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 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.

One stop shop for @Suchmo83 resources

I hope you find something useful in here. Feel free to share these resources as you see fit, but please mention where you got them from when you do. Thanks.

Curriculum packages

  1. Science

In the blog linked here, you will find a folder that contains science curriculum overviews for the entirety of primary science, including all the knowledge and skills to be taught. It also includes the big ideas and key concepts of primary science, basic information texts for each topic, built-in retrieval, vocabulary to be taught (and retrieved), suggested enquiries for each topic and much more:

https://primarycolour.home.blog/2021/04/07/curriculum-giveaway-2-0-science/:

2. Geography

In the blog linked here, you will find a folder that contains geography curriculum overviews for the entirety of primary geography, including all the knowledge and skills to be taught. It also includes key concepts of primary geography, basic information texts for each topic, built-in retrieval, vocabulary to be taught (and retrieved) and much more:

primarycolour.home.blog/2021/04/24/curriculum-giveaway-2-0-geography/

It is presented in the same format as the science document above, to which explicit cross-curricular links are made.

3. History

In the blog linked here, you will find a folder that contains history curriculum overviews for the entirety of primary history, including all the knowledge and skills to be taught. It also includes key concepts of primary history, basic information texts for each topic, built-in retrieval, vocabulary to be taught (and retrieved) and much more:

https://primarycolour.home.blog/2021/06/01/curriculum-giveaway-2-0-history/



Spelling

This is a timetable of combined spelling and vocabulary in KS2 that aligns with the teaching of phonics and embeds tier two vocabulary, morphology and Latin & Greek root words into the teaching of spelling:

Maths

This is a number bonds catch up resource and related plan, based on sequencing discussed by Liping Ma. It is best used alongside the development of number sense and use of appropriate visual representations (such as ten-frames and two-colour counters), but I have also had some success with it as a stand-alone programme:

https://drive.google.com/folderview?id=1sHZogNKN9C58nSCuwouBJOZC9hJ_Ruxj


This is a selection of interactive maths resources useful for counting, subitising, place value and mental arithmetic: https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1nTa0CtUxJSxGggG4n8nDhHFFzCXPle-a?usp=sharing



English

Here is a link to a video that introduces teachers to phonics: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LAAyL1V0Qp8&t=10s

While it was originally created for secondary teachers and leaders, I think it might be of use to others from any phase who are new to phonics.


This is my tier-two vocabulary word list. It was created using Coxhead’s Academic Word List and the tier-two words found among several lists of the most common words in the English language. (References for these can be found in the document itself. If you would like to know the rationale used for choosing the vocabulary, read this blog: https://primarycolour.home.blog/2019/06/14/tier-two-vocabulary-for-primary-teachers-the-3-4-5-list/):

https://www.dropbox.com/s/wgl1jk0iz3pu5sv/tier%20two%20word%20list.docx?dl=0




Here is a list of useful root words for primary teaching of vocabulary:

https://www.dropbox.com/s/y4v1d3ptl3f39j4/root%20words%20list.docx?dl=0



Here are some notes and key quotes from Mark Seidenberg’s excellent book on the science behind reading, Language at the Speed of Sight. It is, in my view, essential reading for any person who teaches reading:

https://www.dropbox.com/s/0mk243f1l0s2r5a/Reading%20at%20the%20Speed%20of%20Sight%20-%20notes.docx?dl=0








The fundamental unaddressed issue of education

Perhaps I’m totally wrong about everything that follows. The problem with being the person saying that the emperor has no clothes is that 99 times out of 100, the emperor really is wearing clothes and the person seeing a naked emperor is merely hallucinating. However, given how strongly I feel about this subject, I don’t feel I can keep quiet, so here goes: there is a fundamental unaddressed issue in education. I see a naked emperor, and either he needs a new tailor, or I need some strong medication.

So, what is this fundamental unaddressed issue? Well, it takes a little explaining. As all foundation stage and key stage one teachers are acutely aware, children arrive at school with a vast range of experiences and abilities. There is an overwhelming difference between a child who has just turned four from a challenging family background and a child who is about to turn five from a supportive family background. (There are a variety of other reasons why such differences might exist. I have selected age and family background differences merely for illustrative purposes.) Attention spans, inhibitory control and social skills between these children vary to a bewildering degree. The first two years of education are spent desperately trying to get all children ready to learn, and teachers of the youngest children do a remarkable job… which brings us to Year 2 where I currently reside. At this stage, most children are just about ready to learn some academic content. And the fundamental unaddressed issue arises.

Let me give an illustrative example: the class is supposed to already be able to count up to and down from 100, according to the national curriculum objectives for Year 1, and around 2/3 of the average class can. This 2/3 is, in general, older and from more supportive family backgrounds. Around 1/3 of the average class, however, are completely lost. This 1/3 are, of course, on average younger and from less supportive family backgrounds. Their number formation is iffy, naming numbers above 20 is inconsistent at best, etc. All of the mathematics learning from the Year 1 part of the national curriculum is either dysfluent or entirely missing for the 1/3. The 2/3 however are ready to learn at a Year 2 level. They have practised number formation and counting at home and, in fact, much of the Year 2 curriculum is already understood by them before the year even begins. Of course, the split between the 1/3 and the 2/3 is actually more of a spectrum across the class, but this artificial split is indicative of a crucial dividing line between those who – in the time that is available – will be able to keep up with the pace of content, and those who will not, due to gaps that already exist in their knowledge compared to their peers. With the Year 2 SATs in the back of the teacher’s mind, they dive into the teaching of two-digit place value. After a couple of weeks the divide between the 2/3 and the 1/3 is apparent. The 2/3 understand everything – in fact, they knew most of it before the year began. The 1/3 are still lost. The previous gaps in basic counting and number formation have slowed any understanding of place value massively, and they need much more time on this. Unable to tolerate holding the rest of the class back, the teacher sets up an intervention group – 40 minutes per week with a TA during assemblies and art/music lessons – and hopes that the kids will catch up. They won’t. This is the a fundamental unaddressed issue of education, and – speaking as someone who has worked as an intervention teacher with every age group from A-Level down to foundation stage – its effects amplify as a child in the 1/3 moves through school.  

This is the status quo. Now, the easy answer to this – and one that regular readers of my blogs are probably expecting me to give – is some idealistic advocacy of a mastery approach, where the teacher doesn’t move on and provides deepening tasks that stretch the 2/3 while the 1/3 catch up. However, this isn’t that simple for two reasons:

1. The 1/3 are a long way behind. Catching up is a process that will take several weeks of teaching, at least, and probably require a much slower pace for the remainder of the year.

2. The vast majority of teachers, including relatively experienced ones like me, do not have the subject-specific knowledge to create these deepening tasks that genuinely stretch the understanding of the 2/3 while giving the teacher the time to catch up the 1/3.

Currently, from my experience, what happens in the majority of schools – though I’m sure that many will wish to pretend otherwise – is that this problem is ignored. The teacher moves on with the curriculum and the 1/3 is, effectively, written off. Interventions, overly scaffolded tasks and lots of adult support for the 1/3 help salve consciences, but make no mistake: the moment the curriculum moves on, most of the 1/3 have had their education utterly undermined, in most cases for no reason beyond the child’s poor fortune at being born in August or being from a family that didn’t teach them to count.

This fundamental unaddressed issue plays out across all subjects, through gaps in letter formation, phonics, etc, but it is particularly pronounced in strictly hierarchical subjects like mathematics. Some of the 1/3 do catch up, thankfully. Perhaps they are August-born children from supportive homes who just need a little more maturity and lot of help from mum or dad, but this is not the case for the majority of the 1/3. For them, education will be an increasingly demotivating process of watching the gaps between them and their peers grow and grow.

This isn’t an attack on key stage one teachers, who obviously are as talented and conscientious as the rest of the profession. Like all teachers, we operate within a system, and where problems arise, they are due to this system and the incentives that define it. There is no simple solution to this. The alternative to moving on with the curriculum is to accept that – for the long-term benefit of the entire class – the learning of the bottom 1/3 must be prioritised for a considerable period of time. Just imagine the uproar from the parents of the top 2/3 if this were an explicit policy of a school. Remember: the higher the numbers of disadvantaged pupils, the slower the curriculum would likely need to move. This itself would disadvantage the ‘brightest’ children in schools with higher socioeconomic disadvantage. And don’t forget Year 2 SATs; the curriculum must be covered ready for these! And this brings me back to @Solomon_teach’s blog. He advocates a smaller curriculum across the entirety of a child’s education as a solution, as I see it, to the effects of the fundamental unaddressed issue. I agree with the sentiment, but I have to say that I only partly agree with the suggested solution. The curriculum is almost certainly too large in key stage one. However, I strongly suspect that there is plenty of time to teach the entire curriculum – as it stands – in key stage two and beyond if the gaps that exist between the 2/3 and the 1/3 are addressed when they first arise in key stage one as a matter of priority. The current slow pace of learning in key stage two and beyond is dictated by the gaps that exist between the 2/3 and the 1/3 and the near impossibility of addressing them once they have become too large. (Teaching the rounding of numbers, for example, to children who have a weak understanding of place value does indeed take a long time. With genuine understanding of place value, however, children grasp it rapidly.) The accumulation of the gaps between the 2/3 and the 1/3 slows the pace for everyone. We can teach the entire curriculum to almost everyone, but not without some difficult choices in key stage one.

What the prioritisation of the 1/3 in key stage one would look like in practice is up for debate. I imagine that many schools across the country have already recognised the fundamental unaddressed issue and have taken some radical steps in an attempt to address it. I imagine that these schools aim to get everyone to a similar standard by the end of Year 2 or even Year 3 so that all can learn at a good pace thereafter. (The brilliant @mattswain36 has discussed with me the idea of using timetable slots of ‘keep up time’ to – among other things – give teachers time to consistently address the gaps between the 2/3 and 1/3 in key stage one; this ‘keep up time’ then remains as a buffer for any child who needs a little more time with a new concept, facilitating a mastery approach to teaching.) I am convinced that prioritising the learning of the bottom 1/3 in key stage one benefits every child in a school in the long term. Sadly, I don’t see the majority of the profession accepting my view of this fundamental unaddressed issue any time soon. It’s much easier to pretend the issue isn’t there. Many will argue that I have presented a false choice between prioritising the 1/3 in key stage one – allowing them to catch up – and moving at a pace that suits the 2/3. However, in my experience, attempts to compromise between these two choices always drift inexorably towards the status quo, and once again the 1/3 are left behind.

As I said at the start, perhaps I’m wrong about all of this. Perhaps I’m seeing a problem that isn’t really there. Nevertheless, I see a naked emperor, and I suspect everyone else does too.

Coming to a staff meeting near you…

“Good afternoon. Is everyone here? Oh yes, of course. Don’t worry about Miss Boxer. She heard about this stuff at our SLT meeting. Let’s make a start. Today I’d like to take a little time to talk about pupil voice. Let’s start by chatting with our table about what you think pupil voice might be, and write whatever you come up with on to the post-it notes on your table…”

*Three minutes of talking about everything but pupil voice, except when the session leader is near*

“…Is that all of the post-its? Lovely. I especially like this one that says ’empowerment’. You’ve all clearly got the gist. The short version is that pupil voice is all about what the children think of the school and their learning. As you will already know, Ofsted is just around the corner. We’ve talked a great deal about the importance of knowing your subject inside out – hence the hour of leadership time you each received last term. However, from discussions with other school leaders, the word on the grapevine is that pupil interviews are a really significant part of the new Ofsted inspections. Our local secondary school was recently inspected and apparently around 300 students out of the 2000 were interviewed at some point. They were asked about every aspect of school life: classroom atmosphere, teaching, homework, clubs, bullying, the school’s leadership… everything, really. Now, take a few minutes to write down on your post-it notes what you think our children would say about this school…”

*Three minutes of discussion about the students’ complete lack of a frame of reference due to – in most cases, at least – their experience of only one school followed by one minute of finding something inoffensive to write.*

“This is all great: ‘Fun lessons.’ ‘Lots of clubs.’ ‘School council.’ Someone’s written ‘they all want more PE’. Yes… well, that’s definitely something to think about. I reckon we can all agree that our children really love coming to this school and the learning that they do. The challenge for us is to ensure that this love of our school that the children have is accurately represented in what they say to visitors. It can be hard for children to think on the spot, so it wouldn’t really be fair on them if we didn’t support them to express themselves clearly. Fortunately, we’ve been in touch with a school that recently achieved an outstanding grade for the first time ever, and they’ve kindly shared some advice that seems to have worked for them. Effectively, they recommended creating a set of school mantras that the children learn to help them better understand their school. We’ve managed to weave these together with our school values and these are what we’ve come up with:

Lessons are fun, so we work hard.

We behave well so that we can learn.

We learn about lots of exciting things.

We love our after-school clubs.

My teachers always deal with bullying and we feel safe.

I will work harder.

Actually, scrub that last one. It gives me an uneasy feeling for some reason, and I think that more than five might lessen their impact. The question now is how to familiarise children with our mantras so that they can really express themselves if any visitors happen to ask about our school. In our SLT meeting, we thought about teaching them daily in a call-and-response fashion, but we think the key thing is that children hear these mantras several times throughout each day as a natural response to various situations. So, what we’ll be looking for in the next set of lesson observations – and during learning walks – is teachers using these mantras at every possible opportunity. For example, when dealing with disruption in your class, best practice would be to say ‘we behave well, so that we can learn’ while giving the student their verbal warning card. Effectively, if these mantras are going to roll off the children’s tongues, they need to hear them hundreds of times. Encourage children to use the mantras. Don’t be stingy with the house points when you hear children saying one of them. Let them know that these mantras are a great way for them to express exactly how they feel about our wonderful school. Does that make sense?

Ah, Miss Boxer, just in time. Your enthusiasm for this sort of thing is always appreciated. Let’s all take some time to say the mantras together…”

Lesson 1 – Once upon a time, there was a daddy…

I am back in year two. I haven’t taught this age group since being an HLTA several years ago, and since then almost all of my teaching experience has been built in years 5 and 6. At some point, I have taught or tutored – at least briefly – at every stage of education from Foundation Stage to A-Level (with a bit of informal maths tutoring for chemistry undergraduates), and every age group has given me a slightly different perspective on how people learn and what it means to be an educator. Mostly that sense of a new perspective is revealed incrementally over the space of months and years, but sometimes there are epiphanies and sudden feelings that a tiny threshold of understanding has been crossed. One such moment occurred yesterday, a few hours after an English lesson on fairy tales. After reading the class some examples and asking the children to share with me the variety of such stories that they have encountered – filling the flip-chart with a long list of the typical characters within them – we began to write some sentences using the following sentence stem: Once upon a time, there lived…

The vast majority of children wrote sentences like these:

Once upon a time, there lived a brave little dragon called Sparkles.

Once upon a time, there lived a knight called Megan.

Once upon a time, there lived a beautiful princess with long purple hair.

After hearing some of these sentences read aloud, I asked one boy to share his example. He replied with unerring confidence, “Once upon a time, there was a daddy.”

I paused briefly to take in what the boy had said, and then suggested that maybe he might want to reconsider his choice of character to make it ‘feel’ more like a traditional fairy tale. I then thought about this no more.

Later yesterday evening, my partner asked me about my day, and I explained how difficult I was finding it to adjust to the academic level of my class. I told her about ‘Once upon a time, there was a daddy.

She gave me a sympathetic look and then asked, “What words did you actually use to describe the characters that you wanted the children to write about?”

I thought for a moment – groping to understand her point – and then, suddenly, I crossed a tiny threshold of understanding:

“I said to the class, ‘Perhaps your character is some kind of hero.’ ”

The sentence that the boy had written about his daddy –  a sentence at the time that flew past as one of a stream of minor frustrations at my own inexpert teaching – was actually rather beautiful. A six-year-old had been asked to think of a hero, and he had chosen ‘a daddy’. Not just ‘daddy’, but ‘a daddy’, indefinite article and all. To him, the vague notion of fatherhood and its monumental presence in his world was nothing short of heroic. In worrying about whether this child had really grasped the idea of a traditional fairy tale character, I had completely missed the naïve loveliness of what he had written. Of course, it is our job to educate children about their world and to help them mature, but we are fools if – as I was in my lesson yesterday – we are incapable of marveling at the fleeting beauty of their innocence.

I suspect I will like teaching in year 2.