Christabel Shepherd, headteacher of Bradford’s Copthorne Primary School, will join the upcoming English for the More Able conference to share the strategies behind the school’s success in creating a rich language environment. In this blog, she previews her conference talk with five top tips to develop language skills across all areas of the curriculum.

Copthorne Primary is an outstanding inner city, two-form entry primary school, one of the lead schools in the Exceed Teaching Schools Alliance and lead school for the Exceed SCITT. In 2016, it gained NACE Challenge Award accreditation in recognition of its high-quality provision for more able learners.
Pupils who attend Copthorne come from an area of significant social and economic deprivation. The school’s deprivation indicator is currently in the highest band nationally, and the ward deprivation figure states that 42.8% of families are living in neighbourhoods which are amongst the top 10 most deprived in England.

Almost all (99.7%) of our pupils are from minority ethnic groups, mainly Mirpuri Pakistani, with a small but increasing number from Eastern Europe, Syria and Somalia. A large majority (99.2%) do not speak English at home, and in some cases are approaching English as a brand new language.

This combination of factors results in language and experiential deficits amongst the majority of our children when they start school – making it vital that we focus on the development of language throughout our provision. Having made this a key priority, Copthorne has succeeded in embedding strategies for language development across the whole school and curriculum.

Here are five of the key strands to our approach… 

1. Invest in high-quality training for all teachers and support staff

At Copthorne, we’ve focused on training in the following areas:
  • Meeting the needs of more able learners
  • Providing challenge across the curriculum
  • High-quality questioning and assessment for learning
  • How to support and challenge the development of all learners’ vocabulary, fluency and clarity of language
  • Strategies to develop high-quality talk
  • The importance of modelling standard English
  • Growth mindset
Impact: Whole-school ownership of the strategies and understanding of their importance, and effective modelling of high-quality language, leading to high-quality provision and improved outcomes for all learners with a particular focus on the more able. 2017 KS2 SATs percentage of learners working at greater depth: Reading 55%, SPAG: 84%, Writing (TA): 40%.

2. Introduce a weekly vocabulary lesson

Across the school, we’ve developed and implemented a weekly vocabulary lesson with a focus on high-quality description, idiomatic and metaphorical language.

Impact: Improved spoken and written language. All learners have independent access to good-quality word banks which they have developed. The quality of descriptive writing and narrative is improving.

3. Focus on high-quality teaching of reading

At Copthorne, we achieve this through:
  • Reading skills taught via the whole curriculum
  • Guided reading delivered weekly by teachers to all learners, grouped according to ability
  • Additional weekly “Racing Readers” guided session after school, for more able learners focusing on higher-order thinking skills, inference, deduction and authorial intent, as well as providing the opportunity to teach SPAG in context
  • Headteacher’s Book Clubs: extended guided reading groups for more able readers in Years 5 and 6. A challenging text is issued to learners and an initial focus given, with 2-4 weeks independent reading time. The group meets after the agreed time to share afternoon tea, discuss the agreed focus and introduce the next focus.
  • Support for parents: workshops, resources
Impact: Improvements in parental engagement with reading at home; improvements in learners’ ability to infer, deduce and verbalise this; further development of school culture of reading – pupils value books and reading. See also Reading SATs greater depth results, above.

4. Create a language-rich environment

We do this through:
  • Talking school strategies: opportunities and groupings for talk in every subject, talk partners, debating, school council, drama, film-making
  • Interactive displays: all displays include a range of questions as well as a distinct “challenge” question. All learners are expected to respond to these questions and more able learners are directed specifically to the challenge question.
  • Word of the week displays in each classroom: learners use the word in context; more able learners are encouraged to find synonyms, antonyms etc.
  • Banned words – such as spooky, scary, said, like (when used as a space filler rather than a verb or simile!), sad, nice. We also ban colloquial/slang words or phrases which are commonly used by our learners, e.g. “I be’s sad”; “I did sick”; “ain’t”, “anyways”; “irregardless”. Banned or restricted usage goes alongside good teaching which explains the effects of overusing a word, and how to use it effectively.
  • WWW Walls: “We were wondering…” Learners are encouraged to pose their own questions and these are discussed weekly.
  • £1 book sales, weekly in the playgrounds
Impact: Learners are more confident and articulate speakers; vocabulary choices have improved; independent learning has further developed; learners demonstrate good reasoning skills, verbally and written, and can effectively debate; writing composition is improving year on year – an increased number of more able learners are consistently producing writing that is at a greater depth; learners are demonstrating higher aspirations.

5. Provide rich writing experiences

At Copthorne, this is achieved through:
  • Spelling in context – learners are given three to five spelling words to use in a five-minute story writing challenge
  • Silent discussions – learners discuss a topic through written communication only
  • Modelled, shared and guided writing
  • Aspiration portfolios/WAGOLLs: great-quality writing outcomes by learners are saved and shared
We also use year group writing events, such as:
  • Alien landing: We gathered bits of scrap metal, plastic, old car bulbs etc, and sprinkled this over an area in the playground, with some homemade slime – and we hid a huge alien egg. Our local community police officer cordoned off the area with police tape and stood on duty as the children arrived at the start of the school day. The officer also kindly agreed to be interviewed by pupils. Class teachers were free to use the stimulus for any genre of writing they wished, but the scenario leant itself particularly well to recounts, newspaper reports, diaries, mystery and science fiction stories.
  • Who stole the World Cup? Having purchased a very good replica of the FIFA World Cup, we held a whole-school assembly to explain that we had been leant one of the valuable “replicas” by FIFA. The friend of a teacher dressed as a security guard and displayed the cup in a velvet-lined carrying case. The cup was then placed in our trophy cabinet and each class was brought to view it during the week. After a week or so, the children arrived at school one morning to see several policemen in our main reception. The area had been partly cordoned off, there was broken glass everywhere, a taped-up window, some tools, a hat, a glove, a few footprints and – of course – no World Cup. Again, this led to various writing outcomes, while also linking to maths and science through the use of clues. A few weeks later, our Year 4 Forest School children discovered the cup in a wooded area – prompting further speculation, discussion and writing.
  • Giant attack: Year 1 entered school one morning to find their classrooms in complete disarray – tables and chairs turned over, drawers emptied and giant footprints everywhere. This scenario built on the work the children had been doing around Jack and the Beanstalk. They worked together initially to decide what had happened using the clues provided. The children then wrote newspaper reports about the event, as well as letters which tried to calm the angry giant.
Impact: There are more opportunities for learners to write for a purpose; more able learners’ spelling has markedly improved – particularly noticeable in their “free writing”; more able learners are more competent in sustaining a narrative in terms of fluency and genre-appropriate writing; there has been a distinct improvement in the levels of engagement with writing demonstrated by boys.

Find out more at the English for the More Able conference

Want more tips and practical ideas to improve language skills across your school? Join Christabel Shepherd at the English for the More Able conference in York on 15 March 2018 – along with Anne Fine OBE, Professor Neil Mercer, and leading education practitioners from across the country, to explore the latest evidence-based strategies for effective challenge and support in primary English.

View the full conference programme.
Christabel ShepherdWith over 30 years’ experience of teaching in both primary and secondary settings, Christabel Shepherd has been headteacher of Bradford’s Copthorne Primary School since 2012. Amongst other roles, she is currently a local leader of education, leader of the Exceed SCITT English programme, a facilitator for the NPQSL, pupil premium reviewer, and leader of school-to-school support for a category 4 school. She is a firm believer in the power of growth mindset and the importance of challenge for all learners.
Tuesday, January 16, 2018