Month: September 2014

Extended writing in primary school.

Rob Smith (@redgierob) – to whom I am forever grateful as his Literacy Shed has provided me with countless stimuli in English lessons – posed an interesting question on twitter this morning: how often do KS2 children write more than a paragraph?

I teach year 6, and for me the answer is probably only two or three times a week.

Some on twitter were advocating at least three extended writes per week. I have concerns about this, which I’ll explore below. But first it’s worth laying out how English lessons work in a week for me. It’s usually four lessons a week (sometimes 5) and this formula results in pretty successful writing from all children in the class.

Here’s what a unit of work (one week) looks like in English for me:

Lesson One: Introduce stimulus and genre.

(Stimulus may be a story or a video; genre may be diary entry or narrative). This lesson will be mostly direct instruction, smattered with partner talk. I’ll draw out key events and make explicit the features necessary to write the genre usually by displaying a model exemplar of the given text. Together we’ll draw out a ‘toolkit’ (essential features) which will later become the ‘success criteria’ for the extended write. The toolkit gets written on flip-chart paper and goes on the literacy wall all week.

Lesson Two: Talk for Writing.

The children will have an opportunity to explore the stimulus and genre through talking activities/games/drama. More open ended questions will be provided to allow them to engage with the stimulus at greater depth than in Lesson One.

Lesson Three: Planning

I use the ‘boxing it up’ framework and this lesson will also usually refer to a literacy skill (e.g. using embedded clauses/subheadings/inverted commas). I’ll explain that the extended write tomorrow will be an opportunity to apply this skill. The boxing it up sheet is their plan for the write tomorrow, and they can jot down their notes more or less as they please.

Lesson Four: Extended Write (sometimes called big writing).

Revisit toolkit and plans. Perhaps share a model exemplar. Then children write, independently for 45 mins – 1 hour. I’ll support one group of children to focus on their targets.

The extended writes will then be marked against the success criteria which are essential (e.g diary entry writing in first person; exploring thoughts and feelings; recounting the day’s events chronologically). Children will receive a green LO if they have met these criteria, which is achievable for ALL children. Personal challenge will be built in based on whether they have incorporated personal next step targets (e.g. embedded clauses/using brackets). During marking a further ‘next step’ will be added as a wish for the next time they write this genre.


This means one extended piece of writing a week, which I will usually take home and mark over the weekend. Children would also write more than a paragraph in a topic lesson (though not every topic lesson) and during one guided reading carousel session per week.

This may seem like very little opportunity for the children to write longer pieces. I have two concerns with children writing for more than a paragraph regularly though:

Concern 1 – Quantity over Quality 

I can tell my children that I expect sustained, quality, independent writing during the extended writing session because I know that I have given them three lessons of preparation. They have done all of the ‘thinking’ required and so can get on and write drawing from the different material available to them. They don’t have to spend time thinking ‘Should I use subheadings in this non-chron report?’ We’ve already had that conversation.

If you ask for long pieces without that build-up, I tend to find that I get very poor, unfocussed work. This is hardly surprising, they haven’t had a chance to organise what they are going to write. Professional authors (with a few very notable exceptions like Kerouac) don’t simply take out a blank sheet of paper and start writing, why should we expect 10 year olds to?

Concern 2 – Marking Workload

It takes me about 5 minutes to read and mark a year 6 extended write. And that’s if I’m in coffee-fuelled machine mode. One extended write a week equals about 2 and a half hours (without breaks). So that’s 2 and a half hours of marking, on top of their maths, literacy skills, guided reading, topic, and anything else that you did. If you do three or four extended writes a week, that is at 7.5 hours of marking, on top of marking for all other subjects. This is not sustainable if you want a healthy state of mind or any kind of a life outside of work. This precludes you from doing anything in the evening; spending time with your family, going for a drink with an old friend, catching up on TV, reading your book, whatever. These are things that you should be allowed/able to do in your evenings. People in other jobs are allowed to do these things in the evening.

I empathise with Rob’s arguments, and believe that he is truly doing what is best for his children. They are very lucky to have someone so dedicated. But the problem is if we continue, as teachers, to work for hours and hours outside of the 8-6 working day, this becomes the expected norm.

We have to find a way to get the job done without working 60-70 hours per week.

Training, teaching and learning.

Tim Taylor (@imagineinquiry) epitomises everything that is Good about twitter. He is supportive and encouraging. He respectfully challenges and probes ideas, strategies and positions. He is equally gracious in being challenged with his own beliefs, which are always well thought out. He always has the best interests of children at the centre of everything that he thinks about and as the litmus test for where he nails his flag.

Here, he wrote about training children. I disagree with Tim on this, although I think that it raises some interesting questions and reveals some of the underlying objections to some techniques which have recently risen to prominence on account of being employed by schools who achieve remarkable results in schools which have ‘challenging’ intakes and in areas which have traditionally performed poorly.

I commented briefly as to why I think that training children, even in the manner that Tim describes and objects to, is not only permissible, but desirable.

I should also declare that I have recently started employing the technique under scrutiny in Tim’s post – tracking. This is not, however, an emphatic endorsement of that particular technique. Strategies such as tracking are very much context-dependent. The personality of the teacher, the age/maturity/ability of the class, the environment, the task, the content being delivered, heck, even the day of the week (Healy, 2014), all contribute to a rich and varied context in which tracking may be more or less necessary or effective. Since I am a primary teacher, I’m going to mainly approach this topic from my experience as such.

Some initial and uncritical thoughts on training.

Here are some things that I’ve heard said in staffrooms fairly often, especially at the start of term.

  • The starts of lessons take an age, they don’t even know how to draw a margin.
  • Have you been in her class? It’s amazing, the children are so well trained.
  • I’m pretty lucky, the kids already know how to line up perfectly, there’s no fuss for assemblies.
  • Lessons are a little clumsy at the moment, but I’m still training them.
  • Go and observe transitions in Mrs Delaney’s class, it takes less than a minute from English to Maths.
  • The LA are in next week to observe, but I’m still training the children!

All of these, whether they explicitly refer to it or not, are about children being trained. This is not stuff that we would normally call learning, they are the things that have to happen for learning to take place. The better the children are trained, the more effective learning can be. The strong foundations necessary for all of the stuff that we care about giving children (e.g. becoming literate). It’s also the stuff that we tend to hide. We wouldn’t train children during an observation, but reap the benefits of being congratulated on children being well trained.

Some things are more or less consistent across all classrooms in the country. Children should be trained to start a lesson by taking out their book (or maybe one or two (trained) children collect books from the teacher and hand them out), before writing the date and the learning objective. Then they may put down their pencil and sit with their arms folded to show the teacher that they are “ready for learning”.

Other routines are dependent on a particular school or teacher. In Maths, for example, I have trained my children to take a ‘5 a day’ sheet from my desk when they enter and begin work on it as soon as they have written the date and LO.

Some routines are only loosely linked to learning (lining up in a particular order), where as children can also be trained to do certain things that really help their learning (I’ve trained mine to use talking frames during class discussions, and to finish by calling another child’s name and saying “Patrick, I’m interested in what you have to say on this topic…”).

I found out the hard way during my first year of teaching that unless these techniques are taught early and taught explicitly learning takes much, much longer. I think that, deep down, I wasn’t training them because I wanted to be cool, and liked, and to show them that I was treating them as adults. I wanted them to think of me as fun and to have a relaxed environment. Foundations of sand…

Ironically, I found that those ideals can only really be achieved by training the children first. I visited another teacher’s classroom for an observation and left feeling horribly inadequate. The children were polite and engaged, and talked to each other using fully formed English. They settled down to their tasks quickly. Each child in a group had a specific role which they took seriously and undertook with aplomb. If they needed a piece of extra equipment, they sensibly stood up and walked to the appropriate drawer to collect it before sitting back down and carrying on with their work.

As a new teacher, I struggled to believe what I was seeing. I chatted with the teacher later and said “My classroom will never be that good. How do you do it?”

Her reply: “Jon, what you didn’t see is that I’ve spent a long time training them. And I had a head-start, their last teacher was really good at training them too.”

I returned to my class and despaired when only one child had glued their work into their book correctly. The rest was a mixture of piling on half an inch of pritt-stick, or waving the glue over the sheet and pressing it down hoping that static would do the job, or gluing it over the edge of the book, or over the fold in the middle (and often a combination of these). The chasm between my kids and her kids was wider than the Grand Canyon. But I remembered what she said. “I trained them.”

I stopped everything. I had the children sit down and gave them a sheet of A4 paper. “Copy me,” I said. They could see that I was a man on the edge and dutifully followed my lead, “Step one, match up the corners and fold it in half. Step two, turn the pritt-stick so that about 2mm is showing over the edge. No more and no less. Step three, run the pritt-stick around the edges and then make a cross in the middle. Step four, hold the folded sheet over your book, making sure that it doesn’t overhang or go across the fold. Now lay it down and gently wipe your hand over it.”

Half of the sheets were glued in upside down. But it was a start dammit.

I had to stop and explicitly have them stick work in for a week or two before they could do it without being shown. Goodness knows how much teaching time was saved after (and wasted before) that day.

Older Children and Secondary School

This year I’m teaching older children. Year sixes. Most of that sort of training is well fixed, and I’m thankful to the previous teachers for taking the time to get them there. It doesn’t happen by magic or accident.

So I can focus on ‘higher order’ training. Training children to always thank each other for their contributions. Training children to congratulate each other for working hard or being kind. Training children to always answer in a full sentence.

Perhaps you object that this is not training, it is teaching. I’m not entirely sure of the difference. A more critical inquiry would require one to first define training and then define learning. Anyone involved in education knows that trying to do the latter is a fool’s game. But if training is repeating something to get better at it, then it doesn’t really matter whether it is times tables (learning?) or gluing in sheets of A4 (training/skill?).

What we’re interested in, I suppose, is ‘academic’ learning. I think that training is a) necessary for that to take place, for the reasons that I gave above; and b) desirable, because we have a duty to ensure children learn as much as they possibly can whilst in our care.

Yes, maybe some learning would take place without the training that I described, but only a little. We are selling them short and wasting the short amount of time that we have with them in school if we don’t use the most effective methods to help children learn.

Secondary teachers (justifiably) would be apoplectic if they had to spend time training children to write the date at the start of the lesson. They often complain when they receive Year Sevens unable to do this, as they can’t get on with the business of learning. (In fact, I think that often the Year Sevens may well know full well what to do, but have a go at doing the bare minimum, aware of the reputation of being the new kids at big school). The secondary teachers that I’ve met who have observed Year Six classes in situ have always been astounded at how high the expectations are and how quickly they get on with the sorts of tasks/routines that they’re still battling with around christmas. This is, I think, a strong argument in favour of all-through schools.

So I think that training can be learning in it’s own right. You, upon leaving education, would be expected to stick a sheet of paper into a book without assistance, even though it’s not something on the tests.

I think that the fact that people feel uncomfortable with tracking is because it is relatively novel and alien to what they had to do at school. So it’s weird and therefore wrong. This, I think, is also the case with clicking.

Imagine an Inuit* were to come into your classroom as a child finishes performing a poem. The rest of the class erupt into applause, perhaps led by you.

“What are they doing?” the Inuit exclaims.

“Clapping,” you reply.

“Clapping?! Like Seals? Why on earth do they do that?”

“We train them to do it if someone does something praise-worthy.”

“Sounds like indoctrination to me. And what about the deaf children…”

Clapping is weird, but it’s a social norm and we attach value to it. We have to train children how to do it. It has the benefit of helping learning and cooperation and esteem. Another technique, like waving your hands silently in the air, would do the job just as well.

Tracking is less weird, it’s pretty customary to hold eye contact with someone when they speak to you, especially if they are telling you something important. Maybe adults do this less often, they take notes during lectures or tweet during conferences. But they are expert listeners and have become highly skilled processing information whilst undertaking additional cognitive tasks. Children haven’t, and we don’t need to consult Willingham to understand that it’s not helpful to treat novices as experts. For children, I find that insisting upon tracking has a number of benefits whilst I’m teaching. It allows me to pick up on small frowns from children, which may indicate they found something that I said difficult to process. They may nod along. I think the simple act of sitting up straight and watching me helps them to focus and stay engaged. Most importantly, perhaps, it communicates high expectations of all children. Everyone needs to listen and engage. Not just your ‘higher ability’, whilst the usual suspects keep their heads down and wait for playtime. I could go on, these are the first few that spring to mind.

But I’m sure that other teachers would find that this technique doesn’t work for them, or their class. That’s fine. I’m just utterly baffled by this idea that clicking or tracking have something intrinsically evil or insidious about them. And I think that we’re spending far too much time talking about them when there are much bigger fish to fry.

So now I’ll stop.

*I chose an Inuit on the basis that I head that they wave instead of clap. I don’t know whether or not this is actually true.

Resolving Sophie’s Choice: #rED14

If you’re anything like me, three things are happening:

1. You have the ResearchEd 2014 schedule laid out in front of you, utterly paralysed by the choice.
2. Despite the gravity of the problem that faces you, you’re as giddy as an infant on Christmas Eve. The cocktail of emotions only further excites you.
3. Your girlfriend is sighing and shaking her head, whilst browsing through ex-boyfriends’ Facebook pages wondering what the hell happened.

Fear not!

I’ve developed a fool-proof – no, it’s better than that – teacher-proof system to make the most effective choices of who to see at this year’s hottest educational conference.

Step 1: Take a row in which you are having difficulty deciding who to see (all of the rows).

Step 2: Score each speaker(s) based on the criteria below

Step 3: Take a big black marker and circle the speaker who scores most highly, confident in the fact that you’ve beat the system and have won the conference.

Step 4 (optional): Revel in the smug satisfaction that other delegates will hopelessly flounder around the coffee area before streaming into the room in which the flow seems to be greatest. You gotta have a system man.


1. The speaker is of high influence and a key decision maker (+3 points).
2. You have mentioned the speaker in conversation to a friend/colleague in the last month (+2 and then +1 for each individual mention).
3. The session is on a topic with which you are unfamiliar (+1).
4. The session is being filmed (-4).
5. You have a question that you would like to ask the speaker (+2).
6. You know the speaker personally (+1).
7. You know be speaker so well that they are likely to ask you if you enjoyed their session (+3).
8. The content of the session is likely to be reproduced, more or less in its entirety, in a blog (-3).
9. The speaker had promised to give out some sort of confectionary (+2).
10. The session is directly relevant to your specific job/role (+3).

You joy of this exercise, of course, is that you can’t lose.

See you tomorrow!