Teachers: Show your working. @learningspy at #TFSI2014

Usually at education conferences, I find that there are two sorts of sessions.

The first kind is the really practical sort of session; you leave with some new skills and/or knowledge which you can put in place in your classroom to help make you a better, or more efficient, teacher.

The second kind (and these are usually the sort that attract me) are the paradigm-busters. These sessions take a thing that we believe, grab it by the scruff of its neck and give it a Jack Bauer level of interrogation.

I’ve long been a fan of David Didau’s website because I found his writing does the latter. I was most pleasantly surprised, however, after attending his session at Teach First’s Impact Conference, that what Didau teaches also does LOADS of the former. I attended two different sessions run by Didau, the first on literacy and the second on grading lessons and Ofsted. This post is about the first session.

Enlightened Competence

We were treated to a tour de force of Didau’s accumulated wisdom on how we can best help children to use English in a manner that will ensure them the opportunity to be academically successful. Didau’s slogan, “making the implicit, explicit” challenged audience members to examine exactly what they do when they engage in the written word.

This reminded me of Maslow’s model of competence, which begins with unconscious incompetence, followed by conscious incompetence (the uncomfortable stage that I found myself in for most of my first year of teaching), then conscious competence, before we finally get to a stage of unconscious competence.

The model has since been expanded to include a fifth stage, which usually refers to a sort of reflective awareness of the unconscious competence, or a seemingly paradoxical ‘conscious competence of unconscious competence’. Lorgene A Mata calls this stage “enlightened competence”. If you will excuse the long quotation, he explains it thus:

In other words, he comprehends fully and accurately the what, when, how and why of his own skill and possibly those of others on the same skill he has. In addition to this, he is able to transcend and reflect on the physical skill itself and be able to improve on how it is acquired and learned at even greater efficiency with lower energy investment. Having fully understood all necessary steps and components of the skill to be learned and the manner how they are dynamically integrated to produce the desired level of overall competence, he is thereby able to teach the skill to others in a manner that is effective and expedient. (Mata, 2004. Emphasis added.)

As teachers, we are lucky enough to sit in the fourth stage when it comes to literacy. Didau’s session, however, was aimed at moving us all into the fifth stage, so that we were able to explicitly teach our children the specific mechanisms, tricks, steps and components of engaging with and producing high quality, academic texts. In short, revealing to our students the secrets of our literacy (the Secret of Literacy…geddit?)


A stark illustration of the implicit work that we do was provided when Didau flashed a piece of writing on the screen. It was only around 50 words long.

“Where is it from?” He asked after a few seconds.

Audience: “A newspaper”

“What kind?”

“A tabloid.”

“Which tabloid?”

“The Sun.”

“Correct…How did you know?”

This caused us to reflect. We started to move into that fifth cycle. The initial response of “Well, you know, you just sort of know. It’s that style,” wasn’t satisfactory. That isn’t going to help students. We started to discuss all of the clues. The age in brackets. The phrase ‘mum in a million’ (Didau correctly observed that there exists only two classification of mums in the Sun’s ontology: ‘mum-in-a-million’ or ‘evil-mum’). These are the tricks we use without thinking, those that give us the illusion of effortlessness. What we need to do is smash that illusion by explaining exactly what we do so instinctively.

We were then tested on our skimming and scanning skills. The audience of new teachers were, unsurprisingly,  remarkably good at extracting specific information from large pieces of text very quickly. The question that was being posed was “How did you do that?” Certainly we didn’t read he whole text. So what did we do?

As a primary school teacher, it is my job to teach my children these skills in a more explicit fashion than perhaps is expected of secondary school teachers. A good trick for skimming texts, I offered, is to read the first and final sentences. If the text is well written, these should summarise what the whole text is about.

Many, many children, however, are clearly making it to secondary school without these tricks, and this is another factor that leads to the ‘Matthew Effect’, the tendency of the word-rich becoming word-richer and word-poor becoming word-poorer (Didau explains further here).


Mature writing’s critical dependence on mature speech was presented with the following axiom: If you can’t say it, you can’t write it.*

A wonderful strategy provided by Didau to address this was to give children ‘talking frames’. Often, teachers (and especially English teachers) give children writing frames (or perhaps lists of connectives) to try and help develop maturity of writing. However, if children have not first used this language in conversation, it is unlikely that they will implement them easily/appropriately during writing. Furthermore, children can become dependent on these frames, and they are a scaffold that is difficult to remove.

So the solution is to turn the ‘writing frames’ into ‘talking frames’. Something like “Although the author says…there may be a hidden meaning:…” give children a chance to structure their responses to questions in class. This ingrains and normalises academic language which then bleeds into the children’s writing.

Since reading this post I have used talking frames in my classroom (I teach year 3) and they have proved to be incredibly successful. The children love using them, because the difference in quality of answer is so spectacular. They can hear themselves sounding clever, mature, like high school kids. Now, a student always begins speaking with some sort of variation on “I thought that you made a good point, but I’m afraid I disagree because…” or “I think that Godwin is correct, and I’d like to develop his answer…”

I have the luxury of teaching my children all day every day, and so can demand these standards of talk in whatever we are doing. However, Didau’s contention in his session at the conference was that “All teachers in English are teachers of English”.

I was sat next to a science teacher, who admitted part way through the session that a) she had never thought that she was really responsible for the children’s writing skills, and b) she had never thought that demanding higher levels of literacy would have an impact on their science.

By about halfway through the session, though, she had changed her mind. What was delightful, however, is that she did so with a huge sense of optimism.

Two Concluding Thoughts

Although this session was nominally concerning literacy, teachers of all subjects (and phases) found it incredibly useful. This can be attributed, I think, to the fact that we were forced to reflect on our unconscious competence, and as such were given a sort of meta-tool to add to our teaching arsenal.

Secondly, the session made me think a lot about the primary/secondary divide. As mentioned earlier, a lot of what Didau was pleading for teachers to do was what I considered to be the bread and butter of primary school teachers. Indeed, the APP Assessment Focuses 2 and 3 for reading state that students should “Understand, describe, select or retrieve information, events or ideas from texts and use quotation and reference to text,” and “deduce, infer or interpret information, events or ideas from texts”, respectively.

Since most primary schools have some form of daily ‘guided reading’ session, we are able to work on these skills with children regularly and really dig in to what they mean. It struck me, however, that whilst the AFs describe what the children should do, they do not explain how. Didau’s techniques remind of the importance of the latter.

And finally, it is far easier to nail this in primary, I think. It may seem to some to be premature to demand such academic language of children at this stage, but it seems to me that if it is fixed at an early level, we can combat the Matthew Effect most effectively. We are afforded, too, a real enthusiasm from the students to do so. I was lucky enough to have a chat with Didau after the session, who asked me about how my kids have found using talking frames. He told me that he’d had a bit of a battle getting his students to use them. “Oh, no. My kids absolutely love it.” I replied.

Let’s not squander that enthusiasm.



*Certain speech disabilities, and so on, notwithstanding.



  1. Do you really have a pupil called Godwin?

    Seriously, though, it’s really only as a PGCE tutor that I’ve started thinking harder about what it is we ought to be doing in science teaching to help the less literate produce the kind of answers the more literate struggle but succeed with. Partly it is about subject knowledge, partly it’s about knowing keywords well enough to use them correctly; these are the two things I would have been working on up to the point I stopped teaching children. But what David, and others, are talking about is a new and quite inspiring approach, but one that I think many secondary science teachers will have to work on pretty hard because it doesn’t feel natural. Our trainees do a day of cross-curricular training on literacy and then we do a day with the science trainees (it ought to be more but there is so little time). I think these ideas are something I want to incorporate next year, although it will be a touch of the partially-sighted leading the blind. The fantastic thing about working with trainees though is that you point them in the right direction and often they fly with it, even if it’s not your own strength. I follow David’s blog but sometimes an additional perspective just makes something stand out – thanks.

    1. “Partially sighted leading the blind”, I’m sure that this isn’t true. The fact that you are engaging with these ideas shows that you place a huge premium on high standards of literacy regardless of the ‘home’ subject.

      As you mention, the joy with these ideas is that after the basic principles are understood classroom teachers of all ilks can adapt and develop them to suit their own style. DD does give lots of easy to implement strategies (such as slow writing, which I’ll be starting in September with my year sixes) but the key is simply explicitly modelling how to engage with texts at an academic level, and demonstrating the sort of language that you expect from them.

      Thanks for reading and your comment. Best of luck with the PGCE next year, your students are very lucky!

    2. Oh, and I would never, of course, use the name of a current or past student. First one that sprang to mind for some reason – I’m sure that psychoanalysts would have a field day with that!

  2. Speaking from an upper KS2 perspective, one way to set bar high for classroom language/academic register in primary classroom is to to use visuals (preferably well chosen art/photos/stills) in early reading/English lessons -ideally whole class discussions (it is worth the early allocation of precious timetable slots). This is not in place of reading, but it does allow you to get to work on promoting high quality talk as you get to properly know individual decoding/comprehension abilities. It also allows you to identify the depth and breadth of analytical and expressive skills across the board. It can be very liberating for a child that has trouble formally recording but has good insight to be able to show off their wisdom so early on.

    I wouldn’t necessarily use frames in the first few days (for the sake of formative assessments) but I would reframe/supplement the dialogue, help children to summarise, provide synonyms, encourage them to clarify and to avoid poor analogy. I would also provide them with better ways to express half-formed ideas or to use the general or specific where appropriate . Basically establishing a non-negotiable high bar for academic talk.

    It’s a good idea to get the children to start with the obvious ( insisting they identify anything that makes up the main subject -they often assume you want the trickier stuff) and you can help them see that this is akin to work on literal retrieval in reading. Then start drawing out the inferences from the image – hence the need for it to be well-chosen – squeezing it for every last drop of commentary. Summarise their points of view and then encourage others to challenge it or identify alternative takes. It also helps the children to see early on that there is nothing to be feared here in challenging and being challenged -so long as we chose our words carefully enough.

    Throughout all of this work, I’d make clear to all that in class we have a particular way of speaking when we are discussing ideas, new knowledge, dilemmas, plans, feelings, thoughts, our own and others’ work; this is our classroom register and we will be pushing ourselves hard to express ourselves clearly and even expertly at times. Continuous work to help them organise their ideas will promote the use of conjunctions and adverbials in particular, the development of which can be supported by frames and displays throughout the year. The more it is practised through speaking, the more it transfers to the writing (with the odd nudge) and it does provide a real sense of maturity and accomplishment as you say.

    This probably sounds terribly formal, but that’s very far from the reality if you are properly equipping children with the skills and language to adapt register to suit the staggering array of contexts that primary teaching can throw at you. I honestly think that genuinely prioritising talk in the first week back was the single best adaptation to my teaching that I ever made. Certainly a timely blog – great to have this in mind in readiness for September. Sorry to go on!

    1. Thanks for your comments, I agreed with every word.

      My class discussion usually begin with some sort of stimulus, which could be the text that we are studying, but could also be a picture, a question (If you don’t get caught and nobody gets hurt, is it still wrong?” a video, or whatever else.

      As you say, the important thing is demanding a high bar for discussion using academic English. You’re right to point out that this doesn’t necessarily have to be from text.

      Thanks again.


  3. Thanks for the blog. As I say, a timely reminder. With a bank of 12 spoken language statements applied universally to KS1/2 in the new NC, we have to ensure that the role of high quality talk to underpin reading and writing, and in its own right, is fiercely promoted. Thanks again.

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