Spoiler alert! There’s no magic wand here, no trick or secret progress pill. A lot of hard work and a little bit of luck I suppose. Having written my first few blog posts a few months back, this seemed like another valuable opportunity to share what we did to provoke such a significant improvement in our KS2 reading score.
Context -The last year has been hugely challenging for all concerned with our school because of our KS2 results, combined 29%. As a result, our improvement partner on behalf of the trust performed MSG across the school to aid improvement. Furthermore, our results sparked interest from regional DfE inspections at two points during the year, specifically to focus upon KS2 data and the trust itself. It has been a stressful and traumatic year on a personal and professional level, but has also been a rather valuable one in the sense of reflecting, and forcing through change that has impact. I genuinely don’t want this post to sound arrogant or boastful, it’s just what we did to improve on last year’s results, and thankfully this year’s have been so much better! The final caveat is that our coyort this year are also very different in terms of academic profile and attitude, this shouldn’t be underestimated, children who genuinely have a desire to learn.
The story began this time last year, and surprise surprise, you won’t have seen a blog post about our 29% in reading, KS2 2016. I was gutted. The following analysis of data showed we have 6-7 pupils on 99 and 98 scaled scores, literally 1-2 marks off, which would have brought us up to high 40’s as a combined. By no means a success, But not terrible in the results climate last year.
After wallowing for a few weeks, I decided to put together an action plan about where we went wrong last year, and what I proposed we do to solve the problem. Again, none of these will really be revolutionary for most readers, but with a relentless and immersive approach, it has had a huge impact.
One of the biggest areas that stood out for me was that our children had such limited understanding of vocabulary, word meaning etc, which inhibited their ability to access questions, understand questions and more importantly answers questions. I unpicked why this was, and came up with, that the children were not readers, they didn’t love reading, they didn’t read regularly at home, parents didn’t read to them or value reading, they just were not exposed to words regularly enough. And the age appropriate and challenging texts that those type of words would be found within. My action plan was then developed massively around these key findings.
Analysis of SATs Question Types and Available Marks:
Nothing new here I suppose, lots of people on twitter breaking down where marks are available. We decided to prioritise retrieval and inference as key skills in reading. The reason being, that children could reach age related expectations by just being able to retrieve and infer. Some might argue that we are neglecting other areas, not giving them equal weight, but for me this was where we needed to spend our time and energy. Not spending endless lessons teaching to PEE or how to summarise. Yes we touched on these, but not much.
Whole Class Texts:
Writing has been taught from whole class, age appropriate texts that engage. Plenty of awesome teachers and professionals on twitter are regularly updating with the latest text that is great for primary use. These texts have been crucial in exposing the children on a daily basis to high quality language and vocabulary. We took every opportunity to stop and discuss words and phrases, why they were used, what they mean etc. So valuable. This was an attitude change for us as teachers. For example the texts we used were Room 13 by Robert Swindells, Friend or Foe by Michael Morpogo and Harry Potter by JK Rowling amoungst others. You can find a list of tweetchers on Twitter later in the blog who are great to follow in regards to reading.
Immersed in Vocabulary / Word of the Day – Discussion of Vocabulary and Working Walls:
Vocabulary has taken over my classroom this year, working walls that record vocabulary at every opportunity. It’s not everyone’s taste, it’s not pretty, but it’s worked. Improvement partners, trust leaders, HMI inspectors and visiting teachers/heads all commented positively on the immersive environment of vocabulary. A vocabulary prison! Ha, only kidding, it really worked. Why? It was there to reference at every moment, children could use it because we had discussed every word that went up, and there were hundreds! Again, this came back to our attitude changing to making conscious efforts to discuss, record and reference vocabulary at every moment of the day. The children couldn’t escape it (another prison reference).
I love my working walls, some heads will love a double or triple backed immaculate display which took 10-20 hours to produce and the children take no notice of. I think the question must be…what works? And what is a good use of time? What helps the children learn and what aids teaching? See the pics:
But, let me be super clear, just sharing a word of the day isn’t enough. It must be a daily diet of discourse and learning around vocabulary and etymology. A great place to start for free vocabulary daily resources is @VocabularyNinja on Twitter, who shares daily KS1 and KS2 WODs or Word of the Day.
This won’t be possible everywhere due to budget constraints, but wow! This has had a huge impact on not only the pupils, but myself as a practitioner! My deputy head has team taught literacy with me directly within the classroom, and taught the lower half of our class as an intervention group for maths. It’s been great. After SATs I actually felt a little lonely in the classroom! Being honest though, I feel that the only way this can have the impact, is if both teachers have a high level of subject knowledge and ‘bounce off each other.’ We both picked each other up on little nuggets we missed in teaching, made it fun and we’re excited about the teaching together in front of the children, especially with vocabulary and grammar. The majority of our SPaG was taught through our writing and vocabulary discussion with more discrete lessons closer to SATs, so teaching it in context and referring to the working wall constantly.
Nicky (the deputy), was amazing, making her available to pick up misconceptions on an afternoon also had a huge impact. After lessons we discussed who needed what, and then she acted on it that afternoon. High impact, but again, her high skill level and subject knowledge was the key aspect for me. I must praise our head @MrsHeadteacher for believing in us, to put into action what we thought would have high impact.
Another valuable aspect to the teaching was the fact that the children saw that we didn’t know everything, we often made mistakes, laughed about them and explored our misconceptions with the class. Again, if we didn’t have a proactive relationship, ‘bouncing of each other,’ then the team teaching would not have worked.
Maths wise, splitting the children into two groups allowed me to work at a more intense pace and depth with the higher ability pupils, whilst Nicky consolidated subject knowledge and skill with the middle and lower pupils. Our lower ability pupils made outstanding progress in maths, as well as attaining at ARE.
Once again, this won’t surprise many head teachers, but high quality and consistent teaching and learning = progress and skilled pupils. Which links perfectly to my next point, subject knowledge of staff.
I always thought my subject knowledge was pretty good, with the admission that it could be better. This year I have seen the impact of taking personal and professional responsibility, accountability and pride in increasing my subject knowledge! It’s crucial. I’m now on a journey of moving into an assistant head in a new school, my first leadership position. Staff subject knowledge is going to be one of the key areas I hope to promote, as a way to improve progress and attainment. Twitter has been a huge factor in exposing myself to excellent and motivating practictioners. Word of warning, be selective on who you follow, don’t always believe the hype or negativity that can be found, teaching is tough, but some of these guys genuinely love what they do. Some of the professional dialogue and PD that can be accessed for free is amazing. For example @PrimaryRocks on a Monday at 8pm, discuss a whole host of primary education issues. It’s great. Check out the following accounts for daily inspiration.
@PaulWat5 – The Great British Bookworm, a regular blog about children’s books, twitter active discourse!
@PrimaryRocks1 – #primaryrocks – Essential for primary discussion, use the hashtag #primaryrocks
@Mr_P_Hillips – blogger, twitter teacher, mad about vocabulary and reading! Including professional development and improving teacher practice.
@MrBoothY6 – great Y6 twitter account, passionate about reading and all aspects of primary.
@SwimminginMaths – Mr Keegan! A terrific maths practitioner, a must for reasoning in my eyes! #deepdive
@thatboycanteach – primary teaching account, lead practitioner within MAT, great content.
I guess I have chosen these accounts specifically because they don’t really come with any other agenda than developing educational practice and inspiring others. Accessing these accounts will expose you to all the other active accounts of positive and inspiring primary educationalists such as Tim Roach, Mr P ICT, Michael Tidd, Chris Dyson, Parky Teaches, Rhoda Wilson, Simon Smith, Deputy Mitchell, Jane Considine and so on. Apologies if not named. Again make your own mind up, these are some of the guys I currently read a lot of, I’m sure there are some other exciting accounts that I just haven’t stumbled across yet.
Retrieval and Inference Focus / Key Reading Skills:
I know that I touched on this point earlier, but understanding how the reading paper is structured was really important, where are the marks!? We made a big decision to focus a lot of our time on retrieval and inference, specifically how to do it, a set of skills to help the children retrieve information and independently. Remember, you could pass the test last year by just answering all the retrieval and inference questions, and that seems the case this year.
We actively neglected PEE and the typical large amount of time spent addressing 3 mark questions. It turned out there was only 1-2 of those type of questions.
We trained the pupils on how to answer in line with the mark scheme, the children don’t need to write extensive answers, even on the 3 mark questions, they can get away with using bullet points to demonstrate what they are trying to say for longer questions. We trained pupils to answer in a single word, brief answers that get straight to the point, which also saves time. They became really effective at this. The mark shares were often in most questions looking for 1 word answers even when a full line was given to answer on.
For retrival we trained the children to identify a key word in the question that they could quickly locate in the text to find the answer. Skimming for a key word was a very effective strategy. So, for example a question may have asked:
“Which type of tree was the cat stuck up?” The children would have identified tree as a key word, and then scanned the text. The additional skill was children realising the text might not directly say tree, but oak or willow, or some form of synonym. This was a higher level of retrieval and why discussing vocabulary on a daily basis is so valuable.
Teaching the children to read around a key word once they had found it. So looking at the sentences before and after to to develop understanding.
Lots of games on getting the eyes moving helped with this, putting a TV Times on the whiteboard and asking them to find programmes or times, even a big Where’s Wally? And hidden word images, see below. Getting the children scanning.
Another tip was to not pre-read a non-fiction text, these type of texts have lots of signposts such as images or sub heading to aid the scanning of the text. Another huge time saver, every time we did a reading paper or comprehension, we asked the children about the genre and asked them to make a decision about whether or not they needed to pre-read it.
We also had these skills posted on our working wall, I alsways made a conscious effort to direct my teaching from this point of the classroom. When SATs arrived our lower ability pupils used the classroom, we practiced in the days before, visualising where the prompts in the classroom were, then took them down. It was great fun, the children could tell you what used to be there, the content and learning tips! #visualisation.
Systematic Test Practice:
Nothing ground breaking here, but we hadn’t done this this year before. Termly or half termly SATs practice weeks. Releasing the adults that will be working directly with children, in the same room, at the same table, in the same order, on the same days. This again only works if the whole school is supporting each other. Yes, it means releasing TAs and teachers, yes the other children in school need them, but those children will get the same perks when they reach Year 6. It has to be done. This means knowing your pupils, who gets what time, who they work well with etc. and planning early for SATs week.
On a micro-level, we also ensured that reading skills and opportunities to test even 3-4 questions were daily. Sometimes every morning and afternoon.
It also dawned on us that lots of our reading practice was in a guided session with verbal answers. The children were not used to writing the answers! So simple and obvious. So we made sure every reading task was in a written format, yes we discussed aspects of the question and text, but the children must write their answers because that’s what they have to do in the test. We even developed this in maths, where answers became writing, explaining, getting down on paper their thoughts and ideas in a clear manner.
It’s actually great to spend the time actively thinking about what we did systematically and pedagocically to bring about the changes that we did. As I said at the beginning, there was no magic pill here in the sense that it didn’t just happen. We had to have frank and honest look at ourselves and decide where we needed to improve, and take action.
Don’t get me wrong, the children really performed on the day, and some might say that improvement from 29% was inevitable to a certain extent. But, either way the improvement was significant, and we did do a lot of things differently this year to last. It’s hard to say what impact all that we did actually had, and I believe it’s a combination of all the parts that has made the whole.
It has most certainly been a reading journey in every sense, for everyone involved in this year’s success. Hopefully by recording how we went about change in this blog, it might somehow help others do the same, who are now where I was this time last year.
Good luck with your reading journey, whether it’s wholesale changes or just tweaking a few aspects! It’s a great journey to be on.