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Michaela Community School, Wembley

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Posted on April 11, 2015 by Katie Ashford

Why being a SENCO is awesome

Whenever I tell people I’m a SENCO, or explain the nature of my job to non-teachers, I pretty much always get the same response.

“Crikey, I couldn’t do that job!”

“You must be mad!”

“That must be such hard work!”

“Why would you take that on?”

“Sounds like a complete nightmare!”

When I told one of my friends that I was applying for the position of Director of Inclusion at Michaela, they said: “I’m pretty sure nobody else would want that job, so you can guarantee you’ll get it.”

I’m really not sure why people react in these ways when I tell them what I do. People recoil in horror; they look at me as if I’m completely mad; sometimes, they even have the audacity to give me patronising pat on the shoulder, implying on some level that I’m a haggard soldier about to leave for yet another war-torn country against my will.

I hear loads of people say how much they want to be a Head of Department, a Head of Teaching and Learning, or a Head of year, or how they aspire to be a Head teacher some day, but I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who has said that they want to be a SENCO in the future.

This makes me really sad. It makes me sad not just because we need great people to do this job, but because it is an incredible role. Here are a few reasons why I think so:

  1. Clear focus

Too many people overcomplicate the role of SENCO, which can make it seem less appealing to prospective applicants. For me, my role is very simple.

My aim, first and foremost, is to make myself redundant.

To do that, there are two really important things I need to keep in the centre of my mind at all times: first, make sure every child can read. Second, do whatever needs to be done outside of lesson time to make sure kids learn when they are in lessons.

I’m so clear about what I want to achieve as a SENCO that I don’t fuss about with things that get in the way. So I avoid pointless meetings, unnecessary paperwork and attending timewasting conferences as much as possible. Instead, I teach, organise interventions, spend lots of time with the pupils, and make sure teachers and support staff have everything they need to teach their kids really, really well.

  1. Improves your teaching

In my first year of teaching, I was thrust into a bit of a nightmare situation at a bit of a scary school. One of the things that I really did love, however, was the fact that I had been given pretty much all bottom sets in my first year. Again, I received looks of pity and pledges of support, and although I was initially horrified at the prospect, I quickly grew to see it as a gift. Those classes- 10.6, 9.4, 11.5 and 11.6- crikey, they were tough. But I was a much better trainee and teacher for it.

Teaching bottom sets makes you a better teacher because you have to think really carefully about how to get weak kids to grasp tricky concepts. How can you get a group of illiterate boys to understand (and possibly enjoy) Romeo and Juliet? It forced me to chunk down content into minute parts, and to think deeply about exactly what I wanted them to master and how I could help them get there. It forced me to think about learning in a completely different way, and it transformed my approach, understanding and beliefs about teaching forever.

Long term, strategic thinking

Being a SENCO is more than attending annual review meetings and drinking cups of coffee. It’s an opportunity to shape the direction and focus of the school. As a SENCO, you are thinking constantly about what’s best for those who need the most support, and with a proactive attitude and a bit of gusto, you can fly the flag for SEN when senior team are cooking up the latest school-wide strategy. It is an excellent opportunity to have a huge impact on what is often (sadly) a big chunk of the student body. As a SENCO, you can introduce your own school-wide initiatives and strategies that support these kids. It’s an incredible opportunity to change and improve things.

  1. Strong relationships

At Michaela, I only teach the bottom two sets, and am the tutor for the weakest kids. This means that I know those kids really, really well. I teach them all of them for six hours a week. I see some of them another 3 and a half hours on top of that (for intervention and/or reading club). Our amazing team of Teaching Fellows run other interventions with them and report back to me on progress (quantitative and qualitative) every week. I observe them in lessons at least twice a week. I speak to several parents often. I know those kids really well. It’s a great pleasure and I’m excited to get to know them even better over the next five or so years.

  1. Transformation

If you have high expectations of SEN kids, the sky is the limit. Tell them they can do it, tell them you love helping them do it, and give them the right tools, and you will transform their lives. As I said at the beginning of the post, nobody needs education more than the kids with the biggest mountain to climb. When they do reach the peak, the view is more incredible than you- or they- could have ever imagined.

Posted on April 10, 2015 by Olivia Dyer


Two weeks ago, our illustrious Assistant Head Joe Kirby wrote a blog on the the most valuable content that subject leaders at Michaela want all pupils to remember for ten years and beyond. Although Mr Kirby and my more disciplined colleagues distil that knowledge onto a single page, I, the reprobate Head of Science, do not always manage this. Mr Kirby, the most pragmatic reformer of us all, sums up the advantages of knowledge organisers here:

“When a new teacher starts in a school, one of the first questions they have is ‘what do I teach?’ At a single glance, knowledge organisers answer that. Everything our pupils need to know for the year is set out clearly in advance.”

Today on Twitter, Nick Wells asked for me to share my Science knowledge organisers. I am not one to deny the people what they want. What can I say? I am basically a modern day Jesus. So here they are, my friends. Enjoy them. Relish them.

If you are not of the knowledge persuasion, you may choose to print them out, Pritt Stick them together and use them as a blanket for those balmy, but unpredictable spring evenings. At least then they would not go to waste.

Science Knowledge Organisers

Let me take this opportunity to plug an upcoming debate on ‘Science: knowledge versus skills’ on 30/04/15 (evening). The venue is TBC, but in London somewhere. Jip ahoy!

Posted on February 27, 2015 by Olivia Dyer

The vocabulary overload

Ashley squints at the interactive whiteboard as the glare from the sun penetrates the window and dazzles him. “One difference between the structure of a general plant cell and a bacterial cell is that with a bacterial cell, instead of a nucleus, the DNA is held on a plasmid.” As Mr Thompson points at a squiggly line occupying the inside of the bacterial cell, Ashley recoils at the sweat patches developing in the underarm region of Mr Thompson’s grey polyester shirt. The post lunchtime slump takes hold of Ashley’s consciousness, and he begins to ponder the definition of ‘DNA’. Minutes later, having decreed that DNA is a suitable abbreviation for ‘dubstep not afrobeats’, Mr Thompson concludes his explanation by informing the class that they have “five minutes: off you go!”

Moments later, Ashley turns around and it dawns on him that he has no idea what to do next. Completely boggled, Ashley gets out of his seat and furtively glances at the pair of the bookish girls in the corner – the ones who always get the best results. They plump for some sort of petri dish and so, not wanting to question their scientific wisdom, Ashley leans over to grab one too, whilst scanning the room for clues as to what to do with it next.

Of course, Ashley should have been listening to Mr Thompson’s period five lesson on pathogens, and would not have been quite so confused if he had not begun to muse possible definitions of ‘DNA’. However, the classic mistake that Mr Thompson and almost every other science teacher in the nation has made at some point in their career was to convolute their explanation with superfluous vocabulary. We science teachers need to be mindful that our subject is a minefield of unchartered territory for children. DNA might be in our everyday vocabulary, but to the average 13 year old, the word is jargon. It might as well be a foreign language. If pupils don’t know the meaning of words that underpin new concepts, they probably should not be used without prior acknowledgement from the teacher. Why overload a pupil’s working memory with alien terminology? It is said that young people struggle to hold more than five items in their working memory at any one time. Therefore, using unfamiliar words is an unnecessary distraction, which subsequently makes learning more difficult.

What about the words that our pupils are used to using in everyday discourse? Take energy, for example. Most pupils in year seven will associate the word ‘energy’ with food, fuel and the ability to undertake activity. Science teachers, irrespective of their specialism, feel familiar with the concept of energy. It is an important idea in biology, chemistry and physics. However, ask a science teacher to define energy or explain clearly what is meant by the word. It is difficult to do. Many science teachers do not, themselves, have a clear understanding of the scientific conception of energy. They see energy as a fuzzy ‘thing’ – something that is measured in Joules. The reality in science, however, is far more complex: energy is a quantifiable property that can be converted to do ‘work’ – what happens when a force acts upon an object, resulting in a displacement of that object. According to the First Law of Thermodynamics, energy can neither be created nor destroyed.

Quite frankly, the teaching of energy in secondary schools in England is a mess and improving the situation requires subject specific training. However, I will save that rant for another time! In order to communicate the scientific conception of energy, we need to simplify things. For those perplexed by the above definition, lets begin with a simplified definition: energy is the amount of work that can be performed by a force.

To understand this definition, teachers also need to explain the concepts ‘work’ and ‘force’. As with every academic discipline, explaining one thing requires the understanding of many others. But there are additional layers of complexity in science; take work and force, for example. These words have different meanings in the everyday discourse of a year seven pupil. From their point of view, ‘work’ is synonymous with ‘labor’, and ‘force’ is synonymous with ‘vigor’. I personally made the decision to teach Energy as the penultimate unit of my Key Stage Three curriculum in year nine. This is because, as I have outlined, it is such an enormous concept underpinned by many other concepts, which I want to make sure my pupils master first.

There is a huge gap between what is required to understand a concept and the reality of what many science teachers are actually doing in science labs around the country. ‘What are they doing?’ you ask. Throwing words around the science lab, I tell you! What this post elucidates is the tip of the iceberg. Energy is one concept in Key Stage Three out of hundreds, if not thousands. Imagine the breadth of knowledge we assume pupils have if we count the Key Stage Four and Five sciences. Currently, science teachers do not put this amount of thought into how they explain concepts. This is one of the reasons why children in England are not learning Science.

In conclusion, it is imperative that we acknowledge how huge a problem this ‘vocabulary overload’ is. Next, we need to identify the issues with using scientific vocabulary and systematically develop, sequence and share definitions. Here is a challenge for you science teachers out there. Over the next week, take one of these three words – particle, structure or weight. Pinpoint the issues that arise when using the word in Key Stage Three science, and then develop a comprehensive definition. Next, decide when it should be introduced in the curriculum sequence and thus, into pupil’s scientific vocabularies. After all, we are all in this together.

Posted on April 3, 2015 by Katie Ashford

How can we increase a child’s vocabulary?

It goes without saying that words are powerful things. Words are the difference between understanding and confusion; they deepen and enrich how we express ourselves; they allow us to communicate and connect with others. Without words, we are trapped, imprisoned, constrained within the confines of our own minds. Words allow us to escape ourselves. Words give us the power to reach out to others and share and understand the experience of being alive. Having fewer words at your disposal limits what you can say.

It is upsetting, therefore, that studies have shown that children from language-impoverished families may only hear as few as 13 million words before the age of 4. This is in stark contrast to children from language-rich homes, who are more likely to have heard nearly 45 million words by the same age.

If we do nothing to address this gap, it will only increase as children get older.

Teachers may feel startled and disempowered by such stats. How can we fill a 32 million-word gap in the short time we have them in school? Fortunately, children have a natural propensity for learning language. If we give them the right conditions and teach the right things, therefore, we can make a significant difference to a child’s vocabulary, and consequently, their ability to communicate.

As ever, I don’t propose to have all the answers. Below, however, are some thoughts on where we might begin to tackle this seemingly insurmountable problem.

Step 1: Assessment

As with a lot of things, it is vital to know where pupils are at when they come to you. There are a number of different vocabulary tests out there, such as testyourvocab.com andmyvocabularysize.com. These have different strengths and weaknesses, but are based on relatively robust methodologies.

We decided to create our own assessment using the tests in this book by researcher Hunter Diack. We took sample tests and turned the words into simple multiple-choice questions. For example:

What is the best synonym for ‘appreciation’?

  1. Desire
  2. Disaster
  3. Gratitude
  4. Relationship
  5. Alleviate

Diack’s research is complex, but in his book he argues that the number of correct answers (out of 60) multiplied by 600 will give you an approximate vocabulary figure. A pupil with a score of 15/60, therefore, would have an approximate vocabulary of 9000 words. Whether or not this is 100% accurate is by the by. What it does give is an indication of a pupils’ vocabulary. At age 11, the average child should have a score of about 9000-10,000 words on this test. A well-educated graduate should have around 30,000. The words on the test range from very simple ones like ‘beside’ and ‘appreciate’ all the way up to pretty tough ones like ‘bibulous’ and ‘cenacle’.

When we did these tests in September, the results correlated well with reading age scores. Pupils with reading ages of 13 years or more usually had a vocabulary of around 12,000-15,000 words. Pupils with reading ages of 8 years or below usually had a vocabulary of around 2000-3000 words. Again, these are startling statistics, and reveal just how much catching up some pupils have to do.

[Of course, EAL pupils will begin the year with very low vocabulary scores. Depending on how quickly they learn new things, they will usually progress at a much speedier rate than their native peers. It is very exciting to see this!]

Step 2: Which words?

In this article, Daisy Christodoulou outlines very clearly how we should choose which words to teach. In a nutshell, the words that will have the biggest impact on a child’s vocabulary are words that you see often in books, but hear rarely in speech. Words such as: derive, evoke, surreptitious, capricious, incredulous and eradicate all fall into this category. Focus on these sorts of words and pupils’ vocabularies will increase over time. This works because in order to learn new words, you need to know other words. The more of these words you are taught, the easier it is to learn other words. It’s a lovely, virtuous cycle. Combine a robust vocabulary strategy with high motivation and a school-wide reading culture, and your pupils will go far.

Step 3: Inflexible Knowledge

As cognitive science reveals, the brain tends to remember new information in concrete, inflexible forms that are difficult to apply to new situations and contexts. With this in mind, we begin by giving pupils an inflexible definition for a large number of new words, and encourage them to learn them by rote. Combining tradition and innovation, we utiliseQuizlet and knowledge organisers to support pupils’ memorisation.

Another aspect of our strategy for helping pupils to learn these new words is to link them to the units of work we have been teaching. For example, when teaching new words for describing people, we used lots of words that featured in our abridgement of ‘The Odyssey’. We have found that this helps pupils to remember new words as they have a point of reference for using them. It may be narrow at first, but our experience has shown that this is less overwhelming than introducing them to a wide range of contexts in the first instance.

Step 4: Flexible Knowledge

Once pupils have begun to learn the meanings of these new words in an inflexible way, we can now start to teach them the meaning of words in different contexts so that they have a flexible understanding of them. I highly recommend reading ‘Bringing Words to Life’ by Beck, Mckeown and Kucan for an excellent description of the challenges of vocabulary instruction, and the best ways to go about addressing them. If time isn’t on your side, though, I’ve included a brief PowerPoint summarising the book at the end of this blog post.

In a nutshell, pupils need to see and hear words being used in a variety of contexts. When learning the word ‘incredulous’ for example, pupils need to see it used to describe lots of different situations. They also need to begin using the word in a range of contexts too. Again, Beck’s book provides a wealth of different activities that could be used to do this. I have included an example lesson at the end of this post to give you an idea of what this might look like in practice.

If this post sounds a bit technical, that’s because vocabulary acquisition isn’t as straightforward as it might seem. It is simply not enough to point at a few new words on a word wall or ask pupils to use a thesaurus. In order to chip away at that 32 million word gap, we need a robust, systematic strategy that focuses on teaching pupils the most useful words in the clearest way. This isn’t an easy task, but it is certainly not impossible.


A PowerPoint Summarising ‘Bringing Words to Life‘ by Beck, McKeown and Kucan.

An example lesson teaching the word ‘Incredulous‘.

Posted on March 28, 2015

Specify subject knowledge in meticulous detail

What’s the difference between a knowledge curriculum and other curricula?

A knowledge curriculum specifies, in meticulous detail, the exact facts, dates, events, characters, concepts and precise definitions that all pupils are expected to master in long-term memory. Many teachers underestimate the value of specifying (and sequencing) such detail. It is rare to find an English, Science or even History scheme of work that sets this out.

The most powerful tool in the arsenal of the curriculum designer is the knowledge organiser. These organise all the most vital, useful and powerful knowledge on a single page. Here is an example for Year 7: the timeline, activists, quotations and political and legal vocabulary for a unit on apartheid South Africa.

There are two reasons they are so useful: clarity for teachers, and memory for pupils.

Clarity for teachers

Knowledge organisers clarify for everyone, from the Headteacher to brand new teachers, exactly what is being taught.

At Michaela, Heads of Department think deeply about the difficult trade-offs between breadth and depth. If, for instance, you only have one religion lesson a week, what exactly about the Bible should your pupils study, and what will you omit? A broad range of stories, or fewer stories in greater depth?

We try hard to choose the most valuable content that we want all pupils to remember for ten years and beyond. And for each unit, we discipline ourselves to distil it onto a single page.

When a new teacher starts in a school, one of the first questions they have is ‘what do I teach?’ At a single glance, knowledge organisers answer that. Everything our pupils need to know for the year is set out clearly in advance.

Now, any teacher can pop into anyone else’s lesson, look at the unit organiser, and see what every kid is working on. I love seeing the fantastic knowledge they are learning: from astronomy in Science, to European geography in Humanities, to grammatical structures in French. I love asking them questions about their subjects, and seeing their eyes light up as they see others love science, geography and history too.

Memory for pupils

Knowledge organisers are given to all pupils at the start of each unit to help them remember what they’re learning. No longer out of sight, out of mind: instead of leaving behind previous units’ content, teachers can recap quickly and easily in lessons. Instead of forgetting all about it, pupils continually revisit and retrieve prior learning from their memories.

Every lesson, across all subjects, we use knowledge organisers printed off as a pack of in-lesson quizzes. The numbers and columns here help turn the grids into simple in-class quizzes. Emboldening key words allows pupils to peer-mark the complex definitions, working out which terms are vital in them:

Lastly, knowledge organisers are brilliant for revision. In the past, I hugely underestimated the sheer volume of retrieval practice required for pupils to master all their subject knowledge in long-term memory. Specifying the exact knowledge is just a starting point. Sequencing it, explaining it, checking it, quizzing on it, practicing combining it, testing it, and revising it for years are vital if pupils are to remember it for years to come.

Next time, I’ll write about our five-year revision strategy across subjects.

Posted on March 21, 2015

Combining Tradition and Innovation

Teachers who think knowledge, memory and practice have been neglected in schools, tend to be seen as adamant traditionalists – to quote one blogger recently, “the shock-troops of neo-traditionalism!”

Whilst I think it’s important to bring the best of tradition into education, I also think we should try to bring the best of innovation in too. In fact, I think that combining traditional subject knowledge-led instruction with innovative digital online technology has great potential – as long as we are selective, and not seduced by transient vogues.

Here’s how we combine tradition and innovation at Michaela:

The danger of innovation, as Daisy Christodoulou points out, is that ‘nothing dates so fast as the cutting edge’. Algebra and the alphabet have existed usefully for hundreds of years, and will continue to be useful for hundreds of years to come; iPads and interactive whiteboards have been around for ten or so – and are less likely to be around in a hundred years’ time.

So how do we decide on the best innovations to pursue? Which are most likely to endure? The best guide is the findings of 125 years of scientific research into learning. The research is unequivocal: learning requires long-term memory retention, and what most aids retention is frequent retrieval practice – put simply, quizzing.

Take smartphone apps like Quizlet. These allow pupils to quiz themselves anywhere, anytime online – on the bus on the way to school, on the bus on the way back from school, on weekends, in the holidays, or when they are absent. Such technologies are most powerful when combined with the strong tradition of tough subject knowledge,selected and sequenced carefully for schemata in long-term memory, by Department Heads and other subject experts.

Advocates of traditional knowledge see the benefits of innovative technology – we just set a very high bar of scientific evidence for selecting among its applications.

Posted on March 21, 2015 by Katie Ashford

How should we read texts in lessons?

At Michaela, our pupils read thousands of words every day. A typical day for a pupil (of any ability) might look a bit like this:

7.55am: Silent reading in form time.

8.15am: English lesson: read 1000 words of the Odyssey.

9.15am: Maths lesson: read 200 words about a new mathematical concept.

10.30am: Science lesson: read 500 words about the International Space Centre.

11.30am: Humanities lesson: read 800 words about ancient Mesopotamia.

1.30pm: French lesson: read 500 words in English, translated into French.

2.30pm: Silent reading in form time.

Pupils in our reading club would read for half an hour after school with me.

All pupils read at home for 30 minutes each night.

Assuming that pupils read about 1000 words in morning tutor time, another 2000 in afternoon tutor time, and around 2000 in the evening at home, I would estimate that our pupils are reading around 8000 words a day. The weakest readers- those with the lowest reading ages, and who attend reading club- would read closer to 10,000 per day.

This amount of reading practice is essential for improving reading ability and motivation. I can already see the difference in the weakest readers. Kids regularly grab me at lunch and tell me about the book they are reading- something that I could only have dreamed of in my last school. There is a buzz about reading at Michaela. The library is always packed with kids after school, and many of them regularly ask their teachers for book recommendations.

Some of our teachers read books aloud to the pupils during tutor time. These books aren’t on the curriculum, but are read purely for a lovely afternoon treat. Olivia Dyer, our wonderful Head of Science, has her form in stitches reading Adrian Mole, which was the talk of the school for a long time: “PLEEEEEEASE can we read Adrian Mole like Miss Dyer’s class, Miss!?” was a common refrain. Jonny Porter, our tremendous Head of Humanities, reads Gombrich’s ‘A Little History of the World’ to his form, which is also a lovely treat for them in the afternoon.

In this post, I want to outline how we structure reading lessons at Michaela. Our pupils are so fortunate in that every one of our teachers and senior leaders- regardless of subject- cares deeply about reading and sees it as a vital part of the curriculum. As a SENCo, I really couldn’t ask my colleagues to do any more. They make my job so easy!

A good reading lesson should take the following principles into account:

  1. In any lesson, reading should primarily be for comprehension. Pupils need tounderstandwhat they are reading, and so the teacher should pause at appropriate moments and check for understanding.
  2. Reading is an opportunity to improve pupils’ fluencyand ability to read withexpression. Teachers should therefore model good reading and ask pupils to read aloud (year 7s love this, so get them into that habit then- it’s harder as you go up the school, in my experience).
  3. Reading is an excellent opportunity to improve pupils’ vocabulary. Teachers should pause to explain the meaning of key words, and may want to give further examples of new words used in context.

To demonstrate what this might look like, I’ve written an example lesson script below. This is a lesson reading Pullman’s beautiful ‘Northern Lights’, but the principles could be applied in any subject, with any text.

Step 1: Story Version 1

A ‘story version 1’ is an introduction to the text in which the teacher outlines some of the things that will happen in the story. This enables and deepens comprehension because, whilst reading the story, pupils have something to ‘hook’ the new text onto. I tend to make quite a big deal out of it, making a few jokes, ALWAYS showing them how excited I am to read it, and using dramatic voices and over-the-top gesticulation to bring it to life a bit. By the time I’ve finished, they are usually desperate to get started.

Teacher: I’m so excited about this chapter, because everything that happens feels so intense! So, in this chapter, Lyra sees what Lord Asriel shows on the projector. What she sees is very strange: for the first time, Lyra learns about something very important: dust. We are going to find out what this ‘dust’ is, and the adventure it might take Lyra on. Are you ready?

 Step 2: Modelled/Shared/Guided reading

 This can be done in a number of ways: the teacher may wish to read aloud, or nominate pupils to read. Depending on the nature of the class, the teacher may decide to split the group up: perhaps lower attainers work with the teacher, middle with the teaching assistant, and higher independently. I prefer to start by modelling some reading aloud, then handing over to pupils to read.

“Lord Asriel”, said the Master heavily, and came forward to shake his hand. From her hiding-place Lyra watched the Master’s eyes, and indeed, they flicked towards the table for a second, where the Tokay had been.

Teacher: Jason, why do the Master’s eyes flick towards the table?

Jason: His eyes flicked to the table because that’s where the poisoned drink was.

Teacher: That’s spot on! Now, let’s pause for a second. Who can show me what the master did with his eyes? Who can deliver an Oscar-winning performance to the class? [Call on student]

Let’s continue reading:

“Master,” said Lord Asriel. “I came too late to disturb your dinner, so I made myself at home here. Hello, Sub-Rector.

Teacher: A ‘subrector’ is a person in charge of certain universities or schools.

Glad to see you looking so well. Excuse my rough appearance; I’ve only just landed.

[Continue reading in the same manner until end of chapter,]

Step 3: Post-reading Vocabulary

Teacher: In this chapter, we saw the word ‘Scholar’. A scholar is a person who has very special, detailed knowledge of something because they spend a long time reading and studying about it. When I was at university, I was a scholar of philosophy. In this class, we are scholars of English.

So, Jamie, is a person who studies history a scholar? Why?

Kate, is a person who reads books, but doesn’t study them a scholar? Why?

Darren: True or False? I don’t know anything about poetry; I am a scholar of poetry.

Pete: true or false? I spend a long time reading about and studying chemistry, and I know a lot about it; I am a scholar of chemistry.

Who can finish this sentence for me? To become a bible scholar she had to….

The key thing with vocabulary is that you get pupils thinking about the words in different contexts. There is much to say on this, so I will write about this in more detail soon, but the above is just a little taster for now.

Further reading

I would highly recommend taking a look at the books/articles on the list below. In my next post, I will address the teaching and assessment of vocabulary in more detail.

Applegate, A and Applegate, M.D. (2004) The Peter Effect: Reading habits and attitudes of preservice teachers The Reading Teacher: Vol. 57, No. 6

Bambrick-Santoyo, B. , Settels, A., Worrell, J. (2013) Great Habits, Great Readers San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Beck, I., McKeown, M., Kucan, L. (2013) Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction New York: Guildford Press

Fenlon, A., McNabb, J., & Pidlypchak, H. (2010). Developing meaningful literacy routines for students with multiple disabilities. Teaching Exceptional Children, 43(1), 42-48.

Hasbrouck, J. (2006) Drop Everything and Read- but How? American Educator: Accessed online at [http://www.aft.org/newspubs/periodicals/ae/summer2006/hasbrouck.cfm] 24.4.2014

Hirsch, E.D. (2003) Reading Comprehension Requires Knowledge- of Words and the World. American Educator. Accessed online at [https://www.aft.org/pdfs/americaneducator/spring2003/AE_SPRNG.pdf] 24.4.14

Kameenui, E. and Simmons, D. (1990) Designing Instructional Strategies: The Prevention of Academic Learning Problems. New Jersey: Macmillan

Lemov, D. (2010) Teach Like a Champion: 49 techniques that put students on the path to college San Francisco: Jossey Bass

Morrison, T. G., Jacobs, J. S., Swinyard, W. R. (1999). Do teachers who read personally use recommended literacy practices in their classrooms? Reading Research and Instruction, 38 (2), 81-100.

Posted on March 15, 2015 by Katie Ashford

How can we motivate reluctant readers?

Recently, I had the pleasure of attending my first ever ‘Spinning’ class at my local gym. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, Spinning is exercise for people who hate themselves. The indoor cycling phenomenon, which became trendy a few years ago, is still the calorie-burning activity of choice for those who enjoy pain and sweat-soaked, arse-cramping humiliation.

About five minutes in to the session, I thought I was either going to have to stumble out, throw up all over the bike, or cry. I looked to my left to see that one guy had already managed to escape. He looked back over his shoulder as he exited the room; I caught his eyes and, without saying a word, begged him to take me with him. But there was no chance of escape. The coach was crouched in front of me, screaming in my face, shouting at me to go faster. In that hour, I experienced new levels of pain and left feeling that Spinning should most definitely come with a warning label saying “Not for the physically and/or mentally feeble” or something like that.

Landing back on my couch an hour or so later, I limply whimpered and hugged my legs to remind them that they still existed. As I recovered, I thought about the parallels between the horror of spinning, and what it must feel like for a struggling reader every time they are asked to pick up a book.

Reading is incredibly hard work for some children. It’s so hard that they want to give up before they have even really begun- just like I felt after a few minutes of the spinning class. It was my first time, so I went in thinking that I was going to fail. For a struggling reader, merely picking up a book can bring all sorts of anxieties and fears. Some kids even give up and decide that there is little point in trying right from the off. They are afraid to give reading a chance. It’s hard, it’s arduous; frankly, it’s a task that is easier to avoid than to confront.

So what can we do to motivate reluctant readers? It’s something that teachers across the land have pondered for decades. In some schools, I have seen teachers industriously searching for texts that appeal to kids’ interests. In other schools, I have seen teachers redefine reading completely, asking pupils to use iPads rather than books (Indeed, I once visited a school where the library had been replaced entirely by Apple products- not a single book remained- a fact that the Head was most proud of; she assured me this strategy had dramatically improved reading motivation across the school.)

Like thousands of other educators, I have mulled this over for ages. I’ve picked up lots of ideas over the last few years, but here are a few that work well. None of this is revolutionary- quite the opposite!

  1. Get them into the right habits

We must help children to form the right reading habits. If we allow them not to read, they will never learn to do it. And if they never learn to do it, they won’t learn to love it. It’s a nasty, vicious spiral that we should endeavour to snap them out of as soon as possible. Like going to an exercise class, it will be painful at first, but if you don’t even bother going, how will you ever get fit?

Daily reading is something I have seen work excellently in Primary schools. Secondary teachers, I implore you to visit your local primary right now and see how much those kids are reading every day. For some reason, not all Secondary schools keep this up. Often, we just give them a library card, tell them to go and find something they like, and then leave them to it. NEWSFLASH: this is not enough.

I’m not advocating a military regime where we chain them to a desk and force them to read, but is it wrong to insist that pupils read every single day for an extended period of time? Yes, this will mean that you have to make space for it in the timetable. Yes, it will mean that you might not be able to use tutor time for endless announcements and pupil voice surveys. But it will make a difference- trust me.

Of course, for the most reluctant readers, silent reading time can simply be an opportunity to stare out the window. To avoid this, use these chunks of time to run small group reading sessions with the weakest readers. If a teaching assistant can cover the rest of class whilst they are reading in silence, the teacher can take out the few who need the most support and read with them.

Daily reading practice is vital for habit change and motivation. If every Secondary Head teacher in the country could prioritise this, we’d be a lot further along in solving the problems of literacy in the UK.

  1. Help them to experience success 

Believe it or not, I did in fact survive my first Spinning session. As somewhat of a glutton for punishment, I have since been back a few times, not just because I enjoy public humiliation, but because I really want to get better at Spinning. (Currently, my aim in life is to go once a week and not die.) Surviving my first session made me realise that I absolutely can do it if I keep going. If I throw in the towel, I’ll never get there. But the taste of success has persuaded me to keep trying.

The same is true of struggling readers. They must feel that they are learning and improving every time they pick up a book. First, ensure that they are on the right reading programme (more information on this here). This will enable them to succeed and feel that they are making progress. Secondly, help them to track their progress. Visual trackers and displays make success more visceral and appealing for struggling readers. A simple star chart will suffice. Again, I’m not advocating anything revolutionary here.

  1. Increase the challenge

By far the most frightening moment in Spinning was when the coach came over and increased the level of resistance on my bike. At that point, I thought I was about to leave this mortal coil for good. But then I looked around the room and noticed that he was only increasing the resistance for the people who looked like they were dying the least. It gave me such a confidence boost (‘Check me out! I’m winning at this! I’m ready to go up a level! I am awesome! I’m winning at life! I love Spinning!’), that I felt so motivated to keep going.

I thought about this whilst I was recovering later on. Maybe it was the dopamine talking, but an increased level of challenge really gave me a buzz. It stopped me from feeling like a complete failure and made me realise that I was totally capable of doing it. There was nothing physically preventing me from carrying on- as per usual, my stubborn head had been the only thing getting in my way.

I’ve applied this to our reading motivation strategy at Michaela. I’ve seen struggling readers patronised with graphic novels, magazines, comics and all sorts of nonsense in the past. It’s an approach that aligns well with that old adage “It matters not what they read, as long as they read something” – a line that I wholeheartedly disagree with. If you only ever eat KFC, you won’t be very healthy; if you only read picture books, you won’t get better at reading.

We have an after-school reading club at Michaela. The 15 weakest readers come every day after school and we read great books together. At the moment, we are chomping our way through the Classic Starts series: so far, they have devoured Frankenstein, Dracula, Gulliver’s Travels, Sherlock Holmes, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Roman Myths and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. They absolutely loved reading them. This is partly because they are great stories with brilliant characters, but it is also a consequence of increased levels of challenge. We don’t patronise them with nonsense that intends to appeal to their interests; we want to expand their horizons, not limit them. It has given them an enormous sense of achievement to sit and read all of these books, to understand them and have an opinion of them.

It may seem counter-intuitive to suggest that weak readers should read more challenging books, but the paradox of reading is that we must be challenged in order to improve.


Posted on 15 March, 2015 by Bodil Isaksen

Third time’s a charm. Yesterdays #mathsconf2015 organised by Mark McCourt‘s La Salle was the best yet.

Here’s what I got from the day.

David Thomas

David always has something new to say at conferences. No rehashed powerpoint slides and tired jokes to be seen. This time, he demonstrated three powerful techniques: bar modelling, algebra tiles and double number lines.

I was fairly au fait with bar models already, but the talk did prompt me to track down some My Pals are Here books once and for all. These are the books used in Singapore primary schools. He had sourced some lovely problems from them, like the following (rephrased because I didn’t get the exact wording):

I have a mixture of 20c, 50c and $1 coins. I have 20c and 50c coins in the ratio 2:5. I have 3 times as many $1 coins as 20c coins. If I have 28 more $1 coins than 20c coins, how many more 50c coins do I have than 20c coins?

Lovely with a bar model; horrid without.

Next up were algebra tiles. This was of much interest to me: I have to make the call on whether to buy class sets for the department pretty sharpish before we teach negative number to our pupils.

I could see how they would be excellent for wiping out misconceptions when collecting like terms and expanding brackets.

I was a little more wary about them for solving equations. Take an equation like 4x + 1 = x + 4

It starts off really well. The idea of taking the same thing from both sides works nicely.

Dividing both sides by three seems OK as well, though there’s something slightly less intuitive about it – maybe because I can already see that the sides don’t look equal?

This is my real bugbear. Look at that picture. The length x is clearly not the same as the square of unit 1. They are different!

I wonder whether the algebra tiles don’t just reinforce the misconception that equals means “the answer is…” rather than “the same as”.

The jury’s still out. No manipulative is perfect, and its advantages may outweigh the disadvantages I currently see. It’s one I’m pondering.

No such misgivings about David’s third technique, however: double number lines. What a fantastic way to introduce proportionality! I was mentally replanning my unit of work on proportional reasoning as he spoke.

The idea of starting with simple times tables is genius:

David then suggested giving number lines that get harder and harder, getting pupils to fill in numbers using a variety of techniques.

Finally, you can extend to word problems: currency, converting units, percentages, you name it.

I really think this technique could be game changing for schools, especially with the heavier focus on proportional reasoning in the new GCSE.

Tweet up and do some maths

I’m convinced there’s a circle of hell called “speed networking”. I get what conferences are trying to do: talking to other delegates is often the best part of a conference. But you need to let it happen more organically for it to work. Best catalyst for a room of mathematicians? Some maths problems like this on the walls:

From the wonderful @solvemymaths

I thought this worked an absolute treat. I had a boatload of fun, talked to some new people, and did some maths.

Kris Boulton

Kris said many sensible things on assessment. He started off with his definition of mastery: a term which has come to mean whatever people want it to mean of late. Is mastery about refusing to move on until everyone’s got it? Is it about kids showing some sort of “understanding” over and above procedural knowledge? Kris stuck to something more tangible: depth before breadth and spending longer on topics before moving on.

Kris gave a crystal clear explanation of validity and reliability, and how that affected how we choose to assess in mathematics. I second his recommendation to read Measuring Up by Koretz. It will give you the tools you need to think clearly about assessment.

I appreciated Kris’ bold principles for assessment design: one mark a question, with no marks for working, making it possible to mark and record results in under one hour. We’ve all spent weekends scrutinising messy exam papers for whether Jimmy can pick up that M1 mark and filling in complex QLA grids – the fact I saw multiple people marking GCSE papers in corners of the conference centre during coffee breaks is evidence of that. It’s one of those workload issues I now have to think about a lot more carefully as head of department than I did as a lone ranger. I want my teachers to have an excellent work-life balance.

A further principle that Kris espoused was that the mastery assessments should be endlessly resit-able. The ideal would be endless assessments with the same structure questions but different numbers. I was left pondering how small tweaks might make that a reality with our assessment system. We’re already ticking many of the boxes with no marking for teachers, QLA automatically generated, and limitless resits (but with the precise same questions each time). With the flexibility of Excel imports and the =randbetween and =concatenate functions, it’s possible to generate many subtly different assessments with minimal workload. One I’ll be working on.

Jo Morgan

Jo (@mathsjem) is a veritable powerhouse of ideas. @danicquinn and I were sat together, nattering like excitable schoolgirls about the pros and cons of the exciting methods we were exposed to. I loved the format: we tried some questions, compared methods and Jo then showed us four or five different ways it could be done.

Jo made some important points about “nixing the tricks”. I have a lot of sympathy with Nix the Tricks. I hate awful things like the adding fractions butterfly. I do, however, think it goes a bit far sometimes. I won’t be simplifying surds like this anytime soon:

Jo said we should “keep pupils brains free of unnecessary memorisation”. This gives me pause. I think memorisation is often more necessary than we think – including the type of rote, instrumental, procedural memorisation that is so slated. It’s important to remember that it’s not a choice between “memorising something” and “learning something”. Unless something has changed in long term memory, nothing has been learned. So memorisation is learning. You can’t learn without memorisation. It’s what you memorise that we should be discussing.

All in all, a really enjoyable, useful and thought-provoking day. Thanks to all involved in making it happen!

Posted on February 27, 2015 by Bodil Isaksen

Maths everywhere

Here’s how we squeeze in maths outside of maths lessons, without compromising subject content in other lessons.
  1. Rolling numbers

Rolling numbers is a great first step for embedding times tables. Ultimately, we want our children to know each times table out of order and without counting on their fingers. But rolling helps the children get a feeling for the patterns. Incorrect answers start sounding out of place. But the main reason I do it really is that the children simply love it.

You can break out a quick roll anytime and anywhere. Outside in the playground when lining up to come in. Between main course and dessert at family lunch. At the end of form time when you got them stood behind their chairs a little too early.

It’s nice to drop in some other rolls once they’re confident with the basics. Can they roll their 18s? Their 25s? Their 3.5s? Their 0.303s? You can then follow up with a conversation about how they figured each number out. Decimal rolls in particular are great for reinforcing place value.

  1. Quick-fire everywhere

I’m lucky enough to work in a school where all teachers recognise the central importance of number facts. All staff help pupils by firing questions like times tables or square roots to individual pupils in spare moments. I’ve seen this work particularly well in the queue for the toilet at break time.

As we’ve gone through the year, staff have become good at working out who needs what, adjusting the level of challenge for the pupil as appropriate. One pupil might be asked 7 + 8, and the next to find the difference between the square root of 169 and 25.

I love this for so many reasons. It has zero resource cost. If a pupil is struggling, the teacher can go straight into a one-on-one pep talk about the importance of automaticity. It really makes the pupils feel like every staff member cares about them automating their number facts – not just the maths teachers.

  1. Maths Mugshots

In order to super-size the effect of quick fire, I produce one pagers with photos of the pupils who need particular attention. I print A3 posters showing the slowest pupils’ names and photos. These are stuck up in the office, staff room, by the photocopier and even in the staff loos.

Teachers can hone in on those pupils and fire a quick question at them every time they see them. They can also use it to generally encourage and check in on the pupil. It’s not watertight: I don’t expect teachers to recall perfectly who is on the posters. But if it means even one kid gets one bit more practice in the thing they need, then I think it’s worth it.

  1. Number chains

Start with a number. Multiply it by something. What do you get? Take off something. What have you got now? Then square the answer. Then halve that… You get the picture. I run number chains like a fast paced game of Pepper with enough wait time to keep everyone on board. I tend to do a mix of hands up and cold call.

Number chains are fantastically adaptable. You can make them as difficult or as easy as you like. You can easily link them to current learning. You can play with any size group. You can have a number chain that lasts a few seconds or many minutes.

They are perfect for when you’re waiting for any reason. We play if we have to wait to leave the classroom while another class is filing past in the corridor. We play with the first pupils to arrive in the lunch hall whilst waiting for the other classes to come down. We play before PE when some pupils are changed into their kit before others.

  1. Times table rockstars

The best £50 your department can spend. TTRockstars takes on a life of its own. I do next to no promotion of TTRockstars, but our pupils answer tens of thousands of times table questions a day. Hype up the launch week, buy some inflatable instruments and whacky glasses, then sit back and watch.

  1. Scores on the door

We have an IXL subscription which gives pupils endless high quality practice. Every day, I publish the whole year rankings, right from top place to bottom place, for time spent on IXL the night before. It is purely an effort measure: it ranks based on time spent, not difficulty of topic or percentage success. Pupils who really struggle are on a level playing field with those who don’t.

We have numerous pupils choosing to do over 2 hours of IXL a night. These aren’t all existing high attainers: they span right across the spectrum. They are speeding ahead of their peers. Those spending the least time deserve to know what the standard is. I don’t want them to wallow in denial about how hard everyone else is working. I want pupils to know where they stand. They want to know where they stand too. They love crowding round to see what position they came in.

The sign it’s working? The median time spent is usually around 45 minutes a night. Different names come in the top 10 each day. And I just got an email from IXL saying my pupils had answered over 600,000 problems since September. Can’t say fairer than that.