In a society where iPads are used to pacify children, do more challenging activities such as reading hard copies of novels really stand a chance?
We know from national data that too many children, particularly those who Will more pupils be ‘secondary ready’? We know that children only have one chance at their education and if we allow them to leave primary school below the expected standard then we really have failed them on every level. Young people with poor literacy skills are more likely to end up with low selfesteem or to find themselves in a young offenders institution. The moral imperative is what drives this project because we have an unwavering belief that we can transform children’s lives. English mastery has had a huge impact not only in terms of attainment, but also on the attitudes of children towards reading and writing. Engagement and experience with a high-quality, physical copy of a book means that our pupils are inspired to read, write and comprehend. are disadvantaged, leave primary school with poor literacy skills. Equally concerning is that the proportion of low-attaining pupils in English actually increases from the end of KS1 to the end of KS2. The curriculum is partly to blame, which in many primary schools across the country has been too narrow, focusing heavily on test techniques. But mediocre guided reading sessions have also taken their toll on children’s attitude to literature, leaving them less likely to develop a love of reading.
Reading for pleasure is becoming a luxury reserved for the middle classes, which is terrible news for children living in language-deprived households without a positive reading model. In many cases, inspirational primary class teachers are the only hope for breaking this cycle.
What is different about a mastery approach?
The principle of a mastery curriculum is that all pupils keep up with the pace of learning and that gaps are addressed immediately so that no child falls behind. Instead of the manic teacher trying to teach five different lessons at once and personalise the learning for 30 different pupils, teaching for mastery means that all pupils are taught together as a whole class through a highly tuned approach. As Alice O’Neill, our Master English Lead Teacher, puts it, “There is just one lesson for the teacher to plan, so it has to be an excellent one.”
At the Learning Unlimited Teaching School Alliance in Sheffield, together with St Thomas of Canterbury School, we have created a Mastery English programme that is currently being piloted in a number of different primary settings. It’s still being developed by Alice and a small group of specialists, but the intention is that the final version will be of a high enough standard to roll out across the country.
How does it work?
For each year group, the Mastery English curriculum is built around three high-quality, whole-class texts, which the pupils spend a whole term exploring and enjoying. The texts are carefully chosen and typically include a classic, a novel linked to the class topic, and writing by a contemporary children’s author – perhaps something that appeals to the group of children in question. Crucially, every single pupil has the experience of engaging with high-quality literature by holding a copy of the book and sharing the teacher’s passion for reading.
The children read the whole text both individually and through shared reading, which means everyone can enjoy the experience and keep up with the rest of the class. Through careful modelling and links to other high-quality texts, each child becomes a prolific, effective writer and reader. A key principle of the programme is the teaching of reading, writing, grammar and punctuation in context; this way, children see how important it is to be the ‘whole package’ as a writer – how a writer’s toolkit must be filled with a variety of skills and strategies.
Children participate in six-part lessons throughout the week, during which they build up an extended piece of writing. Diagnostic marking at each stage of the process ensures pupils keep pace, and understand each of the technical elements of English to which they have been exposed while reading the text. For example, when Y6 children studied Michael Morpurgo’s Private Peaceful they wrote a reply to a letter from the main character’s mother – having studied letters sent from the trenches during World War I. The starting point for this activity was to search model texts for key features, and to use these good examples as the basis for comprehension activities. Following this, the children explored effective sentence structures for the genre, and the grammar, vocabulary and punctuation skills necessary for writing their extended piece – all in the context of Private Peaceful. Having written their letter from the trenches, pupils took part in the final session, evaluating, editing and responding to feedback to make their writing even better.
During the whole unit, any children who are not keeping up are identified during the lesson and targeted for support in class, pre-learning or sameday intervention. And children are more likely to succeed with the letter-writing activity since the previous units have helped them develop a high-level understanding of the book’s characters and themes.
What about the children who struggle?
In the past, the primary curriculum has allowed many children to fall behind and teachers have put a ceiling on pupils’ learning by giving them easier work to do. With a mastery approach, teachers expect every child to meet their high expectations; therefore, any pupil not keeping up with the pace of the learning receives a same-day intervention to ensure that gaps are addressed immediately. There can never be a gap of more than a few hours, let alone one of several years that continues to widen. If the teacher feels that a child may find the lesson too challenging, she would work with him before the lesson to pre-teach the skills or language he will need need to confidently access the learning.
Will more pupils be ‘secondary ready’?
We know that children only have one chance at their education and if we allow them to leave primary school below the expected standard then we really have failed them on every level. Young people with poor literacy skills are more likely to end up with low selfesteem or to find themselves in a young offenders institution. The moral imperative is what drives this project because we have an unwavering belief that we can transform children’s lives. English mastery has had a huge impact not only in terms of attainment, but also on the attitudes of children towards reading and writing. Engagement and experience with a high-quality, physical copy of a book means that our pupils are inspired to read, write and comprehend.