Is it really possible to get back on track in English in 2021?

    Published: 02 March 2021

    We have been using the Herts for Learning (HfL) Back on Track English in school since September 2020, so when an email arrived asking if I would review it, I was keen to respond.  

    Remember back to the end of June/beginning of July last year? So much has happened since then, I know, but back then we were contemplating the start of the new academic year and our new classes, some of whom wouldn’t have been in school for five months by the time the new term began.  There was the unknown of the children’s well-being and then on top of that, their curriculum knowledge and experience, let alone their stamina to learn. 

    As Subject Leads, we faced the task of piecing together a great deal of information: what had been taught and understood in school before lockdown; what had been covered remotely; what needed to take priority in the autumn term. I was facing the prospect of spending my summer holiday forensically unpicking the English curriculum and devising a streamlined version that would enable our children to settle, develop stamina, make tangible progress in reading and writing, as well as allow teachers to constantly assess and adapt as they went.  Not an easy task!

     

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    So I have to admit it was with real interest that I read about the HfL Back on Track (BOT) English support package. 

    On attending the initial information webinar it was clear that people were asking the same questions as us:

    • what will have happened to children’s stamina after such a long period away from school routine and structure?
    • just because an aspect of the curriculum has been covered remotely, how can we be sure it’s been learnt?
    • how do we know where to pitch things initially?
    • surely, we need to have a greater emphasis on AfL now?
    • reading: how can we address the fact that our children have had such different experiences?

    These were just some of the many questions we had.

    Many of these questions, and others beside, will still be relevant as we look to full return possibly in March, but I think our remote learning has become richer and more focussed and, if nothing else, I’d like to think we’re more experienced after a year of such change.

    Nevertheless, it was with relief that I signed up for BoT.

    As a Subject Lead you feel a great sense of responsibility when adopting a new resource, taking teachers away from their tried and tested plans to a new way of thinking – and yet, I was able to advocate this new resource, especially for its style of teaching.  Perhaps its greatest strength is that all learning is founded on a text: a children’s book that delights, enthrals and demands your interest.  And it’s from this text that all reading and writing – both compositional and technical – are taught.  To teach English lessons that have a book at the heart of each lesson is rich, real and to be honest, a complete joy.  This was a style we were leaning towards anyway, so to move together as a complete school has been powerful and, I believe, heightened the importance of books and reading within our learning culture.

     

    Multiple book covers

     

    What a great way to spend some of the Catch Up Fund - on books! – and as many teachers in our school have said, exposure to new books that we wouldn’t have otherwise considered.  There were also such a variety: beautifully illustrated books that captured our children’s minds, books with so many words and facts and information that our little scientists loved, and books with no words at all; the range was vast and well thought through.

    The plans were incredibly user-friendly.  Not that HfL were advocating to simply teach straight from their plans – but they were so user friendly that you could have done so.  However, with a little tweak here and there to adapt to your own children, it really didn’t take long to adjust to them.  Having streamlined the learning intentions and focussed on the skills and knowledge that is foundational, the lessons were highly focussed.  They recapped and revisited, while still teaching new concepts, and consolidated as we progressed.  The emphasis on verbal communication, getting our children talking, permeated the curriculum, again something as a school we love – our children need to be able to voice their learning, their thoughts, their ideas and then, from there, be able to craft them into writing.  Talk partners lie at the heart of our learning; many of our children had been (as they are now) learning in isolation. It’s in discussion that our language is developed and our ideas honed; it’s together we’re inspired and encouraged by others’ contributions – our children have been bereft of this and whilst the temptation is to speed on straight into a written task, they need the time and the opportunity to talk (and dare I say it, especially the boys).

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    Perhaps an improvement would be to have less in one lesson; many were a bit of a ‘mountain’ in terms of learning to be achieved in forty-five minutes and some concepts had been put together, which, with hindsight, would have been easier for the children to understand had the steps been smaller.

    That said, there’s the ‘Buffer Week’ – something I now think should exist in all planning and for every subject!  A week’s grace!  Not only did it allow you to drop your shoulders and say, “It’s all ok, we have a buffer week next week”, but it shows another strand that lies throughout BoT: the need for continuous formative assessment.  If we’re going to take our AfL seriously, we need to have the time to embed it.  That said, should your class happened to have learnt everything then the buffer week gave you a rare opportunity for space: a chance to let the children initiate their learning, a chance to relate writing to your topic – something we have always done and perhaps were missing with the new curriculum.

     

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    Along with the richness of book choice, the importance of assessment and the value of enabling our children to speak, perhaps the final mark of success has been the regular weeks where the whole school has studied the same book.  We began the year with two weeks’ learning centred on the book, ‘Tuesday’ by David Wiesner – a book I have used many times with Year 6 children and love!  But at a time when the school can’t meet together and when as teachers we’re working so hard to keep bubbles separate, the power of uniting over the same book was brilliant.  Even our Early Years read the book and created frogs, played with toy frogs, moved as a frog.  Classrooms were covered in crime scene tape and paper frogs appeared all over the school; children walked past other classrooms, peering in windows, remarking, “Look, they have frogs in their room too!”  Parents told us of children talking about the book around their tea table: children in separate years both engaging with the same book and able to have a conversation together with their families – what a precious thing!

     

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    The Herts for Learning Back on Track: English has been a superb resource that has equipped us for this time enabling our children to both flourish and make progress, and, I hope, left a legacy - of the importance of book choice and book-centred teaching and learning; the importance of ongoing assessment that’s acted upon; the importance of giving our children time and space to talk out their learning; the importance of coming together and uniting in our learning – that’s a pretty rich legacy.

    Perhaps I’ll leave the last comment to our Year 3 teacher –

    “I really like the Back on Track English curriculum for Year 3! It’s exciting and the children have been really engaged and made great progress. There have been a range of books, with each one helping to teach important skills and building on from the previous sequence. I have really enjoyed teaching from these plans and helping the children get ‘back on track’!”

    With sincere thanks to Lorraine Hemmens, Deputy Head Teacher at Hertingfordbury Cowper C of E Primary School for this review. In such challenging times, we are more grateful than ever for the feedback that we receive from our colleagues in school.

    Explore Back on Track: English in more detail, and access free samples, by visiting our product page.


    Please note: For schools wishing to work through the Back on Track: English resources in summer 2021, we have a new Condensed Progress Pathway which covers a 14 week period. The Condensed Pathway can be accessed as a free sample from the product page (see link above).

    If you have any questions about this resource, or you would like a tour of the resource suite, please contact: primaryenglish@hertsforlearning.co.uk


    Blog authored by Lorraine Hemmens, Deputy Head Teacher at Hertingfordbury Cowper C of E Primary School.

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