Building engagement and pleasure - quick wins for remote learning

    Published: 09 February 2021

    A part of my job recently has been talking with subject leaders about the remote provision their schools are offering those of their children who are learning from home. I’ll say at the outset that I’m in absolute awe at the dedication and ingenuity of the teachers I’ve talked with. And I’m writing this blog because across these weeks, a few things have crystallised for me as criteria for planning remote learning that is high value, engaging, and manageable for teachers.

    1. it should take the children longer to complete than it did you to plan.
    2. the children may have to start off with a screen, but tasks that direct children away from that screen to complete the work often promote deeper engagement and independent learning.
    3. keep ‘low threshold, high ceiling’ in mind.

    Since I’m an English adviser, we’ve obviously concentrated a lot on that area of the curriculum, and a key focus has been reading. How to keep the children reading? How to improve their reading? How to engage them at all from a distance?  

    To my mind, reading aloud is the thing.

    So, if you possibly can do it, teachers recording themselves reading a story aloud for their classes has been an amazing success. Yes, there are so many brilliant examples available that you can direct your children towards, but in my experience, children are just loving seeing their own teachers reading them a story. Read them something that they can’t access for themselves. Obvious with KS1, but particularly important for children who can read independently. Show them what else is out there, away from their usual choices of text. Something they might not choose for themselves, but which you know is a fabulous book - something you love. Or pick a ‘classic’: Black Beauty, or The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, or The Box of Delights. An interesting comment from a couple of teachers who’d done this in the spring lockdown, was that parents who had ‘heard’ from in-school recommendations that older children still like to be read to, were now ‘seeing’ it for themselves - and appreciating the value.

    Granted, this one does take the same time to do as it does for the children to watch, but it is an easy one to achieve. And some children are re-watching recordings.

    Then there’s getting the children reading aloud. We’ve all agreed this is vital for many, many reasons. Teachers can record themselves reading with a child to provide a model for reading at home, but that’s aimed at parents really. What we want is the children reading aloud, to an audience, demonstrating engagement and understanding through ‘how’ they read. Parents and carers can’t always be available - and in any case, that’s not quite the ‘reading for the love of reading’ that we’re after here. So who else might they read to?

    It turns out that reading to a pet works rather well (hamsters are popular - contained in a cage, so unlike cats, unable to wander off), as do toys and even favourite objects. Children lose their self-consciousness and read to the audience, but for themselves. Of course, you’ll have to​ provide a model, and that will feel a bit daft, but I’ve taken the plunge in this video here of me reading to two toys that my grand-daughters particularly like when they come to stay.

    Talking about this to a subject leader recently (thank you Kayleigh at Kenilworth), we thought that ‘Who or what are you reading to today?’ could be a fabulous whole school challenge where the children could send in short clips or photographs of themselves reading to – who knows? But we shall see.

    We do want the children to keep writing as well. So many of them came back to school after the spring lockdown, and found it genuinely difficult to sustain gripping a pen or pencil for a length of time. So, how about some lovely, fun, writing opportunities …

    This one we’ve shared before in one of our summer digests, but I think it’s worth repeating here.  

    A toy’s adventures

    Choose two toys (ideally small ones) and take them on a few adventures around the house or classroom.

    Here’s where my dinosaurs went. Look closely, they’re hiding in the third picture.


    Toy adventures


    Make up what they might be saying to one another. Maybe to start with …

    Archiback: Oh my goodness, that was a lot of work getting that box out of the cupboard. And now look – all over the floor! I knew balancing wasn’t a good idea.

    Stronglegs: You my friend, are always complaining. Look at it this way – all that stuff over the floor is now ready for us to eat. How shall we share it out?

    Archiback: …

    You could bring in a storyteller …

    In their haste to hoover up as many delicious chocco pops as they could, as quickly as they could – the two friends hadn’t noticed that…

    Play the game; act the play. (Remember to do the dinosaur / toy voices.) Then maybe write the play down so that you can swap with somebody else who has written a play so that you can act each others.

    Quick to get ready, there’s a lot of writing, and enjoyment of writing that could come out of this.

    But, and crucially, we don’t want children to lose their hard-taught and hard-won understanding of sentence structure and punctuation. Proof-reading for accuracy comes naturally to no-one.

    And far better than trying to pin-point children to specific bits of grammar at distance - why not build a routine for reading finished work aloud?

    • read it aloud once as if to an audience (that hamster can come in useful again). And ask them to ask themselves:
      • do you like it?
      • does it tell it the way you meant it?
      • does it ‘sound good’ as you read it to your audience?
    • then read it aloud again to check for punctuation (assuming they are at the point where they understand how sentences are demarcated, even if, in the rush of creation, they forget to always put that punctuation in)

    I tend to tell children to read to the end of an ‘idea’ and to check whether there’s a full stop there. Put it in if there’s not. And read again, listening for whether it makes sense. Capital letters can be added afterwards.

    Then there are the practical tasks, often derived from the wider curriculum, which will delight and engage children - and lead to purposeful writing outcomes. Two linked examples can be seen in the videos below (sorry, it’s my family again) that illustrate what I mean.

    The first one shows a speeded up version of the task - to build a ‘home’ that can be tested for its capacity to withstand flooding. The second, testing out that home. They were used as part of a school-wide geography focus, and I don’t know whether they combined any English work with it. However, watching them, I thought to myself that you could:

    • write instructions for making a small home from household junk
    • describe testing out its capacity to withstand water
    • make a second one (suggested at the end of the video) and explain how the design was improved
    • introduce a small toy or animal to the home and write about the scene from their point of view

    Which is a lot of writing, and writing that many children will enjoy, and which they could enhance with diagrams and flow charts and illustrations. 

    To sum up, promoting and enabling reading and writing for pleasure and purpose, can be something positive that we can achieve through lockdown, remote learning. And thinking a bit ‘wider’, perhaps letting go a little bit of coverage expectations, while focusing on what will be really high value AND manageable for both teachers and parents, could make a very stressful time a little bit easier.

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