Empowering Primary Reading and Writing: Reflections from the SAfE English Leads Conference

“What am I doing as a teacher to put language at the heart of this?”
Jane Considine

Putting language first

There’s no shortage of challenges for Primary subject leads as we step into a post Covid 19 classroom. At the start of our one day Primary English Leads conference, SAfE’s Teaching & Learning team posed our subject leads with the question: what are their priorities this term?

The biggest priorities identified amongst our attendees were Reading for Pleasure (15%), Improving Pupil Stamina in Writing, particularly after COVID 19 (14%), Early Reading (14%), Vocabulary (13%), and SEND and disadvantaged pupils (11%).

Empowering our learners

Our day began with an engaging and highly interactive session with Jane Considine, author of ‘The Write Stuff’, who walked us through her method of ‘Sentence Stacking’ in writing.

Throughout her session, Jane reminded us of the importance of empowering our learners as writers, or – to use Jane’s own colourful metaphor – giving pupils “the means to independently build their own millennium Falcon”.

In her step-by-step process, Jane showed us how she utilises the ‘Writing Rainbow’ to demonstrate the different lenses that can be applied to writing. Jane focused on providing the learners with the tools they need to create their own writing piece by piece – vocabulary, structure, lens; each a building block stacked on one another.

Throughout each step Jane made sure that her learners – and by extension, our participants – can see her thought processes as a writer too. The end goal of this process is a ‘sentence stack’; an evolving tale that can be built each week and displayed in the classroom to show students their progress.

Emma Elliot, SAfE English Teaching and Learning lead, uses this technique in her own classroom, and commented that children are “so proud to see their work on the wall”.

Getting to the heart of reading

By pulling back the curtain on her process, Jane demonstrated how to engage the learners by letting them write about what excites them; as SAfE English Teaching & Learning Lead Sophie Murdoch noted: “the key to good writing in a very small nutshell”.

Later in the day in her session on ‘Reading for Pleasure’, the Open University’s Teresa Cremin also drew on this same principle to engage our learners as Readers: what excites them?

Teresa began her session with a story of her own, giving our attendees a moment to consider what it is that they can draw and take from that story beyond the fundamentals like vocabulary: Some words our attendees conjured included empathy, connection, emotion.

We know that a healthy reading habit is a foundation for our learners, but for many subject leads, one of the pitfalls they might face in encouraging Reading for Pleasure is a struggle to connect with what our learners are excited to read in their own lives. Teresa reminded participants that getting all students involved and interested in reading can be a matter of stepping outside of what we believed to be the correct reading material.

In the first session of our High Impact Teaching series in Primary English, SAfE Teaching & Learning lead Krista Greenwood built on this principle outlined by Teresa, asking participants to think about their own pools of reference in Children’s Literature.

A classroom for everyone

Throughout their sessions both Teresa and Jane painted a picture of an approach that encompasses all pupils in the classroom regardless of ability. Teresa emphasised the need to engage with pupils that have not yet “bought in” to the value of their time in the classroom – for those students, how do you get them to value reading?

Looking at reading more broadly is one way, Teresa suggests – not just accounting for novels and poems. Our learners read words in the world every day, so what are they reading?

For Jane Considine, good modelling is key to helping support pupils of all levels in the classroom; including finding ways to support the higher achieving pupils to proactively go further in their work by ‘deepening the moment’, or supporting their peers by appointing them as ‘Editing ambassadors’.

But, when it comes to placing the students work on the wall in the Sentence Stacking process – it’s important not to let focus drift towards those high achievers alone – each child should get their moment to see their own sentence on the wall amongst those of their peers.

Taking a new approach to assessment

Our third speaker for the day, No More Marking’s Daisy Christodoulou, carried through this sense of equality into the assessment process, presenting the ‘Comparative Judgement’ approach.

This approach forgoes traditional absolute judgements of a pupils work in favour of comparative ones. Daisy demonstrated this with a simple metaphor: whilst you might struggle to gauge how tall someone from sight, you would find it much easier to gauge how tall someone is in comparison to another person.

Daisy brought our participants in to the process to try for themselves. Participants were invited to compare a selection of writing excerpts comparatively. She then showed us how reliable this approach is compared to other forms of judgement – our participants had generated a list that was exactly the same as 5,000 Primary peers who had participated in the same process.

This process, by sharing marking across multiple settings, not only helps to deliver judgements that strip out any unconscious bias, but helps take the load of marking off individual teachers.

Building on our priorities

Coming out of the day’s sessions it was clear that a lot of what was discussed had resonated with our attendees, with many saying they’d be sharing their learning from the day with their own schools.

SAfE’s English Teaching & Learning team is excited to continue building on those priorities that are at the forefront of Primary English agendas in Surrey through our ongoing professional learning programme, including:

  • High Impact Teaching in Primary English
  • Primary English Book Review
  • Ongoing English & Phonics sessions for Primary
  • Our upcoming Vocabulary Project
  • English Mastery Project

For details of these events or bookings, please visit the SAfE Bookings Portal.

H Stewart-Smith

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