Sunday 16 March 2014

Our Solutions to the Problems with Guided Reading

When I blogged about some resources I'd made to brand the reading AFs, I promised a blog post about how and why my year group had abandoned the traditional method for teaching reading.  The idea came from my wonderful year leader, Rhoda, so she has written this to share our reasons and method.  

If you'd have asked me 18 months ago about the most effective way to teach reading across the primary phase I would have, without a doubt, talked about Guided Reading. I had always taught reading through this approach, it was just the way we did it. In fact, I was such an advocate that when I Ied English across my school I encouraged other colleagues to do the same. I’ve now changed my mind.

It was a conversation with a teacher at a TeachMeet Sussex meeting that got the cogs whirring. I heard him explain how his school had been advised not to do Guided Reading Sessions during OfSTED as it would be difficult to show progress which was above Requires Improvement. If that is the case, why is this still our chosen method of teaching?

These are my main issues with Guided Reading:

1)      The Independent Groups Problem.
The nature of the Guided Reading approach means that although six children in my class receive focussed attention for the half hour session, the remainder are left to work independently.  I find myself thinking up tasks which “keep them busy” rather than ones which will challenge and extend their learning as these often require some input and support from me. All too often I see children become disengaged with independent tasks as they are not pitched correctly while I become a wasted resource sitting with six children in the class. I don’t think I’m alone. In fact, this has been confirmed by OFSTED in their report Reading for Pleasure and Purpose when they said that reading sessions “took too little account of the needs of other groups in the class and the tasks set for them lacked challenge. In some instances, pupils were left to their own devices to read silently or share books. Although some enjoyed the opportunity, others merely flicked through their books with little apparent interest.” 

2)      Too much focus on assessment, not on teaching.
I have sat through many meetings listening awestruck to “super teachers” recount their ability to sit with a small group, ask focused and meaningful questions while simultaneously writing children’s responses down on post it notes. This is apparently useful for APP. I’ve never found this to be the case, just that I am drowning in post it notes while trying to decipher my failing handwriting. I feel that too much of the group session is focussed on assessment of reading, not on teaching of it.

3)      Group work is not focused enough.
When observing teacher led groups in guided reading the questioning doesn’t seem to be focussed on one Assessment Focus (AF), rather it jumps around and covers a multitude of them superficially. The group is also inevitably dominated by the confident child, whereas those that are less confident get the chance to sit back. Inevitably a good teacher would set high expectations for participation from all members of the group. But it’s hard. And maybe a 25minute conversation isn’t always the best way to ascertain what they know and what their next steps are.

4)      Written outcomes are required at KS2.
A child’s reading ability at the end of KS2 is assessed through a written outcome which doesn’t marry up with the approach of many primary schools. When I taught Year 6, I found it particularly hard to move my most able children from Level 5 to Level 6: although they were able readers, they just weren’t ready for that step up in expectation of written responses.

5)     The difficult AFs need teaching.
As children move through KS2, they are required to become more analytical as readers. They are expected to have an awareness of authorial intent and the implication of historical and cultural context on a piece of writing. I don’t think we spend enough time actually teaching children to look for and be aware of this when reading. Rather, we skim over it with a couple of questions here and there. Also, many sessions, even in upper KS2, have a heavy focus on AF1, i.e. teachers hear children decode rather than discuss other AFs with them. It is interesting to note that AF1 stops being an assessment focus from L4 upwards.

I think for too long children in my class have made progress in reading despite my method of teaching and this year I was determined to change this. This is what we did:

1)       We moved to teaching whole class reading instead of Guided Reading.
This statement often seems to be followed by sharp intake of breathe, shortly followed by, “How does it work?” To which I reply, “Just like any normal lesson.” Instead of having a 30minute session every day, we have moved to have 2 x 1hour sessions per week which all children take part in. We choose an AF for the lesson, we plan activities which allow children to access this AF and we adapt the lesson as it goes along to allow all groups to make progress. It also allows me to work with the children that need it the most at that time. I can differentiate through many ways: the difficulty of the text the children are working on; the questions I am asking them; the level of support they are receiving. The outcome of the lesson is mostly written. This removes the problem of independent groups, it allows me to focus on one AF in depth and it better prepares children for the expectation of written responses at the end of KS2.

2)       This means we now have an extended focus on reading AFs.
Teaching whole class has allowed us to spend a greater amount of time on a focused AF rather than skimming over them. Recently, a reading lesson involved focussing in on a chapter of Charlotte’s Web. As a class we looked at how the reader’s feelings changed towards Charlotte as the chapter progressed. We charted our feelings on line graphs; we picked out phrases the author used to create these feeling within us; we even used the quotes we gathered to write a PEE response paragraph (Point Evidence Explanation) all focussed on AF5. Now, I am not saying that couldn’t be done in a 30minute Guided Reading session, but in this context, everyone could participate and feed off the responses of others. I could ask challenging questions that the whole class got to hear; I could support the lower ability because we could read the chapter together and highlight our quotes; we could take time to discuss the tricky vocabulary. It just seemed to work better and in a less contrived environment, without me worrying that my independent groups have lost the plot with their comprehension cards ten minutes ago.

3)       We ensure weak readers still received AF1 support.
AF1 (decoding texts) is vital if children are to become effective readers but stops appearing on the APP grids at Level 4: It is the expectation that children are confident decoders of text by the time they reach level 4. For our children who are not confident decoders we have phonic support sessions which run in addition to our reading sessions. It is important that they get the focus on AF1 but this should not be at the detriment to the other AFs otherwise we end up with children who can bark at print but have poor comprehension skills.

4)       We use branded Reading AFs.
We wanted to make our children aware of the reading skills they were using and we hoped this would give them a greater understanding of what makes a well rounded reader. I have tried this before when I taught Year 6 but this never got further than posters on a wall! We have created a simple logo for each AF and these are embedded in all our lessons: they appear on notebooks, teaching resources and children also receive a sticker with the logo on if they have demonstrated this skill in a piece of work. You can read more on this and see examples of our logos and download all the related resources here.

5)       We introduced reading warm ups.
We now start off our Reading lessons with a “Read with R.I.C” activity. This is where the children look at a stimulus: it may be a poem, short video clip or a picture. They have three questions to answer which have Retrieval, Interpret and Choice focus. You can see examples of these here. These short activities make children aware of the AFs. They also allow lower ability children to access the different AF questions while removing the barrier of decoding text. Hopefully as their AF1 skills improve, they will be move likely to exhibit skills in AF3 and AF5 when responding to texts.

6)       It’s brought enjoyment back - for teachers and children!
Finally, I like teaching reading again. I don’t get sick of asking the same questions but to different groups. I don’t get annoyed with frustrations of the Guided Reading carousel:  someone in Dahl group was away so can’t do the follow up task; Rowling group have already done that comprehension; Jimmy’s forgotten his free choice book again so spends a good ten minutes dawdling at the book corner. The children look forward to reading sessions. We sometimes link our Guided Reading sessions to our Theme lessons and sometimes to our class readers which works well for us. This year our class readers are all Movie Books. We dress up as one of the characters and watch the film on the last afternoon of half term. There’s a buzz about reading and as a teacher I feel happy with where it’s going. And our progress data looks excellent too which keeps SLT happy.

I’m not arguing that Guided Reading doesn’t have a place in the primary classroom; I think that for children achieving up to a secure L3 it can be a valuable teaching method if planned effectively, especially when children still need to develop their skills in AFs 1,2,3. My question is, is this approach still enough for those children moving into L4? When children move into Level 4 there is greater emphasis on a child’s ability answer questions relating to AFs 4-7, finally being assessed through written responses at the end of KS2. In fact even further along the line, KS3 colleagues nationally find that reading results tend to drop at the beginning of Year 7. Could this be due to too little attention placed on written responses and the higher AFs by the end of KS2?
Click to enlarge image. 
Graph taken from How do pupils progress during Key Stages 2 and 3? Department for Education 2011

Perhaps if we as primary colleagues armed our level 4 and 5 readers with a greater awareness of the skills required to become a well rounded reader and began to introduce our children to how to form written reading responses, we might make the transition from L3 onwards smoother for our children.

To see the blog post which contains explanations and downloads of the branding (now updated for the 2014 National Curriculum), please click here (opens in a new tab). 

To find out more about what these whole-class lessons look like and how they have now be adopted across KS1 and 2, please click here (opens in a new tab)

To see all other blog posts about whole-class reading lessons, click here.

Wednesday 12 March 2014

Using Real-Life Contexts for Learning

In education, we talk a lot about how real-life contexts give learning a purpose.  The irony is that often we fabricate these to allow us to deliver the national curriculum.  If you work in a primary school you'll definitely know what I'm talking about: a visit from "Henry VIII", a letter from "the council" or a request from the "captain of the Titanic".  In my NQT year I had children writing to, from and about historical and fictional characters, drawing graphs and charts which no-one saw and doing experiments and investigations to cover the content.  I tried to give learning a "real-life" context but mostly this was achieved through make believe and pretense.  It was learning for the sake of learning.  If I'd have asked myself why I was teaching, or the children why they were learning, the answer would have been the same:

"Because we HAVE to."

That was before I read the book Inspirational Teachers, Inspirational Learners over the summer.  There was a brand new school year beckoning and I was desperate for ways to improve my practice for my second year of teaching.  I was determined to make it an "inspirational" year for the kids and me.  There were two main points I took away from the book.  Firstly, that learning can be greatly enhanced with REAL real-life scenarios and projects.  Secondly, that enterprise can help to create a true purpose for learning, whilst giving children important life skills.  I finished the book completely inspired to drop the pretense and the make believe to make way for real purpose-driven learning in my classroom.

Then I came across the first hurdle: the National Curriculum.  How on Earth could I make Keeping Healthy and Ancient Greece have a REAL real-life purpose? The latter seemed particularly difficult because of the distance in time between the my class and the era they would be learning about.

The book helped me out with the Keeping Healthy topic by suggesting putting on a paid-for dinner for parents to come along to, thus creating a REAL real-life enterprise project for the topic.  The national curriculum required some dance in the year so, armed with a date for the meal and the go-ahead from the head, I proposed a Dinner & Dance project to my class.  After a whole session of bouncing around suggestions of what we could do to make it successful and special, we had some amazing ideas.  The children wanted to make it an international-themed, healthy dinner and dance.

From their ideas alone, I created an entire 6-week curriculum which covered many more subjects than I had originally hoped.  They wanted to
  • make bunting of the flags of the world (DT).
  • research a country each (ICT, Geography).
  • make posters to go up about the countries (English). 
  • advertise the event so designed posters for the school and radio adverts for the blog (ICT). 
  • learn dances from around the world (PE, Geography). 
  • find out how to make the meal healthy and where the healthy foods came from (Science, ICT).  
  • write to a local hotel and a chef to see if they could help (English).  
They got replies from both and visited the B&B where they learned how to run a business, lay tables and advertise clearly.  They had to deal with prices, profits and tickets. With regards to why I was teaching and the children learning, the response had changed from "because we HAVE to" to:

"Because we NEED to." 

Our learning had a point. A purpose. A REAL real-life scenario to drive it, whilst still being underpinned by the national curriculum.  I was covering content but it didn't feel like it. The children were making progress but it wasn't the slog it could have been.  They had a reason to make it their best work - their family and friends were coming along.  Not only that but they were paying to come along!  All that curriculum learning and "extra" learning - collaboration, communication, enterprise, etc - came about just because of a simple purpose.  Something real to aim towards, together.

After the Dinner & Dance was a roaring success, with 50+ people attending and enjoying, £200 raised and newspaper reports printed in the local parish paper, I started having doubts.  That idea had come from the book I'd read - what if it only worked for certain curriculum topics or subjects?  Not being a defeatist, I set to preparing a "because we NEED to" curriculum for my most difficult topic: Ancient Greece.  SO far in the past and so seemingly irrelevant to these children of the 21st century - how could it have a purpose?  One thing was certain - I couldn't take them back in time to make it real!

This time, my inspiration came not from a book but from a child in my class.  He had been to London for a stop-motion animation workshop and was so enthused when recounting the whole day to me.  That's how I got the idea that the children could become Mythological Movie Makers.  So, with a date for a cinema afternoon and the go-ahead from the head, I proposed a stop-motion project to my class.  They would work in teams, becoming production companies complete with logos, taglines and jingles.  They would choose, storyboard and script a Greek myth before filming it in stop-motion animation using Lego.  They would then record the voice-over, edit the movie together and export it as a film ready for the cinema afternoon.  Parents would be invited (at no charge) and the school would provide popcorn and fizzy drinks for the occasion.

It didn't really take much more than that to get the children excited and ready to learn.  As a group, they read SO many Greek myths and debated about which one to use and why certain ones wouldn't work.  There were times when they had to troubleshoot, diffuse arguments, take turns and compromise.  Decisions were made about who had the skills for certain jobs and mistakes were quickly corrected to ensure perfection. The icing on the cake was when it came to "shooting" day and, unbeknown to me, each group had arranged to bring in lego, top-quality cameras, lighting and tri-pods to ensure they had the best pictures. Over 3,000 photos were taken that day and, whilst the classroom was a mess with children lying down everywhere and tables over turned with backdrops stuck on, the learning was plain to see to everyone who walked past. Despite a visit from the big "O" on the day of the cinema, all the movies were ready in time (just) and the afternoon was a success.

Later in the year, I had a glimpse into planning "because we NEED to" learning without any constraints from the curriculum or the powers that be.  You can read about that week, my favourite in teaching, here.  To read more about the Dinner & Dance project, see here and to see some photos of the Mythological Movie Makers project see here.

To finish, here are some important things to remember when creating "because we NEED to" learning:
  • Use parents, family and friends - they are a brilliant, free resource! They will often do anything for their children and even part with a small amount of cash to help with enterprise topics.  Make sure you give them a lot of notice of any events as they are also busy people.
  • If you have a class/year blog - use it.  If you don't have a class/year blog - get one!  It's the best way of reaching lots of people.  Lots of people = lots of purpose.  It also means if you've invited people in, they can be updated with the progress and serves as a place for questions, information and advertising! 
  • Keep it simple - come up with a basic outline of what you want the children to achieve then go straight to the kids.  Their ideas will always be better and more suited to their interests than your ideas! 
  • Don't force it - like with cross-curricular links, the power of the learning can be lost if the links are more like a spider's web!  Only do something if it feels natural and possible and, if the kids hate the idea, abandon it and use one of theirs! 
  • Give the children power, choice and responsibility - they need to own the project.  If it's teacher-driven, it can be as contrived as if it were make believe.  If they want to do something that you don't have the time for, say "yes" but delegate it to them! (A child wanted to run a raffle at the Dinner & Dance.  I said "yes - you organise it".  I didn't hear anything from them for the whole 6 weeks but on the day they turned up with prizes and tickets and made an extra £30!)
A photo from the Dinner & Dance

Sunday 9 March 2014

Where have all the happy teachers gone?

Every Sunday morning, with a latte in hand, I read through an array of education blog posts.  These are posts which, during the week, I favourite on twitter using my phone as I'm on the go or when I don't have the time to read them.  Then on Sundays I scour my favourites to ensure I've read the ones I wanted to (and then unfavourite them when I have!).  It's a relaxing start to the day but it also serves two other purposes.  Firstly, I feel it helps me keep up-to-date with what's going on in education in the UK.  I know I don't need to do this, in fact there are many teachers who don't, but I want to have some idea as to what's going on around the country in other classrooms and above my head, among school leaders and politicians. Secondly, it's a great way to start off a day which is mostly dedicated to planning and assessing and often posts inspire me to do this better and in a different way.

But (and there was always going to be a "but") in the last few weeks these posts have mostly taken on a different tone. This morning, as I clicked on link after link through Twitter and other posts, I found myself feeling more and more down about how teachers are feeling in the profession.  I read about enormous workloads, draining accountability, problems with change, the pressures of PRP - in fact the pressures from many areas of teaching: OfSTED, observations, school leaders, etc.  It seemed, from my collated blog posts, that there are many in the profession who are unhappy.  My morning of reading, meant to kick-start my teaching week, left me utterly uninspired to do any work.

The teaching/blogging/tweeting community started off 2014 with #Nurture1314 posts.  These showed the power of positivity within an ever-changing profession.  People were forced to look back at the positives of the previous 12 months. Not the positives of the government or OfsTED but of the teachers and children in the classrooms - the front line. The teaching/blogging/tweeting community sounded happy.  What has changed?

Is it the Amazon Review syndrome? I.E. people only blog about things when they've got something to negative to say? Or is it that there really aren't that many of us left still enjoying the job? Is it that there are so few teachers who can still be happy in the job through the crazy changes we are experiencing? Or is it that I'm just not following the right people? Or that the positive posts aren't making their way into my news feed?

I know I'm a fine one to talk, with my previous post being an ode against the mention of the 3 Michaels from education speakers but I know that I'm a happy teacher and I hope the posts on this blog reflect this. I am a happy teacher, even though I am sure that the "powers of be" are not doing right by the young people of the UK.  I am a happy teacher, even though the pressure is crazy, the workload is ridiculous and the rate of change is insane.  I am a happy teacher because, for me, it's all about the kids.

So my question is: Where have all the happy teachers gone? I want to follow them, tweet them, read their blog posts and be inspired by them.