English is my favourite core subject to teach: as a student, I loved my uni sessions and found it so exciting to apply what I’d learned to placement experiences, alongside my own long-standing passion for the subject. However, I was as student with others who felt completely oppositely to me: they loved maths for its black-and-white-ness and the security of one correct answer (this is exactly why I’m not the greatest fan!) or they looked to science for its answers to all the big questions. English, to them, was a challenge for all the reasons I loved it so much. A creative subject, where the whole point is to think differently to everyone else, seemed an unpleasant intimidation both in the planning and the delivery stages.
In this blog, I’ve put together five key tips that might help you with planning and teaching English. If you’ve still got questions, feel free to leave them in the comments, follow up on the ‘Contact Me’ tab or find me on Twitter, @CaitTeachesKind.
Going into my first placement, I didn’t quite appreciate the importance of this. Sure, it had been talked about A LOT at uni, but how useful could it really be, in a real classroom? I can’t explain exactly how wrong my uninformed, first-year self was! It doesn’t matter what age you’re teaching (although modelling becomes more critical, the younger you go) pupils need to see what they’re aiming for, and probably see the process that goes into creating that, too.
Don’t rely on your own skills of explanation to paint a clear picture for pupils of what they should produce in a lesson. This is especially true during periods of remote learning, whether you’re delivering content live, in a recorded video or leaving written instructions.
As an example, here’s a video I recorded for my Y1 class in May 2020. It’s by no means perfect – looking back at it now there’s a lot I would do differently, HOWEVER, I was an NQT, attempting to keep my head above water with remote learning, and the responses produced by some pupils in my class were great! For them, seeing the process of me writing out an example piece of work made it so much clearer than just giving them a typed example. They could see exactly how it would take shape, they saw me colour code focus words like I did in class, and they heard me talk through some of my decisions, as well as changing my mind about punctuation.
Obviously, with different year groups, the goal posts for a piece of work will be very different. Know your objective, and work out how your modelled writing shows that objective being met.
There’s no reason why you couldn’t do a typed modelled write, if you have the ability to share your screen or record your screen and you talking through what you’re doing. I know plenty of qualified teachers who prefer to type over handwrite! Bear in mind though that with younger pupils, it is important for them to see letter formation in practice too.
2. Don’t make any assumptions about prior knowledge
The likelihood is, if you’re reading this as a student, you’ve had quite a lot of different life experiences to date. These shape everything: the examples you use in figures of speech, your vocabulary choices, and your ability to write, at the drop of a hat, about a huge variety of given subjects. Young children just haven’t had this life experience. And all the way through primary, children’s lives outside of school vary massively. Children might never have seen the sea, they might not know what it’s like to have grandparents, they might never have been on holiday or even left the town they live in. This is the reality for a number of children, so we simply cannot assume that children are on our wavelength and can respond when we say “Okay, we’re going to write about the beach.”
So, what do we do about that? How do we bridge that experience gap and allow children to access what we’ve got planned?
Use everything available to you. If you’re reading about a beach setting (as we were in Y1 with The Storm Whale in Winter, above) bring shells, fishing nets and a bucket and spade. Find large images (I actually borrowed a canvas from my parents for my display during this topic, as student in 2019!) Search for youtube videos that have ambient sounds of the setting you’re after. I had seaside sounds, but had to look also for a sound even I hadn’t heard before, as part of this book – an icebreaker ship. This kind of immersion really helps children with their understanding and in turn, their writing. They can describe their own experiences far better than imagining something abstract that they have never heard, seen or touched.
3. Varied voices in literature
There’s huge conversations about this at the moment, in all corners of the internet. People far more qualified than me have made convincing arguments as to why the curriculum shouldn’t be ignoring voices that aren’t white, heterosexual and able-bodied.
Don’t just settle for the first thing suggested to you. Even if, as a student, the curriculum is set already with a specific books, you can suggest alternative titles to your class teacher. If you know of a really great book by a BAME or LGBT author that is around the same topic, share this with them! There may well be time for reading to pupils, and this is a great time to share diverse voices with pupils.
The schools I’ve taught in so far have been majority white schools, with very little diversity between pupils racially. This makes it even more important that they are exposed to voices and stories by people who don’t look like them. But it’s also true that diversity exists even within 100% White British class. Your pupils may not all live in a household with a mum and a dad and 2.4 children. There are increasing numbers of books for children with LGBT parents, parents with disabilities, reconstituted families. In the same way that it’s important for ethnic minority children to see themselves in the stories we share, for a child growing up with two dads, or a chronically ill parent, it’s important for them to have representation too.
If you’ve already come across lists of diverse books, share these with your schools. They may have a plan in place already to diversify their literature choices, but if they don’t, you’ll be making a big difference.
4. Reading for reading’s sake
Granted, this is a lot easier when teaching in-person rather than remotely via Zoom or Teams! In a non-covid, ‘normal’ classroom, you can have beautiful displays of books you recommend and children recommend to each other, inviting reading areas, shelves and boxes of books for pupils to choose from. In the times we’re living in now, it can be a little more challenging. As I’m not a classroom teacher this year, I turned to that always-helpful resource of EduTwitter to see what other people are doing.
When I tweeted out for help on this, I got some fantastic responses. I have linked a few below, and will update this as needed.
It doesn’t matter how you do it, just promote a love of reading, because it has the potential and the power to change lives. I was lucky enough to be on a zoom call recently with the author Frank Cottrell-Boyce, and he spoke with such dedication about the ability of reading to set you free from the situation you are in. I couldn’t agree more. If you’re not a big reader, for the sake of your pupils you have to learn to pretend, because you might encourage a reluctant reader to try a book that unlocks it all for the,. Conversely, if you don’t, then an avid reader might be turned off it because their teacher doesn’t think it’s important. We have such power as teachers to influence pupil choices. Remember that when you don’t feel like being chirpy about books!
5. As a student, you’re not on your own
It’s easy to feel like you’ve been thrown in the deep end as a student, expected to know everything and know how to do everything. I definitely felt like this more than once when I was out on placements. But, now that I’ve come out the other side of training, and have had a year as a class teacher, I can see the error in this way of thinking.! If I’m ever responsible for a student teacher (and I’m hopeful that one day I could be!) then I’d never expect them to know everything there is to know (I’m doubtful that I’ll ever know enough to get by, never mind know everything!)
What I’m trying to say is that your class teacher is there to support you. You can go to them for support with your planning, you can run ideas by them, you’re totally allowed to say “I don’t know how to teach this!” In the unlikely event that your class teacher isn’t co-operative with this, you can get in touch with your training provider for help, and you can ask other teachers in school too. Find out who the English subject lead is and throw your planning struggles their way (asking nicely, of course!) Sometimes a fresh pair of eyes is enough to solve a problem, and sometimes you just need someone to say “Oh, this is what I did when I had to meet that objective,” and it’ll settle more in your head too. And finally, you can always do what I did with the advice for reading – EduTwitter is full of people who have the bits of knowledge you’re missing.