Quick wins in the English classroom

Written by: David Maytham | Published:
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Do you have any suggestions for suitable poems for the Poetry Spread activity?

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Success in English is the key to success across pupils’ education. Expert David Maytham offers some quick ideas to help engage children and accelerate progress in English

For me, it is a given that effective teaching of English can bring about transformational change. The skills acquired in English lessons can be used in every other subject and, crucially, in the real world too.

English is a vehicle through which children are transported into a rich world of untold possibilities.

Poetry first

I believe that you can’t teach children to write until you teach them to generate ideas. Poetry is a fantastic medium for this. Yet, in my experience, if there is ever a unit or topic that gets overlooked, it’s poetry. I’d actively encourage all teachers to teach poetry at the start of every term or topic, even if just for a few days. Ideally, link the poetry topic to your upcoming narrative or non-fiction topic, which will allow children to apply their ideas to different contexts.

Embrace technology

The current generation is the tablet and SmartPhone generation. Babies are able to swipe a device to access content on their parent’s phone and by the time they reach school, many are accustomed to a range of technology. When I informed my six-year-old that iPads weren’t invented when I was his age, he was scandalised: “But daddy, what else didn’t you have? Did you have TVs? Cars? Ovens?”

Now, he may have been a little melodramatic, but there is a serious point here. To a modern child, tablet technology is as normal as once television was for us. As teachers we need to tap into this. Apps on the market now allow teachers to animate characters in minutes. Imagine Little Red Riding Hood herself setting your year 2s a writing task. Imagine using virtual reality to take the children to a futuristic world, and the detail that could then be conveyed into their writing.

Regular reading competitions

Motivate the children to read with regular competitions. One of my favourites is asking the children to take a photo of themselves reading in an interesting or unusual place. Over the years I have had children reading underwater, on horseback or even in an aeroplane cockpit. These photos always spark great discussion, make fabulous displays and work well alongside photos of people in your local community reading as part of their jobs.

Alternatively, Mystery Reader always works brilliantly. Children wrap up a book that they enjoy. They write their own blurb about the book on the cover. Children share the mystery books, reading the blurbs, trying to guess the book and eventually choosing one to unwrap. The whole experience encourages talk, collaboration and helps build a love of books.

The Learning Gallery

Every classroom would benefit from a learners’ gallery. I well remember the joy I felt as a seven-year-old when my teacher put my writing on the wall. In the busy classroom, it is easy to forget the value of classroom climate in supporting children’s learning. The learning gallery is a powerful idea, which works in any context.

The idea is simple: at the start of term you create a gallery of blank picture frames; one for each child in your class. Each child chooses a piece of work they are proud of to go into their frame. By choosing, they take ownership over their learning and feel confident to discuss it. Six weeks later they choose a second piece. This is put up on top of the first. If you make the type of learning consistent, i.e. all writing, you end up with a display that shows a clear progression in writing.

Poetry spread

This is a fantastic technique to promote a love of poetry. Secretly and mysteriously, take four children from the playground before the start of school. Teach the children a short poem, until they can each recite it by heart. As soon as registration is over, all children gather in the hall for an assembly. The identities of the four Poem Ninjas are kept a secret, but the other children are told that there are four among them who have learned a poem by heart. Their challenge is for the entire school to have learned the poem by the end of the day.

As soon as a new child learns the poem, that child becomes a Poem Ninja too and can teach others. At the end of the day, all children gather for another assembly and all recite the poem together. It can be followed up with discussions the next day in class about both the process of disseminating the poem and also the poem itself – did they like it? If so, why? If not, why not? Can they explain what they think it’s about? There is a wealth of high-quality poetry talk to be elicited from this activity.

Using the language of games

This is a simple one, but incredibly effective. Talk about the activities you are doing as if they are games. If you want children to “thought-shower” vocabulary to do with e.g. nature, tell them it’s a word association game. If you want the children to edit one another’s work, tell them it’s an editing game – let them dress up as editors, or give them special highlighters to pick out things for their friends to improve, or do it anonymously and get them to guess who edited their work. Children love games. Actually, people love games – regardless of their age. So let’s make it fun.

Hook, experience, context and purpose

This is something I say a lot. In order to ensure that children are interested and engaged in a topic, you need a “hook”. What will grab them? It might be pirates, or chocolate, or fairies, but you need something to generate that initial interest.

Then, experience. How can you expect children to write a set of instructions on how to make a cup of tea when they’ve a) never made a cup of tea and b) never read a set of instructions? They must be exposed to not only high-quality model texts that show them what (for example) instructions look like, but also an experience linked to the topic.

Do you want them to write about pirates? Then play a pirate game. Or sing some pirate songs or go on a pirate treasure hunt. Do you want them to write about dinosaurs? Visit a museum and look at a dinosaur skeleton. Bury some “fossils” in the sandpit and ask children to dig them up. Give them that experience they need in order to be able to write about a topic. Don’t ever assume knowledge, because the chances are that there is at least one child in your class who doesn’t have it.

Next, it’s context. What is the context for their writing? What are they trying to achieve? What has led up to this point? Where are they going from here?

And last is purpose. If children are writing newspaper reports, why not make them into real newspapers and distribute them to the other children? If they’re writing pirate diaries, why not put them in a bottle, with the address of the school, and throw them into the sea? If they’re writing letters, why not write to a real person? I was in a school recently where the children had written to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge to congratulate them on the birth of Princess Charlotte and received a royal reply! The children were over the moon and the quality of their writing was superb.

Children as teachers

How do we know whether children have fully understood a topic? How do we know that they have not only procedural fluency but conceptual understanding as well? By allowing them the space and time to teach others. We all know that it’s easy enough to learn something new and feel on top of it, but it’s another thing altogether to try to explain our new learning to someone else.

So how better to ensure that children have really understood than by asking them to be teachers? This doesn’t have to be onerous. You could ask them to record a video of themselves explaining the task, which is then attached to their written work by means of a QR barcode, so that parents, other teachers, other children (and hopefully the nice Ofsted inspector) can scan it with their SmartPhones and watch the children explaining how they did the task. Alternatively, it could be a presentation in assembly. It could be a short written commentary. However it’s done, giving the children that sort of ownership over their work and time to fully assimilate the skills they have demonstrated is incredibly valuable.

Conclusion

These are just a few ideas to help you to accelerate progress in English in your school. Hopefully, you can see that the underlying principles are always the same: activities should motivate, enthuse and encourage children to enjoy and understand their learning, by making it relevant, relatable and, most importantly of all, real.

  • David Maytham is the founder of TT Education, a primary school improvement company which provides training, support and consultancy to primary schools in the UK and beyond. Visit http://tteducation.co.uk/


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