Teachwell | What Difference Do Words Make?
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What Difference Do Words Make?

flickr photo by cams-not-in-lux https://flickr.com/photos/camsinlux/6793345094 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license
flickr photo by cams-not-in-lux https://flickr.com/photos/camsinlux/6793345094 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

My only experience of marking SAT’s papers was illuminating. We mark blind so I had no idea whose paper was being marked or where they were from but one thing was clear – who was middle class and who was from a more deprived background. Middle class pupils, even when they got the answers wrong, were able to articulate their thoughts and ideas far better than their poorer peers, who were answering correctly! This is no surprise to me in theory, as it is well known. However, I would argue there is still something quite shocking about seeing it for oneself. The sheer difference between intelligent children who are poor and their not-so-bright middle class peers was greater than even I had imagined. Seeing it repeatedly whilst marking hundreds of papers was an experience that most teachers don’t gain.


It hit me more forcefully than ever how important modelling good spoken and written language really is. I have known teachers who excuse poor spelling, grammar and punctuation, arguing it doesn’t really matter if a child does not know where to put full stops. I never held much truck with that. How could they improve their writing or even write articulately if they did not possess a secure grasp of the basic units of writing – the difference between words, phrases and sentences?


Even more heartbreaking was the fact that not knowing this meant children missed out on marks in their SATs due to copying out whole sentences for answers instead of the correct phrase. At the age of 11, being asked to copy out a phrase should not be a difficult task if you are a child with no problems related to learning.


Even if we remove all testing from primary school, these issues remain and we need to figure out how to tackle them. Less teacher talk is not the answer! If anything children need to hear correctly formed sentences being spoken on a regular basis. Teaching Assistants also need to be in on the act. We can’t counter poor English at home with mixed messages at school. My main concern is how we start children off because, even in Year 1, I think that opportunities for speaking and listening are reduced in order to produce writing in books for scrutinies and Ofsted.


The new curriculum for Year 1 is clear:

  • write sentences by:
  • saying out loud what they are going to write about
  • composing a sentence orally before writing it
  • sequencing sentences to form short narratives
  • re-reading what they have written to check that it makes sense


Children need to do this, poorer children all the more. Yet the pressure to produce writing for the sake of it is not the only reason these goals may be undermined. Most primary schools I know of are still sticking with the old literacy strategy (see picture below):


Why so many genres? I know many of my ex-Year 1 colleagues were frustrated by all of this and so was I both in Year 2 and in later years, when children came to me with neither a secure grasp of the sentence structure or the features!


I would love to see a set of teachers from EYFS, primary, secondary and sixth form sit down and come up with a better plan for genres as I do believe focusing on them and their features robs us of precious time. Which genres are essential and need to be embedded, and when? Broad and balanced can and does mean different things in different year groups already. If children were focusing on maximum of say 5 genres in Year 1 but really embedding them, then they could move to Year 2 secure and ready for a new challenge. Teachers could interleave and embed the previous year(s) genres and build on them.


If we are to get it right for the poorest children, we need to stop wasting their time flitting around genres, give them the opportunities to speak and increasingly write in sentences and really secure these right from the start. The ability to articulate orally and in writing is vital if children are to succeed and cannot be left to chance.


This post was first published on the Labour Teachers website.

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