When lockdown hit on the 23rd March primary schools had been given 48 hours notice to decide and roll out a way to remotely teach an entire school of pupils who may or may not have had access to the internet/computers. We were thrust into unknown territory of trying to find ways of engaging extremely young children and helping parents who were struggling with subject knowledge and getting their children to pay attention. The challenges were huge: how do we roll this out in such short time? How do we ensure access for for all when attainment in class and knowledge of IcT can vary widely amongst pupils!
But we did it. We became ICT technicians, carers, bloggers and vloggers. We read to our classes via zoom, Microsoft teams and YouTube videos. And alongside us were an army of Apps and programs helping us along the way. Below is a review of some of my favourites which I have continued to use within the classroom:
Purple mash was a huge life saver for me. I had used it time and time again regularly in the classroom to support with the curriculum: publishing stories and leaflets, making charts and data on the maths apps and supporting with teaching various aspects of the computing curriculum. All of the children have their own login and it is very, very safe. Teachers can access all children’s accounts and see what they are doing. During lockdown I used this everyday to set my children work, and then mark it. They loved reading my comments and being able to reply!
One thing lacking from Purple Mash’s fab platform are videos – particularly teaching videos. This is why I love Quarto’s new online teaching site: Quarto classroom.
Quarto is a publishing house, which has become one of my favourites for children’s books. In particular, they are the publishers of the well known Little People, Big Dreams series. All of their titles are well considered for this intended audience and I love the beautiful range of informative and innovative non-fiction books that they have brought out this year. So I was really looking forward to accessing their online classroom.
There is no login required, and no subscription. Simply click on to the site and decide what you want the children to view: there are a range of subjects from art, science to the core subjects of Maths and English. What I really like is that they have well-known authors delivering the lessons using their own books. For instance, they currently have a great vocabulary lesson uploaded which is led by Jane Solomon (the author of the book ‘The Dictionary of Difficult words’. It is a great site, with so much to offer. My class have really enjoyed when I have used them in the classroom!
Andy Shepherd is the highly successful author of the ‘A Boy Who…’ series. There are currently four fabulous titles avaliable; A boy who grew dragons; A boy who lived with dragons; a boy who dreamed dragons; and a boy who flew with dragons. The Boy Who Grew Dragons (Andy’s debut novel) was shortlisted for the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize 2019, the Sheffield Book Award, and long-listed for the Blue Peter Book Award. I have loved reading her stories and quickly fell in love with the sassy, interesting and funny characters that she creates! I recently had the pleasure of catching up with Andy to discuss her passion for writing, and what we can do as educators and writers to help promote a love of reading
When did you realise you wanted to be an author?
Ever since I was about thirteen years old, I wanted to be a writer. I wrote all the time when I was a teenager, but then after college I only did bits and pieces. Partly because I got caught up in work and jobs and life and partly because I let the fear get a hold. I always had this idea that I was a writer and I dreamed of seeing a book I’d written in a bookshop, but because it was something I identified so strongly with, I kept thinking what if I try and get published and fail? How will I feel about myself then? When my sons were little I started telling them stories and I remembered how much I loved it. And I thought about how I would want them to continue doing what they love regardless of any perceived success or failure. So I started writing the stories down and then I decided to take the leap and try and get published. It took eight years to get a publishing deal, but the most important thing for me was that during that time I was writing again.
How long might it take you to write a book? What is your process?
The annoying answer is – as long as it takes to write a book. I guess somewhere somebody has sat down on a Tuesday decided to write a book, stayed at it till it’s done and worked out how long that is. But for me I include all the dream-time in writing – so strictly speaking you could say it’s taken eight years to write The Boy Who Grew Dragons. Of course it hasn’t taken eight solid years, but I did first come up with the idea that long ago. And in that time it has gone through many changes, starting life as a picture book and then being rewritten at various lengths, until I finally found Tomas’ voice and wrote the version that got me a publishing deal with Piccadilly Press.
The later books in the series took me anywhere between 3-4 months to write a first draft. But then editing is done over the next 6 months. I was working on books 2&3 at the same time, and I did the same thing for 4&5. That way I was able to seed ideas and develop the story in what I hope is a satisfying way.
I like to sit with an idea for a good while before I start writing anything. Then I’ll just start writing to see if I can find the voice. Once I have that I start plotting more seriously. I don’t plan everything, I like to leave enough room for things to surprise me in the writing. But I do have the ending in mind and a few key structural milestones to guide me – and to reassure myself that the story has legs.
What do you like to do to unwind when writing?
I think I’m part Mermaid because I need to be in water! I love swimming, preferably outside, and especially in the creek near where I grew up or in the sea. If I’m not in the water I like to be on it, either in a boat or kayaking. If I can’t get in or on water, I walk. Being outside is definitely the place I like to be to unwind from writing and it’s often on long walks that I untangle plot points or awkward characters.
What is one of the most interesting things you’ve learnt about yourself when writing?
I think I’ve found that I’m a lot more resilient than I ever thought I was. When I was younger I used to think that if someone critiqued my work I’d done it wrong. I wanted it to arrive perfect and fully-formed and when it didn’t I thought I wasn’t a proper writer. So I shied away from showing my work to anyone for years. Now I’ve learned that editing is a massive and crucial part of the process and every writer does it. I think after all the submissions and rejections I learned not to take the feedback too personally. I took what was useful and used it to improve the work and gained the confidence to leave anything that I didn’t agree with.
What was your favourite subject at school?
In secondary school it was definitely English. Partly because I loved reading, but also because I had an amazing teacher.
What were you like as a student?
Very conscientious. Despite getting bullied quite a lot I actually liked school and enjoyed studying.
If you could describe reading in just one sentence, how would you sum it up?
Books are the sparks that light fires in our minds.
In your opinion, how can we (as educators and writers) help to promote a love of reading?
In a word: Story time.
If I could do one thing for everyone in schools and at home, it would be to make story time a non-negotiable and give teachers and caregivers the time and space to make that a priority. Sharing stories is so important for literacy, creating shared experience and fostering a love of reading. Also to have time in the day when everybody reads, including the teacher/caregiver. Modeling reading and letting children see you absorbed in a book, enjoying it and making space for it in a busy day, sends a hugely important message.
A huge thank you to Andy for taking the time to have a chat with me. For more information about Andy’s books please see her twitter and website links below:
What are your views on book corners? Do you hate them? Love them? Fret over them? My school doesn’t have a set policy on book corners: you can choose whether or not to have one. But if you do have one, then it must look good.
For my book corner this year I’ve tried to have a Disney ‘up, up and away’ theme and incorporate a love of books with what the children need to succeed. It is not quite finished yet, but (hopefully) it will include: book reviews to foster an interest in sharing a passion about a particular book, my own recommendations, pictures of books, help with reading comprehension and help with decoding reading. I want it to be a space where we can celebrate books but also that can be a hub of knowledge for helping them to learn how to read – I think this is something that is sometimes forgotten. That many children actually hate to read, because they don’t know how to read. This is an interesting (old) article from the TES which explores this issue: Click here
There are tons of pictures online of ‘amazing’ book corners ( e.g: Scholastic ). But, I often find myself berating myself about how I couldn’t possibly create anything as beautiful or as engaging as that!!? But when did our classrooms become a competition? Instagram and twitter are great platforms for teachers who bolster each other up by sharing display ideas and resources. However, we must be careful not to let it affect our mental health. Months ago I did an Instagram clean sweep on my personal account of tons of model and fitness accounts, because I found myself constantly comparing myself to them. We must ensure that this does not happen to our teaching community. We are all amazing.
This might all sound negative, but it is not meant to be. Personally, I love a good book corner ! But, I have had to remind myself: who is it for?
One matter that seems to be in the media a lot are arguments surrounding the ‘right’ way to teach children how to read. Before the introduction of the Phonics scheme, reading was taught as part of the literacy hour however after the Rose Report (2006) the government stated that the best way of addressing a decline in literacy skills across the country was for schools to take up the systematic teaching of phonics.
But what evidence was there? Why did phonics suddenly become the new ‘in’ thing? It all stems from the findings of a seven-year longitudinal study in Clackmannanshire, Scotland. The Rose report put a considerable amount of weight on this research. The study states that: ‘At the end of Primary 7 [Year 6 in England], word reading was 3 years 6 months ahead of chronological age, spelling was 1 year 8 months ahead, and reading comprehension was 3.5 months ahead.‘ But some critics have questioned whether this can really be applicable to all schools, everywhere? The Rose report does acknowledge that ‘Although the research methodology had received some criticism by researchers, the visit provided the review with first-hand evidence of very effective teaching and learning ofPhonics’. But, has it?
One of the main criticisms for the government hanging all of their hopes and phonics dreams on this study is the problem of generalisability. The study done in Scotland was completed in a rural, tiny school. Could this really be applied to inner city schools which have very, very different social and economical backgrounds? For instance, the report does not take into account parental engagement or mitigating factors like social backgrounds.
Furthermore, is Phonics applicable to everyone… everywhere as the government suggest? Once I was marking a piece of work and came across the word: pearpar. I racked my brains for ages and ages about what on earth this small child had been trying to spell. What was she trying to tell me? After about 10 minutes of trying to make sense of it, I said the word outlaid: ‘Pear-Par’ – the child was trying to spell paper. But what I didn’t tell you is that this child had recently moved from the north. Now say ‘pear – par’ again, out loud in your best Northern accent… She was trying to phonetically spell Paper using her sounds, but her accent was hindering her. So… is Phonics a one size fits all?
And then we come to the sketchy grey area. “What do we do with all of those words that don’t actually fit into any phonics pattern” “Well, Sir lets call them Tricky Words’. Past a certain phonics phase all words become tricky words to a certain degree, and we have to teach children simply how to read and write them! Plus, when do we actually teach the alphabet? I have worked with numerous year 1 children who cannot tell me that an ‘a’ is an ‘a’, but simply repeats the ‘aa’ sound at me! Are we de-educating them to an extent? And what about that phonics test? Alien words? During the year 1 phonics test the children have to read a series of words, and decide if the word is ‘real’ or not. But my problem with this is: what about those children who have not seen the ‘real’ word before? Isn’t English language always evolving and changing? What about the child who tries to make sense of words?
Without a doubt, there are many problems with the teaching of Phonics. But we also cannot ignore that it is an incredibly useful and effective early reading strategy which does help children to read and write at a very young age. So what is my final opinion? I have my quibbles with phonics, but I do think it also has its advantage. BUT we must move away from thinking that phonics is a one size fits all for every child and begin to think of different ways of teaching the fundamental skills of decoding and reading fluency.
Just before the world went into Lockdown I got a delivery of some of the amazing books that Pearson feature in their reading schemes called ‘The Bug Club’ and ‘Rapid Reading’. Their website states that ‘Bug Club is shown to deliver 30 months of progress in reading in just 18 months’. From decoding words to developing fluency every step in the children’s development is supported with comprehensive planning, teaching and assessment tools. Rapid Reading is used as an intervention scheme, rather than a Reading program, to help struggling and disadvantaged children catch up in their Reading. Both come with a really exciting on-line world in which the child can play games and read stories to win achievements.
The Rapid Reading books were a delight to read with the children. During the Covid-19 lockdown I worked twice a week with key worker children. We took one afternoon to read these together as a group and discuss them. Each book is beautifully illustrated with engaging images which can be used as a discussion point. Several times I stopped reading and we had a chat about ‘what do you think is going to happen next’ or ‘why do you think X is happening’. The images were great for inference. Inside the front cover of each book is a short explanation of which phonic sounds the book focuses on in particular, as well as some discussion points and tricky words. This really helps with forward planning and saving time.
The books from the Bug Club were just as gorgeous. Like the Rapid Reading texts, the back and inside covers of the books stated what phonics would be explored, some reading questions and what links the book made to other areas of the curriculum such as science, history and geography. This is one thing that I particularly liked about the series. It allowed me to easily link my Reading sessions with our current topic lessons, and make links across the children’s subjects. For instance, one of the stories is about space and I am planning to use it during my new space topic in September.
What I loved the most about all of the books that Pearson publish is the quality of the writing and storylines. Often, when you pick up a text from a Reading scheme (especially in the Lilac, Pink and Red bands) I have found that the books do not have much of a narrative. It is very much ‘Dad picks up the ball. Mum has the ball. Bill has the ball…. etc’. However, Pearson’s texts have very strong, interesting plots that kept the children that I was working with hooked throughout. One of Pearson’s aims is to foster a love of Reading (aligned with the current 2014 national curriculum) and if they carry on like this… they must certainly will!
Lastly, I checked out their online world. Once logged into the online world of Bug Club teachers can assign certain texts to children and get up an assessment of how much has been read. This is really useful to gage the children’s engagement with what they are doing online and would help with AFL and planning in the classroom. When the children log in, they have access to a vast library of texts, and can play little games and activities. It is really engaging and if it was rolled out school wide, with an exciting whole school initiative, I think it could be a really good resource.
Altogether, I think that the Pearson reading schemes are really engaging, and the quality of their books extremely good. I really enjoyed using these with my class, and I am sure that you will too!
I saw the above image on Instagram today and it really resonated with me.
I have always stood by my values when it comes to manners in the classroom: they are non-negotiable. Children in my class are expected to use please, thank you, tuck their chairs in, share etc. And their biggest role model for this is ourselves. So this is why it is so important for us as educators to model the one thing they find the hardest to do: apologise.
Apologising can be difficult, but it is important to show children humility and model accepting when you have done something wrong or been mistaken. I am sure we have all told the wrong child off at some point, only to be told ‘but Miss it was actually him…’. I once went to moan at a child – and started to rant – and the class calmly told me he’d left the room five minutes prior! (It was funny in the end!). Several times I’ve reprimanded one child only to realise it was my own mistake. And what do I do? I apologised. I looked at the child and said “I’m sorry XX that was my fault, I apologise”. Does the child laugh? No. Does the child feel like they are better than me? No! What they do have for me is respect.
As teachers we have the responsibility as role models to teach younger generations humility and social skills. In doing this, they learn respect and it will foster a more positive relationship between students and staff.
I have kept an online bookstagram for quite a while now: built up a good following of over 1000 readers; worked with several publishing companies to review ARCs; and most of all had an amazing time getting to know many new, supportive and knowledgeable people.
Reading has always been a life long hobby of mine, and something I enjoy immensely. I have been a literacy lead in a primary school for 3-4 years now. The best part of my role is having children from all year groups stop me in the corridors to tell me about their reading or visit my classroom to show me their work. It probably sounds incredibly cliche, but I do get an overwhelming sense of happiness when going into a bookshop. The smell of brand new books is something that they should bottle! When I was younger I used to always smell the pages of a new book and my mum would look at me and tell me to stop smelling everything! (I still do this now!). Actually, a bookshop was the first public place I visited once the 2020 Covid-19 lockdown had been lifted. The beginning of the lockdown in March was a strange time and I – like everyone else – found myself leaning a little too much on social media. I would pour over posts from friends and celebrities and constantly compare myself to them and their lives. So I began to look for a way to use social media in a more positive way. So, I deleted my personal Instagram account and @aliteracyteacher was born!
It started out as a generic review site. However, I soon realised that most of the books that I was reviewing were children’s books as these were the texts that I frequently read to use in my classroom. In creating this blog I want to reach a wider audience and hopefully put myself out there to help and advise educators on using texts in the classroom and across the curriculum.
Thank you for visiting my first post and I hope you enjoy my up-coming content.