Curriculum Giveaway 2.0 – History

Here is a link to the third curriculum package of a series (following science and geography). I am absolutely certain that is is the best of three curriculum packages by some considerable distance:

https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1o_BRvrZf-B0NrVF_RXPfD8Y1n4-qkT70?usp=sharing


What’s included?

As with the previous curriculum packages, this includes…

+ Curriculum overviews for each year group, organised to facilitate and simplify planning and teaching.

+ The knowledge and skills to be taught across the primary phase and those to be retrieved from prior topics.

+ The key concepts to be taught and built upon in each topic.

+ The vocabulary to be taught and retrieved from previous topics.

+ Cumulative revision of the scope of history taught at each stage.

+ Basic information texts, written to match each topic.

In addition, this history curriculum package includes…

+ Resources, activities and questions designed to elicit thinking and develop children’s grasp of the disciplinary knowledge and skills of history.

+ Cumulative timelines that build a sense of chronology across the school (more on this below).

+ Varied maps that situate each topic of study


How appropriate is this curriculum package for other schools?

Naturally, as with the other curriculum packages, this curriculum is made for a particular school, specifically one in the heart of Peterborough. It was put together with our community and our city in mind at all times. However, in terms of sharing this with the wider world, this is actually an advantage as it makes clear exactly how a history curriculum can and should be adapted to a specific community. Regardless, it would be perfectly possible to take this curriculum package and adapt it to suit the needs of a very different community. To this end, this curriculum package is designed to meet (and in my view exceed) the expectations of the National Curriculum in breadth, depth and ambition.


How is this curriculum organised?

In the simplest terms, Key Stage 1 is used to introduce children to the basic ideas of history as study of the past, looking at the development over time of certain aspects of society and some influential figures. Key Stage 1 ends with a study of Peterborough from the neolithic era to the modern day, sensitising children to the scope of the British history aspect of the curriculum that is to come. In Key Stage 2, the curriculum progresses chronologically, from the Stone Age to the modern day. This is only one way to organise a curriculum, of course, though the advantages of a simple chronology, the repeated retrieval of preceding topics and the cumulative development of a core timeline were all seen as advantages that made this particular organisation sensible.


This curriculum seems to cover a lot of ground. Why?

Any curriculum reflects the views of those who create it. Unashamedly, my view of primary history is that, first and foremost, children are entitled to leave primary school with a basic grasp of the broad sweep of British history and an understanding of history across the wider world. While inevitably certain aspects have to be prioritised, I think it more sensible, for example, for children to know the key aspects of several ancient civilisations (and their commonalities and differences) than for them to know a great deal about just one or two. While there are thematic studies and opportunities to look at key ideas in more depth, this curriculum attempts to show British history (and to an extent world history) as an interconnected narrative rather than just as discrete topics. The use of the time lines is key here.


Why are some parts in the curriculum overviews written in bold type?

There is a lot of information in the curriculum overviews. It is important that we recognise that some aspects of the curriculum are essential for children to remember while others are merely useful. Labelling the essential aspects in bold allows teachers to prioritise what is being learned in each topic; it also allows curriculum leaders to more effectively structure conversations with teachers and pupils that support the evolution of the curriculum.


There are some bits missing that I am surprised by. Why is this?

In all cases, decisions were based on the connections of the knowledge to key historical concepts (e.g. hierarchy) and the significance of this knowledge to children’s understanding of key events and people throughout history. This naturally involved trade-offs. For example, the names of all of Henry VIII’s wives are not included while the impact of the English reformation is explored in at least a little depth. Of course, people will have different ideas about what makes certain aspects of history more or less significant (which is another key theme of the curriculum), so I appreciate that not everyone will agree with the choices made.


Is there any way to supplement this history curriculum?

At my school, the reading of other information texts supplements all aspects of the curriculum, and this is also true of our history curriculum. For example, the French revolution is arguably one of the most important events in European history, and yet there is no mention of this in the history curriculum. Equally, the curriculum doesn’t include a study of a South American civilisation. In both cases, in my school this is remedied by the use of information texts in reading sessions. (Information texts are used to complement as well as supplement the wider curriculum.)


Tell me more about the timelines. I see 4-digit numbers for dates in Key Stage 1. Is that an oversight?

No, this is not an oversight. Children’s gradual introduction to the timelines works as follows:

In Year 1, children are introduced to their first timeline. While it looks complicated, there is no expectation that children learn any dates or grasp the scale involved. The only expectation is that children learn that a timeline shows the past and that events proceed from left to right in this representation:

To re-emphasise this point, the exact same timeline scale (with the same magnified section) is repeated for a second topic in Year 1:

Again, children are still likely to be learning numbers inside 100, so there is no expectation that children will grasp the dates involved.

The core timeline from 4000 BCE to 2000 CE introduced in Y1 then forms the spine of all the timelines to be used in the history curriculum.

In Year 2, the children are gently introduced to a sense of scale. This is achieved by relating their own age in years to the age of the school. The age of the school – which notably is within their grasp of numbers inside 100 – is then visually comparable to the core timeline:

The main aim is for children to relate their own age to something else that we make familiar, the age of the school, and to grasp that things happened before they were born and that this can be visualised on a timeline. The idea of bars showing duration is introduced and children’s growing sense of multiplicative reasoning allows them to roughly grasp the relative scale of their life to that of our school. (Notice that as they grasp this key idea of scale and of a ‘zoomed in’ section, the rest of the timeline is kept exceptionally simple.) This is then emphasised in the next topic. Notice that this is the same core timeline with the same part magnified:

In the final topic in Year 2, the same core timeline is used with the same section magnified. In this case, the entire history of Peterborough is discussed, sensitising children to all of the topics of British history that are to follow. (Not all of these are included on the timeline as there is a trade-off between complexity and visual simplicity):

All of these ways in which the history of Peterborough overlaps with the periods of British history are then retrieved in the later topics in Key Stage 2.

It is worth re-emphasising that at each stage, the expectation of what children will grasp from the timeline is specific and limited. By the end of Year 2, we want children to recognise that timelines visualise the passage of time using distance and direction (usually left to right) and to visually grasp that their life to date is short relative to the age of the school, which is also short relative to the span of history discussed so far. We also want them to recognise that events and periods can be shown on a timeline.

All of the above lays the groundwork for the timeline learning that will follow in Key Stage 2. 

At the start of Year 3, the now-familiar core timeline is related to the timeline of human pre-history:

What do we want children to take from the timeline above? Only that all of history is relatively brief when compared to the time that modern humans have been recognisable as such.

After this, the process of building up the core timeline begins with the second topic in Year 3:

From now on, with every topic that is encountered, a new period is added to the core timeline so that it incrementally builds up:

Each new topic after this adds a new period to the timeline:

And so on. (Note the colour-coding of British history and history of the rest of the world.) 

It is important to add that children will grasp that the periods studied are not the sum total of history, and that history didn’t begin or end at these points in these places. Instead, they will be guided to understand that these are merely the aspects we have chosen to study and that there are other fascinating and valuable periods of history in various places that we could have chosen. (In upper Key Stage 2, this leads into a discussion about the limitations of any history curriculum and the periods of time and locations that, inevitably, were left mostly unexplored in ours.) Maps are used in conjunction with the timeline in each topic to ensure that the sense of time develops alongside a sense of location. 


And that’s about it for now, except to repeat…

In making this, I was indebted to the ideas and inspiration of the wonderful people of EduTwitter, especially @MrsSTeaches, @Mr_AlmondED and @ClareSealy. Any strengths in this work are credit to them; any weaknesses are all on me.

If you are wondering how I have gained permission from my school to share these, then allow me to explain: Firstly, I have the privilege of working with people who see the education system as I do (i.e. an essentially collaborative enterprise, regardless of the systemic forces that impel schools to compete with one another). Secondly, I have done a lot of unpaid work on these curriculum documents in my own time. The schools I have worked for have always been aware that part of the deal of me doing this is that I am then free to share the results as I see fit.

I hope you find this stuff to be useful. If you do, please direct other teachers you know to these resources in the hope that we might save teachers some time and support some schools in their curriculum development.


Finally, if you find this stuff really useful, and you decide you want to chuck a few quid somewhere out of a sense of unnecessary gratitude, why not give my new book on primary reading a chance? It’s available to pre-order here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Science-Teaching-Primary-Reading-Corwin/dp/1529764165/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=

As with any writing I do, all royalties/fees will be going to the Malaria Consortium, a GiveWell-recommended charity. More details about the Malaria Consortium can be found here:

https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/christopher-such2

Curriculum Giveaway 2.0 – Geography

A few weeks back, I released a package of curriculum materials relating to the primary science curriculum (see this blog for further details about the science stuff: https://primarycolour.home.blog/2021/04/07/curriculum-giveaway-2-0-science/)

As promised, here are the geography curriculum overviews and written texts in the same format:

https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1ScQZlwCr87JbPR5uqrZXAiiNyEBkGzwG?usp=sharing

A few caveats:

  1. Of the three curriculum packages that I intend to release, this is the one that is the least developed. I think it is in a perfectly functional state (i.e. content chosen carefully, sensibly ordered, etc), but there are definitely some aspects that could use – and will receive – further development in the coming year or so (e.g. geographical enquiries, resources to support individual lessons, etc). Naturally, a curriculum is never truly finished, and I thought it more useful to release this now than to wait until I’m much more satisfied with it.
  2. The order of the individual topics is not exactly what I would choose if I were to create a geography curriculum document from scratch with a completely free hand. (There were some constraints that affected topic sequencing that I won’t bore you with here.) That said, the order is still, I hope, sensible, with the key concepts and vocabulary building on what has come before. Potential niggles, for example the teaching of rivers before mountains, may seem less than ideal, but children really only need to understand the idea of higher ground in order to understand rivers and the water cycle; they don’t necessarily need to know the difference between a fault-block mountain and a plateau mountain before they can grasp the idea that water tends to move downhill. It is easy for those developing curricula, once they have made up their mind, to assume that the way they have ordered things is the only sensible way. In more hierarchical subjects, like mathematics, there is some truth in this, but in geography the ordering of topics is much more a matter of preference. One person’s “poor sequencing” is another person’s “artful sensitisation to later topics”. That said, there are definitely certain concepts that require extra thought when it comes to ordering. (It seems more sensible, say, for children to learn what trade is before they learn what an economy is.) I hope that this has been achieved in these overviews, and I am happy to take constructive feedback.
  3. Naturally, any curriculum – especially one relating to people’s interactions with places – is bound to be built to suit the needs of a particular community. It is also built to complement other aspects of the wider curriculum (e.g. science, history), making connections and filling gaps. (An example of this is the water cycle which is primarily taught in the science curriculum and then retrieved in the geography curriculum.) Nevertheless, I hope that this curriculum work can still be supportive for those developing their own curriculum and can perhaps even signpost some of the ways that a geography curriculum can be personalised to fit with a specific school. If you want to discuss this with me, please get in touch.

In making this, I was indebted to the ideas and inspiration of the wonderful people of EduTwitter, especially @MrsSTeaches, @Mr_AlmondED and @ClareSealy. Any strengths in this work are credit to them; any weaknesses are all on me.

If you are wondering how I have gained permission from my school to share these, then allow me to explain: Firstly, I have the privilege of working with people who see the education system as I do (i.e. an essentially collaborative enterprise, regardless of the systemic forces that impel schools to compete with one another). Secondly, I have done a lot of unpaid work on these curriculum documents in my own time. The schools I have worked for have always been aware that part of the deal of me doing this is that I am then free to share the results as I see fit.

I hope you find this stuff to be useful. If you do, please direct other teachers you know to these resources in the hope that we might save teachers some time and support some schools in their curriculum development.

Finally, if you find this stuff really useful, and you decide you want to chuck a few quid somewhere out of a sense of unnecessary gratitude, why not give my new book on primary reading a chance? It’s available to pre-order here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Science-Teaching-Primary-Reading-Corwin/dp/1529764165/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=

As with any writing I do, all royalties/fees will be going to the Malaria Consortium, a GiveWell-recommended charity. More details about the Malaria Consortium can be found here:

https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/christopher-such2

Curriculum Giveaway 2.0 – Science

A while back I shared a science curriculum document that attempted to spell out the knowledge and skills of a primary science curriculum in a way that I hoped would save schools lots of time and, at least, provide a solid jumping off point for the curriculum work of others. It was well received, and it made me determined to improve upon it. The result is in this folder and is freely available to be used in any way that might support your school:

https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/16IrtGssTCJQVKyfl5q_BodYI_bUDbhRA?usp=sharing


In the folder above, you will find curriculum overviews that spell out the knowledge and skills to be taught for each year group in primary science and information texts for the various topics.

Each year group is currently organised into six blocks of six lessons, though this can be easily adapted into six half-term blocks:


As before, every block begins with retrieval of the key content from previous blocks that needs to be embedded if children are to succeed with the new learning:


Twelve big ideas of science are spelled out at the start of each overview and are linked to the various topics:


The key repeating concepts are made explicit in each topic, along with the vocabulary, both that which is new to the topic and that which is to be retrieved from previous topics:


So… what’s new?

  1. The layout has been changed to make it much more user-friendly for teachers.

2. If you look at the bottom of each year group’s document, every topic has an associated scientific enquiry, six for each year group. (How these link to the working scientifically statements of the national curriculum is made explicit.)


3. A diverse array of scientists have been added to the knowledge of the curriculum:


4. The curriculum links to the range of scientific careers that exist, ensuring that children leave primary school with an appropriate rich view of what it means to be a scientist:


5. I have written basic, age-appropriate information texts for every topic that fit exactly with this curriculum document.


6. You will also notice that some curriculum statements are in bold and others are not. It is often the case that schools do not prioritise certain aspects of their curriculum, leaving teachers in the dark about which bits are essential for children to grasp and which bits are merely beneficial. While this is very much a personal choice, I have bolded the aspects of the curriculum that are most essential for all children to grasp before they leave primary school. (Most of these are the aspects that are most frequently retrieved within the curriculum.) Feel free to adapt this as you see fit.


There are aspects of any curriculum that ideally should be chosen and adapted to fit exactly with your school context. (For example, when children are introduced to types of plants in key stage one, it is sensible to choose plants that live in your school grounds or nearby for children to see and touch. Equally, the diverse range of scientists have been chosen in some instances to marry with our history curriculum, which has been created to reflect our local community.) This means that you may well want to download these resources and then adapt them. If you want any assistance in how to adapt these resources, don’t hesitate to get in touch. I tend to respond most rapidly on Twitter.


In the coming weeks, I will be releasing a geography curriculum package (with basic information texts) and a history curriculum package (also with basic information texts). While each of these works perfectly well in isolation, they also complement one another with explicit links made between them.

If you are wondering how I have gained permission from my school to share these, then allow me explain: Firstly, I have the privilege of working with people who see the education system as I do (i.e. an essentially collaborative enterprise, regardless of the systemic forces that impel schools to compete with one another). Secondly, I have done a lot of unpaid work on these curriculum documents in my own time. The schools I have worked for have always been aware that part of the deal of me doing this is that I am then free to share the results as I see fit.

In making this, I was indebted to the ideas and inspiration of the wonderful people of EduTwitter, especially @MrsSTeaches, @Mr_AlmondED and @ClareSealy.

I hope you find this stuff to be useful. If you do, please direct other teachers you know to these resources in the hope that we might save teachers some time and support some collaborative curriculum discussions.

Finally, if you find this stuff really useful, and you decide you want to chuck a few quid somewhere out of a sense of unnecessary gratitude, why not give my new book on primary reading a chance? It’s available to pre-order here:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Science-Teaching-Primary-Reading-Corwin/dp/1529764165/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=

As with any writing I do, all royalties/fees will be going to the Malaria Consortium, a GiveWell-recommended charity. More details about the Malaria Consortium can be found here:

https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/christopher-such2

What does the sale of curriculum products between state schools say about our education system?

Here’s the pitch:

The current way that schools sell curriculum products to each other is absurd and speaks to an education system disconnected from its underlying moral purpose.

Across the country, schools with greater financial flexibility have created excellent curriculum resources with lesson plans, reading booklets, interactive presentations, etc. They’ve typically employed smart people to create this stuff, and the result is unsurprisingly impressive. The fact that these are not freely available to other schools is an indictment on the dysfunction of our seemingly zero-sum, competitive education system. These are not privately funded bodies we are talking about. Every one of these has used tax-payer money to create curriculum resources… and now they are sharing these resources at a price to other publicly funded bodies. This is an absurdly inefficient way of making use of the talent within the profession to benefit the nation’s children.

I totally understand why larger MATs and some local councils are doing this. We have all imbibed the idea of competition between schools to such an extent that it seems perfectly natural that the limited financial resources of the system should flow towards schools that have created curriculum resources. After all, think of the wonderful things they can do with the money they make. Think of the opportunities that they can provide to their students (and try your best not to think of the opportunities consequently deprived elsewhere).

I imagine the standard argument for the status quo is that it is just a sensible way for schools to pool their resources, and that surely this way is better than having every school create their own curriculum from scratch. Well, there is some truth in this argument. This way of doing things is definitely one rung up the ladder from the worst case scenario in which every small school’s history coordinator desperately throws something together in the couple of hours per term available for the job. But is this as far as our shared imagination extends? A short-sighted solution that further diminishes the open, collaborative spirit that defines the profession at its best? It’s genuinely a little disheartening that this way of doing things is supposedly the best solution that the powers that be could come up with. The whole thing screams systemic inertia rather than a thoughtful plan for enhancing outcomes for young people.

This isn’t some anti-capitalist rant. There are a lot of private companies making quality products for schools to buy, and the education system is all the better for their existence. However, private companies take risks with their own money. If these companies make poor decisions, they go bust. The tax-payer doesn’t then pick up the pieces and keep them afloat. I have no problem with private companies taking money from the public purse to provide a necessary service. It is the profit-seeking of public bodies that I find so disconcerting. If a curriculum product has been created with public money, and the product is so good that it would enrich the education of any children who use it, then what is the moral grounds upon which we limit its spread by charging schools for it unnecessarily? Once created, administration costs for the school that created it can be entirely avoided my making a downloadable version publicly available, ready for schools that might want some help in giving children the curriculum they deserve. Let me re-emphasise that this is not a critique of those institutions that have made these curriculum products. Their actions align perfectly sensibly with an overarching system that entirely lacks sense.

Essentially, the only other possible defence of this status quo that I can see comes from a superficial understanding of economics, specifically the idea that in every situation only the free competition of actors will allow money to be allocated where it can be put to best use. Forcing schools to operate more like businesses in this circumstance has one key problem: schools aren’t businesses and children aren’t customers. In the case of private companies, there is no moral imperative for us to ensure an equal distribution of resources and to ensure that every business thrives for the sake of its stakeholders. The opposite is true of schools. Some might argue that the schools who have created excellent curriculum products only invested the resources required to do so because they foresaw the subsequent financial recompense, and thus this competitive view of schools is necessary to promote innovation. Again, this speaks to our collective lack of imagination and the way in which a zero-sum, competitive interpretation of the school system has obscured our vision. There are other ways that this could have been achieved that didn’t so obviously disadvantage smaller schools with less financial flexibility. For example, a fund could have been made available from which schools could – following a successful application – take the required financial resources to create a curriculum, or components thereof, on the condition that this curriculum be made freely available, perhaps even with aspects that allow for schools to personalise it to their own school setting. If anyone doubts the practicability of such a thing, I have three words for you: Oak National Academy.

Recently, Solomon Kingsnorth (@SolomonTeach) wrote a typically interesting and provocative blog in which he suggested an alternative purpose for the government’s catch-up fund. I loved the idea, but I also wonder whether a small chunk of this money could buy the intellectual property to the various excellent primary curricula that already exist across the country so they could be made freely available. Don’t get me wrong; until it is explained to me why it is a stupid idea, I maintain that materials created by publicly funded bodies should be free for any school to use if they wish. However, in the absence of such sense, using some of the catch up fund in this way might be a decent alternative.

Simply put, there is no excuse for the current situation where a headteacher can honestly say, “I cannot afford that tax-payer-funded curriculum product, despite the fact it would improve the learning my school offers its students.”

We can do better than this, can’t we?


(I suspect what I have written above isn’t a particularly new set of thoughts. If, as is likely, someone has already made the argument with greater clarity, let me know, and I will happily link to their writing at the top of this blog-post. Thanks.)

On gratitude

We all recognise the awkward formalities of returning to the workplace:

“How are you?” someone asks.

“I’m okay…” you reply, or something similar.

I am roughly the one millionth[i] person to point out the feeling of dislocation that this ubiquitous micro[ii]-conversation provokes when repeated often enough and when the answer is a convenient lie, arguably the most common in the English language. For those people out there who are going through a rough patch and thus resort to this understandable dishonesty, there is thankfully another thought that this conversation can inspire: gratitude, though the route to it is a little tortuous. We briefly remember that our personalities are fragmented and shifting, that we each have various versions of ourselves that we present to different parts of our social network. Awareness of the ambiguous nature of our identities is intolerable but short-lived, familiar but uncanny, like consciousness of our own breathing. However, it illuminates something that we – or I, at least – too easily forget: that most of our acquaintances don’t find out about our problems, be they heart-breaking, tedious or – more commonly – both. Even if we do share, we inevitably photo-shop the descriptions of our lives, even the sad parts. Those of us blessed with loved ones know that it is only they who see the version of us with the filters removed. It is they on whom we rely for patience and generosity as we gripe and thrash against the padded-cell walls of our existence. Usually, this heroic tolerance is a team effort; sometimes, however, one person is doing most of the heavy lifting. And so this ubiquitous micro-conversation – and the most common lie in the English language – reminds us of those who keep us going, and all-too-fleetingly we feel commensurate gratitude for their presence in our lives. 

(In my case, she’s called Silvia.) 



[i] This is maths joke set up…

[ii] …and here is the punchline.

Five Ways to Ensure That Your Teaching of Reading is Effective

Teaching children to read is complex. There are many things that schools need to get right for their pupils to flourish as readers. However, from observations in schools and discussions with fellow professionals, it is my belief that there are certain elements of reading teaching that are frequently overlooked despite their importance. Here are five questions that in many primary schools deserve more consideration than they are currently afforded:

  1. How is phonics monitored?

Every primary school is required to teach phonics systematically. It goes without saying that if phonics is not taught well, then children’s reading will suffer. However, the extent to which children’s phonics progress is monitored through year two and beyond varies dramatically between schools. Often, even those children that pass the phonics screening check return to school in year two having forgotten much of the learning content experienced just a few months earlier. In response, schools should ensure that they can explain where every student is on their phonics journey and have systematic phonics interventions in place for those that still struggle despite thorough, responsive phonics teaching, be they in year two or year six.

2. How is reading fluency taught and assessed?

There are several reasons why children in upper key stage two might struggle to comprehend what they have read, and chief among these reasons is slow decoding that prevents understanding.[i] There is a substantial body of evidence to suggest that repeated oral reading of short texts that are towards the upper limits of children’s current reading ability can support children’s development of the components of fluency, which are essential to reading comprehension.[ii]  Nevertheless, this crucial area is too often neglected in primary schools. In year two and lower key stage two, fluency practice should be a major component of reading instruction, either as standalone lessons or as a regular part of reading sessions.[iii] Either way, it should never be dissociated from the ultimate purpose of reading, and well-chosen texts should ensure that the comprehension undertaken during fluency practice is valuable on its own terms.[iv]

Fluency should also be assessed to allow timely responses to the needs of individual children and classes. Tests of reading fluency such as DIBELS assessments, while something of a blunt instrument, are useful when used in conjunction with teacher judgements, which give context to results.[v]

3. How much decoding do children do each week?

This is arguably the most important and overlooked question one can ask about a school’s reading instruction. It may seem prosaic, but the process of learning to read – in particular the development of rapid word recognition – can be considered as statistical;[vi] our brains are pattern spotting machines, and we rely on vast quantities of information to strengthen and hone our command of the patterns in the English language. This means it is essential that children spend lots of time meeting new text every school day, increasing their reading ‘mileage’. You might be thinking, “Isn’t this obvious?” Maybe it is, but this doesn’t stop some children spending as little as 10 or 20 minutes each week processing text while children in similar schools do several times as much. While children’s fluency is still developing, whole-class reading can ensure that reading mileage is prioritised. (I recommend children and adults take turns to read aloud; rulers and quick word checks can be used to ensure that children are focusing and keeping pace, and struggling readers can explore the text in advance during interventions to support this.) Once fluency is relatively established (100+ words per minute oral reading speed with high accuracy), silent reading followed by text-dependent questions is the most efficient method for children to meet new text.

4. How is vocabulary development supported?

Reading comprehension and vocabulary development reinforce one another. Plenty of time spent reading is essential, but vocabulary development can be best supported in two ways – by teaching children particularly useful words and by revealing to them the etymological and morphological structure of the English language. The first of these requires a rationale for which words to choose, and Beck, Mckeown and Kucan attempt to provide one by considering vocabulary as existing in three tiers.[vii] Crucially, what they define as ‘tier two’ words are those that are rare in day-to-day informal language, but are used across the curriculum (i.e. they are not specific to particular subjects or contexts). By combining the concept of tier two vocabulary with the most common words in the English language, it is possible to compile a list of words that can be introduced to children, either in reading sessions, standalone vocabulary sessions or through ‘word-of-the-day’ style teaching.[viii] In addition, a large amount of the morphological and etymological structure of English can be revealed to children by teaching them key Latin and Greek root words (e.g. acro-, meta-) and by highlighting key morphemes that modify English words (e.g. un-, dis-). While this teaching of vocabulary might seem detached from context, trust me when I say that the context will find you; teach children a tier two word like ‘influence’ or a morpheme like ‘dis’, and you won’t have to wait long for children to notice these in texts and class discussions, much to the benefit of their reading. Ideally, however, tier two vocabulary, Latin & Greek root words and morphological awareness can, and should, be integrated into your wider school curriculum, though this is naturally a task that takes a considerable amount of time and thought, so consider teaching discrete vocabulary lessons in the meantime.

5. Does the rest of the curriculum build children’s knowledge of the world?

Reading comprehension relies on background knowledge.[ix] Put simply, high-quality teaching of science, history, geography, etc, is teaching reading. A curriculum that is coherently structured allows the knowledge children gain to become part of a rich network of understanding that they can use in their reading and beyond.


Many elements of the teaching of reading are not included above, not least the power of reading aloud to children. These are just the elements that are most frequently overlooked, despite their importance. Whether you’re a headteacher, a reading coordinator or a class teacher, thinking carefully about the five questions above is a considerable step towards ensuring your students have the best chance of learning to read.


A version of this blog originally appeared in ‘Teach Reading & Writing’ magazine: https://www.theteachco.com/uploads/special-issues/TRW-Issue11-June-20-1.pdf


[i] National Reading Panel (US). (2000). Teaching children to read: Reports of the subgroups. The Panel.

[ii] These components of reading fluency can be described as accuracy, automaticity and prosody. Prosody is concerned with the tone, intonation, stress and rhythm of speech – in this case the idea that these allow oral reading to sound natural and comfortable, akin to spoken language.

[iii] For more on fluency practice, see this article: https://www.teachwire.net/news/i-was-bad-at-teaching-reading-but-then-i-found-a-better-way

[iv] Pikulski, J. J., & Chard, D. J. (2005). Fluency: Bridge between decoding and reading comprehension. The Reading Teacher58(6), 510-519.

[v] For more on DIBELS assessments: https://dibels.uoregon.edu/assessment/dibels/dibels-eighth-edition

[vi] Seidenberg, M. (2017). Language at the Speed of Sight: How we Read, Why so Many Can’t, and what can be done about it. Basic Books.

[vii] Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., & Kucan, L. (2013). Bringing words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction. Guilford Press.

[viii]For just such a list – or guidance on how to compile one – see this blog: https://primarycolour.home.blog/2019/06/14/tier-two-vocabulary-for-primary-teachers-the-3-4-5-list/

[ix] Kendeou, P., & Van Den Broek, P. (2007). The effects of prior knowledge and text structure on comprehension processes during reading of scientific texts. Memory & cognition35(7), 1567-1577.

The research behind reading: where should you start?

Like many others, I taught for several years with almost zero knowledge of how people learn to read. Yes, during my PGCE, I was told that phonics was a good thing, and I was given Letters and Sounds to read, but beyond that? Not much. Thus, it was something of a surprise to learn eventually that the science behind reading is arguably the most thoroughly explored area of cognitive psychology and that well-founded recommendations for pedagogy are available for teachers.

Perhaps you don’t know much about the research into reading, but would like to change that. It can be difficult to know where to begin, and time is precious. This blog is my attempt to match a decent course of action to the amount of time that you have available. I’m no expert, but I hope that I’ve read and digested enough to support your first steps into this area of learning. Trust me: if you are someone who teaches children to read, you won’t regret taking the time to better understand this subject. It will make you a better teacher.


If you effectively have no time to dedicate to this goal at present, then get the ball rolling by following these people on Twitter:

@TheReadingApe

This Twitter account posts about all things phonics and reading. The blogs are concise and informative, with references and further reading for those interested. A case in point: https://www.thereadingape.com/single-post/2019/06/23/Comprende-Reading-comprehension-a-skill-to-be-taught

@ReadingShanahan

Timothy Shanahan was a member of the National Reading Panel in the US, which was responsible for sifting through the mountains of research into reading and coming up with recommendations for educators. His blogs at shanahanonliteracy.com are always worth reading, and his views are informed by an extensive understanding of the current evidence. This one gives a pretty good flavour of what he does: https://shanahanonliteracy.com/blog/how-to-teach-fluency-so-that-it-takes

@c_mackechnie

Charlotte Mackechnie is an advocate for linguistic phonics who tweets and writes very persuasively on the subject. Here is an example from her excellent blog: https://linguisticphonics.wordpress.com/2018/07/01/what-skills-are-required-for-reading-and-spelling/

@SWLiteracy

John Walker is the man responsible for Sounds-Write phonics, and, given this fact, his blog is full of excellent advice for teachers on the subject of early reading: https://theliteracyblog.com/


If you have 1-2 hours only, read this overview of the research – Ending the Reading Wars: Reading Acquisition from Novice to Expert https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/1529100618772271

I can’t really imagine a more efficient way to get to grips with the subject than reading this. It covers everything from the alphabetic principle to different computational models of reading to language comprehension.


Where you go after reading this depends on your priorities…


If you have 5-10 hours and you want to get to grips with all aspects of reading, from phonics to fluency, from comprehension to leading reading across a school, then I’d be a fool not to recommend the book I wrote for precisely this purpose, The Art and Science of Teaching Primary Reading: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Science-Teaching-Primary-Reading-Corwin/dp/1529764165/ref=sr_1_3?keywords=teaching+primary+reading&qid=1621544542&sr=8-3

All royalties are going to the Malaria Consortium, a Give-Well recommended charity.


If you have 5-10 hours and you are most interested in understanding the history of reading (which is surprisingly relevant to understanding how it should be taught), scientific models of reading and where these might lead in the future, then read this book:

Language at the Speed of Sight by Mark Seidenberg.

Language at the Speed of Sight is an entertaining read that takes a broad view of reading acquisition. You will likely spend considerable chunks of the book thinking, “Do I really need to know this in this much detail?” and “Is this really relevant?” All I can say is that the more I learn about how people learn to read, the more I recognise that subjects like orthographic depth and the historical development of different writing systems are relevant and useful to know.


If you have 5-10 hours and you are most interested in the initial acquisition of reading and the pedagogical implications, then read this book:

Early Reading Instruction by Diane McGuinness.

Full of references and breakdowns of relevant research, this book gives a grand tour of the science into early reading. It is, in effect, a deeper exploration of most of the subjects explored in the Corrigendum: Ending the Reading Wars paper discussed above. (It is worth noting that I disagree with McGuinness’s conclusions about dyslexia, which are based on the claim that “for a biological theory [of dyslexia] to be accurate, dyslexia would have to occur at the same rate in all populations.” This seems an inaccurate account of how genes and environment can, and do, interact. The definition of dyslexia advocated in Mark Seidenberg’s Language at the Speed of Sight makes more sense to me.) While it is a little dated and contains the odd dubious claim, it remains an excellent introduction into the research on early reading.


If you have 5-10 hours and you are most interested in immediate practical applications of research into reading, especially in a Key Stage 2 and secondary context, then read these two books:

Reading Reconsidered by Doug Lemov, Colleen Driggs and Erica Woolway

While at first glance this book seems most relevant to a US context, it doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to see how the wealth of experience and strategies contained in this text could be applied in almost any setting where children have a solid level of reading fluency. (For more on what I mean by reading fluency, read this: https://primarycolour.home.blog/2019/08/10/how-i-will-teach-reading-this-year/)

Thinking Reading by James and Dianne Murphy

This short book is one part call to arms for secondary schools who are not yet systematically tackling student’s reading difficulties, one part guide for school leaders and teachers on how to begin to answer that call. It is a perfect companion to Reading Reconsidered as it addresses a key question that Reading Reconsidered leaves unanswered: “What about the kids whose reading is so weak that they can’t engage with these methods?”


If you have 5-10 hours and you are most interested in reading comprehension, then read this book:

Understanding and Reading Teaching Comprehension by Jane Oakhill

This book is a readable guide to the research into all the elements that make up reading comprehension – vocabulary, background knowledge, inference, text structure, cohesive devices and comprehension monitoring – with practical recommendations for how these can be taught. However, bear in mind that most of the strategies considered in the book are best taught quickly and explicitly, with little to be gained from extensive instruction. This is discussed here: http://www.danielwillingham.com/uploads/5/0/0/7/5007325/willingham&lovette_2014_can_reading_comprehension_be_taught_.pdf

and here:

https://www.readingrockets.org/blogs/shanahan-on-literacy/how-much-comprehension-strategy-instruction


If you have 25 hours, then read all four of the books mentioned above. While each might not be directly relevant to your context, as a whole they give a broader view of the research behind reading and its implications for instruction.


If you have more than 25 hours, here are some further options that are well worth your time:

The Science of reading podcasts – hosted by Susan Lambert

The Science of Reading podcasts by Amplify are pacy interviews about reading science and instruction that traverse all areas of the subject. Guests to far include such luminaries as Tim Shanahan, Natalie Wexler, Tim Rasinski and Emily Hanford. Find it here: https://amplify.com/science-of-reading-the-podcast/


Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf

This book covers similar ground to the first section of Language at the Speed of Sight. However, Proust and the Squid provides a more wistful journey through the history and science of reading, along with an engaging and personal (if rose-tinted) exploration of dyslexia and its controversies.


Bringing Words to Life by Isabel Beck, Margaret McKeown and Linda Kucan

This is a fascinating look at the effective ways of teaching vocabulary


The Vocabulary Gap by Alex Quigley

In Closing the Vocabulary Gap, Alex Quigley argues for a thorough, cumulative approach to teaching vocabulary across schools.


Sounds Write – English Spellings: A Lexicon by Dave Philpot, John Walker and Susan Case

This is a detailed discussion and analysis of English spelling from a linguistic phonics perspective.


Words in the Mind by Jean Aitchison

This is an entertaining and informative guide to the best research on how our mind deals with words and the links between background knowledge and vocabulary:


Learn more about the best bets for developing reading fluency from this excellent paper:

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/328784455_A_SYNTHESIS_OF_RESEARCH_ON_READING_FLUENCY_DEVELOMPENT_STUDY_OF_EIGHT_META-ANALYSES


Dive into the weeds of comprehension strategies and inference training by reading these papers:

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/311215549_Activating_Background_Knowledge_An_Effective_Strategy_to_Develop_Reading_Comprehension_Skills

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/313687046_Examining_the_Impact_of_Inference_Instruction_on_the_Literal_and_Inferential_Comprehension_of_Skilled_and_Less_Skilled_Readers_A_Meta-Analytic_Review

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/49176228_An_instructional_study_Improving_the_inferential_comprehension_of_good_and_poor_fourth-grade_readers

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/273162713_Inference_Instruction_for_Struggling_Readers_a_Synthesis_of_Intervention_Research

(It’s worth noting here that some of this research is quite dated; the blog by @TheReadingApe described above is worth reading as context before reading these, as is this blog by @ReadingShanahan, where the sort of inference strategies discussed in the above papers are referred to using the umbrella term “comprehension strategies”: https://shanahanonliteracy.com/blog/comprehension-skills-or-strategies-is-there-a-difference-and-does-it-matter


There is so much more that I could add, but I hope that the reading material above gives a flavour of the reading research to anyone new to the field. Now here’s a shameless plug: my book, The Art and Science of Teaching Primary Reading is my attempt to summarise the research into teaching from the perspective of an experienced teacher and school leader. I think it has something to offer to trainee teachers, experienced teachers, reading coordinators, school leaders and those teaching reading at secondary schools. All royalties will go to the Malaria Consortium, a Give-Well recommended charity.

Feedback is, as ever, appreciated.

Early mathematics: where should you start?

Do you teach mathematics? If so, do you know the difference between perceptual subitising and conceptual subitising? Do you know what the cardinal principle is? Do you know how five-frames and ten-frames can play a role in developing children’s sense of number? If any of these leave you stumped, then you are not alone. From my experience, too few maths teachers at KS2, KS3 and beyond understand the mathematics journey that their students have been on and the potential foundational mis-steps that might be causing their students difficulty. Until fairly recently, I knew next to nothing about early mathematics. I’m far from an expert now, but the knowledge that I have gained on the subject has come a decade later than it should have done and has transformed how I view the teaching of mathematics. If, like me, you would like to learn more about this crucial area, then here is my guide on where to begin, which tries to take into consideration the amount of time that you have to dedicate to it:


If you effectively have no time to dedicate to this goal at present, then get the ball rolling by following these people on Twitter:

@berniewestacott

Mr Westacott combines infectious enthusiasm with expertise and insight. Here he is discussing the use of manipulatives with @mrbartonmaths: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HwQYVwbOgdw&list=PL7BJ-1MkmUZ9A6m4qYXgISzZy63CQT4sh

@Kieran_M_Ed

Kieran knows an astonishing amount about mathematics, and he is generous in his willingness to share his expertise. His excellent website, podcast and links to his books can be found here:

https://www.thinkingdeeply.info/

@helenjwc

Dr Williams is a thoughtful and incisive advocate of research-informed practice in EYFS. Here she is discussing early maths, again with @mrbartonmaths:

http://www.mrbartonmaths.com/blog/helen-williams-early-years-teaching-and-manipulatives/

@mattematics

This gent knows his stuff. Follow him and then bookmark any tweet he makes on the subject of mathematics.

If you have 2-3 hours only, explore the Learning Trajectories website and read Making Numbers:

This website is arguably the quickest way for a novice of early mathematics learning to become better informed. The Learning Trajectories approach is to attempt to specify a progression that learning can follow for various areas of early mathematics, from subitising to spatial visualisation. For each area, there are several levels with each demonstrated through brief videos and learning activities. If I ran a primary teacher training course, I would give every trainee and hour or two, at least, to explore this website. It is a goldmine.

Simply sign up for free, set up a class (it doesn’t need to be populated with students, just given a name) and away you go:

https://www.learningtrajectories.org/class/55937/developmental-progression

Making Numbers by Rose Griffiths, Jenni Back and Sue Gifford

I can’t imagine a more welcoming, accessible introduction to early maths pedagogy than Making Numbers. Full of simply expressed ideas that belie the depth and utility of the underlying concepts, this book is a relatively quick read, but one that you will return to repeatedly, especially if you teach maths in reception or Key Stage 1. The only drawback to this book is its cost. I’d recommend persuading your maths coordinator to fork out for it as this book would be a useful addition to any CPD library.


If you have 6 hours, also read this book:

Understanding Mathematics for Young Children by Derek Haylock and Anne Cockburn

This book is the perfect place to start. It is accessible and informative and provides one framework for getting to grips with the idea of ‘understanding’ in mathematics. It discusses early number, operations, the principles of arithmetic, shape & space and problem-solving in highly practical ways, but also manages to grapple with what it means to think mathematically.

Highlight: within the Understanding Shape and Space chapter, there is an analysis of this topic that progressively moves through subtle changes to shapes, illuminating the crucial mathematical thinking in finding differences and similarities. It is an implicit lesson in the use of variation and an insightful look at what is meant by ‘equivalence’ in mathematics.


If you have 10 hours, also read these two books:

Teaching and Learning Early Number by various authors and edited by Ian Thompson

A collection of short essay-like chapters by various researchers into early maths, this book unpicks many of the complexities of children’s early ideas. Each chapter can be read as a standalone exploration of a given topic, which makes it an easy read, but it can feel a little disjointed. Regardless, it’s well worth your time.

Highlight: Thompson’s chapter on mental calculations, in particular the extra complexity hidden in some supposedly simpler methods of calculation, discusses why getting stuck on certain strategies of addition and subtraction can lead to unnecessary struggles over the longer term.

Teaching Mathematics 3-5 by Sue Gifford

While the books mentioned above provide a useful route to understanding early mathematics for all primary and secondary educators, Teaching Mathematics 3-5 is probably the most useful for an educator working with children across the EYFS age range. Gifford presents a research-informed view of early mathematics, addressing the need for a holistic view of children’s learning that respects the social, emotional and physical aspects of the journey to understanding. She emphasises the need for adult-initiated mathematics learning (contrasting this with adult-led activities) within stimulating, thoughtfully constructed learning environments. In addition, Teaching Mathematics 3-5 is full of practical suggestions and snippets from real interactions with children. Often these snippets are of children’s misconceptions, making the book a welcoming read for those new to the profession and one that will resonate with more experienced teachers.

Highlight: The brief section on playfulness and humour in mathematics learning stands out as a subject that is too rarely discussed on Edutwitter or in other texts, and yet is a valuable component of expert teaching.


If you have 20 hours, also read these two books:

Growing Mathematical Minds by Jennifer S McCray, Jie-Qi Chen and Janet Eisenbard Sorkin

This is an attempt to join the findings of early mathematics research to the practicalities of classroom teaching by giving teachers the chance to enter conversation with researchers. While I don’t agree with every interpretation made within the book, it is a worthwhile exploration of how research can impact real settings. I particularly appreciated Siegler’s ‘overlapping waves’ model for the way that children use different calculation strategies under different circumstances helps tie the complexity of real learning to the occasionally simplified categories in academic research.

Hands On, Minds On by Claire E Cameron.

This book details the research on executive function, motor skills and spatial skills and how they relate to early learning, the last of these in particular being implicated as having a relationship with later mathematics learning. It’s a fascinating look into the foundations of all school learning.

Visible Maths by Pete Mattock.

Visible Maths is not directly related to early mathematics; in fact, much of its content is most useful for secondary teachers. Nonetheless, its explanation of how the use of manipulatives and pictures can enhance learning is very useful for teachers of early mathematics.


If you have more than 20 hours, also consider these books. (I am currently reading these, but they seem well worth the effort):

Learning and Teaching Early Maths – The learning Trajectories Approach byJulie Sarama and Douglas H Clements.

Early Childhood Mathematics Education Research: Learning Trajectories for Young Children byJulie Sarama and Douglas H Clements.

These are rather expensive, but come highly recommended from people who know considerably more than I on this subject. Both are related to the Learning Trajectories website that is discussed above. The first of the two books is more practical, while the second is a description of the research upon which the Learning Trajectories approach is based.

If you’re interested in mastery approaches to mathematics, I’d highly recommend Mastery in Primary Mathematics by Tom Garry.


And that’s about it. I hope you get as much from learning about early mathematics as I have.

Unprofessional development

Over the following few hundred words, it’s going to sound like I’m throwing much of the teaching profession under the bus, so before I begin, know this: everything I say here comes from a position of respect for what teachers do and an anger at the circumstances under which I believe the majority are forced to operate. That teachers achieve what they do despite the prevailing circumstances that I am about to describe is damn impressive. I hope that’s enough positive regard deposited in the emotional piggy-bank to get everyone through the first couple of paragraphs at least:

Beyond the limits of their own personal experience, the average primary school teacher is grossly uninformed about how to teach specific subjects. If you walked into a normal primary school today, what percentage of classroom teachers do you think would have read a book or research paper on teaching in the past year? I can imagine that a fair few have had Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction (or, if they’re lucky, Tom Sherrington’s book on the subject) thrust upon them during an inset day. But beyond that? My guess is that we’re talking 5-10%, at best, and even lower for anything subject-specific. I might get some push-back on this opinion – especially given that it is by nature based on anecdote – but I think the Edutwitter bubble hides the reality from us: the majority of teachers don’t read about teaching.

Well, perhaps that is the case,” you might say, “but at least teachers have a solid framework of subject-specific reading from their teacher training on which to rely, don’t they?” Nope. Not in my experience anyway. I studied for my PGCE in 2008. There was definitely no shortage of research papers shared and discussed. In particular, I read a fair bit about behaviourism, constructivism and socio-cultural learning theory; we talked lots about Piaget and Vygotsky; I learned about assessment for learning and mindsets; I even read a bit about behaviour management. All of this was useful, no doubt. But subject-specific pedagogy? Not much. A PGCE is a one-year course, where a significant chunk of time is spent either in school or writing essays. The idea that a course such as this even could give a new teacher a decent grounding in educational research and how to teach, say, maths is – to put it politely – rather aspirational. From discussions with my peers, other routes into teaching don’t fare much better. Like the majority of NQTs, I arrived at my first school not knowing, for example, the difference between perceptual and conceptual subitising, the simple model of reading, what orthography was, the research behind how to teach reading fluency, etc. And, again like the vast majority of teachers, this was where my understanding of subject-specific pedagogy stopped – beyond that which I could develop through trial-and-error and conversations with colleagues.

“What about CPD?” you might ask. What about CPD!? Primary teachers work an average of 47-49 hours per week.[i]  Of that time, usually an hour or so is dedicated to developing their expertise, in a staff meeting after a draining day of teaching. The task is so vast that most schools don’t know where to begin. Understandably, quick fixes that attempt to address every area of the curriculum are attempted: hour-long discussions of metacognition or thinking skills or motivation are dutifully sat through and then – at best – briefly referred to at a later date, usually with some new time-consuming obligation attached. Even with training days, CPD equates to around 50 hours per year, of which a significant proportion is dedicated to administrative tasks (book scrutinies, understanding the school’s recent results and SIP, etc) and training that repeats through necessity (sessions on safeguarding, resuscitation, epipen usage, etc.) In all, I reckon that around 5-10 hours a year of training directly relate to an area of subject-specific pedagogy. Usually, this involves an exhausted subject leader – who equally lacks the time to develop their expertise – regurgitating the contents of a course that they have attended and discussing how this relates to the Ofsted inspection framework. In short, teachers are thrown in at the deep end and expected to swim. Some scramble their way to a half-decent front crawl; some learn to doggy-paddle out of sheer necessity, a method they’re stuck with for fear of drowning; the rest struggle to the side of the pool and clamber out, never to return.

You might well be angry at the implication that this describes you or your school. Don’t be. I am not attempting to describe every teacher or every school. I have no doubt that some schools genuinely offer their teachers excellent CPD. Nevertheless, I guarantee that these schools have achieved this by reducing non-CPD workload. How? By ruthlessly minimising the time spent on displays, marking, assessment, reports, etc. If you’re a school leader and you think that your setting offers decent CPD and yet the teachers spend more than 40 hours per week on all of the non-CPD areas of teaching, then you’re kidding yourself.

Over the past few years, I have come to realise just how hopelessly uninformed I was (and largely still am) and have begun to try and do something about it. So, how do I find the time to read about teaching? A few years back personal circumstances forced me to move to a four-day-a-week contract, and when those circumstances changed, I decided to spend that extra day reading and learning about education rather than being a classroom teacher. Effectively, in order to become a little better informed about the profession to which I am currently dedicating my working life, I have had to give up 20% of my salary and 20% of the time that I actually spend teaching children. Most people, obviously, don’t have that luxury. That such a step felt necessary is a fairly substantial reason why our education system is broken.


That all seems rather negative, but in case the potential solutions to this problem weren’t implied strongly enough above, I’ll state them explicitly here:

  1. School leaders should reduce the number of hours teachers spend on all non-CPD areas of teaching to a maximum of 40 hours. You may think this is unachievable, but this is only because we are so accustomed to the countless tasks that seem important in schools but are infinitely less important than developing teachers’ pedagogical and didactic expertise. Beyond the obvious time-hoovers of marking, detailed assessment, displays, paper trails, etc, there are a thousand little jobs that each seem inconsequential but add up to our current state of affairs. We need to start saying no to these little jobs as and when they arise. If we are not protective of our time, then we will have none spare for developing our teaching expertise.
  2. Once the above is achieved, school leaders should make reading an integrated part of teacher CPD. It should become a professional expectation that teachers read about teaching. (Naturally, podcasts and videos may also achieve the same thing sometimes.)
  3. Across the profession, we must change the mindset of how we develop as teachers, from quick fixes to something far more granular. Look at the teaching of specific areas (e.g. fractions, sentence structure, reading fluency, etc) one at a time. Don’t try to do everything at once. When it comes to our expertise in teaching individual subjects, we improve one tiny area at a time. It’s a slow process, but almost anything else is just a pretense. (That’s not to say there isn’t room for training on areas that are broader, such as mastery or meta-cognition. However, the majority of training should focus on the small stuff and allow teachers to build this up over time.)

[i] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-49728831

Do you know when to use ‘little-and-often’ teaching?

Blog in a nutshell for those in a rush: While all learning content needs to be conceptually understood and then retrieved, some content – including, but not limited to, that which is traditionally learned by rote – requires much more recall practice. This is best achieved with a ‘little-and-often’ approach. Teachers can save time by recognising which elements of learning suit the standard hour-long lesson format and which elements suit this ‘little-and-often’ approach. This is something that experienced teachers often understand implicitly, but it is an idea that needs more explicit discussion in my view, especially with inexperienced colleagues.


Scenario (1) – imagine two participants are given an hour to learn the laws of thermodynamics and some of the related practical applications. Participant A’s hour is divided into chunks of five minutes per day for twelve days. Participant B’s hour is used all in one go. They each wait a month before being tested on this new knowledge. This is what I expect would occur: Participant A remembers a few basic things quite well, but struggles to connect the concepts together into any kind of coherent understanding. Participant B has gained a better grasp of the concepts, though struggles to recall much a month on. The difference in test performance between the two is negligible.

Scenario (2) – the same two participants are again given an hour, allotted in the same manner as before, this time to learn the first fifty elements of the periodic table, along with their symbols and atomic numbers. Their learning time is divided up in the same way, and again they are tested on their knowledge of this after a month. It is my contention that Participant A – using the 12 x 5 minutes approach – would have learned the list of elements considerably more effectively than Participant B, who was forced to splurge his hour in one go. (Various examples from personal experience point me towards this contention, from trying to learn latin root words to grooving a golf swing to teaching children their times table facts.)

So what’s going on here? From where arises the difference between these two scenarios? Let’s call the type of learning content in the first scenario recall-light and the type of learning content in the second scenario recall-heavy. Naturally, pretty much all academic learning requires some conceptual understanding, regardless of how seemingly simple the concepts are.[i] However, I believe that some parts of the curriculum require significantly more recall before they can be used in an efficient way:

Multiplication facts (and their related division facts) are a perfect example of recall-heavy learning content. The understanding of multiplication (which of course has no outer limits, despite the implication of the pictures above) requires connections to be made between area, arrays, repeated addition, scaling, etc, including relation to physical and visual metaphors. This aspect of multiplication seems relatively well-suited to (roughly) hour-long blocks with an expert teacher leading children towards an appropriate level of understanding. Nevertheless, on top of this, multiplication facts (and related division facts) require a significant amount of practice before they can be recalled fluently. This practice is absolutely not suited to the hour-long blocks of time often dedicated to it. Once a suitable level of conceptual understanding has been achieved, continuing to use these hour-long blocks to learn multiplication facts is an incredibly inefficient way to develop fluent recall. And yet, far too often I have seen hour-long lessons dedicated to learning to recall the 6 and 8 x table; to learning to recall number bonds to 10; to learning to recall the order of the alphabet; etc. Think how much more time might be available to teach if a ‘little-and-often’ approach was used instead where it was appropriate.

This is the point where I imagine the more experienced teachers among you are, understandably, getting exasperated. Doubtless, this all seems blindingly obvious. You probably already know that each topic within the curriculum requires a different balance of these two modes of teaching – the ‘regular-lesson conceptual understanding’ and the ‘little-and-often recall practice’ – and consequently structure your lessons to support this. You already know that all facts to be fluently recalled need a ‘little-and often’ approach. My point is not that this is a new idea. My point is that, in my experience, too few teachers are thinking about learning content in these terms. Raising some awareness of this way of thinking with our colleagues – especially those with less experience – has the potential to be hugely beneficial.[ii]

Once a teacher has decided that a given topic is recall-heavy and thus requires some ‘little-and-often recall practice’, what then? How can this be implemented in the classroom? My preference is to begin each lesson with a short burst – no more than 5-10 minutes – of ‘little-and-often recall practice’ on whatever area needs developing at that moment. However, there’s nothing to suggest that this couldn’t be equally suited to the end of a lesson or another time in the school day. Naturally, there may be periods during the school year when no such practice is required at all, especially if the students have learned the relevant recall facts to fluency earlier in their education. It is important not to see this as an attempt to advocate a fixed period of time every day where children need to be learning something in a ‘little-and-often’ manner. The onus is always on the teacher to match the teaching to the learning content and their students’ grasp of it.

And what of recall-light topics? Surely they need to be recalled too? Yes, but to a far lesser extent. Children will not require lots of ‘little-and-often recall practice’ to remember what perimeter means, for example. Once an appropriate level of conceptual understanding has been achieved, occasional retrieval practice (and application of this concept, ideally linked to other areas of mathematics) is all that would be required to shore up that concept in long-term memory.

In short, I believe that many teachers have the potential to develop their students’ recall of key knowledge and save precious learning time by thinking carefully about the balance of ‘regular-lesson conceptual understanding’ and ‘little-and-often recall practice’ that each area of the curriculum actually requires.



[i] In this case, I take the definition of ‘understanding’ to be the extent to which a concept is connected to other concepts in a person’s individual network of concepts and metaphors; in short, something is understood by a person if it can be explained – at least to themselves – in terms of other vocabulary and concepts that they have grasped. (Naturally, this leads to the question of how the person knows these other concepts upon which new understanding relies. Personally, I tend to believe that all of these connected concepts and metaphors lead back to empirical roots, and that all comprehension of the world is built, fundamentally, on our senses.)

[ii] Given that recall-heavy content makes up a larger proportion of the key stage one curriculum, I suspect that this is an even more pressing concern in primary schools, though the impact of weak number bonds, times table knowledge, etc echoes through secondary school too. The positive impact of Times Table Rockstarz in many primary schools is testament to how this is an area that has in the past been significantly neglected.