acquire the habit of asking themselves why-questions occasionally while they are reading, as these are most supportive of understanding". Another suggested strategy is to ask "pupils [to] generate questions using these question words [who, when, why etc] from a text and group members answer."
(page 38)

10. Children summarise text a second time taking into consideration what has been inferred

See point 5. Children, having had this modelled to them, have a chance to practise their own summary to aid their mental situation model once they have answered the inference questions. This could be done in writing or verbally.

Summary

Whilst structures like the one I've suggested can be useful, it is only there as a suggestion and will need to be adapted according to need. Having said that, this sequence takes into account many research-based practices which aid in the teaching of inference-making and therefore should be a good solid starting point for reading lessons that focus on inference-making (and probably other reading comprehension strategies). Use with discretion not because I said so!

For an example of how this might work with a real class novel, please see my planning for the first 10 chapters of 'My Dad's A Birdman' by David Almond. 5 whole lessons are focused on making inferences about characters' motives and a further 5 lessons focus on making inferences about characters' feelings. In the teachers notes I have not included information about the text summaries but every other part of the sequence is detailed.