Aiming High by @HayleyEarl

This is a re-blog post originally posted by Hayley Earl and published with kind permission.

The original post can be found here.

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Earlier this year, I took a look at the year 4 English Curriculum for the first time. I was horrified. There were so many phrases and terms in there that I had never heard of, never mind what the children would know. Prepositional phrases, fronted adverbials, determiners, I had no idea. More worrying than that, I had no idea how on earth I was going to teach them.

For the past few years, we have been using some of Alan Peat’s exciting sentences. Not many of them (they were being introduced one at a time, but they seemed to have slowed down in the introductions over recent months), but those that we were using were having a big impact on our writing. Our literacy work, as a school, was better than it had been for years. The thought of having to change everything to focus on punctuation and grammar was not a pleasant one. However, we ploughed into it head first.

We have managed to retain our topic-related writing, basing everything on our afternoon lessons to give it context, but we have managed to crowbar so much more into our already crammed lessons. We still use the exciting sentences, but they are now enhanced by the fantastic punctuation and grammatical structures that the children use. To begin with, we all had a bit of a nightmare. I would spend hours on the internet researching the grammatical devices I would expect the children to use. To be honest, I still find it easier to give examples than to actually explain them, but the children are brilliant.

There are times when I sit in front of the children and ask them what I have used in a particular sentence, and have actually got no idea what the answer is: I go completely blank. As soon as the children start talking with their partners and I hear the answer, I remember, but there are times that my poor brain is so saturated that it just gives up. Heaven knows how some of the children must be feeling. However, the vast majority of them seem to be thriving on it all.

A couple of weeks ago, I introduced my first ‘slow write’ to the children, where they had to plan and draft every individual sentence according to a set of “rules”. I wasn’t entirely sure how it would go, as there were so many different sentence types and terms mixed up together. I had a niggling feeling that the lesson was going to be a complete car crash and the children would all end up in tears. But it wasn’t. Quite the opposite. The children absolutely loved it. They loved the freedom of being able to play around with every sentence before committing it to paper. They loved only having to produce a small amount of work. But most of all, they loved the work they produced. The children have been desperate to show their work to people: their parents, the head, other teachers, anyone, really. They have been desperate to have another go.

I am so proud of the way the children have embraced this new challenge: they have been expected to learn a huge amount in a ridiculously short space of time. Between our writing sessions, our short twice-weekly SPaG lessons (I know it’s officially GPS now, but SPaG just seems to have stuck) and the weekly homework that MOST of them are doing, we seem to have got it covered. I gave my teaching partner an objective record sheet yesterday, outlining all of the objectives we should be covering ahead of our Assessment Week next week. There was an initial look of panic on her face, but as she took time to read them, I think she began to be reassured too. Our children know their stuff, better than we ever thought they would. My partner was apprehensive to start, saying that we were expecting too much of the children. We were aiming too high and the children would end up being disillusioned and disengaged. But I stuck to my guns: this IS the year 4 curriculum and this IS what we are expected to teach and assess against (being Assessment Leader does sometimes have its benefits. Not often, admittedly, but it does add a lot of weight to arguments about what we should be assessing). I am so glad I didn’t back down. Yesterday, I was telling some colleagues about the work I had seen on whiteboards earlier in the week: complex sentences with several clauses, all perfectly punctuated. “Ah, but I bet that was your more able children, though,” was the response. Some of it, yes, but my less able children are having a good go too. Admittedly, we might still have the odd stray full stop and capital letter, but there are definitely sprinklings of commas in the books of some of the less able children, and they’re pretty much in the right places. I’ve spotted contractions and possessive apostrophes in the books of children who previously struggled to use anything more than a simple sentence, and they are telling me they’ve put them there.

I’m incredibly proud of what we are achieving, and also a little relieved. As someone who points out the mistakes in signs with stray apostrophes and who groans every time I read a should of/would of/could of on Facebook or on Twitter, I am relieved that I am going some way to creating a generation of people who know how to write. We have definitely let our grammatical standards slip over the years, and I am glad we are finally addressing them. I hope that we are proving that teaching good grammar doesn’t have to involve countless exercises and drills, because the children love my lessons (see my previous post), and I hope even more that next week’s assessments (our first against Age Related Expectations) prove that we are doing the job well. And most importantly, I hope that we are about to prove exactly what can be achieved when we, and the children, aim high.

Hayley Earl has been teaching since 2000 in KS2; an Assessment Leader in Gloucester. Also interested in maths and computing and bringing new ideas to the classroom.

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