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Super Spinney- Accelerating Language & Literacy

For the last couple of years, the Learning Lady is proud to have been involved in the work undertaken at Spinney Hill Primary School in Leicester. This month she has written an article for English 4-11 magazine, a journal for teachers passionate about the English Primary Curriculum. Here The Learning Lady shares the work undertaken and the impact of this work.

Many, many thanks to the enthusiastic staff and the brilliant children at Spinney Hill Primary School

‘Every time I walk into the EYFS classrooms at Spinney Hill Primary SchooI in the heart of Leicester, I get excited! Learning, and the love of learning for learning’s sake. is palpable, both for the children and the staff!. I am constantly overwhelmed by the exceptional engagement of the children, the total commitment of the staff and the way in which these are demonstrated through developing language and a range of recording techniques. Practice, and it’s impact on outcomes, is exemplary, and this has not just happened by chance. The staff have been on a three year journey of transformation, along which they have been challenged to reflect and evaluate, developing a highly successful learning philosophy of their own. This is their story.

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EYFS practitioners at Spinney Hill experience many of the challenges of teachers in an inner city school. Almost all children enter the Nursery class with no spoken English; with Urdu, Punjabi and, lately Romanian, as first languages for the children. Most children live in the rows of victorian terraced houses surrounding the school, so at home the children often have limited physical space. Consequently this impacts on linguistic and physical starting points on entry. This is not an affluent area. The children have limited real life experiences which impacts on their ability to imagine and have ideas. This cocktail of circumstances leads to a situation where achieving age related national expectations is a real challenge- particularly in the area of writing.

It would be easy for the practitioners at this school to accept these circumstances and adjust their expectations of language and literacy outcomes accordingly. However, as a result of the inspirational leadership of headteacher Catherine Stretton, practitioners  have used the low baselines and lack of experiences on entry to drive an early years philosophy and curriculum which is fun, challenging and totally child centred.IMG_2076

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Writing, writing everywhere!

In contrast to the situation in many settings, the need for improvement wasn’t immediately apparent through the data; the children were previously capable of jumping through developmental hoops in many areas, being taught well through a traditional topic based approach. However, the children were not particularly good learners. The children completed activities but weren’t necessarily engaged in learning for long periods. They participated, but were not immersed in the learning, lacking many of the key learning characteristics expressed by good learners.

The Headteacher recognised the need for change, with a clear vision of what excellent learning could look like; this is where my involvement began. The staff were challenged to re-examine their approaches, and rather than starting each term with a restricted theme, began by considering both children’s needs and interests in a much more strategic manner.

The biggest shift was in considering the learning, rather than the teaching, as a starting point for change. This immediately removed the safety blanket (or straight jacket) of previous planning and created an initial situation of uncertainty. Uncomfortable though this initially was for practitioners, it created an opportunity to rethink the whole curriculum, particularly with an emphasis on talk for learning, depth of vocabulary and building an intrinsic desire in the children to facilitate their own play and learning. Developing independence, confidence, pride and persistence were key features recognised as lacking in the learners;  improving these would prove to be essential, not just for  writing but long term learning overall.

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Fig 5 ES EYFS article

Children’s ideas and interests are collected across Nursery and Reception to inform weekly plans

We worked together to review what the children knew and could do, investigating ways to move the learning on without restricting the opportunities for the children to lead the learning. Engagement in learning, particularly using the work of Frerre Leavers, provided an evaluative tool which enabled staff to reflect and analyse the learning as a byproduct of the overall provision. Practitioners drew an immense amount of inspiration on a visit to Penn Green in Northamptonshire, where they recognised the impact that greater autonomy, independence, confidence and opportunities to take risks have on facilitating learning.

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Purposeful application of phonics in Reception

In the past, practitioners had commented on the need for planning for all classes to look the same in order to maintain a consistent and whole school approach. Understanding has now shifted so that the consistency is about following the learning ‘phillosphy’ developed by all staff, the direction of which can be very different depending on each class. All classes begin at the same starting point each term, but because the children lead the learning (rather than the resourcing or prior planning), there is now a depth and breadth to the curriculum which was previously not there.

Learning through open ended experiences, creating implicit rather than explicit motivational challenges, proved to be was key. Over time the practitioners have witnessed that, by letting the children lead the learning, they had far greater interest and ownership, tried harder, talked more and enjoyed their learning to a much greater extent.

When I stand in the Nursery and Reception classes now, the best way to describe how progress in language and literacy occurs is that they are ‘nurtured’. Through a much less formal, holistic approach to language and literacy, rapid progress is being achieved year on year, not because development and learning are forced, but because they are appreciated, praised and stretched in a completely stress free learning environment.

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Reception Writing in response to internet research (reading together) about The Royal Wedding

Underpinning this most relaxed and child entered approach is a comprehensive understanding of writing development . This is followed throughout the school, using a clear four step progression for a consistent approach: Inspire, Support, Grow, Achieve!

Inspire

The carefully developed teaching sequence for writing in Nursery and Reception fundamentally recognises children’s unique starting points, following many of the Talk for Writing approaches used widely in UK schools. The four step process towards writing begins with the creation of confident, able speakers  and physically developing writers who are gaining control, pressure and pride in their attempts.

What is highly visible throughout all learning environments is the role of the adult as a model for talk and recording. In the Nursery, children are encouraged to draw as much as possible, explaining their thinking with the adult as scribe to record their own words. This approach develops independence and confidence, with work being instantly displayed to facilitate pride and a sense of achievement.   

In some Reception classes, ‘teacher in role’ is used as a dramatic convention to develop imagination and suspend disbelief. In other classes, children are encouraged to consider different view points by debating to apply and offer their own ideas. Practitioners recognise that this helps the children to imagine and begin to have their own ideas, in a safe context for exploration. These may seem like high expectations, given the starting points of the children, but they work wonders because the children rise to the challenge. Primarily this is because the practitioners at Spinney Hill get to know the children exceptionally well and use strategies which are best suited to their learning aptitudes and personalities.

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Child voice is captured and displayed during a session with a ‘teacher in role’

There is an equal amount of adult and child writing everywhere! This means that children see the value of recording, sharing what is important to them, right from the outset. There isn’t an emphasis on everything being typed, laminated and clinically displayed, as can be the temptation. Moreover,  the point is for the children to develop, share and show off their writing or what has been said, at the point of learning. This immediacy has had a direct impact on the confidence, pride and understanding of purpose and audience for talk and writing which encourages all of the children to do more of it than ever before.

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Nursery Talk For Writing  in response to The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson

Support

Phonics and pre-phonic are taught systematically, creating some of the more formal learning opportunities in readiness for Year One. Practitioners recognise phonic skills and knowledge as central to  building the confidence and ability of the children to see themselves as writers. With sometimes very limited exposure to writing as an everyday activity at home, it is critical to have a ‘way in’ for the children. In the early stages, adults model and guide writing using the letters and sounds the children have been taught, never expecting them to guess or ‘have a go’ at anything they haven’t yet been shown. This means that the children don’t learn merely to copy the writing from printed word banks linked to a specified topic, but understand that the point of learning a new letter and it’s accompanying phoneme in helping them to communicate. This link is constantly made explicit which accelerates progress in writing dramatically.

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Recounts and Retelling builds confidence and a ‘can do’ attitude

The impact of this focussed teaching is most evident through the independent writing children produce. The children are encouraged to write independently, anywhere and any way they like. Because independence and confidence are positively encouraged, this happens simply as a matter of course. Tools and materials on which they can write are everywhere and are constantly changing as a result of the responsive approach taken by practitioners. The children never become bored with the opportunities available and are exposed to a wide range of opportunities.

Although the children inspire the direction of the curriculum, it is still very much lead by quality children’s literature. Practitioner enthusiasm for quality first texts, and making these accessible to the children, is also a key ingredient to success. It’s widely appreciated that children won’t use language readily to explain, imagine or express if they simply are not interested in the context. Selection of texts is key to expanding imaginations and providing ideas beyond everyday  experiences


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Once the children had learnt the classic Very Hungry Caterpillar’ by Eric Carle they developed their own version of the story with the practitioners. This in turn became the script for their class assembly

The children experience daily activities which excite them linked to current texts they are reading or  simply their interests, such as cooking, woodwork and creating performances outdoors. Practitioners quickly pick up what excites the children and work very hard to build on this day by day.

Practitioners help the children to bridge Vygotsky’s well known ‘zone of proximal development’ from the known to the new, using highly skilled  modelling, much repetition of key phrases and explicit teaching of vocabulary. Bilingual staff members are also constructive in supporting those with no experience of spoken English at all

Practitioner / parent prompts for developing key language through play

Grow

The timetable facilitates extended periods for the children to think and develop their own ideas. The children can be observed making, pretending, trialling, collaborating, copying, sharing and applying their skills for as long as they choose. They are not constantly being pulled away to complete adult led activities which are perceived as ‘more important’. If a child works on a piece of writing with an adult and attention is visibly waining, practitioners positively encourage the child to rest and do something else,  revisiting this afresh when more energy is present. Practitioners understand that, in order for all plants to grow and flourish they need time and space; the same is true of early writers. Children can start a piece of writing one day,  revisiting it the next, replicating the process of ‘thinking time’ afforded to adults but rarely to the children in our schools. In this sense these young children learn about editing and improving their writing very early on. This isn’t expected but naturally happens because yesterday’s work is displayed immediately, becoming an instant talking point upon which the practitioners and parents can draw feedback and recognition.

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The Beegu project enabled the children to offer a response to text through a very real cultural investigation of their own!

Achieve

The Early Years classrooms at Spinney Hill clearly belong to the children, not the adults. Even the presentation of the writing is down to the children to design. Whilst this may not be aesthetically pleasing to everyone but the practitioners understand the importance of ownership and autonomy. How work is displayed is seen as an extended learning opportunity for children to have their own ideas, further developing an awareness of themselves as writers. This means that no two pieces of writing look the same, even though learning objectives and outcomes are identical- just like in the ‘real world’.

As an adult innocently observing in these classrooms, one could be forgiven for thinking that the preparation and thinking behind how to improve writing (or learning in general) is minimal. In contrast, scratch the surface and it’s clear that everything available to the children has been carefully considered in relation to their learning needs (as well as their interests). This means that, whatever is instigated by the children through the play and independent exploration, developmental needs will always be met. From the fine motor control developed by the extensive use of wood work materials or the communicative joy provided by the mud kitchens outside, the secretarial and linguistic aspects of writing are constantly being developed. The only difference to more formal approaches is that the children don’t realise how hard they are actually working!

The emphasis on learning to write as a process, rather than a product, is arguably what has had the biggest impact on the writing produced. It is the very fact that the process of writing is valued and holistically developed that makes the biggest difference. By repeatedly ‘over teaching’ a few next steps at a time, through a thoroughly engaging and child centred approach, the practitioners and children are much more relaxed about achieving high standards in writing . This does not mean though that expectations are compromised. By understanding the steps to writing, and also to learning, practitioners plot where the children need to get to, with a very clear understanding that the eventual r oute that individuals take might always be different.

The Results Speak For Themselves

The children in the EYFS at Spinney Hill Primary School make extremely good progress and see themselves as communicators and writers. The classrooms now buzz with enthusiasm,  independence, pride and collaboration. The children write because they want to, in a way that they choose for themselves. It’s not magic….it’s just excellent Early Years practice!’

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