Revisiting old posts: Slow and steady wins the race

POST ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON APRIL 17TH 2020

One of the things I am hearing a lot about at the moment is the need to strip back, focus on foundational aspects and embed lots of deliberate practice, especially at KS3.  This was also a core theme at ResearchEd Durro Loom.

The more I think about this and attempt to slow the learning down in my own classroom, the more I agree with the principles above.

If we view KS3 as the bedrock for future work, ascertaining the core foundations we want pupils to have and embedding deliberate practice of these is key to future success.

I have three thoughts here:

  1. The organisation of curriculum
  2. The teaching of structures
  3. The way we assess

The organisation of curriculum

I’ve been thinking about this and have produced a loom in which I talk about the decisions I have made when organising my year 7 curriculum.  (Loom available here: https://www.loom.com/share/d201704cad5449e9bdbefb2c53b4c0b1).  One of those decisions is stripping the content back and I have decided to focus the year on language.  Whilst references to structures – textual organisation, paragraphing and sentence structures etc are made – more so with writing than reading – and lessons on these still exist, my focus and the way in which I assess pupils is concerned with pupils’ understanding and use of language.  Term 1 is focused on the use and utilisation of word classes to present characters.  Term 2 is focused on the use of figurative language in poetry to present cultures and the use of stylistic devices to support writing to inform.  Term 3 is focused on rhetorical devices.  In Term 2, pupils draw upon their knowledge of word classes when looking at the poems and writing to inform.  In Term 3, pupils draw upon their knowledge of word classes and literary devices when analysing character’s dialogues and producing their own speech.  In narrowing down the content to focus on language, I can dedicate the right amount of time to the teaching of this and have time left for a lot of practice.  Time being key because these aspects of English are critical and deserve the right amount of time if they are to be taught well and embedded successfully.

In year 8, the focus will turn to structure but with the expectation, of course, that pupils will have an embedded understanding of language which they will draw upon with greater automaticity.  In year 9, the focus will be on comparison.

The teaching of structures

For the first time, this past term, I have drawn upon ideas from The Writing Revolution.  I have always been conscious, like many English teachers, that my teaching of writing is not as strong as my teaching of reading.  In addition, I sometimes find myself overwhelmed by the range of books and strategies on offer.  I’ve written about the need to digest and think strategically about when to embed a new strategy rather than rush to implement things you read about straight away.  This is my justification for only now starting to use ideas from The Writing Revolution within a wider scheme.

This term I’ve drawn upon the ideas surrounding the single paragraph outline.  I have found myself frustrated at times with my GCSE group who fail to write effective paragraphs and have been really conscious that this is something that, again, needs to be embedded by the time they reach us in year 10.  Tackling this head on, I decided to try the single paragraph out line from The Writing Revolution with my year 7 class.  The teaching sequence went as follows:

  1. I introduced the idea of a topic sentence.
  2. I modelled a paragraph of writing and identified the topic sentence, explaining why it was a topic sentence.
  3. I then asked pupils to identify the topic sentences in a range of paragraphs.
  4. I then asked them to write a topic sentence for each one of their three paragraphs that would feature in their letter to inform.
  5. I then introduced pupils to three sentence types – declarative sentence, exclamatary sentence, and interrogative sentence.
  6. I went through examples of these and asked them to identify which was which.
  7. I then asked them to punctuate a range of sentences to make them either declarative, exclamatory or interrogative sentence.
  8. I then asked them to ensure that they reviewed their three topic sentences and ensured they had one which was a declarative, one that was an exclamatory sentence and one that was an interrogative.

topic sentences

I then taught them about supporting sentences, following a process much like the one above in which this was modelled to them using exemplar paragraphs.  They were then given a number of topic sentences and potential supporting sentences and had to sift the relevant from the irrelevant.  We then co-constructed supporting sentences before pupils went off and identified their own supporting sentences (where they were asked to ensure the stylistic devices (and my focus for the unit) were incorporated.  This was completed on the single paragraph plan which I could then check and address for relevance and appropriateness before pupils used the plan to construct their paragraphs.

This slowed down process with a focus on something that is so critical to pupils’ success later on has led to some of the most successful inform paragraphs I have read from a year 7 group.

The way we assess

Finally, I think this has implications for the way we assess and I have been particularly struck by Louisa Enstone’s thread on Show Me What You Know assessments.  Louisa has moved away from the stock PEE paragraphs to offer assessment opportunities instead that test core knowledge and ensure this is mastered before moving on to the complex skill of embedding knowledge within their own writing.  Whilst we might ‘quiz’ on knowledge during recap activities and embed knowledge sections in a summative assessment, actually fronting knowledge in this way within formative quizzing, tests or assessments helps to prioritise knowledge which we are looking for pupils to master which in turn will help them become more secure writers.

lou pgh

When it comes to year 7 and summative assessments, one thing I have embedded for reading especially is the focus on writing one excellent paragraph rather than several.  My feeling is that if pupils can craft a fantastic paragraph, later on they will be able to focus on developing responses across a number of paragraphs – which is a skill in itself.  In slowing the process down and asking pupils to craft one paragraph means they are more focused on the content and structure of a response than trying to write as much as they can.

In the era of remote learning, one thing I have learnt, in addition, is that pupils can only complete 50% of the content they normally would.  This has reinforced for me the necessity of ensuring that core content is focused on these foundational aspects done well, done slowly and done regularly to ensure they are mastered which in turn will pave the way for greater success in the future.

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