There is a lockdown. Schools have closed for all except the children of keyworkers, with a rota of teachers. Parents are home-schooling their children, teaching English, among other subjects .
The pupils, who I used to teach face-to-face, have moved over to online tuition. I have been learning how to use Zoom, and how to share resources using screenshare.
I am #TallTartanTalks … and my feeling now is that the information I share in this post about how to teach English is even more important now, in the current climate. You will become more aware of just how MUCH there is to teaching English – and that’s just up to Year 6 (age 11) level – never mind GCSE or A level (which is not my area of expertise).
To give you some sort of context, in case you haven’t read my blog posts before, I write about my freelance business. I have been proofreading and tutoring since I left classroom teaching 4 years ago. This is the third post I have written about teaching or tutoring. Here I write about my experiences of tuition generally. And here about how I teach Maths.
For the last four months my time has been spent following the CIEP (Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading) Proofreading Mentoring course, providing primary tuition, and editing a local monthly magazine. So the writing of this post has slipped further down my list each month. Now the Coronavirus pandemic is happening. It’s time to take stock.
So read further to find out how I teach English.
When I teach English to primary school children, I could be covering anything up to six areas of skills. They are:
- reading decoding and comprehension
- writing composition
The key skill in teaching English is the teaching of reading. Without efficient reading skills, children can’t access other areas of the curriculum.
By the time children leave primary school, they should be able to read and understand what they are reading. There are those children (below average) who can decode (break down) the sounds in words to help them recognise and pronounce them.
More able children can read challenging texts fluently. When I taught in the classroom, it was a pleasure to hear a child read with expression, or have confidence performing with drama. It was equally pleasing to see the progress a child made who was struggling with phonics. Those lightbulb moments are priceless.
Infer and deduce
It is intriguing to teach more able readers how to infer and deduce (read ‘between the lines’) by increasing their vocabulary, by prompting them to understand what that challenging vocabulary means, by leading them to dig deeper into the text.
It is encouraging to watch reluctant readers laugh at the stories spun by authors such as David Walliams and Liz Pichon (Tom Gates). They want to read on … But it is also frustrating when they ignore an unfamiliar word, hoping it will just become invisible. I teach them to become inquisitive enough to want to find out why the author chose that word, investigating how that word adds to the story.
Three elements of English – Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar – have been turned into a variety of acronyms by the Department for Education over the years: their incarnations have been SPaG, GPS, … These elements were not taught well in the 1980s or 90s, so subsequent teachers didn’t feel confident teaching them at school. Then in the 2010s, Michael Gove introduced intensive assessment of SPaG at the end of Key Stage 2 (Year 6), which resulted in children being taught far more about grammar than they need to know at that age.
Let’s begin with Spelling –
I find that children generally fall into two camps: either they can spell, or they can’t. Some children really worry about spelling. Some don’t know what the fuss is about – spelling isn’t important to them. Or there are those who are proud because correct spelling comes easily to them – they learnt the weekly spellings with 10/10.
When tutoring my pupils, I ask them to look at the spelling of a word they have written. Does it look right?
Spelling can be taught in fun ways using games, e.g. Scrabble and wordsearch, to name just two.
Children with dyslexic tendencies are a different discussion. Thankfully, now they get more recognition and help than in the past.
It was so frustrating when, in upper primary, children forgot to use capital letters and full stops to begin and end a sentence. Ironically, they could use more advanced forms of punctuation, but forgot the skills taught in Year 1. By Year 2 (7-year-old) children are taught to add to their knowledge of punctuation by using a question mark or exclamation mark. By Year 5 (9-year-old) children are taught to use a wide range of punctation, including semicolons (an elaborate comma) and colons (introduces further information).
When I wrote their ideas on the whiteboard or Learning Wall during Guided Writing, pupils were keen to point out punctuation errors (deliberate mistakes made by me) but they weren’t as observant in their own writing. Children had to be retaught to punctuate as they wrote, rather than put the punctuation in afterwards.
Which is why writers perhaps can’t see the wood for the trees, and need a trained editor and/or proofreader to find errors.
Here are some terms you may not have come across before. They are assessed in the SPaG SATs (Standard Assessment Tests) for Year 6 (aged 11) at the end of Key Stage 2.
Let’s try some … Can you identify the following? What is an adjective, adverb, fronted adverbial, modal verb, conjunction, subordinate clause, relative clause, and finally, active and passive voice? (The answers are below if you are curious.)
adjective: describes the noun
adverb: describes the verb (sometimes end with ‘ly’)
fronted adverbials: an adverb which starts a sentence pausing with a comma, e.g. ‘In the far distance, …’
modal verbs: verbs which show possibility or likelihood
conjunctions: used to be called connectives – links two clauses with ‘and’, ‘but, ‘or’, etc.
subordinate clause: a clause which depends on the main clause to make sense
relative clause: a subordinate clause introduced by a relative pronoun, e.g. who, which, whose
active voice: the subject of the sentence is doing or being, e.g. The cooks burned the apple pie.
passive voice: the subject is being acted on by the object, e.g. The apple pie was burned by the cooks.
However, this is not the place for a debate about which and why grammar rules should be taught to 7 – 11 year olds.
Right, moving straight on to something a little less controversial …
According to the National Curriculum, children should be joining their handwriting from Year 2.
I get much satisfaction from showing children how to form their letters correctly. Tall letters have ascenders (lines going up, e.g. b, d, h, k, l, t) and others have descenders (lines going down, e.g. g, j, p, q, y). Elegant ‘f’ should have both.
Each school usually has their own handwriting policy. Some schools advocate teaching cursive handwriting from EYFS Reception (Early Years Foundation Stage). That’s fine if the child demonstrates good fine motor control with the pencil, but I’m not convinced. Then again, I never taught in an EYFS classroom. (I was too tall to get my legs under the tiddly tables!)
Another tip I offer is to dot the i’s and cross the t’s after the whole word is written, rather than lift the pencil/pen and stop the flow of the word to finish those letters. Try it with the word ‘little’. Oh, and remember that those l’s are ascenders, so will be taller than those standard i’s and e’s.
Neatly joined handwriting has its place, and does look absolutely exquisite in the right setting. But, the quality of the handwriting should be appropriate to the audience. For a quick visit to the shops with a list just for one’s own viewing, a scribble is sufficient. On the other hand, perfecting the greeting on a card to granny is the opportunity to be proud of slowly-joined, cursive script.
An example of a student handwriting sheet which encourages the use of ascenders and descenders.
There is nothing more thrilling than to have a child show their learning by incorporating features of writing you have taught into an unaided composition.
Whether the genre is myths, legends, historical, comedy or horror, their ability to show understanding of the features of that genre is a mark of their progress and success as writers.
Their skills at writing are enhanced if they are reading a wide variety of genres. If they can also build believable characters, with imaginative speech which moves the story on, and they can talk directly to the reader, their writing becomes a sheer joy to read.
By Year 6, most children can include a wide range of devices in their writing: plot structure; description of setting and characters using vivid adjectives and adverbs, similes and metaphors; action between characters; speech (using the rules of speech punctuation); and punctuation. Even showing contrast of types and lengths of sentences, e.g. ‘long/short/long’ or ‘short/long/short’ for dramatic effect.
The hardest concept for some children to grasp is how to lay out paragraphs. They are taught to start a new idea on a new line with a small indent. Each paragraph should have a new idea. One example of a model to help understanding is to show children fiction authors’ work where paragraphs have been jumbled. The task is to rearrange them so that the meaning of the overall text makes sense.
So, all these elements are taught in a module lasting several weeks over a half term, building up their skills, until the children get a chance to show that they can apply their learning.
At the end of an hour’s composition, the children are given the opportunity to read their work back to themselves. In the classroom, they would whisper aloud. So they can hear it. Hearing it spoken is a tip for the checking of any errors. Editors and proofreaders do it as a proven strategy!
All the best
To finish, you will find some helpful websites below about the teaching of primary English. They will be especially useful if you are homeschooling.
All the best in these strange times.
Website resources on teaching primary English: