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...