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.

Should children be taught how to write stories before their letter formation is fluent?

From next Thursday, I will be teaching in year 2 for the first time in seven years. Yesterday, I visited my classroom, doing the usual odd jobs that I suspect are as much about psychological acclimatisation as logistical preparation. My partner kindly offered to help, and I asked her to stick in some bits of writing that my new class had attempted on move up day.

“Uh, Chris?” she said as she began leafing through the few sentences each of them had written about themselves.

“What?” I replied.

“Why have they each written several sentences when most of them clearly can’t form letters properly?”

The children had written three or four sentences about themselves following a template that I had modeled. In about 90% of the pieces of writing, letters had been missed out. The handwriting was often borderline indecipherable. Letters were formed in a variety of ways.

“They’re only six years old,” I said. “They’ve got a long way to go yet. Don’t worry.”

“Oh, thank goodness,” my partner said. “This is a one off task. Of course. How could they possibly think about whole sentences while they’re still having to think about what way to move a pencil to form a letter ‘h’? You won’t be getting them to write sentences until they’re fluent in forming letters, right?”

I explained that, based on the national curriculum requirements and the planning that had been done by previous year 2 teachers in my school, my first lesson would involve the children attempting to write a story. An entire story. Then, I would spend around fifteen lessons teaching them about conjunctions, basic punctuation and how a plot should progress. All the while, we’d be learning a story that they would use to create their final piece of narrative writing, against which I would judge progress. I also said that – as someone with little key stage one experience – I didn’t want to veer significantly from what previous teachers had done, and – besides – I had to consider the writing moderation that would take place at the end of the year. My partner looked at me for a second – giving me a moment to confess that this was just a wind up – before realising that I was being serious.

“Bear with me: You’ve had students arrive from central Europe before, haven’t you?” my partner asked. “What’s their handwriting like when they arrive?”

“Much better than most of the kids I teach,” I replied sheepishly. My partner, you see, is originally from Slovakia. Her entire educational experience, from age 6 to age 23, was spent in Považská Bystrica and Bratislava, so she sees the English primary education system from an outsider’s perspective. (She’s been a maths teacher for seven years, so she is already reconciled to the eccentricities of secondary education in this country.)

“Do you want to know why our handwriting is so good?” she continued. Tempted though I was to tease her that it was a bit gauche of her to group several central European nations under the same possessive pronoun, I kept quiet. “We practise,” she said. “First we learn how to draw lines and circles and squares and loops. Then, we all practice writing letters fluently. And once we all can do that, then we begin writing words and sentences.”

“Isn’t that a bit…dull?” I asked.

“At my school, we learned handwriting for about an hour a day, but it was split into two or three chunks. We never saw it as boring. At that stage, the rest of learning Slovak focused on reading, especially being read to aloud. We loved that. I think it’s still the same. The children arrive at school having experienced very different things. Ensuring that all children can grip a pen and write letters fluently levels the playing field so that we can all progress together. By age ten, we are all writing stories and essays and speeches. Don’t you find that here the least advantaged children are left behind when you teach writing this way? Perhaps we are more sensitive to that as a country with a communistic history.”

And then she said something that I haven’t been able to get out of my head since:

“Forcing them to write stories before they can fluently form letters just seems a bit… cruel.”


I’m not arrogant enough to call for an overhaul of how we teach early writing on the basis of one conversation. Nevertheless, when I first taught year 2 as an HLTA early in my career, I admit to being astonished to find myself teaching five-part story structure and effective description to six-year-olds, children who mostly hadn’t grasped fluent letter formation. My teaching experience has almost entirely been in upper key stage two. It would be unwise for me to suggest that I have anything like the knowledge required to advocate the Slovak approach to handwriting – though it is much closer aligned to the mastery principles that I would advocate in other areas of the curriculum. I will however dare to ask the following questions in the hope that those with more experience can dispel my fears about the coming year:

  1. Considering what we perhaps can conclude from a model of working memory, why do we expect children who can’t form letters fluently to be able to focus on things like spelling and sentence construction?

2. Might it be the case that the children who have learned how to form letters quickly – perhaps at home, through natural gifts or through just being a bit older – learn plenty from the teaching of sentences and story structure while those that haven’t learn little as they concentrate on making the letter ‘p’ look right? Might this inadvertently exacerbate disadvantage?

3. Is early writing taught this way for sound reasons? Is it a case of inertia? (i.e. we teach this way because this is how we’ve always done it.) Or is it just an inelegant attempt to match our teaching to the national curriculum statements?


As I have said, I am not an expert in early writing. Please let me know where I’m going wrong or what I should read to dispel the doubts that I have. In the meantime, I will continue to have concerns about my own teaching of writing, ones that I will attempt to ameliorate through daily handwriting practice. If children wish to express their early thoughts on stories in a written (or spoken) form, then I am all for it. However, guiding a class step-by-step through a written narrative seems to me like time poorly spent at this stage in their development. Thanks for reading.

How I will teach reading this year


I’m pretty confident that for most of my teaching career I taught reading badly. I assiduously followed whatever structure was handed down from on high – and then ditched it as soon as a new structure was rolled out. As a trainee, I’d read the government-issued Letters and Sounds document, but I didn’t have any idea of how children actually learned to read, which in hindsight seems utterly bonkers. In education we are only ever dealing in best bets, so certainty is always misplaced, but the science behind how people learn to read is arguably the most studied area of cognitive psychology. We should take advantage of that, and this is what I will attempt to do this year.

Here are some key points that I think primary teachers need to understand in order to teach reading well:

  • Solid phonological awareness underpins reading. Some children really struggle with phonics, but make their way towards something resembling fluency through other means (usually decoding the first few letters of a word followed by excellent semantic guesswork). In my experience, many of these children eventually come unstuck as their semantic guesswork increasingly fails when texts become more complex. (I’ve seen this happen in KS3 with children who have scored well on a year 6 SATs reading paper.) If a child’s understanding of phonics is weak, stick with phonics. Even if a child’s grasp of phonics never reaches a high standard, every small step towards that is a major advantage.
  • Reading fluency is an important step between phonics and the skills of reading comprehension. It needs to be explicitly and regularly taught if the vast majority of students are to become fluent. Reading fluency can be thought of as consisting of three elements: automaticity, accuracy and prosody (i.e. fluent readers read quickly, easily and with the patterns and rhythm of spoken language). Reading fluency is best achieved through repeated oral reading.[i] This entails children reading aloud and repeating passages or paragraphs, consciously aiming for fluent reading. Undertaking this with an adult, while ideal, is simply not logistically feasible, but reading aloud in dyadic pairs (described later) is an effective alternative. This is best achieved through the reading of texts that are somewhat beyond the grasp of the children.
  • In order to build up the knowledge and vocabulary upon which their future learning will rely, children need to read independently and often. However, inculcating a love of independent reading in children who are not yet fluent is extremely difficult. It seems to be the case that being a good reader is what initially causes children to develop beneficial independent reading habits rather than vice versa,[ii] though once established the relationship is likely reciprocal.
  • Comprehension and inference can be improved through the teaching of generic reading strategies, but these strategies have their full impact after a very short period and focusing lots of attention on these wastes precious time that could be spent on the real substance of reading, which is…
  • …vocabulary, background knowledge and knowledge of syntax. Along with reading fluency, comprehension is based upon one’s understanding of the words in the text, the concepts to which the words are directly or indirectly referring and the structure of the language. Each of these is a huge and diverse knowledge domain. Due to this, we must understand the importance of text selection. Children should read a wide variety of non-fiction to develop their knowledge of the world along with some fiction. (I’d advocate a greater focus on non-fiction when explicitly teaching reading as children should experience more fiction when teachers share a chapter book with the class each day.)
  • The teaching of spelling rules and morphology is an underrated component of teaching children to read.[iii] (Personally, I would add etymology to this mix, but I’m not sure of the evidence base for this suggestion.)

In contrast, much of the teaching that I have observed (and done) touches on the key points above without ever prioritising them. The reading sessions I have seen instead generally displayed the following attributes:

  • The texts are chosen to match the reading ability of the children and sometimes the topic children are learning about, but they are not chosen for the explicit purpose of building up children’s knowledge of the world.
  • The vocabulary and context of the text is sometimes discussed, but it is seen as secondary to the generic inference or comprehension skills that are apparently being developed in the session.
  • Fluency is rarely the explicit aim. Children may spend some time reading aloud to a teacher or a partner, but this rarely adds up to more than 10-15 minutes of reading aloud per week.

Based on what I have seen, I think a shift in perspective is required: we must focus on developing reading fluency. In addition, we must remember that when children are reading, what is being learned is entirely contained within the vocabulary and knowledge inherent to the text itself. If the text is about volcanoes, then that day’s lesson is about learning the background knowledge and vocabulary relating to volcanoes (along with whatever syntactical structures are contained within the text.) When a child asks where volcanoes are found and the teacher shows a map of the globe with the tectonic plate margins delineated, that is teaching reading as much as discussing why the author chose a specific simile or explaining how to summarise a paragraph. The ability to read is like an ability to see the images described in a pointillist painting where each person sees a different number of dots on their own canvas: experienced readers have enough dots to comprehend the entire image in fine detail; beginning readers can only see a few dots on their canvas. Tempting though the prospect is, trying to directly teach the ‘skill’ of reading comprehension is like trying to explain what the picture shows as if that will make it actually appear. Doing so has brief advantages, but the bulk of our teaching is better conceived as adding as many dots as we can to the children’s canvasses and spreading these dots as widely as possible.

Here’s how I will try to achieve that this year:

1. At the beginning of this year, I will hear each child read to find which of them are fluent readers. (As a rule of thumb, I count children’s reading as fluent when they can read aloud at more than 120 words per minute with good prosody from an age-appropriate text and then answer a basic comprehension question.) Where phonics is an issue, systematic interventions will be put into place or whole-class phonics teaching will be implemented if more than 20% of the children require it. If phonics is necessary, this will naturally require familiarity with my school’s phonics scheme.

2. If fewer than 80% of the children are fluent, as I expect to be the case, I will undertake daily fluency practice in mixed-ability dyadic pairs (a practice outlined in some detail in Timothy Shanahan’s blog.[iv]) This entails children reading to one another from a text aimed at the best readers in the class for 20 minutes in total – 10 minutes each in alternating periods of roughly 5 minutes. All of the children will read the same text. Sometimes the paragraph will be read aloud to the children beforehand; other times they will dive in without this assistance. The children will read designated passages repeatedly – up to three or four times – aiming for fluency. The listening partners will keep track of where the reading partner is up to using a ruler and will be trained to offer support in decoding unfamiliar words. Where neither partner can decode a word, they will be expected to write it down for me to discuss later in the session. All students will gain from explicitly developing their fluency in this way, but the dysfluent will gain the most. The final 10 minutes of these half-hour sessions will be spent sharing the knowledge and vocabulary underpinning the text and discussing questions relating to comprehension, inference and authorial intent. (Where necessary, some of this discussion will take place before the children begin to read, so that the fluency practice is bookended by discussion of vocabulary and knowledge.)

3. If more than 80% of the children are fluent, I will undertake daily fluency practice in a guided group with the few children who are not yet fluent. At the same time, the rest of the class will read longer texts, sometimes in silence, sometimes aloud with a partner, but without the need for repeated reading, something most useful for developing fluency. As before, the final third of the session will be spent discussing unfamiliar vocabulary and the knowledge underpinning the text. There is an argument to be made here that the fluent readers are getting less of my time than those that are dysfluent. While this may be true, it is not to my mind an issue of fairness; the fluent readers can learn while reading independently as long as I discuss the text with them before and/or afterwards; the same is not true for dysfluent readers. If all children reach fluency, we will read a variety of texts together, sometimes in silence and sometimes aloud. At this stage, my key considerations will be mileage (the amount of reading my class is undertaking each day) and content (the knowledge of the language and of the world needed to comprehend the text).

4. Texts are chosen with variety in mind. Through the school year, children will read various texts on subjects from across the curriculum, but many that I choose will go beyond this. Texts might discuss marsupials, hurricanes, Gilgamesh, the history of flight or Mozart. All of these subjects – and the language and knowledge gained – adds a new set of dots to that canvas.

5. Beyond reading sessions, spelling and morphology will be explicitly taught. In particular, the explicit teaching of morphology will use words that the class already know to develop familiarity with the patterns of suffixes and prefixes that they will encounter frequently when they read. Word matrices can be a useful way of showing this:

6. I will spend at least 20 minutes each day reading stories to my class. Sometimes I will pause to discuss unfamiliar vocabulary, metaphors, stylistic features, etc, but more often than not the focus will be on the right pace to encourage engagement. The primary aim here will be to associate reading with enjoyment. Anything else is a bonus. [v]

7. I will do everything in my power to encourage children to read at home independently if they are fluent, including recommending books. (@smithsmm and @MissL_Y5 are both great Twitter people to ask for advice on children’s books. I’d highly recommend that you follow both.) For children who are not fluent, I will discuss how parents can best support their children by reading with them at home, including the basics of fluency practice and how to segment and blend words. (Regardless, it’s worth noting here that parental support is necessary for but not sufficient for many children to learn to read. Lots of children can be read with at home every night in a family that values books and still not necessarily becoming fluent readers. Schools must take ultimate responsibility for children learning to read.) Over the longer term, independent reading is absolutely essential. There simply isn’t enough time in the school day for children to build up the bank of orthographic knowledge that is a requisite of mature reading.


And that’s about it. How I teach reading is a work in progress. It is an attempt to align what I’m doing with the vast body of available research and the interpretations of this research made by experts in the field. I’m fairly confident that my views will evolve through the year, and any advice you can offer – or reading you can direct me towards – that will accelerate that evolution would be much appreciated.


[i] https://www.nichd.nih.gov/sites/default/files/publications/pubs/nrp/Documents/report.pdf

[ii] http://www.shanahanonliteracy.com/blog/isnt-independent-reading-a-research-based-practice#sthash.KsItNrst.dpbs

[iii] The Effects of Morphological Instruction on Literacy Skills: A Systematic Review of the Literature; (Bowers, Kirby & Deacon, 2010)

[iv] http://shanahanonliteracy.com/blog/how-to-teach-fluency-so-that-it-takes#sthash.tRGlpbNw.dpbs

[v] https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/lit.12141

Edutwitter’s insecurities on display

Counsellor: Good afternoon to you both. I know we’ve been here together many times before, but I think it’s important that before we begin we remind ourselves of some ground rules for what is said in here. The first thing to note is that coming to counselling is a step in the right direction. It shows that both of you understand that there is something valuable in your relationship, something worth repairing and nurturing. The second thing is that this is a safe place. There are no bad thoughts or feelings. This is a place where you can express yourself without fear of recrimination. Does that make sense to you both?

Trad: Yep.

Prog: Absolutely.

Counsellor: Let’s start by discussing your most recent disagreement. Has there been anything that has caused some tension?

Trad: Not recently.

Prog: Well, there was something, but it’s silly really. We got into a fight…

Trad: It wasn’t a fight.

Prog: Fair enough. There was some tension about our classroom displays. I merely spent a couple of hours…

Trad: More like a couple of days.

Prog: I spent some time making my classroom look warm and inviting for the children that I teach, and when I started showing a few pictures and videos of it, you’d think the world was about to end.

Trad: But it’s such a waste of time. Think of the cognitive load for the children. It’s all for show.

Prog: Well, you’re just as bad. Showing off to your colleagues about how sparsely decorated your classroom is. Maybe you would like to work somewhere that’s sterile and unstimulating, but that’s not what I want for my class. It’s just another example of a secondary teacher telling a primary teacher how to do their job.

Trad: Plenty of primary teachers agree with me.

Counsellor: Can I pause you both for a second? I’d like to see if we can unpick what’s really being said here. I hope you don’t mind me saying, but this disagreement seems to be similar to the rest.

Trad: The rest?

Counsellor: Yes. The arguments about behaviour, pedagogy, outdoor poetry recitals, velociraptors… It’s the same underlying cause. The one that I mention every week.

Prog: Insecurities?

Counsellor: Exactly. Well remembered. Can you see where I’m coming from?

Trad:

Prog:

Counsellor: Allow me to explain. Think back to our first session. Why do you think the discussion of zero tolerance got so tense?

Trad: Because it really matters. It’s kids’ futures we’re talking about here.

Prog: Absolutely. The idea of children being stifled by authoritarian…

Trad: Oh, here we go again.

Counsellor: Pause! The reason why behaviour is such a tense issue is not its importance. It is that it relates to your own personal insecurities. For one of you, the discussion of behaviour often seems to invalidate the kindness and attention that you have dedicated to your students and implies that you and your school have failed children by not providing the tough love that allows children to flourish. For the other one of you, the discussion sometimes implies that you simply aren’t compassionate enough at the moment to be a good teacher and that you systematically dehumanise children. You can pretend that you’re both so offended out of a sense of duty towards the children you teach – you’re good people, after all – but I don’t think that this is the root cause. The only way through these muddles is to be open about exactly what it is that makes each issue so fraught.

Trad: I don’t buy it.

Prog: Me neither.

Counsellor: Bear with me. Let’s talk displays. I think that one of you sees other people’s beautiful, intricate displays and is forced to face the hours of work that you can’t or won’t do; you imagine the headteacher peeking into both classrooms and judging you as less conscientious; you see the race to the bottom and – more importantly – that inescapable fear that you’re being judged.

Trad: I don’t care what other people’s classrooms look like.

Counsellor: I don’t think that’s true. Your classroom is plain because of your own personal preference. Your neighbour has bought a Ferrari and – while you convince yourself and anyone who’ll listen that you’re above such materialistic demonstrations – deep down it gnaws at you a little.

Trad: But…but…cognitive load!

Cousellor: Just let what I’ve said sink in for a moment.

Prog: You’re so right.

Counsellor: And the other one of you has spent tens if not hundreds of hours over your career making classrooms look pretty and colourful. To be told that this might have been a waste of time is probably upsetting.

Prog: I don’t mind at all. Like you say, it’s just personal preference. I like a welcoming, colourful classroom.

Counsellor: Indeed. And why did you take all those photos and videos?

Prog: No reason really. The displays took a lot of hard work, and I like how it looks.

Counsellor: And why did you share it with everyone?

Prog: Um…I guess I wanted to give ideas to anyone who was stuck for what to do in their classroom. Yes, that was it.

Counsellor: Really? Was that your central motivation? Was it not, perhaps, that you felt understandably proud of what you’d achieved? Perhaps you shared your classroom in the same way that others post about their holiday or their house or their restaurant dinner or their five-mile run. Social media has conditioned you to instinctively share things about which you are proud. Have you ever questioned that instinct?

Prog: What?

Counsellor: Have you ever considered the possibility that sharing anything on the basis of pride is always, by definition, going to take a small bite out of the self-esteem of some other people. Surely, you’ve taught kids who loudly declare, “My drawing is amazing. I’m such a talented artist.” How do these children make the rest feel?

Prog: This is totally different. I didn’t claim that what I’d done was anything special or that anyone who hadn’t done something like this was somehow less of a dedicated teacher than I. That’s not on me. That’s just other people’s insecurities talking.

Counsellor: Indeed. And you’ve just learned that some people are insecure about their classroom displays and the feeling of judgement that comes with them. Perhaps you’ve also learned that showing off about pretty much anything – however seemingly harmless – always makes someone, somewhere feel a bit crappy. If you still want to show off something, maybe you just have to take this reality on the chin.

Trad: Hang on! I didn’t feel “crappy” about their display looking so colourful and inviting. It has nothing to do with a feeling of inferiority.

Counsellor: Sure it doesn’t. We’ve been here before. If you don’t open up a little about the insecurities that underpin your stake in each disagreement, we’ll never get anywhere. Anyway, that’s our time. See you next week.


(Trad and Prog step outside the counsellor’s office.)

Prog: That guy is the worst.

Trad: Tell me about it. “Ooh, I think I understand why Edutwitter is so needlessly combative.” The arrogance of him!

Prog: Yep. People like that who try to position themselves above the fray are just painfully condescending. I’ll bet you twenty quid that he even writes a blog.

Trad: Oh, totally. He’s probably had about four people compliment him out of politeness, and now he’s self-indulgently messing about with the format.

Prog: Ugh, sounds ghastly. Who’d want to read that?

Science – a curriculum giveaway

For those of you who don’t want to read the blather (though I think it might well be useful) and just want the curriculum document, scroll down to the arrow to find a Dropbox link.

The document linked below is the result of 25+ hours of work. It is 41 pages and 15115 words long. I share it in the hope that it might be useful to others. I bang on a lot about how excessive workload is undermining the profession, so I hope that sharing this curriculum document counts as an example of me putting my money where my mouth is. (I created it in my own time, and have taken only a limited payment from my school for the work done on the proviso that I can distribute it as I see fit. They kindly acquiesced.)

What I have attempted to do is to spell out in detail the knowledge to be taught, including the necessary vocabulary, for each science topic from year 1 to year 6. In addition, for each topic the relevant prior knowledge and vocabulary – gathered from previously taught topics – is listed. For example, the electrical circuits topic in year 6 has plenty of new knowledge and vocabulary to be taught, but much of the learning has already been covered in the year 4 unit on electricity (and in other topics). Here is the knowledge and vocabulary to be revised in the year 6 electricity topic:

In comparison, the new knowledge and vocabulary to be taught is less extensive:

Seeing the intended curriculum in this way serves a few purposes: most obviously, it links each topic to the rest of the science curriculum, but it also emphasises to teachers how much a given topic relies on previous learning (while not making the teachers search for this information).* Of course, this document is only intended to specify the ‘what’ of the science curriculum. As such, it is a relatively dry list of procedural and declarative knowledge; the document places no limits on how any school or individual teacher would teach the content.

As well as detailing the knowledge and vocabulary to be taught and revised in each science topic, I have added twelve ‘big ideas’ of science to the start of the document and shown how they link to each of the topics. Adam Boxer posted a thought-provoking blog-post on the way in which ‘big ideas’ can be superfluous or even limiting in secondary school science; however, I think the that the lack of science specialists in primary teaching lends genuine utility to this approach, as well as helping to define for children (and teachers) what constitutes chemistry, biology and physics; the addition of ‘earth science’ and its own ‘big ideas’ – while debatable – seems like a pragmatic addition that allows teachers to make explicit reference to (a) the links to geography, and (b) the way that the ideas of physics, chemistry and biology can overlap in areas of scientific study. Naturally, these ‘big ideas’ are easily removed from the document if they seem unnecessary to your setting.

The original document had images and diagrams added for each topic, ones that I think would be useful to the teachers in planning and delivering lessons; I have removed these from the document below in the interests of avoiding any copy-write violations. Sadly, the document is somewhat less friendly without these.

There are parts of the document that are particular to my school setting. For example, the specific trees that children are to learn by sight match ones that are found on our school grounds.** Equally, I had to make a fair few subjective decisions (e.g. exactly which parts of a plant are essential to children’s understanding in a given year group? Stigma? Ovule? Xylem?) Although I’d advise personalising any curriculum document, there is, I think, huge overlap in what many schools will attempt to teach, especially given the precision of the science national curriculum compared to, say, history or geography. That being the case, without further ado here is the link to the science progression document:


Once you have downloaded the curriculum document, if you find that it saves you or your colleagues some time, please consider coming back to this page at some point and making a small donation to the Malaria Consortium using the following link. There is absolutely zero pressure to donate. If the charity bit puts you off from downloading, please just pretend it isn’t there! My central aim is to save some fellow teachers a bit of time if I can, so share it freely. A few donations to an excellent cause (in this case a top-rated GiveWell charity) would merely be a bonus:

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



*This structure of ‘revision’ and ‘new learning’ for each topic is borrowed from a curriculum document that @MrsSTeaches created and that she and Clare Sealy kindly shared with me; consider this an attempt to ‘pay it forward’ in response to their generosity.

**I think I saw this idea shared by Andrew Percival.

***There are bound to be a few spelling errors here or there (or even vocabulary that is defined as ‘new’ in more than one topic.) I’d hope that my decent science qualifications and teaching experience will have weeded out the vast majority of possible misconceptions in my scientific understanding, but feel free to ask questions or point out any errors. I sincerely hope that you find this useful.