Have you ever found yourself marking the same pupil responses over and over? You asked them to be creative; you asked them to use their imagination. Instead, they regurgitate countless clichés onto their pages, leaving you wishing you hadn’t bothered.
“The sky was blue.”
“Really?” I thought, as I read this for the thirty-second time. Now, I get that the sky is blue, but it can be so much more. Vocabulary can be a sticking point when it comes to creativity. You can only create using the knowledge that you have. Therefore, if you have a limited vocabulary to begin with, chances are that the sky will remain blue and your creative writing will remain dull. I had two problems that I wanted to tackle that week. My classroom was as dull as the pupils’ writing - could I kill two birds with one stone?
The solution came during a discussion with our specific educational needs expert, classroom assistant Lisa Heart. As a fan of Vincent Van Gogh, she was leafing through one of his books and explaining to me how she loved his descriptions of colour.
“Theo, what a great thing tone and colour are! And anyone who doesn’t acquire a feeling for it, how far removed from life he will remain!” - Vincent Van Gogh to his brother Theo
If only our pupils could describe colour like Vincent Van Gogh, we thought… and an idea sprang!
The set up
With Van Gogh as our inspiration, we wanted to create a classroom that inspired through colour. We wanted to create a room that felt like you were entering an art gallery. It should inspire conversation and ooze with rich vocabulary that would be easy to pick up and use. Lisa headed off to the local B&Q to gather every colour that the paint companies had to offer. She also worked on creating mini colour charts that included gradients of the main colour palletes linked to objects and feelings. We collaborated to create our classroom of colour, complete with images for stimulation, colourful materials as a talking point and examples of writing that went way beyond “The sky is blue.”
Standing at the classroom door, I held a box full of pebbles. On the board was the question: “What colour is your pebble?”
Each child was handed a pebble as they entered the room and asked to consider their starting question. When I took in their responses, they consisted of grey, black and brown. How inspiring!
On each desk was a colour chart card. I asked the children to take hold of these. They had 30 seconds to write down the colour on the card before passing it on and writing down the next colour again and again. Their pages began filling up with words like ruby, sapphire, dazzling, powder, opaque and so on. After a few minutes, I asked them to stop and compare the colours on their pages to the colours they had chosen for their pebbles. They could see the difference. They recognised the need to gather more vocabulary for their colours. Stage one was complete.
To see how real writers used colour, the children explored different stories, plays and, of course, the letters of Van Gogh. How did other writers use colour in their work? They experimented with images that we found online and tried out the new vocabulary gathered from the colour charts. It was important to allow the children freedom to explore, but equally as important to critique their creations.
Some children had produced wonderful descriptions: “The opaque water shimmered a silvery sheen against the coral moon.” Others needed work: “The so snazzy, antique gold was pinky purple in the blue light.” Some had thrown the whole paint pallet in without consideration of the effect upon readers. By listening to each other’s descriptions and exploring the effect that it had on us as listeners, we were able to develop some special and unique sentences.
Practice, practice, practice
At least once a week, we would have a go at describing different images as a starter to our lessons. Success came when they began asking me if they could get out of their seats to use the walls. They would get handfuls of colour charts to choose appropriate vocabulary for their descriptions. They would read the examples and use them to form their own sentences and I even found adaptations (not copies) of Van Gogh’s work in their own writing. If we had only one colour lesson and the colours had gone back into a box, never to be used again, we would not have had as much success as we did. We had to practice!
About one month after creating the colour room, I once again gave every child a pebble asking, what colour is your pebble? The responses this time were astounding. Those children could work for Dulux! They had stopped seeing the obvious first answer and were now drawing upon a much richer vocabulary to describe the everyday. The vocabulary was not limited to their writing either. The colour room inspired conversations about the colour of characters’ moods in novels, choices made by Shakespeare to characterise through colour and exploring how writers used colours differently.
The colour room was a platform for accelerating creativity through sparking conversation, practising new vocabulary regularly and creating a safe space to experiment and explore. Collaborating to create a space that allowed creativity to grow was a joy! The next time you read the words, the sky is blue… look up at your classroom walls and ask yourself, could you collaborate to create a colour room that inspires? We did and we loved it!
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I’ve been teaching one to one literacy for years now. I recall saying to parents (and I inwardly cringe at this memory) that spelling isn’t really that important and skills like reading, planning and understanding exam and essay questions should take priority. Spelling is something which can be overcome by spell check and predictive text. It is a waste of time learning how to spell, as it is the one skill - in my experience - that is the hardest thing to crack.
Pupils who struggle with spelling may get a rule for how to spell a word one week, only for said rule to disappear the week after. It can even happen in the same piece of writing. It is such a laborious process, and for pupils who find many elements of literacy difficult, spelling seems the easiest one to drop and avoid. However... avoiding spelling is doing the child or young person a complete disservice. Although it may be true that spell check will help in the future, that doesn’t change the classroom they are returning to; where they are likely to still handwrite their answers, have their presentation, grammar and spelling marked, and participate in group activities where they may have to write.
Spelling is therefore a must, but what do you choose to focus on? The general approach in the classroom is Key Stage lists and learning a few words a week. For children who need to see a word more frequently, and revisit those words regularly, this approach is not effective for long-term retention. A missing component of this approach is the understanding of that word and seeing it in context. Year 2 lists contain words such as improve and sure. Year 6 has some humdingers like hindrance and sacrifice.
I am a fervent supporter of developing a child’s vocabulary and enriching their communication skills with an increased lexicon, but how much time is invested in exploring these words? Children may perform well on spelling tests but not apply these words to their writing, which is surely the end goal?
One approach can be to support the teaching of the class lists, but breaking them down in more detail, understanding their meaning, using them in context and repeating them frequently. Still, this approach doesn’t feel quite right. Although it is reinforcing the class teaching and therefore has more curriculum relevance, it does not feel specific enough to the child or young person I am working with. It is likely that if they struggle with spelling that the age-appropriate list is too difficult for them, and that they will have missed a lot of key words.
Perhaps the teaching of key words is the way forward, with teaching becoming more tailored to the child, but it’s still not quite there or right for some of my pupils. I then discovered the most commonly misspelt word list. Surely if you can crack these, then you’re onto a winner. The bonus of using this word list is it’s not age-specific, it has a finite number of words on it, and the pupil can self-identify those that are tricky. Bingo! And what’s more, the words are popular and can be used in a variety of subjects. The one teensy drawback is that someone, somewhere has compiled it. I have no assurance that these are, in fact, the most commonly misspelt words. Putting that limiting thought to the back of my mind, I press on using these words to teach spelling.
Having looked at the ‘what’ and the next thing to tackle is the how.
I am conscious that spelling is most of my pupils’ Achilles heel, and having to struggle to spell words in front of anyone can be inhibiting. My first technique is therefore active, fun, and starts with a high success rate. This may take some explaining, but I will do my best.
Using up to 10 of the words chosen, write them on Post-its and, when the pupil is out of the classroom (this works best during a one to one), stick the words around the room. The pupil has to write the words on a whiteboard or large piece of paper without removing the word from its spot. They can revisit and look at it as many times as they need. When they have written them all, they can check their accuracy and hopefully tick them all off as correct. You collect the words as they check their work.
Next, you create a map of the room (technical drawing expertise is not necessary, nor is a huge amount of detail), making sure you include any furniture on which a word was placed. When complete, the pupil then marks with an X where the words were. Hopefully, they will look around the room and maybe even revisit places to jog their memory, visualising the previous set up.
Okay, everyone still with me? This is about memory and recall, and can be applied to revision strategies too. Once they have done this, the final step is to try and recall where the words were and spell them correctly. At this stage, the spelling is only part of a fun activity; the expectation and pressure have been completely lifted as their attention is on remembering the location of the words. I have found this to be the most fun I’ve had teaching spelling and pupils’ accuracy on this final activity is high. They leave having spelt words they’ve previously struggled with and had a really enjoyable, fun lesson. Follow-on activities around finding the words in text, writing them in shared stories and writing definitions can all then be explored.
Essentially, any method of identifying words - be it through assessment, word lists or key words and the subsequent instruction in learning how to spell - has to suit the child that you are working with. Some need to go right back to basics with phonic instruction and building words, whereas others appreciate the etymological approach. It is absolutely necessary* to know your pupil. Always keep in mind what works for them as an individual, all the while making fun and creativity a priority.
*Here's a spelling mnemonic for this ever-tricky word: 'Never Eat Crisps Eat Salad Sandwiches And Remain Young'
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“What is the one thing you have all done without thinking about it - without questioning why you are doing it?”
This is the question Andy Daly-Smith, a senior lecturer at Leeds Beckett University, asks the 40+ school leaders in the room. There are various responses, some more sensible than others, till the answer, “sitting down” is offered.
Sorry for starting this article straight into a brag (I am more humble by nature, I promise), but when I was a teacher and ICT coordinator, my school won a number of awards for our use of technology embedded throughout the curriculum. As a larger-than-average Primary school in South East London – a typical inner-city set up – people were surprised by how much we achieved on a very tight budget. I am frugal by nature, and that fed through into my teaching and tech acquisition too.
Remember when you were in school and you were given weekly lists of words, with little or no relevance to your lessons or your life, and made to commit them to memory? How about those little primers that focus on mundane activities with a set of vocabulary words artificially embedded into the storyline? Well, chances are those same wordlists and primers are still being handed out today. Nothing has changed for decades.
Every teacher surely thinks of Robin Williams’ character, John Keating, in Dead Poets’ Society, who said, “There’s a time for daring, and a time for caution, and a wise man understands which is called for”, who then dreams of standing up on the desk and generally being truly inspirational in an effortless, lesson-plan-thrown-out-the-window kind of way (or is it just me?). That sort of maverick behaviour is perhaps possible when it’s the last few weeks of the summer term, or when the government inspection has just finished and nobody is looking to observe anything beyond the speed limit on the driveway out of school. But surely the rest of the time is ‘a time for caution’, right?
It is a truth universally acknowledged that teachers are under pressure to produce value-added results, follow an ever-changing curriculum and teach to inspection standards with limited amounts of planning and preparation time. With multiple lessons planned for the week, short-term, mid-term and long-term it is easy to fall into the same pattern of activities: the worksheets, the interactive whiteboard presentation that isn’t always interactive, and the card sort that is creased from its annual usage at the same stage in the trusty scheme of work. And let’s not mention the marking. The 10 mugs of coffee a day is a habit that’s hard to kick.
Celebrating our 30th anniversary in 2017, Jolly Learning continues to build confident and fluent readers and writers, both across the UK and globally. As a leading player in the fight against illiteracy, we’ve been developing a wide range of tools and resources. Our flagship Jolly Phonics & Grammar programme doesn’t simply produce results consistently - it does so on the basis of a creative, engaging and multi-sensory method. It combines visual, auditory and kinaesthetic resources to ensure children enjoy learning to read and write in a variety of ways.
Two weeks ago we shared five key dates, from September to January, that schools can use to deliver lessons that offer something different. Here, we cover February to July.
We have been using Word Aware as a structured whole-school approach to promote the vocabulary development of all our children. It is primarily focussed on whole-class learning and we have found it is of particular value for those who start at a disadvantage – including children with Developmental Language Disorder, Special Educational Needs and those who speak English as an additional language. It has had such a major impact on word recognition and understanding within English, we decided to extend it to French and Spanish as an approach for learning new, contextualised vocabulary.