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…

How to implement conferencing in your classroom

You don’t have to mark!

Scroll to the end for a link to a policy you can adapt for your school.

Last week, my blog about conferencing instead of marking gained a lot of attention. I was asked about how to implement conferencing in the classroom and how to get your SLT to engage with this instead of traditional marking. Here’s a link to my previous blog post about why my school put the pens down and stopped marking children’s books.

Conferencing is a conversation about learning. It’s not just providing feedback; it’s also an opportunity to provide challenge. As it is ‘in the moment’ and specific to that child, you are able to give highly personalised feedback that is acted on immediately. Of course, it’s not just down to the teacher. Conferencing is the responsibility of all school stakeholders. Everyone has an equal part to play and when they do, the impact is phenomenal.

You may find it useful to have a notebook or journal to take notes during the conferencing sessions. When I first started, I had a folder with notes about each child and the conversations we had. Whilst this did provide me with focus for the conversation, I did find that it was still too formal. Did I really look at those notes again? No, I remembered the conversation I had with the child. I know their targets and what is going well for them. After a while the folder became redundant and I stopped using it. However, I know that other teachers in the school have a notebook where they jot a couple of notes down. Some also have a class book where the child can add a note if they want too. They can then be supported by their peers when working towards their target. The key message here is that it is the verbal feedback that is important; if you want to make notes, make sure they are serving a purpose.

In order to focus the discussion on feedback and challenge, having a bank of questions to get you started can be useful. I have these in my classroom and refer to them. The children also use them when discussing their work with other people too.

So you’ve trialled conferencing in your class and now you want to take it school-wide. The key component to making this a success is training the children. Explain to them what you are doing and why. Model the responses you expect to see. When talking to the children about conferencing, consider the following points:

  • What will conferencing look like in your classroom?
  • How will the children ask for a conferencing session?
  • How will the adults ask for a conferencing session?
  • How will conferencing be timetabled? Will it be timetabled?
  • How will questions be used? What kind of language are you expecting?
  • Do the children know why books won’t be marked anymore?
  • Do the children understand that conferencing will be used for all subjects, not just English and Maths?
  • How will you develop the children’s language skills so that they can articulate their thoughts clearly?

The key thing is to tell people that this is what you do as your feedback policy. Some people still expect to see triple marking. Don’t wait to argue your point. When it comes to visitors:

Tell them what they are going to see.

Show them.

Tell them what they saw.

Click here to find an example conferencing policy to adapt for your school.

You don’t have to mark

Be bold. Be brave. Put those pens down!

Here’s one of the main reasons I’m still a teacher.

When I tell people that I don’t mark any books there are gasps of disbelief and jealousy. Friends in other schools have cute trolleys or suitcases that they wheel out at the end of the day filled with books and the marking toolkit of every pen colour under the rainbow. I walk out with my notebook – no heavy lifting for me!

So what do we do instead? We talk to the children and they talk to each other. We constantly give feedback but there isn’t a verbal feedback stamper in sight. Who would I be stamping for? The children know we talked about their work. They’ve acted on my feedback and the evidence is shown in their work.

Why did we change? Workload was an issue, but everyone is willing to do whatever it takes to give the children the best education possible. But endless marking and pen switching wasn’t having as much impact as the effort required. We found that we were writing all of these comments then having to read them and talk about them with the children the next day anyway – so what was the point?

How did we implement it? We decided on some key language that everyone would use. We called the feedback ‘conferencing’ and it could take many forms. You can conference about your learning to an adult in school, a peer or with your family. Parents were informed of the changes and invited in to see it. We held lots of short feedback sessions as a staff to see how it was going and the impact it was having on the children as well as the staff. Teaching assistants felt that they were having more impact in the classroom as they are equally responsible for providing feedback. Teachers felt that their impact was instant because they gave feedback that was acted on straightaway. Gone were the days of writing a next step comment for the child to improve their work the next day.

What has the impact been? Teachers are planning more adventurous lessons and challenging the children because they aren’t exhausted from marking. They are exhausted from teaching though! There’s far more writing at length going on because teachers know that they don’t have to plan in long marking sessions around the rest of their workload. As we aren’t marking to a specific learning objective, the children are making more rounded progress as all aspects of their work is being reviewed with the adult. The quality of the work is improving as the children work collaboratively to make better word choices or improve their artwork.

How often is it used? I’m often asked how regularly I conference with the children. Unfortunately, I can’t quantify it. I move around the room giving feedback throughout the day. My TA also does this. The children give feedback to each other too, so it’s an endless cycle. I have regular meetings with the children where we look together at a broader spectrum of their work and make longer term goals. We do not write any of these goals down. The children know their goals because we’ve talked about them and that has far more impact than reading (or trying to read) a note in a book.

What do outsiders think? Of course, people are worried about visitors and what they think of it. Our feedback policy states what conferencing is and how it’s used and that marking will not be seen in the books. From the visitors that we have had since implementation, the feedback has been positive. Conferencing is embedded in all of our classes from Nursery to Year 6 and visitors can see it in action. The children can articulate their learning, what needs improving, how they know and what they are doing about it. Our school also happens to be in the top 3% for progress in England, even though we are not in a leafy green area.

The biggest question people have though is about OFSTED. What do they think of it? Well, we are the proof (and I’m sure many other schools are too) that you don’t need evidence of marking to prove impact in the classroom. They were fully onboard with what we are doing and acknowledged and approved of what we are achieving. You don’t have to mark!

What’s next for us? Conferencing is embedded with the children as part of our teaching and learning. We’ve also been using it with staff as part of professional conversations. It’s having impact; it makes the conversation less personal and more about the job. People are able to disassociate themselves from the feedback to some extent and think objectively. It helps to take some of the emotion out of a situation. However, teachers put so much of themselves into teaching that it is impossible to take all of the emotion out of feedback. Some members of staff have felt it patronising at times to use the same language with staff that we use with the children. This is something for us to work on, as when it has worked, it has been very successful.

Conferencing has relieved the pressure on teachers. TAs feel empowered to support teaching and learning. Professional conversations are less personal when using the conferencing model. But most importantly, the children are empowered, articulate and progressing.

So go ahead. Be bold, be brave and put those marking pens down.

3 Elements of Reading

When I joined the school, they were using a carousel or Daily 5 approach to reading that we are all familiar with. The teacher was reading with a group, the TA would hear individual children read and the other groups would be listening to reading, working on writing or word work. These independent groups were difficult to manage, particularly lower down the school, but the children working with an adult made progress. However, the teachers were finding this ever more difficult to manage and had become disaffected with the teaching of reading. There were murmurs of wanting whole class reading, but rather than jump in, I read as much as I could on blogs, in books and on Twitter. If we were going to break away from the Daily 5 set up, then I needed to ensure the following 3 elements were in place:

Everyone signed up to this new approach but we needed a framework for the whole class reading element. For this, I implemented elements from Jane Considine’s Book Talk.

Already in our school, we had stem sentences for maths, so it made sense to use stem sentences in our reading too. For those that don’t know, the Reading Rainbow has 3 layers with 9 lenses (or reasons to read) in each layer. Each lens has stem sentences to frame our talk about a text. We don’t follow the system religiously; we trialled and found out what works for us. Currently, we read a book (or part of a book) with the class; allowing the words to wash over the children as they hear a book read as it should be. We then pick a lens from each layer and use them to frame our discussions about the text. In each year group, it looks likes this:

The impact of this has been huge. Children are discussing books with their peers at much deeper levels than before. Reading comprehension sheets haven’t been seen. Teachers are engaged in the teaching of reading because they can focus on choosing good books rather than planning a carousel of activities. Speaking and listening has improved as the children are orally rehearsing all of the time. Something that I’m most proud of though is that in our reading journals, we have a detailed analysis of novels considering a range of lenses. Our children are more articulate than they once were.

I’m sure there are things to tweak and we still need to get the balance right with 1-1 reading, but using this approach has definitely improved our outcomes.

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 ( 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!