Since Christmas, and especially since the West London Free School History conference in March, we’ve undergone a bit of a shift in our planning and delivery of lessons to year 7’s, to incorporate what we’ve seen as good practice elsewhere and to get the best out of our cohort and really give them what they need.
For context, the majority of our Year 7’s come in with a reading age below their chronological age. I work in a school and trust that is hugely supportive of a rigorous, knowledge-based curriculum that attempts to help close this gap – enabling us to put together a KS3 history curriculum that focuses on the concepts and knowledge which help to improve students’ literacy. This is not new, but reflecting upon our practice has been aided by working with and learning from experts in the discipline, such as those present at the WLFS History Conference, and the session run by Rob Peal was particularly interesting as a way of planning lessons that incorporate complex texts and give lots of space for reading and writing.
I’ve tweeted before with some initial thoughts about how we’ve incorporated Rob’s planning and made it our own. Worth noting here – we don’t have his textbooks. For each of the topics, the reading material is written by us so we ensure it has exactly what we want – keywords, background information, etc. – so that it is situated perfectly into the scheme of work. While this takes a little time, once it’s written, it’s written – and is no more than 600-700 words per topic. Examples from our small unit on Medieval Life:
Each of these readings would be gone through as a class (same reading for all sets), with relevant and appropriate images to support and help explain. As I know their reading ability and level of knowledge, I can select students to read more or less complex parts, with the result being that all students can read. Example: in my lowest set, one girl said to me earlier in the year, ‘I just can’t read. It’s my dyslexia.’ Having started with these, she wanted to read the small boxes which had key words. Her confidence boosted by these, she now wants to read smaller paragraphs and the impact on her has been immense.
With two lessons per week at KS3, the routine is set much like Rob’s – a ‘reading’ then a ‘writing’ lesson. The reading lesson is aimed at establishing the knowledge – reading the text as a class, answering some comprehension questions or annotating a map or something similar – it focuses on embedding what needs to be remembered. The writing lesson adds a bit of depth – such as from a source, a short video, etc. – before making them apply what they now know to a piece of extended writing. This gets around some critique that might be levelled that its ‘low level’ with no challenge, etc. The routine is there to be broken if needs be – if a lesson topic is more suited to some other form of delivery, do it. But in general, read then write.
So what has the impact been? With the caveat that we’ve only been doing this with Y7 so far, I am extremely encouraged and pleased. With my lowest set, they enjoy the routine – I’m having girls who earlier in the year were storming out of class and swearing now asking others to focus so they can get on with the reading, and tons of volunteers. They are proud of what they know, and a recent test on the Medieval Life unit was really encouraging. They are reading through the same texts as the top sets and it just takes a little more explanation from me to help them understand. Backed up by regular quizzing and encouragement, I’m getting more from this class than I have all year.
Alongside this, the use of regular quizzing and emphasising key knowledge has improved their ability to connect things together. Two examples recently came up in our lesson on Thomas Becket. A previous lesson on Medieval Law and Order had introduced them to Henry II and his attempts to reform justice, bringing in Trial by Jury, wanting a Common Law, etc. Another previous lesson on Medieval Religion had discussed the role of the Pope and the way they would give legitimacy to Kings, provide a blessing, etc., and that this meant the King needed to remain on good terms with the Papacy. In our Becket lesson, the role of Henry II and reforming law and order came up when discussing Becket’s opposition to Henry’s reforms – the information wasn’t new, it was just presented in a different way and with a particular example, helping to clarify and embed it further. Following this, I showed them an image of Henry II being whipped as penance and asked them why he might be doing this, and a number of students referred to him needing to keep the Pope onside while dealing with the rebellious Richard and John. This previous knowledge gave the image extra context and helped them, again, understand the role of the Pope and the relationship between Church and Crown in a new light. Knowledge helped build new knowledge.
Now I’m not saying this can only come about through this style of planning, but I do believe this style of planning has helped us to focus on the knowledge rather than the activities a lesson might contain. It’s a lesson stripped down to its core purpose and none of it is new. However, this type of planning and delivery is something I was trained to avoid, both on PGCE, with mentors and as an NQT. Everything was based around activities.
I know there are some who are uncomfortable with the teacher or the class getting on with a reading, rather than letting the students do it independently. I feel this myself, especially with older students who’s literacy and knowledge is better developed. However, at Year 7, the benefits outweigh any concerns I might have had. With students who have a reading age that is in single digits, being able to hear someone read to them is helpful, and in doing so I can anticipate the questions and provide explanations as I go along. It is efficient and inclusive. In my recent lesson on Becket, I did it differently with my top 2 classes – one I read to, one I had them do it independently. Both had to highlight the text as they read to identify examples of the Church challenging the power of the King. With the ‘independent’ class I simply had too many questions that I, frankly, had to go over the entire thing with them at the end any way. The only way to have avoided this would be to make the text less complex so they can handle it ‘independently’ without key explanations – and I get the feeling this is where literacy problems may have their origin.
One final point about this on the students: my lessons have more discussion than ever. I always thought I encouraged it before, but now, with a complex text and explanation as I go along, there are just loads of questions or comments to be had: students linking to previous lessons, some wanting to clarify what a word meant, asking how things link together, wondering why someone would wear a hair-shirt, and more and more and more. They are so inquisitive because they are being given knowledge and want to make sense of it.
This has been quite a long post so I will leave it here, but I do have more to add about year 7 and 8 and practice with writing, so there might be a (shorter) part 2 coming during the week.