Thoughts about getting back on track in English in 2021

    Published: 04 March 2021

    Speaking and Listening was an area of learning considered to be disproportionately effected as a result of lockdown 1, particularly for younger pupils (see COVID-19 series:  briefing on schools, November 2020). Therefore, we should realistically be prepared for this to resurface as an area of concern second time around. To mitigate this, we should be mindful that we do not jump too swiftly into written tasks with younger children (although, this could easily apply to any age group). Lots of time for talking should be built into unit plans, with ample opportunities for children to explore and discuss ideas in both free-flow and structured ways.

    Allowing time for talk is a prominent feature of all the planned units within the Back on Track: English package:

    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.

    Lorraine Hemmens, Deputy Head Teacher, Hertingfordbury Cowper Cof E VA School

    All lessons, beyond just English, should prioritise talk and teachers will need to keep a close eye on those who struggle to join in, or prefer to keep on the edges of a discussion. Anyone who has run a Zoom chat with KS1 pupils over this period will know that the technology of remote learning does not lend itself naturally to the development of good speaking and listening habits. Therefore, making time for small group conversations where focused attention and turn-taking is encouraged and whereby extended contributions, linked to the topic, are praised should be the staple of many KS1 classrooms for some time to come.

    The November edit of Ofsted’s Covid-19 series stated that leaders also noted concerns with sentence construction and writing stamina following return from lockdown 1. Talking to Headteachers and Subject Leaders, I know these issues remain a concern as we have journeyed through Lockdown 3. Again, where to start in ensuring that these areas are given the focus they need from now until the end of the academic year?


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    The first question for the class teacher to explore is in relation to the vocabulary, grammar and punctuation programme of study. The question to ask is as follows: ‘which statements didn’t I focus on during this lockdown?’ One advantage of pupils returning to school after lockdown 3, compared to after lockdown 1, is that the children will most probably be returning to their existing teacher. The teacher will know what was taught during this lockdown and what wasn’t (this is in stark contract to post-lockdown 1 when schools had to deal with the compounding issue of class transition). The first task therefore is to look at what wasn’t taught and consider whether those statements constitute high value areas of learning. (Again, help can be sought via the Back on Track: English materials and specifically, the Writing Priorities documents, which identifies high value statements from within the Programme of Study for each year group). If there is learning that has been missed, and it is deemed high value, then that is the thing to get started with.

    What about the knowledge and skills that were taught during lockdown? How are their faring? To gain an insight, schools might consider planning for a 2-week unit upon return to full school reopening that allows for plentiful written outcomes: the Back on Track: English, Whole School Explore and Engage units are perfect for this. Not only will a unit of this nature allow for waning stamina to be rebuilt, but it will result in a plethora of independent writing for teachers to explore.

    The Back on Track: English package contains 3 x whole school explore and engage units, featuring the texts: Journey by Aaron Becker, Tuesday by David Weisner and Coming to England by Floella Benjamin.

    We aim for all of our children to learn about diversity and have an understanding of different cultures. Through using the planning from Herts for Learning ‘Coming to England’ our children were able to hear from the viewpoint of the little girl called ‘Floella.’ The children had the opportunity to share and discuss their own experiences from when they were younger and were able to compare them to how they are today. This evoked wonderful conversation across the school and got children talking after the summer break. This also developed their language and vocabulary. The children really enjoyed thinking and writing about their own memories.

    Amy Crockett, Subject Leader, Greenway Primary & Nursery School

    Whole school explore & engage unit plan extract (featuring Tuesday by David Weisner)

    Teachers will gain enormous insight from interrogating those written outcomes to see if what has been taught has truly been learnt. A key question will be: are the children applying that learning in the current writing context, or does it need re-visiting? It might be that some children have nailed it – great! Some over-learning and practise won’t harm these children, and challenging them to see if they can apply the skills in a range of context will be beneficial. Many children however will need to go back over the learning. This is to be expected and is not a sign that the teaching was poorly executed. If we are focusing on the high value aspects of our programme of study then we must acknowledge that these are hard skills to teach; certainly, they are hard skills to embed to a point where children are able to apply them independently and with confidence. This is why our Focused English Plans (FEPs), which come as part of the Back on Track: English package, focus on high value knowledge and skills, and why each FEP builds upon the previous unit ensuring that key learning is never left behind.

    As part of the Back on Track: English package, each year group 1-6 receives 3x Focused English Plans (FEPs). Each FEP focuses on addressing and embedding high value skills and knowledge. The FEPs should be delivered sequentially as each plan builds upon the prior learning gained in the previous unit.

    We are presently, as a school, working our way through the Back on Track units for English for years 1- 6. So far, every class teacher has been really pleased with the texts, the planning and the progress they are seeing in the children's writing, which is fabulous.

    Michelle Boylan, Deputy Head/English lead, Panshanger Primary

    Year 2 FEP 3 sample (featuring Augustus and his smile by Catherine Rayner)

    Year 6 FEP 1 sample (featuring Wisp: A Story of Hope by Zana Fraillon)

    Following on from a close interrogation of written outcomes, teachers will need to plan sequential units of work that re-visit these high value statements. Prioritisation of key knowledge and skills is vital from now until the end of the academic year to ensure that the building blocks for the next stage of learning are firmly in place. I strongly believe that there is time to secure this learning, but only if we focus our attention on the high value learning that really matters.


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    To support schools in ensuring that they are delivering a sharply focused and re-prioritised English curriculum across spring and summer 2021, the Herts English team have created a Back on Track: English, Condensed Progress Pathway, which supports schools to work through the materials across a 14 week period.

    Spelling was another area of concern cited in the Ofsted’s Covid-19 series. Although Lockdown 3 has been an entirely different beast to Lockdown 1 in terms of expectations for remote teaching, we can realistically assume that spelling may have suffered during this period. But, where to start to ensure swift progress in this domain? Unaided writing can provide us with a good overview of the High Frequency Words and Medium Frequency Words that children are yet to secure. Furthermore, using a simple spelling audit, whereby you group misspelt words according to the common error, could open up lines of enquiry into the areas that need greater focus. This isn’t anything new, nor is it time-consuming when undertaken with a small sample of pupils; it is simply a measured and sensible way of gaining clarity about the aspects of spelling that some children find tricky. Most importantly, now is the time to think strategically. The spelling POS for each year group contains a staggeringly long list of statements to be taught, but as my colleagues pointed out in a blog from 2018, all spelling statements are equal, but some spelling statements are more equal than others. Prioritisation of the most high value statements from now until end of summer term 2021 is crucial if we want to cover the key content in a way that will ensure it is remembered and forms a foundation for later learning.

    As part of the Back on Track: English package, schools receive a Spelling Pathway for years 2-6 outlining the order in which spelling statements from the year group’s Programme of Study might best be sequenced. In addition, as part of the January 2021 package update, the Spelling Pathways have been re-prioritised to indicate the high value spelling statements.

    Year 4 Progress Pathway Spelling Priorities - sample

    As a matter of course, I think teachers will need to hear all their pupils read an age-appropriate text at some length (certainly more than a few lines), during the first few weeks back at school (you may wish to explore the KS1-KS2 Reading Toolkit to support with identifying texts in line with Age-Related Expectations). You will already be aware of some children who might struggle with this task; certainly if a child struggled with reading before lockdown, then it is unlikely (although not impossible) that they will have progressed significantly during this period. The expectation is that you will already have a plan in place for these children – they will need additional support and they will need it fast. Whatever you were doing before and that was working, you will need to be prepared to resume with gusto. But, there may be some children who, although seemingly on track before lockdown, have now suffered some set-backs – it is these children who you will want to identify early. Most KS1 teachers are familiar with how to conduct running records; KS2 teachers may be less familiar, in which case I suggest some cross key stage coaching to address that. I recommend this type of diagnostic test as a starting point for any child who presents on-going concerns with their reading. Just the act of listening to a child read intently, as you must do when conducting these tests, offers considerable insight into their strengths and struggles. Then, when issues are spotted and those most in need of support have been identified, a plan can be formed. Initially, this may be as simple as more focused attention for these children during whole class teaching; or additional small group teaching to address any commonalities.

    Finally, handwriting may be a particular concern for younger children who have not engaged in their usual daily ‘nimble fingers’ exercises during lockdown, or perhaps for older children who have been mainly using a keyboard for written work. Either way, some additional time may need to be set aside in the early weeks of return to full re-opening to ensure that this is addressed. Once again, precision will be key. Identifying what the stage the chid is at with their handwriting, and where they need to go next, will guide teachers to plan for well-paced and clearly defined next steps.

    As part of the Back on Track: English package, schools receive a Handwriting Progression Document. This document outlines the aspects involved in developing an efficient joined handwriting style, and maps the progression across all year groups from Year 1-6. It also includes a clear auditing document that can be used to identify areas for focus for small groups of children.


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    Note that this is the only occasion when I have suggested that additional time is required for an aspect of English provision. At no other point have I suggested that teachers dedicate more time to delivering the English curriculum. Most schools have prioritised their maths and English curriculums during Lockdown 3, and as a result, there will be time needed to cover the other areas of the curriculum that didn’t get so much airtime over the last few months. That is not to mention the time that children will need to engage in all of those social activities and events that they have missed out on since December 2020.


    Hands together


    My argument favours the ‘less is more’ mantra. To quote John Hattie, from his insightful article, ‘Visible Learning Effect Sizes when Schools are Closed’ – which I highly recommend reading – ‘it is not the time in class, but what we do with the time we have, that matters’. This seems even more relevant at a time when many children may struggle to maintain the same level of focus and attention that they did pre-lockdown. Indeed, it may be that teachers actually consider reducing the length of their English lessons, possibly for the remainder of the spring term, and most likely for pupils in KS1 and lower KS2 while they help their children re-build stamina and focus, and while they seek additional time to address learning from the other curriculum areas that has been missed. In turn, teachers will need to consider how to break down their lessons so that less is covered, but in greater depth, so that all children have the time and space to focus on a key aspect of learning, before rushing on. This is why each FEP within the Back on Track: English package prescribes a Buffer Week; allowing teachers to take the additional time that they might need to ensure that the learning is truly embedded before moving on.

    A ‘Buffer Week’ is recommended following the delivery of each Focused English Plan (FEP) from the Back on Track: English package. This allows teachers the flexibility to pace the learning appropriately for their children.

    …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…

    Lorraine Hemmens, Deputy Head Teacher, Hertingfordbury Cowper Cof E VA School

    The buffer weeks remain a feature of the condensed progress pathway, ensuring that schools who are working through the plans from the Back on Track: English package in a shorter time scale still have flexibility pace the learning appropriately.

    If you wish to find out more about the Herts for Learning Back On Track: English package, please visit our webpage. The Back on Track; English package resources 2021 provides a full list of all elements of the package, including new updates for 2021.

    If you would like a tour of the full resource, please contact

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