Saturday 4 November 2023

The unintentional impact of my 'class decodable texts'

If you have been following my blogs, you'll know that most of the work I have been doing this year, spring boarded from the learning that is summarised on this post from January.

There's still a problem with structured literacy

Just one snippet of my literacy approach this year has been based around the class texts that I have been writing, with the inspiration of the children.  I have listened in to their conversations, eavesdropped into their play and been inspired.

I've posted about these on my facebook page quite frequently.  Basically they are three part texts, featuring a cast of characters that children get to know, that have fun together.  I am reluctant to refer to them as decodable texts, because for some of my class they are 95% decodable, while for others, just 70%.   They read these texts, while sitting next to a buddy and with me there to help them with any sound spelling patterns they do not yet know.

While the usual point of decodable readers is to practice the code that children are learning and consolidate the parts of the code already learned, that really hasn't been the point of these.  Whilst they do contain parts of the code we are working on, they often reach far beyond this.  Largely the point of these stories as fluency.  The passages, read through an I do, we do, you do, model are repeatedly practiced.  Each day, children encounter a new part and reread the one before.   They are then read with buddies and revisited at home.  As these texts are read out loud, they are the perfect change to model appropriate expression,

Hasbrouck and Glaser (2019) define fluency as: Reasonably accurate reading, at an appropriate rate, with suitable expression, that leads to accurate and deep comprehension and motivation to read.

The point of these texts was to hit on all parts of this definition, but in particular the 'motivation' to read.  Co-constructing the cast of characters over time and the adventures they would have, has seen a massive level of buy in from the children, that even I had not expected.

After fluency, the other main point of these texts was sentence level comprehension.  There are kāo pictures, children are having to read each sentence and think about the meaning that is being conveyed.  They have been involved in so much meaning making using these simple texts, inferring, predicting, summarising have all been part of this.  The pictures they draw at the end of each part, show a real connection with these short stories.

Lastly, but certainly not least, these texts were intended to ensure every child feels good about themselves as a reader.  They look around and everyone has the same text,  there is kāo sense that the book I am reading is more complex, or simple than the person next to me.  At some points words in the texts have puzzled everyone and together the sense of pride when this was decoded has been magical to see.  Absolutely there are parts of the stories that have been hard for some, but there is a sense of great achievement at eventually being able to read this story fluently.  Funnily enough, but not unexpectedly, the words that occur frequently in these texts, like 'fox' 'little' 'green' 'frog' etc have become sight words for everyone.  They see them so frequently and have mapped them so often, that they just know them.

The impacts on reading have been better than expected, particularly in confidence (how I see myself as a reader when compared to my friends) and in motivation to read.  For those children that seem to really grasp the code quickly, there has also been a heck of a lot of self-teaching going on.

Now for the point of this post.  The unintentional impact that these stories have had on my class and their progress.

That unintentional impact has been in writing.  Right from the beginning, the children connected with these characters.  We operate within a pedagogy of play and on many occasions children could be found writing about these characters and drawing them.  Our storytelling puppet Pearl, would often come to visit and expand on the rather simple written versions of the stories, with her own quirky perspective.  Children often had their own puppets out, making up stories for the characters.

Because the characters became quite familiar, so did the spelling of their names.  This meant children frequently used them as a scaffold into writing.  Over time, their stories became more developed.  The three part nature of our stories, naturally lead children into following this pattern in their writing and as they became more fluent in their writing, the stories they wrote became more developed.  Knowing these characters seemed to reduce any burden on cognitive load, freeing them up to come up with ideas for their adventures.

Our stories also exposed them very deliberately, to basic use of punctuation, over time this began to exclamation marks, question marks and speech marks.  I've never had a year two class experiment independently with speech marks in their own writing, but this group are, the only real difference in my teaching is the exposure they have had to the punctuation through our focus on expression.  Through our reading, we have brought this punctuation to life and it now seems they have a much better understanding of the role it plays.

Children also knew I was writing the stories.  Funnily enough this seemed to make them more attuned to the choices I was making.  They are noticing the changes in my writing like never before.  Even down to my use of 'the seven friends' with one girl saying "hey I get that, it is easier to say the seven friends then to list the names, it sounds better too!"

Over the last couple of weeks for our writing I have encouraged children to come up with the adventures that the friends will have before the end of term.  For a class of year two children, this task has seemed very easy and super enjoyable.  They are seeing themselves as authors.

It seems strange to me that such a simple tweak to my approach has had such massive impacts.  These stories are basic, they are not that exciting and certainly, I am not an author.  But children are 'in' the stories, they can see their own ideas, they can see how the adventures have developed, they know who is writing them and they have a sense of ownership.  This really seems to have made a massive difference!

These stories will not be replicated for next years class, they belong to the class of this year.  So the characters will be retired and the stories taken home with the children.  I'll get my inspiration for 2024 from the children that sit in front of me then.

These are some examples of the stories we have read.  They are certainly not perfect and it has been a real learning curve writing these this year.

Term Three Example

Term Four Example

The very first story

Term Two example

Some examples of independent writing from this term, these are just the first attempts and we will be going back and revisiting these to expand on them.  Children have approximation paper, where they have an attempt at spelling a word and bring it to me (if they want it correct in their book) that is why so many words are correct.  I have found children prefer to write it in their book and don't like it much when I correct it for them.

Saturday 30 September 2023

Knowledge Is Power, Science Informed Literacy (but feel free to add your own title in here)

 I sit down to write this blog post right in the middle of the holidays.  I have been weighing up the benefits of making this one post, or maybe taking each area and posting about each one separately.  

While there are probably benefits to you, the poor person trying to wade through what I already know will be a mammoth post, my brain just needs to combine all of the things I have experimented with and worked on this term.  

Not only that, I think a post like this shows clearly how many aspects there may be to what  I like to call Science Informed Literacy (hopefully that is not a phrase that has been coined so far.). 

When I say Science Informed Literacy I do so for two reasons, one being that Structured literacy is a term 'owned' by the IDA and the term 'Science of Reading' implies to me that this is all about reading.  If I am to be honest, I am also really sick and tired hearing the terms being used incorrectly.

Hence, the term Science Informed Literacy is one I am more comfortable with, in essence, the way literacy comes to life in the classroom informed by the Science of how literacy is acquired and the most up to date research.   When it comes down to it, this should be about how the science can be practically applied in the classroom.  This is what teachers need.

Now, I am very aware that my anecdotes are not research, so as usual, take my blog posts for what they are, the efforts of a well meaning teaching principal committed to enacting evidence based practice, who is obsessed with doing the best for children and addicted to literacy podcasts.   For those that don't know, I teacher Year 1 and 2 children this year and my children operate in a largely play-based space as their social and emotional skill development should never be overlooked for the academic.

Now, the title of this blog post is a nod to the knowledge that I am developing, but also the role that understanding the importance of background knowledge, has had on my day to day practice in the classroom.  I want this post to be a bit of a summary of my term, my journey so far this term and some practical examples that others can get their teeth into.  I am aware I can be long please bare with me.

If you have not read this post There is still a problem with Structured Literacy it might be worth going back and doing so.  It outlines the majority of work that my classroom practice has been based on this year, with some very inspiring links to podcasts.  

You may also want to read this blog on my journey into whole class teaching (discarding groups) as this has shaped a LOT of my year.    I am also not going to go into great detail about writing (however this has been a huge area of development) as I have just posted about this, so feel free to go back and read.  

I do however want to share a bit about the link between writing, reading and knowledge building in this post.

Very simply, as I have worked through my self-led PLD I have come to like the models below the most, the active view of reading, Nell Duke and Kelly Cartwright and the pillars of literacy, with my little touch along the bottom (oral language, the foundation of it all.). In my opinion it is oral language that we need to be focusing on the most in the earliest years.

My journey this year can be summed up by working on ways I enact both of these models.

My belief is that oral language underpins all of these ares, so it is along the bottom.

This diagram sums up how I am trying to shape my approaches to literacy in the classroom.

So, down to the nitty gritty, what practical changes can I talk about that I feel have really worked well this year so far.

1. Whole Class Literacy Sessions (15-20 min tops) (Phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary) Decoding and Encoding.

This year I started working whole class for tier one, previously I still had reading groups and I was spread way to thin.  
In Term 1 and 2,  I was writing my own sessions.  These were based on the LLLL scope and sequence, blended with Liz Kane's code.  As a school we base our ongoing formative assessments on these and I monitor individual progress based on these sheets.  A disclaimer here to say that these sheets are not perfect, but help us as a school to sit within the same scope and sequence, moving from these into fully using the Code.   Each sheet has a flip book for assessment that goes with it.

As a staff we want to ensure that spelling and writing are seen as important as reading, while we acknowledge that often children will be able to read words that they can not spell, and will need constant reviewing of spelling rules etc, we do not want to create a massive gap between reading and writing, as we are seeing for some children that enter our school in later year levels.  A trend we are noticing is that children are coming from other schools, perhaps able to read, but not able to form letters, spell or write.  This is just creating another hurdle to high for them to jump over without increased support.

After writing my own whole class sessions, I stumbled upon UFLI.  I watched some of the youtube videos of others teaching using these sessions and liked what I saw.  I ordered the manual and decided to have a go using these sessions in Term 3, starting from where we were up to in the scope and sequence.  

I did modify parts of it, which is easily done as the slideshows are all there online, I did this to fit with the fact that my children didn't need access to letters to make words, but could spell them and because I wanted to keep using the class based decodable stories I had been writing, as I was seeing massive growth with these.  I also modified the heart words being learned, to fit with our scope and sequence.

To begin with I was clunky.  Getting used to anything new is always hard, but once I found my stride with the sessions, my children and I absolutely loved them.  They became accustomed to the rhythm and the interleaved practice had a positive impact on progress.  Of course I am only in the class three days a week, so am only able to fit one session in per week, taught in two parts as it is supposed to be taught.  This works well for me.

When I came to the end of term and did my big catch up based on our assessment sheets (linked above) most children leapt through two, if not three stages and the majority of the class are solid on their spelling stage five and six, with half of the 21 children reading texts into stage seven.  When I talk of stages, I am referring to everything within that stage, sound, formation, heart words read and spell, spelling, automatic word reading.  We only mark children off for reading of words, if they are automatic, and make notes of those that are blending out loud.

The only tweak I had made to my tier one deliberate, explicit teaching was the UFLI, so this is what I anecdotally put it down to.  When we completed our second 'dictated' text assessment as a class, the majority of the class had little difficulty writing these sentences that included spelling patterns up to stage six.  As a class this was massive progress for a term.  Again, these are anecdotes, but I have never seen such positive growth as a 'whole class.'

I love UFLI and will keep using this as my whole class approach.  It is easy enough to align it with the scope and sequence that we use.

2. Whole Class Decodable Stories - 10 min mat time (Fluency, Vocabulary, Comprehension)

Although UFLI does have its own decodable stories, I have had such success with my little stories and they way they are unfolded to the class, that I wanted to keep up with these.  The children had already given me ideas for characters and adventures they could have and I wanted to stay true to their interest in this area.  Ideally these stories should link in with the sounds we are working on whole class and I aim to merge this more over Term 4.

To be clear, I am not a purist when it comes to writing my own decodables. I have several aims when using our class stories.  I do aim for them to be 80% decodable for the majority of the class.  I also aim for there to be new parts of the code that they have not yet encountered, I will given them these words if needed, but I am finding most of my children, because of their level of fluency and comprehension are able to work these words out based on the code they do know and the context, the look of joy on their face when they realise they can read, what seems to be quite a complicated text is priceless.

My other aim is fluency both in terms of automatic word reading, but also expression, so the stories are separated into three parts, we read a part each day,  by the time we get to our third reading, they have read the first part three times at the very least.  

Comprehension at a sentence level is also a big point of this approach, and children are involved in discussing what is happening in each part and then drawing what they understand.  I have posted about these stories before, so don't want to go into to much detail.  What I have noticed though is how much these stories have benefitted their progress (again an anecdote.) Because there are certain words that are repeated over and over, I am noticing their automatic word reading really developing.  Another thing I have noticed is that there is a fair degree of self- teaching going on as children become more and more efficient with the code.  

As a rule, one story would take us about two weeks to get through, as I am only in class three days a week and we don't read in this way, every day.

Of note is how much these stories and the characters in them have assisted children with writing.  This year I noticed most of the children using these known stories and characters as the foundation of their own writing and as they became more confident with writing, these characters and storylines started to disappear.

This is an example of one of our stories, we read a new part each day.  For some children this might only be 50% decodable (my tier two children) but for most of mine now, this is 70-80% decodable.  Those words or spelling rules that are completely new, are told and we read each part at least three times in the one session.  Children glue it in, then will start trying to read it themselves and work it out with their buddy.  I then read it (they track) we then read it, then they read it independently and to their buddy.  Each section has a box to illustrate, this is the final story.

3. Knowledge Building (oral language, vocabulary, comprehension)

You are probably all very aware of the importance of background knowledge and knowledge building.  In Term 3 I really wanted to work on how I could use this to weave reading and writing together.  In particular the writing of factual sentences and the repeated reading of shared texts that were outside of children's independent reading capabilities.

I have already posted about writing, so won't go into the other aspects of what I was doing, but will just focus on this one thing we tried this term.

In Term 2, we did a lot of repeated, shared reading about turtles and we did a little bit of writing.  For Term 3 I wanted to amplify this and see just what we could achieve.  A lot of my talk for writing understandings came into play here, but I didn't explicitly use this approach as I have done in the past.

I chose dinosaurs as our topic.  Not exactly child-led, but we do a lot of that every day, so in this instance, I chose the topic because I had lots of things I could use for knowledge building at my fingertips.  Awesome books, videos and a plethora of knowledge that I knew many of the children already had.

We started off watching videos and reading books.  Discussing what we had learned and talking about the Science behind what are considered facts.  I took extracts from books and we used them for shared reading.  I would read and children would follow along.  Children took these extracts home to share with their family.  This task was accessible for all, with children able to read most of the extract and for those parts they couldn't they had me there to read it for them.  Interestingly many of the class had very little difficultly reading most of the text (which I considered quite hard) and as their knowledge built up over time, this process became even easier.  

The discussions around these texts were gorgeous, lots of back and forth, real conversations and many questions about the spelling patterns they were seeing.  One serve and return conversation I remember quite vividly, one child asked why the 'o' in dinosaur was making it's long sound, they looked to me to answer, but from behind them one of my boys piped up, because it is an open syllable.  Conversations like this fill me with joy.  Knowledge truly is power, in may ways.

As we gathered our knowledge, I started to sort what we had learned into a mind map.  We then used these to write factual sentences.  Over time, children were able to write three or four sentences, because the knowledge was there, the ideas flowed easily.  

After a couple of weeks we focused in on the T-Rex...following the same process as detailed above.  Along with these, we started to read shared books that followed a 'report format.' Looking at how these were set out.  Together in class discussions we compiled our understandings about the T-Rex.  To finish we wrote a shared report, which I then published so they could each have their own copy.  We read this text again and again and children illustrated it to take home and share.

During this time, we had a couple of sessions of 'other' writing, but largely this was our focus.  The reality is you can not fit everything in, so for one thing to be done really well, other things have to be set to the side.  Obviously our class literacy sessions still involved writing and on the days that I was not in the class children were continuing with the focus of writing complete sentences, moving into adding some description, closely guided by the Syntax project.

This process of knowledge building was so rewarding, orally it had a massive impact, children had things to talk about, they had things to bring to the table and we were all on a very even playing field.  Vocab wise, I noticed their language was elevated, we spent a lot of time talking about the meanings of words and children started to make links between the knowledge they were developing in this topic, to other areas of learning.  Scientists became like rock stars, with many children speaking of want to be palaeontologists, archaeologists, biologists,  conservation workers etc.   Children started writing reports during their play based time

A report worked on over several play-based times.  This is her drawing book, hence it is blank,

Children started classifying our plastic dinosaurs, they started using our reference books to look up the names of our plastic dinosaurs and these dinosaurs made their way into all other areas of play.

One of my boys said to me that when we started learning about dinosaurs he really didn't want to, he wasn't a dinosaur person, but now, he LOVES dinosaurs.  I have to say, this knowledge building time had the same impact on me, they loved seeing my enthusiasm when I learned something new, this shared status as learners, really was invigorating.  As we went along they had many requests of what we could learn next, prehistoric sea creatures is one of those areas of particular interest, along with flying reptiles (because we now know that dinosaurs did not fly or swim.)

My husband has had enough of my over sharing about dinosaurs!

We really could have gone on forever, but unfortunately there is only so much time in a term.  

4. Buddy Reading (fluency, comprehension)

Fluency was something I wanted to really focus in on this term.  I had read and listened to a lot of information on the value of repeated reading and the benefits of buddy reading.  So at the beginning of this term I set this up, with the aim of doing it for at least 6 minutes a day, three days a week.  We were to use the same text and children were buddied up with children one-three stages either ahead of or below them.  Initially I set a time and children took turns reading for one minute each, swapping when the time was up.  This worked well from my perspective, but the feedback from the children was that they wanted to read a full page each, not have to stop.  So we changed the format.  While children were reading, I was roaming, there if help was needed.  They were told the focus was to read as fluently as possible and to help each other when needed.  If they finished the text, they started again.  At the end of the week, or after at least three reads, the text went home and I popped new ones in their buddy bags.  This was something I could throw into the end of a day, once we had tidied up and packed up, it worked well.  
I was actually shocked by how much children loved this, and how they requested to do it again and again. 

 I noticed those children with non-fiction texts really talking about what they were reading and talking about the spelling patterns they were noticing.  In reality the process took much longer than six minutes.
The texts used were not always books, it could be a poem, an article, really anything I knew children would be able to attack with a fair degree of fluency.

This is something I will continue next term.  One thing I did notice is that the focus of the reading has to be pointed out at the beginning of each read, and children need to stay in the classroom to do this.  Roaming is also important, because children need reminding about tracking with their fingers etc and occasionally need help to decode a word.

My children also get to pick a book at a stage that is just right for them to take home for practice.  Reading confidence was also a big outcome of this process.

5. Approximation Paper (phonics, vocabulary)

This is specifically writing related and something I did try towards the end of last year.  This year I have some very keen writers, but they also hate having to cross things out in their book when they want to correct something.  I am sure you have those children too, they will write within the known, just so they feel like what they have written is right and it looks neat and tidy.  This is not something I encourage, and we spend a lot of time focusing on learning and the power of mistakes, they just don't want to make them in their books.  

This little technique has been the most powerful tool for increasing the amount and quality of what is written.  It has also been amazing for just in time teaching.

Each child (if they want one) has a piece of approximation paper.  Not all the children want this and that is ok.  When they come to a word they are unsure of, the agreement is that they will do their best to approximate the spelling, based on the code they know.  They will then bring it to me and I will either tell them that their approximation or estimate is correct, or will show them how it is spelled, if appropriate we may have a very quick chat about why...if not, I will just write the word.  They can then write the correct spelling in their book, without the worry that it is wrong and it appeals to their need to be tidy in their writing.  

Writing is the most difficult cognitive task we ask children to do, this one little trick seems to 'lighten' their load, while in reality they are still doing all the work of spelling.

6. Tier Two  (phonics, fluency, vocab, oral language)

There is a bit of an old chestnut going around that goes something like this "children all learn differently."

Well this is not correct, the way our brain learns to read and acquires literacy is the same, it may just appear different and happen at different rates, with some appearing to need next to no teaching at all.  However we do need to have a kete full of different approaches and we need to deeply understand the specific need of each child we help in order to deliver an approach that hits the mark for them.  To be able to do this, we need to have a deep understanding of evidence based practice...but that is another post entirely.

So tier 2 is more of the same, but in addition to tier one, and may look slightly different for each child.  This term, this is what I have been doing with my five tier two children, it is different from Term two as we have been largely working on automatic word reading and fluency.  

I allow myself about eight minutes per child and I want it to be done at a perky pace.  I see each of my tier two children three times a week, with added practice on the other two days if needed.  This term, the need has not been high, with only two of my tier two children really needing the extra intervention time, for the others, it has been nice to have.

1. We revisit sounds we have been working on and any new ones we have been learning in our whole class sessions.  We decode some words with those sounds, and may encode one or two.

2. Children each have a table of words they are working on reading automatically, we go through this table, the child reading the words and timed if they request to be timed.

3. Each child has a fluency passage they are reading.  I type out the words from our decodable books and each day they read a new sentence, with the aim to be automatic and starting to work on expression.  We also look at punctuation, reading to the punctuation, I will model what this sounds like.  We will also talk about the who and the do in the sentence.   The next day, they read the sentences we've already read and the new one, until they are reading the whole text fluently.  They then can choose if they take home the actual book as well.
If there is a need, we will unpack any unknown vocab.  This passage is in their home and school book, so they can follow up by reading the sentence and the words at home too.

4. If we have time, we will go over our class decodable story.

This sounds a lot, but it is really quick.  This strategy has worked really well this term and I will only be continuing with two of my children for tier two, with the others supported with fortnightly check ins, using the sheets I linked to before.  End of term assessments showed excellent progress for all of these children, I was blown away by how fluently they read,  several stages up from where they were last time.

I have two tier two children whom I suspect have DLD.  I do not know enough about this to be sure, but their need remains in saying each sound out loud and then blending the sounds.  They need to hear the sounds, so this will be a focus next term.    Both have a need in receptive language.

7. What about the others?

A pretty common argument is that those 'able' children are not extended within a Science Informed Literacy approach.  I think it is pretty clear through the strategies that I have explored within this blog, that these children are well provided for and that they do flourish.  BUT I am also conscious that our decodable stories are now quite easy for them and I do want to give them that little bit extra.  I had not been using the UFLI texts with the class, but decided this would be a nice extra for my job share partner to do on the days she is in there.  So now on the days she is in there, just over half the class engage in reading the UFLI decodable text that goes with the sessions I am teaching and the roll and read that goes with it for practice too.  
I find that the amount of text for some of my readers is just too much, but for these independent children, the amount of text is just right.

An example of the text practicing the /ch/ sound.

8. You can not fit it all in!

One of my biggest areas of learning, is to know when to let things go and to use assessments to inform exactly what I am doing.  We need to be kind to ourselves, we can not do everything, it is just simply impossible.

In Term 1 and 2 I had been checking in with all of my children once a fortnight, on the stage sheets I linked above.  I would then share a next step goal on seesaw.  I have 21 children, with five receiving individual tier two support from me, I was struggling to get everything done.

I sat down and had a hard word to myself...what difference was I making with the check in's...what was it achieving, that I didn't already know?  Was it necessary for everyone?  

So, trusting that I had a good handle on where children were at, and knowing that I was sharing really useful goals with my parents daily, based on our class sessions, I knocked the fortnightly check ins on the head, in favour of two a term, one in the middle, and one at the end.

The sky did not fall, children still made fabulous progress (far more than expected in a term) and I learned to really trust the formative stuff I was doing.  

Little formative assessments like this, helped me to see progress and make choices on the next step focus.

Next term, I have children I want to check in with once a fortnight.  There are only a handful.  The others, I trust that the processes for noticing progress and responding to need are robust.   

If you have got this far, well done!  This journey into evidence based practice is ongoing.  I am not perfect, I make mistakes, some days go better than others.  We are human after all.

I am learning to trust myself.

All the best for Term Four!


Saturday 12 August 2023

Writing - how is is going so far?

 Writing has been a massive area of growth for me this year.    Through structured literacy I had really altered my lens to writing.  For one, the penny had really dropped for in in regards to how hard the process of writing is.  Until I started my structured literacy journey I really had only scratched the surface on knowing just how many jigsaw parts had to go into being a writer.

While I had really started to master the focus on the mechanics of it all and the explicit teaching of the code, I still had not really thought about how children come up with an idea, or considered just what a huge cognitive load this process is, when everything else is being focused on at the same time.

With my focus on sentence level comprehension and fluency in reading, it was only logical that my next step was to do this in writing.

This is where colourful semantics came in.  An oral language approach, it suited my needs down to the ground.  Allowing me to teach the specifics of a complete sentence and in turn give children the ability to develop a sentence out loud, then record it down.

There was a lot of work that went on here, lots of explicit and very scaffolded teaching.  But what has eventuated are children that can independently write a sentence, without having to struggle.  In fact, they started to find writing so enjoyable, that they requested it if we happened to miss it that day.

Part of this journey has also been informed by the Syntax Project, which I am still getting my teeth into.

The important thing I realised, as that I wasn't taught to write, I learned to write, because I was a duck to water when it came to literacy, but when it comes to the nuts and bolts of writing, the syntax and semantics of writing, well I had not a clue!  I failed that section in my 7th form exam, completely left it out, it scared me, still passed, but imagine how well I could have done.

So here was I, expecting writing to just come to students, like it had to me...and when it didn't, not really knowing what to do about it.

So colourful semantics and the syntax project, along with The Writing Revolution, have been game changers for me, and in turn, game changers for my children, because ultimately their progress starts with us and our knowledge.

Focusing on the who and the do in a sentence has also had a flow on to assisting reading comprehension, which has been fantastic!

Knowledge building has been huge here, I mean, if you have not got anything to write about, how an earth can you write.  We have spent a lot of time working on writing factual sentences.

Then I came to my next conundrum, so my children can write a sentence, they can write a factual sentence based on what they have developed in our knowledge building and they can write a complete sentence based on a picture or another motivation, but how could I move them past just one sentence, without them resorting to lots of run on repetition.  How could I get a series of quality sentences without the and then, and then, and then...the end?

Cognitive load wise, it is hard enough to keep an idea in your head, while still having to focus on formation, punctuation and spelling, but when asked to extend on this idea, it becomes really difficult for the beginner writer to do this.  

So I had the idea of a short video.  Sound off, playing short bursts for discussion.  Then having children write a sentence basically capturing that short burst, coming back to share, then having a break, before we returned to write the next burst.  Almost as if they were writing the voice over for that section of video.

The video itself, started with a calm sea, in the next burst a dolphin emerges, then jumps into the air, only to return with a splash into the ocean.  The little clip I played was about 10 seconds.

This approach worked so well!  The children loved it, they felt really successful and produced great writing for their first go.  (I have year one and two)

While the approach took us all morning, there was a lot of learning to be had and children particularly enjoyed the sharing of ideas.  I also found, because cognitive load was low, children started to use punctuation more independently.  Doing it this way also allowed me to work explicitly with children on skills that we may have worked on, but not really used.  For example, when going off to write the next sentence, should my full stop stay, or would a comma be more appropriate, does one idea flow into another, does it connect, should I add an and, or should I take an and out.  Lots of on the spot teaching.

Something that also really helps my learners is our approximation paper.  They keep a piece of paper next to them, when they come to a word they don't know how to spell, they have a go at spelling it, then bring it up to me.  This has two benefits, one, I get to do a bit of explicit teaching with a sound they may be having a go at or for example a suffix they have not encountered and two, for those children who are often held back because they want to be right, they can have a go, but still have the correct spelling for their book.  I find this leads to them writing a lot more and also being a bit more adventurous in what they write.

My whole class found this session achievable, my boys that often struggle, even requested we write like this all the time! 

Of course because of how time consuming this was, writing like this for each session would not be possible.  It is however doable once a week.  Again because we are play based, children moved in and out of the writing task seamlessly.  

I really feel that I am teaching writing this year.  Not just the foundations, the formation, the spelling, the nuts and bolts, but actually teaching children to be writers.  It feels really good.

Below are some examples, showing how some of the stories evolved over the session.

Wednesday 12 July 2023

Dramatically Different Meets The Explicit

My journey over the last few years has been about weaving all I know about play, playful/artful teaching and explicit instruction following the science of learning in literacy and maths.  I absolutely do not claim to be an expert and acknowledge that this is an ongoing (and I suspect always will be) journey for me.  

One thing I have become very clear about is that it is not a this or that.  It is not play vs explicit teaching, it is not learning through the arts or learning in a structured way.  It is not about having high academic expectations vs wanting children to be happy.

What is very clear is that this is about the science of learning, understanding how children learn, how the brain works, how children develop and building our approach to fit in with what research is showing us.  What I am also very clear about is that acceleration (hate that word) of learning is not possible without strong foundations and building those foundations is crucially important.  What I am also very clear about is that we are in a mental health crisis in our country and providing for children's wellbeing needs to be hugely important to us.

I am not a drama expert by a long shot, but it was learning about Mantle of the Expert via Viv Aitken that shaped much of what I do now.  

Through this approach I learned about, and have kept close to my heart the role of intrigue.  What we learn from a state of intrigue, we remember, along with this, what we emotionally connect with, we also remember deeply.  Of course this alone is not enough and that is where the explicit, repeated practice comes in...the emotional connection/intrigue helps that velcro for new learning to attach to, to be extra sticky!

If a goal of our teaching is to allow children to commit knowledge to their long term memory in order to free up bandwidth so that they are better able to work with problems in front of them and to build schemas like velcro to attach new learning to, then surely we must consider how we use intrigue and emotional connection.

So, long story short, this year in literacy, I have had a big focus on sentence level comprehension, fluency and vocabulary development as that is an area I really wanted to improve on.  I have posted about this if you want to catch up on my journey prior to this post.   Before you ask, yes all of these things are part of a structured literacy approach, a big part of it!

Amongst a range of things has been creating my own decodable texts, based on a cast of characters that the children have come to know and love.  Now, when I say decodable, I have to add that they are about 60-70% decodable based on the code that we have developed, sometimes higher.   Within these texts are spelling patterns that children may not have encountered, that  I will either take time to explicitly teach, or simply tell them.  So perhaps they can't be called decodable, but they are definitely accessible for all of my children.

What I had not prepared myself for, was the LOVE the children would develop for these characters (starting with Ned and Bob,  with the children's help I have gradually added to the team of friends over time.)   It is quite extraordinary just how deeply children have connected with the characters and how eager they have been to come up with ideas for the next adventure.  These characters and their adventures, belong to my children.

Over three days, I introduce a new part of the story.  We look deeply at the very simple ideas being introduced and work on the sentences to the point of fluency (remember prosody is an important part of this.)  By the end of the week, children will have the complete story to take home and read with a high degree of independence.  

Our characters - children have helped me come up with their names and the adventures they may have.

Ned - a fat cat (short vowel d)

Bob - red pig (short vowel, b)

Zag - little green frog (short vowel, z, adjacent consonants)

Zig - fox (short vowel, z)

Buzz - a bee (short vowel, floss rule and ee)

Fluff the chick - (short vowel, consonant blend, floss rule, digraph ch, ck)

Children love these characters so much, that they often feature in their independent writing, because they see the patterns over and over again they often remember them easily.  For example, we have not looked at /ee/ in our scope and sequence yet, but children have it nailed.  There are also many digraphs we have covered in the stories we have been reading, that I have noticed children learn more quickly than I would expect.  These patterns have started to appear in their independent writing too, which is great.

Anyway, back to the point of my post.

This holidays I was lucky enough to attend a course with Tim Taylor and Viv Aitken, this course was based on their new book, which includes a set of keys that can very quickly be used to weave drama into the learning.  

Now what I already know about incorporating drama, is that children relate to the learning in a whole different way, often remembering the nuances, that you yourself will forget.  You can read about my rabbit adventure in this blog :)

So I want to use a few of these keys to add an extra dimension to my decodable stories.  I think by quickly bringing the character to life via a key, will add to the comprehension children have for the story.  I am excited to see how it goes.  I also think it will add to their writing and ability to expand on their sentences.  

It is going to be interesting to see how it goes and of course it depends on me becoming comfortable with the keys too.  I think this will be an easy way to grow my practice.  

So on Monday, I will occupy a chair and act out a series of actions, in the role of Bob (they will not initially know this) just before he comes up with the idea to go for a stroll to the park.   

Children will discuss 'his' actions, what he is doing and what they think these actions are telling us.  They will then get to listen to a snippet of what he is thinking or doing.

Using the 'show not tell' philosophy and see how they may relate to the sentence in a different way.  

Below is the story we will be working with week one.  Looking forward to see how it goes.  As you can see, it is very simple.

Two of our characters

Day One

Day Two

Day Three

Saturday 15 April 2023

Adding a bit of drama to the Science of Reading

 This post will be a little off the beaten track, but I had such a huge amount of fun in the last four weeks of term, that I just had to post about it.  It also has been an age since I have written about anything drama related that holds such a huge place in my teacher heart that I thought it deserved a place in my recent blog posts.

Firstly, how in the heck does this relate to the Science of Reading?  Well if we look at the rope, we would see it relates heavily to the language comprehension side and then in the Active view of reading (which I prefer, again it features here.) My focus was largely on vocabulary development and background knowledge, but there were a heck of a lot of micro-skills going on as well when it comes to comprehension.  

I have talked also before about the pillars of literacy.  This podcast with Lyn Stone is a great one to listen to, if you have not before.

I have added oral language to the base of these pillars, because I really see it as underpinning them all and ten years ago, it was where my journey started.

Hugh Catts also has some interesting thoughts on the pillars, particularly around can find that in a previous post if you are interested.

Right back to the point of this latest dramatic inquiry, or perhaps in many ways a mini mantle.  Whatever you term it, it was, as Viv Aitken would say "Real in all the ways that matter."

The adventure into this world, started with two very real goals. 
1.  To help children to develop the ability to see perspective and develop the skills of empathy and respect.

Like many schools, our children are really struggling at the moment.  Small niggly behaviours have crept in to our everyday lives, they have had a rough few years and it really shows.  They are much more 'sandpapered' or aggravated by each other and really struggle to see another's perspective.  What I know is that there is nothing like the gift of drama to explore these social, emotional skills in a safe way, so it was obviously what I saw most appropriate to use.  
Let's face it, kids do well if they can and if they can't, rather than rewarding those that can already with prizes and tickets, or thinking they can learn it from a programme or workbook, we need to develop the skills for everyone.  If you can't ride a bike, you work on riding a bike with support, if you can't read, we work on developing your reading skills, so in turn it is true of social and emotional learning, if you are not able to use these skills yet, we develop them in a way that we know works.  
In my opinion there are there are two top ways to develop these skills, play (where the teacher actively notices, responds, models and draws attention to these skills) and drama, where children are placed in  situations where they can explore these skills safely often through the eyes of another.
It is no coincidence that both these approaches have relationships as a core way of working, and we know that it is relationships that are transformative.

2. I wanted to really tune into background knowledge and vocabulary development in a rich way, of course facilitating oral language development along the way.  I also had a key goal of really thinking about micro-comprehension through the narrative that was woven.  More about this here

So to the actual adventure:

Many of you that follow my facebook page, will have read the instalments about the bunnies...but basically this is the scenario (this was my first facebook post). You can find the posts on my page if you want more info about each day.

Think about the movie Watership Down (that movie traumatised me for life)…a group of bunnies seeing yellow creatures moving towards them, making rumbling sounds, seemingly on a path to destroy their little bit of paradise, their beautiful habitat. Our weighty warrior cottontail delivered us this letter from their cousins.
Children were quick to invest emotionally…and quickly worked out what the mysterious yellow creatures must be.
We’ve written back, but are very worried about this group. Children brought up concerns around the need for them to find a new home, but were also concerned that any new home would be really different and scary for them. They’d need a lot of support.
So our next steps, it will clear that these rabbits will need to move, though not all will be keen straight away and some convincing will need to happen . It will also be clear that means we need to offer them that home. As they are many miles away from us they’ll need to travel and that journey won’t be easy. A map will appear that shows the location of their forest, the location of the machines and our location. This will allow us to track their journey and the journey of the machines.
We will talk about the fact they’ve been displaced and will be feeling vulnerable, allowing us to focus on the skills we will need to help them adjust. Kindness, perspective taking, empathy etc.
We will also touch on what people displaced from their homes are called and explore how this would feel.
We will also look at what destruction of natural habitats looks like around the world. We might need to talk to the operators of the machines and help them understand.
This little inquiry was inspired by the fact we are really struggling with children’s ability to take perspective, have compassion, treat others how we want to be treated and show respect. I wanted to give them a reason to develop these skills.
I’m not quite sure how this will unfold or what edgy adventures the bunnies will face on their journey, it will unfold like any good story, the children will help with that.
And yep a group of beautiful soft snuggly bunnies will eventually make their way to our doorstep ❤️ for us to love, just like the real thing.


The story evolved from there, a series of letters arrived, which we replied to and as with any great dramatic inquiry/mini mantle there was a lot of knowledge we needed along the way.  Bits and pieces from their world, linked to ours, like Big Old Tree, who stood for the Puriri tree in our grounds, that was planted at the end of the war.

Children largely drove the direction and the letters became my script.  

By the end of it, children were able to go into role as the main characters, explore and present arguments from their perspective and even found a compromise that would never have been on the table at the beginning.  The character they initially saw as the villain actually had kind intent and in the end there were many different needs to consider.

As part of our work we used this book, to be honest, it could be a whole dramatic inquiry on its own.  It is just beautiful and explores what it is to be homeless.

Children were captured by this world the moment the door opened.  They invested in it, while they knew it was imagined, there was so many correlations between the world of the bunnies and our world, that it felt so very real.  

They loved the bunnies, they loved Big Old Tree and when the last letter came, there were some tears.  One little lady summed it up so beautifully 
"The bunnies taught us so much, I am really going to miss them."

I have attached a mind map a the end of this blog post to show the areas we covered through this DI.
Children spent a lot of their own time drawing pictures for the bunnies and writing to them

What it looked like when our bunny friends contacted us.

Lots of things were made for the bunnies on a daily basis

We travelled ten years forward in time, to see what change we had created!  What I love about drama!

Children rejoiced when some lovely cuddly bunny friends arrived of our very own.  
A soft toy on the outside, but real in their hearts.

Here are the screenshots of the letters, hard to read as they are just screenshots, but it gives you an idea of my 'script.'

This was massively successful on many levels, but it was also just a fantastic way to end the term.  I know this group of children are just going to love it when we open the portal during maths next term.