Do you have a licence for that?

The great pen licence debate. Can you imagine walking into a classroom and demanding to see licences from all of the children to prove that they have passed the pen test? If they’ve left it at home, can they bring it to the office later à la driving licences? Sounds preposterous? I agree.

Pen licences, a certificate and a (usually) horrible handwriting pen, are given to children that demonstrate neat handwriting. They are awarded for ‘accomplishing the pencil’ and this is something you can aspire to from around Year 4. Much like a driving licence, it can be revoked for misdemeanours – going off course, speeding (rushing the letter formation), causing collisions (with other words) etc.

Why do we use them? No one has stopped a child from picking up a paint brush because they haven’t mastered the pencil. No one has stopped a child from using a felt tip because they haven’t mastered the wax crayon. Or is there a secret hierarchy of mark making tools that I’m not privvy too? I must have missed that day at uni…

Pen licences are demeaning and add pressure where it’s really not needed. If you don’t have one, your self-esteem is impacted. If you’re finding it hard to meet the pen requirements, would you continue to put in the effort? Especially when you sit next to someone who already has their pen. If you do have a pen licence, there’s the constant effort to keep up the presentation for fear that the licence may be revoked. Is using a pen the be all and end all?

What would happen if licences were abolished and everyone got a pen regardless? What if the focus was not on moving to pen but being able to choose the writing implement that suits you best? What if we could lose the symbolism of a pencil being for younger or poorer writers and empower the children to have agency in their presentation?

I looked back at which children in each class had been given a licence and compared writing samples to those that hadn’t. It was clear that handwriting needed to be on the agenda but pen licences were not the fix. Conducting some pupil voice interviews, I asked those on pencils to explain how they had been supported to improve their handwriting:

‘I have to practise in the morning. I use a sheet and copy it.’

‘I have to go slower and take care.’

‘I have to take my time.’

‘I have to think about what I’m doing.’

The frustration was clear. The feedback they received was often about their presentation despite their efforts with the content. Yet little was being done to improve their handwriting apart from being told to do it better.

Handwriting must be taught and it must be taught well. Much like phonics, there is an opinion that handwriting is taught in KS1 and that it is not something for KS2 to focus on. I put handwriting back on the agenda for every class. We talked about how to teach handwriting and that handing out a practise sheet didn’t accomplish this. We moved from precursive in EYFS to securing print. There’s nothing worse than trying to un-teach poor letter formation as a Year 1 teacher. Using print ensures that letters are formed in the correct direction and makes joining more natural in later years. Print is continued into Year 1 and then we begin joining letters that make sense to do naturally. From Year 2 onwards, joins are taught systematically and applied through their writing. In upper KS2, handwriting is refined. The children develop a style and meet the requirements of the end of key stage assessments.

The children’s presentation was neater and our focus went back to the content of the writing. But what about pens? We gave every child from Year 2 up a pen. In fact, I gave them a choice of pen – the traditional Berol handwriting pen, a biro and a fountain pen. We let the children try them and choose what worked best for them. Most chose the biro. Very few opted for the fountain pen. I set some guidelines:

⁃ Year 2 will use pens for publishing work for display

⁃ KS2 children will have the choice of pen or pencil for each piece of work but published work will be in pen

⁃ Handwriting must continue to be taught systematically

⁃ Mistakes must be crossed out with a single line

It was amusing to see the shock on faces that everyone would have a pen without a licence; especially as we already have editing pens across the whole school and this is considered the norm. But everyone went with it and trialled it. Initially, it was a mixed bag. There were some untidy pieces of work in pen but through perseverance and systematic handwriting teaching this did improve. Gone was the pressure of the licence. The children are able to articulate their reasons for using a pencil (often for drafting) or pen for each piece of work. Allowing the children to choose the type of pen showed us that the traditional Berol pens are just not conducive to neat handwriting after the tip flattens, but biros last ages (and are much cheaper). Presentation has improved across the school. Those children that struggled with handwriting are benefitting from the teaching and often find the pens easier to move on the page.

So let’s end the pen licences. It’s demotivating for all. Let’s teach handwriting properly, give children the choice and get back to focusing on the content.

Before you go, can I just see your licence for using whiteboard pens? Oh, you don’t have one…back to the chalkboard for you then until you can prove your worthiness…

Home Learning Resources

As we enter further into the unknown, it seems ever more likely that schools will close either partially or completely. As we still have a duty to educate, teachers are frantically organising resources to send home. However, many educational companies have offered free subscriptions or downloads to help teachers and parents. Below is a list of links to these resources that might prove to be useful in the coming days and weeks.

Thank you to all of these companies for supporting teachers, parents and (most importantly) children through this.

Anchor Education https://anchorcreativeeducation.com/downloads

Rock songs for grammar and phonics. Free downloads. 

Reading Realm https://thereadingrealm.co.uk/2020/03/15/free-reading-realm-home-learning-pack-fairy-tales 

Fairy tale learning pack 

Reading Realm https://thereadingrealm.co.uk/2020/03/12/free-reading-realm-home-learning-pack-nature-and-animals 

Nature and animals pack

Literacy Shed https://www.literacyshed.com/home.html

Free videos and resources

Seneca Learning https://app.senecalearning.com/courses

English, maths, geography and history resources

White Rose Maths https://whiterosemaths.com/resources/schemes-of-learning/primary-sols/

Free learning packs due this week

Classroom Secrets https://classroomsecrets.co.uk/free-home-learning-packs/

Learning packs for each year group

Classroom Secrets Kids https://kids.classroomsecrets.co.uk/

Free games related to maths and GPS by year group

Twinkl https://www.twinkl.co.uk/offer/UKTWINKLHELPS

Use the code UKTWINKLHELPS

Google Arts & Culture https://artsandculture.google.com/

Visit galleries and museums virtually

GoNoodle https://family.gonoodle.com/

Keeping active

Pobble365 http://www.pobble365.com/

New picture prompt and activities every day

Phonics Play https://www.phonicsplay.co.uk/

Free games and comics

TTS https://www.tts-group.co.uk/home+learning+activities.html

KS1 and KS2 curriculum linked pack to be downloaded or emailed

TPET https://tpet.co.uk/downloads/key-stage-one-ks1-home-learning-resource-pack-1/

Downloadable learning packs for each phase

My Mini Maths https://myminimaths.co.uk/

Maths packs for KS2

Phonics from Reception to Year 6

I was recently asked to deliver some training to colleagues from a range of schools on phonics. I’ve taught in KS1 for a long time and I’ve seen a range of programmes from Letters and Sounds to Read Write Inc to Jolly Phonics to Phonics International (my personal favourite). But what were the clear messages that I wanted to get across to my colleagues? What frustrates EYFS and KS1 members of staff about phonics? What frustrates KS2 members of staff about phonics. Rather than deliver a session going through key vocabulary and what an effective phonics lesson looks like (we did do this anyway), I wanted to focus on key messages and try to build a sense of community amongst the staff. Phonics has the ability to polarise people. There are many myths surrounding it and poor subject knowledge perpetuates this. So my key messages are:

1. ‘Phonics belongs to the school, not the talent of one teacher.’ Debbie Hepplewhite

We tend to put our strongest phonics teachers in Reception and Year 1. They know phonics inside out, they know how to use it to support independent reading and spelling. But this expertise needs to be shared across the school. There needs to be an agreement about what good phonics teaching is and all members of staff need to be on board with it and support it.

2. They passed the phonics screening test.

I hear this a lot from members of staff in Year 2 and beyond. It takes at least three years to master the English alphabetic code. That’s three years of consistent teaching and learning, and we know how life can get in the way of that. There are over 170 different graphemes in English. That’s an awful lot to learn, but it is possible with consistent teaching throughout the school.

3. Phonetically plausible spelling.

This is one of the main issues KS2 members of staff have with phonics. They make the link that teaching phonics leads to phonetically plausible spelling. It does, but you don’t have to accept it. Instead of accepting a spelling with the wrong graphemes, talk to the child about how to use an alphabetic code chart to select the right graphemes. This is a learning moment. If you accept phonetically plausible spellings then the child doesn’t know that they are wrong and this misconception becomes embedded. It’s far harder to rectify this years down the line, so have high standards and expect to discuss spelling every day with children. This myth is perpetuated by the meme ‘ghoti’ being a phonetically plausible spelling of ‘fish’ because the gh is from enough; the o is from women and the ti is from nation. This is an extreme example and any child that knows how to use an alphabetic code chart would know that this is not an accurate spelling.

4. Resources are too babyish to continue into KS2.

Phonics tends to stop in KS1 when puppets, sand and shaving foam are used exclusively in the teaching of phonics. Children know when they struggle with reading and writing; particularly in KS2 so the thought of being supported by using a puppet and sorting trash and treasure words is going to switch off any learner that sees this as babyish. Phonics is important business and a whole life skill. This is one of the reasons why I favour the Phonics International resources – they are appropriate for all ages and focus on dedicated independent practice.

This is also true of the term ‘multi-sensory’ as used in the Rose report. It wasn’t intended to mean using shaving foam and sand or taking part in activities that are in fact extraneous. It meant using auditory, visual and kinaesthetic approaches to teaching and learning in phonics. Hearing and saying the sound, recognising the sound, forming the letter shapes – this is the multi-sensory approach and therefore suitable for all age groups.

5. Phonics doesn’t work for some children.

If you feel that phonics isn’t working for the children in your school, it’s time to take a close look at the teaching and learning that is happening. It’s time to look at the program your school uses and truly evaluate it. Debbie Hepplewhite has lots of resources to support with this on the Phonics International website. A successful phonics programme needs to be well resourced (not a mismatch of resources), everyone needs to have the same high quality training and everyone needs to be committed.

6. Phonics only supports reading and my class need spelling support.

I think that it’s often forgotten that phonics supports reading and spelling – it’s a reversible skill. Again, accepting phonetically plausible spelling has an impact on spelling success later on so addressing this can have a huge impact. The code is so complex that it’s vital to continue with the systematic teaching of phonics throughout primary and into secondary.

7. Phonics is slow. My class need to know a particular phoneme-grapheme correspondence now.

It’s vital to use a two-pronged approach. The steady systematic pace where you plan to cover the alphabetic code in a logical order and then the incidental teaching where you teach in the moment as the need arises. I’ve seen teachers keep children in a group because they haven’t mastered SATPIN, but there’s a child that really wants to write about his new bike. He doesn’t know any of the code for ‘bike’ so he’s completely switched off from writing. Instead of disengaging this child, incidental teaching would have shown him the code for /b/ and opened up his whole world. It might have made the difference to him being engaged in writing. Incidental teaching is personalised and necessary for the child in that moment.

8. They’re making progress but they’re not catching up with their peers.

Grouping children by ability stifles their ability to catch up with their peers. Yes they make progress but so do their peers. Therefore the gap never closes. Whole class teaching is essential. Yes, there are those children that need additional support and will need to revisit what has been taught. But it is every child’s right to be exposed to the whole alphabetic code – as evident in the previous point.

My Top Tips

1. Make phonics a priority for the whole school.
2. Evaluate the current teaching and learning.
3. Invest in a program that meets the needs of all stakeholders.
4. Ensure phonics is taught whole class with additional support for those that need it.
5. Continue phonics throughout the whole school.
6. Stop accepting phonetically plausible spelling.

And finally, take a look at Debbie Hepplewhite’s Phonics International website. I use the resources every day and it has changed the way we approach phonics in our school.

*This blog post is not affiliated with Debbie Hepplewhite or Phonics International. It is recommending a resource that has been used in the writer’s school successfully.

The importance of vocabulary

So I’ve read Alex Quigley’s ‘Closing the Vocabulary Gap’ and it makes for grim reading. There is a real case of word poverty linked to external factors that impacts on children’s learning. Put plainly, if they can’t understand what they’re hearing or reading, they can’t participate. As teachers, we choose high quality texts to improve vocabulary exposure, but if we don’t break down the meaning of the words it’s like inviting the children to a party and leaving them looking through the window. Understanding helps them get involved and apply their thinking.

Step forward the Vocabulary Ninja! I was lucky enough to receive a personalised copy of Andrew Jennings’ book about how to embed vocabulary teaching in all year groups and help to close the gap for the word poor children in our classes.

The book, along with the helpful resources on the website, explain that there’s two types of vocabulary teaching: explicit and in the moment. We already know this to be true of phonics teaching and the book explains how to maximise every moment of the day to deepen the vocabulary of the children (and probably ourselves too).

The Ninja knows that there is barely any time in the day to fit in vocabulary teacher, so his short, consistent approach can easily be slotted in to the day.

The website (www.vocabularyninja.co.uk) has free downloadable resources – including the word of the day resources – as well as topic and book related vocabulary packs to buy. I highly recommend buying the book because lots of the words lists are included.

You can follow the Vocabulary Ninja on Twitter and see examples of classroom practice. @VocabularyNinja

There are also apps to explore, which I will be doing shortly and feeding back soon!

The importance of vocabulary

So I’ve read Alex Quigley’s ‘Closing the Vocabulary Gap’ and it makes for grim reading. There is a real case of word poverty linked to external factors that impacts on children’s learning. Put plainly, if they can’t understand what they’re hearing or reading, they can’t participate. As teachers, we choose high quality texts to improve vocabulary exposure, but if we don’t break down the meaning of the words it’s like inviting the children to a party and leaving them looking through the window. Understanding helps them get involved and apply their thinking.

Step forward the Vocabulary Ninja! I was lucky enough to receive a personalised copy of Andrew Jennings’ book about how to embed vocabulary teaching in all year groups and help to close the gap for the word poor children in our classes.

The book, along with the helpful resources on the website, explain that there’s two types of vocabulary teaching: explicit and in the moment. We already know this to be true of phonics teaching and the book explains how to maximise every moment of the day to deepen the vocabulary of the children (and probably ourselves too).

The Ninja knows that there is barely any time in the day to fit in vocabulary teacher, so his short, consistent approach can easily be slotted in to the day.

The website (www.vocabularyninja.co.uk) has free downloadable resources – including the word of the day resources – as well as topic and book related vocabulary packs to buy. I highly recommend buying the book because lots of the words lists are included.

You can follow the Vocabulary Ninja on Twitter and see examples of classroom practice. @VocabularyNinja

There are also apps to explore, which I will be doing shortly and feeding back soon!