Tuesday, 17 October 2017

How To Write Good Comprehension Questions

Many of the commercially available reading tests often have some questions which are poorly written, so poor that it is unclear as to what the questioner is getting at. These ambiguously written questions can hardly help children to develop their ability to understand what they have read, nor can they be a useful assessment of what they understand. The problem is that asking good comprehension questions that make sense to children is really difficult – it’s an art we have to practice, and that we might not always get right. But what can we do to ensure that we provide the best questions possible in our reading lessons?

Choose Texts Carefully

Before thinking about the questions, you need to select the text carefully. If you know that you want to practise a particular reading skill then the text you choose needs to support that. For example, there would be very little point in choosing an instructional text to teach and practise inference skills. That is an extreme example, but it makes the point - make sure the text you choose supports the skills you want to teach.

Of course, sometimes you might select a text and the focus of that lesson will be simply understanding the text as a whole - in a lesson like this you wouldn't want to focus solely on teaching one particular skill, you'd want to ask the necessary questions which really ensure that children are reading for meaning.

Plan Ahead

Even the most experienced teachers run the risk of asking superficial and poorly-worded questions if they have not pre-read their text and planned out the questions they are going to ask. The tendency also is to ask low-level literal questions (retrieval) rather than any other kinds of questions which probe deeper into a text. Write down the questions you want to ask.

At this point I should point out that when I refer to writing good comprehension questions I don't necessarily mean questions that will be presented to children in written form. The questions that you write might only go as far as your planning sheet - in an actual lesson they will be questions that you pose orally. The same goes for the answers that children might give - they could be written or oral.

Use SATs Question Stems

One thing I would have to say in favour of the SATs is that at least they are well written and to a proficient reader the answers, however difficult, are not ambiguous. Sometimes perhaps the mark schemes are a little narrow, and children don’t get marks when they clearly have shown understanding, but that is not to do with the way the questions are asked.

We can learn how to write better questions by studying the KS1 and KS2 tests but unfortunately not all teacher in all year groups are familiar enough with them. Several useful documents have been produced containing the question stems from the most recent tests:
The questions in the documents above are organised into the different content domains – for an easy way to remember these content domains, please see my blog on the Reading Roles.

Use Different Response Formats

Many comprehension activities set by teachers are in the simple form of a written question. A quick flick through a test will provide plenty of other ideas for how to present questions:
  • Multiple Choice (tick or circle)
  • Ordering Events by Numbering
  • True or False
  • Matching
Some examples (the colours and symbols here relate to the Reading Roles):

It is well worth creating a word document that contains some pre-made questions like this to copy and paste each time you create a reading comprehension activity. I have plenty of examples available on TES so you don’t even need to create them yourself.

Although not featured recently in tests, not in their strictest form anyway, cloze tasks are a good way to test reading comprehension. When creating a cloze procedure it is best to remove words that are crucial to the meaning of the original text that children read. Cloze procedures can also include a multiple choice element if the line for the missing word is followed by a choice of several words for children to choose from.

In their book Understanding and Teaching Reading Comprehension, Jane Oakhill, Kate Cain and Carsten Elbro recommend true/false, multiple choice and cloze task questioning formats, but point out that the different formats lend themselves better to differen question types. For example, true/false judgements are better for retrieval questions, whereas a multiple choice question might help children to recognise an inference that can be made from what they have read.

Research shows that presenting questions in a true/false format is also good for children for whom English is an additional language. Click here to read more on this.

Focus on a Particular Skill

The temptation is to just ask the first questions that come into one’s head when reading the text intended for the reading lesson. This is fine for a summative assessment (that mixture of question types and skills is how the SATs are presented) and for understanding a text, but isn’t great for teaching children specific comprehension skills. If children are only ever presented with a scattering of questions across the content domains there is little opportunity for deliberate teaching and practice of particular skills such as inferring, summarising or predicting.

Most lessons should focus on one skill; sometimes a whole sequence of lessons will be focused on the teaching and practise of one skill.

Scaffold Answers

There are several ways to do this so that you support children. I have written a lot about scaffolding inference by first asking vocabulary and retrieval questions, but there are other scaffolding structures, too.

Here's an example of scaffolding inference:

Before being able to make plausible predictions children might first need to answer relevant questions about vocabulary, they will then need to be able to retrieve information and make inferences based on them – prediction is a form of inference.

In order for children to answer questions about author’s purpose they might need to first answer well-crafted questions about vocabulary, retrieval and/or inference.

Similarly, in order to summarise information children may need to go through the process of answering relevant questions about vocabulary, retrieval, inference, author’s purpose before they can give an accurate summary of a text.

When writing sequences of questions like this it is a good idea to start with the final question you want children to answer, and to work backwards from there – the children should be able to draw on all the information they have given in previous questions to answer the final question.

I intend to dedicate another blog post to exploring these structures.

Give Relevant Information

Don’t leave children searching forever for the place in the text where they might find their answer. Give them pointers such as:
  • Look at this sentence: 
  • Look at the paragraph beginning 
  • At the top of page it says…
Some examples:

Even the tests provide this sort of information. Children cannot demonstrate their comprehension skills any better without this information, although by giving no such clues children may practise their scanning skills.

Checking Your Questions

Once you have written your questions it is a good idea to either get another teacher to have a look through them, or to return to them later and read them with fresh eyes: Do they make sense? Is it clear what the answers should be? Do they need re-wording? Ask yourself these kinds of questions and edit accordingly - you don't want children to be turned off answering the questions due to a lack of clarity.

As Oakhill et al point out in 'Understanding and Teaching Reading Comprehension', it is important to check that the questions you have written actually check comprehension of the text. They outline how some questions could be answered using prior knowledge solely, without reference to the text at all.

Pie Corbett made a few salient points to me on this issue which I'll use to conclude:

"You have to be able to find a text worth reading then design questions (or focuses) that challenge and begin to deepen thinking. It is worth thinking about questions that are worth asking and ones that are not worth asking."

Monday, 16 October 2017

Reading Roles Testimonials

What Is Reading Roles?

The concept of 'Reading Roles' (resources available on TES resources) is to assign a well-known job, role or profession to each of the reading content domains. Most children will already understand what the jobs entail in real life and therefore will fairly immediately be able to gain an understanding of each cognitive domain.

Each domain has a symbol and is colour-coded so that there are further ways for the children to remember the domains and what they mean.

These could be used to colour-code questions used in class - the symbols could also be assigned to written comprehension questions so children begin to identify question types.

Click here to read more in my original blog post about Reading Roles.

What are the benefits of using Reading Roles?

Unlike other similar systems that are available, teachers and children already have a good idea of what each role entails because they are familiar with what people with those jobs do in real life. Therefore, they only have to attach the new understanding of the different domains to previously-held understanding, rather than learning two new sets of information - usually an abstract name for each domain, and its meaning.

Reading Roles help teachers to be more deliberate in their teaching of reading skills. Rather than just ask a question inspired by the text, teachers can be more deliberate about asking particular kinds of questions, making their lessons more focused. For example, a teacher might spend a day or a week, asking only 'Editor' questions (summarising) ensuring that they model and children practise that particular skill. Other similar systems advocate a less focused approach where lessons are not focused on particular skills.

Teachers and children are able to use different cues to remember the different content domains: some remember them by colour, some by the symbol and others by the name. Each Reading Role has a child-friendly explanation of what the domain entails.

Can I See Some Examples of How They Are Used?

Yes, here:

Click here for examples of reading comprehensions (based on RJ Palacio's 'Wonder') which use the Reading Roles.

Click here for examples of reading comprehension (based on Sandi Toksvig's 'Hitler's Canary') which use the Reading Roles.

All the questions in the above examples were generated using question stems from the Key Stage 2 tests. Alison Philipson, a Literacy consultant in Bradford, has put together some very useful documents containing question stems taken from the KS1 and KS2 SATs which are all organised by the domains. These documents have been invaluable in our implementation of the Reading Roles.

What Do Others Think of The Reading Roles?

@son1bun discovered the Reading Roles via Twitter and had this to say:
"With the 2014 Curriculum, came the realisation that the Assessment focuses (AFs) for reading, which we had become so used to, were on longer 'in'. With a sharp intake of breath, we all began to tentatively use the words, Cognitive Domains (CDs). After the Frameworks for the KS2 tests were released and it finally dawned on us, that our beloved AFs had been buried. 
As the English lead for my school, I set about supporting my staff to get to grips with the CDs. We had always placed a great emphasis on teaching comprehension strategies, from Reception to Year 6, so it was just about finding an interesting way to do it. That's where Twitter came in. 
That Boy Can Teach (TBCT) is a prevalent voice on Edutwitter (which is where I first came across him). With his, 'golden nuggets' about writing, reading and all things education, he quickly became a favourite of mine. 
He did a series of blogs about reading and when I came across the Reading Roles, it was a eureka moment. TBCT stated, 'the concept of 'Reading Roles' is to assign a well-known job, role or profession to each of the domains'. It literally was a simple as that!

I introduced this to staff in the spring term and the response from teachers was 100 % positive. Most importantly though, the children love them. It is amazing how quickly they remembered the role and the domain it linked to...even in Reception. The roles are so easy to say and the children really relate to all the roles, as they are familiar to them.

I would strongly recommend this resource. It does what it says on the tin. If you want to get your children engaged in taking ownership of their reading comprehension, in a fun way, reading roles work... simple! Thanks TBCT!"
@rachstebbs (a teacher at my own school) had this to say:
"The introduction of Reading Roles to my class has helped me as a teacher to develop whole class reading sessions and think much more about the questions I am asking. Each one aligns to a domain and so I can be sure that I teach all necessary skills in a structured way. 
For children who had yet to reach the expected level, I initially focused on the Translator and Reporter skills. This meant that I could ensure they had understood the vocabulary in the text and were able to apply that vocabulary when retrieving answers. Initially this took them a significant proportion of the lesson, but I found that their speed increased as they became more adept at investigating the vocabulary (reading for context, using a dictionary etc). Gradually the vocabulary became less of a question focus because they were able to quickly analyse unfamiliar words using the same strategies, without needing the scaffold of an actual question.  
This meant they could begin to use other reading roles to answer a wider range of questions. Each role was taught explicitly, and the class quickly became familiar with the roles, as well as their associated colours and images. Initially, I stuck with a few limited question stems, but as the skills became more embedded, I could use a wider variety. This variety meant that children could practice one skill without it boring them! 
For those who were working at or above ARE, the reading roles developed their independence and confidence in answering questions. All answers were edited before marking, so after a discussion children could expand or change their responses if they wished."
Ben Trevail (@BenTrevail), Assistant Head at Edward Feild Primary School, has used Reading Roles too:
"Reading Roles have played a crucial part in the success of our move towards whole class reading across the school from Year 2 to Year 6. They provide a common language for abstract skills used by teachers and pupils and have been shared with parents too.
Each lesson focuses on one specific skill and using the roles has helped pupils understand the content domains to be taught and later assessed. There's advice in the EEF Improving Literacy in KS2 document about the gradual release of responsibility model and the explicit teaching of each skill so that's what we're trying to do. After Christmas the plan is for children to practise multiple roles in one lesson based on a stimulus. 
We also use them as our reading targets, building up a picture of pupils as readers by assessing their competence in each role."

Book Review: '100 Ideas for Primary Teachers: Mindfulness in the Classroom' by Tammie Prince

Previously, when I thought of mindfulness, I didn't really know what it was. I thought it was hippy mumbo jumbo mixed in with some kind of eastern mysticism. But then I began to notice that a good few folk in my online network were sold on the idea of mindfulness - some of them even assured me that I probably practised some sort of mindfulness unknowingly. I deduced that I must subconsciously be quite mindful, but I still didn't know what it was.

Tammie Prince defines mindfulness simply as 'the mental state achieved by focusing on the present moment while also accepting our feelings, thoughts and bodily sensations.' The book's premise is that 'the development of mindfulness in the classroom arms our children with lifelong skills that support their support their current and future mental health and well-being'  and it mentions that studies show there are positive benefits to children learning and using mindfulness techniques. As I understand it there isn't a lot of research into the impact of using mindfulness techniques in the classroom but many of the ideas in the book just seem like common sense - many of them I recognise as things that have helped me to feel less worried and stressed in my own life. However, one recent study on mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) showed that 16 juvenile delinquents who underwent an 8-week programme of MBSR showed increased grey matter in the left hippocampi, a part of the brain involved in learning and memory processes as well as emotion regulation and perspective-taking.

The book is spilt into ten parts, and sceptics, before you read the list, take note of this: 'not all strategies will work for all people'. The ten sections are Breathing; Guided Meditation; Active Meditations; Gratitude; Yoga; Emotional Intelligence; Mindful Colouring and Doodling; Calm Down and Relax; Mindful Walking; Teacher's Mindfulness.

As the title promises, the book contains 100 different mindfulness techniques or ideas to try in the primary classroom. Reading through there were definitely things that I couldn't imagine myself doing with a class but then there were plenty of ideas that seemed only to be tweaks of things I already do. The book contains methods suitable for a range of ages, although some techniques appear to be more suited to particular ages or levels of maturity.

The ideas that impressed me most were the ones that I could see having multiple benefits - there are plenty of techniques with links to the curriculum - reading, writing, drama, PE, music and art, for example. The fact that many of the ideas can be adapted to fit into curriculum time means that the book is more likely to achieve one of its aims: '...that the children will start to use what they have been taught independently...' - in my own experience whenever something is part of the daily routine, children are more likely to internalise it than if it were taught in isolation.

This is a book which is full of practical activities; there is something for everyone here – even the sceptic. With clear links to different curriculum areas, mindful practice can easily be embedded using the ideas in this book. A great starters’ guide to mindfulness.

The book, released 19th October 2017, is available to pre-order/buy here: https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/100-ideas-for-primary-teachers-mindfulness-in-the-classroom-9781472944955/

Saturday, 14 October 2017

The More-ness Of Reading

A blog version of my Reading Rocks 2017 workshop:

The purpose of reading

What is the purpose of reading? Most people would say that we read for enjoyment and to learn. There will be those who think some books are for enjoying, and some are for learning from. Other folk will agree that the act of reading in order to learn something is enjoyable. Some readers will only do it for one reason or the other.

Children’s novels are ostensibly written so that children gain pleasure from them, and from the act of reading. But if we actually considered some of the books that children read, and if we scratch beneath the surface, we will find that children’s books are for so much more than pleasure and enjoyment. In fact, they are for learning.

Reading is for more than enjoyment and learning

Learning about what? What can made up characters in made up places doing made up things be possibly teaching children? Well, when it comes to making my point, quotations abound – from researchers, authors and children who read:


Friday, 13 October 2017

From The @TES: Throw A Spanner In The Workload

Unless you completed your teacher training in a parallel universe, where everything is perfect, you will have picked up on the fact that “workload” and “wellbeing” within schools are kind of a big deal right now. You’ll have heard about education’s recruitment and retention crisis, and you’ll know that many teachers complain that their wellbeing is affected by the amount of hours they do. According to a 2016 NASUWT survey, 74 per cent of teachers have considered leaving the profession, with 90 per cent citing workload as a problem.

But as an NQT, full of enthusiasm and not yet infected by the cynicism that is rife...


Sunday, 8 October 2017

From The @TES Blog: Shine Bright But Don't Burn Out

Are you forever striving to teach flashbulb lessons? The ones that wow the students and leave any observers dazzled?

They're usually the ones you spend longer than average preparing for and that often aren't representative of your everyday way of teaching. They're brilliant and the kids love them, but if they miss the mark, it was a lot of effort for very little return.

And they can leave you – and your students – with the sense that all of your other lessons aren't good enough. You can get into a spiral of trying to replicate the whizzes and bangs more often than you can possibly manage.


Monday, 2 October 2017

The Right(est) Way To Teach Spelling (part 1)

Why words ought to be spelled correctly is an opinion piece best left for another time (or never at all). For now, let's assume that we want children to be able to spell correctly for no other reason than to be able to communicate efficiently in the written form. Yes, language evolves over time, but not usually as the result of the odd child sitting in a primary school who sometimes overcompensates by adding an 'h' into 'went'.

One aim of the teaching and learning of spelling is that children's encoding skills become more fluent, thus allowing them to focus more on composition when they are writing. For the same reason, most teachers care about children having good handwriting (let's not get into that one here, either). In order for children to write interesting, thought-provoking, engaging pieces of writing they need not to be hindered by atroshus poor spelling skills. And if you agree with me up to this point, you'll probably agree that teachers need to do something about the teaching spelling - for most, the ability to spell well does not come naturally.

Most teachers will have some ideas about what good spelling instruction looks like but 'there is limited evidence about what constitutes effective approaches to teaching spelling.' And for a blog post all about what the research shows about teaching spelling, that's highly inconvenient. But we will push on.

The EEF report on improving Literacy in KS1 does have this to say: 'Some approaches do have some evidence to support them, especially when evaluated on the basis of improvements to the spelling of individual words. It is less clear which approaches lead to better spelling in the context of pupils’ composition of full texts.' So, if you were hoping for a silver bullet to get children to spell correctly when they're actually composing pieces of writing, then perhaps you'd better stop reading now! However, surely the best bet in this case is to at least ensure they can spell individual words with a hope that this will eventually feed into their longer written pieces? I think so, especially if there's no obvious other way.

Choosing Developmentally-Appropriate Spellings

In their work 'American Spelling Instruction: What History Tells Us' Schlagal and Trathen (1998) concluded that providing levelled spellings was particularly effective in improving the skills of low and mid-level ability spellers. In an article by Bear and Templeton entitled 'Explorations in developmental spelling: Foundations for learning and teaching phonics, spelling, and vocabulary' they report that one of three important structural practices for spellings is that 'students should be grouped appropriately for spelling and word study'.

With the National Curriculum's prescribed word lists for each year group (I can find absolutely no information about how these spelling lists were generated) it is very tempting for teachers to give children spelling lists based on their age, rather than their current level of spelling achievement. With other research showing that setting children by level of attainment is not good for their development, many teachers are beginning to 'teach to the top', including in spelling, meaning that children are potentially being provided with spelling lists of words that are not suitable for their level.

It is best for teachers to assess children's spelling level in order to inform the kinds of words they are then asked to learn. Bear and Templeton are keen to point out that this is not 'for creating a label' but that it is to serve as a starting point for spelling instruction. Children who are seen to forget how to spell words, even if they spelled them correctly in a test after a week of teaching, are usually ones for whom the spellings have been pitched too high.

Schlagal and Trathen make sense of why children don't learn spellings when they are pitched too high:'some children may have insufficiently developed word knowledge for a given level of words'. If we think of spelling being like a building, children need foundations on which to build and these phases of building, according to the research, cannot be skipped.

Selecting Known Words

Bear and Templeton also propose that 'students should examine known words' and the EEF report on improving Literacy in KS1 suggests that 'the teaching of spelling is likely to work best when the spellings are related to the current content being studied in school and when teachers encourage active use of any new spellings in pupils’ writing.' However, at this point it is worth remembering that words selected from reading books, topics or children's spoken vocabulary should also be developmentally appropriate. Bear and Templeton point out that 'if theme is the sole criterion for selecting words... then students are reduced to learning how to spell one word at a time, with no opportunity to discover or explore the spelling patterns that apply to many words.' (more on spelling patterns later)

Testing As A Memory Aid

So, from this (which is based on a whole tonne of research and has been written about an awful lot) we might surmise that testing is a key part of the learning process when it comes to spelling.
  • young spellers studied high frequency words;
  • students corrected their own spelling (under teacher supervision);
  • teachers used the pretest-teach-test method of delivery and assessment; and
  • spelling was allotted between 60 and 75 minutes of instructional time per week.
So, in between the pre-test and the test, teachers should be teaching children to look for and identify spelling patterns in the selected words - this is called word study. Bear and Templeton outline different stages of spelling and suggest a progression of focuses for word study based on each developmental stage (these can be found on pages 225-226 in the article).
This could be summarised into three main areas around which our explanations, instruction and any learning activities should be based upon:
  • word origin and history (etymology);
  • syllable patterns and units of meaning (morphology); 
  • letter patterns (phonics).
A simple timetable can sum up what we've seen so far from the research on teaching spelling. This structure can be applied to children working at different developmental levels of spelling with different lists of spellings:

How Do We Learn?

Let's look at learning in a broader sense and ask ourselves, how do we learn? Without going into too much detail, one of the most effective techniques is to work on the recall of information from our long term memories. In Clare Sealy's super-helpful blog post 'Memory Not Memories - Teaching For Long Term Memory' she summarises research that shows that 'we can strengthen our ability to recall long-term memories by retrieving them.' This is called 'the retrieval effect' or 'the testing effect' and is where testing becomes a learning tool rather than an assessment tool. Clare goes on to explain that 'the more times we try and retrieve something, the stronger the memory gets. But it is the struggle that is important. If we reteach content instead of getting children to try and retrieve stuff they’ve probably forgotten, the memory does not get strengthened in the same way.' 

In his 2006 literature review 'Characteristics of Effective Spelling Instruction' in Reading Horizons, Randall R. Wallace, based on the work of Fitzsimmons and Loomer (1978), reports that spelling lessons offered in a word list format were effective when teachers followed the following guidelines:
In 'Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology' by Dunlosky et al, it is reported that, based on much research, low stakes practice testing (p26) 'enhances learning and retention': pre-testing is an example of this practice testing.

Focusing in on the middle two points made by Wallace and linking that to what we know about recall of information from the long term memory, it would make sense that during a week children are pre-tested, taught and then tested again. To make this practical, we might say that they are pre-tested on their spellings on, say, a Monday, and that on that day they correct their spelling mistakes whilst self-marking their test. On the Friday of the same week, after being taught the spellings in between, the children are then tested again. If the process is left at this point then children are likely to forget the spellings learned in that particular week. It seems that the key to aid retention of the spellings from any given week would be to keep including past spellings in future tests, particularly those spellings which children find tricky.

Teaching Spelling Explicitly
    So far we've discussed selecting words and using testing at either end of a week. But what happens in between? Do we just send lists home and get children to somehow magically learn them? No. The EEF guidance simply says 'Spelling should be explicitly taught'.

    The third of Bear and Templeton's three important structural practices is that 'students should be guided towards discovering patterns and generalisations among the words they examine'. The EEF in their guidance for improving literacy in KS1 are a little less sure: 'there is some evidence to suggest that teaching word patterns may help with spelling.'

    Examining Spelling Patterns

    In a language notorious for having many exceptions to the rules, what sort of patterns are we looking for?

    In their 2008 article 'How Words Cast Their Spell' Joshi and Moats write 'good spellers develop insights into how words are spelled based on sound/letter correspondences, meaningful parts of words (like the root 'bio' and the suffix 'logy'), and word origins and history. This knowledge, in turn, supports a specialized memory system - memory for letters in words. The technical term for this is “orthographic memory,” and it’s developed in tandem with awareness of a word’s internal structure—its sounds, syllables, meaningful parts, oddities, history, and so forth. Therefore, explicit instruction in language structure, and especially sound structure, is essential to learning to spell.'

    When it comes to using etymology as a strategy for teaching spelling Bear and Templeton suggest that this only comes when children are at an advanced stage of development reading and writing (aged 10 and up). This should not stop etymology being a part of vocabulary instruction earlier on, indeed, it is likely that this practice is a possible stepping stone for using etymology as a spelling strategy.

    Goodwin's meta-analysis (2010) of morphological interventions for spelling shows that this method of teaching spelling is successful. A simple definition of morphology can be found on wikipedia:
    'the study of words, how they are formed, and their relationship to other words in the same language.It analyzes the structure of words and parts of words, such as stems, root words, prefixes, and suffixes.' The National Curriculum appendix gives a good breakdown of the spelling patterns that children should be learning. This seems to be the area that most research agrees on as being the main focus for spelling instruction.

    Looking at letter patterns is helpful to a point but Fitzsimmons and Loomer reported that heavily depending on phonic rules is ineffective and intuitively we know that to be true - many misspellings we come across in children's work are as a result of spelling phonically without applying knowledge of other rules.

    In Summary (So Far)

    In the next blog post we will look at research-based, practical ways of teaching spelling on the days between the tests and we will add to our weekly timetable.

    Monday, 25 September 2017

    What Does 'Greater Depth' Look Like In Primary Maths?

    What do we mean by 'Greater Depth' in maths? What would a child working at greater depth be doing? How can we support children to work at greater depth? With a little detective work we can piece together a good idea of what we might be talking about.

    At first, we might think that to be working at greater depth in maths children should be fluent in their mathematical ability, and that they should be able to solve problems and reason well. But that can't be it as the National Curriculum states that those are the aims for ALL pupils:

    So whilst children working at greater depth will be fluent and will solve problems and reason mathematically, we can't use those indicators to define 'Greater Depth' in maths. The National Curriculum document does give us another clue, however:

    We might define children who work at greater depth as still working within the expected standard but at a deeper level; this is how the Interim Teacher Assessment Framework (ITAF) classifies them. These children will most likely be children who 'grasp concepts rapidly' - let's assume the two are synonymous. For these children, the ones working at greater depth, we should provide 'rich and sophisticated problems' and we shouldn't just be getting them to move on to the next year group's work - this is made clear in the NC document and the language of the ITAF: working within the expected standard. So, as an indicator, those working at greater depth should be able to access 'rich and sophisticated problems'.

    But what about 'mastery'? A word mentioned only twice in the National Curriculum document (in relation only to English and Art) but one which has been bandied about a lot since its publication. If a child demonstrates mastery, could they be considered to be working at greater depth? In a word: no. The NCETM have this to say: "Mastery of mathematics is something that we want pupils - all pupils - to acquire, or rather to continue acquiring throughout their school lives, and beyond." Again we see that word 'all'. The NCETM say that "at any one point in a pupil’s journey through school, achieving mastery is taken to mean acquiring a solid enough understanding of the maths that’s been taught to enable him/her move on to more advanced material" - mastery is something which allows children to move on to be taught new content (c.f. to the NC) whereas working at greater depth pertains to working on current content, but at a deeper level. Notice those words 'solid enough' - a child working at greater depth won't just have 'solid enough' understanding - they'll have something more than that.

    The Key Stage 2 ITAF does not contain any information about what a children working at greater depth should look like by the end of year 6 so we have to look to the Key Stage 1 ITAF for more clues. Thankfully Rachel Rayner, a Mathematics Adviser at Herts for Learning, has done a great piece of work on this already. Her article 'Greater Depth at KS1 is Elementary My Dear Teacher' identifies three key differences between the statements and exemplification material for working at the expected standard and working at greater depth within the expected standard: she says that for pupils to be working at greater depth they should confidently and independently be able to deal with increases in complexity, deduction and reasoning. Please do read her article for more information about, and examples of, these three areas.


    Complexity is not about giving children bigger numbers, nor is it necessarily giving them more numbers (for example, giving children more numbers to add together, or order). Complexity needs to be something more as, based on curriculum objectives, giving bigger numbers is just a case of moving children onto the content of a following year group.

    So, how do we provide more complex work which will challenge those children identified as working at greater depth? One consultant advises that "in order to provide greater challenge we should keep the concept intact while changing the context." And, anyone who has witnessed a year 6 class doing their SATs will know that if there's one thing that throws them more than anything, it's the context of the questions. The test writers come up with endless ways of presenting maths problems but children working at greater depth are very rarely phased by these, whereas children working at the expected standard will come up against a few that they cannot answer.

    The best bet for increasing the complexity of the maths but continuing to work within the expectations for the year group is to present the problems differently, and in as many ways as is possible. The more children are exposed to problems presented in new ways, the more confidently they will approach maths problems in generally - gradually, nothing will phase them and they will have the determination to apply their maths skills to anything they come across.

    The NCETM Teaching for Mastery documents, although designed for assessment purposes, contain a wide range of complex problems under the heading 'Mastery with Greater Depth'. Organised under the curriculum objectives, these provide a great starting point for teachers to begin thinking outside the box with their maths questioning. Here's an example from the Year 1 document:

    A working group from the London South West Maths Hub have also begun putting together some similar documents, focusing initially on number, place value, addition and subtraction and again categorised under NC objectives - those documents can be downloaded here. Here's an example of one of those, taken from the year 3 documents:

    It's also worth looking at the KS1 and KS2 tests to get an idea of the question variety. The mark schemes will help you to decide which year group's content is covered in each question. When picking a question from the tests, decide whether or not it could be considered as an example of greater depth, rather than just mastery. Here's an example (from last year's year 6 test) of how different the questions can look:


    Reasoning is defined in the NC document as "following a line of enquiry, conjecturing relationships and generalisations, and developing an argument, justification or proof using mathematical language." 

    As already discussed, reasoning is a skill that we want every child to have. But the greater depth exemplification makes more of reasoning than the expected standard exemplification so we need to be able to differentiate between those who are reasoning at the expected standard and those who are reasoning at greater depth. When it comes to assessing children on their level of depth in reasoning, NRICH have a very useful progression of reasoning:

    I would suggest that those working at greater depth would be able to work at at least step 4: justifying. The NRICH article gives excellent examples and analysis of children's reasoning work so it is a must read to become more familiar with recognising reasoning at these five different levels.

    For further discussion of reasoning skills, please read this article, also on NRICH, which discusses when we need to reason and what we do when we reason.

    Deduction (and asking mathematical questions)

    Making deductions, a key part of reasoning, is similar to making inferences when reading and is all about looking for clues, patterns and relationships in maths. Once they have found clues they need to make conclusions based on them, and to then test them out. To be able to make conjectures, generalisations and to follow a line of enquiry, children need to ask their own questions. They need to look a sequence of numbers and ask themselves, 'Does the difference between each number in the sequence is the same?' - this is all about wonder: 'I wonder if...'.

    In order for children to ask questions about maths, so that they can begin to deduce things such as patterns and rules they need to be provided with activities that encourage them to do this. But even more importantly, initially they need to have these questioning skills modelled to them by an adult. They need to be taught and shown that maths can be questioned because many children think that every maths problem just has one set answer to be found.

    NRICH is the go-to place for such activities, but don't just give children a problem and expect them to be able to get on with it on their own - they need to have had much practice in questioning mathematically. Only when children are asking questions about maths, testing out their hypotheses and following lines of enquiry that they themselves have set, will they be able to reason at those higher levels set out by NRICH.

    Confidence and Independence

    In order for children to be working at greater depth we would expect to see a certain confidence not seen in all children. We would also want to see that they were working independently on the three areas outlined above. As already mentioned, children may need plenty of modelling before they become confident and independent - especially those children who are currently working at the expected standard who could work at greater depth with some extra help. A key indicator of whether or not children are working at greater depth will be their levels of confidence and independence (especially the latter, as some children are of a more nervous disposition yet are still highly capable).

    In Summary

    To answer our original questions we would hope to see that children who are working at greater depth would confidently and independently:

    • access maths problems presented in a wide range of different, complex ways;
    • be able to justify and prove their conjectures when reasoning;
    • ask their own mathematical questions and follow their own lines of enquiry when exploring an open-ended maths problem.
    In order to make provision for children working at greater depth we must:
    • model higher-level reasoning skills (justification and proving) and encourage children to use them;
    • model mathematical questioning during open-ended maths problems and encourage children to ask them;
    • provide complex maths problems (open and closed) with a variety of contexts and support children initially to access these, until they can do them independently;
    • motivate children to be confident and resilient enough to do the above.

    Sunday, 24 September 2017

    From the @TES Blog: Why teaching classic literature too early is a 'recipe for ruining great books' for children

    Recipe for ruining great books:

    Step one: Take a bona fide classic, fresh or preserved.

    Step two: Hack out palatable chunks (never use the whole book).

    Step three: Add a liberal sprinkle of received interpretation.

    Step four: Supplement the text with a movie version.

    You are now ready to force-feed this to children who are not old enough to digest such a diet – this is incredibly important to the ruining of great books. You will need to ensure that children endure sitting after sitting of the above. Of course, they should add tasting notes to their texts, but be careful to make sure they never have original thoughts about what they are consuming.

    If you follow these very simple steps, you can be sure that the majority of children will be put off reading good literature for a significant portion of their lives.

    Continue reading here: https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-views/why-teaching-classic-literature-too-early-a-recipe-ruining-great

    Thursday, 21 September 2017

    Book Review: 'The Grotlyn' by Benji Davies

    Before you even get to the text in this book, there is much to feast the eyes and mind on. The cover (including the one hidden under the dust jacket) and the double-page spread preceding the title page are gloriously illustrated in smokey muted hues which evoke a particular sense of place and time. The backstreets of a Victorian city are brought to life by a cast of intriguing characters. Children will linger over these pages providing adults a chance to question and discuss what can be seen - a perfect opportunity to explain exactly what a barrel organ is and does.

    The title page itself furthers the intrigue with its snatch of song - what is The Grotlyn? Benji Davies does a sterling job of reeling in the reader, child and adult alike.

    The first page of text sees the book set out its stall in terms of vocabulary - this is going to be rich in language: 'But what at first we think to be, The eye does blindly make us see.' Pick that apart with an 11 year old, or leave it be with a littler one - the story works on many levels. Every new page brings another beautiful turn of phrase - perfect for the budding logophile.

    Once you've read this captivating rhyming text and pored over the images, you'll find yourself working your way back through it, picking up on the clues that the author skilfully weaves through both words and pictures and making sense of them in light of the uplifting (literally) ending. As the mystery unravels, children will delight in the antics of the book's protagonist, and by the end, they will be rooting for the once-frightening Grotlyn.

    Every inch of the book is awash with clever and deliberate authorial choices and decisions that make several re-reads an absolute must. The illustrations alone could spark lengthy discussions when presented in or out of context - for teachers, there is so much material to use here.

    For those wanting to go a little deeper, the concept of freedom is a main theme here. Should animals be kept in captivity? Why do people want to escape certain aspects of their life? What causes humans to go to great lengths, sometimes even breaking laws to attain freedom?

    However this book is read, it is certain to become a favourite for all those who are fortunate enough to experience it. Benji Davies has delivered another thought-provoking, multi-layered picture book that is sure to be enjoyed by readers of all ages. 

    For an interview with Benji Davies click here.

    Friday, 15 September 2017

    9 Important Changes to the Primary Maths Curriculum and Assessment

    In response to the DfE's latest documents, I wrote this for Third Space Learning. It's a summary of the key changes in the way primary maths will be assessed over the next few years:

    On 14th September, just as we were all getting settled into the new school year, the DfE published not one, but two documents of considerable importance: ‘Primary assessment in England: Government consultation response’ and the 2017/2018 ‘Teacher assessment frameworks at the end of KS2’. Both documents reveal changes that will no doubt affect our approach as teachers and leaders.

    Whilst the most imminent and significant changes involve writing and reading, there are also some interesting developments in Maths.

    Wednesday, 13 September 2017

    Meeting The Needs of Lower Attainers In Whole Class Reading Sessions

    Perhaps the biggest worry for teachers when considering the switch from the guided reading carousel to whole class reading is how children of different 'abilities' will manage in the lessons. There are, however, various strategies a teacher can employ to support learners with different needs.

    You'll have noticed that above I enclosed the word abilities with inverted commas. The first strategy is for a teacher to alter their way of thinking about ability. One possible problem with the guided reading carousel is that children aren't challenged and are only given books and reading activities which are aimed at their perceived ability. This is probably particularly true on the days when that 'low ability' group doesn't have an adult to work with. As many before me have pointed out (including Bart Simpson: "Let me get this straight. We're behind the rest of our class and we're going to catch up to them by going slower than they are?") by taking this approach we run the risk of children never reaching whatever might be considered to be age related expectations - there just won't be time! These children will need to make accelerated progress in order to reach, or become closer to, the expected level. In order to make this progress in reading they will need to be supported as they attempt to access the text that has been selected for the whole class. It might be better to refer to these children in terms of their current levels of attainment or achievement, rather than in terms of a more fixed ability.

    With high expectations, plenty of targeted support and a whole load of positive encouragement, most children who are currently working below age related expectations will have the chance to make accelerated progress whilst taking part in whole class reading sessions.

    By teaching reading whole class last year we noticed that it was the children who had arrived in year 6 below age related expectations (ARE) who benefited most from the lessons. Whilst these children didn't achieve a score of 100 or over on the KS2 reading test, progress was evident in a number of ways:
    • Teacher assessment against the national curriculum objectives (and the interim objectives) showed vast improvements in reading achievement for these children.
    • When comparing both number of marks gained and scaled score achieved between the 2016 test taken in December and the 2017 test in May, children arriving well below ARE had, on the whole, made the most improvements. (I am happy to share some more specific data on this.)
    • Confidence and enjoyment are immeasurable but it was obvious to the adults working with these children that whole class reading really made an impact in these ways.
    There are, however, some children in your class who may be working so far below expectations, perhaps due to a special educational need, who won't be able to access whole class reading even with the suggestions outlined below. Teachers have a responsibility to provide meaningful learning opportunities for all and as such you should use your assessment and discretion when deciding who should and shouldn't take part in whole class reading.

    So, how can you support children currently working below ARE during whole class reading sessions?

    Read Aloud

    Although the point of a whole class session is to challenge - and as such you'd expect children to tackle most things independently during some parts of the lesson - children should have all aspects of the lesson modelled to them too. This applies to the actual reading itself.

    As I wrote in this TES article:

    "Reading aloud allows children to access high level texts, enables them to hear how unfamiliar language and sentence structures should sound and is proven to aid comprehension of a text; teachers should regularly read aloud to children. The Teachers as Readers project also found that hearing books read aloud gave children a model for their own independent reading. Children also benefit from opportunities to read aloud themselves."

    Even if the text is difficult for them to read (decode) independently, by having it read aloud to them they have the opportunity to show that they understand (or comprehend) it, just as they might understand anything that is spoken to them. Repeated exposure to a text will aid with their increasing understanding of what is written.

    Although this technique supports children who are currently lower attainers, it is worthwhile providing this opportunity to all children.

    Group Work

    Here we are essentially looking at a traditional guided reading session: teacher working with a group whilst the rest of the class are working independently.

    What that 'working' looks like might differ. It could be any of the following:
    • discussion about answers to questions leading to writing a group answer which the children can record.
    • further shared reading (aloud) and more general discussion, possibly focusing on word meanings and ensuring a general understanding of the text before they then attempt to answer any comprehension questions.
    • working with children on modified activities and/or with modified versions of the text (see below for more).
    • allowing the children to work in pairs or as a group to collaboratively answer the questions without an adult present.
    This approach means that, if you have an additional adult in class, there is the possibility of having two such groups on the go at any one time. Alternatively, the additional adult could attend to any needs that those working independently have, leaving the teacher to concentrate on the group. If you're lucky, your additional adult might even get on with giving feedback (written or verbal) to those children.

    Alternative Response

    This is the closest thing to traditional differentiation that we get - providing children with a modified activity but one which still helps them to achieve the same objective as the rest of the class.

    To modify an activity, a few ideas:
    • provide children with an extra glossary or vocabulary list with meanings - this should be specific to the excerpt and pre-prepared by the teacher. If the focus of the lesson was on finding the meanings of words using contextual or morphemic analysis then you might not do this, instead you could focus on the meanings of easier words.
    • use a structure such as this one designed to help children for whom English is an additional language. It involves encouraging children to ask questions of the text, to summarise the text and to order main points of the text, answering true or false questions as well as answering questions about the text. It's important that the final outcome of the activity matches the whole class objective.
    • provide scaffolded structures for answers, for example: I know that the character is _______ because in the text it says _______________.
    • If the focus of the lesson is inference, create an activity that helps to scaffold children's inferences. This can be done by guiding children to consider vocabulary and information that can be retrieved before making inferences - more about this here in my blog post about Scaffolding Inference. Higher attainers may not need these structures as they will have a similar internal, subconscious approach.
    In addition to having a modified activity they might also have a modified text - it could be a shorter excerpt of what has been read as a whole class, or it could be a modified version made easier in some way to help them achieve the whole class objective. Any of above modified activities could be used in conjunction with a modified text.

    Modelled Answers

    Even if children have all worked on exactly the same written response activity, with no support from adults or peers, they can be very well supported if answers to the questions they have been working on are modelled.

    The key here is that once answers have been modelled, either by other children or the teacher, whether verbally or in writing, that children edit their existing answers to include the main points of the modelled answers. With a regular, consistent approach to this children will grow in their ability to give written answers to questions. This modelling may take place whole class or with group time.


    Whole class reading does not replace the need for intervention. Whilst whole class sessions can be focused on the children achieving a whole class objective, interventions can focus on children's individual and specific needs. 

    It might be the case that assessment of achievement in whole class reading sessions decides the content of interventions, or that interventions are a continuation of the work done in whole class sessions. On the other hand the interventions could focus on something as basic as phonics (if this is the case, it will be important that in whole class sessions that they hear the text read aloud and that perhaps they are given a shorter or modified excerpt to work with independently).

    This is part 1 of a blog series on meeting different needs in whole class reading; next up: Greater Depth in Whole Class Reading Sessions.

    Monday, 11 September 2017

    KS2 Maths SATs On Reflection: Why We Teach For Mastery In Maths

    Here's one I wrote for Third Space Learning: https://www.thirdspacelearning.com/blog/2017/ks2-maths-sats-on-reflection-teaching-for-mastery

    ‘Without reflection, we go blindly on our way, creating more unintended consequences, and failing to achieve anything useful.’ - Margaret J. Wheatley

    Perhaps that’s a little over the top, but there’s something in it. As a teacher it’s always worth reflecting on a year just gone, looking back at what went well and what might need changing for the next year. I spent the year as Maths and UKS2 lead whilst teaching in Year 6.

    As such I have the privilege of being up to date with the changes taking place in primary education, especially with regards to the expected standards in assessment. Now that I’ve got a few weeks of holiday under my belt, my mind is a little fresher. It's on natural then, that I begin to look back upon KS2 Maths SATs 2017. Read on for my reflections on the end of July and the ever-present changes to how Maths is assessed in UK primary schools...


    Translating Research Into Practical Advice (Reflections On ResearchED)

    At the weekend (sounds like a year 3 recount, I know) I went to my first researchED event - the national conference, which was held at Chobham Academy in some part of London or other where you can almost see the money pouring into it (but as a Northerner, that's a rant I'll avoid now). With a whole host of speakers it wasn't easy to pick which sessions to attend - a good proportion of the train journey down was spent poring over the workshop descriptions and in some slots I had up to 5 possible choices. There was a definite air of excitement as teachers and other professionals poured into the school's largest hall; it felt good to be part of something which, compared to other conferences I've attended, seemed so big.

    Almost immediately I spotted the familiar face of Mark Enser, a wonderful teacher (I'm sure) and writer whose articles I always find myself nodding along to vehemently (in truth, he writes the stuff I most wish I'd written). It was great to meet him in person albeit briefly and I had the pleasure of meeting for the first time some other people who I had previously 'known' online: Dr Emma Kell (who may live to regret a subsequent proposal to co-present something one day), Justin Gray, Karen Wespieser and Kieran Dhunna Halliwell as well as a second time meeting with Martin Galway. Making those face-to-face connections was a real highlight although in each case I wish I'd had longer to chat, but it was always onto the next workshop.

    Allow me to give you some of the context behind why I was so keen to attend researchED. My MAT recently won the bid to be one of the EEF's research schools as we are situated in one of the 'opportunity areas'. I will be working on the team to develop the research school's role in our area and, although I have recently attempted to be more evidence-informed in my approach, I felt this a good opportunity to sharpen my understanding and skills with regards to educational research.

    The main role of the research school is actually to disseminate research to the schools and teachers in our area - a city where social mobility is low. Also, as leaders in a primary school, my colleagues and I had reflected that although lots of what we ask our staff do is evidence-based, they often don't know it as we have distilled the findings into practical steps for them to take - they are  teaching using evidence-informed methods without knowing it. This is something we'd like to change so that:

    • they become more autonomous in seeking research and using it themselves;
    • they know we aren't just plucking ideas out of nowhere;
    • they understand that when they are asked to do something it's because there's a good chance it'll work.
    Because of all this I chose some sessions to help me begin to think about how to help teachers who have no knowledge of or interest in educational research to begin to take notice of its possible benefits. Dr Gary Jones led a session on being efficient when it comes to evidence-based practice and Nick Rose spoke on helping new teachers to use research in their teaching. Both speakers were incredibly knowledgeable and I found much of what they had to say to be very interesting but I struggled to come away with much down-to-earth, practical advice for how to help teachers to make their practice more evidence-based.

    And that would be my overall observation of the day. Speakers presented knowledgeably but left me with very few concrete ideas as to what to do with the information. Now, I don't claim to be at all academically-minded in the way that many of the presenters are, but then, neither are many teachers - the ones who we'd like to use evidence or research to inform their teaching. Upon reflection, it is very clear that there is much work to be done to bridge the gap between research and classroom practice.

    For example, Nick Rose discussed in great detail that which hinders new teachers (and other teachers) from reading research and using it to inform their teaching but in amongst that he mentioned that the best way is to use case studies. If that's the case, I'd have liked the session to focus on how to access case studies, how to write case studies, how to help teachers see the potential and limitations of being inspired by case studies. Dr Gary Jones provided a wide range of ideas but I would have benefited more from spending more time on just one or two of them.

    Dr Gary Jones helpfully pointed out that research is only one of the strands which informs evidence-based practice and that data is one of the other pieces of evidence we have to help us make decisions about teaching. Mike Treadaway shared some fascinating national data on pupil premium children but again, there was very little suggestion as to how teachers might use this information to inform their teaching, only a suggestion that the funding formula needs changing - something none of us have a say in.

    When blogging and writing articles I often get to the part where I've made my point, discussed the theory or presented the research (or finished my rant) and there I want to stop. But increasingly I've forced myself to go further to do the hard bit: provide some practical advice relating to the subject of the blog post or article. It's not easy and I suspect the ability to do it it relies on teacher expertise and experience, not just research. Much of the advice I've ever been given has not been borne out of research, but out of teachers' own experience. One point discussed in Rachel Lawrence's session on 'What should a research leader in education do?' was whether or not someone leading in research needs to be a teacher: the discussion seemed to conclude that they would be listened to better if they were a respected teacher who colleagues knew could walk the walk. Perhaps the divide between research and practical advice arises because those involved in research aren't always teachers, and vice versa? I can't be sure.

    Having said that, I am aware that there are many resources out there which marry research with good practical advice. The EEF reports for example, and Dominic Salles' book 'The Slightly Awesome Teacher'. I also noticed that Robin Macpherson (whose session I didn't manage to get to) has a book in the pipeline called 'What Does This Look Like In The Classroom? Bridging The Gap Between Research And Practice' which does sound very promising. There are clearly also many books written on many subjects which seek to translate research into practical advice and it's this approach that more teachers would benefit from.

    Martin Galway gave me food for thought when it comes to disseminating research by pointing out that often we don't read the original source of the research but instead read blog posts, news articles and meta-studies of the published research. Often we read secondary or tertiary accounts of the research and much can be lost in translation resulting in practice which doesn't do what it is supposed to do. This will be a real challenge for the research school and something that needs navigating carefully. Again, some practical information on how to do this would be really helpful - this may have happened  in some of the other seminars.

    I managed to take in a wide variety of seminars, including a panel discussion, and whilst the short sessions meant that interest never dipped, it did mean that some presenters were pushed for time. It's totally out of the organisers' hands but it may have been more beneficial to narrow the focus of some sessions in order to get one point across well and include some time for questions and discussion. Again, this reflection is important for how the research school carries out any CPD - a honed down, precise objective needs to be stuck to when presenting crucial information about research and how it might impact on practice.

    Now obviously I only attended a very small percentage of the available workshops and so my reflections may not be an accurate overall picture - I'm very aware of this. In fact, this blog post from Jessica Fear just goes to show that some will have left the researchED brimming with practical advice to follow. Hopefully it's clear that I've framed my thoughts by thinking not about how researchED might change (I'm under no illusions - I don't have that influence) but by thinking about how my limited experiences at the conference will form how I think about how to engage teachers in the use of research over the coming year.

    To finish, I would reiterate that the conference gave me much to think through and made me aware of research that has already taken place, research techniques that I knew nothing of before  and gave me a better overall idea about the world of educational research. There are things that I will go on to explore further and there are other seemingly small titbits of information that will actually hugely influence my own practice once I've spent more time thinking through how to apply them practically.

    Would I recommend a researchED event? Yes, to anyone. I'd say go with an open mind, even if you think research isn't the be all and end all. After all, Tom Bennett himself in his opening speech reminded us all that "the craft of teaching is enormously important" and Nick Rose made it clear that "evidence-based practice is not a recipe to dictate what a teacher does, nor is it to undermine professional judgement, rather it is to inform and refine it".

    researchED links:

    Livestreams: https://livestream.com/L4L/rED17?t=1504937237924
    Mike Treadaway's blog series for Education Data Lab exploring long-term disadvantage: http://educationdatalab.org.uk/tag/long-term-disadvantage/