Monday, 13 November 2017

On The Third Space Learning Blog: 2017 Maths SATs QLA Analysis

It's often helpful to use data to inform teaching but finding time to sit down and go through it with a fine enough tooth comb isn't easy.

The Question Level Analysis for the ks2 tests now provided on ASP (the RAISE online replacement) contains national and school data which can be useful to key stage 2 teachers to inform their future teaching. It's also useful for year 7 teachers, but they don't often get access to this information.

So, for the benefit of many teachers and children, here's a breakdown of the parts of the 2017 maths tests that children scores the country struggled with the most:

Book Review: 'Here We Are' by Oliver Jeffers

When you spot J.M. Barrie's quote "...always try to be a little kinder than is necessary..." tucked away at the beginning of a book you can almost be certain it's going to be a must-read for children. Especially in world where we seem to see so much unkindness.

But that's not the world Jeffers focuses on in 'Here We Are'. In fact he looks at humanity and our planet positively and hopefully, encouraging his readers to re-envision what they see around them. Of course, these 'notes for living on planet earth' are inspired by the author's son so the optimistic standpoint is one of childish naivety, and that's OK. Adult readers will understand the negatives behind the positive statements - the book provides a stimulus for adults to discuss world events and issues with children at an age-appropriate level.

The book has excellent Science and Geography links - Jeffers, in his inimitable style, illustrates the solar system, the night sky, the human body and species of animals providing engaging starting points to several areas of the national curriculum. In fact, so good are these that you'll be crying out for an Oliver Jeffers 'How Things Work' style non-fiction book to use in all aspects of the STEM curriculum.  

First, 'Here We Are' is celebration of the planet on which we live; it encourages awe and wonder as we notice and learn about the world around us. Second, it gently urges its readers to look after the things around them - the environment, others and themselves. A double page spread beautifully illustrated with an impressive variety of different-looking people serves as a great talking point alone - how should we treat those who look different to us? Even though we look different, are there similarities? These are such important questions for young children to be discussing if our societies are ever to be more empathetic.

C.S. Lewis said "A children's story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children's story in the slightest" and Oliver Jeffers never fails at this. Adults reading this book will be reminded about what life is really about and will be inspired to ensure that in all the areas the book touches upon that they are good role models to the children in their life. 'Things can sometimes move slowly here on Earth. More often though, they move quickly, so use your time well.' is definitely advice needed by adults more than by children. 

If there were to be one overarching theme I'd say it was wellbeing. And not that selfish kind that only says look after yourself, but the type that celebrates the positive impact of caring for the wellbeing of others. In fact, the five ways to wellbeing are clearly all celebrated in this book: Connect ('You're never alone on earth'); Be Active ('...when the sun is out, it is daytime, and we do stuff' accompanied by a gorgeous yellow-tinted illustration of all kinds of activity); Take Notice ('There is so much to see and do here on Earth...'); Learn (the whole book is about learning new things); and Give ('just remember to leave notes for everyone else.'). What parent wouldn't want wellbeing for their children?

Basically, this is essential reading and needs to be a staple on library shelves and in schools and homes. Books do have the power to change perceptions and this one is something like a manifesto for how children will need to operate in order to change the way things are going in the world. But, I'd even recommend this to adults who might never read it with a child - it could be the gentle reminder they need to adjust their lives for their own wellbeing's sake.

Book Review: 'Balthazar the Great' by Kirsten Sims

'Balthazar The Great' is a simple story about belonging. Balthazar the bear is freed from the circus but must find his way home, but where does he belong? The striking illustrations, alongside minimal text, tell of discovery and explore issues such as animal rights, friendship, loneliness, regret and relief.

This book would be a great place to start conversations with younger children about any of the above topics. So many questions for discussion spring to mind: Should circuses be allowed to feature animals? Where do polar bears come from? Do we only belong with people who are like us? What makes family so important? Is it possible to be friends with someone who looks different? What does it feel like to be alone in a foreign country? It's easy to forget that young children are able to engage with these ideas and picturebooks like this are a great safe space for them to begin to grapple with life's big questions.

Kirsten Sims' colourful gouache and ink illustrations and quirky typeface will appeal to fans of author/illustrators such as Oliver Jeffers, but that's not to say they are too similar. This artsy approach to picturebook creation should mean that this pleasant little story stands out on the shelves and is read by many.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Book Review: 'Skeleton Tree' by Kim Ventrella

When a book with the word 'skeleton' in the title is published close to Halloween, if you're anything like me, you're more than likely to write it off as some Goosebumps-style horror story for children. But Kim Ventrella's 'Skeleton Tree' is not that kind of book. In fact, it is so not that kind of book that it really caught me off guard.

'A beautiful, bittersweet tale of family, love and loss' it says on the back. And the blurb isn't lying. Stanley's dad has left, his sister is seriously ill, his mother is struggling with medical bills (it is set in the US, so no NHS) and, at a guess, mental health issues (although this is not explicit) and his best friend has OCD (not a main factor as it is in Stewart Foster's 'All The Things That Could Go Wrong' and Lisa Thompson's 'The Goldfish Boy'). And then a skeleton grows out of the ground in Stanley's garden and comes to life.

The skeleton, to an adult reader, is a metaphor for death, but Ventrella cleverly explores the very real experience of how mixed emotions come into play during the loss of a loved one. The skeleton is funny (there are laugh-out-loud moments) and he brings some light relief to what is otherwise a very sad story. Because this book deals so explicitly with death I would recommend that adults read it first and then make a decision about whether or not it is suitable for their child, or for a child in their class. The book may help some children to explore the emotions felt during a bereavement, for others it may not reflect their experience and might be unhelpful.

Many books about death which are aimed at children attempt to provide some sort of explanation as to what happens to someone when they die - this book doesn't really do that, and is better for it. Beliefs differ widely on this matter so is best left to parents to explain.

'Skeleton Tree' is a clever and emotionally-charged children's novel which will be enjoyed by children and adults alike although I acknowledge that it may not be for everyone. It blurs the boundaries between what is real and what is a coping mechanism in a convincing way - the reader only has to suspend disbelief on a couple of matters, and for children that comes naturally. Not many books make me feel as emotional as this one - based on that alone I'd say this book deserves to be on a good number of home, library and classroom bookshelves!

Friday, 10 November 2017

Book Review: 'What Does This Look Like In The Classroom?' by Carl Hendrick and Robin Macpherson

With the full title of 'What Does This Look Like In The Classroom? Bridging The Gap Between Research And Practice', this book pretty much does what it says on the tin. Hendrick and Macpherson have harnessed the voices of some of education's leading lights in order to answer questions about classroom practice from real teachers. The book's chapters each focus on a particular aspect of teaching: two specialists are assigned per chapter to share their wisdom, according to their expertise.

With Assessment, Marking and Feedback, Behaviour, Reading and Literacy, SEN, Motivation, Memory and Recall, Classroom Talk and Questioning, Learning Myths, Technology and Independent Learning all covered, this is a fairly comprehensive overview of education. Of course, there are questions and answers not given in the book, but often the commentators give good starting points for teachers to seek out further reading. The added focus on the potential of research-informed practice to improve workload provides further reason for this book to be read.

The book's crowning strong point is that it is incredibly readable. The format makes for bite-size chunks and all the contributors are gifted communicators. There are one or two bits of jargon (particularly relating to cognitive science) that might have benefited from the provision of a glossary but this doesn't at all detract from the overall accessibility of the book. It is probably best read as a whole so that the contents are familiar in a time of need - it is the sort of book that should be constantly referred back to. Having said this, it is organised well enough to be dipped into as and when is needed.

My one criticism of the book is that much of what is presented as research isn't backed up with any references as to who did the research, when it was done, under what circumstances, and so on. This leaves the reader to trust that the authors either have conducted the research themselves, or have internalised the findings of other research. Having said this, the book is aimed at teachers so it necessarily leans towards classroom practice rather than the intricacies of the research.

I would go so far as to say that  'What Does This Look Like In The Classroom?' is an essential volume for a school's CPD library - it could be the gateway to developing research-based practice for some teachers, so accessible does it make the material. It will confirm some of your teaching practices and give you an understanding of why things that you do already work, and it will challenge other practices, but in the least confrontational way possible - this is because it never belittles or devalues teacher experience and expertise. Even if every teacher doesn't read this, if a school's research lead and other leaders do, there is a good chance that classrooms will begin to reflect more of what research outlines as best bets.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Whole Class Reading: Providing Challenge For Children Working At Greater Depth

With whole class reading increasing in popularity, one of the most asked questions is around the issue of catering to the needs of all learners. Recently, I tackled how to help lower prior attainers within the whole class reading session and promised at the end of that blog post to write this one. So here it is.

To preface my suggestions I'd like to point out that this list is not at all exhaustive and what you do with the children in your class who are working at greater depth should very much depend on what their individual needs are, based on your assessment of them. I'll also admit that although some of these are ideas that I've tried out, others are ones that I'd like to try so any feedback when you have tried them would be gratefully received!

I've also managed to get some insights from some other teachers who are advocates of the whole class approach to reading, so it's not just me going on at you for once.

Howay, let's get doon to business.

Remove all scaffolds

This is an obvious one. To be working at greater depth you would expect a child to be working independently. If you've been providing vocabulary definitions for the children then remove this and require that the children use contextual and morphemic analysis to work out word meanings. If you've been giving children prompts as to how to word an answer, remove these. If you've been doing something similar to my Scaffolding Inference technique (where you lead children towards making inferences by first asking relevant questions about vocabulary and information retrieval) then switch to providing a variety of question types that don't link or scaffold.

Answers with more detail

This will just be an extension of the skills required to be age-related but you might require children to find more pieces of evidence from the text, and to give more detailed explanations as to how the evidence they have found helps them to answer the question. Sometimes structures borrowed from secondary school can be helpful (ie PEE) but an over-reliance on structures is probably not what you'd expect of children working at greater depth. In a sense, what you are looking for here is that reasoning that we expect children to do when working in maths. Linked to this, you might look to set more difficult inference questions, for example ones that might rely more heavily on prior knowledge*, than on what information is presented in the text (*all inferences rely on some amount of prior knowledge).

Succinct answers

If it's SATs you're thinking of, then time is at a premium. If you want your greater depth children to have a chance of answering the questions about the third text well, then they're going to need a decent amount of time during the hour to do it. This time is only really available if children work quickly through the first two texts. But quick work can often mean mistakes are made, so we need to ensure that rather than rushing children are really good at giving succinct answers. Perhaps you could give a word limit on answers, or get children to edit their existing answers down so that thy still communicate their understanding, but with an economy of words. This technique is part of the Reciprocal Reading approach.

Creative written responses

If children are already a dab hand at answering the whole range of comprehension questions (verbally or in writing) then ask them to produce a creative written piece in response to what they have read. Perhaps they could rewrite something in a different genre, write their own version of what they've read or write the next part of the story using clues from the text? You can specify as much or as little as you like as to the outcome, but you might want to stipulate that their writing demonstrates a reading skill, for example, that what they produce summarises all the main points of what they've read.

Comparisons to other texts

Children working at greater depth should have the capacity to read several texts within a lesson, including the whole class text, and to respond by comparing them. This variety of texts could be provided by the teacher, or selected from the library by the children themselves. You might want to point them in a general direction by asking them to get books on a particular theme, or containing certain character types. You could make it really difficult and ask them to draw parallels between their current reading book and the class text - there may be very few links so this would really stretch their comparison skills. The outcome of an activity like this could be written or verbal and could be developed into a short presentation such as one entitled If you like the class book, then you should also read...

Creating aids for future reading

This could be done as more of an extension task. Children could read ahead looking for words and phrases that their peers might need clarification on. They could then access a computer to create a interactive whiteboard slide which contains word meanings, or pictures of unfamiliar nouns, for the next lesson. This will encourage them to engage with the text thoughtfully and will also challenge their own vocabulary skills. Alternatively, they could create a set of questions, based on question stems and the reading domains (see my Reading Roles for a way to get children really autonomous with this) which could then be used in the next lesson.

Similarly, Ashley Booth (@MrBoothY6) suggests a children predict the questions they are going to be asked:
"I like to get my higher ability to read the text independently and then predict the questions they believe will be asked."
Read and respond to more

This is a simple tweak. Whereas lower attainers and your core group might be focusing on smaller chunks of text, children working at greater depth could be looking at large excerpts, or even whole chapters, particularly when it comes to summarising. For example, in the third text on the 2017 Reading KS2 test, questions were asked that require children to either skim or scan large parts of the text in order to locate information that would help them with providing an answer. This kind of exercise definitely builds resilience - our children working at greater depth can't get away with saying 'But there's nothing in the text to help me answer this!'.

Book-based debate

Debate is a great way to get children responding to a text. It would require a certain amount of collaboration if children were to work in teams to develop an argument either for or against a notion proposed by the teacher. Alternatively children could debate one on one after spending some time developing their argument independently. Another option would be to get children to write a discussion text where they present both sides of an argument. To really push children on this, you could children to work together to come up with a notion based on the book or text they have read. For example, notions could be around whether or not a character acted morally, whether or not a character is good or bad, whether or not a character should do what they are contemplating doing.

Linked to this, @_MissieBee has asked children more formal test-like questions along these lines:
"Something I’ve found that challenges the kids is to find evidence to support opposing points. For example, in a mock 3-mark question based on Wonder, I might ask “August is a shy character. How far do you agree with this statement?” They would they have to find evidence to argue both sides of the coins - where/how does he show he is shy, but also, does he do something that could prove that he isn’t? If they don’t do this effectively, it’s also a good lesson in how a quote can be taken out of context (in the media!)."
Another debate-related activity is this idea from Rhoda Wilson (@TemplarWilson):
"Posing questions with no clear-cut answers encourages the children to argue their point of view, justifying with evidence from the text.
For example, the question Who is most to blame for the death of Romeo and Juliet? could be answered and argued in lots of different ways:
  • The parents - After all they started the feud that forbade their relationship
  • Friar Lawrence - he married them. Surely he should've know better as a responsible man of the church?
  • Romeo and Juliet themselves?
Once the different arguments have been generated, they can be ranked from most to least reasonable and justified with evidence from the text."
And now for some more ideas from some of your favourite Whole Class Reading advocates:

Mr. Dix from @MrACDPresent recommends working on fluency and reading aloud:
"I'm currently trialling something I read Herts For Learning are giving a go in terms of intonation and expression. I'm spending more time focusing on children reading accurately and correctly, thinking about which words to emphasise in sentences and which syllables to stress when pronouncing longer words (we have very high % of EAL and this is proving beneficial). 
This in turn is allowing children working at greater depth to start playing with this aspect of the curriculum and it has been really exciting so far to see them do something they've never done in class before. Children can change the stressed words in sentences/extracts to see if they can change the meaning by doing so. They can also change their expression (tone, speed, volume) to manipulate meaning and discuss author intent. They then need to share and explain these meaning shifts to others. This is not only supporting their fluency when reading but also allowing them to purposefully manipulate inferences rather than just decipher them, as well as explain a complex process to their peers."
Alex Rawlings (@MrARawlings) has worked with his children who are working at greater depth on answer questions where two different reading domains are combined:
"An example of this would be requiring the children to make a prediction as well as give an explanation of author's intent. The question might be: 'Use the text to help you predict how the character will respond and explain why the author would allow this to happen.' So children would have to predict what would happen to a character next based on what is stated/implied in the text, and then record an explanation about why the author would want this to happen to the character. Maybe the author wanted you to feel sorry for him/her; or the author was staging a twist in the story as the plot has plateaued; or as the story has reached its climax, the author is beginning to tie the loose ends of the storylines; or maybe the author wanted the character's reaction to be unexpected as he/she wanted to leave the story on a cliffhanger."
I hope all these ideas are useful as you develop both your practice as a teacher of whole class reading and your children who are, or have the potential to be, working at greater depth. I leave you with a challenge of your own from Jo Payne (@MrsPTeach):
"Think of the children working at greater depth when planning your main lesson objective and activities. Aim them at your strongest readers and scaffold and support others to achieve the same or similar. That way, you know they'll be challenged appropriately. We call this top-down planning."

Thursday, 2 November 2017

From @teachwire: 8 Ways To Use Your Class Novel to Teach SPaG

I wrote this for October's issue of Teach Primary and it has been since been published online for all to read.

Many teachers don't like the idea of teaching spelling, punctuation and grammar discretely, and although it is sometimes necessary, I do sympathise with that viewpoint. Of course, there are opportunities during every lesson to point out a spelling rule, highlight a sentence type or notice how a piece of punctuation has been used - those opportunities are not limited to English lessons.

However, reading and writing lessons are the obvious times to weave in teaching of SPaG and with that in mind, here are 8 ways to use your class novel to teach spelling, punctuation and grammar knowledge and skills:

https://www.teachwire.net/news/8-ways-to-use-your-class-novel-to-teach-spag