Monthly Archives: April 2015

All connectives are not equal

Walk into any junior classroom, and you’re quite likely to find a list of connectives on display somewhere, extolling the virtues of using words like consequently and furthermore to improve children’s writing. Except they very often don’t.

The problem with lists of connectives (or linking phrases, or discourse markers, or whatever else you want to call them) is that we lump them all into a meaningless group of words – too often called ‘wow’ words – and simply imply that by using them writing will be better. We offer children language like moreover and hope that they’ll use it, but fail to give them an understanding of what the word means.

I ought to state that moreover is something of a bête noire for me. I spent years teaching in Year 7, reading work where moreover had simply been dropped in to replace Also. But it’s a far more nuanced word than that. In fact, as I soon discovered, the nuance is hard to clarify among well-educated adults, let alone with 11-year-olds.

We see this problem replicated time and again. Children as early as KS1 being taught to use however as a synonym for but is a classic example – and a key reason why teachers need to learn the difference between conjunctions and other connectives. While as teachers we might understand that synonyms have broadly similar meanings, children often interpret this (or are taught) that such words are interchangeable. It means we end up with writing that looks something like this:

I looked down at my feet but however I couldn’t see my shoes beneath the mud.

A perfectly good sentence, ruined by crowbarring in a unnecessary (and incorrectly used) connective.

Of course, I understand why it came about: the APP criteria told us that higher level writers ought to be using more advanced connectives, and the lists were born. But the APP criteria (for all their many other flaws) also gave sensible examples of those connectives. It began with and, but & so for younger children, moving through if, whenbecause and eventually suggested althoughon the other hand & meanwhile for writers working at level 5.

Notably, all but the last two of these are conjunctions, and I’d argue that our time would have been much better spent teaching children to write effective compound and complex sentences that automatically enabled them to vary their sentence structures with useful language. By lumping if into the same bracket as moreover we quickly open up the risk that children perceive the longer word as better. Frankly, I’d take a well-written complex sentence using if over a sentence starting moreover any day.

Equally worrying is the widespread use of pyramids. I blame the Big Writing nonsense for this idea that somehow words can be levelled. What’s more, when you look at such pyramids increasingly we see words have been shunted up a row, to imply that they should be introduced sooner, as if somehow by using these words sooner, writing will improve more quickly. But it doesn’t, because using some of those words and phrases effectively takes maturity and experience – not just being told to squeeze it in somewhere.

I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t use connectives (although I do argue that we should separate conjunctions out and use them more). But we need to be sensible about what we focus on. Introducing children to a broad vocabulary is good, but doing it through lists of words to use is madness. Especially when we risk encouraging children to use obscure vocabulary that muddies matters in place of simple vocabulary that clarifies connections.

A quick look at the Google Ngram view suggests that many of those words that we seem to value so highly – and are so often seen in Y6 writing – are actually relatively rarely used in real texts.

'Also' is used 30 times as often as 'Furthermore'

‘Also’ is used 30 times as often as ‘Furthermore’

We need to shift our focus away from the simplicity of offering lists of connectives to be dropped into writing, and onto the more challenging – but also more beneficial – use of conjunctions to improve the variety of sentence structures and types. Some linking phrases (time connectives for narrative; oppositional narratives for discussion) have their place, but we ought not treat them like inevitable virtues in writing.

The use of connective lists was a support device for leaping through a hoop that no longer exists. The new curriculum should be an opportunity for us to move away from them towards something that really matters.

Shortly after posting this blog, the very wise Simon Knight offered the following comment via Twitter:

[tweet hide_thread=true]

And of course, he’s absolutely right. If we focus on developing children’s use of oral language, using those key conjunctions and useful connective phrases that come more naturally in the spoken word, then the writing will follow much more confidently. And maybe that will help us to focus on the vocabulary that actually matters, too?

In praise of tracking software*

*Not all tracking software will be praised in this blog.

I repeatedly recite my mantra that tracking is not the same as assessment. For years our assessment processes in schools have played second fiddle to the demands of tracking by sub-levels and even sub-sub-levels! The opportunity provided by the scrapping of levels allowed us to move away from that, and I have also been enthusiastic about the use of Key Objectives (or Key Performance Indicators) to record assessment of what has (or has not) been learned, rather than grouping children by score or band.

Whenever I speak to individuals, school or whole authorities, I am always keen to stress the importance of deciding on an assessment model before trying to buy in any tracking software. Putting tracking first is the wrong way to go, in my opinion. And so it was, over the past few months, that I came to be looking for a mode of tracking children’s progress against the Key Objectives using something more advanced than my own simple spreadsheets.

As I’ve said to many people, being clear about our intentions and principles for assessment meant that tracking suppliers had a hard job to promote their tools to us: we knew exactly what we needed and if they couldn’t provide it then we wouldn’t buy.

So it was something of a surprise to stumble across an excellent model from a brief twitter conversation. Matt Britton of Molescroft Primary in Yorkshire posted about their new tracking software (FLiC Assessment) back in February. At first, if I’m honest, I was fairly dismissive as it had been designed to work mainly on tablets. However, within weeks the laptop version was available and I was bowled over.

Two months later and our staff have had their first opportunity to start recording judgements on the software and it’s achieving exactly what we’d hoped.

Some of the key principles I have about assessment are too often not met by packages produced by the big commercial providers. I don’t want children to be lumped into categories like “Beginning 6” or “Secure 4”. These replicate some of the biggest issues with the old system of levels and fail to really record the important detail of assessment.

What I want from tracking software in the first instance is the ability to identify what children can and can’t do, where the gaps are, what interventions are needed and what their next steps might be. Allocating labels obscures all that data. What I like about FLiC is that it is driven by the first principle of recording success against specific objectives.

What I like more is its flexibility. The software comes with over 2000 objectives that could be used to assess children through the primary age range across all subjects. Using the principles of my Key Objectives we’ve already cut that by more than half. It also provides the opportunity to assess each objective at one of up to five different levels; we’ve decided on only three. We even had the choice of what colour our ticks are!

flicNow when teachers want to make assessments for a whole class against a Key Objective, it can be done in as little as one click. We can see at a glance what percentage of children are secure in any given area, or which areas are stronger and weaker in any class, set or cohort. Yet at no point do we have to attach meaningless labels to pupils.

Of course, the purpose of tracking software is to be able to analyse data, and FLiC allows that too. We can compare groups, genders, classes and also date. Need to know if children are making progress within year groups? Simply compare today’s data with that from last term, or September. Need a measure for progress between year end-points? Look at the proportion of children who are securing a given proportion of objectives.

Teachers used to the easy measures of 3 points progress and sub-levels might find the change confusing at first, but what got me excited about using FLiC was exactly that: it doesn’t try to re-create the old discredited system. Rather, it allows schools to select what is important to assess, and for teachers to make judgements in a meaningful way. The tracking element occurs as a result of the assessment, not the other way round.

Once we’d decided we wanted to buy into FLiC, we got it going straight away as already we can see how it can drive our reporting to parents at the end of the year with its printable objectives and assessments.

Now, no software is perfect. At the moment, organising children into class groups has to be done manually, which for my 300+ pupil school was fine, but I think I might have found a chore in my former 800-pupil establishment. Similarly, in the long-run, I’d love to see it produce scaled down reports that we can put in children’s books more regularly. But I could see that happening. As I set up our version of the product, I had quite a few bumps on the road (mostly where I had rushed ahead foolishly), yet they were quickly resolved by technical support from someone in the know, and educational support from Matt Britton.

At the risk of sounding like a paid promotion (all cash bonuses welcome, of course FLiC team!), I couldn’t speak more highly of what FLiC has achieved. I feel like someone has taken what Tim Clarke started with the simple spreadsheet trackers we had, and brought it to life.

Perhaps the most powerful indicator for me was the response from colleagues when introduced to the software. From an understandably hesitant viewpoint at first glance, by the end of the first day of use I had colleagues coming to tell me that they’d used the data output from the programme to identify key areas of focus for teaching next term. And surely that’s what assessment should be all about?