Stefan Pearson, Teacher and Challenge Coordinator at Bradford’s Copthorne Primary School, shares five key takeaways from this year’s English for the More Able conference…

Last month I attended the English for the More Able conference in York, run by NACE in partnership with Rising Stars. The conference explored a range of approaches to support, engage and challenge more able learners in primary English, with an opening keynote from author Anne Fine, interactive workshops, and opportunities to share ideas with fellow primary teachers, coordinators and school leaders.

Like most delegates, I left the event with a pile of notes and a head buzzing with ideas – some of which I’ve already begun to test out in my own classroom. Here are five of my main takeaways from the day – offering fresh perspectives to keep primary English relevant and engaging for learners of all abilities.

1. Oracy skills can – and should – be taught in schools.

Among the keynote speakers for the day was Neil Mercer, Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Cambridge and Director of Oracy Cambridge. Professor Mercer’s talk reinforced my belief that oracy skills are an essential foundation in learning and life, which can – and should – be taught in schools.

To communicate successfully, young people need to develop language and skills to reason and reflect, express ideas clearly and confidently, listen carefully, and talk and work well in a group. Most children’s home experiences will not provide opportunities for them to develop all the oracy skills they need, making it even more important that oracy is taught in schools.

The aim, Professor Mercer believes, should be to engage children in “exploratory talk” – characterised by active listening, asking questions, sharing relevant information, challenging ideas and giving reasons for doing so, and building on what has already been discussed. In exploratory talk, all participants are encouraged to contribute, ideas and opinions are treated with respect, and the group works within an atmosphere of trust and with a shared purpose, seeking agreement and joint decisions.

2. We need to talk about listening…

Just like skills for effective talk, listening skills also can and should be taught in schools and discussed with learners from an early age. For me, a key takeaway from the conference was the decision to talk more about listening in my classroom. The most effective types of listening are attentive listening – in which the listener is interested, takes in facts, and checks information – and active listening – in which the listener responds with questions and relevant comments, gathers facts and ideas, and attempts to understand the feelings of the speaker.

3. ... and provide effective Talking Points.

Dr Lyn Dawes, also a member of Oracy Cambridge, shared her work on Talking Points – thought-provoking statements that encourage children to talk about a topic, promoting discussion, comparison, analysis, reasoning and negotiation. Through participation in Talking Points discussions, learners explore a curriculum topic in depth, generating shared understanding and establishing areas for further investigation. Most importantly, they develop skills for effective group discussion, practising sharing their opinions and giving reasons, listening and responding to others, and collaborating to ensure everyone has a chance to contribute.

Talking Points can be used across any curriculum area and can be created by both teachers and learners – a fantastic resource to support effective learning and develop oracy skills, which can then form the basis of written work.

4. Grammar really can be fun!

NACE associate Christine Chen ran a workshop on grammar games, sharing lots of practical ideas. One of these involved writing a six-word sentence and numbering the words 1-6. Learners are then asked to roll a dice, identify the word class of the corresponding word, and replace the word so the meaning of the sentence alters.

I’ve already tried this with my class and the children really enjoyed it. This kind of game also builds in differentiation, providing scope for challenge while reinforcing learners’ understanding of the different parts of language.

Another idea from this session which I’ve also tried out is the challenge of writing descriptively without using adjectives – meaning other word types must be carefully selected to convey mood, pace, emotion and so on. This prompted my more able writers to rethink their approach to description, and they really relished the challenge.

5. Engaging parents can be as simple as this.

My fifth and final key takeaway from the conference is in fact a resource developed by my own school. During her plenary talk, headteacher Christabel Shepherd mentioned our reading mats for parents. These proved in-demand amongst conference delegates, with many schools recognising the importance of engaging parents in developing children’s reading and comprehension skills.

We give the reading mats to parents and carers as laminated resources to use at home. They provide explanations and examples of different question types – for example, questions to retrieve information, to comment on language choices, or to relate texts to wider contexts. The sheets include question frames, which can be adapted for any book.

At Copthorne, where 98% of our learners are EAL and many families speak little English at home, we’ve found these reading mats very effective in supporting parents. In addition to encouraging shared reading at home, the mats enable parents to make effective use of questioning to develop their children’s understanding.

Stefan Pearson is the Challenge Coordinator at Copthorne Primary School in Bradford, where he teaches an amazing Year 5 class. Having spent time teaching English in Yunnan Province, China, Stefan joined Copthorne as a teaching student in September 2015. In his role as Challenge Coordinator, Stefan manages the school’s more able register, delivers staff training, liaises with parents and provides enrichment activities for more able learners.

Read more from the conference: How does your school support more able learners in primary English? Contact us to share your approach.
Wednesday, April 4, 2018