How to deepen understanding of reading by teaching children how to enjoy it better.


Or possibly…

How to enjoy reading more by understanding what you read more deeply

Like many primary schools this year, reading is the focus of our development plan. Despite my frustrations with this year’s ks2 reading sats, which I’ve written about here, our children did ok. Slightly above average.  And we are an inner city, deprived, multi-cultural, multi-linguistic, multi-story carpark kind of school. But that’s 20% below how they did in maths.  Now that gap may have more to do with test design than inadequacies in our teaching, but it still infuriates me.  If we can do it in maths we should be able to do it in reading…

So I spent the summer reading about reading. Like many others, I reconsidered what I knew about reading by reading Doug Lemov’s  ‘Reading Reconsidered’. See for example, Nick Hart’s recent interesting blog on reading, and thatboycanteach’s recent post and Rhoda Wilson’s work – who did away with guided reading long before it became a thing.  It is clear that skilled shared close reading of texts is back in the ascendency whereas the carousel-style guided reading lesson is on the wane, particularly in ks2, or where readers can decode fluently. See for example, the Destination Reader approach developed in Hackney primary schools.

However, thatboycanteach’s post – which was incredibly useful – set twitter mulling over ‘reading comprehension’ as a thing, particularly with regards to fiction.  Why can’t children just read and enjoy a story – why analyse to death, why answer turgid sats style ‘inference’ questions?  While I fly no flag for the ks2 reading sats paper, I would respond that inference in general is a vital life skill. Children who cannot infer, who cannot see beyond literal surface features, are children with social and communication problems. Socially skilled children, in contrast, are excellent at spotting the subtle signs that indicate to the initiated that all is not what it seems. Whether in the playground or in the pages of a book, the ability to ‘read’ people is an incredibly useful skill.

Nor are enjoyment of reading and analytical close reading necessarily in opposition.  The whole point of shared reading is that we share with children texts that would be too hard for them to read on their own. We do the heavy lifting, thereby giving them access to richer and more substantial texts than pupils would be able to cope with on their own. It seems to me that primary teachers have three main jobs with regards to reading. First ensure that they can get the words off the page easily and with sufficient fluency to enable at least a superficial understanding of what they have read.  Secondly, to try and inculcate a love of reading. Without this we will produce a generation who can read, but don’t. Indeed, during my initial teaching training way back in 1988, the main rationale for the ‘real books’ approach that I was trained in was to avoid creating literate children who only ever read under duress.  (I saw the light re phonics some 8 years later, but that’s for another blog another time).  Hooking children on books will sometimes mean seeking out the ‘gateway drug’ book that will set our dear pupil on the path to a happily text-filled future. The Recruit, perhaps, a book so racy (by the very low bar of primary education), at our school you are not allowed to borrow it until we have cleared it with your mum first. (Seriously though, if you are considering using it, just stick to the first book in the series.  As with the Harry Potter books, the main characters’ age by one year in each book- though with a good deal more precocity than described in Hogwarts – by book 3 we are deep in year 9 territory – don’t be fooled by the relative tameness of the first book). Thirdly, and just as importantly, we are here to teach children how to ramp up the readable. In our hands lie the tools that will enable children to unlock hitherto seemingly impenetrable texts. By our efforts texts once dismissed as ‘boring’ and ‘irrelevant’ can come alive for pupils. Doug Lemov is explicit in his reason for insisting that students work with hard texts; this is what they will be faced with at college. If they are not exposed to hard texts until they go to college, we shouldn’t be surprised if many young adults drop out when faced with a long and academically demanding reading list. I’m not quite as sold on the ‘university or bust’ credo, but certainly that is one reason why we should present children with rigorous, aspirational texts.  And certainly the reading demands of the new GCSE are much higher, so in primary we need to make sure the groundwork for that is rock solid.

The trouble with this is the 3 different jobs is that each one requires a different kind of book, with the pupil exposed to each in different ways. The ‘getting the text off the page’ stage requires books with restricted vocabulary – with words that the pupils already have the knowledge how to decode phonetically. It goes without saying that at the beginning when the child has only a little knowledge of phonics, these aren’t going to be the most stimulating works of literature ever encountered – though hats off to them behind Project X Alien Adventures – the fully decodable scheme our children go nuts for. Even without these heirs to Biff and Chip, in my experience children enjoy the success that quickly comes using phonetically decodable readers, even when the early books have to try and weave words like ‘pin, ‘mat’ and ‘sad’ into a compelling story line (although sitting on a pin would make one sad, it is true). The ‘getting hooked on books’ stage requires thrilling storylines, some daring-do and/or humour, possibly suspense, characters you care about. Or possibly hate, but in an invested way. But not necessarily nuance, higher level vocabulary, ambitious sentence structure. We are in ‘BeastQuest  and Wimpy Kid territory here. Books children will eagerly read but you would never, ever in a million years read out loud to your class.  They are the literary equivalent of a Pot Noodle. The third stage requires the sort of book CLPE advocates in its literature collections within its Core Book Lists.  For example, the utterly brilliant Varjak Paw or the Lady of Shallot – poems generally in fact. Usually children do not read these independently, at least not at first. They may be the end-of-the-day class story, or used in shared or guided reading. They comprise the literary equivalent of smuggling extra vegetables into pasta sauce.

I fear there is a triple constraint going on here.  In the same way that holidays can be cheap and exotic but not relaxing, or relaxing and cheap at the expense of being exotic, or relaxing and exotic but ever so expensive, it appears we can only have 2 out of any 3 here. So a text can be decodable and exciting (Alien Adventures) but not literature. Or it can be exciting and literary (Frank Cottrell Boyce’s Unforgotten Coat) but you need to be a fluent reader to access. Or I suppose it could possibly be both literary and decodable but not immediately gripping – again many poems are perfectly readable in terms of the individual words, and no one doubts their literary pedigree, but while we may perhaps entice our children, or some of our children, to love them, they are unlikely to become avid readers on a diet of these alone. They are, perhaps, the literary equivalent of stilton.

What this all means is, organising the teaching reading to a class of children with different dietary needs is difficult. The guided reading carousel has the advantage that the guided group’s focus group book can be catered for the group’s particular needs while the other children do something else, some of which includes reading self-chosen books in the hope that this will help them develop a love of reading. But it is a model that devotes a relatively short time – if any – to the teacher making the expert reader’s thoughts visible and explicit; to explaining vocabulary, inference and meta-cognitive comprehension strategies.  If your model does do this, fantastic. But does it also give children time to read the kind of books that they want to read too? And what about the ones who still aren’t fluent? Are you going to tell one that everybody is fluent in your school? Like you don’t ever have new arrivals or children with statements?

In an ideal world, we’d spend the first 20 minutes either learning to spell or learning to decode, followed by 45 minutes of high quality shared reading for all where the teacher modelled their thinking out loud as they read an aspirational text – gradually transferring more and more work to the class as the lesson progressed and the children thought hard about the texts they were studying’ including written answers. Then we would do some longer writing linked in some way to the shared text for an hour, with more teacher modelling, explicit grammar teaching, peer feedback, 10 minutes handwriting practice and finally 30 minutes to read our own self chosen – though guided by an expert librarian or knowledgeable teacher – text, as well as going to assembly, having a break and doing an hour’s maths. And having 30 minutes of story time at the end of the day. That leaves 5 hours a week left for the rest of the curriculum – and that’s without swimming – that time sink that swallows 2 hours time per every 30 minutes actually, er, swimming. Or nativity plays. Or trips. Or having half the class out at a hockey tournament.

So that’s not going to happen.

Having sought out and studied various models this term, it seems the triple constraint comes into play and forces us to make choices about what we are not going to do.  Which one of teacher modelling of reading, giving children time to read for pleasure and teaching children to actually read (the words) are we not going to do?  We are not very good as a profession at owning our choices though and tend to downplay the thing we are not doing – like it wasn’t that important anyway. So old style guided reading carousel is strong on children reading for pleasure and the mechanics of reading, but had less capacity for quality teacher exposition.  Models that have a lot of teacher exposition either dispense with devoting any curriculum time to reading for pleasure, or can’t cope easily with the children in the class who are not yet properly fluent. With this latter group, schools either seem to say – it’s so important these struggling readers are exposed to teacher talk around challenging texts so they must be included; they can miss other lessons for decoding practice. Or they say, decoding practice has to come first, and if they miss foundation subjects then they will miss the very knowledge of the world they need to be able to make inferences, so the decoding children decode elsewhere while the rest of the class do shared reading.

I’ve come across two approaches – one via Destination Reader and one in the approach advocated by Great Bowden Academy (of which more shortly) where the reading lesson is divided into a teacher led introduction modelling a particular learning objective with the whole class looking at the same text, followed by a time where the children seek to apply the same objective (finding places where the reader needs to infer the meaning from textual clues, for example) in the text of their own choice.  This has the obvious advantage of children engaging more deeply with self-chosen texts but the drawback that the teacher – who cannot possibly have detailed knowledge of every book currently being read – has to be very skilled at questioning the children on texts s/he does not know well. If I am reading them correctly, both Nick Hart and thatboycanteach keep with the same text throughout the lesson, with children analysing the text themselves and after an initial input phase. Personally, this approach seems more fruitful because they teacher will know the text under study really well and will have chosen the text deliberately as being rich in whatever technique(s) they are teaching, and so will have more to offer the children.  It also allows for children to do more writing about texts.  The downside being – when do the children get time during the school day to read their own choice of text? Maybe they all read at home…I’d love to work in a school where they all read at home without a huge song and dance and bribes and threats and even then…

We haven’t started doing either approach yet so I’m not going to the stake for what is, at this stage, a hunch, and we are going to do a mixed approach (I think, things are still tentative at this stage) where in years 4-6, 3 days a week are teacher led using one text, and the remaining two have no teacher input and are old fashioned independent reading of self-chosen books, but with the teacher working with a group on whatever aspect of reading they deem necessary. Those who need decoding practice come to the first teacher led lesson, but then have their TA led reading intervention the rest of the week. The children will sit in mixed ability pairs.  The text the teacher will use might be a revisiting of the current class end of day story – so the text can be analysed in the kind of way that would ruin a good storytelling, or a book the class are using in literacy for their writing –  a version of Beowulf say, (with this easier version used in some lessons), or The Wedding Ghost perhaps.  Or they might use an extract from a non-fiction text based on their humanities or science topic, or a poem.  In case you haven’t come across it, Opening Doors to  Famous Poetry and Prose by Bob Cox is an amazing resource, and he has recently published two versions for younger children (the one I’ve linked to is aimed at ks3, but usable with year 6). It is more about using famous – and demanding texts as a springboard for writing, but obviously includes unpacking the texts themselves.

Which brings me, (finally, the reader gasps) to my title.

How to deepen understanding of reading by teaching children how to enjoy it better.

Or possibly

How to enjoy reading more by understanding what you read more deeply.

Is it possible to teach children how to enjoy reading? Surely they either enjoy it or they don’t. maybe we can facilitate that enjoyment but setting up the necessary pre conditions, decoding, fluency, vocabulary development etc., but whether or not a child enjoys a text is surely an intimate matter shared between the author and the reader?

Actually yes you can teach children how to enjoy reading. We ourselves were taught how to enjoy it. I know this is not true for every teacher, but I think I’m pretty safe in assuming most of us grew up in a family where young children were read to. If so, we probably don’t remember our mum or dad or whoever saying things along the way such as…’oh no, Little Red Riding Hood’s gone of the path. Her mum told her not to. I think that means something bad is about to happen!’ (hamming it all up). Or maybe that happened for you at primary school. Either way, without expert reader input, you would not have realised to feel scared for LRRH because we realised she was now in danger – a danger, what is more, that our protagonist is oblivious to.

An aside. When my husband was training to be a teacher his tutor relayed the true tale of the delights of teaching in an inner city classroom. We are in year one, and the teacher is, with great theatre, reading the story of the three little pigs to the class. There is at least one little boy who has never heard the story before, but whom is greatly taken up with the drama of the plot. The teacher reads ‘and he huffed and he puffed and he blew the house down.’  To which our apprentice reader exclaimed ‘fucking bastard!’  (Tick whatever box you now have to tick to record that you now have evidence that the child can understand character motivation). I’ve dined out on that story, and I wasn’t even there.

Anyway, we teach children to enjoy stories by fantastic hammy story telling and by the asides we make that point out the secret clues that alert us to something hidden within the text, a kind of literary Easter egg.   Well, dear reader, there exists a book that describes exactly what these clues are and tells you how to teach them to children. And that book is, Notice and Notes: Strategies for Close Reading by Kylene Beers .

I came across this book courtesy of Great Bowden Academy at the Institute of Education’s annual Research and Development conference.  At this conference members of the research and development network come together from their various schools and share with each other the small scale research they have been doing that year. We are not talking randomised controlled trials here. But thought provoking and useful nonetheless. Our school team were there to share what we had found out  about growth mindset and how it  could be used with teaching assistants – which you can read about here if you wish. I was lucky enough to be on a table with the Great Bowden team, and their project had been about improving pupils’ reading fluency, engagement, comprehension and enjoyment.  A major part of their approach had been to teach the children about the strategies for close reading outlined in Notice and Note. This involved whole class explicit teaching of close reading techniques, a lot of the teacher thinking out loud and pointing out the clues, or signposts as Beers calls them.  Later in the lesson the children read their own texts and looked out for with whatever was specifically the specific aim of the learning objective for the day or ‘spotted and jotted’ signposts.  This sounded intriguing, so I bought the book, and read it over the summer holidays.

It really is very clever.  What Beers has done is identify 6 tropes frequently found within stories that give the reader a heads-up ‘stop, take notice here, this is important’ information. It is full-fat, text level inference we are talking here.  The first, and most useful one is, ‘contrasts and contradictions’.  We teach the children that when you’re reading and a character says or does something that’s opposite (contradicts) what s/he has been saying or doing all along, you should stop and ask yourself, ‘Why is the character doing that?’  The answer could help you make a prediction or make an inference about the plot or the conflict in the text.

For example, in the book Holes, (where the setting is a kind of character), the book opens with the sentence, ‘There is no lake at Camp Greenlake’.  An obvious (to the expert reader), and intriguing contradiction that should raise an eyebrow. However, in our experience, many children have had to have this pointed out to them. Indeed the year 6 teacher tells me she often spends most of a lesson on this very sentence, making explicit how the author is contrasting the name of the place Camp Greenlake, with the reality (no lake, and no green either, we will soon discover). The name is a contradiction.  And that contradictory name – that’s presents as one thing whilst really being something else entirely, is central to the plot.  Camp Green lake purports to be a suitable environment for the rehabilitation of delinquent teens, but in reality, (spoiler alert!) serves only as a vehicle serve the avarice of the Governor. But by labelling this specific technique ‘contrast and contradiction’ we are giving children a generalisable strategy that they can use with other texts. And that is what is key here about this approach. Consider, for example, within the Harry Potter oeuvre, the contradictory character of Snape. He seems to be a baddie but every now and then he does things that make you wonder; and Dumbledore trusts him, so maybe he is a goodie after all?  But then he does something really bad – like killing Dumbledore – which is in complete contradiction with being one of the good guys, but then again… it’s in the tension of the not knowing that the enjoyment, the thrill of reading lies.  Or the character of Edmund in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. We know he really did meet the faun Mr Tumnus yet he lies and said it never happened. Why? And what might happen as a result!  More subtly, in Wonder, in the excerpt mentioned by thatboycanteach, where Summer comes up with a list of (inclusive) rules  about who is, and is not allowed to sit on the same lunch table as August and herself, this contrasts (somewhat painfully) with the exclusive and rejecting actions of everybody else; this alerts us early on that Summer is going to be a key figure in the protection and  maybe eventual acceptance of Auggie.  I’m trying to get our year 6 teacher to teach children the word ‘juxtaposition’ before they leave; – if only to impress their secondary school teachers!

The next signpost is the Aha moment. When a character suddenly realises, understands or finally figures something out, you should stop and ask yourself, ’How might this change things?’  For if a character just figured out a problem, then you have discovered the central conflict in the story. Or if the character understood a life lesson, you probably now understand the central theme of the book. For example, when Felix in Once finally loses his naivety and makes the horrified realisation that the Nazi’s actually hate Jews, that’s an Aha moment. It serves to amplify his resilience; the life lesson of this amazing book. Or this blog describes several great picture books that have great Aha moments in them. It’s American, so I didn’t know quite a few of the books, although some were familiar. But it made me think of all those great books we use to teach acceptance, whether of different others or of oneself; Giraffes can’t dance, for example. Gerald the giraffe has an Aha moment when he realised he can dance. Or Elmer learning to accept his multi coloured true self in a world where everybody else is grey. Which again reminded me of the CHIPS project (Combatting Homophobia in Primary School)  series of book based lesson plans.

The ‘Again and Again’ signpost is when you notice a word, phrase or situation mentioned over and over again. It is a signpost telling you to stop and ask yourself, ‘Why does this keep happening again and again?’ Your answer might tell you about the theme and conflict in the text or might foreshadow later events.  Pernille Ripp, our American blogger again has some picturebook examples. In Holes, the whole recurring family curse motif is central to the denouement.  Two phrases from ‘the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ spring to mind; ‘always winter, never Christmas,’ and ‘he’s not a tame lion’.

In some ways similar, we have Memory Moment, when the author interrupts the action to tell you about a memory. When you come across a Memory Moment then stop and ask yourself, ‘Why is the author telling me this now? Why might it be important?’ The answer might foreshadow later events, or might tell us about the theme and conflict in our text. The family curse in Holes in a Memory Moment used Again and Again, and indeed does foreshadow the climax.

Then we have ‘the Words of the Wiser; when a wiser, and usually older character takes our protagonist aside and offers serious advice. When we read this we should stop and ask ourselves ’What’s the life lesson and how might it affect the character?’    They tell us about the central theme of the text; about how character and plot interact. Sometimes I get Words of the Wiser muddled up with Aha moments. The key difference being Aha moments are discovered by the character themselves and often have the text saying something like ‘I suddenly realised that…’, whereas in Words of the Wiser, someone else gives advice. Someone like Yoda or Dumbledore.

Finally, we have Tough Questions, when the protagonist asks themselves something very difficult. This should cause us to stop and ask ourselves ‘What does this question make me wonder about?’ and will help us understand the central conflict of the story and help us think about what might happen later in the story. In some ways these are the mirror images of Aha moments.  The protagonist asks themselves ‘how will I ever fit in?’ whereas in the Aha moment the character might discover they don’t need to change to fit in; it’s the tight limits on what constitutes ‘fitting in’ that needs to change, not the protagonist. Or the tough question ‘how will I ever survive?’ might have a later aha moment ‘I will survive because I now realise that…’

The book is gives a model, almost scripted lesson for each signpost.  As the book is American and pitched towards middle school, while these lessons are great for teacher inset, they are not immediately usable with British primary aged children. But the general principles definitely are. The internet is also awash with useful bookmarks and posters to help you implement this approach; this one for example has further links to a whole raft of resources. It’s a much bigger thing in the US as the demands for close reading in the Common Core change how reading is taught in the US. Here in England the new curriculum is also causing us to rethink old ways.

I think the ‘Notice and Note’ approach is really useful in explicitly showing students the breadcrumb trails authors want readers to find in their work.  It is difficult for us expert readers to remember what it was like before we just knew that certain types of event or phrases were vital clues to the whole book, let alone give them names or number them in a list. But as we all know, many students find inference really hard -possibly because they didn’t have parents making a metacognitive commentary – ‘oh no, how will the pigs survive now they can’t live with their mummy?’ – as they share a book at bedtime. But better than that, it really does help some children finally ‘get’ why reading can be pleasurable.  Once you know the author is playing with you, you can play along too.

It’s not the whole answer. It doesn’t solve the triple constraint or tell us how to plan our lessons. There won’t be any questions about it on the ks2 sats paper. But it might help them to learn to love books. And children who love reading are much, much more likely to do well academically aged 16. One study from the Institute of Education found that

‘The combined effect on children’s progress of reading books often, going to the library regularly and reading newspapers at 16 was four times greater than the advantage children gained from having a parent with a degree.’

So worth a punt, I reckon.

How to deepen understanding of reading by teaching children how to enjoy it better.

Why wait until 11? The case for Primary Grammar schools

A modest proposal.

The Government’s plan to reintroduce grammar schools as a way of giving children from low or modest income families an escape route from poverty is missing a trick.  If grammar schools help bright children from ordinary working families become more socially mobile, then why wait until 11? Why not front load the advantage by creating primary school grammars?   We already know that many children of the most disadvantaged families are set up to fail by poor language skills; see for example Save the Children’s  Ready to Read report.  One third of all children growing up in poverty leave primary school unable to read well, correlating with the one in three five-year-olds that do not have the language skills expected of children of their age. A child with weak language skills at the age of five is much less likely to be a strong reader at the age of 11 than a five-year-old with strong language skills.

This relationship between early language acquisition and poverty is not confined to the UK. In 2003 Betty Hart and Todd R Risley published ‘The Early Catastrophe: the 30 million Word Gap by Age 3’. So if we are serious about enabling social mobility and extending opportunity, surely 11 is too late?

Imagine the time and energy in ordinary primary schools that must go into trying to reduce this gap. And then imagine that you are one of the two thirds of children growing up in poverty that does have age appropriate language skills. Indeed, imagine that you’re actually – somehow – ahead of the game. And yet you have to spend the next 7 years of your schooling surrounded by your language deprived peers, who are much more likely to exhibit behaviour problems. (Cohen et al, 1998). Your teacher’s attention will be disproportionally focused on your more troubled classmates.  Apart from the teacher, you will have little exposure to the rich models of language you are unlikely to hear at home.  And as the teacher is constantly having to dumb down her language so that the others can have even half a change of understanding, even that avenue is closed to you. In a classroom where many children have delayed language skills, the teacher’s sense of what is typical or average can shift – pupils appear to be developing in line with their peers when in fact compared to what is typical nationally, their progress may be well below average. This norm shifting leads to the teacher having lower expectations of everybody – you as well as those with genuine difficulties.

Imagine then, that instead, you pass the selection from a grammar primary.  For the next 7 years you are surrounded by language rich, articulate peers. Your teachers are not constantly weighed down by the effort of trying to teach both the bright sparks and those still learning to express themselves in full sentences.  Soon the whole class can read fluently, so you are exposed to a rich diet of stimulating literature that further enriches your vocabulary. This engenders your own love of reading, so you soon begin to read for pleasure.  Before long, you are an avid reader.  Your vocabulary sky rockets.  Because everybody learns easily, the school does not have to prioritise English and maths and can widen your general knowledge though a knowledge-rich humanities curriculum. Here, you and your peers debate, justify and rationalise their opinions, becoming increasingly eloquent.   There is plenty of time for the arts, for PE and sports. Everyone wants to come to your school so the roll is full.  Lots of parents are better off, so the PTA raises tens of thousands of pounds a year to supplement the budget. And if you are eligible for free school meals, they even get pupil premium too. By the age of 11, you are up there with the best of them and more than ready to pass the test for your selective secondary school with flying colours.

Meanwhile, those left behind at the ordinary non selective primary can concentrate on early language development without having to worry about stretching the more able children.  Their curriculum can be tailored more effectively to the needs of their children, without hindering the flourishing of those with academic potential.

The Government’s consultation document ‘Schools that work for Everyone’ suggests that new or expanding grammar schools could establish a primary feeder school in an area with higher density of lower incomes. It does not explicitly state that these feeder schools should themselves be selective –  grammar primaries –  but surely this makes sense. What’s the point of establishing a feeder school if half of the pupils can’t feed into your secondary grammar because they have failed the test?  Given the relatively small size of primary schools in comparison to secondary schools, what we need is for secondary grammars to either open several selective grammar primaries or open as all-through schools selecting from 5.

Indeed, is 5 young enough?  Blanden in 2006 found that vocabulary at 5 was the best predictor of whether children who experienced deprivation in childhood were able to ‘buck the trend’ and escape poverty in later adult life. Children who had normal non-verbal skills but a poor vocabulary at age 5 were, age 34, one-and-a-half times more likely to be poor readers or have mental health problems and more than twice as likely to be unemployed as children who had normally developing language skills. (Law et al, 2010).   If we are really serious nurturing talent, promoting social mobility and overcoming privilege, we have to reach these children, who, let us remind ourselves, had normal or better non verbal skills aged 5; already their intellectual capital is being squandered for wont of an enriching language environment.  At 5 years old, their educational and economic destiny is dangerously close to being set in stone – regardless of the opportunities potentially available 7 years later.   11 years old far, far too late to offer any sort of escape route.  Indeed, that is why the plans for expansion of socially inclusive grammars are bound to fail.  As Tom Sherrington, former headteacher of King Edward’s Grammar School writes, if his former school wanted to offer say even 10% of places to FSM children, it would need to offer placed to students many hundreds of places down the 11+ rank order for the school and doing that would render selection – and its benefits – meaningless.

So maybe the answer is grammar nurseries?

The obvious objection to this would be the difficulty in assessing potential this early.  However, cognitive development continues throughout childhood, and well past 11. As the table below clearly shows, success in the 11+ has no correlation with success in GCSE, so we should not worry overmuch about whether or not we get our assessments exactly right, whether at 3 or 11.

Indeed, inaccuracies in the selection process could be mitigated against by having a series of ‘crossovers’ where children would swap from one kind or provision to another, thus rectifying any mistakes.  So if specially trained health visitors made the first assessment, at a reinstated 2-year-old check-up, toddlers with strong non-verbal intelligence could be directed to grammar-crèche, even if their language development was poor.  This two-year-old check would have the added benefit that it would be insusceptible to middle class coaching; no gaming!  Surrounded by language-rich peers and with an academically orientated though age-appropriate curriculum, these two-year-olds would soon come on linguistically in leaps and bounds.  This would then be followed by competitive entrance tests into grammar nursery with the 3+, open to all comers. Some children would move from grammar-crèche to mainstream nursery while some would enter the grammar stream for the first time in a grammar nursery. A second crossover point would follow on entry to reception, and then a year later, those who achieved ‘exceeding’ in the early learning goals would be eligible to sit the 5+. A year later the phonics check could provide a fourth crossover point and the end of ks1 sats a fifth. So some children might cross back and forth between standard and grammar provision several times in their early years!  Then, as the green paper wisely suggests, further crossover points should be available at 14 and 16, as well as 11, with pupils swapping between grammar and non grammar provision depending upon their success, or otherwise in selective exams.  This would have the added bonus of keeping the key stage 3 grammar school population on their toes, knowing that in 3 years time, they would be competing against pupils in other schools to keep their grammar place.  Non selective ordinary schools would compete for the honour of having the highest proportion of children leave them at the end of year 9 for grammar school, whilst welcoming those for whom the rich grammar diet had all been a bit too much.  Perhaps having a high proportion of ‘grammar graduates’ leaving you could be made into some sort of accountability measure? Non selective schools would develop an expertise in rehabilitating children who, as their failure in the 14+ clearly indicates, learn in a more pedestrian fashion than grammar schools are able to offer, by offering a nourishing yet simplified curriculum, rich in the basics.

This would go some way to mitigate against the criticisms of the 11+ and ensure that the grammar school experience was not weakened by the presence of those wrongly identified at 11 as having solid academic potential. Those who found the experience too challenging could move to a setting more suited to their needs.

We could of course argue that even 22 months is too late. Jean Gross, at the Communication Trust points out that by the age of 22 months, a more able child from a low-income home will begin to be overtaken in their developmental levels by an initially less able child from a high-income home.  More than half the children starting nursery in socially disadvantaged areas have delayed language – while their general cognitive abilities are at least in the average range. By 22 months, the gap in language skills already gapes. Nascent academic potential is already evaporating. Why should children have to suffer a poor communication environment at all?  If poor language at 2 is highly predictive of poor language at 5, and poor language at 5 is highly predictive of poor reading at 11, and poor reading at 11 is highly predictive of poor qualifications at 16, early pregnancy, involvement in crimes and poor mental health, leading to intergenerational cycles of poverty, then maybe trying to tinker around the edges by establishing grammar schools at any age should be called out for what it is: pissing in the wind.

If you’ve just read the last few paragraphs with a rising sense of incredulity and anger; it was meant to be a parody of the Government’s position, a reductio ad absurdum.  I intended it to be hilariously funny, but didn’t find much to laugh at when I actually sat down to write it. It all sounded far too plausible.  Mad, but plausible.

Because poverty does not have to be destiny. It is not poverty per se which matters most; it is the young child’s early communication environment that makes all the difference. It is exposure to activities that enrich language such as children’s early ownership of books, trips to the library or to museums, and attendance at quality pre-school provision, that make a difference (Roulstone et al, 2011).  These things are much harder to do for families who are just about managing, let alone not managing at all. How parents use language around their child is also very significant. While living in poverty does not automatically mean that the home learning environment is also impoverished, the stresses associated with struggling financially can make it harder to offer the same level of engagement as better-off parents. Parents in poor households are more likely to have low levels of formal education and may struggle with language or literacy themselves.   But the cycle can be broken through early intervention for all children who need it.   Rather than patting ourselves on the back for saving a few clever deserving poor through grammar school provision whilst throwing everybody else to the wolves, how about doing whatever it takes to help all children thrive?

There is good evidence that initiatives that bring together a range of agencies across a community in a disadvantaged community to help families enrich the early language environment can be very successful. For example, the Stokes Speaks Out initiative reduced the percentage of three to four year olds with significant language delay in the area from 64% in 2004 to 39% in 2010.  There is substantial evidence that good quality early education can have a very positive impact on language development that can last through to secondary school –  for example the EPPE study (Sylva et al 2014).  However, today we hear that the Government are raiding the childcare fund for poor families in order to pay for extra childcare hours for the better-off.  Grammar nurseries by stealth. My parody turned into policy.

Well funded, quality primary school provision also makes a huge difference. Reading England’s Future clearly shows that schools in some areas are much more effective at enabling children from disadvantaged backgrounds to read well, in some cases all but eliminating the gap between  FSM and non FSM children. Poor children in London for example do very well – both in early language development and in reading by 11. London schools receive disproportionally higher funding than other regions facing similar challenges – although the National Funding Formula would end this; no doubt putting an end to this success too.  Rather than fund all schools adequately so that they are all able to do the sorts of early intervention work that promotes language acquisition, the same pot of money will be divided up differently.  Whist not disputing that the present situation is unfair and needs changing, robbing Peter to pay Paul isn’t going to work. Some schools will be better off and able to do more, others worse off and having to cut excellent provision: a zero sum game.

Schools that work for everyone, not just the privileged few; every child able to go as far as their talents will take them. Nice rhetoric, shame about the policies.

Blanden, J. (2006) Bucking the Trend – What enables those who are disadvantaged in childhood to succeed later in life? London: Department for Work and Pensions.

Hirsch (1996) The Effects of Weaknesses in Oral Language on Reading Comprehension Growth cited in Torgesen, J. (2004). Current issues in assessment and intervention for younger and older students. Paper presented at the NASP Workshop.

Law, J. et al (2010) Modelling developmental language difficulties from school entry into adulthood. Journal of speech, language and hearing research, 52, 1401-1416

Roulstone, S.  et al (2011) Investigating the role of language in children’s early educational outcomes DfE Research Report 134

Sylva, K., Melhuish, E., Sammons, P., Siraj-Blatchford, I., & Taggart, B. (2014) Students’ educational and developmental outcomes at age 16. London: DfES / Institute of Education, University of London

Why wait until 11? The case for Primary Grammar schools