Category Archives: English

Why all the opposition to phonics?

I live on the south coast of England, but occasionally visit family in the Midlands. When we go, we almost always use the motorways as the fastest and most efficient way of getting there. There are downsides to this: they’re not especially scenic, don’t have much variety and certainly don’t entertain the children. But on balance, they’re the best option.

You might say that we choose motorways first and foremost.

Other routes are available. People managed perfectly well to reach the Midlands before motorways existed. Certainly other routes could provide a more varied diet of scenery and stop-offs, but overall, motorways do the job of getting us where we need to be so we can focus on our main goal of enjoyment.

This is the thing with efficient routes: they don’t need to be perfect, just predictably more effective than others.

Enter the phonics debate.

I’m not so interested in the research arguments here, but rather the teacher opposition. Not that any teacher opposes phonics in its entirety; rather there seems to be some considerable opposition to the “first and foremost” or prioritisation of phonics teaching. And some confusion about exclusivity and fidelity.

One of the greatest challenges, I think, is that systematic phonics programmes can be… Well, quite dull to teach. The repetitive structure, the very basic units of knowledge, the limited story vocabulary – none of it is as thrilling as reading We’re Going on a Bear Hunt with an excitable class of five-year-olds. So as a teacher, if you believe that reading good stories is out of fashion because of phonics, then you’d understandably be frustrated, much like most drivers would rather not spend their whole lives on the motorway and never visit a country park.

Of course, whether teachers enjoy teaching sessions is secondary to whether they’re effective for the children learning. It is though, understandable if teachers fear that the joy will be sapped from the role because phonics is all that’s permitted.

But that’s eminently not what any proponent of phonics or the DfE or Ofsted have ever proposed. The DfE’s reading framework clearly prioritises reading aloud from great literature, sharing stories and developing comprehension. All of these things are needed in addition to phonics, and any suggestion that they’re forced out is a failing of individual schools or teachers.

None of this makes the phonics teaching any more thrilling for the teacher, any more than I might revel in travelling up the M1. But in combination with other engaging activities the motorway still remains the most obvious route.

But other routes are available

I’ve been told this a lot this week: other strategies exist, other strategies work, some children struggle with phonics, children learnt to read “before” phonics etc. (As though phonics were invented in the 1990s as opposed to being are the very heart of how our writing system works).

Well, the A1 exists, but it would take unusual circumstances for me to choose it as my route North. That’s not to say it never happens. From a very small part of the world, the A1 makes sense, but you can guarantee that the vast majority benefit from the motorways. Indeed, highways planners increasingly make the A1 more like a motorway for good reason.

Equally, many people struggle to access a motorway as first, but that doesn’t mean we just say motorways don’t work for them. You can guarantee that even if they start on a bumpy farm track, for most long-distance travelling they’ll still aim for a motorway.

So yes, there are special circumstances where phonics doesn’t lead to reading mastery straight away, but that isn’t good grounds for abandoning it long term. And in a few exceptional cases, phonics teaching might not serve a few individuals, but that’s true of all teaching: we don’t abandon the effective routes for all, but rather provide the additional support for those who need it.

But children learnt to read before phonics.

Well, not in English they didn’t. Our whole writing system is predicated on the principle of written symbols representing sounds. Sure, it’s inefficient with all its duplication and variation, but I don’t see anyone seriously proposing a change to orthography, so it’s what we’re stuck with.

What people usually mean was that children learnt to read before phonics teaching was so heavily pushed, and that is certainly true. But then, people got to Nottingham before the M1 existed: this isn’t a good reason to eschew motorways now.

But Ofsted say you have to use phonics alone

No, they don’t.

No, really, they don’t. There are a couple of really clear statements in the handbook about how judgements are reached, including considering how:

  • staff develop children’s love of reading through reading aloud and telling stories and rhymes
  • stories, poems, rhymes and non-fiction are chosen for reading to develop pupils’ vocabulary, language comprehension and love of reading. Pupils are familiar with and enjoy listening to a wide range of stories, poems, rhymes and non-fiction

Comprehension and reading for enjoyment are also central to the National Curriculum, so failure to address those elements would be unlawful for most primary schools.

What people say here is often based on either misunderstanding or – more often – being misinformed.

What is clear is that ofsted do expect a clear structured programme for phonics. Not necessarily a bought-in one, but not a jumble of schemes. That doesn’t mean you can’t use your own resources, or even a combination of resources – but that needs great care. But what does this “fidelity” argument really mean?

Nowhere does anything say you most follow one scheme and do nothing else. But equally, it is clear that we mustn’t muddle things. It’s no good teaching children the Read, Write, Inc sequence of correspondences (that starts with m, a, s, t, d) if you then use a set of early reading books that follow the Letters and Sounds that introduces s, a, t, p first.

And of course it makes sense that the books we give children to read independently are those which contain the sounds the know. Just as any parent would rightly be frustrated if the Y5 teacher sent home algebra homework without ever teaching the skills in maths lessons. That’s not to say that children must read only tedious ditties based on limited letters – far from it. They should have plenty of opportunities for sharing great stories; we just wouldn’t expect them to read them independently.

The issues raised in ofsted reports are not criticising schools for letting children see good books, but those who fail to ensure that they’re not being set up to fail by being asked to read books independently which are beyond their ken – or not giving them any opportunity to read independently at all.

Equally, if schools are properly providing decodable books, then teaching multi-cueing strategies in unnecessary as much as it is unhelpful. After all, my SatNav doesn’t tell me about traffic on the A1 as I fly past Watford Gap services.

But the phonics check

I’m indifferent here. It probably served a purpose in moving schools towards phonics, I suspect it’s outlived its usefulness in guiding behaviour now, other than to have more unhelpful effects (like making people teach alien words). But it’s perfectly possibly to oppose the check without having to abandon the approach to phonics altogether.

So where’s the disagreement?

As far as I can tell, nobody is arguing that we shouldn’t teach phonics.

Nobody is suggesting that phonics isn’t integral to reading.

Nobody has said that children shouldn’t be introduced to great books or poetry.

Nobody has forced schools to buy anything.

Nobody has said that phonics is the golden bullet for all children.

So rather like the motorway to the Midlands, don’t we all agree that first and foremost makes sense?

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On the importance of vocabulary

Just a quick blog, inspired by this much more detailed and challenging one by Solomon Kingsnorth:

I think he has a point about the importance of vocabulary, and it’s something we can easily underestimate. It’s also something we can worry that we’ll never be able to resolve, because there’s no way of knowing what vocabulary will come up in any given text or test.

So I took a look at this year’s KS2 Reading test paper and tried to identify some of the vocabulary required to answer each question. It’s not every word in the texts, but it’s also not just the case of the 10 marks theoretically set aside for vocabulary. In fact, I think there were 80 or more examples of vocabulary which might not have been met by pupils who don’t read regularly:

Q1 approximately, survive
Q2 disguise
Q3 razor-like, powerful
Q4 majority
Q5 develops, newborn
Q6 hibernate
Q7 captivity, territory
Q8 puzzling
Q9 vital, essential
Q10 extinction, survive, supplies, diminishing, poaching, territory
Q11 adopt, reserve
Q12 challenge
Q13  
Q14  
Q15 fascinating,
Q16 protective, enfold
Q17 punished
Q18 mountainous, praised, lavishly
Q19 wounded, lame, circumstance
Q20 seized
Q21  
Q22 vividly recall
Q23 frail, hobbled
Q24 hobbled, hesitate, peered
Q25  
Q26 lit up
Q27 amusing, shocking, puzzling, comforting
Q28 arrives, injured
Q29 verses
Q30 suggests, bothered, basins, smelt
Q31 lifeless, ancestors
Q32 guardian
Q33 devices (left to my own devices)
Q34 recesses
Q35 dawned (dawned on me)
Q36 assorted, debris, network, grime
Q37 detemination, thorough
Q38 impression, evidence, frightening, intensity, cautiously
Q39 justice, efforts
Q40 inspect, fashioned, ought

The only questions that are counted as vocabulary marks are the 10 written in italics. And all those ones in bold? They’re listed as inference questions in the mark schemes. The challenge of inference is often about interpreting complex language as much as it is about guessing what the writer intended.

Perhaps more importantly, very few of those words are technically specific to the texts they appeared in. Even in the case of the non-fiction text about pandas, much of the apparently technical vocabulary is applicable to plenty of other contexts that children meet in the course of the curriculum.

The link here to ‘tier two’ vocabulary is clear: there is plenty of vocabulary here that would come up in a number of different contexts, both through fiction and non-fiction reading.

Which rather makes me think that Solomon is on to something important: a significant part of teaching reading is about getting them reading and reading to them.

Will we see a leap in Writing attainment?

I’ve long been clear that I think that the current system of assessing writing at KS2 (and at KS1 for that matter) is so flawed as to be completely useless. The guidance on independence is so vague and open to interpretation and abuse, the framework so strictly applied (at least in theory), and moderation so ineffective at identifying any poor practice, that frankly you could make up your results by playing lottery numbers and nobody would be any the wiser.

One clear sign of its flaws last year was in the fact that having for years been the lowest-scoring area of attainment, and despite the new very stringent criteria which almost all teachers seem to dislike, somehow we ended up with more children achieving the expected standard in Writing than in any other subject area.

My fear now is that we will see that odd situation continue, as teachers get wise to the flaws in the framework and exploit them. I’m not arguing that teachers are cheating (although I’m sure some are), but rather that the system is so hopelessly constructed that the best a teacher can do for their pupils is to teach to the framework and ensure that every opportunity is provided for children to show the few skills required to reach the standard. There is no merit now in focusing on high quality writing; only in meeting the criteria. Results will rise, with no corresponding increase in the quality of writing needed.

For that reason, I suspect that we will likely see a substantial increase in the number of schools having more pupils reaching the expected standard. At Greater Depth level I suspect the picture will be more varied as different LAs give contradictory messages about how easy is should be to achieve, and different moderators appear to apply different expectations.

In an effort to get a sense of the direction of travel, I asked teachers  – via social media –  to share their writing data for last year, and their intended judgements for this year. Now, perhaps unsurprisingly, more teachers from schools with lower attainment last year have shared their data, so along with all the usual caveats of what a small sample this is, it’s worth noting that it’s certainly not representative. But it might be indicative.

Over 250 responses were given, of which just over 10 had to be ignored (because it seems that some teachers can’t grasp percentages, or can’t read questions!). Of the 240 responses used, the average figure for 2016 was 71% achieving EXS and 11% achieving GDS. Both of these figures are lower than last year’s national figures (74% / 15%) – which themselves seemed quite high, considering that just 5 years before, a similar percentage had managed to reach the old (apparently easier) Level 4 standard. Consequently, we might reasonably expect a greater increase in these schools results in 2017 – as the lower-attaining schools strive to get closer to last year’s averages.

Nevertheless, it does appear that the rise could be quite substantial. Across the group as a whole, the percentage of pupils achieving the expected standard rose by 4 percentage points (to just above last year’s national average), with the percentage achieving greater depth rising by a very similar amount (again, to just above last year’s national average).

We might expect this tendency towards the mean, and certainly that seems evident. Among those schools who fell short of the 74% last year, the median increase in percentage achieving expected was 8 percentage points; by contrast, for those who exceeded the 74% figure last year, the median change was a fall of 1 percentage point.

Now again, let me emphasise the caveats. This isn’t a representative sample at all – just a self-selecting group. And maybe if you’re in a school which did poorly last year and has pulled out all the stops this year, you’d be more likely to have responded, so it’s perfectly possible that this overestimates the national increase.

But equally, it’s possible that we’ll see an increase in teacher assessment scores which outstrips the increases in tested subjects – even though it’s already starting from a higher (some might say inflated) base.

I’m making a stab in the dark and predicting that we might see the proportion of children – nationally – reaching the Expected Standard in Writing reach 79% this year. Which is surely bonkers?

You’re not still teaching that are you?

This has become something of a recurring refrain over my teaching career, and it always – always – frustrates me.

Nobody ever says it about Science: “Oh, you’re not still teaching solids, liquids and gases, are you?”. Or music: “Oh, you’re not still teaching standard notation, are you?” And yet for some reason it seems to abound in other areas – especially English.(Even maths seemed to go through a phase where the standard basics were frowned upon!) But such decisions are often distinctly personal.

The first time I read Holes by Louis Sachar, I couldn’t wait to get planning for it, and was desperate to start teaching it. Now, having taught it too many times for my own liking, I’m tired of it. I suspect that this will be my last year of tackling it because I’ve lost my love for it. But for my class this year, it was their first time of approaching it. It was fresh for them. The only reason to abandon it is that my waning love for it risks coming through in the teaching.

But that won’t stop somebody somewhere from saying “Oh, but you’re not still teaching Holes, are you?”

It happens too often.

Tonight I’ve seen the same said of both The Highwayman and the animation The Piano. Now for sure they’ve both had more than their fair share of glory, but there was a reason why they were chosen in the first place. I’m all in favour of people moving away from them, finding better alternatives, mixing things up a bit. But they don’t cease to be excellent texts just because they’ve been done before. Every Year 5 child who comes to them does so for the first time.

I’ve heard the same said before of The Lighthouse Keeper’s Lunch at KS1 -as though somehow the fact that a topic has worked brilliantly in the past should be ignored simply because a consultant is over-familiar with it.

Of course, there are reasons to ditch texts. Sometimes they become outdated. Sometimes they cease to match the curriculum. Sometimes the ability of the children demands more stretch. Sometimes something much better comes along. Sometimes you’re just sick of them.

I’ve never cared for Street Child even though it’s wildly popular. I’ve always found Morpurgo’s work irritating. But if others find them thrilling, and get great results with their classes, then so be it. Who am I to prevent them teaching them?

As somebody also responded on Twitter this evening: the best “hook” is the teacher. If a teacher feels passionately about a poem, a book, or a topic, then it can be a great vehicle for the teaching that surrounds it. And if we make them all ditch those popular classics merely because they’re popular, then you’d better have a damned good replacement lined up to offer them!

Writing for a Purpose (or 4!)

For some time now I have been working on a model of teaching Writing built around the idea of longer blocks focusing on fewer things. Previously I have written about a model I used in my previous school, and since then have had many requests for more information.

This year I have finally produced some notes about the model I use, based on 4 Writing Purposes. My view is that rather than trying to teach children 10 or more different ‘genres’ or ‘text types’ as we used to do in the days of the Writing Test, rather it is better to focus on what those types have in common. It means that at my school we use 4 main types of writing across KS1 and KS2: Writing to entertain; to inform; to persuade; and to discuss.*

purposes

The 4 main writing purposes, and some of the ‘text types’ that could fall under each.

Importantly, by the end of KS2 I’d hope to see children recognise things like the fact that newspaper articles could actually fall under any or all of the 4 headings: they’re not a distinct type in themselves, really.

As a very rough rule, I’d expect around half of curriculum time to be taken up by “Writing to entertain”, with the remaining non-fiction elements sharing the remaining time. Notably in KS1 the non-fiction focus is only on Writing to inform.

sample

Example guidance note

To support structuring the curriculum in this way, I have now compiled some guidance notes for each category. I say compiled, rather than written, because much of the legwork on these notes was done by my wife – @TemplarWilson – as she rolls out a similar model in her own school.

The guidance notes attempt to offer some indications of National Curriculum content that might be covered in each section. This includes some elements of whole-text ideas, suggestions for sentences and grammar, notes on punctuation to include, and also some examples of conjunctions and adverbials.

They’re not exhaustive, nothing radical, but as ever, if they’re of use to people, then I’m happy to share:
4 Writing Purposes – guidance (click to download)

Alongside the guidance sheets, I also have the large versions of the 4 main roadsign images, and an example text for each of the four purposes. The example texts are probably of more use at the upper end of KS2, and could almost certainly be improved, but they are a starting point for teaching and analysis by the children to draw out key features, etc. Both can be downloaded here:

4 Writing Purposes – Roadsign Images

4 Writing Purposes – Example Texts


*Secondary English teachers may recognise these as being loosely linked to the old writing triplets at GCSE level.

One-page markscheme for KS2 GPS test

Just a quick post to share a resource.

As I plough through marking the 49 questions of the KS2 sample Grammar test, I find keep flicking back and forth in the booklet a nuisance, so I’ve condensed the markscheme into a single page document.

You’ll still want the markscheme to hand for those fiddly queries, but it means a quicker race through for the majority of easy-to-mark questions. For each question, where there are tickboxes I’ve just indicated which number box should be ticked; where words should be circled/underlined I’ve noted the relevant words. For grid questions, I’ve copied a miniature grid into the markscheme.

Feel free to share: One-page GPS markscheme

Of course, once you’ve marked the tests, please also share your data with me so we can start to build a picture of the national spread of results – see my previous blog.

More Teacher Assessment confusion…

I’m never happy.

Months of moaning about the delays to the delivery of exemplification for Writing Teacher Assessment, and now it arrives I’m still not happy.

But then… it is a bloody mess!

The exemplification published today demonstrates what many of us feared about the new interim teacher assessment framework: expectations have rocketed. I appreciate (probably more than most) that direct comparisons are not ideal, but certainly having been told that the new expected standard would be broadly in line with an old Level 4b, I know I feel cheated.

The discussions in this household about the “expected standard” exemplification were not about whether or not the work was in line with a 4b, but whether or not it would have achieved a Level 5. That represents, of course, an additional 2 years of learning under the old system. We’re expecting 11-year-olds to write like 13-year-olds.

In fact, the only time where 4b ever came into the conversation was in our browse through the new “Working towards” exemplification. It seems that a child who used to meet the expected standard in 2015, would now be lucky to reach ‘working towards’ even.

What this will mean for national data this year, who knows? If schools are honest, and moderation robust, could we see a new “expected standard” proportion somewhere in the mid-30% range, like we used to with Level 5s?

Among all this, though, is another confusing element. For while in the old exemplification materials for levels in years gone by we were told that “All writing is independent and is in first draft form” (my emphasis), it seems that now this message is not so clear. Informal feedback from the meetings held at STA on Thursday and Friday last week seemed to bring up some surprises about what constituted independent writing, including the scope for using dictionaries, following success criteria, and even responding to teacher feedback.

So now we have what looks like horrendously difficult expectations for a majority of pupils who have had barely two years of a new National Curriculum instead of six, and a lack of clarity, once again, about what is actually expected.

Is it really too much to ask?


 

For those who haven’t yet had the pleasure, the KS1 and KS2 Writing exemplification documents are available here:

KS1: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/2016-teacher-assessment-exemplification-ks1-english-writing

KS2: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/2016-teacher-assessment-exemplification-ks2-english-writing

 

40 Books & Films for KS2

This is an idea stolen entirely from my better half – @TemplarWilson. For the past few years I have eschewed the carousel method of Guided Reading in favour of whole-class teaching, based on the ideas she set out in her post: Our Solutions to the Problems with Guided stormbreakerReading.

One of the approaches her team tried, and that I’ve tried on occasion, is to read a novel as a whole-class text over a half-term or so, and then compare the book to the film at the end of the unit. I found it worked fantastically well with Anthony Horowitz’s Stormbreaker, where my Y5 and Y5/6 classes have been gripped by the book, and were also quickly able to highlight the flaws of the film.

Consequently, I put out a request a few days ago via Twitter for recommendations of other books that have also been brought to the screen. I was greeted with many responses which I’ll share now. I should point out that I originally asked for suggestions for upper KS2, but I’d welcome further suggestions, including for other age groups, in the comments.

The List (so far…)

The Bad Beginning (A Series of Unfortunate Events) (Lemony Snicket)

The BFG (Roald Dahl) – a choice of films, now

The Borrowers (Mary Norton) – I’d say the TV series was better than the film

The Boy in the Dress (David Walliams)

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (John Boyne)

Carrie’s War (Nina Bawden)

Charlie & the Chocolate Factory (Roald Dahl)

Charlotte’s Web (E.B. White)

A Christmas Carol (Charles Dickens)

The City of Ember (Jeanne DuPrau)

Coraline (Neil Gaiman) – although it might be too scary for some

Danny the Champion of the World (Roald Dahl)

Fantastic Mr Fox (Roald Dahl)

The Giver (Lois Lowry) – definitely check out the issues in this before reading!

Goodnight Mister Tom (Michelle Magorian)

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (JK Rowling)

Heidi (Johanna Spyri)

Holes (Louis Sachar)

How to Train your Dragon (Cressida Cowell)

The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins)

The Invention of Hugo Cabret (Brian Selznick) – not widely available in the UK

The Iron Man (Ted Hughes)

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (C.S. Lewis)

Matilda (Roald Dahl) – well worth seeing the musical version, in my opinion.

Millions (Frank Cottrell Boyce)

A Monster Calls (Patrick Ness) – film not due out until late 2016

Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (Robert C. O’Brien)

Northern Lights (Philip Pullman) – soon to be made into a BBC series, I believe.

Percy Jackson & the Lightning Thief (Rick Riordan)

The Princess Bride (William Goldman)

The Railway Children (E. Nesbit)

Secret Garden (Francis Hodgson Burnett)

Skellig (David Almond)

The Spiderwick Chronicles (Holly Black & Terry DiTerlizzi)

Stardust (Neil Gaiman)

Stormbreaker (Anthony Horowitz)

Swallows & Amazons (Arthur Ransom)

Twilight (Stephenie Meyer)

War Game (Michael Foreman)

War Horse (Michael Morpurgo)

Why the Whales Came (Michael Morpurgo)

Stop teaching simile!

Just this week, the Guardian published an article under the headline: National curriculum is damaging children’s creative writing, say authors.

It struck me as a fairly reasonable article setting out the weird ways in which primary school teachers have ended up teaching creative writing, in order to reach the necessary criteria in the National Curriculum. I would actually argue that the new curriculum – and the removal of levels – has done something to remove those perverse incentives, but it’s going to take a while for change to filter through the system. So I’d like to start with a small step of advice for primary teachers up and down the country:

Stop teaching simile!

I would, under the same heading, stop bothering with metaphor and personification too, naturally. I’d actually like us to stop lots of things, but this one is clear-cut for me, despite being equally unpopular with the vast majority of my colleagues it seems.

Spend a year in almost any primary school classroom, and you can all but guarantee that simile will be taught at some point, whether it’s 6-year-olds or Year 6. It seems easy at first glance. In fact, children naturally use simile in their speech, so why would we not teach it as a writing tool?

The problem is, while the structure of simile is simple, the function of it is highly complex. When Dickens uses simile to describe a vision, he explains it “like a picture impossibly painted on a running river” – a phrase which conjures up a whole depth of feeling and transience; when a Year 4 child describes the man as being “as tall as a tree”, very little is added to the reader’s understanding.

The reality is, while it’s important that we introduce children to these techniques as readers, and help them to understand the subtle nuances of meaning and additional depth they provide, the skill of actually writing a useful, meaningful simile that adds to the reader’s understanding or engagement is way beyond that of the typical adult. A well-written simile can separate the greatest writers from the merely average; it does not differentiate such potential among 10-year-olds.

And don’t let’s even get started on metaphor or personification. Teaching such things to eight-year-olds is much like teaching Pythagoras’ theorem to them. Yes, it’s possible, and certainly it’s achievable to have a technically accurate result on the page. But this appearance of understanding is illusory.

Similes are not alone in this way. Teachers, schools and publishers have worked up all numbers of tricks and techniques to teach the necessary strategies to achieve a higher level. Our system demanded it. But the new one doesn’t. It’s notable that the word ‘simile’ appears only once in the new primary curriculum, to state that children should be taught the term in Year 5/6 to support their understanding of reading; there is no expectation anywhere that they write them.

Of course I’m not arguing that they should be banned. But in an education system where there are never-ending complaints about an over-crowded curriculum, this is one of many aspects that we can safely cut out and nothing will be lost. Indeed, maybe we might just save creative writing from further damage?

And if I never see “as fast as a cheetah” or “as cold as a block of ice” every again… then all the better.

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 https://twitter.com/SimonKnight100/status/589017510529388544 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?