Michelle Nicholson is an English adviser at Herts for Learning.
The new term is underway, the children are hard at work again and the possibility of snow is on everyone’s lips; it must be January. But if your promise of a dry January has already begun to look decidedly soggy, or if your purchase of a gym membership is yet to be inducted, maybe it’s the illusive resolution of a work/ life balance that is really the root cause of the sliding good intentions.
Perhaps I can help you there- if you take on these four Primary English teaching life-hacks, you might just find yourself with a little more time and a little less stress. The added bonus is that your children’s reading and writing skills will improve exponentially. Sound good? Come with me:
There are so many fabulous resources out there to support teachers that you don’t need to spend hours struggling for inspiration or re-inventing the wheel. Have a look at some of the HFL resources, if your school has subscribed. As Martin Galway said in his last Blog, do have a look at our previous newsletters, which contain a wealth of strategies and practical ideas. While you’re on our site, browse through some of the resources that you can download for use in your class, such as the KS2 Grammar Mats or the fabulous Guided Reading Toolkits. Look out this term for: another writing model, demonstrating persuasive writing; Speaking and Listening Assessment Criteria and Mixed Age Plans. We’ve spent ages developing high quality resources so that you don’t have to.
With the planning and resourcing under your belt, set up your classroom so that children can appropriate resources too. Encourage them to collect ideas and vocabulary from their environment- from good examples of writing on display, to synonyms written on post-it notes or placed in gift bags that can be physically taken and used. Likewise, use or adapt sections from books or other publications to provide a model for writing. In short, set yourself up for a good write. Once this is underway, move on to point two:
Ensure the children have time to proof read and edit.
It’s an expectation of the National Curriculum, and the purchase of ‘purple polishing pens’ bodes well, but the process soon seems to drop off in some classrooms. Are you tired of sentences without basic punctuation? Maybe you could try the Red Pencil technique. This is where- throughout the first paragraph of writing (or the entire piece for our younger writers)-children are encouraged to mark capital letters and full stops (or question/ exclamation marks) in red. This is a fabulous visual and physical aide-memoire to help children spot sentence boundaries. Please note that if a child struggles to do this, they are probably not secure in their understanding of a sentence; this then needs to be taught in guided writing.
Whatever the age of the children, do allow some review time at the end of every writing session. Five to ten minutes before you take the books in can iron out a lot of the marking headaches that otherwise ensue, and is far more effective than a whole editing session at the end of the week! Remind children of the non-negotiables that they should have in place- ‘seek out and destroy’ needless errors. Next, focus on an element of the success criteria-perhaps an issue you have frequently spotted in the lesson as you were giving verbal feedback. Get the children to check for this specific aspect- it’s far more focused than just having a general check. Did they manage to include some figurative language/ fronted adverbials/ questions? Use peer marking to support rather than create more work for you to unpick- keep it simple:
“Look over each other’s shoulders and point out any spellings you think your partner should check.”
“Look at your partner’s work and identify 3-5 words that you think could be more specific or adventurous.”
“Read through each other’s piece and point to any sentence or paragraph that doesn’t seem clear to you. Discuss with them and give them time to sort out this part.”
Create writers’ toolkits for the tables: key words that pertain to a task; a spelling and a grammar mat for quick reference; phoneme frames, mini whiteboards and ‘try it out’ paper for word practice. Add in post-it notes or planning frames to allow children to plot each sentence or paragraph. Encourage children to use the resources on the table and around the classroom to support their writing and editing…and foster their independence.
When the books come in, your marking load should be a lot lighter if you adopt some of these principles. And this leads me into my third tip for a better work/ life balance:
Make marking work for you.
Less is often more. First, read through the child’s whole piece of writing without pen in hand. Then consider the child and the overall task undertaken.
Which three spellings are essential to the child’s ongoing success (ie a high frequency words that are non-negotiable/ graphemes recently taught in class/ missed spelling rules that need to be applied)? Go with the order of ease or frequency in order to close the gaps ie don’t direct towards mischievous if the child has misspelt jumped as jumpt. Underline the letter or letters that are incorrect. Now ask the child to have another look or use their spelling mat or a dictionary to correct these spellings. Correcting them yourself is not only time-consuming but allows the spelling correction to become a passive exercise and does not help the child to commit the word to memory.
What are the three most important things you want to point out to the child? Use the marking code to direct the pupils to areas that they could fix, such as missing punctuation for example. Show them where (perhaps with a symbol), rather than tell them what they can improve. For example, “add conjunctions such as because, although or unless where I have put *”. Model areas of misconception e.g. I was but You were…. Again, ensure you prioritise by selecting the aspects of work that come earliest on the grammatical continuum. For example, address sentence boundaries for single clause sentences before encouraging the use of conjunctions and make sure the children have mastered punctuation of dialogue before introducing higher-level punctuation. If that would take too long, it probably means you need to make a note to work with the child the following lesson and talk through the area of difficulty. Have a look at James Clements’ article on funnel marking- it’s a very useful strategy to adopt.
Marking can support children to improve their writing, but only if it’s carefully targeted to the child’s next steps and is accessible for the child. Likewise, it is only a worthwhile exercise if it is manageable for you. Remember, you are the most expensive resource in the classroom and you won’t be on top of your game if you have been diligently highlighting until 2am. This leads me to my final top tip…
Unwind with a book.
Classrooms can be noisy, stressful places at times and everyone needs a chance to reset. Carving out fifteen minutes a day (and ring-fencing this) for a home-time story gives everyone the chance to enjoy some quality book time. This time is sacred –and so valuable for the children- but KS2 teachers in particular can often find the demands of the timetable make it nigh on impossible to set aside even a few minutes. But a well-chosen book is an enchantress, taming even the most excitable class and lifting the most doleful mood. Cares can be put aside and problems parked, thus sending your class home to report happily on the day. A well-chosen book has the power to impart new ideas to be included in tomorrow’s writing. It can model language structures in advance of the child’s current capabilities and broaden the vocabulary of even the narrowest of minds. Far from being a passive activity, reading to your class is a highly interactive occasion. You, as the storyteller, model storytelling in action- not only acting as a conduit for the author’s imagination, but as the expert reader, demonstrating skills and unpicking points of interest.
If you can’t find time to read a novel (or if your attempts at ploughing through huge tomes are frequently abandoned after a few chapters) try getting into the habit by picking a poem or short story to read. Over the years Gaby Morgan has edited a series of books with various titles under the umbrella of A Poem For Every Day Of The Year. These are great for reading aloud and children really enjoy the variety in these collections. Similarly, there are fabulous picture books and short story compilations available for children of all ages. I love the Barefoot Books collections, which are always superbly illustrated. Your children will undoubtedly enjoy Kevin Crossley-Holland’s books Short and Short Too. Jackie Morris and Carol Ann Duffy are among the plentiful authors who have given us thoughtful picture books for older children. Firm favourites include Morris’s The Ice Bear and Duffy’s The Lost Happy Endings. Coincidently, these marvellous authors have collaborated to bring us a Barefoot collection entitled: The Barefoot Book of Classic Poems (2006)!
Finally, do ensure you keep up your own reading- it is, in my opinion, one of the finest pleasures to be had! According to an article in the Daily Telegraph back in 2009, reading is also one of the most effective ways of reducing stress.
Researchers have discovered that after only six minutes of reading, muscles relax and the heart rate slows. So why not take advantage of this fact to resume your own reading? Going back to my earlier point, if wading through War and Peace seems too onerous, why not pick up a child’s book? There is so much tremendous literature out there for children and it can be difficult to keep up with it all, especially if you don’t have school age children at home to snuggle up and read with. But children’s books are generally so much quicker to read than those written for adults- you could gallop through a short novel in an hour or two. Furthermore, children love it when we recommend books to them based on our own reading, so it will have a ripple effect. Go on- you deserve it. I have recently enjoyed The Lost Journals of Benjamin Tooth by MacKenzie Crook which was recommended to me by a Y6 teacher. It intriguingly begins:
One day I will be remembered as the greatest scientist that the world has ever known and so it is my duty to mankind to record my thoughts that future generations are able to study the progress of a genius. I am eleven years old.
I am now about to embark on The Hundred Names of Darkness by Nilanjana Roy. It’s a tale set in Dehli, following the quest of a cat clan to find a new home and is a sequel to The Wildings. I’ll let you know what I think, but I can already feel myself unwinding at the thought of it….
So, re-set the resolutions and claim back control. Let 2017 be the year of perfect balance- excellent English outcomes with time left over for you. Tell me how you get on and feel free to share your own life-hacks for English teaching with us.