Infernal Inference

I’ve always found it much harder to teach how to infer meaning than how to decode. With decoding there’s a clear routemap. With some children, it takes a bit longer to travel that route, but if you stick to the path, in the end you will get there.[1]  But with inference…some children just get it and some really, really don’t.  And when they don’t, it’s really hard to move them on. You show them some text, you point out what you can infer from what you’ve read, they nod (on a good day) but when you ask them to have a go, they are just as clueless. It doesn’t seem to stick. Why is this?

Daniel Willingham, the cognitive scientist explains why. It seems that inference as a skill doesn’t really exist.  No wonder it’s so hard to teach! It’s a bit of a shame then that in the KS reading SATS paper between 16%-50% of the marks are allowed to come from ‘explaining and justifying inferences with evidence from the text.’   In 2016, 36% of the total marks came from questions that involved inference (18 marks out of 50).  I’m not alone in finding inference an area where children struggle.  Nationally, if we just consider the marks available for inference, the average score was just under 9 marks, or 49%.  So this year, alongside vocabulary, across the nation, improving the ability to infer has become the thing we are all working on.

What does Willingham actually mean then, and how might it help us?  In a previous blogpost I quoted Daniel Willingham on this in some detail. The quotes really stayed with me and I’ve been reflecting on them ever since,  and reading more of his writing, so although this post is covering similar ground, I hope it is still useful. Or interesting. Both would be great! So to recap, Willingham explains that inference is more of a trick than a skill. With a trick, once you know it, you won’t get any better by practising it over and over again. Skills on the other hand, improve with practice.

Willingham says that when we teach inference what we are really doing is teaching children to connect ideas, filling in the missing bits the author has left out.  That’s more or less it all there is to it as a technique; connect one idea, one sentence possibly, with another, by filling in the bits the author has left out. Authors always leave bits out; they don’t explain every last detail in the same way that when we speak, we make certain assumptions about the person listening, assuming they already know stuff and so can join the dots. The difficulty with this when it comes to reading rather than talking, is that when we talk to someone, we monitor if they are understanding us. We will look at the person we are speaking to from time to time to check for signs that they understand.   The person listening will give us some useful feedback, maybe nodding or saying ‘mhm’ or ‘uh-huh’; what linguists call giving ‘acceptance signals’ to show they get it.  If we have assumed too much and the listener doesn’t understand, they will send us a signal by saying something like ‘huh?’ or by looking baffled. This is our cue to provide more detail.  The thing about books is that they just don’t care if we ‘get’ what they are saying or not. They don’t monitor our acceptance signals, even though we might nod along as we read a recipe or set of instructions and they certainly don’t rephrase what they are saying if we exclaim ‘huh?’

Trick number one: notice if you understand what you are reading

So then, the first thing we need to teach children about inference is their own crucial role in checking they are understanding what the text is saying as they read.  The book isn’t going to stop and repeat itself or explain in more detail if they don’t understand.  Successful readers expect to understand what they read and know what to do when they spot themselves not understanding. We need to explicitly teach children to check that what they are reading makes sense to them; to nod along as they read in the same way we nod along when someone is talking to us. If something doesn’t make sense they should say ‘huh?’ to themselves and stop and reread the last sentence or two more slowly, to see if that helps. If someone was speaking, we’d ask them to repeat what they had said. Unfortunately, a book can’t rephrase was is written, but if we reread, we might find the bit that is tricky and then be able to make more sense of it.

This ‘expecting a text to make sense’ business seems obvious, but have you ever come across kids for whom being asked to read seems to be like pure torture, who stare grimly at the page when forced, avoiding engaging with the actual words, seeking any and every opportunity to be distracted?  Children who hate reading, even if they appear perfectly able to decode. It may well be that they don’t really get that it is meant to be an enjoyable experience.  I suspect that when children make the transition from reading out loud to an adult to being expected to read ‘for pleasure’ in their heads, a certain percentage just don’t realise that successful reading requires two things. Not only do you have to read the actual words but you also have to check that these strings of words make sense to you. And if they don’t, the reader has a responsibility to stop, go back and reread to try and fathom out what the writer is trying to say. Sometimes this will mean going back two or three sentences, maybe more than once.  Sometimes we might need to reread a whole paragraph again.  If children have never seen this modelled by a teacher, then how would they know that this is what they should also be doing?  Teachers need to use ‘thinking out loud’ to show how they check for meaning as they read. They need to model stumbling over phrasing or meaning and then stopping and rereading, to clarify the sense.  Children need to understand that this is a normal part of being a reader – something expert readers do all the time.

Trick number two: fill in the gaps by connecting ideas

The second thing we need to teach children about inference is that because writers leave bits out, they expect readers to join the dots and connect ideas for themselves. It would be beyond tedious if writers explained everything in minute detail.  We are so used to this as expert readers that we don’t even notice the gaps; that the sentences are connected is obvious to us.   Willingham illustrates this with this trio of sentences.  Bill came to my house yesterday. He dropped a cup of coffee. My rug is a mess.  The first connection the reader needs to make is one of coherence inference; the reader needs to connect ‘he’ with Bill.   Then there is elaborative inference; the reader is expected to draw on their life experience and general knowledge to connect the three sentences together.   In this case, the reader is expected to make the connection that the cup of coffee that Bill dropped is the cause of the mess on the rug even thought this is not stated. It is also assumed that the reader knows that coffee is dark liquid likely to stain a rug and that such stains are not usually desirable. The reader will need to access their long term memory and retrieve information about coffee, rugs, stains and mess; not just what these things are, though that too is important, but how they inter-relate. The writer is assuming the reader can make the following connections: dropping a cup of coffee would cause this dark brown liquid to escape onto the floor. Sometimes floors are covered with rugs. If the coffee fell onto the rug, its colour would remain – stain the rug – even after the rug had been cleaned. People usually clean up after spillages so when the person says that the rug is a mess, they are most likely referring to the stain as being ‘the mess’ rather than the cup and coffee themselves as it is probable that they have already tidied up the mess caused by the cup and liquid. This is because Bill came yesterday. That means the writer is writing about something that happened a day ago. People do not usually leave a mess like that for a whole day, they usually clean it up straight away. This is so obvious to us we don’t even notice we are making these connections and are baffled when children fail to make them.

Teachers need to help children understand how to do this by ‘thinking out loud’ as they read aloud to pupils, by asking themselves questions to show how they are monitoring their own understanding and seeking to make connections between different elements of the text, thus making explicit the thought processes involved in making inferences.

Global inference

The situation can be even more complicated with good stories.  Sometimes the writer will deliberately leave loads of information out.  In fact, it’s the leaving out of key bits of information that makes them so good. For example, let’s look at the beginning of the book The Imaginary by A.F Harrold and add in the extra information the writer assumes the reader already knows.

 Amanda was dead.

 Being dead is a bad thing. When you are dead you don’t exist anymore and people who like you are usually very sad about that. Most people don’t want to be dead and don’t want their friends or family to be dead either. Most people don’t even like it if strangers are dead. Amanda is a girl’s name so the dead person is female.  I have used the past continuous (was dead)  so that you realise the death has occurred quite recently. I’ve written this as a short, stark sentence to help you appreciate the shock value of this sentence to the other characters, who you haven’t met yet. I’m hoping it will shock you too.  I deliberately haven’t told you if this sentence is the narrator explaining or a character thinking. You will have to read more to find that out.

The words were like a hole in his chest, like a well he was falling down.

 By ‘The words’ I mean the previous phrase ‘Amanda was dead’.  The person indicated by the use of the male pronoun ‘he’ is very upset by these words. I have given you two word-pictures to help you understand just how upset he is. When I wrote ‘like a hole is his chest’ I didn’t mean there actually was a real hole in his chest, I was using figurative language to show that it felt really bad emotionally, in the same way that a hole in the chest would feel really bad physically. In a similar way, there is no actual well and ‘he’ is not actually falling. Again, this is a word picture to try and describe the emotional turmoil the male is undergoing as a result of hearing about the female Amanda’s death. Although strangers usually feel a bit sad when hearing about someone’s death, the figurative language shows that the sadness is very strong. Therefore, there must have been a strong emotional attachment of some sort between Amanda and ‘he’. Finding out about this attachment and why she is dead is going to be explained to you in the rest of this story. You can also expect to find out how ‘he’ gets over his strong feelings. This is a children’s story. Probably it will end happily. Don’t worry that you do not yet know who ‘he’ is; I will explain that to you at some point. Not telling you is a way of making you want to read on, to find out that information.

Writers – thank God – leave stuff out and expect us to fill in the gaps. Children need to understand this. So when they don’t understand, they know they need ask themselves what is it that the writer is assuming that I know that I don’t.  Or maybe the writer is just playing with me…

The joy of inference

If children are going to learn to love stories, they need to understand that the author sometimes deliberately leaves out information and it is the trying to work out what has been left out that creates the frisson, the excitement that makes reading stories pleasurable.  Why is Amanda dead? Who is this male protagonist? What will he do next? Will he ever recover? From the first two lines, the deliberate ambiguity makes us want to resolve our ignorance and read on.  So readers need to appreciate that sometimes the author is teasing us, dropping hints and clues but never quite enough information because it’s the not-knowing that makes reading fun.  That’s why some books are described as real page turners.  Readers have different tolerances for this not-knowing. A whodunit is all about the journey from not knowing to knowing, some poetry can remain elusively ambiguous even after several readings.  Some readers like this; others really don’t. The satisfying closure of an unambiguous – if unexpected ending – is what for many readers makes a great read.

Global inference is the kind of inference needed to make connections and predictions across whole texts. For this to happen, children need to learn about text conventions. For example, to return to The Imaginary, the fact that the author does not tell us immediately about why Amanda is dead or what her connection to ‘he’ is  is  confusing, but it is a deliberately planned confusion, to make us want to read more to resolve the tension of not knowing.  As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog, the six signposts in Notice and Note are great ways of teaching children to look out for subtle hints from the author about the way a story is going to go. When Willingham talks about inference, he is not really talking about this kind of global, whole text inference.  This involves learning about how authors craft character, use conflict to drive plot and flesh out themes and use foreshadowing to hint at later developments. These do need to be taught and deserve quality curriculum time devoted to them. These are not what his research was looking at. Indeed, his point is, if we spend too much time teaching about basic inference, we won’t have time to do the important stuff. Such as…

Developing Vocabulary

It is hard to make connections if you don’t know what some of the words mean, so teachers need to develop children’s vocabularies.    I’ve written before about ways of doing this so I won’t repeat that here, beyond mentioning that if you haven’t yet read Isabel Beck’s Bringing Words to Life then you are missing a trick. To state the obvious, children need to encounter lots of unfamiliar words in meaningful contexts, especially the kinds of words that occur more frequently in books than in the spoken word.  Children need to be read to a lot and to read to themselves a lot and to enjoy reading so much that they want to do more and more of it.

The inference problem is really a knowledge problem

Willingham wants teachers to know about the research on inference.   This says that while teaching children how to infer is quite important, there is little benefit to be had in teaching this for more than a few lessons because the techniques of monitoring ones understanding and then trying to make connections are easily learnt within a few hours of instruction. No additional benefit is gained by spending any more time on mastering these techniques beyond this.  To which most teachers I know would respond ‘easily learnt my ****!’   as inference does not seem to come easily.  But the meta-analysis is clear; once you know to monitor your understanding and to make connections and have spent a few hours working on that, further practice does not make you any better and is time wasted.  That’s because once you know these tricks, what will get in the way of understanding texts is gaps in your life experience, general knowledge and vocabulary. You will realise you don’t understand something and try and make the necessary connections, but still fail because you don’t have the knowledge to know how the things you are trying to connect actually relate.  Now the very same teachers nod in agreement; it’s not that children don’t know they should try and make connections; they just don’t know what the connection is on this occasion. Or the next. Or the one after that.

I’ve used this example before; it’s from an old reading sats paper.

The old bear roared in frustration and waved at the empty air with his huge paws, then reared up on his hind legs .’

The children I was teaching didn’t know the meaning of the words ‘frustration; ‘paw, ‘reared up’ or ‘hind’.    They found the term ‘empty air’ confusing.  They were meant to be inferring why the bear ‘reared up.’  We didn’t get very far.  It was not the most successful lesson I’ve ever taught.  All the teaching in the world about monitoring your understanding and trying to connect ideas won’t help when so many words are unknown.  So instead of spending too much time on teaching children how to infer – Willingham says about 10 hours is enough – acquiring a broad vocabulary and a rich base of background knowledge will yield more substantial and longer-term benefits.’  As children need to be fluent decoders before teaching the tricks of inference is really pertinent, Willingham concedes that since children develop at different rates, a little bit of inference and other reading comprehension teaching in the fourth, fifth and sixth grade (years 5, 6 and 7 in the UK system) is a sensible use of time, but beyond that, it is time wasted.

It is interesting that the recent Education Endowment Foundation Guidance Report on improving literacy at key stage 2 hardly mentions developing this ‘rich base of background’ knowledge at all, beyond including Scarborough’s Reading Rope, where background knowledge is the first strand mentioned (not because it is top priority, I think the layout of the strands within the ‘language comprehension aspect is fairly arbitrary and it is just chance that background knowledge was placed on top).

rope of reading

The report says that the Reading Rope model can be used as a diagnostic tool to identify areas to focus on. What Willingham is cautioning us against is over-diagnosing problems with inference at the expense of the real culprits; lack of background knowledge and under-developed vocabulary.  In the report’s section on teaching comprehension strategies, it suggests it is useful to ‘activate prior knowledge.’  But the crucial point missed here is that for many of our pupils who struggle to understand texts, they don’t have this ‘prior knowledge’ to activate in the first place! In fact, the same section recommends ‘extensive practice’ of exactly the sort of specific strategies that Willingham warns should only be used for short periods of time, as further practice once the strategy is learnt is fruitless.

This is very scary for primary headteachers and ks2 teachers who are held accountable via a reading comprehension text, for it is saying that what we are mainly being tested on is our students’ vocabulary and background knowledge.   But since we never know in advance which knowledge and vocabulary our pupils will be tested on – white giraffes, warthogs and dodos last year, who knows what in a week’s time[2] – how can we make sure they know enough to do well?

This is where we need to take deep breaths and be brave. We are here to teach children to be good readers for the rest of their lives, not to teach children to appear to be good readers one Monday in May.  Sure, we’d be foolish not to spend a fair bit of time in the immediate run up to the tests practising test technique.[3] But we can’t let the stupidity that is the reading comprehension test warp the whole of the way we teach reading in ks2.

If having rich background knowledge is key to becoming a successful reader, then accumulating that knowledge needs to start as early as possible.  We need more non-fiction reading aloud to children in the early years and key stage1, alongside fabulous stories. The emphasis on spoken language in the early years is crucial, but we must remember to give them interesting, memorable stuff to talk about; not just great stories.  The ‘understanding the world’ strand should be the driving force underpinning the early years’ curriculum.  Practitioners should know what vocabulary and general knowledge children will have acquired as a result of their topic on ‘pirates’, for example.  Particularly in a context where children are disadvantaged and may have limited life experienced, we need to expand children’s horizons in all year groups, taking them on trips, bringing visitors into school and fully appreciating just how urgently our children need to acquire the kind of general knowledge middle class children are routinely exposed to at home. We need to understand that the humanities and science lessons are the main places where children will gain this knowledge and make sure our curriculum and pedagogy ensure that knowledge is imparted and retained.  Those children should have known what a paw was and what hind leg means. Cutting back on foundation subjects to improve reading is a false economy.

We should  also devote prime curriculum time to reading amazing books to children, expanding their vocabularies and doing all we can to get them to want to read for themselves. We need great libraries, teachers who are knowledgeable about children’s literature and who can help every child find the book that they will fall in love with; time in the curriculum for both reading to children and for children to read to themselves. And we need lots and lots of books.



[1] In 99.9% of the time. I’ll concede that for maybe 0.1% of children you eventually need to try another approach. Stressing eventually here.

[2] I’m writing this the week before the 2017 key stage 2 reading sats test. Indeed, this time in a week, the completed tests will be safely in their grey plastic bag, awaiting collection. *gulp*

[3] I saw a hilarious lesson last week where the teacher told them that the reason instructions to ‘tick ONE box’  were written in bold was because the markers were fed up with children sometimes ticking two, so the bold was the marker shouting at us to make us remember.

Infernal Inference

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.

Feeling positive about negative numbers

Now sats have finished yet term stretches out before us – what shall we teach year 6 in maths?  The test and the demands of the curriculum behind it dominated the landscape for so long, now that’s all done and dusted, it can all feel a bit anchor-less – what now? What shall I teach them now I am free to teach them anything I want, without anyone checking up on me? It’s all a bit disconcerting.

We usually opt – as I am sure many do – for doing lots of problem solving. I bet the website analytics at nrich show a peak in June and July. And there is nothing wrong with that.  It was difficult to yield precious curriculum time to their more open ended problems when there was so much  stuff  to be got through. But now – now we have 7 whole weeks to fill and spending time on actually applying all that maths we’ve been learning seems like a great idea. Consolidation and application; isn’t that what mastery is all about?

And, to a degree, it is. But 7 weeks of nothing but…I’d go crazy – never mind the kids.  I know maths isn’t all about getting the right answer but its nice sometimes to be able to get the right answer fairly quickly – and be pretty sure that you’ve got it!  And while some activities are great – this is my all time favourite -others are just boring number crunching.  Also – you actually have to be pretty good at maths reasoning yourself to teach these well. To use these effectively, you have to know yourself what would be an effective solution so you can prompt the children appropriately in the right direction.  nrich and other maths problem solving sites are written by mathematicians who find such matters trivial. They don’t supply the correct answers – what would be the fun in that? In the example I dismissed above as boring number crunching – Im sure if I actually sat down and spend a few minutes I would see that  – of course – if I did such and such that would be better than something else. It’s not something I immediately know and frankly would prefer some pointers to save me time.  The same goes for the wonderful Don Steward. His website is aimed at secondary teachers who presumably solve the problems he poses in almost instantly. He doesn’t write for primary practitioners who mostly stopped learning maths aged 16. If only he would put the answers!

Also – all that maths we’ve taught year 6 – it’s amazing how quickly it begins to dribble out of their ears once you stop the highly focused daily practice that marked lessons before sats.  There’s a sort of ‘match-fitness’ to a lot of maths that rapidly declines once you stop.  Consider times-tables facts. Remember how rusty yours were when you first started teaching and how much better they are now? Once term ends, they will probably have 6 maths-free weeks. If we tack on another 7 weeks when they don’t really learn anything new or practice much old, then no wonder secondary school maths teachers sometimes think sats ‘levels’ (50p in the swear box) are inflated. They may have been a 4B/at the expected level/secondary ready in early May; by September they have probably slumped way below that. Spaced repetition doesn’t like spaces quite that big.

So, what to do?  Giving them a flying start to secondary school obviously. So if they don’t yet know their tables or understand place value or can’t do the four operations in their sleep – then you should do those. But I’m taking it as read that nearly all the children can. There is no point in accelerating them through ks3 content because  *mastery* and also because if you have ever looked at a ks3 maths textbook, part from the algebra it’s just just the yr6 curriculum again. Seriously – we bought some k3 textbooks for the level 6 children last year – when level 6 still existed and we had to jump to halfway through year 8 to find anything sufficiently challenging.  I am sure secondary school teachers are well aware of this and use such text books selectively.   They probably even have new ones for the new curriculum.  Although I am slightly haunted by the experience of my first son who spend the first half term (yes the whole half term) revising what happens when you multiply or divide by 10 and multiples thereof. But that was some time ago, I really must move on.

So the obvious contenders are those things we whizzed through prior to sats in the mad dash to cover the new curriculum and suspect the children do not really understand deep down. They just know a few tricks.  As I worried about here.  So possibly we could revisit fractions, especially multiplying and dividing which are so easy to teach as procedures and so difficult to understand conceptually. Hey, we could even do some nrich investigations on them. This is the only one I could find that focus on multiplication. Most focus on equivalence but I am assuming the class is pretty solid on that.  This one from Don Stewart is good – but see what I mean about answers being useful – took me a minute or so before I realised that drawing a bar model made these ridiculously easy.

The other candidate is negative numbers which we whizzed through at the start of the year and then realised some children were confused about when we did algebra. There wasn’t time at that point to go back and address those and actually, the algebra questions in the sats paper were far easier than those we had been practising. However, what  gift to the child and their future teachers to have a rock solid understanding of negative numbers on starting secondary school. Including, of course, a firm grasp of why when you subtract a negative number, you end up adding. Algebra gets really tricky if you are not secure in your understanding of positive and negative numbers – so let’s give our leavers something that will really set them up well for the coming year.

Now when I started writing this post, I fully intended to explain at length about using integer counters to teach negative numbers.   If you don’t know what integer counters are, watch this. (There’s the added bonus the teacher sound a bit like Officer Dibble from Top Cat – the original series obviously).  But then I did a bit of pre-post googling, to se what else was out there and stumbled across this from Tess India which is simply brilliant and uses integer counters as well as various other good ideas.  I particularly liked the bench number line  where you use PE benches to make a number line with children describing how they are going to move from say -4 to +3, and the ‘feeling positive’ idea where you ask students to think about things that make them feel positive and things that make them feel negative.  If you add yet another negative thing you become even more negative whereas if someone takes away a negative thought you become more positive. Simple – but brilliant! So there is no point in me explaining much more about negative numbers – read the lesson plans in the link.

Indeed the whole Tess India resource is a treasure trove of wonderful ideas – well the bits I’ve managed to look at so far are anyway. And it is humbling to read the plans and realise they are aimed at a context where a class size of 60 is not uncommon and interactive whiteboards don’t exist.  Alongside the maths there are handy tips about how to make flashcards from old cardboard…rather puts things into perspective. There are English and science resources alongside the maths and it covers primary and secondary. It’s really well worth a look.

But back to integer counters. These don’t seem to be well known about in the UK. Indeed, we use the wonderful Primary Advantage maths scheme in key stage 2 and while they bang on about CPA everywhere else – for negative numbers they state that no concrete materials are possible and go straight to number lines.  Now number lines are all fine and dandy but some students get so confused using them and it all seems a bit arbitrary why you are moving forwards or backwards.  I  love  integer counters because I love being able to see why the maths works.  When I found out you could even model  why -4 x-2=+8, I beamed for days. I kept on showing people my newest party trick. (I didn’t get invited to many more parties after that.)  And here’s a great link showing how to divide negative numbers.  And no I am not suggesting you teach year 6 how to multiply and divide negative numbers. I’m just banking that if you’ve got this far, this sort of thing brings you great joy.

Using integral counters is the final idea in the Tess India resources.  To be able to understand them, children need to understand the concept of a zero pair, made from one positive counter and one negative counter.   These can then be added to any equation without changing its value. I could try and do some badly drawn graphics to explain it properly – but others have done so with so much greater flair I suggest you look at these instead. Unfortunately Officer Dibble’s video on this seems to be missing. However, this from Learn Zillion  is perfectly serviceable although this is a bit more fun, if a bit more complicated. Can’t quite place the accent.

With a bit of practice, children soon learn to just draw themselves + and – signs if they want to check a calculation, rather than need to counters.

One of the problems children face with this topic is that we never make it clear that all numbers have polarity –  that they are either positive or negative – and that strictly speaking we should write 3 as +3 etc. It’s a shame that the polarity signs are the same as the operator signs – I’m sure it would be a lot easier if they weren’t.  When we write 5-3 do we mean

+5 + -3 or +5 – +3?   I’m sure if we did a lot more work with counters showing that they give the same answer but actually represent something different, that might help. No wonder children get muddled and think -3-5 equals 2  or possibly 8 (because you have got 2 minuses and they half know something about two minuses making a plus. How much better to act it out with counters and see the maths before you very eyes. Works for me.

Then we can return to where this post started and have children investigating negative numbers.  Back to nrich.  And here’s a great reasoning activity from maths pad. If they can articulate why certain statements are or are not true then that’s job done. Secondary schools- here we come!




Feeling positive about negative numbers

Fast, good or cheap? The ‘Triple Constraint’ in Education.

‘Fast, good or cheap? Pick two.’ Originating in software design, this aphorism nicely challenges our ‘have it all’ delusions. Make something quickly and cheaply and quality suffers. High quality products made quickly are expensive. You can have both quality and affordability, but you will have to wait for it. Known in business circles as the ‘triple constraint’, it also lends itself to a great pub game – finding examples in everyday life. Home cooked food can be tasty and easy to make (bacon sandwich) but not terribly nutritious, or easy to make and nutritious (a salad) but not terribly tasty, or tasty and nutritious, but not easy to make (anything in a ‘Anna Jones’ recipe book). I first came across ‘triple constraint’ in this article by Oliver Burkeman and he cites a blog by the entrepreneur Ben Casnocha who has some amusing, if provocative examples. For example, holidays can be exotic and/or cheap and/or relaxing, and our partners can be hot/smart or emotionally stable.

Perhaps teachers can be popular and/or effective and/or emotionally stable whereas with leaders the trade off is between being visionary and/or consultative and/or effective. Pupils’ writing can have good ‘SPaG’ and/or be neat and/or be interesting…although this year’s end of key stage interim assessments are only bothered with the first two. While I hate and detest that dull and boring writing which is neat and has good spelling trumps imaginative, thoughtful work – particularly the perverse incentive to use easy-to-spell vocabulary rather than take a creative risk – I would be willing to trade a little bit of creativity for better spelling and handwriting. Or we could go all out for all three by increasing the curriculum time for English by cutting time for something elsewhere. You might be able to cling onto a broad and balanced curriculum by your fingertips – but depth of coverage in English will have to be paid for by superficiality of study somewhere else. You just might not admit it. At least, not publically.

Project managers describe the triple constraint as defined by choices between time, cost and scope. By scope, performance specification, and/or quality is implied. Project managers use this as a tool to stop kidding themselves that there are no limits upon what can be achieved within a given set of finite resources. It’s a refreshing blast of realism in the face of aspirational, ‘whatever it takes’ woo.   No one gets to have to all. We’ve all made choices along the way – using the model just makes us honestly own the downside of our decisions. If you want something quickly (or frequently) and high quality, it is going to cost. That cost may not be in cash terms, it may be in terms of opportunity cost – you can only spend the time of your teachers once, so make sure you spend that time wisely. So with marking, a set of books can be marked and returned to the class very soon after the initial lesson and the marking can be very effective in that it enable great progress – but this will be at a huge opportunity cost to the teacher. All other calls of their time will have to be rejected – including the calls of their family commitments and personal wellbeing. Here the high quality of the marking and quick turn around is achieved at the expense, or cost, of the teacher’s time. Whereas in days of yore when ‘tick and flick’ was the norm, marking cost relatively little in terms of teachers’ time and could be turned around quickly – but didn’t have much impact of pupils’ learning. Its scope was limited. The Holy Grail of course being finding a system that effectively accelerates pupil progress (scope) whilst still occurring frequently (time) without incurring too large an opportunity cost on the teacher’s time. (Although I suppose theoretically one could reduce opportunity cost by increasing financial costs by employing more teachers to do the marking – not a route likely to catch on in the present funding climate).

The Marking Policy Review Group certainly makes some interesting suggestions and claims that its triplet of ’meaningful, motivating and manageable’ marking is relatively easily achievable – no triple constraint here. Maybe, because meaningful and motivating cover the same ground? Marking’s hardly meaningful if it is not motivating, is it? Clearly, we all want to reduce the opportunity cost to teachers that marking in its present form is extorting. So either we accept that we will have to reduce how frequently work gets marked, or reduce the scope of marking.   So, for example this primary school uses codes and symbols which direct action the next day. A different solution is to only explicitly marking a couple of pieces per class – and sharing these, via a visualiser, with the rest of the class – leaving them to then ‘mark’ their own work by extrapolation. The trail blazer schools are reporting that this approach is working really well; better in fact than the old distance ‘deep’ marking of all pupils’ work ever did.  This of course has its own opportunity cost in terms of curriculum time – curriculum content not covered because lesson time was spent improving and deepening what has already been taught – teaching less but in more depth – in other words, a mastery curriculum. Maybe this is a price well worth paying – for what it is worth I think it probably is – but we should not flinch from owning our choices. There is a shadow side to every decision.

One of the things I really admire about Michaela School is the way it is so up front about its choices. Accepting that it is impossible to do everything – it doesn’t try to. But rather than sweep under the carpet the corners it has cut, it advertises its omissions as a badge of pride. No distance marking here, no siree and no display neither. No computing, or DT or PHSE. Joe Kirby explains here how ideas can be either hornets or butterflies. Hornet ideas are high-effort, low-impact, whereas butterflies are vice versa. Reports and homework are hornets. I don’t think computing and DT are seen as such – just collateral damage in the struggle to teach an exacting and demanding curriculum in the other subjects. You pays your money and you makes your choices. Costs and time being relative fixed within schools – the only give in the system is to reduce scope somewhere along the line. Even when you’ve honed your systems to be as effective as possible – no school can do everything – so choose what you don’t do or what you do less well consciously and not by default.

It would be really useful if schools had to be really honest about the downside of their choices. Particularly in these days of school to school improvement, where we look to schools with amazing results and then try and copy what they do, its really important we are aware of the hidden cost in the choices they’ve made, so we can decide whether the strategies being employed are really replicable, sustainable and ethical. For example, some schools burn through young staff by working them to exhaustion at great cost to the individual teachers concerned. It gets results…but is this sustainable long term? Obviously it’s unethical. (Maybe that should be marked up as an increase cost…to one’s mortal soul!)   But less dramatically, how useful it would be to hear about the things people have decided not to do. School A decides it won’t have a library, thus reducing both financial and curriculum time costs – no more time consuming book-choosing time. The downside is some children who don’t have parents who either buy them books or take them to the library don’t get to read much for pleasure. Maybe their intake means they don’t have many parents like that, or few enough for some different, cheaper strategy to expose those children to a rich selection of books. Or maybe that’s just how it is. Instead, all the children get quality musical instrument teaching. At School B, the priorities are reversed. School C teaches maths in a way that means almost all children make rapid progress. The cost? Children on p levels become more and more isolated, hardly ever working in class with their peers, never taught maths by the class teacher. School D withdraws poorer readers from humanities lessons for extra phonics. The downside is while their phonics improve, their general knowledge suffers, so later on they find it harder to understand what they read.

One problem is often the effect of the downside is displaced a few years, so the school in question does not pay the accountability-price of their choice. The school without a reading-for pleasure strategy doesn’t pick up the tab when that child effectively stops reading fiction. As I’ve written about before, teaching maths with an over-emphasis on the procedural at the expense of the conceptual might engender short term results but at a cost to longer term comprehension of the basics which comes back to bite (some other teacher’s) bum. And the outcome of some choices will make itself felt many years down the line, well into adulthood. An adult drowns; her primary school cut swimming provision to the bone. Another goes to prison; he never received help with his anger management when he was little. Yet another has poor health due to obesity; PE was a Cinderella subject. Obviously the lines of cause and effect aren’t anywhere near as clear-cut as this. But let’s be honest with ourselves. We say we come into teaching to transform children’s lives. Yet the reality of it is, we have to choose which bit of their life it is we are trying to transform. In other words, we have to be clear about the scope of education; what it is we can do well, given the other constraints of limited time and money. What really matters, what will we go to the stake for?

With the coming National Funding Formula, us London schools are bracing ourselves for cuts on an unprecedented scale. The triple constraint reminds us that if there is less money, then either scope will have to be reduced or timescales will increase. In an education context, timescales are fixed. Whether SATs or GCSE’s, those annual results wait for no man – there’s no potential to ask if year 11 can take their Maths GCSE at the end of year 12 as we’ve had to reduce the frequency of Maths lessons due to staff cuts. (Although I love the idea of ‘when –ready’ exams along the piano grades model, I can’t see the government adopting this any time soon). Age-related expectations set tight delivery timescales. Failure to meet them is, well, failure.

So the scope of what we offer will have to take the hit, or several hits, meaning we’re reflecting as rigorously as possible on what is absolutely essential and what is potential cut-able. Not being an academy, I can’t ‘do a Michaela’ and decide we are just not going to teach certain subjects. Obviously English and Maths take centre stage. The time devoted to the rest is already less than ideal, except for music and French – which being taught by subject specialists and taught whilst class teachers have PPA – get an hour per week come what may. Who knows if we will still be able to have subject specialists. Are they the cheapest way of covering PPA? Are they the best use of ‘spending’ precious curriculum time.

We are very proud of our pastoral provision. As well as a (part time) learning mentor and a (part time) home school liaison officer, we also have our own social worker half a day a week. She’s invaluable. They all are. I could reduce this team, or salami-slice their hours. But the inevitable effect would be to reduce the scope of support for the most vulnerable. Maybe, longer term, the scope of the kind of pupil that comes to our school will have to be reduced as we have to cut the resources that enable them to stay in mainstream. They won’t cope. We won’t cope. But hey, there’s always permanent exclusion.

Cutting back on the arts is pretty much inevitable. Swimming provision: how little is too little? We have already cut back on our intervention programmes. Children who are way behind in Maths would have, in previous years, had half an hour a day catch up with a specialist teacher, following a programme proven to be highly effective over the long term. Well, those children won’t get that opportunity anymore. But at least our deputy head teacher is able to run intervention groups – for now.

No wonder oldprimaryhead wrote this heart felt blog recently. That’ll be me next year. I don’t deny that funding needs to be fairer and that in Tower Hamlets we’ve been generously funded compared with everyone else. But it’s not like we’ve been burning fivers; the money’s been used very effectively.

Of course, we are not allowed to admit that scope – quality and breadth of provision – have taken a knock. Since we are held accountable for standards in English and maths, we will move heaven and earth to maintain quality there, while wondering what we can pay lip service to, while maintaining a veneer of quality? What can we get away with? What can we live with and still sleep at night?

I didn’t start this blog to moan about education.   There’s plenty of people doing that already. I’m not decrying moaning. It’s necessary. Done well, it galvanizes us to change things. But I wanted to mull things over, suggest solutions, share what I’ve read. This post seems to be a bit scarce on the sharing suggestions front. Sorry about that.





Fast, good or cheap? The ‘Triple Constraint’ in Education.

‘If they sit with us, they become lazy.’ TA’s, growth mindset and the MITA Project

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Back in the day when the DfE had a rainbow in its logo, Peter Blatchford and his colleagues were commissioned to start their longitudinal study into the impact of teaching assistants on pupil outcomes.[1] The Deployment and Impact of Support Staff Project (DISS Project) lasted 5 years, from 2003-2008 and researched in primary, secondary and special schools. It remains the most comprehensive piece of research into teaching assistants[2] in the world to date.

The key finding took everybody by surprise. While TA’s had a positive effect on teachers’ work load, job satisfaction and levels of stress, their deployment made pupil outcomes worse. Researchers were stunned to find out that even after adjusting for SEN, fsm etc. there was a very strong negative correlation between the amount of TA support a pupil received and the progress they made. The more support, the less progress. Clearly, things had to change.

The researchers were clear that the reasons for the poor outcomes originated in managerial decisions about their deployment and preparedness – rather than in some deficiency innate in teaching assistants.   TA’s were overwhelmingly deployed to work either with children who had some kind of special educational need or with children with lower prior attainment. Very often, they acted as a kind of replacement teacher rather than an additional, enhanced provision on top of excellent teaching from the class teacher. What is more, very few TA’s had any meaningful liaison time with the class teacher and generally learnt what was being covered that day along with the children by listening to the teacher. It is not surprising then, that under these circumstances and lacking sustained professional development, TA’s tended to focus upon task completion rather than the actual learning.

Following the report, the Education Endowment Foundation released guidance for schools to alert them to the pitfalls of poor TA deployment and make seven recommendations to maximize the impact of teaching assistants. Three of these (V, V1 and V11) are to do with interventions – the one area where TA’s could be shown to be making a difference. Only last week, the EEF released further evidence that TA’s can and do make a real positive difference when deployed and trained properly to deliver high quality, well researched interventions.

Back in Bethnal Green we already knew that our interventions had positive outcomes for the very reasons given. For example we used several maths interventions from the Every Child counts stable, such as 1stClass@Number[3].

As a staff we had been looking at growth mindset research and that had already challenged us to move away from grouping by ‘ability’ to letting children choose their own level of challenge from a range of differentiated tasks.   There was no point in us promoting a growth mindset message if we then went on to undermined it by corralling children in tacitly fixed-ability groups. We were amazed on what a difference it made and how a sizable proportion of children made stunning progress once liberated to work at higher levels of challenge.

However, we still had teaching assistants sitting next to the statemented children and their lower achieving acolytes. Did the very presence of a teaching assistant give out the sign ‘abandon hope, all ye who sit on this table’ – whatever other positive messages we were promulgating? And were our TA’s focused on task completion? Did our statemented childrem – like their DISS counterparts – mainly interact with TA’s rather than other children? And what could we do to change?

What was surprising was that our teaching assistants agreed with the research. ‘If they sit with us, they become lazy;’ said one TA. ‘They rely on us to do the thinking for them’. What transformed the situation was discovering the follow up to the DISS report – the Effective Deployment of Teaching Assistants Project (EDTA). This action research project looked at ways of enabling schools to use TA’s effectively. As a direct result, the researchers published Maximising the Impact of Teaching Assistants,   a book so good and so accessible we bought a copy for every TA and class teacher and which I highly recommend. It is highly readable and set out to be used directly for professional development purposes. There is also a MITA website to accompany the book – that’s definitely worth a look too.

We did, of course, reflect on deployment and preparation of TA’s, but the key thing we have been concentrating on has been how TA’s can ensure that their presence promotes resilience, self reliance and autonomy in the pupils they support – the entire ‘growth mindset’ table d’hôte as it were.

One of the first things we did was conduct a survey among a subset of our pupils. We surveyed all the children in ks2 with statements, a selection of lower prior attainment children, and a selection of higher prior attainment children. When asked, who helps you learn in school – the ‘higher’ children almost all named their teacher whereas the ‘lower’ and SEN children were more likely to name a TA and not mention the class teacher at all. But the most illuminating finding was when asked to answer ‘true’ or false’ to the question ‘I learn better when a TA is there to help me’, a third responded no (including the SEN and ‘lower children), and explained that it often interrupted their thought processes and was an unwanted distraction. Another third said that TA presence was sometimes helpful and the final third were positive.

We shared these findings, along with highlights from both the DISS and the EDTA research, with TA’s and teachers during an INSET day this January. Prior to the training, we also videoed 3 out of 10 TA’s as a benchmark tool to help us evaluate the impact of our initiative. This video was only seen by the TA themselves and the 3 teachers leading the MITA project group in school. The best thing about the MITA project is what we now call ‘the MITA triangle’. This is a simple visual reminder of a hierarchy of when to intervene – or not intervene – when supporting students. I say ‘not intervene’ advisedly, because a key message from the project is to intervene as little as possible when supporting students. Assume they can do it, observe carefully, and only intervene after sustained careful observation shows you that the child needs some support.

Our teaching assistants found this really challenging. The idea that it was ok to just sit next to a pupil and effectively do nothing but watch for a few minutes was difficult to take on board. Fortunately, I had videoed myself ‘being a TA’ and supporting a year 6 child with his maths. The sight of the headteacher sitting alongside a pupil and just watching him work for a good few minutes was liberating for them. I was, of course, watching very carefully, so when I did intervene, it was because I could see a misconception getting in the way of learning. We talked a lot about the difference between this and spoon feeding a pupil. ‘I definitely don’t spoonfeed’ said one TA. Imagine her surprise when she saw her video…

The triangle outlines 5 possible ways of intervening. At the top of the triangle the pupil is autonomous and self scaffolds their own learning. Nothing to see here – move along.

The next rung down is prompting (or I prefer to call it nudging) a pupil. This might be as gentle as a meaningful look or strategically focused cough. It might be as simple as saying ‘so, what have you got to do now’ and that will be enough to get the ball rolling. If that isn’t sufficient we might then suggest a very generic strategy, leaving as much of the leg work as possible to the pupil. ‘So, is there anything on the board that might remind you of what you are meant to do now?’

The next step down the triangle is to give clues to the pupil. These will be more specific to the learning at hand than prompts. So we might say ‘ would it help you remember if you looked at the success criteria/spelling bank/100 square/periodic table/working wall? Remember this is happening after some quality input from the class teacher. This is not the child encountering information for the first time. Or being re-presented with it after it has become obvious that the first time didn’t work. This is not an intervention situation where the TA is acting as a teacher and imparting information. This is when the pupil is working with information or a process they have just had explained to them during whole class teaching.

If that doesn’t still work then the TA has to do some explicit modeling. This means the original teaching has failed in some way – it might mean it was too hard for the pupil in the first place. Modeling is basically re-teaching the concept or information. Modeling is fine – but the idea is that the pupil gets it first time along with the rest of the class and doesn’t get to have their own private mini lesson with a TA. That way, dependency lies. I am sure we have all come across pupils who realise that they don’t have to listen the first time around because they will be rewarded with special 1:1 time if they switch off when the teacher is talking.

At the very bottom of the triangle is just telling the pupil what to do. Not because telling pupils things is bad per se – but because we tell them instead of expecting them to work for the answer. Obviously this means that the answer has to be something they should be able to work out for themselves. It isn’t something they don’t, in theory, already know. This isn’t about championing discovery learning – this is about expecting a child to use strategies to find information we have already shared. If, for example, we have shown pupils how they can find the atomic number of an element by looking at the periodic table – it is not ok for them to shrug and look hopeless when asked to find the atomic number of sodium when there is a copy of the periodic table readily available to them.

If they’ve got counters in front of them, and worked examples, and – if all else fails – someone to re model the concept to them again, they should be able to re-create a 3×2 array. What shouldn’t happen is for them to be told,’ put three counters in the first line and another three counters in the second line – there – that’s three times two, draw that in your book.’   In this case, the TA might as well have done the work in the book herself and cut out the middle man!

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Following the INSET day, we shared the videos with the original 3 ‘benchmark’ TA’s, to see what they thought about how they performed, now that they had received the training. Each TA watched their video alongside one of the 3 teachers leading the project. The reaction was amazing. The very TA who had been adamant she didn’t spoonfeed was running around the staff room afterwards exclaiming ,’oh my God – I do everything – I turn the pages, I give him a pen, I jump straight in before he’s even had a chance to think, I interrupt him when he is talking, I practically tell him the answer – I’m spoon feeding all the time.’ The child she was supporting is in year 5.

Another TA was similarly horrified. ‘I don’t give him any space, I hold the book like his a baby, I turn the pages – my hand are in the way.’ Indeed, the child she supports being a feisty character – there are veritable tussles for who gets to turn the page and hold the book. The child she was supporting was in year 4.

Throughout the video was an endless litany of ‘Good boy! Good boy!’ It was suggested to her that pointing out what successful strategy the child had just used was likely to be much more helpful. In discussion, each TA came up with 3 or 4 things they were going to try to do differently and the teacher summarized the discussion and these targets on one side of A4. After this, we videoed the other 7 TA’s for the first time and went through the same process. Unsurprisingly, because these TA’s had already had the training, they were already using the techniques in their practice. The discussions with the teacher were really useful. Everyone found it really hard to back off and wait at the start of the session. Everyone wanted reassurance they were doing it right. People were a bit confused if they were clueing or modeling at various points. Looking at the footage, it becomes obvious that we all flit up and down the triangle at different points as the child encounters and then overcomes difficulties. It didn’t really matter if we couldn’t quite decide if a particular intervention was a prompt of a clue – what mattered was that we were all thinking hard about how to let the child – or children in the case of a group – do the thinking.

After a couple of weeks, we re-videoed the original three. The results were astonishing. I actually cried watching the footage of one child. Here was a boy who used to do anything to avoid reading, and now here he was, blending those sounds like a pro, going back again and again if it didn’t make sense, showing amazing levels of self motivation and ploughing through the book like an Olympian. You know I never thought we’d ever teach this child to read and he is miles and miles behind – a 1C probably in old money. But he now has the determination and drive to go for it. It’s two and a half years until he hits secondary school and we are going to move heaven and earth to get him as far as we possibly can so he transfers a fluent (ish) reader. I had better make it clear that his failure to read previously was not down to the kind of support he had received previously – there’s a long and complicated story and I’ve named my school so I can’t say more – nor was the new style of support the only factor in his resurrection (no other word will really cover the extent of the transformation).   However, now that his TA was supporting him in a way that took the stabilisers off – he was flying. No more holding the book for him or being the one pointing at the words on the page, no more vacuous praise, lots more praise for using specific strategies of for showing perseverance, lots and lots more waiting and observing. Really insightful intervention just at the right time, building on strategies. It was like was like watching a masterclass in supporting reading. I watched the footage alone on the weekend before I was due to meet with the TA to look at it with her. It was so brilliant I texted her there and then to thank her for making such a difference to this child’s life.

But is wasn’t just her. Both the other TA’s have really changed how they do things. And all three children they work with have taken off. The gap between them and the rest of the class is closing rapidly. By chance, both classes having been doing fractions – notoriously challenging and made even more so by the hike in expectations from the new curriculum. Both children – and they both have statements for learning difficulties – can how add and subtract fractions with ease, and in the case of the older child, including when they have different denominators.   Before they come and take the money away, I had better add that their difficulties, particularly with processing language, remain as severe as ever. But as for maths – extraordinary!

And the main thing the TA’s are doing differently? Waiting. Taking time before jumping in. in fact, not jumping in…gently putting a toe in the water if really necessary.   Reminding pupils of strategies they could use, giving students space to struggle and become a little frustrated without rushing in to soothe and calm.

With the other TA’s we have also seen a sea change –waiting, gentle prompting – expecting independence as the new normal. There’s been a real buzz about this project with TA’s chatting about it a lot on the staff room. When your TA’s are reflecting about ways to improve their teaching and students learning on their tea breaks, you know you are on to a winner.

Particularly when TA’s work with groups, I can see how strong the temptation to go for task completion is and how we need to reinforce that sometimes you just need to model the input again – and then try the other strategies. One group of young children were meant to use objects such as toy dinosaurs to tell a ‘real story’ based on an equation such 3+2 and then draw a pictorial representation of this. The word ‘story’ was a distractor to some in the group who started on elaborate tales – as if it were a literacy lesson – without reference to the maths. Despite the TA reminding the children about how the class teacher had told a real story based on the maths story, the link between the two – obviously the whole point of the exercise, had not been grasped by a couple of children. Instead of modeling this again – or – even better – sharing the work of other children who had been successful – the TA spent most of her energy trying to get the children to draw first 3, then 2. When actually the drawing was an afterthought – a recording of the thinking and not the thinking itself. But the MITA model allowed us to have a great conversation around this and for her to self identify her own desire to please the teacher by getting the task done – whether or not this actually helps the child learn. So a powerful learning experience for her.

The project’s not over yet. The idea is that a second round of videoing is shared in TA triads – sort of lesson study style – but less threatening. That was meant to be this week – but we have fallen behind. The main problem was that videoing in class made it really difficult to capture the sound properly – even when the rest of the class were really trying to work as quietly as possible to facilitate the video, the sounds of chairs scraping and background talking just made the soundtrack too hard to analyse. So we re-videoed with TA’s taking their group or child out just for this lesson. We could invest in a directional mike, I suppose – but for our purposes videoing lessons in a different room worked fine. We had to make sure that the prompts available in class were still present, of course.

The project has also helped class teachers reflect on how they promote independence for all children.  In one notoriously dependent class, the teacher has shared the triangle with all pupils – suggesting that some of them rather like life at the bottom of the triangle. She now gives them feedback about how well they are able to self-scaffold – the expectation being that children who actively listen during whole class time should usually be able to get down to solid independent work without needing further reassurance. Her TA and herself will circulate, reinforcing where things are going well and spotting where children are making mistakes and then prompting, clueing and possibly re-modeling as necessary. But the children need to risk doing something wrong first.

At a recent open day day review – when teachers from 7 different schools came to observe classes and look in books – all present noted the high levels of resilience and autonomy. I am sure we have further to go with this and it will be interesting to see how this impacts on end of year data in the summer. I wholly heartedly recommend the MITA project to you – it’s been instructive, it’s been transformative and it’s been a blast.

[1] The rainbow doesn’t have anything to do with the rest of this post – I just included it because it looks hopeful and I was feeling wistful.

[2] I’m going to use the term TA – teaching assistant for all classed based support staff. I know a variety of other terms are used and some school differentiate between learning support assistants for SEN pupils and TA’s for more general support – but for brevity and clarity I am using the one term – in the same way the researchers themselves do.

[3] Full disclosure: husband works for ECC. Also, to be quite clear, ECC’s teacher led intervention has been subject to published independent study which found to made a very positive impact but its suite of TA led interventions do not yet have published independently verified research –although EFF trails are taking place. Their own databank is substantial and shows positive impact, as this report from Learning Wales shows.

‘If they sit with us, they become lazy.’ TA’s, growth mindset and the MITA Project


The old bear roared in frustration and waved at the empty air with his huge paws, then reared up on his hind legs .’

It’s the Easter holidays. Reading booster revision class for year 6.  I have a group of 4 children. They need to get a level 4. It’s not going well. The bear in question has recently changed his behaviour – we are medddant to be describing how. And why.  I’m settling for how in the first instance.

‘So,’  I enquire, with that  strained upbeat  tone adopted by teachers when the odds are against us, ‘can anybody tell me what it means when it said the bear  ‘reared up?

Blank looks.    Someone says that rear means your bottom – which is sort of encouraging – though not particularly helpful in this context. Mental note to self:-must make sure we teach them the words ‘rear up’.   Time for a spot of drama. I rear up out of my chair and we all practice rearing up and think about what sort of occasions might make us want to rear up. Not taking a bottom group booster class three weeks before sats, that’s for sure. All though I am – like the bear – frustrated.  Quick check that we know ‘frustration’. Nominalisation is a problem – they know frustrated but don’t automatically make the link. Mental note to self:-must make sure we teach them more about nominalisation, root words, looking for links.

‘Ok, are we all clear now about the meaning of all the other words in the sentence?’

A pupil enquires, ‘what does hind mean?’  How come they don’t  know they word ‘hind?’ We do lots of stuff about animals. Surely it came up somewhere.  I check if they know the word ‘fore’.   Nope. Don’t know that either.

I reread our sentence, one more time, confident now that every word is now understood by my four pupils and that we can begin to answer our 2 mark question. So if we were, by some sort of miracle, to get a very similar sort of passage in the real test, where someone reared up in frustration – possibly on his hind legs – we might even be able to glean a mark or two.

‘Miss…? The undulating tone indicates a question is coming. ‘What’s a paw?’ Some of the group are excited now because they know this.  They rear up in excitement. ‘I know, I know, it’s what you call an animal’s foot!’ Mental note to self:-must make sure we teach them the word paw. Surely we teach them the word ‘paw’. Surely in the early years during ‘people who help us’ the vet makes paws better? I’m sure we learn ‘paw’ in phonics.  Despondently I turn and  reread the sentence yet again. My face a mask of fake brightness as I strain to erase any hint of sarcasm from my voice I enquire, ‘we are all sure what a bear is – right?’

By the way, I ought to point out, only some of this group are EAL. Others speak English at home. Allegedly. It’s a different kind of English though. Standard English is definitely a foreign tongue.

Look, I’ve got as  big a ‘growth mindset’ as the next ‘ResearchEd’ nerd, but there is something about trying to increase children’s vocabulary that drains every last scrap of optimism out of me. With just about everything else in education, it is simply a case of finding the right technique and then practicing the living daylights out of it. Actually that’s the grossest of gross generalisations. It is not simple for a start. And there’s infinitely more to education than just mastering basic literacy and numeracy. There is creativity and wonder and stuffing your brain with glorious morsels of knowledge. There’ s critical thinking and problem solving  and reasoning and immersing yourself in the imaginary worlds of brilliant stories.  But to get to all that properly you need to read, write and be numerate at least a little bit. And there are techniques like phonics in reading and using the concrete-pictorial- abstract approach in maths that have a proven track record of being pretty efficient.  I like the way the universe has been even handed here: favouring traditional phonics on the one hand and trendy ‘cpa’ on the other.

When it comes to increasing a child’s vocabulary, the way ahead is so much more mysterious. Something like phonics is, for the most part, generalisable.  Once you know the 44 grapheme: phoneme correspondences and how to blend and segment them – you’ve got that skill for life. You can transfer that skill onto any other phonetic language you encounter. Sure the gpc’s may vary a bit or even a lot, so you may need to upgrade you knowledge of those, or learn to decode from right to left if you learn Arabic, but the basic skill is there: it doesn’t need to go on being taught over and over once securely grasped.

Maths is pretty much the same. Once you understand the base 10 place value system, you don’t need to have it explained afresh each time we increase or decrease a factor of 10. It’s quite a complicated and abstract principle so may take some time to really understand, but once it is done, it is done for ever.  Same with the four operations. Yes we apply them in ever more complicated situations, but addition is always addition, whether it’s 2+3, 233+32.3  or  2a +(-3b).  Obviously there is a lot more to both, but you get the point. In both there’s an element of the really hard work being done in the early years and ks1.  After that, it’s mainly applying what you already know in new, more demanding situations. But words are so damn specific.  If today I teach you ‘paw’ that  doesn’t help you know ‘hoof’ tomorrow. If today’s character ‘rears up in frustration’, tomorrow’s will ‘slump in deep despondency’. Am I meant to have some sort of list- starting perhaps with aardvark and ending with zygote?

It has always struck me as miraculous that any child ever learns to speak at all. It’s creation ex nihilo par excellence. One minute you have a babbling baby who can’t say or understand anything and the next they start issuing orders like ‘more’ and ‘milk’. Before you know it they’ve moved beyond giving orders and labelling objects to generating their own, unique sentences- beyond just copying and into innovation. Watching a young child learn to speak is exciting and enthralling; no wonder parents bore everyone else senseless with news of the latest cute thing their genius  two year old has just said.

I am sure those who have EAL new arrivals turn up in February into year 4 /8/11 ( insert numeral of choice) have often witnessed the same miracle. One minute you are announcing to the class ‘here is a new boy,Yan Ye. He doesn’t speak any English yet’ and arranging a buddy system  to get him through geography and the next he gets a level five in his English reading sats. So- and here is the million dollar question, how come Yan Ye can learn English in little more than two years when he only really gets to speak it at school whereas some of this classmates have been surrounded by English since birth, been to the same school for 8 years and don’t yet know what ‘frustration’ means? Unlike their teachers. Why does this everyday miracle fail to ‘take’ for some children and what can we do about it?

Of course it is linked to disadvantage. For a variety of reasons, there is a much higher risk of growing up within a family with a limited language environment if that family is also poor. It’s absolutely by no means inevitable, but statistically, if you are poor, the odds of you being raised in a language rich environment are just lower.  When comparing  the exposure to language of the richest and poorest children, a seminal American study that makes me want to weep describes the grim reality that a child from a high-income family will experience 30 million more words within the first four years of life than a child from a low-income family. But it is also true that socioeconomic status is not destiny and that there are a variety of providers out there working with parents of babies and toddlers to empower them to break the inter- generational cycle of deprivation.  But what about the children already in the system? How can we help them?

Well it turns out that there is some sort of list. Or at least there should be, although there is a lot of argument about what should be on it. Unfortunately, Mr Gove was rather in favour of having a list. I say unfortunately because I think there is quite a lot in this list business, but Mr Gove tended to taint everything he advocated with the venom of his invective against teachers. A bit like the new maths curriculum. It’s really good- but you have to get past one’s stomach churning aversion to anything Govian to appreciate it. E.D Hirsch, an American academic and chair of the Core Knowledge Foundation, argues persuasively that in order to read, one needs to know not only certain words but something about the cultural context in which those words are set. It’s hard for a British reader to make much sense of an account of baseball or an American an account of cricket even though we understand the individual words perfectly well. It’s just together they don’t make sense.  Socioeconomic disadvantage in education is best overcome, he argues by the explicit teaching of knowledge and its accompanying vocabulary. Instead of wasting time teaching generic reading skills, precious curriculum time should be spent on the humanities and science, building up knowledge.  As his colleague Daniel Willingham argues in this video, teaching content is teaching reading.  The trouble is that Hirsch’s list, as well as being American and rather dated, just seems so arbitrary. Back here in the UK, Civitas tried to translate it into  our kind of English. Apparently, every year 1 child should know about Machu Picchu- something I confess I know precious little about (despite my knowledge based private secondary education). I think it’s a sort of templey thing somewhere in Latin America – Peru maybe- and was built by the Inkas or possibly Aztecs. The same list says every  year 2 child must know about rabies. Why? To give them nightmares, perhaps.

Much more usable is the work of Isabel Beck  . She divides words up into three tiers. Tier one words are everyday words that do not need teaching- table, house, book etc.  Tier three words are specific to certain domains and are fairly low frequency, words like isotope. Words like this are taught fairly easily as they occur in the curriculum. But it’s tier two words where the action is.  These are words that don’t usually come up in spoken language but are high frequency in written texts and give the learner a more mature, nuanced way of expression a concept they already understand. A child who knows ‘sad’ can be taught the word ‘forlorn’, for example.  Rather than providing a definitive list, she teaches teachers how to identify and choose suitable tier two words for explicit word work. she explains this well here.  There are two books by her that are definitely worth reading; Bringing Words to Life and Creating Robust Vocabulary. (Although the phrase ‘robust vocabulary’ brings a smile to my face: no need to put any effort into teaching that!)

Beck (and colleagues) explain that children don’t easily pick up new vocabulary just from the context and from their reading. Rather they need explicit instruction and creative ways to practice what they have been taught. Katie Ashcroft from the fascinating Michaela school explains how they are explicitly teaching vocabulary there.    How does this contrast with current practice in primary schools?

In my experience (almost entirely based in schools in Tower Hamlets), schools work very hard to provide language rich environments. We have to, since our population is predominantly EAL and those who are not EAL tend to number among the word poor.  We all know our BICS from our CALP.  Thinking of my own school, starting with the early years promoting high quality communication is our top priority.  We’ve done ‘Every Child A Talker‘ and refresh our memories its key messages every couple of years. We have a speech therapist on the payroll who regularly observes practitioners to develop their practice. We run interventions such as TalkBoost and Speech Bubble. We value speech as integral to learning. Talk partners are a completely routine part of every lesson from Nursery onwards. We expect children to answer in full sentences. We use sentence frames and dictogloss. We orally rehearse before we write and use drama across the curriculum. We talk for writing and internalise key texts. We spend a lot on our library which has high quality non fictions well as fiction.  Each year a group of children who have read widely get to visit the book wholesalers and spent a budget of thousands electing new books for our library. Authors come and visit.  We insist children read daily for homework.  We read to them daily.  Key vocabulary is highlighted and explained. Yet still, frustratingly, vocabulary problems rear up.

Upon reflection, I reckon we explain too much vocabulary too fast.  If I am reading Beck et al correctly, less is more. Fewer words, carefully identified and revisited over a series of activities.  This is something we can change.  We magpie literature, ‘stealing’ good words. We list ‘wow’ words and ‘star words’ and ‘powerful verbs’.  Beck’s tier framework provides real scope here to revisit our practice.  Those ‘powerful verbs’ are bound to be tier two words. Time for them to come down from our working walls and be rehearsed in the ways Beck recommends.

Beck’s recipe is as follows:

First introduce a new word in context. I think this is pretty standard primary practice. I don’t think primary schools tend to just dole out list of edifying words to learn. I hope not anyway.

Secondly, provide a friendly explanation. Not a dictionary definition unless it is from something like the Collins COBUILD Dictionary that defines words in full sentences. Beck suggests explaining words with sentences that use words such as someone, something, if and you. For example,’ if someone is jaded,me has or has seen so much of something that he begins to dislike it.’ (p24 Creating Robust Vocabulary). I think, given time, this is the sort of explanation most of us would tend to give. The trouble is, because our vocabulary teaching tends to be so ad hoc as we encounter words in the middle of stories, we try to articulate a coherent definition on the hoof and fail miserably, coming up with something garbled.

But even in programmes such as Success For All that go out of their way to highlight and define high value vocabulary, this goes nowhere unless the students have opportunities to encounter this word several more times over a series of days. So step three is that old favourite spaced repetition.  Beck suggests spending  a few minutes over 5 days on a few words. After introducing the word and briefly defining it, on subsequent days, children can be given opportunities to process the new words mentally in a variety of ways. One technique is called example/ nonexample. Here students are asked to decide if various sentences illustrate the target word or not.

If any of the things I say might be sleek, say ‘smooth man’. If not, don’t say anything.

a porcupine 

a duck

a leaf

a car

Another technique is word associations. This is basically matching. A card sort really- though maybe without the cards.

The next activity she suggests involves  generating situations, contexts and examples.

How might a …..cook……a musician…..a basketball player……..a teacher show they are:





And so on.  Then at the end of the week,mother words go in a word back. Each week, three ‘old words’ are drawn from the bank to jog those memories. That way, they stick and might actually get used.

I’m not sure why it is secondary school teachers who are leading the way here (or maybe they are just the ones blogging about it) but there is some inspiring practice being developed.   As well as Katie Ashcroft, l have also found this by Josie Mingay on using root words as our bread and butter teaching. We already do this is spelling – so why not in vocabulary instruction too? Joey Bagstock  – a colleague of Josie’s – is worth reading too.  Which brings me back to nominalisation.  This term foxed loads of primary teachers when it first appeared in the writing APP grid for level 6. It’s only now after reading this brilliant blog ( nominalisation comes right at the end) I realise it is a great way of turning an ordinary sounding verb into a much posher sounding noun and making your writing seem so much more intelligent. Contrast ‘when the Romans arrived’ with ‘The arrival of the Romans’.

Of course, I can bet my bottom dollar that however many words I successfully teach my charges, when it comes to test time, those words won’t be in the test.  ‘If only I had taught them frugal instead of exuberant’,’  we will exclaim.  And when it’s a test we are talking about, that arbitrariness remains. But we are teaching these words for life and not for the test. Be nice if they coincided though- just this once.


The light switchers solved- with actual photos!

In my previous post (silly carpets and the light switchers) I mentioned an interesting problem and promised to post the solution – I’m sure it was easy enough the work out especially since the title also mentioned prime and square numbers. I’ve never actually done it practically before. But for you, dear reader, I’ll go that extra mile. Really glad I did because I’ve just appreciated that that this is a really great problem for upper ks2 ( possible ks3. – what do I know?) and a fun way to rehearse those tables yet again. I wanted to video it but lack of something to fix my phone/ iPad into eluded me. Too many shots of me in my dressing gown (hey it’s the weekend, you don’t expect me to actually get dressed?) So just what is probably one of the most boring sets of photos ever- but what was strangely satisfying to do in practice. I needed an object I could turn over to signify the light being on or off.  Having no plastic cups I resorted to nespresso coffee capsules which makes this the most middle class poncy maths investigation ever….in class maybe use those mini ketchup cups you get at McDonalds or biscuits like Jaffa cakes which have very different sides and which we now all know are zero rated for vat, thanks to MP Stella Creasy.

So first of all all the lights are off so my capsules are all the right way up.


Then number one switches all her multiples on – i.e turns all of the capsules over.


As every number is a multiple of one, all the capsules are turned over- all the lights are now on.

Then along comes number two and turns over all,of her multiples, making this obvious pattern.


Then number three turns over all of his, making this interesting pattern.


Number four turns over all his multiples…


And I’m losing the will to live inserting all these photos, so I will cut to the chase. Here is what it looks like after number 25 has done her switching. Drum roll please….


So the lights left on are 1,4,9,16 and 25 ( and following- I decided modelling it to 25 was quite enough) because, of course, square number have an odd number of factors whereas all the other numbers have an even number so return to their original ‘off’ state.

The light switchers solved- with actual photos!

Hooray for an array!

Now I maybe wrong, but I was taught that strictly speaking mathematically 3×2 means 3 taken 2 times or in other words 3+3 rather than 3 lots of 2 (2+2+2).  Which means that 3y means y lots of 3 rather than the easier to understand 3 lots of y…. But that’s what I understood the notation to officially mean. Not that it matters with the commutative law and all- but a teacher in America marked some poor kid down for saying 3×5 was 5+5+5 instead of 3+3+3+3+3 (i.e disagreeing with me). The teacher even marked the array the child had drawn for 4×6 wrong because it was orientated the’wrong’ way. The whole point of arrays is that they can be ‘read’ either way and hence are very useful for teaching the commutative law. I love an array! Do you know they are also brilliant for showing the associative and distributive laws, link to the bar model, the grid method, prime factorisation and multiplying by 10!  You just need some spotty wrapping paper……


Here is 2+2+2 or 2, three times- what I’m going to call 2×3.  Like this it is also a bar model. But like this


it is an array that could be seen as 2, 3 times or


3, 2 times.  Or back to the bar model



Now I’m sure we’ve all done similar with our children in yr2 and yr3- I used to do it with pegboards and exploring 24. Dotty paper works brilliantly though- get the children to do the cutting and experimenting.

But I’d never thought about using it to teach multiplying by 10, until the new curriculum. The new curriculum stresses multiplicative reasoning. In yr3 they are supposed to understand that 4x12x5=4x5x12=20×12=240. (Associative law and all that).  Which got me thinking. Obviously we NEVER tell children ‘ just add a zero’ when multiplying by 10 and tell then about moving digits one space to the left. My colleague gets the whole class to stand up, jump to the left while chanting ‘multiply, go large, left’ ( for division it’s ‘division, reduce, go right). The local secondary teacher came to see a lesson and finally understood why a quarter of her class would jump up out of their seats and do his routine everytimemshe asked about multiplying or dividing by10! But even though this helps children remember what to do – does it help them understand?  But what if we taught it ( alongside the dance) with arrays? Make an array of 6, then make 10 of these arrays to make an array of arrays eg 2x3x10=6×10=3×20


Which they can play about with and establish that this also equals


5×12 and even perhaps after a lot of cutting 2x3x2x5.  Hence prime factorisation. Remembering of course to make the link with factory… The factors are what the 60 factory uses to make 60.

Then photocopy or scan the 10×6 array and by cutting and pasting make another array ten times bigger by putting 10 copies together and establish you know have 600 because 60 can be written as 6×10, so 6x10x10= 600. Then photocopy again to make 6000 and- well maybe leave it at that. When I showed my yr6 that 60×10 could be factored into 6x10x10 they were enthralled and wanted to know if it worked for multiplying by 100 – which they quickly proved it could. This kind of multiplicative reasoning not having been common until recently, they were entranced by it. Last year I showed the level 6 group how you can easily work out eg18x6 by halving the 18 and doubling the 6 and they thought I was teaching them some kind of dark magic- arrays of course to the rescue. Indeed the bottom two photos above show precisely this.  Much experimentation later they got the general rule that you can multiply one factor by any number as long as you divide the other factor by the same eg 96×15=12×120=3×480. By now, they can ditch the arrays and experiment with factorising numbers and then recombining in ways that make multiplying easier. Multiplying even numbers by multiples of 5 being an easy win eg 24x 15= 4x6x5x3=2x2x2x3x5x3=2x5x2x2x9=10x90x4=360. Well,maybe it’s not easier but  I find it kind of satisfying. And they are going to have to understand this if they are going to be able to reason about questions like these from NCETM’s brilliant assessment document. To be honest it did take my yr6 teacher and I a few moments, quite long moments, to get our head around these at first. The last one still gets me every time.


Have you ever used the dotty wrapping paper method as a prelude to the grid method? It works a dream. The photo below was taken in bright light so it’s hard to see the pen annotations dividing it into 10×10, 10×9, 10×7 and 9×7- try zooming in perhaps.


Again, get the kids to do the dividing up and cutting, finding the arrays that will make the calculation easiest (the multiples of ten).

This method can form a bridge to the column method. In the class I’d do this with actual paper we had cut up and made into a grid first but I’ve drawn it ( very badly). So put the actual arrays where I’ve put the drawings.


Finally the distributive law. Easy Peasy when you just split you array into two pieces


10×6 distributed to make 6×6 and 4×6. Cue investigation- how many ways can we distribute this array. I had to model this to a primary teacher who didn’t believe you were allowed to split numbers up like this in the middle of a multiplication when I did a staff meeting on multiplicative reasoning using the post on Shanghai maths from resourceaholic. This is what we were trying to work out mentally


He got the bit where you divide 45 by ten and adjust by multiplying 1.58 by 10, but didn’t agree that 4.5x 15.8 + 5.5x 15.8 was the same as 10×15.8. Until I drew this.image

Then the penny dropped. So hooray for arrays and remember CPA all the way . (That’s concrete pictorial abstract, in case you haven’t encountered this yet). If I haven’t converted you yet to the joys of arrays, read this from NRich.

Hooray for an array!

Teaching Biff and Chip to read.

When I was at home on maternity leave with my 19 yer old son- I mean- with my son who is now 19 years old- my husband came back from a school he had been visiting as part of his PGCE where everybody in year 2  could read- where everybody passed their reading sats and many got level 3. They did this by teaching them phonics.  It is difficult to convey quite how shocking this was. At that point (1996), the idea that you could teach something out of context- without some meaningful frame of reference that made sense to the child- was seen as almost tantamount to child abuse. Children were said to learn to read by being immersed in a rich world of high quality children’s literature, by bathing in wonderful stories and glorious poetry. Not by dissecting language into individual atoms and labelling them with differently voiced grunts. It was like being told they taught witchcraft. Surely, I said, the children had sprouted horns as a result, or hair on the palms of their hands or something?  But husband- usually the sort of person to champion wonderful stories and glorious poetry- was adamant that  this atomistic sound grunting business had something to it. So I went to visit.

Within 5 minutes it was obvious these kids were streets ahead of mine. About a year ahead, I reckon. So although if I were God I would have created things so that children learnt to read best through exposure to rich language as that appeals to my liberal tendencies- I conceded that unfortunately the seemingly less inspiring, dry and dull phonics method was annoyingly superior. Witchcraft was now in. We adopted it, found that children actually really enjoyed it because they loved the success that went with learning to read. Our results soared.  Every child except some of those with statements for thorough going global delay learnt to read. The headteacher of that school was Ruth Miskin and we’ve been using her products through their many iterations ever since.

At this point, the phonics champions are whooping, poised to retweet. But fear not, oh phonics denier- there is more to this tale. Actually SPOILER ALERT, both purist phonics advocates and deniers are going to be disappointed as I will come to a ‘sit on the fence- we need both phonics and other strategies’ moderate conclusion.

Anyway, time passed and we realised that while we were really good at getting almost everyone a 2c or higher at the end of year 2 ( if you remember the old days when we used to have these levels), the ones who got 2c – and some who got 2b, limped through ks2 and might just scrape a 4c on a good day, with a fair wind behind them. They might be able to read, but they couldn’t always pass that damn test.  Pot holing at Dingley Dell in 2011 was a particular low point- with an able reader scoring N, yes N, in the reading test. Reading for meaning was a real issue for some children. In fact for some, their tolerance of non meaning was truly shocking. They just didn’t expect reading to make sense- it was  just an exercise in barking at print. The most proficient print barkers would get quite cross when you tried to slow them down and enquire what a sentence actually meant. They know they were good at decoding and saw reading as nothing more than that. Yet here we were, calling their hard earned prowess into question. For some children, this may have been exacerbated by the way they were taught to read Arabic at Quran school, where as far as I am aware ( do correct me if I am wrong) learning to read the Quran means learning to decode it fluently- sometimes beautifully- but not actually understanding what the text says.

We’d been using ‘accelerated reader’ for years to keep tabs on whether our children were actually reading the books they took home from our library and this clearly showed that a stubbon minority of children – let’s call them Biff and Chip- just don’t read at home ever. And if we force feed them reading at school- they still don’t really understand what they’ve read.

Anyway- enter ‘ project meaning’.  We kept doing all the phonics stuff but added in extra ‘reading for meaning and pleasure’ stuff too. We revamped guided reading in ks2 by introducing reciprocal reading.  This was fabulous. Our proportion of level 5’s shot up- 85% one year and we are in a very deprived area  (school deprivation index 0.58). We also did Power of Reading and made fancy reading corners and bought lots of great children’s fiction and rewrote our curriculum centred on high quality children’s literature. We also realised our phonics programme had moved on and put a lot more emphasis on reading for meaning and enjoyment itself  so got retrained in that.  We introduced guided reading into ks1 so on top of  a hour’s rwinc ever day and 45 minutes of text based literacy, kids also got 30 mins guided reading daily. Biff and Chip got additional phonics teaching in years 3 & 4, until they were scoring a level 3 in their end of year assessments. Throughout ks2 all children did a phonics based spelling programme. And guess what? Biff and Chip  ( and really unexpectedly Wilma) still missed a 4c by 1 miserable mark. Which means we now have red blobs on our raiseonline saying the proportion of our disadvantaged pupils making expected progress in reading  is ‘well below’ that of other schools. (Although we get a yellow blob for our proportion of disadvantaged children making more than expected progress). So we are simultaneously really good and really bad at teaching disadvantaged children to read.

Deep breaths. Yes the red blobs are annoying- but actually- I sort of get it.  Say Biff and Chip had scraped a 4c? (I’m ignoring Wilma and assuming that was down to exam nerves- she’d got solid 4’s in all practice tests.) I would have patted myself on the back, smug in the knowledge that all was well with reading. But seriously – 4c…! You can ( or rather could)  be pretty poor at reading and scrape a 4c. Hardly setting you up for success at secondary though- is it?  Not good enough. When I looked back at our results over past few years realised most years there was at least one Biff……what was going on? Why weren’t we picking up that these children were so weak and doing something about it?  I could hear David Didau tutting.

‘But Biff and Chip don’t read at home’, decried my SLT. ‘Mrs Biff took Biff on holiday in term time… year 6!  And neither Biff nor Chip came to February or Easter booster classes! ‘ they continued. True, but we need to be good enough to enable our children to succeed even without parental support. With support- well just look at those other disadvantaged but well supported children with all those level 5’s. But we can’t rely on it for all children. What were we doing wrong? Or what weren’t we doing? Tracking showed that the children were 3c by the end of yr4, 3a by the end of yr5- so 4b here we come. 4a should be possible.

Sure when they actually entered yr6 the teacher ranted about them not actually being able to read properly…..but then she always does this about every pupil at the beginning of the year. ‘ ‘Woe is me…there is a mountain to climb….they are all barely level 2….what am I supposed to do.’ That’s just what year 6 teachers say ever year- it’s tradition. I don’t take any notice of that!  Especially because look, the tracker is all green- they are on track to make good progress. And usually- almost all of them do. Except Biff. And Chip.

Then I read Daisy Christodoulou’s piece about reading ages versus national curriculum levels and I felt sick. Daisy shares the evidence that shows that national curriculum level  2 reading assessment can span a seven year range of ability when the same children were assessed using reading ages. Now we’d always poo  pooed reading ages as when we used the bit of accelerated reader that assesses reading age- the results were so out of kilter with our national curriculum judgements that we just simply didn’t believe them. Sats held such sway that those results just had to be infallible- didn’t they?

And to be fair- the accelerated reader test has its flaws. It’s a multiple choice test done on a computer.  Without sitting on top of  a child and forcing them to take it seriously, some children find the thrill of having a laptop just too exciting and get distracted- clicking merrily at any answer without actually you know, er reading. I know sharing grades is not great practice but it does work wonders on the bright 10 year old who hasn’t concentrated on his  ‘star reader’ test to be told- ‘apparently you read like a six year old- how about you do the test again and actually concentrate?’  Who then achieves a 13 year old’s reading age. Earlier this term a teacher left the test to do with a supply and got a dire set of results. Only weeks later did the children mention the fire practice that had interrupted the test. Since it’s done on a computer and time limited, it’s a wonder that the results were as good as they were. And then there is a legendary tale of a struggling year 2 reader who presumably by random chance managed to score a reading age of 12 once ( and only once).  And then with young children there is the fatigue effect. As soon as you get a certain  number of questions wrong, your test ends- so the better you are the longer your test lasts. With lunchtime looming, Wilf sees Biff and Chip heading to the playground after a mere 20 questions and wonders why he is on number 34. He quickly clicks at any old answer to get the stupid test over and done with and lo and behold- the test ends. How do you make a test high stakes enough for children to try their hardest but low stakes enough that they don’t panic?

Anyway the team needed convincing- so I read the  boring small print bit in accelerated reader about how they ensure their test is reliable and it may not be perfect but it’s got heaps of trials behind it and is way, way more reliable than the old nc test.  So we are using that now. Alongside some other stuff.  And each time it throws up a couple of kids in each class that are doing less well than we had thought. Not bad enough for us to already have them flagged for phonics intervention but a good year behind where they should be.

I think it’s a reading fluency problem. Rwinc teaches them phonics and reciprocal reading nails the meaning but somewhere in between the two some kids don’t quite take off.  I see now that when we ended Biff and Chip’s phonics based intervention – because they’d got a 3c- that 3c was probably cobbled together by getting easy marks here and there and masked the fact they weren’t really fluent refers yet. Because they got their intervention  from a TA during guided reading- the class teacher didn’t actually know much about what they were like as readers. So went on the test result alone.  BIG MISTAKE. Although it’s tricky- what should Biff miss to catch up on his reading. Mum won’t bring him before or after school so should he miss guided reading or history? If he misses history- he’ll miss out on acquiring knowledge- and that’s vital for reading too, we now understand. I’m sure if we’d been pot holing in 2011 our ‘Dingley Dell’ Sats results would have been much better!   Assembly time? But what about developing his SMSC, hey and all those Britsh values.  Because he never did his reading homework, he already had to stay in every lunchtime to catch up. You’d see him, staring at his open book but not actually reading it. Or, when forced to, reading it word by word without enjoyment or real understanding. Every lunchtime and it did him no good- put him off reading more like. What he needed was someone to read with him. If we had realised how bad it was we might have found someone to do just that.

So that’s where we are at now. Screening all ks2 using reading ages and trying to catch all the Biffs and Chips for whom 3 years of high quality phonics in ks1 still hasn’t been  quite enough to enable really fluent reading or, unsurprisingly, a passion for reading.  A literature rich curriculum, a well stocked library, author visits and teachers who are passionate about passing on a love of reading still hasn’t inspired them to really want to and so to voluntarily put the work in.  Not even the lure of being able to read ‘ The Recruit’ ( parental permission required because a character says ‘shit’ or something) has been sufficiently tempting- because it’s just a bit too hard for them to read by themselves.   So now we are overhauling our lower ks2  for children who are not yet fluent.  We’ve bought in ‘ Project X Code‘ for them- rwinc is great but they need a change after 3 years on the programme. And they like the stories. Then in upper ks2 trying to  find enough staff to give up their lunch break  to help children become fluent and eager readers even when we’ve deprived them of football, using real books  via the Chatterbooks project.  As they remind us, being someone who reads for pleasure is a better indicator of long term success than  education or social class.  But will try and supplement with yet more phonics (rwinc’s fresh start) at some other point in the day. Just don’t have enough staff to do this at the moment. Am in school tomorrow trying to squeeze budget for solutions.  And we are really well funded compared to other local authorities. No idea how the rest of the world copes!

So that’s my solution. Don’t choose between phonics and other approaches. Do it all!

Teaching Biff and Chip to read.

Fractious fractions

Imagine that you’ve got two pizzas…mmm…but you’ve got to share them between three people (boo), and share them fairly, how much does each person get?  With this apparently simple question started the ‘big maths cpd ruckus of 2015.  Teacher A said of course you got two thirds of a pizza whereas teacher B said you got a third of the pizza and apparently it all got quite heated and they ended up having to get some paper plates and cut them up in order to prove who was correct. Which of course they both were.  It’s a determiner problem ( Oh no, not grammar and fractions…is this the new curriculum gone mad?)  Teacher A said two thirds of a (i.e one) pizza, whereas teacher B said one third of the pizza ( i.e one third of two pizzas). Which just goes to prove that fractions are tricky. They are tricky because they aren’t really numbers at all ( ok ok maths peeps, I’m playing fast and loose with definitions here, but I’m talking from the perspective of primary kids ok).  Up until we introduce fractions, when we talk about numbers, we mean natural numbers……the counting numbers. If I show a child a 2 I can get 2 pencils or 2 chairs to illustrate what I mean. Whereas if I show a child 1/2…well I could show them half a pizza or half a triangle but 1/2 is so much more loaded than that. Back to determiners. If I show them half of a pizza, I am actually saying – look- here is one pizza. Now let me divide it into two pieces. Each of those two pieces can now be called ‘ a half’. The difficulty being that if I were to have two pizzas to start with, then a half would be one pizza. So  sometimes a half is half a pizza and sometimes it is one pizza or 8 pizzas or…..well pretty much any number could be half of the pizzas.depends on how hungry you were in the first place. Fractions are not naturally numbers at all- quite often they are an instruction to do something: veritable bossy verbs. 1/2 really means ‘divide 1 by 2.’  It also means, ‘ how much you end up with when you divide 1 by 2.’ Which is an adjective apparently ( although it feels like a noun to me).  The answer and the operation are the same, which seems a little tautologous.  And when you cut three things into four equal pieces then the answer  is 3/4 of one thing- even though you started with three things.

The technical term for this is that 1/2 and other fractions are not natural numbers but rational numbers (ratio-nal numbers; they describe ratios). You have to know what the whole is for them to make sense. The whole is not always one. But the final answer is always expressed with reference to one, regardless of the size of the original whole. But we don’t make that clear. Or appreciate that clearly ourselves. Hey, I’m confusing myself writing this!

My better half (little fractions joke there) was recently at some training where they said that children learn about fractions more effectively if taught it in the context of division. Now a reference would be nice here, but husband can’t remember. Did I say he was my better half? It was probably Nunes, it always seems to be Nunes. Anyway – that got me thinking.

A while back resourceaholic posted something by some other secondary teacher (which of course I can’t find) about teaching  addition of fractions with different denominators by using Playdoh . Each pot of Playdoh was divided into different amounts and rolled into little balls of equal size. Because the different denominators are obviously different sizes, the students are less likely to make the error of adding different denominators together. So that made me think that at primary level maybe we should start teaching fractions by just investigating different denominators – and not mention numerators AT ALL until children clearly get that larger denominators means smaller pieces. In terms of writing, we would just write the / line ( that’s probably got a special name…) and the denominator underneath.   I imagined telling the children that the vinculum ( thanks google) aka the fraction bar or slash was a knife that cut the Playdoh ( or whatever) into a certain number of pieces and that we could record how many pieces by writing that number underneath the knife slash. Writing nothing at all above the line.  Then, after many happy hours slashing Playdoh into different amounts and becoming really fluent at writing these (sans numerator) and at naming these,  I finally pose the question- as if it has just occurred to me- ‘ but what if I wanted two of these things called fifths, how would I write that?’ And hopefully someone would suggest we could write that number above the knife/slash/fractions bar/vinculum. And the entire class would henceforth have a rock solid understanding of what a denominator is and how it is logically prior to the numerator- which is a mere adjective to the denominator’s  verb.

Because playdo is sticky, it also makes it easy to divide say  3 tubs of playdo into 4, by firstly amalgamating the 3 tubs worth into one great big ball and the dividing it into four, and then also by dividing each tub into four and then amalgamating one piece from each- and realising this is the same.  And of course it allows us to see that half of one tub is half but half of 4 tubs is 2 and finally that 1/3 of 2 tubs is 2/3 of 1 tub.

Edit: March 2016. My colleague Keeley Warren was much taken with this idea and spent a couple of days with her year 3 class and some play dough dividing it into different denominators….or ‘doughnominators’ and recording these saying the vinculum was the knife and not putting any numerator above it.  As a result, the entire class quickly grasped that the bigger the denominator the smaller each piece is.  Then when she returned a few weeks later to do fractions again- they had no problems whatsoever and grasped everything really quickly. She was amazed at how well it worked and it is definitely going to be standard procedure here from now on.

But that was before I heard about the ‘learn fractions as division’ thing. Which made me want to adapt this lesson further and start with bigger numbers. In fact, to teach division as sharing whole numbers using the vinculum thingy from the off- again saying it’s the knife that divides thing up – or pushes them into piles…..two for you and two for me. Sticking to even numbers initially but them moving onto dividing one thing by two, four etc.  Meanwhile division as grouping could be represented using the other sign ( the obelus, apparently) which keyboards  don’t tend to let you do- certainly not iPads on WordPress- but you know the one I mean. Not quite sure how and when you’d tie the two together yet. Via arrays probably. Love a good array.

Haven’t actually taught it like this- but I think it might work well. One problem though is that the numerator means slightly different things in each case and teachers would need to be very clear in their explanations. In traditional fractions teaching, the denominator indicates the number of equal parts into which a whole was cut and the numerator indicates the number of parts taken.  In division, the numerator refers to the number of items being shared and the denominator refers to number of recipients: if 2 chocolates are shared among 4 children, the number 2 refers to the number of chocolates being shared and the number 4 refers to the number of recipients; the fraction 2/4 indicates both the division – 2 divided by 4 – and the portion that each one receives.  It’s two quarters of one chocolate. Not of two chocolates. Our fraction is now an adjective, or arguably a noun, with its own special space on a number line. Hey it could probably grace the back of a football shirt.

Ps. Here’s that reference. It was Nunes! 

Fractious fractions