The Cost of Consistency

I think this blog might be relevant beyond a primary context. For those of you who aren’t interested in phonics teaching, please bear with me. I promise this isn’t just about phonics…

A few years back, I was offered the chance to return to year 2 after nearly a decade in key stage 2. I’d taught phonics in reception and key stage 1 at previous schools, and I had recently taught phonics with small groups of children in key stage 2. But when it came to teaching phonics to 30 children at a time, I knew I was out of practice.

I arranged a meeting with the literacy co-ordinator to find out what I needed to know. I was reminded about the four-part lesson structure that I was familiar with from Letters and Sounds, and I downloaded a hotchpotch of resources from the literacy coordinator’s memory stick onto my laptop. The literacy coordinator was swamped with her responsibilities, so this brief chat was the full extent of the structured support that I received before teaching phonics to a whole class for the first time in years.

At the start of the following term, I began teaching my year 2 class. It took me a while to get back into the swing of working with 6-year olds, but I was fairly satisfied with the lessons I taught, with one exception: phonics. I finished most days with a nagging sense that it wasn’t quite working. I did what I could to get better, relying on the advice of my colleagues, but this took longer than it should have. Even once I was teaching phonics adequately, I felt that I’d let down the kids up to that point. I couldn’t help but wonder how much better off they would have been with the more experienced teacher next door.

Fast forward to now, and things have changed. If you are teaching phonics in an English primary school, you are almost certain to have been given a structure to follow and resources to use. You might even have been given training in the underlying theory behind word recognition. Sounds good, right? Mostly.

Why only ‘mostly’? Well, I find it hard not to wonder about the expert teacher next door and how she would feel about being required to follow the precise steps of her school’s prescribed phonics scheme. My best guess is that she would largely do as she was asked, and her teaching would be slightly weakened as a result. Where possible, she would continue to furtively use the full range of her expertise, not least her judgement of how activities could be adapted to match her own capabilities and the needs of her class. But inevitably she would feel frustrated. Her expertise had been hard won, so not being able to fully exploit it would feel understandably galling.

I know that feeling. The same school introduced a maths scheme that was relatively prescriptive. As a fairly experienced maths teacher, I didn’t like it, and I reckon that – in the short term at least – my teaching was slightly poorer as a result. I railed against anything that even slightly limited my ability to maximise my impact. The school quietly gave me as much flexibility as they could, but I was still aggrieved whenever this wasn’t possible.

But I felt different once I was required to take on some responsibility for the quality of teaching across an entire school. Suddenly, my first priority was universal adequacy, even where that placed constraints on the most expert teachers in the school. I saw the value of consistency as pupils moved between classes. I saw the challenges of setting different expectations for different teachers, especially where levels of expertise didn’t appear to align with a teacher’s classroom experience. And all too quickly, I let myself forget the frustrations of the more expert teacher, to the point where I almost pretended that these frustrations didn’t exist.

I am convinced it is a sensible for schools to be required to pick a phonics scheme that has been checked to ensure that it supports all teachers who use it. I am equally convinced that it’s sensible for school leaders to ask teachers to use these schemes consistently. But sensible doesn’t mean flawless. It’s easy to tell staff that a new scheme or a new structure will quickly improve the practice of every individual teacher, but often this just isn’t true. It’s much harder to explain to staff that you think that consistent application of something new will elicit a net benefit despite compromises that will affect some teachers more than others.

Some might argue that these compromises don’t need to exist, that we can offer support to less expert teachers and unmitigated autonomy to those who can make the most of it. This is, of course, the ideal situation, but often it isn’t possible. For one thing, there are limitations on school leaders’ ability to recognise expertise. There are also subtle gains from consistency that compound: teachers can better support each other, professional development can be better targeted and interventions can build more readily on routines that are familiar to all pupils. But such consistency tends to involve compromise.

One such compromise is that there is a level of expertise that some argue is only acquired by capable individuals being left to learn the hard way, working things out for themselves. No one would argue against support for new teachers, but being required at some point to find your own way can perhaps build a level of resilience and nous that might otherwise not manifest itself. I feel that I learned most about teaching maths when I was planning using nothing but the national curriculum and my reflections on my previous teaching. However, there is survivorship bias at play when teachers talk about what they gained from such experiences. And there are obviously costs to pupils’ learning while teachers are learning the hard way. These costs are often intolerable to those whose central priority is to ensure that all teaching across a school at any given moment is at least adequate.

And this isn’t just about phonics schemes or maths programmes. The compromises around consistency and autonomy play out in every area of the sector, from curriculum products to behaviour management to mentoring under the Early Career Framework. I think there is a tendency to downplay the frustration of experienced teachers who feel boxed in by the requirements of consistency. This frustration often finds its expression in narrow complaints that reflect a broader issue. I suspect that the pushback against systematic phonics teaching and detailed curriculum resources, for example, is frequently the conduit through which stifled voices within the profession try to make themselves heard. It can be tempting to respond to the surface details and to seize upon misconceptions while ignoring the underlying source of frustration. It’s certainly convenient to do so, and I know that I’ve been guilty of this.

We need honest conversations about the compromises that are deemed necessary, ones that will allow us to include on the balance sheet all of those often-hidden items like the demotivation of more experienced colleagues and the potential loss to the profession of their expert presence in the classroom. While total agreement is unlikely, greater openness about these compromises might help us to better identify where the cost of consistency is genuinely worth paying and where it might just be too high.

Thanks for reading. I don’t tend to write many of these blog posts that go beyond specific aspects of teaching, not least because it’s much harder to be confident about this sort of thing, and it’s easy to come across as patronising or foolish or both. Feel free to tell me that I’m wrong and why. I hope you’ll forgive me if you vehemently disagree with what I’ve written. If it helps, I am very much open to changing my mind.

12 Tips to Maximise the Impact of One-to-One Reading

Every experienced teacher of reading recognises the power of hearing pupils read on a one-to-one basis. While whole-class reading can, and should, be organised to provide the mixture of reading practice, modelling and feedback that is the essence of one-to-one reading, there is no substitute for the real thing, especially for those struggling with the early steps towards reading proficiency.

But opportunities for one-to-one reading are difficult to organise across a school, and asking a teacher or teaching assistant to focus their attention on just one pupil has an obvious opportunity cost. As such, where we commit to one-to-one reading, we need to know that we are doing it well.

Here are my top tips for maximising one-to-one reading in your setting:

1. From their reading experience, pupils will immediately and automatically recognise at least a few of the words they encounter.  The key to effective one-to-one reading is the support you offer to pupils with the rest of the words, those that are not immediately and automatically recognised. With each and every one of these unfamiliar words, support pupils to decode throughout the word by paying attention to all the letters and the sounds that are represented. [i] Specifically, we want pupils to apply their knowledge of grapheme-phoneme correspondences (GPCs). Model this decoding whenever pupils get stuck on a word, and then ask the pupil to repeat what you did (e.g. ‘ch-a-m-p’ –> ‘champ’).

2. Keep an eye out for pupils who take a guess at the whole word after decoding the first sound or two that is represented within it. This ‘partial-decode-then-guess’ strategy can appear successful for some pupils, but it is counter-productive over the long term, often drastically so. Again, a key aim is to support pupils to use decoding through the entire word as their go-to strategy for recognising any unfamiliar word.

3. If a pupil decodes a word using GPCs that they know but then comes unstuck (e.g. they decode ‘café’ as ‘caif’ of ‘caffee’), ask them if they know a word that sounds similar. If not, tell them what the word is, what it means and point out the GPCs in this word (e.g. *pointing to the e* in this word, this letter spells ‘ay’; ‘c-a-f-e’ –> ‘café’).[ii] In this way, you are priming the pupil to learn new GPCs by applying the ones they already know. This orthographic learning is essential to reading development.

4. Where a pupil struggles to decode polysyllabic words (i.e. words with more than one syllable), model breaking the words into syllables and decoding these piece by piece (e.g. ‘unhelpful’: ‘u-n’ –> ‘un’; ‘h-e-l-p’ –> ‘help’; ‘f-u-l’ –> ‘ful’; ‘un-help-ful’). Again, get the pupil to practise this immediately after modelling. Some argue that there are particular rules that we should follow when breaking words into syllables. However, teaching pupils to do this flexibly appears to be more beneficial.[iii]

5. Nascent readers often struggle most with blending. If this is a particular difficulty for a pupil, this is often because of the load placed on working memory: by the time pupil get to the end of the word, they have forgotten the first sound they recognised. Scaffolds can help. Consider progressively blending challenging words by elongating sounds that allow this (e.g. mmmmiiiillllk –> milk).[iv] It can also be helpful to incrementally reveal graphemes, blending each time (e.g. chomp: ch –> cho –> chom –> chomp). This is best thought of as a scaffold to the usual step-by-step decoding used in your school’s phonics programme.

6. Until a pupil has developed the habit of paying attention to all the GPCs within an unfamiliar word, it makes sense for their decoding practice to be undertaken with decodable text (i.e. text that allows them to practise using GPCs with which they are already familiar).[v] The transition to ‘regular’ books depends on the pupil. This transition often happens towards the end of year 1, though it can be made considerably earlier or later, depending on a pupil’s decoding capabilities. Carefully manage this transition to ‘normal’ text, watching out for the counterproductive ‘partial-decode-then-guess’ strategy described above.

7. Where pupils are capable of decoding individual words without too much help but are still particularly dysfluent (i.e. their reading is stilted or much more stop-start than their peers), give them occasional opportunities to reread sentences, aiming for a little more flow the second or third time around. Again, this can be modelled for the pupil.

8. Where pupils struggle to the point that motivation or attention become a factor, consider taking turns with the pupil. This might be on a sentence-by-sentence or page-by-page basis. You should try to read at a pace that is fluent but steady. You should also point at the words as you read them, modelling how to decode particularly challenging words.

9. When pupils’ reading is relatively dysfluent and/or decoding is still laborious, do not expect pupils to make much sense of a text independently as they read. Support meaning-making by briefly discussing and summarising what the text has said. If you want a relatively dysfluent reader to independently make sense of a chunk of text, they will probably need to re-read it to the point where it *does* begin to flow. In particular, a sense of prosody – the way oral reading sounds (i.e. rhythm, stress and intonation) – is often a sign that comprehension is more likely. This prosody can be modelled and supported.

10. If a reader is relatively fluent, then other pupils are likely to benefit more from one-to-one reading time than they are. One-to-one reading is valuable to all pupils, but it is a precious and (usually) scarce resource. It makes sense to target it at pupils who are struggling most with foundational aspects of reading. However, in the rare circumstances that a pupil is relatively fluent yet has significant issues with comprehension relative to their peers, one-to-one reading can emphasise the active role that pupils need to take in making meaning. This can be achieved by supporting the pupil to summarise and visualise what they have read, by showing where to re-read tricky bits and by emphasising the ‘detective work’ that is often required to make sense of a text, such as when a word refers to something that has come before.

11. Where it becomes apparent from one-to-one reading that a pupil struggles with a particular aspect of decoding, allow this to inform the interventions that you might use beyond one-to-one reading. If adequate knowledge of GPCs is lacking (i.e. not enough to allow pupils to begin successfully decoding words for themselves and learning more GPCs in the process), the suitable intervention will likely be a phonics intervention aligned with your school’s phonics programme. If a pupil has adequate GPC knowledge but struggles with blending, then an intervention that targets blending is more likely to be fruitful. Ditto if the difficulty relates to the decoding of polysyllabic words. Decoding interventions work far better when they target the aspect(s) of decoding with which a pupil is struggling. All of this means that if someone other than a teacher is undertaking one-to-one reading with pupils, it is helpful for them to give feedback to the class teacher on pupils’ individual progress with decoding and fluency.

12. This is arguably the most important tip of the lot: make clear to every pupil exactly what a pleasure it is to witness their improvement, and tell them how worthwhile their efforts are. Helping pupils to develop as readers is one of the joys of being a teacher. Let pupils know this in your words and actions.

A final aside on the ‘who’ of one-to-one reading: it is common for volunteers – usually parents or governors – to come into school to support pupils with their reading. This support can certainly be beneficial for those that are well on their way to decoding proficiency but who lack fluency. However, pupils who are struggling most with the foundations of reading are best served by support from teachers and teaching assistants with the sufficient training required to understand reading development in theory and practice.

[i] Specifically, the relationships between sounds and letters that we are talking about are correspondences between phonemes (the smallest chunks of sounds that differentiate between two words) and graphemes (the individual letters or groups of letters that represent these phonemes.

[ii] For more on this, check out work on ‘set for variability’ or ‘mispronunciation correction’. This paper is a good place to start: Colenbrander, D., Kohnen, S., Beyersmann, E., Robidoux, S., Wegener, S., Arrow, T., … & Castles, A. (2022). Teaching children to read irregular words: A comparison of three instructional methods. Scientific Studies of Reading, 26(6), 545-564.

[iii] For more on this idea:

[iv] For more on this: Gonzalez-Frey, S. M., & Ehri, L. C. (2021). Connected phonation is more effective than segmented phonation for teaching beginning readers to decode unfamiliar words. Scientific Studies of Reading, 25(3), 272-285.

[v] This, of course, is not to say that decodable text is the only kind of text that pupils should experience. They should have the opportunity to hear and discuss all sorts of texts, including books that they have freely chosen from a reading corner or library. However, asking pupils to undertake sustained decoding practice with words primarily containing unfamiliar GPCs can be exceptionally demoralising and can foster counterproductive habits.

The Art and Science of Teaching Primary Reading… in 500 words

Reading is one of the most valuable capabilities that a person can acquire. Every other capability of equal or greater value, such as walking or talking, comes relatively instinctively. In contrast, we have not evolved to be readers. Learning to read is a singular challenge that demands expertise from teachers and school leaders. Thankfully, reading development has been studied for decades. The accumulated evidence, informed by professional experience, can guide us in our aim to give every pupil the best chance of becoming a capable, confident reader…

Reading is the comprehension of visual symbols that represent language. To do this, pupils must develop two capacities that become increasingly integrated as expertise develops – (1) recognising words, and (2) building meaning from those words:

  1. To recognise words on a page, pupils must learn to associate the sounds of our language with visual symbols. (The sounds represented are the smallest chunks of spoken sound that we can categorise, called phonemes. The visual symbols representing these phonemes are letters of the alphabet operating individually or in groups.) Explicit teaching can help pupils to learn these associations and how to use them. This is called phonics. Over time, pupils also associate these visual symbols with units of meaning directly. (Words can be thought of as composed of chunks of meaning called morphemes.) Due to the complexity of our writing system, lots of reading is required for pupils to learn these associations between visual symbols, sound and meaning.
  1. Building meaning from written words uses mostly the same knowledge that is used to build meaning from spoken language: knowledge of concepts that words represent and knowledge of how words interact with each other. This means that developing pupils’ spoken language and their knowledge of the world is key to fostering their ability to read. Building meaning from words is also supported by some knowledge that is unique to written language, including knowledge of how words are presented within texts.

As pupils become more expert at recognising words and building meaning from them, their reading begins to flow. Pupils can reinforce this important sense of fluency through text experience and through rehearsed reading aloud.

Teaching comprehension involves the provision of fascinating, challenging experiences with texts that have been chosen for the breadth and relevance of their content. It also involves awakening pupils to the active, personal nature of comprehension through explanation, modelling and rich discussion.

Pupils learn aspects of reading at different rates. While the same principles apply to all developing readers, struggling readers require targeted teaching that is sensitive to their specific needs, motivation and self-efficacy.

The relationships between teachers, pupils and books is central to the promotion of pupils’ independent reading. Reading aloud to pupils is both a necessity and a privilege.

There are various ways to organise reading instruction. If you keep in mind the ideas outlined above as you construct, implement and evaluate your reading curriculum, then you are likely to give pupils the best chance of becoming capable, confident readers.

Thanks for reading. For those that prefer a visual map to a 500-word summary, just such a visual map can be found here.

And for those of you that would like to read the ~50,000 word version, The Art and Science of Teaching Primary Reading can be found here and at other popular bookshops. All royalties will be donated to the Malaria Consortium, a GiveWell-recommended charity. Massive thanks to everyone who has already bought the book. Even bigger thanks to those who have left a review online. It really makes a difference.

The Case for Chunking (or Why Recall and Reasoning are Best Buddies)

Civilisation advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking of them.

A N Whitehead

Recently, I’ve been thinking about the driving lessons I took when I was 17. By the time I first stepped into his car, my instructor had been teaching people to drive for decades. Every sentence he said felt reassuringly rehearsed. This was especially true of a maxim that he repeated whenever I was struggling with an aspect of driving:

“First, we think. Then we practise until we don’t have to.”

Sometimes he’d justify this little maxim by describing hypothetical situations:

“When you see a football rolling into the road in front of you, I want you thinking about the kid that might be chasing after it. You can’t do that if you’re thinking about how to change gear or how to use the brakes. How can you think about the important stuff if you’re still thinking about the little stuff?” 

In other words, my driving instructor recognised the importance of chunking to the development of expertise. 

Chunking is the process through which individual pieces of information are consolidated into larger meaningful units. For example, in my first few driving lessons, I had to pay conscious attention to operating the clutch, moving the gear stick and assessing whether my speed required a gear change. Through conscious thought and practice, these separate actions each became automatic and were eventually chunked into a single unit: changing gear. 

As I developed as a driver, changing gear, using the steering wheel and working the brakes were then chunked into a larger single unit: manoeuvring the car.

Eventually, these aspects were chunked into an even larger single unit: driving competently. 

I am able to drive to a legal standard precisely because various skills and bits of knowledge were consolidated into larger and larger chunks through conscious effort and practice. This chunking of bits of knowledge and skills into larger and larger meaningful units so that we can do more and more complex things is a pretty powerful way to think about the learning process. 

And this brings me onto the year 4 multiplication table check. In relation to the check, an education journalist recently posted the following tweet:

At first glance, we might agree that this is a remarkable state of affairs. After all, don’t we want pupils to grasp that 8 x 7 can be reimagined as (8 x 5) + (8 x 2) or as (8 x 10) – (8 x 3)? Isn’t this reasoning about the distributive property exactly the sort of thing we want pupils to become familiar with? It certainly is. Nevertheless, it seems that the government doesn’t want pupils to use such reasoning to work out basic multiplication facts forever. They want pupils to have chunked these reasoning steps into a single multiplication fact in each case by the end of year 4, as evidenced by the need for rapid recall to pass the multiplication table check. Why might the government see this as necessary?

If we look at the components of the national curriculum that are commonly taught in year 5, it is clear that pupils need to put their knowledge of basic multiplication facts to a lot of use. And if pupils are reasoning their way to basic multiplication facts like 8 x 7 (i.e. reaching the answer of 56 through multiple steps), then we are adding extra steps to any chain of reasoning that they undertake. 

Let’s consider an example of what this means. Imagine that we want to teach pupils that we can work out 8 x 69 using the distributive property. We might consider this as one particular chain of reasoning:

8 x 7 = 56 → 8 x 70 = 560 → 8 x 69 = (8 x 70) – (8 x 1) = 552

This is tricky stuff. It takes time and exactly the sort of understanding of the distributive property to which pupils will have been introduced when they were initially learning about multiplication. Every pupil that has to go through multiple steps to find the answer to 8 x 7 is forced to add extra steps to an already complicated chain of reasoning. In contrast, those that can fluently recall 8 x 7 can focus on this more advanced application of the distributive property.

Let’s consider another example. Imagine that we want pupils to simplify 42/48. If they have to use multiple steps to divide each of these numbers by 6, they are less likely to focus on the underlying mathematics that allows this process to work. (One way of thinking about this process is to recognise the equivalence between 1 and 6/6 and to know that dividing by 1 leaves a value unchanged → 42/48 ÷ 6/6 = 7/8)

In other words, pupils should absolutely be taught to reason their way to basic multiplication facts. But this is part of the learning process, not the end goal. At some point, pupils should be encouraged through practice to recall each basic multiplication fact without having to work them out. (Michael Pershan has a cracking blog on this subject:

I have met many people over the years who have stated that they coped fine with mathematics without being able to recall multiplication facts. This isn’t a surprise. I have no doubt that some are capable of overcoming almost any impediment in almost any situation. The issue really is that not all will overcome these impediments. Having spent a decent chunk of my career working specifically with those who have struggled academically, I am certain that it is these pupils who are most impeded by a lack of foundational knowledge on which to rely. The learning of number bonds and multiplication facts to fluency has often been the catalyst that has led to positive changes in what children deem themselves capable of in mathematics. I make no apology for advocating the fluent recall of multiplication facts as an aim for the vast majority of pupils.

Of course, there are other questions to consider in relation to the multiplication table check:

  • Are the expectations of the national curriculum in year 5 reasonable?
  • Do accountability measures such as the year 4 multiplication table check achieve what they aim to?
  • Will teachers prioritise the learning of multiplication facts with children for whom other aspects of maths might be more urgent (i.e. number bonds inside 20)?

These are interesting questions, and this blog is not a defence of the check itself. Instead, this blog is simply a reaction to the belief that fluent retrieval of multiplication facts (or other foundational knowledge) is somehow at odds with mathematical reasoning. It isn’t. Regardless of one’s views on the multiplication table check, it is perfectly sensible to want pupils to fluently recall basic multiplication facts if we also want them to apply these facts as elements of more advanced reasoning. 

In short, chunking knowledge and skills into larger and larger single units is essential to learning, and the development of arithmetic is no exception to this. Pupils find it much harder to reason with basic multiplication facts if they are still reasoning their way to basic multiplication facts. Aiming for eventual rapid recall of basic multiplication facts is a perfectly sensible aim within any primary mathematics curriculum.

What’s stopping us from teaching reading comprehension really well?

On a scale of 1-10, how good are you at comprehending what people say to you?

It’s a bit of a silly question, isn’t it? Whether or not we comprehend what we are told is dependent on our grasp of the individual words being used, the concepts to which they relate and how these interact to convey meaning. Talk to me about the first nine seasons of The Simpsons using familiar words and I’ll comprehend pretty well. Talk to me about your favourite “anguilliform” Pokemon character and I’ll probably stare at you blankly. Yes, there are some basic capacities that underpin our ability to understand what people say aloud, such as our hearing and our working memory capacity. But – on the assumption that these things aren’t an impediment – our ability to comprehend what we are told is dependent on what we know about the subject at hand and the words being used to describe it. In other words, there is no generic listening comprehension ability. There is instead a vast network of understanding that determines the extent to which we can construct meaning from the words we hear. Trying to determine – or, heaven forbid, quantify – a person’s ability to comprehend what they are told would rely on some way of measuring their grasp of all there is to know about the world and the language used to describe it. How do you measure a person’s entire understanding of their world and their language? How do you effectively sample a domain this extensive? Answer: you can’t.

And this brings me on to reading comprehension. Our ability to comprehend what we read is reliant on much the same network of understanding that is required for listening comprehension. Let’s assume that we can recognise the words on a page fluently enough to free up the cognitive resources necessary for comprehension. Under these circumstances, whether or not we comprehend what we read is dependent on our grasp of the individual words being used, the concepts to which they relate and how these interact to convey meaning. Just as with listening comprehension, this is a domain so vast as to rule out valid assessment. To be clear, what I’m suggesting is that – beyond the development of relatively fluent word recognition* – our ability to comprehend what we read is based on everything we know about our world and our language, alongside an additional layer of knowledge related to written text conventions (e.g. punctuation, sub-headings, italics, etc). How do you measure a person’s entire understanding of their world, their language and the conventions of written texts? Answer: you can’t.

So, we’ve established that trying to measure reading comprehension is a non-starter.** From this, we can assume that the results from reading comprehension assessments need to be interpreted very cautiously, especially on the level of the individual pupil.

And this is where this blogpost would end if reading comprehension assessment hadn’t warped the teaching of reading. But it has. A lot. For the sake of assessment, teachers have been incentivised to see reading comprehension as a generic skill, or, more precisely, a small set of generic skills. If this perspective were a canvas, it would look something like this:

Here is reading comprehension ability interpreted as a small collection of generic skills, things like retrieval, prediction and summarising. Reading comprehension assessments tend to divide the questions they use into a few categories such as these. Countless teachers and school leaders have thus made the understandable leap that teaching reading comprehension is the process of building up each of these generic comprehension skills. They attempt to add another broad-brushstroke layer to a pupil’s prediction skill as a means of filling up the canvas. This conveniently allows for the creation of medium-term plans that state that a given class is working on prediction or inference or some other generic skill. It also allows schools to make lists related to those skills that can be ticked off as children develop. If we’re going to gather evidence of a pupil’s reading comprehension development, then what we presumably need is a small set of statements that correspond to a relatively small set of generic skills. This interpretation of reading comprehension achieves that.

The problem, of course, is that this interpretation is completely bogus. It is based on a view of reading comprehension that is palpably false. Yes, when we comprehend what we read, we tend to be able to retrieve information, to make predictions, to summarise what we have read, etc, and doing this stuff while we read is a useful set of habits that keeps us awake to what we are doing.*** But this is an unhelpful way to visualise our ability to comprehend what we read. I’d argue that this is better:

Forget for a moment the exact scene being portrayed, and consider the means of portraying it. Here reading comprehension ability is interpreted as a vast interacting network of understanding. It is not built up through broad brushstrokes, but through the painstaking accumulation of knowledge about words, texts and the wider world to which they relate. The natural consequence of such an interpretation is that the teaching of reading comprehension must prioritise the guided exploration of text, involving lots of reading and lots of rich discussion. Retrieval, prediction, summarising, etc will naturally form a part of this, but developing these habits is not the central goal of reading comprehension lessons. The central goal of reading comprehension lessons is to understand the specific text being read and the world to which it relates through exploration of the text’s use of language. Everything else is secondary.

However, this interpretation leaves us with some problems. I’ve lost count of the number of school leaders and teachers who – despite their instinctive enthusiasm for this content-focused conception of reading comprehension – have asked the same two questions:

  1. “How would we evidence this?”
  2. “What would this look like in terms of our long-term planning?”

I will address these two questions in turn:

The answer to (1) is simple: Don’t bother.

I’m serious. Just don’t bother. Ofsted have made it abundantly clear that they don’t want teachers gathering evidence for its own sake. If your method of assessment requires you to pretend that reading comprehension is something that it clearly is not, then it’s time to dump that method of assessment. Think instead about how fluently your children read and how much they know about the English language and the wider world. The former can be assessed by hearing children read aloud and by undertaking quick fluency assessments; the latter, however, is not accessible via reference to simple rubrics. Standardised reading assessments may give a very rough idea, but they are not to be relied upon as precise measures of individual progress for all the reasons explained above. It’s time to accept that there are some things that we can measure and other things that we cannot and to change our assessment decisions accordingly.

The answer to (2) is a little more difficult. Think back to the canvas above. To build up a picture like that, many thousands of dots are added across the breadth of the canvas, each chosen partly based on its relationship to the other dots on the canvas. In a content-focused view of teaching reading comprehension, our planning must focus on the content being read – the characters, the themes, the text features, the aspects of the world being described, etc. And it must do so in relation to the rest of that which has been, and will be, added to the canvas. In short, stop focusing on how non-existent generic comprehension skills will be taught. Instead focus on the texts themselves – not least their variety and their relationship to the rest of the curriculum**** – and on how you will ensure that pupils learn lots about them.

A content-focused approach to the teaching of reading comprehension aligns with a more accurate view of reading comprehension. It allows teachers to do away with pointless, time-consuming forms of assessment. It encourages school leaders to re-imagine their reading curriculum primarily in terms of the texts to be shared. Most of all, it offers our pupils a more authentic, enriching and effective experience of reading.

So, what’s stopping us from teaching reading comprehension really well? Absolutely nothing.

If you’d like to find out more about teaching reading, please consider my book, The Art and Science of Teaching Primary Reading: link

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

* Fluent word recognition is also dependent on our broader language comprehension alongside our knowledge of phoneme-grapheme relationships, phonemic skills, etc.

** The Teachwell blog has an excellent series on this idea:

*** There is lots of research into comprehension strategies. This blog is a good place to start if you want to know more:

**** This does not mean that every text has to directly relate to something else in your wider curriculum. It might even be the case that texts are chosen precisely because of how they supplement the curriculum. (E.g. If a primary history curriculum doesn’t include a study of a South American civilisation, a non-fiction text relating to the Maya civilisation might be an apt choice to add breadth to the pupils’ understanding of the challenging – and often controversial – concept of civilisation.)

Five Things I Wish I’d Said About Reading Fluency

A few months ago, my book about the teaching of reading was published. It was my attempt to distill into an accessible format what I had learned from the research into reading, informed by well over a decade of classroom teaching across the primary phase. I like to think that in most cases I got the balance right between accessibility and complexity. Inevitably, though, there are some decisions that I continue to deliberate. Chief among these was my decision to make the fluency chapter as brief as it is. While I hope I communicated the key messages, I think it might have been worth addressing the subject in a little more detail. That is what I will do in this blog.

The key messages that do appear in the fluency chapter of my book can be roughly summarised as follows:

+ Reading fluency is the flow of words as we read. It can be productively analysed by looking at the components of oral reading fluency: accuracy, automaticity and prosody. (I.e. Are the words correct? Do they move at a rate that allows for unconscious decoding? Does the reading sound like a natural spoken voice?)

+ Fluency is supported by orthographic mapping, a process that allows words to be instantly and unconsciously recognised through repeated decoding. For this reason, the quantitative aspect of reading (i.e. how much decoding is undertaken) is an important factor when considering classroom practice.

+ There is a solid evidence base to suggest that repeated oral reading is a helpful way to support reading fluency. This can be organised in classrooms through the use of short texts, teacher modelling and mixed-attainment pairs.

+ Reading fluency can be assessed and this is a particularly useful measure for understanding reading development.

And below are the aspects of reading fluency that I wish I had addressed but didn’t. In most cases they are extra bits of information that I decided to remove for the sake of accessibility. In a few other cases, they are ideas that have developed since I wrote the book due to further reading and discussions with colleagues:

1. Oral reading fluency is a useful proxy for reading fluency more generally, but it isn’t a perfect proxy. A small proportion of children will be unable to read aloud fluently despite having developed perfectly adequate levels of fluency in silent reading. This can be the case for a variety of reasons including speech impediments, anxiety, shyness and neurodiversity. This needs to be kept in mind when considering classroom practice and assessment relating to oral reading fluency. A sensitive approach built on a relationship of trust is essential here (as it is in almost every area of teaching).

2. Fluency, by definition, must relate to the flow of something. To my mind, it makes most sense to consider reading fluency as a description of word flow. This means that this construct is tightly linked with word recognition proficiency. But word recognition is a complicated process that interacts with all elements of reading development. For example, we orthographically map words as we repeatedly decode them by relating them to pronunciations stored in our memory, so our vocabulary is implicated in this process. Equally, prosody relies on our understanding of what is being read. Yes, it is possible to read with prosody without complete comprehension. (Read a nonsense poem aloud for evidence of this.) But prosody is impossible without some grasp of the words being read and the sentence structures being employed. In short, while fluency is closely associated with word recognition, the various elements of language comprehension play a role both in fluency’s operation and in its development.

3. Orthographic mapping potentially involves not just the mapping of whole words, but also chunks of words. Imagine you are presented with a neologism, such as ‘antiventic’. Your decoding of this word would be assisted by the chunks of words that you had already orthographically mapped, such as the morphemes ‘anti’ and ‘ic’.

4. Beyond orthographic mapping, students learn about the wider patterns of English orthography through instruction and reading practice, and this also likely contributes to reading fluency. (This orthographic learning can be seen in our ability to recognise less likely spellings of words that don’t exist: ‘cholp’ seems like a reasonable spelling; ‘tcholp’, in contrast, does not.)

5. Repeated oral reading isn’t the only practice that has been shown to potentially benefit reading fluency. In particular, wide reading (sometimes described as continuous reading), in which students read aloud without the repetition of text, has shown itself to also be effective for this purpose in interventions. There is also some evidence that echo reading and choral reading can have positive effects. However, there are other considerations that lead me to advocate repeated oral reading primarily:

(a) Organising paired oral reading without repetition is a much more challenging logistical feat. Ensuring that partners are supporting each other and that the they are decoding accurately becomes far more challenging when pairs have reached completely different chunks of text, as inevitably happens without repetition.

(b) My experience with repeated oral reading has strongly suggested that pupils who are low in confidence gain a great deal from the opportunity to perform a given text after repeatedly rehearsing it. Repeated oral reading gives students frequent experiences of success that are essential to building motivation.

(c) Repetition of relatively short texts allows teachers to focus on aspects of prosody through modelling in a way that is not easy to achieve otherwise.

(d) Without close supervision of where students’ eyes are attending, echo reading can easily become mere echo speaking. This can give a teacher a sense of accomplishment that all students are involved without the students necessarily relating what they are saying to the text in front of them. (That said, using some echo reading as a way to model the prosody of a text before repeated oral reading may well be useful.)

In short, while fluency is in the early stages, it is guided decoding that seems to be the essential ingredient in practices that support reading fluency development. Of the range of available evidence-informed practices, it is repeated oral reading that I have found to be easiest to organise and most effective.

As ever there is plenty more that I could discuss, but even in a blog (or especially in a blog) the balancing act between accessibility and complexity remains. Thanks for reading.

Ehri, L. C. (2014). Orthographic mapping in the acquisition of sight word reading, spelling memory, and vocabulary learning. Scientific Studies of Reading18(1), 5-21.

Kuhn, M. R., Schwanenflugel, P. J., & Meisinger, E. B. (2010). Aligning theory and assessment of reading fluency: Automaticity, prosody, and definitions of fluency. Reading research

Padeliadu, S., & Giazitzidou, S. (2018). A SYNTHESIS OF RESEARCH ON READING FLUENCY DEVELOMPENT: STUDY OF EIGHT META-ANALYSES. European Journal of Special Education Research.

Pikulski, J. J., & Chard, D. J. (2005). Fluency: Bridge between decoding and reading comprehension. The Reading Teacher58(6), 510-519.quarterly45(2), 230-251.

Rasinski, T. (2014). Fluency matters. International electronic Journal of elementary education7(1), 3-12.

Ardoin, S. P., Binder, K. S., Foster, T. E., & Zawoyski, A. M. (2016). Repeated versus wide reading: A randomized control design study examining the impact of fluency interventions on underlying reading behavior. Journal of School Psychology59, 13-38.

Share, D. L. (1995). Phonological recoding and self-teaching: Sine qua non of reading acquisition. Cognition55(2), 151-218.

A combined spelling and vocabulary timetable for KS2

A little while ago I read an excellent blog by @_MissieBee and @ReBuckEdu on the teaching of spelling. The central idea of their blog was to organise the teaching of spelling across Key Stage 2 by phoneme, consolidating children’s knowledge of the sound-spelling correspondences (sometimes known as grapheme-phoneme correspondences) taught in Key Stage 1. This integrated the spelling rules and spelling lists of the Key Stage 2 national curriculum into sensible framework organised by sound. This idea rang true with my views about phonics and spelling, so I wondered whether this approach could be integrated with the teaching of morphology, etymology (including Latin/Greek root words) and tier-two vocabulary.

In previous blogs (which you can find here and here), I collated lists of tier-two vocabulary and root words that I considered most useful for primary schools. Using these and the national curriculum spelling guidance, I have created timetables for teaching spelling across Key Stage 2:

The basic idea is that – alongside the components of the KS2 national curriculum – the most important tier two vocabulary, morphemes and Latin/Greek root words are organised by their component phonemes, introduced in particular weeks and then repeated across Key Stage 2.

Here is an example of this, specifically week 14 in Year 3:

You can see that the words here are chosen as they all contain within them one spelling of the sound /or/. This emphasises the idea that sounds can be represented in multiple ways. In brackets, you can see that aspects of morphology and etymology (including Latin/Greek root words) are identified. In subsequent weeks, all of these morphemes are repeated in other words. For example, you can see the morpheme ‘de’ in the word ‘deform’. In Year 3, this morpheme also appears in the words ‘dethrone’ and ‘decelerate’. In subsequent year groups, this morpheme appears in ‘deceive’, ‘descent’, ‘destruction’ and ‘dehydrate’ (alongside the morphemes relating ‘ceive’ [take], ‘scent’ [climb], ‘struct’ [build] and ‘hydra’ [water]).

In short, the timetables for each year group in Key Stage 2 attempt to ensure that the content of children’s spelling lessons aligns with their prior knowledge from phonics while also introducing the most common tier-two vocabulary and morphemes, including Latin/Greek root words.

Full disclosure: This is something I’ve only very recently put together. It isn’t tried and tested yet, and it likely has a few kinks to iron out. However, if you think that these spelling timetables might be of use, then they are yours to use as you see fit.

The A4 Curriculum

Imagine a primary geography curriculum that included loads of interesting stuff, but sought principally to ensure the following:

  • children know that geography is the study of how people and places interact
  • children know where they live (locality, county, country and continent)
  • children know the names and locations of the world’s continents and oceans
  • children know what rivers, mountains, coasts, rainforests and volcanoes are, including one notable example of each and a simple grasp of the impact each of these can have on communities
  • children know key differences between rural and urban areas
  • children know that some places are very different to others
  • children know basic map & fieldwork skills
  • children enjoy geography

I’m pretty sure of two things:

(1) This geography curriculum would be seen by many as laughably unambitious.

(2) A decade from now, most Year 6s will continue to leave primary school without achieving these objectives.

The apparent contradiction between (1) and (2) says a lot about the predicament faced by primary schools. They are incentivised by the current education climate to spell out the breadth of their curriculum. This is no bad thing. Unfortunately, this same incentive is likely to discourage schools from spelling out the much shorter list of the most important knowledge and skills that almost all children should possess by the time they leave in Year 6. If everything is a priority, then nothing is.

This doesn’t just impact geography, of course. It’s easy to say, “Our Year 3 children can all recall the formula for photosynthesis because we are just much more ambitious than other schools; we know what children can really achieve.”

It’s much harder to say, “Unrealistic ambitions for what children will retain tend to leave many of them without a solid grasp of the most important stuff.”

Unfashionable an idea though this might be, it is obviously possible to have expectations that are so high as to be counter-productive. School leaders across the country are building curricula with two purposes in mind: impressing Ofsted and securing better outcomes for children. My fear is that these two purposes are not always aligned, and this is particularly apparent with regards to the ambition of a curriculum.

This all might seem pretty rich coming from me. I recently shared curriculum packages for science, history and geography, which can be found here: These curriculum packages contained far more knowledge and skills than we can expect the majority of children to learn in primary school. However, what we specify as the content of our curriculum is very different to the aspects of the curriculum that we should aim to guarantee are learned by almost every child. I care barely at all whether a Year 6 child can remember the names of particular inventors of the industrial revolution. I care quite a lot about whether that same child can remember, in basic terms, what the industrial revolution actually was and its effects. Alongside the full offer of the curriculum – including all the stories, maps, timelines, interesting nuggets of information, experiences, etc – we need to specify the essential stuff that every child should know when they leave primary school. Discussion of ‘core and hinterland’ over recent years has helped, but we need to go further.

My suggestion? We need an A4 curriculum. For the foundation subjects, we should spell out on one side of A4 only the knowledge and skills that almost every child will grasp before leaving primary school. We should then share this with teachers so they know which bits of the curriculum need to be referred to again and again from different angles with different connections.

And we need to assess the stuff on this A4 curriculum at the end of Year 6. The only way an unstandardised assessment can have meaning is if it is one on which we expect all children to know everything (give or take the odd silly error). Without standardisation, it is a fool’s errand to try to determine whether a score of 30% or 60% or 90% indicates a curriculum well learned. In contrast, an assessment on which we expect almost all children to know everything is one that can be used to make useful judgements about a curriculum. Over time, a school could even begin to cautiously expand the breadth of content on the A4 curriculum, but not before ensuring that children consistently leave school in possession of it all.

To reiterate, this is not a call to limit what children are taught and what they experience in foundation subjects. It is a call to realign our expectations of what the majority of children will retain. It is a call to temper the curriculum conversations that are so rarely encumbered by the inconvenience of reality as experienced by classroom teachers. Most of all, it is a call to ensure that the masonry of our curriculum is solid, despite the temptation to focus as much on the décor that we suspect will impress Ofsted.

In my science, history and geography curriculum packages, I tried my best to spell out the breadth of knowledge and skills that teachers will use in their lessons so that they can focus more on the ‘how’ of teaching than on the ‘what’. My next job is to spell out an A4 Curriculum for each of these subjects at my school and to assess the efficacy of our curriculum primarily on this basis. If what I have said in this blog has struck a chord, perhaps you will consider doing the same with your foundation curricula.

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:

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:

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: