Fine Grains – The Writing Revolution lessons

Several weeks ago I wrote about the general lessons learnt by teachers at my school while implementing and teaching using the Hochman Method as described in The Writing Revolution (TWR). Afterwards, there was quite a lot of correspondence regarding some of the finer grained elements – What do the specific activities look like? What are some common questions or problems arising from particular TWR activities?

As a result, I asked our team to put together some of these finer grained lessons we have learned from two years of teaching using the Hochman Method (big thanks to Jo Ball and Penny Braid). Some of the points below are explicitly addressed in the TWR texts and associated online learning and some are not, but all of them are things that our team has grappled with and has had to address repeatedly. We are hoping that these lessons might be helpful for other teachers and schools as they are working with TWR.

1. Remember the purpose of the Hochman Method. The strategies are intended to ‘advance thinking through writing’, to increase the knowledge and understanding of our students. As such they support reading comprehension as much as conventions of writing. This aspect is easy to forget, and we sometimes found ourselves thinking that the Hochman Method is a formula to teach writing. The content of the tasks should draw out the core thinking you want your students to do.

It is easy to get caught up in writing a question or task that just uses the strategy for the sake of using the strategy. A key guiding question for us was: Is the content we are using to complete the TWR strategy key knowledge or understanding we want our students to know?

2. Format matters. You must follow the formatting guidelines with fidelity. The Hochman Method has been used in many schools with thousands of students, and therefore has been “battle-tested”. There is a well-thought out reason for each formatting feature. The importance of formatting becomes particularly apparent as your students advance through each level of a strategy. A classic example of the importance of formatting is the use of dotted lines or solid lines depending on whether you are asking students to note-take or write in full-sentences. It is easy to ignore this advice, yet when students are used to this formatting it creates a structure and expectation that pays off in the long-term.

3. Order matters. Beginning with sentence and KPAS at the beginning of each school year is important. These skills need review (even when you think students have it covered) and support all later strategies.

4. Always write anticipated responses for every student task. You need to know the likely question/response or you’ll have your students wasting time getting caught up in misconceptions. We cannot emphasise this enough – this front-loaded work avoids situations where activities are not working, or are more difficult than you had intended.

5. Make sure you do not introduce too many techniques at the same time or in a small period of time. I have seen quite a few sequences of learning where new techniques are being introduced each day of a single week. We have learned to be patient with the teaching and practice of strategies. Think of the development of student writing and thinking as a “long game” and give students time to consolidate their learning.

The same applies for your staff. It is a good idea to choose one strategy a week or month for the team to master. Begin with shared professional learning on the strategy, encourage the teachers to include it in their planning, visit lessons to observe and provide feedback on that strategy, then move on to the next strategy. Too many at once makes it hard to ensure all members of the team are delivering the strategy with fidelity, can lead to misconceptions and inconsistencies that are hard to undo later on.

6. Start with general examples and then move to content specific work. A good rule of thumb is that the complexity is determined by the content. Each time you move into new subject matter, you should be going back to an earlier step or an out of context example for the strategy. It is actually ok to a good strategy to use the SAME general examples from year to year and in different year levels. These shared examples are useful because you know the examples are effective and students can use them as a reference point to recall the strategy.

7. Use the graduated stages for each strategy. This graduation can allow for differentiation in your classes. Additionally, we needed to learn that just because students are older doesn’t mean we can skip earlier steps with each strategy – always start out of context (see point 6) and move through the steps. Remember: ‘the content provides the rigour’.

8. Identifying fragments strategy. Remember to remove all punctuation and capitalisation. It was surprising how many times we had to come back to this. We suspect that the use of the kernels (and the different conventions) later in the process made us confuse these conventions.

9. Because But So. This is often the strategy that we gravitate to but there are some wrinkles in its application that we continually needed to address:

a. The So in Because But So does not mean “so that”. The So is supposed to indicate a cause and effect relationship rather than a temporal relationship. One way to tell whether the So is being used properly is to replace the So with So that – if it still makes sense then that So sentence needs to be adjusted.

b. You don’t need to shoehorn Because But AND So into tasks – choose the aspects that are appropriate to the content and skill that you want students to learn. Each of them can also can be introduced separately.

10. Don’t get kids to summarise a text and then use these summary notes to reconstruct the text. To begin, teachers should always be writing the sentences/text that students will turn into a summary and vice versa. The sentences should be straightforward to flip between notes to sentences and back – make sure to do the conversions beforehand to make sure they work (see point 4). Teachers need to deliberately choose and/or adapt the text for summarising. It needs to be simple and ‘easily’ summarised.

11. Sentence starters. When students write or complete sentence starters orally they must write or say the WHOLE sentence – not just the finishing fragment. We needed to be really disciplined with this and come back to the purpose of the activity and the habits it was creating in our students.

12. Sentence expansion. The kernel should be a simple sentence not a fragment – check this carefully as it cropped up time and time again in our work. When checking student reponses, make sure that the kernel stays intact. We found that beginning with the ‘when’ helped support the construction of more complex sentences later.

13. Single Paragraph Outlines (SPOs) are plans and not drafts. Students should do many more SPOs than full drafts. This means that, when you are planning your units, you will need to provide lots of opportunities to plan using SPOs.

14. Make sure the 4 parts of writing (planning; drafting; revising; editing) are all emphasised. Often the underlined sections are less well-addressed as the other two. We felt a pull to skip or reduce these two sections, particularly when we were short on time.

15. Revising is different to editing. Watch your language around this in class as many of us are used to using these terms interchangeably. Revising unelaborated paragraphs should not involve editing errors – instead it is to adjust sentence construction or adding in details that are important.

16. You never finish ‘teaching’ TWR skills. You can’t ‘tick them off’ – we keep teaching them. Every time we use them, we teach them.

17. Format matters!


Perils of Genre

Knowledge of genre is an important aspect of reading and writing development. Knowing that texts can have different purposes, and therefore can have different structures according to genre, has been shown over decades to have a positive impact on student reading and writing skills. Decades of research tell us that there are significant vocabulary and syntactical benefits that can be achieved by helping children read a wider range of genres and more complex texts.

However, the push to have students writing in quite complex genres from early years of education perplexes me. In Australia, the national assessment program (NAPLAN) requires students to be able to construct persuasive texts in Year 3 (8-9yo), while in the United Kingdom students in primary school need to be familiar with multiple genres for Key Stage 1 assessments. Somewhat predictably, the national assessment requirement for children to be familiar with writing in various genres forces the teaching of genre into the years prior to the assessment date.

Early formal writers, children who are 5 and 6 years old, learn the fundamentals of written communication, starting with the links between speech sounds and written language. This phonics instruction, along with the other elements of a rich language environment, allows children to begin communicating through writing. The next challenge, beyond single word reading and writing, is the ability to generate and control the simplest written unit of thought – the sentence. Unfortunately, for many children the mastery of the sentence is something they will grapple with unsuccessfully for the next decade (or even longer).

Given the challenge of teaching and refining writing at the sentence level, it is frustrating that a significant amount of the limited classroom time we have is used to teach early primary children to write using the conventions of genres, a skill that we know is challenging for much older people. 

Genre instruction typically involves teaching the generalisations, structures and rules of a genre.  Children are taught to recognise the different components of the genre and then how to use scaffolds and “rules of thumb” to develop extended pieces of writing. Year 1 and 2 children all over the country are sitting down to think about whether dogs or cats make the best pets, or to develop a flyer that is advertising the local sweet shop. Teachers are spending time carefully taking them through how to generate reasons for and against a proposition, arranging the thinking into some kind of graphic organiser (usually involving bubbles) and then helping them construct a text. 

The Australian Curriculum and related school curriculum documents show that students are taught these conventions of persuasive, narrative and information texts year after year. Students spend a significant amount of time each year learning and relearning the structures of a genre, and then construct extended pieces of writing in the target genre. 

Every time we make the decision to focus on teaching something in our classrooms it comes with an opportunity cost – the cost of what else we could have been doing during this time. This opportunity cost extends in three ways:• The time spent teaching children the structures and conventions of genre.• The time children spend planning and writing in genre.• What children are actually practising when they are writing in genre.

The third point is an interesting one. Children who write an extended piece of writing are actually practising sentence creation. Unfortunately, in many cases, this extended text gives students the opportunity to practise and hone misconceptions about sentence structures. Young children more often than not produce text that is punctuated by sentence fragments, uncontrolled sentences, missing punctuation and inadequate demarcation of ideas. And it is repeated, and practised, over and over. You could even say that this incorrect sentence construction is being dutifully practised over and over again. Imagine if this time was used to construct individual or small groups of sentences, with specific feedback given about each of them and the opportunity given to revise and rework. 

Now, this is not to say that children cannot or should not write more extended pieces. There is definitely some use in writing longer stories. Children love to write stories, and it is useful to check how their writing is proceeding on the macro scale. The longer writing should be occasional texts; in most cases children are not being helped by constructing full length pieces every week. 

I propose an overhaul: instead of spending time teaching our youngest children to write in a particular genre, we instead teach them how to construct and control a sentence. And we practise those sentences until they are automatic. Once children have mastered the individual sentence, we teach them to link several (well-controlled) sentences together to expand upon an idea. This would be a more effective and efficient use of time, as writing in genre can be developed and expanded upon more rapidly when children have control over their writing at a sentence level.

The Writing Revolution lessons

The school at which I work has been developing curricula based on elements of The Writing Revolution for the last couple of years. We use the TWR principles and techniques from Prep to Y10 (ages 4 – 16). During the COVID period we have taken stock of the journey so far and some of the lessons we have learnt along the way. I have put together a brief list of some of our thoughts about TWR and its implementation across the school:

1. You need a plan for the rollout of the principles in classrooms across the school. What TWR aspects get introduced when? Who does the introduction when you have multiple teachers/subject specialists? 

2. Pick your reading materials carefully. When initially teaching TWR strategies, easier texts or familiar contexts are best. Then, as the strategy is embedded, use more complex texts where the TWR strategies will help students better understand and learn what they read. 

3. TWR is clearly written with lots of examples. However, there is a wealth of information available in the seminars and PL offered by the TWR group. It is worth investing in staff doing the online learning to get an appreciation about how TWR strategies develop across the range of proficiencies.

4. Don’t rush to implementation! Make sure that you have a proper plan and that everyone has had time to read the TWR book, attend available courses and maybe even write some lessons involving the strategies. Working in groups to refine and adjust these lessons is a good place to start, with feedback from the teaching of these initial lessons rolled into the following lessons. Trying to simultaneously learn how a strategy works and teaching it is a difficult ask.

5. We tend to gravitate towards the aspects/techniques that are most easily understood and incorporated. Don’t be surprised to see Because But So pop up everywhere initially! Many of the other aspects are just as foundational and require specific, explicit teaching. Think carefully about what is going to be taught, in what order and by whom, and make sure everyone knows the plan.

6. When the format is not right, make sure that it is changed. Let nothing “go through to the keeper” in this regard. Sometimes things that look like activity format problems can actually be an indicator that some staff are not quite sure about the way that a technique is supposed to be used. Review the theory and the technique with tour teaching teams when you start seeing format problems.

7. Use all of the techniques in a progression. It is tempting to think that your students already know some of this stuff and decide to skip a step like Identifying Fragments. We did this and then had to come back when more advanced work showed that we needed to revise. 

8. There is a balance to be had with staying at the sentence level (as TWR advocates) yet also doing enough longer writing to satisfy various state and national requirements. It is worth having the discussion early in your planning.

For my follow up, in a more fine-grained way, click here.

Pre-reading: How much is too much?

A staple of effective reading comprehension instruction is the whole-class, guided reading of a complex (and challenging) text*. Guided reading provides students with explicit instruction on how to comprehend texts and it is important that the texts chosen are quite challenging for that group of readers.

When we use a challenging text we often need to give an introduction and background to the text – a pre-reading. The purpose of a pre-reading is usually to activate the schema that students have regarding the context of the reading, to discuss the purpose of the text and to fill students in on any appropriate background information. Pre-reading primes the students to construct a more sophisticated representation of the text than they would have without the pre-reading session. Essentially, pre-reading is a scaffold teachers use to help students comprehend texts that they would not be able to understand as fully on their own.

Sometimes, however, the pre-reading process can take over guided reading. In the quest to provide readers with key information about a text the temptation is to teach background information to the point where the pre-reading becomes so elaborate and lengthy that it overwhelms the reading of the text itself.

Pre-reading can devolve into sessions where a teacher tries to extract every piece of knowledge a class has about a topic (“This text is about penguins – tell me everything you know about penguins”). The positive effects of focusing students on topics can be accomplished in a simple statement (“This text is about penguins”). Other pre-readings attempt to preview all aspects of what is in the text leaving few interpretations to be made while reading. If reading the text is just a repetition of what the teacher has already said in the pre-reading then students are missing out on the whole point of the reading exercise.

A good pre-reading session is informed by predictions of the comprehension difficulties readers may face when reading a difficult text. It really does take time to read a proposed guided reading text carefully, note the problems that readers might encounter as they move through the text and then make decisions about what aspects of those problems need to be addressed in the pre-reading and what will be left for during and after the reading of the text.

Some of the questions teachers can use as they are considering what to use in the pre-reading are:

1. What is this text about?

Sometimes the particular topic of a text is something that students may find difficult to place early in a piece of writing. Priming their attention to topic/genre/author intention may be important. This priming around topic and genre can be very simple: “This is a story about pride” or “This is a science text about gravity”.

2. What pieces of knowledge are required to make sense of this text?

There will be instances where it is important to make sure that students know some key ideas before reading a text. The key here is not to overdo it by including things that are not relevant or are included in the text. Knowing that a battle occurred in Balaclava and the British suffered grievous losses would be helpful prior to reading “The Charge of the Light Brigade”; however, a discussion of the causes of the Crimean War would be less useful.

In some cases knowledge gaps can be addressed during the reading process as well as in pre-reading. If discussing required knowledge in the pre-reading would spoil aspects of the reading, it is preferable to do this knowledge work during the reading process or perhaps afterwards.

3. What vocabulary needs to be unpacked and can it be done during the reading?

The use of particular vocabulary is a major impediment for some students. This is particularly true for domain-specific language or words whose meanings have an integral role in the comprehension of the text. For example, believing “acrimonious” means “happy” can have a huge impact on the comprehension of a treatise on divorce. The question a teacher needs to ask is: Which of these words do I need to define in the pre-reading and which can we work on together as part of the guided reading process? The teaching of three or four words as part of the pre-reading should be about the limit.

A class spending 30 minutes on a pre-reading session for a text that takes 5 – 10 minutes to read is not a good investment of time. In the end, this time may actually detract from the purpose of reading the text together as students have already had the text comprehended for them.

* Not to be confused with Guided Reading as defined by Fountas and Pinnell (Pinnell, G.S., & Fountas, I. C. (1996). Guided reading: Good first teaching for all children. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.)

Comparative Judgement and Quality

The school at which I work has around fifteen regular “feeder schools” – local primary schools whose children attend our secondary school. As part of the entry process new students (along with their parents) have an interview with the Head of School to discuss their experiences of schooling, what they are hoping to achieve in their new school and to answer any questions or alleviate any anxieties that students and families may have. Usually the Head of School will make reference to the latest student report from primary school in order to discuss how things are going and what the student’s goals are for the coming year.  

What can confound the discussion are the differences in the notions of quality of achievement between different feeder schools. As part of the funding arrangements in Australia schools are required to rate student achievement relative to the standard expected of students at that year level. The students are assessed to be “At standard” (in a coloured band for a particular year level) or above/below standards linked to particular year levels. These reports tend to look like this, with student achievement represented by a dot and the expected level indicated by the vertical coloured band:


For most of the schools these reports are reasonably accurate – the judgement agrees with the results from the NAPLAN national assessment and also our teachers’ assessments when those students enter our school. However, there are some feeder schools that are systematically biased in their judgement of student progress. This bias (most often overestimating the achievement of students) has to be factored in when interpreting the reports from those schools.

Although there are some inducements for schools to report that students are more proficient compared to their peers than they actually are, I believe that in these cases it is more of a difference in their assessment of the relative quality of student work. I use quality to describe what students can do and its relationship to what regular students from around the state can do at the same stage of schooling. A work of good local quality would be commensurate with that produced by regular students from a particular school, while good global quality is commensurate with average students from around the state.

In essence the question that the reports of biased schools are answering is “How is this student achieving relative to other Year 6 students that have attended this school in the past?” rather than “How is this student achieving relative to other Year 6 students in the state?”

All teachers use a local sense of quality to judge student work – what is important is how close that local sense of quality matches what quality looks like across the national sample (a national sense of quality). When your idea of relative quality is too strongly linked to the pool of students that are (and have) attended your school it is easy to lose sense of what quality looks like in the entire population, particularly if your local students are stronger or weaker than the average. Having a good sense of quality is important – as a teacher it is difficult to know what to teach and what feedback to give students if you don’t have an accurate sense of what a quality piece of work would look like. To combat this you need a means of recalibrating what quality of achievement looks like compared to a larger sample of students.

Similar difficulties in judging quality arise in the final examinations for our secondary students, particularly in subjects where the exams require more complex performances (like essays and text responses) and are exacerbated when there is only one teacher for that subject. In these cases, when there are fewer teachers and a smaller sample size to calibrate the sense of quality it is easy to lose track of what global quality looks like. One way to combat this is to have teachers work as examiners for the exam board. Being part of the conversations with other examiners about what quality looks like and then seeing hundreds of scripts from students all over the state can help refine that sense of quality. However, this is available only for particular courses and have a limited number of places.

A possible alternative to this process would be to use Comparative Judgement. I believe that comparative judgement has a strong role to play in helping schools refine their concepts of quality. Chris Wheadon and his team at NoMoreMarking have recently embarked on a trial involving marking pieces from 220 schools across the UK, with teachers from each of the schools being involved in making judgements about student scripts from other schools.  

One of the important outcomes of such a process is the opportunity to see and judge hundreds of samples of work from other students at other schools. Making judgements about quality and seeing the range of quality in work from across such a large sample would help a teacher get a better sense of what quality would look like in a national sense and so would help calibrate the local sense of quality. The advantage of a process like comparative judgement is that large samples can be stored electronically and the training can be quite short as it isn’t dependent on knowing the ins and outs of a rubric. I am looking forward to the reports from the trial and how it larger cohort judging be expanded in the future.

The Negotiated Assessment

I have always been fascinated by the methods and principles of assessment and how it applies to classroom practice. I want to know whether students in my class are improving, whether my instruction is helping (or not helping) students to improve and what I can learn from my colleagues in the next classroom. Being part of various teaching teams across a number of schools I have been struck by an interesting phenomenon that seems to occur reasonably often and, despite seeming innocuous, can actually be problematic.


This phenomenon is the negotiation of the items or focus of an assessment after a sequence of teaching and typically goes a little something like this:


We, as a teaching team, might start with a curriculum that we agree to, but often is light on the details of what students are supposed to know and be able to do as a result of our teaching. It might comprise something like “Teaching operations with fractions” with some chapters and exercises from the text as a sample. This is our intended curriculum – the domain of knowledge and skills that we are trying to teach students. Then we head to our classrooms and teach what we understand the curriculum to be – the enacted curriculum. The overlap of the classroom domains in the classroom might look like this: 



It then comes to test time. Someone writes a test, based on their understanding of the curriculum and it gets passed around the group but, because of the lack of overlap in the enacted curriculum in each classroom, the test needs work. We feed in our comments:


“I didn’t teach addition of fractions involving different denominators. Can we get rid of that question?”


“My kids wouldn’t be able to work out the fractional amount of a whole from a worded question.”


“I spent a fair bit of time on ordering mixed numbers – let’s add a question about that.”


With that sort of a conversation what we are doing is negotiating the domain of knowledge and skills the students need to demonstrate on the assessment based on the overlap of the enacted curricula in our classrooms. We are effectively renegotiating the assessment domain so that it looks like this:




This may be a good thing for assessing the ability of our students to demonstrate the skills and knowledge that were commonly taught across the classrooms, but it is a terrible device for assessing the ability of the students in the intended, full domain of the curriculum. It looks like we are consistent in our classrooms (because the scores on the test say so) but they are just an artifice of the negotiation. We have only tested a fraction of what was actually taught in each classroom and it is not a good representation of the domain that we initially agreed to.


In my mind a curriculum should work along these lines:


• As a group of teachers (teaching, say, maths) make some decisions about what the aims and outcomes of our work will be over a specified amount of time. These decisions are informed by national curricula, school curricula and the expertise in the team. In the best cases we are quite specific about what we would expect students to know and be able to do at the end of the sequence of learning.


• Once we have agreed on the goals and outcomes then teach to the goals and outcomes of the curriculum. Although this may look a little different in each classroom the general focus and intent of the learning is defined according to the curriculum we have agreed to before we started teaching. We are clearer about what we are trying to achieve.


• An assessment is constructed which assesses the domain of the intended curriculum.  


If we were to represent the domains of the intended curriculum and the enacted curriculum in each classroom in the case above it might be like this:



I believe there are two ways in which we can approach the negotiated domain problem. The first is to describe our intended curriculum in more detail. The looser the curriculum the more difficult it is for teachers to be consistent with what they are teaching and so the enacted curriculum will be more disparate.


Another way is to change the assessment process. The assessment could be developed before the unit is taught using the intended curriculum as the basis for the assessed domain.
You could also have someone who is not teaching in that team write the assessment. It is quite an interesting test of your intended to curriculum to have someone else, knowledgeable in the subject matter, to write the assessment without input from the teachers in the team. If the intended curriculum is loose it will mean that the assessment that is produced by the external person is less likely to represent the taught curriculum.  However, with a decent curriculum it can be a revealing process.

The First Year – What I have learned about implementing a phonics program (Part 2)

Part 1 of this blog described some the mechanisms of the phonics program, both in classrooms and in meetings, that I think have contributed to the learning of our students. The purpose of this section is to describe some of the things I have learnt about what happens when the team gets together to discuss what has been observed in classrooms over the week.

Harness what you have. The phonics team runs on the principle that the way that we will improve as a teaching team is to identify and adopt the most effective strategies from the members of the team. As a team we are always looking to improve our instruction and are on the lookout for better ways of teaching the phonics program. However, the first place we need to start, and the place where we will get the best traction, is to learn from the other members of the group. The tricky bit is not sharing practice, because that happens everywhere. It is sharing effective practice. To do this you need some of the conditions mentioned in the previous post. Some common way of identifying where students are making more progress in class compared to another (positive deviance), some sort of standard to compare that to and then a willingness to discuss and share. 

This approach is also useful because everyone has something to share. It is rare that one individual in the team will have all the answers – more often different people in the team will be able to contribute some effective practice. This helps build the concept of the team and the self-efficacy of its members, rather than an expert lecturing from the stage.
Grain size is important. When discussing practice, the closer the discussion gets to the specifics of what actually happens in the classroom the better. It is particularly easy for a team, when discussing the differences in the learning of students, and the related instruction, to use broad terms to describe what they are doing. “We did /k/” or “we discussed the GPC a couple of times” is really common. It is like when someone starts talking about a generalised term such as “guided reading”. Every person in the group has their own idea of what “guided reading” looks like and the assumption is that all of the other members of the group have the same idea. The broader the discussion the more room there is for interpretation and miscommunication. 

However, when you start to really break down what actually happened in the classroom differences quickly become apparent. Asking people in the group to show you, rather than describe, what they did (even if they have to play act the events) is really useful. It is when members of the group see this level of detail that the differences emerge – “I didn’t do that” or “ok, I just got the kids to start without that intro”. A good guide is that if you think the grain size is right, go a little smaller!
Independent eyes are useful. The school at which I work heavily resources the Prep literacy program. There is an assistant in each classroom for the literacy component of the day who rotates from classroom to classroom. One of the unintended consequences of having an extra person in the room is that they have the ability to see the instruction across a variety of classrooms. These sets of independent eyes tend to help the group identify the differences in the instruction between classroom when the teachers themselves are stuck. Many times, when two teachers were furiously agreeing that their instruction was the same, one of the assistants would point out that there was actually a big difference in what was happening in the classroom: “Jim, you spend less time working through the GPCs from the previous lesson. You are doing similar things but the amount of time you spend on them is quite different. Judy, your class wrote those letters on paper with lines rather than the mini-whiteboards”. These differences that are identified may or may not be causes of the variation in the learning of the students; however, being able to discuss these differences is an important part of the process.

It’s not you, it is your instruction on this concept. Sometimes it is difficult to separate the practice from the person. I am not sure if this comes with the profession but this conflation of instruction and self does seem to occur more with teachers than in other professions. For the discussions to go well it is important the team know and understand that it is the teaching strategy that is being discussed. This is easily changed. Nothing reinforces the concept that it is the instruction that is important than someone trying something new and finding out it works. And they didn’t have to sacrifice a skerrick of themselves.

Interlude – Asterix, Puns and General Knowledge

Over the most recent school holidays I had the fortune to spend time with my eldest nephew. He is a bright boy with a voracious appetite for reading. He has always read well – he figured out the alphabetic principle early and has adopted generalisations and exceptions well enough for him to access a great variety of teenage texts despite being nine years of age. 

As all relatives with only a very partial responsibility for a young child feels compelled to do, I arranged to provide him with a life-enhancing gift. I introduced him to one of my teenage loves: Asterix comics, with all the zany and pun-riddled text it contained. I have vivid memories of giggling away at the various gags at the Romans’ expense, the punny names (my sides still hurt from the first day I learnt the meaning of cacophony) and the random acts of gluttony and violence. I handed my nephew a copy of one of the Asterix books, sat on the couch next to him and waited for him to bring the laugh.
“I tell you, this book is fantastic. Funny, awesome characters. You’ll love it!”
My nephew was dazzled by the illustrations and tucked in to the character bios at the inside the front cover. He was devouring the book. I was still surprised when, after a minute of two, he lifted his head and asked about what one of the characters was saying, a pun of some kind. A minute later he asked the about another joke. His chuckles were reserved for some fight scenes and a boat that kept sinking. Soon he stopped asking. Something was very wrong with the world
He finished the book, carefully closed the last page and sat in contemplation for a second.
“I thought you said that would be funny.”

“It is funny – look, that guy’s name is Cacofonix, and he has a terrible singing voice! And hey, there are the British people and they even stopped the battle to have tea and biscuits. Hilarious!”
He was not convinced.
So, I picked up the book and started to leaf my way through it. When I got to the first couple of puns I tried to explain them to him. Nothing brings home the realities of how much contextual knowledge and understanding of the world is required for Asterisk than trying to explain a pun to a nine year-old. In fact, if you remove the puns and in-jokes from an Asterisk book you are pretty much left with a basic plot with three elements providing the laughs:

  • Characters slurring and acting stupidly while drunk.
  • Obelisk eating massive amounts of boar.
  • Gauls inflicting random act of violence on Roman soldiers.

What it brought home to me is that a good vocabulary and an understanding of the world has a strong influence on your understanding of a text. My nephew can read most words and knows at least one meaning for them. However, being just nine, he is still learning about history and geography, multiple meaning of words and how language can be used to entertain. All things that will come in time but without which a fantastic read is rendered to quite a patchy bit of comic relief. We need to teach students new vocabulary and homophonic meanings, important aspects of history and world culture. 
If for nothing else then the puns. Given I am a father and my entire catalogue of jokes are entirely pun-based, I think, for puns’ sake, a knowledge curriculum is vital.

The First Year – Some things I have learned about implementing a phonics program (Part 1)

A little over a year ago I had the fortune of starting to work with a group of Prep teachers teaching 5 year olds. When I began this blog it was my intention to share some of the things I was learning along the way and perhaps gain some advice. Somewhere along the way I got a little lost but I thought I would take the time to reflect on what I have learnt so far. 
As a secondary teacher with some familiarity with the alphabetic code and a little expertise in helping teams use data to inform instruction I thought I could help the group with the phonics program they were running. I didn’t exactly know what I was getting into – I worked hard to get some understanding of what a systematic phonics program would look like and asked as many questions of experts as I could.

The team was excellent – although the teachers were very young in their careers, they had the desire to improve their instruction and a lack of defensiveness when we discussed what was working and what was not. We had the benefit of some experienced staff who worked alongside us so the mix seemed perfect.

I have split the post into two parts: Part 1 deals with the mechanisms of the program, and the work of the teachers within it, while Part 2 deals the aspects of what makes our team discussions about the progress of kids more effective.

This is rocket science. I know I have shared this before but it really is not a simple thing to help students decode and encode the English language. Even the start of the process was difficult! We had to consciously learn what movements our mouths make with particular sounds, watch for particular movements in students and help them see those movements in mirrors. To then apply letter formation, pencil grip and posture to the learning of the alphabetic code – it required a significant level of thinking, expertise, planning and patience. Our team needed to spend a long time reading, learning and practising before we go to the classroom. Teaching Prep students to decode is not an easy task.

Sticking to the plan is harder than it looks. The Prep decoding program at my school is incredibly well resourced. Staff are keen and hard-working, meeting time is devoted to discussing and developing instruction, teaching assistants are present in each of the classrooms and we have a plan for learning. Despite all of this, fidelity to our plan was a difficult thing “to achieve on a consistent basis. On reflection there seems to be a number of factors that contribute to going a little “off reservation”. In order for the team to stick to the plan we need to:

  •  Develop a shared understanding, particularly early, of what some of the terms used so frequently actually mean and look like. It is so easy to paint our own mental image of what an activity looks like over the description or name someone else is using to describe their practice.
  • Understand that routine is important and careful thought about when and why we do something different is required. The routines serve the kids well and so we need to maintain them even when we might feel like we are going a bit batty!
  • Develop our understanding around what each activity we use with the kids is meant to achieve and what in the activity helps us achieve that. I wrote about activity substitution last year – it is so easy to start substituting one activity for another because the surface features are the same yet the deep structure may actually be very different. This has a remarkably large impact on student learning.

Teach a variety of children but in more homogenous groups. In our model teachers in the Prep group teach a particular phase of the alphabetic code. For ease of use we adopted the Letters and Sounds Phase model. The students are grouped together at the Phase most appropriate for them. The benefits of this arrangement are threefold: teachers gain a better understanding of the teaching of particular concepts as they repeat the teaching several times with different students; each Prep teacher will, at some point, teach each of the students in the year level, which allows the team to take responsibility for each student’s progress; and students have instruction which is quite narrowly focused on what they need to learn at a particular time.

Tracking progress over time is important.
A key plank in our work is the use and discussion of data that relates to our instruction. It is important to meet each week to examine the progress students are making and the difficulties teachers are facing to see if the team can produce a solution. Each term the team tests the students to get a measure of what they know and are able to do in terms of their decoding, including using the UK Phonics Screening Check. This comparative information allows examination of our instruction. 

  • Why is it that, in one class, students pick up particular GPCs faster than in others? 
  • What is different in terms of the instruction in that class compared to the others and how can we share that instruction? 

Also, it gives us a sense of whether our kids are making the progress we want them too – compared to last year’s cohorts, the UK sample, the assessment last term. Particularly with inexperienced staff, the use of a formal assessment to help begin to link instruction to student learning and then discuss differences in instruction to help improve is a key component of a team that learns together.

Part 2 will expand a little more on what we learnt from how to use the information we had to improve our instruction and how the members of the team worked together.

Why ghoti gives me the tiotce

I am usually a reasonably measured person but I have just about reached my limit. Four times in a little over a week I have encountered somebody using ghoti as an argument against using an aspect of systematic phonics instruction. For those unfamiliar with the term often misattributed to George Bernard Shaw, the expression ghoti (pronounced like ‘fish’) is supposed to be a clever wordplay using a number of the grapheme-phoneme correspondences found in the English language. In this case ‘gh’ as /f/ from enough, ‘o’ as /i/ from women and ‘ti’ as /sh/ from notion.

I even read in a recent paper the use of phtheighchound (not entirely tongue-in-cheek) to be pronounced as taken. Take it as a challenge to work out the what words the GPCs in that nonword are taken from.

What gives me the tiotce is that each of these examples involves clear ‘illegal’ applications of the GPCs: ‘gh’ is never /f/ at the beginning of the word and ‘ti’ is never /sh/ at the end. Yet this doesn’t stop the seemingly incessant delivery of this ‘word’ as a key component of an argument against use of a systematic phonics program or using decoding as the primary reading strategy. It is infuriating because the ignorance of such ‘illegalities’ would never be accepted in other areas like mathematics. I have never seen someone argue that, although 1 + 1 = 2, you could rearrange the components of the expression to give 1 1 + = 2 and so that rearrangement somehow invalidates the principles that underpin the equation.

We know that English has a deep orthography and it is not a transparent alphabet but that is not reason enough to ignore that regularities exist and that systematic instruction in phonics is a key component in teaching kids to read.

So, I will not be teaching my kids to ghoti but I will be teaching them to read.