A book of poems.

Learning a poem off by heart is remarkably easy, possible for everyone to achieve, and yet so seldom done. The benefits, other than the sheer pleasure of having a little bank of some wonderful poetry in your head, are legion, for they are many.

We think that poetry is really important at Reach, and once a week our children spend time in their ‘poetry partners’ practising some of the best poems from history. They focus on the oracy of poems, the meaning of the words, the message being delivered, the rhythm, the literary devices, the expression necessary to connect with the poem, and on and on.

I’ve collected together a booklet of my favourite poems here. Some are shorter, some longer; some easier, some harder. I’ve probably missed some absolute greats, so please do comment if I’ve omitted your favourite. We are always looking to update.

You can download the booklet here: Poetry challenge


Once. But. So.

Once I spent a weekend with my brother (a theatre director), to catch up and relax after a long week at work. But because we both enjoy our jobs so much, conversation soon turned to work and my brother shared a game he likes to play. So now I am sharing it in turn with my teaching colleagues, hoping that you have some success with it in your classroom.

The preceding paragraph is my off the cuff attempt at a ‘once, but, so’ story which, as the above suggests, was explained to me by my brother who occasionally works with young people to share the magic of theatre. The idea is simple: all stories can by reduced to this three stage structure.

Alex Quigley spoke eloquently about micro-writing in his recent presentation at ResearchEd, and since then I’ve been keen to make better use of these short, sharp sessions.

Here are three thoughts of how I plan to try and get my children micro writing more frequently. I think that they could be used as starters, whole lessons or even impromptu games. I’d love to know if you can think of any better applications.


Begin by showing ‘once, but, so’ on the board, and explain that children have to tell a story in three sentences, opening each sentence with these respective words. This will help to embed the structure that all narratives follow: introduce characters and settings; said character(s) encounters a problem; the problem is resolved. You could add challenge by listing features you’d like to see (first person/third person, speech, adverbs, noun phrases etc).


These stories need not remain micro-narratives, however. A lesson could be used to develop each sentence into a paragraph, or a page. The focus of (Once) could be descriptive writing and characterisation. Sentence two (But) could focus on balancing dialogue and action. Finally, you could focus on inner monologues with sentence three (So), which explores the impact of the events on the main character. Perhaps challenge could be added by asking children to swap with their partner and develop their three sentence story. I’m sure they’d be delighted to see where their initial ideas were taken by a peer, and this could help with collaboration and igniting those initial sparks of imagination.


Have the children write their three initial sentences on three different strips of paper. Then take in all of the Onces, all the Buts and all the Sos. Create a nonsense story by picking from each pile at random.

E.g. Once there was a lonely frog named Terrence. But the flamingos had made a deal with the alien overlords. So, everyone had ice-cream sandwiches.

My brother assures me that children love hearing their sentence appear, and that it encourages imaginative and well developed sentences. I’m really looking forward to using this in my literacy lessons. I’d be interested in how it goes for you if you choose to use it.

Knowing your subject.

I’m a year four teacher who studied philosophy for my undergraduate degree. Since then I gained a PGCE, and then a Masters in Education. I firmly believe that all children deserve to be taught a knowledge-rich curriculum with clearly defined content. Over the last few years I’ve worked hard to make this a reality in my school and have shared more widely how our profession might make it happen.

Teaching Apprenticeships have been in the news since the Secretary of State for Education, Justine Greening, announced this new route into teaching. Many commentators on education, including people who I really respect, have expressed serious misgivings about the proposal. In fact it’s stronger than this, most have dismissed the idea in principle, stating that teaching should remain a profession in which an undergraduate degree must remain a prerequisite for teacher training (BEds notwithstanding, which of course also allow teachers to train without already having a degree).

The principal complaint seems to be that being an excellent teacher involves deep subject knowledge, and that this is only possible by immersing yourself in your subject via an undergraduate degree. I would strongly agree with the former part of this complaint, but reject the latter proposition.

Why? Let me walk you through my day:

08.30-09.40 Reading

We’ll be continuing to read a simplified version of Romeo and Juliet, focussing on Mercutio’s death. I never studied Shakespeare at university. In fact, I didn’t even take English at A level, and so the last time I actively studied a Shakespeare play was in Year 11, when we read Hamlet.

09.40-10.35 Writing

We’re studying Macbeth and will be writing a newspaper article reporting King Duncan’s murder. See above.

11.00-12.00 Maths

We’re adding and subtracting four-digit numbers with regrouping. I did no maths at university. I did take it for AS level, but gave up before the course finished. I wouldn’t recognise an academic essay on maths if it crossed the road and punched me in the face.

13.00 History

We’re studying medieval monarchs, looking at the major kings and queens from 1066-1603. I did take a history A level, but never studied British monarchs (We focussed on the Second World War and the Russian Revolution). I somehow got through the whole of my school career never learning about any British monarchs, not even the Tudors.

14.00 French

Someone else takes my class for this, thank god.

14.30 Phonics Intervention

I hadn’t even head the word phonics until I was 25.

14.45 Story Time

I don’t remember being asked to read children’s novels out loud (including doing all the voices) at university.

15.15 Home time.

Perhaps it is different for primary. Perhaps the route is less appropriate for secondary teachers. But when I ran a poll on twitter to ask exactly this (which admittedly only had a few hundred responses) the majority felt that an apprenticeship would be inappropriate for either phase, with 10% saying primary only and 7% saying secondary only.

I don’t believe that the route would be more appropriate in primary because I don’t believe that strong subject knowledge is any less relevant. But I also believe that a large part of what makes a great teacher is a bunch of stuff other than subject knowledge, and I broadly believe that this stuff is best learnt in classrooms, watching experts, breaking down what they do and practising each of those parts.

Now some may argue that it was gaining my degree that has led to my attitude towards scholarly pursuit or the esteem that I hold the best that has been ‘thought and said’. But I don’t buy that. I went to university because I already valued learning and had a thirst for knowledge. In fact many folks I met at uni wished to disabuse me of such lofty notions and I was surprised at how little many read, and how uninterested most were when it came to seriously discussing our subject.

What it comes down to, for me, is two central questions.

1. Does gaining an undergraduate degree guarantee subject knowledge in your chosen specialism?


2. Is it possible for somebody to become an excellent teacher without possessing an undergraduate degree before starting their training?


Of course, the devil is in the detail and my enthusiasm towards the actual proposal will be proportional to the rigour and coherence of the programme of study set out for the prospective trainees. We don’t know what that will be, yet, and until we do I’ll remain open and receptive to the idea in principle.

All knowledge? What about skills?

This short explainer is taken from my new site primaryknowledgeorganisers.wordpress.com, and briefly sets out why I believe knowledge organisers are such powerful tools during curriculum planning and assessment.

All knowledge? What about the skills?

I have written extensively about Knowledge Organisers over the last year or so, and although the reaction to them has been mostly positive, there have been some criticisms. I address most of these in this FAQ blog post, but it’s worth quickly dealing with the most common here.

It is the criticism that knowledge is pointless without the ability to apply it. What we are really interested in is critical thinking, not mindlessly regurgitating an endless list of facts. So should a knowledge organiser really be what we are putting at the centre of our learning?

It’s a compelling criticism, and in a sense is correct in terms of its aim. Of course we all want children to be critical thinkers, and to be able to ask insightful questions about the topic that they are studying, and debate and reason and probe. But whilst we may all agree on the aim, there is debate about the journey that we must take to get there. Daisy Christodoulou, in Making Good Progress, categorises these different approaches in method as:

  1. Teaching Skills Directly – the generic-skill method
  2. Teaching Skills Indirectly – the deliberate-practice method

Drawing on empirical evidence from psychological experiments, Christodoulou argues convincingly that there is no such thing as a ‘generic skill’, and so trying to directly teach, say ‘critical thinking’ is a lost cause. You may be wonderful at thinking critically about, say, Baroque art, but that will help you not a jot if someone asks you to critically evaluate Presocratic schools of philosophical thought.

In fact, your success in either of these pursuits rests on your underlying knowledge of the respective domain. That is to say, the more that you know about Baroque art, the more critically you can think about it (and vice versa). So really, the skill of ‘critical thinking’ about a particular subject is just short-hand for describing how much you know about that subject.


With this in mind, the best chance that we have at ensuring children can achieve all of those aims that we agree are so important, is to fix within them a comprehensive foundation of facts about that subject. This will help develop a web of interconnected facts, or a schema, which will not only ensure that future learning about that subject is easier, but will allow the possessor to reason and evaluate and synthesise information about the topic.

Additionally, this web ensures that falsehoods (so important in these days of ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’) are less likely to be accepted, as they contradict the facts already within the web. For example, if you know the following two facts:

  1. Dinosaurs became extinct around 65 million years ago
  2. Homo sapiens emerged around 200,000 years ago

then the assertion “Dinosaurs and humans lived alongside one another” is easily dismissed and unlikely to set in as a misconception.

For these reasons, skills should not feature on a knowledge organiser, even if they are our ultimate aim when delivering a unit of work.

Comparative Judgement – Now What?

Over the last year we’ve had a lot of fun at Reach Academy using comparative judgement to gain a better picture of how our children in primary are attaining when it comes to writing.

Whereas previously primary school teachers have been tied to vague descriptors, which promote a check-list approach to teaching, comparative judgement has provided us with a much more valid assessment of how good each child’s piece of writing actually is. As we’ve begun to collaborate with other schools, we have also benefited from gaining a better picture of how are children are attaining compared to a wider sample, something that has always been problematic with writing in primary.

In this post I want to address our next step in the comparative judgement journey –  what I call the ‘Now what?’ problem. Yes, CJ is quicker. Yes, it’s more reliable. Yes, it gives you a more valid picture of children’s attainment. But once the children are ranked, and you have a standardised score showing you where each child is, what do you do with that information? How do you use it to actually help the children improve as writers?

Level descriptors, for all their flaws, seemed to offer a solution to this problem. You highlighted off the descriptors and the child’s next step would be whichever descriptor they hadn’t achieved. Of course, this was a nonsense, and led to contrived writing in which children shoe-horned front adverbials into their next piece of writing come what may, because that was on the target card stuck dutifully in the front of their book.

With CJ the next step isn’t so straightforward, but I’d argue that it allows for a more appropriate and nuanced approach to formative feedback. Whilst I’m tempted on some level to say that CJ’s primary purpose isn’t formative (it’s more of a ‘taking the temperature’, summative picture), I think that there are a few fairly quick and easy ways to provide children with rich and meaningful feedback.

I’d be very interested in colleagues’ suggestions for any other approaches that they have found to be successful. One of the most exciting things about CJ is that it’s being driven by teachers, for teachers. we have grabbed assessment by the scruff of the neck and ensured it gives us and our students what we and they need – a valid and reliable picture of where they are, and an appropriate set of next steps that will help children improve.

1. What makes this good?

Display the piece of writing that came out top of the pile at the end of the judgements. Remind the children of the original task, and explain that the teachers compared all of the pieces and agreed that this was the best. Then analyse the piece of writing together as a class, picking out the features that made is so successful. What elements do you think are effective. Why? Choose one of the features, and allow students to practice that element. For example, if you agree that rich description made it so good, then allow them to rewrite the sentence or paragraph in which they describe the setting or character.

For example:

“Let’s jot a quick list up of what makes this so effective. We’ve already talked about the rich description. Take some time to talk to your partner about what else makes it effective. You can annotate the text.”

2. Let the children compare. 

Provide the children with two pieces of writing, one good, one weaker. Ask them to vote on which they thought was judged to be the better piece. Ask the children to justify their decision. Sentence stems may help here:  In text A the writer _____, whereas in text B the writer ____.

For example: “Something that stands out straight away is that this story includes some dialogue between the characters, whereas the other piece doesn’t. Why is this better?’ Expected response: it makes you care more about the characters, and also brings them to life.

Then have the children edit and redraft the weaker piece of writing. Could they even get it to a place in which it reverses the judgement?

3. Involve parents

A “level 2b”, a “WTS” or an “emerging in age related expectations for composition” is pretty much meaningless when communicated to parents. However, providing parents with a range of children’s work can help them not only gain a picture of how ‘good’ their child’s writing is, but also of the sort of level of writing that is normal for their child’s age group. Sending home their child’s piece, with a piece that is slightly weaker and a piece that is slightly stronger will help them to have meaningful conversations with their child about their writing, and how they can further improve.

For example: “Here’s a recent example of your child’s writing. As you can see it has a lot going for it. Their verb selection in particular is very strong. Have a look at it compared to the other examples and try and identify how they could improve it further.”


P.s. If you’re new to comparative judgement, greater minds than mine have set out the nuts and the bolts, including some very practical how-to guides:








Knowing stuff is cool.

Does he write his own rhymes? Well sort of, I think ’em. That means I forgot better s*** than you ever thought of.

– Kanye West, Diamonds from Sierra Leone 


This is the second of four posts on knowledge organisers in primary education. The first post set out what they are and why I wanted to use them. This post very briefly addresses some general and specific objections that have arisen since I originally suggested their use. The third expands on these rebuttals, and clarifies what I take to be the purposes and limitations of a knowledge organisers drawing on research from education, psychology and cognitive science. The fourth post sets out exactly how the knowledge organiser was actually used in practice. The final post sets out my reflections on using a knowledge organiser and implications for further use (or abandonment).


Knowing Things is Cool

I used to cry a lot as a child, often in the middle of the night. Usually it was about not wanting to die, but I remember one occasion when I traipsed downstairs to my parents in a terrible state. When my blubbering had finally stopped, they were baffled by the cause of my meltdown – “I’m not going to know everything!” I loved knowing things and was convinced that one day, given enough schooling and learning, I would own all human knowledge.

That fateful night it struck me, after reading about remote Amazonian tribes, that even if I memorised all books ever written, there would remain some colloquial phrase in some far flung corner of the globe which I could never be aware of. It ruined me. I had to accept that ‘know-it-all’ would remain the touching nickname from my teachers and never become a bona fide, official title.

It’s with this, admittedly quirky and perhaps psychologically questionable, world view that I am slightly bemused when people question the value of knowing things. I think that knowing things is glorious and beautiful and makes the world sing. And so I think helping others to know things is the greatest gift of all, and why teaching is the most important and noble of professions. There is no nugget of data too small, trivial or inconsequential for me. On my good days, this is the face that I show to my students, whether they are 6th form, year six or age six. Helping children know more things is, for me, what school is all about.


Introducing Knowledge Organisers to Primary School

Recently, I wrote about using ‘knowledge organisers’ in primary schools. It gathered some interest, and some other teachers have even shared their own attempts at writing knowledge organisers for their primary classes. I was especially pleased that Michael Tidd, who is in my opinion the leading mind on primary education, took to private message to challenge me on some of the details of my own thinking, and debate the purpose of the resource. I’m pleased that he then set out his thoughts in this excellent blog.

There have since been several others who were taken enough by the idea to have blogged on the subject, notably Sue Cowley and Debra Kidd. The original idea, I should note, originates from the inimitable Joe Kirby and his blog sets out the rationale for the approach with far more lucidity than I could ever hope to aspire to.  Many people have been in touch over email and DM to politely (but with a satisfactory robustness) challenge my thinking or request clarifications. I started the initial blog by stating that it was early days and that I welcomed feedback, and I really meant it. My thinking on this is still in its infancy, and the friction from the resistance is ultimately, I hope, what will polish a diamond.

This blog aims to answer some of the questions and criticisms that have arisen since my original post. But it would be dishonest not to begin by stating, without apology or equivocation, that I believe knowing things is worth it just for the sake of knowing things. Knowing stuff is cool.


Objections to the Use of a Knowledge Organiser

I’ve listened carefully to the kind colleagues who have taken the time to challenge my thinking on this. The most common objections were the following:


  • Isn’t this just an MTP?
  • This looks incredibly dull.
  • That’s too many facts to learn.
  • Who gets to choose the knowledge?
  • What’s the point in learning specific dates?
  • Why don’t you get the children to ask questions first?
  • Children will forget most of this.
  • How will this fit into an enquiry curriculum?
  • Books are much better sources of knowledge.
  • This is just a list, it’s not ‘organised’ at all.
  • How will children learn what’s important if you just tell them?


(If I’ve missed any please feel free to add them in the comments, I’ll do my best to respond).


Here are my trigger finger responses to the objections:

Isn’t this just an MTP?

I wrote this before I wrote my MTP, which was heavily informed by it. My contention is that defining the knowledge that should be learnt by the end of the unit will have an impact on how lessons are then structured and sequenced.

This looks incredibly dull.

If it was the only thing presented in the lessons I’d agree with you. The content it represents is anything but dull, though, and once you’ve defined the content you can go about making learning memorable with all your teaching expertise.

That’s too many facts to learn.

I don’t think it is. Some children would learn all of this content even if I hadn’t made the knowledge organiser, and they’ll flourish as a result. My expectation of all children learning all of it is an expectation which will level the playing field. It will, however, require employing learning techniques like retrieval practice, which aren’t always features of lessons in primary.

Who gets to choose the knowledge?

The teacher, or other relevant subject expert. They have sifted enough information and have the requisite contextual knowledge to identify the salient facts which represent mastery of the topic.

What’s the point in learning specific dates?

Because I taught this in the context of a narrative to make it more exciting and memorable, and the dates help with the story. Also, the end of unit goal is to write an information text and great information texts are precise, detailed and accurate.

Why don’t you get the children to ask questions first?

Because they don’t know anything about the subject, and it would take ages for them to stumble across interesting or insightful questions. You can’t ponder why all of the astronauts were men if you don’t already know that all the astronauts were men. You can’t be curious about stuff you’re ignorant about.

Children will forget most of this.

That’s probably true, and that’s ok. There are a few items I’d want them to retain long term, but mostly just long enough to write their info text. I think the process of becoming a master of a topic for a particular purpose is very powerful, even if they go on to forget finer details.

Is that all they’re going to learn?

I certainly hope not, but it is a bare minimum. And since knowledge begets knowledge, I’d hope that nailing the KO would accelerate the learning of more stuff about the lunar landing.

How will this fit into an enquiry curriculum?

It almost certainly doesn’t; you can’t enquire about that which you don’t know about in the first place.

Don’t you lose the awe by reducing something so gripping to a list of facts?

You can lose the awe of any topic if you teach it badly. The facts in the KO, I believe, unlock the awe of this topic.

Books are much better sources of knowledge.

The two aren’t mutually exclusive, and mastering the content in the KO makes books more accessible. I have lots of wonderful non-fiction books which I’ll be using in this topic, and they’ll make so much more sense when the children know the key facts about the topic.

This is just a list, it’s not ‘organised’ at all.

I hadn’t even considered this, and immediately realised it was an accurate and damning challenge. Will inform future efforts.

Some children won’t want to learn about this.

Some children don’t like eating healthily or becoming numerate. It’s our job as adults who care about them to make them do it anyway.

How will children learn what’s important if you just tell them?

There is certainly a case for children to begin to rank importance of different knowledge items, but you can’t begin to do this before you know about the subject. Also, teachers understand which knowledge items will be necessary for future success in school, play and life.


What it is (and what it isn’t)

Some of this reveals what I take to be the purpose of the knowledge organiser. Or rather, purposes, as I believe that it has value in three distinct but related functions:


  1. As a planning tool for the teacher.
  2. As a resource for the child and parent.
  3. As an assessment tool.


I would have thought that it goes without saying, but the knowledge organiser is not a replacement for other planning documents. It isn’t the only thing they will ‘do’ in lessons. It doesn’t preclude the use of other resources. I don’t think that it even necessitates a particular ‘teaching style’ – you could probably do all of this through dance if you wanted to (although it would likely take much longer). The key is setting out what you want all children to learn (not just the ones who go home and learn it all regardless of what you do in lessons), and then holding yourself to account for that.

Using Knowledge Organisers in Primary

There is huge variation in the process of planning a unit of work in primary. This post is about how I’ve gone about planning a two (possibly three) week unit on the lunar landing for my year two class. A few people have asked recently about using knowledge organisers in primary and so I thought it worth exploring how I’m going about this. It’s still early days so I’d appreciate feedback.

We have a few guiding principles when planning at my school (Reach Academy, who are recruiting if the following seems like your bag).

First, we backwards plan. This means that we begin by considering what children will need to know and be able to do to lead lives of choice and opportunity; a clutch of fantastic GCSE and A Level results are synonymous with this vision. Second, our lessons are objective and content driven – we start with what we want the children to know and achieve first. Third, we consider the method and resources by which the content will be delivered, ensuring success for all. Fourth, we aim for learning to be joyful and highly motivating for children.

Some more context, at Reach we split literacy into reading and writing lessons, and hour for each. Our reading lessons are guided by the principles of Doug Lemov’s ‘Reading Reconsidered’ which means that we do whole class reading of challenging texts. Each week children read poetry, fiction, non fiction and ‘cold extracts’.

On average, children will read around 750 words a day in these lessons. We read aloud as a class, with the teacher ‘controlling the game’: all children read the text with a ruler and I call student names every sentence or two and they immediately begin reading. Last half term we read The Iron Man by Ted Hughes, The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe and a Times article on the shooting of Harambe the gorilla, amongst other texts.

In our writing sessions, we are guided by the storytelling approach, which encourages children to learn a story by heart before innovating based on that story and ultimately, inventing their own stories based on the theme. Over the next two or three weeks we will be writing an information text, based on the lunar landings. The children have already written stories after learning the story of The Man on the Moon by Simon Bartram, and have been learning about the Solar System in topic.

Writing information texts is hard, and something that children often find difficult. It is my contention that this is often because they know too little about the particular subject. Having a wealth of knowledge about the subject gives children a full cup from which to pour onto the page, and so I began by explicating the minimum of what I expect each child to know by the end of the unit (when they come to write their final draft).

Here is what the knowledge organiser looks like:

Screen Shot 2016-12-30 at 16.57.05.png

If children learn everything on this sheet, by heart, I believe that writing an information text about the moon landing will be a piece of cake. Rather than struggling to think what to write in the next sentence, it will be a case of simply selecting and organising the facts they have at their fingertips, before crafting them into well structured sentences. (Okay so not that simple, but crafting beautiful sentences is surely easier when children already have tons of content to communicate).

Early in the unit, I will also share a model exemplar, sometimes called a WAGOLL (what a good one looks like). It looks like this:

Screen Shot 2016-12-30 at 17.31.21.png

How will the knowledge organiser actually be used?

It’s my belief that assessment and curriculum are inextricably linked. Where I have taught poor units it is because I did not define at the outset exactly what I wanted the children to learn. This made assessment impossible. Writing a knowledge organiser helps me to throw down a gauntlet to myself: if any child in my class hasn’t learnt what’s on this sheet then I haven’t done my job. This also helps to organise my assessment tasks. Clearly, the eventual information text will act as a summative assessment task, but I will also weave more formative tasks throughout the unit.

Multiple choice quizzes will end every lesson, to help crystallise within children precisely what should be remembered from the lesson, as well as strengthening retrieval strength. Do Now tasks at the beginning of lessons will help children revisit these facts and apply them to sentence writing tasks (e.g. Use the term ‘Saturn V’ in a sentence including the subordinating conjunction ‘because’).

Finally, in case this seems like it is lacking in the ‘joy’ mentioned at the start of the post, once the content has been set, the method of delivery can be considered. With the knowledge organiser acting as magnetic north, I can be creative with pedagogy knowing that rigour will not be lost. So, for example, the opening lesson to this unit will feature Dan, a teacher and ex-actor from secondary, visiting our class in character as Neil Armstrong. The Commander will give a full ‘mission debrief’ to year two, whilst I collate the details on a flipchart sheet ready to be displayed for the rest of the unit.

Home Learning

This knowledge organiser will also be sent home to help parents understand exactly what our expectations are in terms of what children need to learn. This will help them to lead conversations with their children and explore other resources such as books and youtube videos of the lunar landing. Children, in my experience, absolutely love learning facts, and so armed with the knowledge organiser will be able to swot up at home ready to share their knowledge in lessons. Also I’ll tell them that they have to do this. By the end of it they will all know exactly what NASA stands for. Do you?


If you would like a copy of the knowledge organiser above, please click knowledge-organiser-apollo-11 to download one.