Ready for Lift Off – This Week We Wrote About Rockets

Rocket Writing
Explaining Newton’s Third Law at Primary

To launch Autumn Term 2014, we took 50 year 6 children to Cambridge to build and test rockets at Sidney Sussex College. It was part of our “Raising Aspirations” programme and a stimulus to our weekly writing.

A Year 6 pupil's explanation of the principal of rocket thrust
A Year 6 pupil’s explanation of the principal of rocket thrust

Last year, we found that our pupils responded extremely well to writing scientific nonfiction. They enjoyed the challenge of using specific sentence types and advanced vocabulary, both of which were explicitly taught. This week, we are all about rockets.

I want to share the outcomes of this work and how we got there.

Our “Launch Day” in Cambridge was great fun; the pupils had hands on experience of building and firing rockets. It was an engineering activity – we didn’t do the science.

Back at school, the science input was my job. Dressed in my lab coat and safety glasses, I delivered a ten minute lecture to the assembled year 6 pupils (please note – we were on day one of an unannounced Ofsted inspection, but the inspectors missed my moment!) I was holding forth on Newton’s Third Law using this Rocket Presentation and surrounded by popping canisters and a strong whiff of vinegar.

The writing itself was lead by our excellent year 6 teaching team. The pupils had two hours to write an extended piece on the principles of rocket thrust.

The teaching sequence involved a model text and other sources of information (Wikipedia) which were used to model vocabulary, sentence types and style features. Pupil books are full of drafts, highlighter pen, mind maps and scaffolding sheets.

The text itself is written in the final hour. It isn’t long.

Up until this point, all of the feedback is verbal. Written feedback is now given. Pupils are given 30-60 minutes to respond, improving their texts and practising skills. We aim to give pupils a second or third similar text type to embed their skills. Next week I will be wearing a professorial gown and wig and hamming up my Sir Isaac Newton. We are writing a biography with a strong emphasis on Newton’s laws. I may use an apple. Expect a tweet.




Textbooks Are Good For You

Physics textbooks c.1990
Physics textbooks c.1990

For two consecutive weeks, I have been inspired to write by Alex Quigley’s brilliant Hunting English blog. This week Alex’s blog Why I Never Use Textbooks lists the reasons he chooses not to use textbooks in class. I am writing in defence of textbooks.

Textbooks in schools have a bad reputation. They are often badly written. They are often used badly: often for cover lessons with poorly prepared  children. Some have rude pictures scribbled in them.

Using textbooks as a lazy way of teaching content is a poor use of class time. Teaching students how to use textbooks effectively, however, is a vital learning skill which needs to be taught properly. Textbooks give learners access to knowledge throughout their lives.

At university and beyond, every student and professional needs to be able to learn from textbooks. In my first blog this summer (Great Readers Become Great Scientists), I wrote about the the time that science, technology and maths professionals spend reading as part of their work. It is my hypothesis that a major factor limiting a student’s career in a subject is his/her ability to learn from that subject’s textbooks. By specifically teaching students how to use textbooks effectively, we are supporting them to become fully independent learners throughout their careers.

So Alex, for the first time I disagree with you. It is our duty to teach learners how to use textbooks so that they can begin to teach themselves. The textbooks may not be great, but the ability to read them is fundamental.


Oh We Do Like To Teach Beside The Seaside!

pleasure beach

This blog is a response to Alex Quigley’s (excellent as always) blog on attracting teachers to coastal towns (The Teach by the Beach Challenge). Alex is absolutely correct in saying that the only sustainable solution to recruitment of outstanding teachers and teaching assistants is to “grow your own” – although there is something wrong with the phrase. This blog is about my colleagues who live in and around Great Yarmouth who were there before me and will be there when I am gone. They haven’t been grown – they’ve the grown themselves.

I teach in Great Yarmouth Primary Academy. It was the archetypal failing coastal town school. We have had nine head teachers in nine years. Four years ago, only twenty five percent of our pupils left with a level 4 in reading, writing and mathematics.

And our children need to achieve more than most. Children from Great Yarmouth have the odds stacked against them. 65% of our pupils are entitled to free school meals. Unemployment locally is very high. The academic achievement of Great Yarmouth young people is very low. It has been a heartbreaking story since the school opened in the 1930s. At our low point (a protracted low), our school was somewhere in the bottom performing 300 schools in the country. But we aren’t now.

Last summer 70% of our pupils reached level 4 in the combined English and maths measure. We have had 3 years of improvement. 70% isn’t enough, but haven’t finished yet.

Alex might have written his blog about our school. He describes attempts by superheads and trusts to descend and “transform” schools. We’ve had that and the school has been transformed. But transformation is fragile. Any change could bring a school down. Sustainability isn’t through leadership, and it isn’t through teachers who stoically drive the Acle Straights road twice a day. The reason we will never go back is the commitment and skill of our local teachers and teaching assistants.

These colleagues are not a conventional group of educators. They are bright, committed people, many of whom the education system failed. In their twenties, thirties and forties, many are completing their degrees and teaching qualifications on the job. Many went to our school here, and their children came here too. They know every child, every brother, sister and cousin. They know every parent.

And they are good. Pupils in their classes make exceptional progress. Perhaps because they don’t know it isn’t possible, or perhaps because they won’t accept less, our staff enabled 68% of our pupils to make 3 full levels of progress from KS1 to 2 this year – three times the national average.

The journey isn’t over – we still have a way to go. But our local teacher and teaching assistants guarantee the future success of our pupils. We haven’t grown them – they’ve grown us.


Reading in the Wild

Reading in the Wild
Langstone Harbour Information Board

There can’t be a piece of wilderness in Britain that wouldn’t be improved by a well written information board. I love the sensation of having a well informed, but not too pushy, expert with me. An expert you can walk away from.

Text books are overbearing companions; they have a pedagogic, good-for-you quality and set me skim reading. I don’t learn well from a text book.

The information board adds a layer to the landscape. It is rich and situated and real.

I also love the texts at museums. Without them, how can the strange objects in display cabinets fill me with wonder? But here’s the point of this blog – how many children can’t access this written information? It isn’t enough to take children to museums. Unless they can access the texts they only get superficial access.

This footprint is a great example, I have copied its accompanying text from the Dorset County Museum in Dorchester:

Reading in the wild.
Dinosaur footprint.

You are in Swanage in Purbeck, Dorset, looking out to sea, except that instead of standing on the promenade, your feet sink into a shallow, shelly lagoon. Unstick your shoes from the limey mud, take a few steps and look at the impressions left behind you. Your footprints are not alone.

This footprint trackway was left by dinosaurs. The size, depth and gait of these prints give us clues about the bulk and weight of the creatures. We can see they have three toes (tridactyl) making the most likely candidates iguanadons or meglosaurs. Evidence of both of these dinosaurs is fossilised in nearby rocks of the same age. 

Which of your pupils will read these texts and gain the wonderful context provided? You know it isn’t usually the ones who never get to go to a museum. Even when you take them, they only get half the experience.

So here is my recommendation. Adapt Read Write Inc’s Literacy and Language model. The sequence, simplified, is outline below:

  1. Prepare the scene for the pupils: collect images, objects and videos. In this case, bring in a fossil to show and discuss; show a walking with dinosaurs clip; show art work of the meglosaurus or iguanadons.
  2. Read out a very simplified version so that pupils have an outline. In this case, it would be a simple as, “When the dinosaur walked over the soft mud, it left footprints.”
  3. Read out a more detailed version, but without the challenging vocabulary. For example, “Imagine you are wading along a shallow muddy beach. You can see your own footprints in the mud. You can also see other footprints of a large animal.” Then show the photo of the museum object. “This footprint was left by a dinosaur. It gives us clues about the type of dinosaur walking here millions of years ago. Fossils of dinsaurs with similar shaped feet have been found nearby.”
  4. Choose the vocabulary you want to focus on to understand the text. Your pupils don’t need to understand every word, as long as the meaning can be interpreted. For example, limey is probably not needed, but impression is.
  5. Read the text to the pupils without them reading along. Ask questions.
  6. Read the text with them following.
  7. They read the text alone.

In a Read Write Inc lesson, there are other activities surrounding this sequence (and the texts are longer) so it would take several lessons. I recommend sharing this sequence over several lessons as well. For example, number 5, 6 and 7 can be five minute sections at the start of end of separate lessons.

If you incorporate this sequence into your lessons before you go on a trip, your pupils will be able to read the text with almost no effort. They will be able to access the knowledge as well as a more experienced reader and have a richer experience.

Being able to read texts “in the wild” gives learners access to a richer experience. Keats should have known better – knowing about a wonderful thing can’t “unweave a rainbow” but instead will add a layer of wonder and understanding. Prepare you pupils and they can share it.


But, So, However, Therefore and Furthermore

And, But, So, However, Therefore and Furthermore.

If I hadn’t made the move from secondary school to primary school last year, I might never have realised how difficult these words are. These simple connectives are the words that make an explanation work. They connect clauses, telling the reader how they relate to each other – without them, you can’t learn from a text.

However, loads of children hit a wall with them. One of my students last year simply couldn’t get the difference between however and furthermore. In the end we had a tug of war with arguments pegged on – if the arguments are pulling the same way, it’s furthermore…. He is starting year 7 this year. I think he may have forgotten the difference over the summer. 

It is sensible to check that your kids can use these words automatically. For example:

  • Ionic bonds are very strong, but ionic substances have high melting points. Unhelpfully suggests that strong bonds predict low melting points. If I saw a student write this sentence, I’d want to discuss it with them.
  • Ionic bonds are very strong, so ionic substances have high melting points. This sentence explains the link between bond strength and melting point.

With connectives under control, your students can argue better, read more effectively and write more precise answers. You will be able to identify misunderstandings easily.

Connectives are powerful and need to be taught. The strategies are simple, but need constant revisiting. Doug Lemov’s blog describes a method from Teach Like a Champion 2. I use gap fill activities, leading to group discussion. For example:

What is the best connective to use and why? (Pair discussion)

The fox population decreases, ______ the hen population increases.

The forces are balanced, _______ the car’s velocity remains constant.

Hydrogen and oxygen are gasses, ________ when combined, they produce water, which is a liquid.

If you can be sure that your learners have got connectives embedded, you can be far more confident that they will understand what you are asking them to read. If they can use them correctly in their writing, their arguments will be more powerful. 

If you implement one literacy strategy in you class this year, consider a connectives focus. 


Blog at

Up ↑