As a creative school, with a track record in fantastic English results, we are often asked what our specific approach is: how do we teach through the arts yet manage to maintain such high expectations from all our pupils? I'd like to share some of these approaches with you:
How can children access stories, poems and other texts if their minds and imaginations not fully engaged? We have found that immersing children in a range of creative activities before reading the text means that they are fully prepared, and excited, about the reading journey ahead of them. Through painting, music composition, a film project, in role drama or sculpture, the kids have had a chance to share vocabulary, ideas and concepts which gives their reading fresh meaning and purpose.
What's the point of reading and writing anything if you don't know why you're doing it? We aim to provide children with a clear purpose to all reading, and especially writing tasks. Whether it's an invitation to the headteacher to attend a class assembly, an email to an author or an article for a school newspaper, our children know why the quality of their writing matters: because there will be a real audience for their published work.
One effective way of valuing children's work as well as providing a real incentive, is to plan for a range of ways to publish their writing. Recent examples include a whole school bookmaking project. Following a whole school Inset on bookbinding techniques, every class published their own shared book; one example being an anthology of short spooky stories composed by year 6. Their stories were mounted on handmade paper, accompanied with each child's art work (lino cut style prints on metallic paper) with a dramatic paper cut out front cover. The effort the children put into their work was immense, and the results were stunning as a result. The anthology has been enjoyed by parents and other pupils and the children's pride in their work is clear to see.
Where possible, learning in English is linked with subjects within the creative curriculum we follow: the international primary curriculum (IPC). Well in advance of teaching, teachers collaborate and share their ideas for planning through a mind mapping process. Meaningful, creative activities are planned for, ensuring that all staff members know exactly what the children will be learning and why.
Focused on strategies
The teaching of reading is not easy. As children's fluency in reading increases, it's hard to know what reading skills need to be taught, and when. We ensure that specific reading strategies are modelled explicitly to the class; this provides children with a holistic bank of skills to draw upon. This could include scanning a text, making an inference, predicting or creating a mental image. Our teachers use 'think aloud' statements to model to the children how these skills are used, and how they can help them become better readers. These strategies are then shared as a class, and then assessed in follow up guided reading activities.
Inspirational learning environment
Take a trip to our school and you'll find classroom environments that inspire adults and children alike. Not only is the children's work displayed creatively, but there is a range of learning prompts to inspire and support all pupils. We want to encourage our children to discover new texts, genres and authors, so our reading areas are inviting, well resourced and highly organised. Pupils can choose from an exciting array of reading material: newspapers, classic texts, reference books as well as the children's own published stories are just some examples of what book corners might offer.
Drama to engage and inspire
The use of drama is such a powerful tool. Taking the lead from our drama specialist, all teaching staff use a range of techniques to promote the exploration of characters, situations and historical events. This process expands the pupils' imaginations, and provides them with the ideas they need to give their writing that extra spark and flair.
Rigorous teaching of spelling and phonics
In the infants, phonics is streamed, so all children can benefit from tailored teaching, making maximum progress as a result. All phonics and spelling activities are fun, multi sensory and as physical possible, the aim being to meet all learning styles in the class. In the juniors, we try to make homework lists as personalised to the child as possible to ensure that the spelling patterns stick in a meaningful way.
Grammar concepts taught creatively
Grammar cannot be taught as a stand alone activity. What's the point of that? Children begin to understand grammar concepts, and start to apply them in their own writing, when they start to read with a writer's mind. Punctuation rules and techniques are drawn from shared texts; texts which the children have already been immersed in and have a good understanding of. Exploring these, and embedding them creatively is how the learning takes place.
Peer and self assessment
What child doesn't love marking somebody else's work? With a clear marking key, success criteria and purpose in mind, children set about assessing either their own, or a partner's piece of writing. Modelled through the teacher's own formative marking, pupils know what the expectations are. They are well trained in searching for successful examples of the learning intention, articulating their responses to the work, checking the writing matches any targets and giving constructive feedback. Seeing the children learn from each other in this way is hugely positive; you know you've done your job well.
Anna Warren is the English subject leader and the year 6 teacher at Holy Trinity and St Silas School, London.
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