How could we improve on Guided Reading?

Guided reading is fun. I love teaching it. Spending a half hour chatting about literature and scribbling on whiteboards with a small group of children while the rest beaver away in silence is the closest we can get to a break in class 🙂

But I worry about it. How much impact can one 30-minute session a week have on children? Wouldn’t it be better if children were reading purposefully every day?

Well. I’ve been teaching a group of children using a very structured phonics programme this year, and it’s got me thinking about how we could use a similar approach with children of all abilities in whole-class teaching.

So today, when I couldn’t sleep, I thought about how I’d plan out a week’s worth of work based on a short text for whole class teaching, in such a way that all the key reading skills – decoding, comprehension, inference, commenting on language, summarising and empathising – could be covered every single week. Obviously choice of text and pitch would be really key; good behaviour management of paired work would also be vital.

The list below (sorry, don’t know how to make a table!) is what I came up with – I’ve just summarised what the content might look like. I’ve never taught like this – it might be way too much to fit in to a 30 minute session – but damn I would love to try it! So this is really just a ‘putting this out there’ thing – would love to hear if anyone does anything similar and how it works 🙂

Any suggestions for improvements, missing areas, or ideas also very gratefully received!

Monday – vocabulary and decoding
– Introduce text orally by relating it to children’s prior reading or own experiences e.g. tell your partner about a time you saw a wild animal…This text is about lions…
– Introduce any challenging vocabulary by giving a range of examples and asking children to complete cloze sentences using the new vocabulary
– Practise reading all tricky words in the text at speed from a grid in pairs.
– Read the text in pairs for decoding, alternating short sections or paragraphs (re-read if they finish early).
– Teacher reads aloud and pauses at certain words – class fills the next word in.
– As a class generate a flow-chart of the key points to display – with the new vocab – throughout the week.

Tuesday – comprehension
– Recap any words and vocabulary the children struggled with yesterday
– Repeat the speed-reading word grid task
– Re-read the text in pairs focusing on understanding
– Read around the room – say a child’s name and they pick up reading – 1 or 2 passages only. Note which children were picked.
– Model finding answers to retrieval questions e.g. what happened after…?
– Practise retrieval questions

Wednesday – fluency & inference

– Re-read the text in pairs a final time, focusing on a particular aspect of fluency and expression e.g. dialogue, pausing, pace.
– Model reading a chosen section with the target expression. Children practise in pairs; share randomly.
– Model finding evidence to support ‘how do we know?’ (inference) questions e.g. how do we know she is angry? Or more advanced – What is she feeling and how do you know? Children can highlight in text for these model questions.
– Children practise ‘how do we know?’ questions

Thursday – summarising & commenting on language use
– Model summarising a section of the text in a given number of words.
– Children summarise each section in writing in a given number of words.
– Discuss the writer’s use of language and model answering questions about this. E.g. which words made the house sound scary? Why did the author use the word…? Use a bank of phrases to refer to e.g. gives the impression that…
– Children practise questions about the writer’s use of language.

Friday – empathising & linking to the wider world
– Use hot-seating or paired discussion to put yourself in role as a character from the text (or a hypothetical person linked to a non-fiction text).
– Model writing in role e.g. at different points in the story, what might Sophie be thinking to herself?
– Children write in role.
– Draw a philosophical or discussion question out from the text e.g. should people follow their dreams even if it hurts others? Ask children to explain why you have chosen this question (later, children could generate their own). Give time for partner talk, then discuss as a class, taking volunteered contributions.


Inclusion is a thing, not a place

So the number of Special School places is rising. HURRAH!

‘But, wait-‘ I hear you splutter, ‘Isn’t that a bad thing? You know, inclusion and shit?’

No. And let me tell you for why.

Inclusion is an unhelpful word, without a context.

To me, the whole thing only makes any sense at all if we talk about ‘inclusion in education’: how can we most include a child in the process of being educated? Or in other words, how can we make them learn and flourish as much as possible?

In which case, the question which matters when we talk about inclusion is, ‘In which school setting will this child with these needs learn and flourish the most?’.

Pretty simple.

Sometimes, the answer will be a mainstream school. Sometimes, it will be a Special School. The location has no moral value: it’s a question of where the child’s needs are best met.

It’s not ‘good’ for children with SEN to go to mainstream – it’s not ‘a good life experience’ for them; it’s not ‘treating them like everyone else’; it’s not ‘nice to see children looking after them’. (It *may* be good for the other kids to be alongside them – but that is not the purpose of the child with SEN’s education!)

What I’m trying to say is this: a presumption towards ‘co-presence’ is not the same as a presumption towards ‘inclusion in education’.

And if we pursue the latter (which we should), then we may find ourselves building more and more Special Schools – and, I hope, schools which stretch into people’s 20s and 30s! – in order to give young people access to experts who can help them to flourish and learn. 

OK. That’s my rant.

Now here are a few of the things I love about Special Schools 🙂

  • There is no ‘pity culture’. *Everyone* is SEN – so it’s not ‘special’ anymore! There is no ‘aww, bless him!’ or ‘aww, it’s cute when he does that!’ or ‘aww, he can’t help it!’.
  • This simple fact fuels high behavioural and learning expectations, with no acceptance (from those who are capable) of non-age-appropriate behaviours and poor behaviour.
  • Children help each other *on an equal footing*. I have seen children with SEN in mainstream schools being treated by other children almost like the class mascot. I don’t like it. At all.
  • The ratio. You probably have kids in your classes who could quite easily get into Special Schools. There, they would be in classes of 8-12, with 2-3 TAs in addition to the class teacher.
  • The philosophy that ‘nothing is a crisis’! If you’ve worked in a Special School, you’ll know that the most crazy things happen – and you learn to just shrug and deal with it!

Don’t tell me what I do!

I *hate* being told what I do. Not what to do, I don’t mind that. But people saying, ‘This is what primary school teachers do.’ It’s invariably bollocks, but even if it wasn’t, I’d still hate it. Even when I agree with it, it annoys me. Generalisations suck.

These are some of the charges levelled at primary teachers about ‘what we do’:


Now that I’ve got that off my chest, I should say that I really think it shouldn’t have to be like this. Point-rebuttal is not a helpful way of discussing education (sorry about that) – largely because everyone’s experience is so different, and what appears to one person to be a cast-iron truth (e.g. my assertion that we have good discipline) is another person’s outlandish assertion. It doesn’t work.

Now, I am one of those not-actually-at-all-rare-whatsoever people who thinks that good discipline and teacher-led instruction is probably the best way of teaching. By which I mean, it suits my personality best; other things might work better for other people. Naturally, I’d like people like me to win the ‘big education debate’. (Well, actually, I’m not that fussed, so long as I can do what I want in my classroom, but you get my point).

Unfortunately for my ‘team’ (I never was good at team games), there are far too many people on it who:
a) make out that these ‘traditional’ (yuck, eww, sorry) attitudes & practices are rare and not currently in use;
b) try to win the argument by criticising the practice of those who do not adhere to these views & deploy different methods.

This is, I regret to say, a singularly piss-poor way of winning the argument. It alienates *literally everyone*.

For instance, when someone says ‘primary schools teach way too much through play!’ as part of an argument promoting didactic teaching, they enrage not only those who believe in play, but also those of us who agree with didactic teaching and HATE having our practice portrayed like this.

Let’s be honest, it’s just bad PR. I’d even go so far as to call it Gordon Brown-level PR.

So what should we do instead?

Be positive! Instead of criticising others’ practice, focus on proving that yours works. And if it works, show off about it. Describe how you changed what you did and what you saw happen. Explain why you changed your mind about something and how it helped your kids. Hell, show us a graph illustrating how your kids’ levels have improved. I don’t care – so long as you add some trousers to your mouth, so to speak.

Whatever you do, DON’T harp on about how fucked-up the education system is. Don’t lay into other teachers for using methods that don’t suit your personal viewpoint. Don’t blame other teachers for the fact that your Year 5s can’t spell.

It’s boring. And it’s alienating. And – worst of all – it’s talking down your colleagues’ hard work.




Routines for New Teachers

Classroom management is all about expectations (obv). The trouble is, if, like I was when I started teaching, you’re plunged into the deep end with little support, you don’t know what expectations you’re supposed to have. You certainly don’t know what high expectations look like. And if you don’t know what it looks like, there’s no way in hell you can achieve it. The result? You enforce a rag-bag of dreamt-up expectations in an ad-hoc way, with disastrous results. I know, I’ve been there. The good thing is, it’s so easy to get right once you’ve decided what expectations you want to enforce.

Firstly, you need routines. Routines need to be established ASAP. First lesson, first day, first week. They’re not there because you’re a Nazi hell-bent on moulding your children into compliant machines; they’re there because they build the idea that what you say, they do. Here are some ideas which I used when setting my expectations at the start of my second year of teaching –hopefully they will be helpful to people just starting out on a PGCE or TeachFirst too 🙂

1. Stop signal: you need this, to get back attention after partner talk etc. Clap-clap-hand up (which children respond to by instantly falling silent and raising their hand too) works exceptionally well: you can see who has complied and you MUST demand every hand up before you continue. Kids don’t stop and raise their hand instantly? Ask them to pretend to talk to their partners and repeat! And repeat. And repeat. They will get the idea! It really is easy to get your whole class silent instantly – but not unless you show them that’s what you expect.

2. Line order: have one. Simple.

3. Exit routine: this ensures orderly exit from the classroom. Lots of varieties but 1-2-3-4 (stand up-stand behind chair-chair in-move silently to line order) is good. If children talk at any step…do it again!

4. Starting tasks: this depends on the subject, but if you have asked for independent work when you set the kids off and they start to talk, stop them immediately and repeat your instruction before setting off again. This leads into…

5. Silent work: this is important! Even if you don’t want it all the time (e.g. in maths I expect silence when we’re practising a method, but really want partner talk to solve problems), you need to make it something that is not ‘forced’(i.e. hard for you to enforce). So do *lots* of silent work during the first few weeks when expectations are set; this allows you do to guided groups and so on without interference.

6. Choral Response/My Turn Your Turn: getting the class to respond to simple questions or to chant spellings or to repeat sentences back to you is great classroom management: it builds up that behaviourist response that they do what you say. Also it’s good for learning – happy days. Do this lots in the first few weeks too.

7. SLANT/some kind of ‘sitting’ rules: once you’ve done clap-clap-hand, you need to maintain the children’s attention while you teach; choral response at regular intervals during explanations helps with this, as does random questioning, but a set of rules helps. The SLANT rules (which you can adapt from the original American ones) are good. Reinforce with non-verbal signals as you talk e.g. click fingers for eye contact, gesture up for good sitting, push hand away for fiddling.

8. [edit – can’t believe I forgot this one!] Countdowns: I wouldn’t advocate using countdowns for getting attention, as that means you are waiting for the children, not vice versa. Clap-clap-hand shows much higher expectations. HOWEVER, countdowns are brilliant for making sure the little things that can reduce the pace of lessons and increase off-task behaviour are done very speedily. For instance, you want to do a quick bit of AfL on whiteboards; instead of saying ‘whiteboards out’, you say ‘whiteboards and pens in 3,2,1,0’ by which time you expect children to have the whiteboard and pen on the table in front of them. If they don’t, put them away, and repeat. Likewise for packing up equipment. Children can do almost anything ‘administrative’ in a classroom to a count of 5. I promise.

9. [another edit] Transitions – nowadays, with setting, some primary teachers will teach 3-4-5 different classes a day. So, like secondary teachers, you need to be ready. The new class waits in a silent line by the door, you stand on the threshold as they silently go in and find their seat; try not to be engaged in conversations at this point, or the rest of the class are waiting. At the end of the day, set a timer for the whole class to have got their coats and bags silently and be back in their seats – try and beat the time the next day (this very much depends where your kids’ bags and coats are!).

OK, those are my key routines. The great thing about routines is that once they’re set, you will probably not have very many major behaviour issues to worry about; the expectation that you are the boss is set and you will find you can focus on teaching well. Also, by picking up on the small things, you ensure that most children won’t dare to try any big things! I’d love to hear anyone else’s ideas for useful routines to establish in the first week 🙂

PS – Just a thought…as a new teacher, this stuff – classroom management –  is your absolute priority. In those first couple of weeks, it is *far* more important than learning, and *infinitely* more important than ‘exciting’ lessons. I advise planning simple model-practice lessons so that you can focus on embedding these routines without worrying too much about teaching complex lessons. In short, don’t run before you can walk!!

The Secret of Literacy

David Didau’s book ‘The Secret of Literacy’ is a good ‘un. It’s not revolutionary – you will find lots of similar ideas in ‘Teach Like A Champion’ or Pie Corbett’s ‘Talk for Writing Across the Curriculum’ (which Didau credits) – but it neatly ties together different aspects of literacy into a useful tool for thinking about how to raise expectations of literacy in the classroom.

Whilst primary teachers may find themselves a little puzzled by the lengthy justifications of teacher modelling – since for most of us modelling is the bread and butter of every lesson – there are loads of ideas here which I will be wanting to try out next year (see below!). The chapter on oracy is a good reminder that ‘if they can’t say it, they can’t write it’ – and there are lots of ideas for promoting an academic spoken and written register.

The ‘set context – model/deconstruct – co-construct – independent’ teaching cycle Didau presents is one that will be instantly familiar to anyone who’s used Corbett’s book above – and I find it an effective way of teaching writing, especially when complemented (as Didau suggests) with discrete grammar teaching to drill students in the basics. An interesting debate is raised over the suitability of the ‘text-types’ approach Corbett suggests (and which many primaries follow); however, a feasible alternative for primary teaching isn’t suggested – and I’m not sure we can risk returning to the days when primary kids only ever wrote stories…

Interestingly, Didau promotes the primary small-group approach to guided reading over the secondary ‘class reader’; personally, although I love teaching guided reading, I find it deeply inefficient to be reading with only 6-7 children at one time – and I’m not convinced that 30 minutes a week can have more than a slight impact on children’s reading progress. I’m considering for next year an approach where half the class works with me, focusing on a particular reading skill (AF), whilst the rest read aloud in mixed-ability pairs: Didau rightly points out the silent reading is probably not a worthwhile activity for low-ability readers.

Anyway, here’s a few of the ideas inspired by TSoL which I will be thinking about for next year:

  • Explicitly modelling an academic register of speech; perhaps using starters to practice converting sentences orally into more academic speech.
  • Explicitly teach and model the reading of longer sentence types (with parenthesis, subordinate clauses, semi-colons) – perhaps as a whole-class guided reading starter.
  • Explicitly teach vocabulary (better) – I did this this year with the weekly spellings, but naturally these are not always the words which hold back understanding; I will need to think more carefully about which words to choose!
  • Focus more on the ‘setting the context/explaining’ section of the teaching cycle (I realise I often rush this – I blame being a Year 6 teacher…) – particularly by giving a wider range of examples (and non-examples) of a concept.
  • Display and use a range of prompts for building oracy – particularly for explanations in Maths, where children can struggle to explain what they have done.
  • Review concepts several times within the first week of teaching them (especially in Maths, where the curriculum can chop and change so fast).
  • Use guided groups to work with higher ability children on using nominalisation in their writing.

Didau’s central ideas – about the importance of modelling and oracy – are ones all teachers should be comfortable with; I found the lengthy sections about Ofsted’s ideas unnecessary (and can report that from my experience Ofsted have no problem with effective teacher-led learning), but this book is very helpful in suggesting ways of helping language-poor students to catch up – a challenge which I would argue is probably the biggest schools face.

PS. One grammar quibble! ‘As’ is said to be a coordinating conjunction, when I’m almost certain it is a subordinating conjunction…. ;p

The One When Ofsted Got It Right

Most people must by now have seen this story about the Olive Tree school in Luton.

It seems to have gone something like this:

  1. Inspector talks to a group of children, presumably about a range of issues, including diversity.
  2. Inspector asks whether children know what gay means/whether they are taught anything about it.
  3. The children are frozen in silent panic, apart from one brave soul who questions the inspector as to the relevance of his question.
  4. The children are left ‘intimidated’, ‘uncomfortable’ and ‘confused’.
  5. Ofsted abandon the inspection after parents complain.

My first reaction to this story was sadness. It’s sad that a child of 10 should be ‘panicked’ by the mere mention of the word ‘gay’. That’s not right. It shouldn’t be that way. It’s also sad that instead of seeing this as the issue that needs addressing, school leaders and parents blamed Ofsted for ‘sexualising’ their children.

Actually, that’s more than sad; it’s homophobic. The idea that talking about gay people is ‘sexualising’ stems from an idea that being gay is about sex. It is, of course, in some ways, but no more so than being straight – and yet rather than avoid portrayals of straight romance, we bombard children with them almost from birth.

Ofsted – rightly – have a duty to ensure that against this barrage of heteronormativity children are also given insights into other sexualities. Why? Because children should not be victims of their household circumstances. Children who grow up in homophobic homes shouldn’t be left to rot in self-loathing for a decade of childhood and adolescence; they should be taught that in this country, at this moment in time, being gay is fine. Not just tolerated, but fine.

The parents at Olive Tree school claim that what upset them is the questioning style Ofsted adopted. But their ideas about ‘sexualisation’ give the lie to this: they simply do not believe their children should be taught about gays. And if even Ofsted run scared, who is going to stop them?

Audaciously, the parents also claimed their children were victims of a ‘safeguarding issue’. No. The safeguarding issue they should be concerned about is young gay people growing up without the knowledge and self-awareness they need to be happy.

It boils down to this: children should leave primary school knowing that being gay is considered by the state and many citizens to be absolutely fine, even if their parents disagree. They should be aware of the wide range of influential, successful and happy people who are gay. And they should be introduced to stories and other media which deal with gay romantic love. It’s not a lot to ask, really, that against the tide of straight romance which we drown our kids in, our schools should provide the occasional counter-example – is it?


The Blame Game

When things aren’t how we’d like them to be, we blame others. That’s life. Infant teachers do it to nurseries, Junior teachers do it to Infant teachers and Secondary teachers do it to Juniors. I imagine university professors just sit there and mutter expletives about the lot of us. And it’s fair play.

It’s not unreasonable for secondary teachers to expect that children leave primary school being functionally literate. Many primary schools manage to achieve that for all their pupils, in extremely deprived areas against huge odds.

But not all schools are good schools. And until that point, we all have to simply teach the children we have in front of us. I have to teach the children Year 5 gave me. Secondary teachers will have to teach the children I give them. They’re imperfect because my school is imperfect. But we have to teach them anyway – at their level, not at the level we wish they were at.

So when a few of my school’s children go into Year 7 with Level 3s in Reading and Writing, what level of support meets them? In Year 6, we teach discretely for spelling, grammar, guided reading and writing, as well as having silent reading time and story time during the day, and ensuring the children read daily at home. It comes to around 11-12 hours of literacy a week in school, plus homework, spelling practice and home reading.

Yet in Year 7, these Level 3 kids can expect to get 4-5 hours of generic English a week. So, despite the fact that they haven’t yet reached the appropriate level, the schools seem to say ‘Oh well, that was primary’s job!’ and stop doing everything that the children still need – the grammar, the spelling, the daily guided reading sessions. Why? Are these schools teaching the children in front of them, or the children they want to have?

So the blame game helps no-one. Primary schools must be good schools (duh) which children leave functionally literate. But until that glorious day, secondaries need to simply give the children what they need: if your children aren’t literate, teach more English! If your children aren’t numerate, teach more Maths! It’s really not rocket science.

And, if you feel that a child in your care is not ‘secondary ready’, why try and teach them as if they were? Teach the child in front of you, and teach them like they were in Year 6!