March. Bulbs are beginning to flower, birds are singing again, and lambs are frolicking in the fields. Spring is in the air and a Year 6 teacher’s thoughts turn to… SATs. There are just two short months until four years of Key Stage 2 education will be assessed in one week. Three hours and fifty minutes of silence will produce a snapshot of where our 11-year-olds are in reading, writing, mathematics and grammar, punctuation and spelling all summed up neatly as a scaled score.
I’ve taught Year 6 many times in my career and memories of this time of year are all too fresh in my mind (apart from the lambs frolicking – my old school was next to a roundabout in Central London). The challenge for Year 6 teachers and leadership teams is to make sure everyone is ready to do their best, without making the tests themselves into a big thing. How can we help children (and their parents/carers) to approach the tests with confidence? How can we use the SATs as a vehicle to support what really matters – children leaving primary school as confident and keen readers, fluent and creative mathematicians, and skilful writers, able to control grammar and punctuation to create a specific effect?
Here’s my advice on how we can best work with parents and carers to support children in the run up to Year 6 SATs:
Focus on children’s skills and knowledge, rather than the tests themselves
While we want children to do their best in the SATs, what is more important is whether they can do all of the things the tests are there to assess: do they have the skills and knowledge in English or maths that underpins the tests? Talk about learning new things in mathematics or developing confidence in reading, rather than the scores children are getting. If we focus our energy on the things the tests assess, rather than the actual tests, the scores should take care of themselves.
Create a sense of momentum
One of the best things about being a Year 6 teacher is when children are making good progress in their learning and they become aware of the progress they’re making. As children learn to do things they couldn’t do before or become faster or more efficient at something, it gives them a real sense of achievement. This sense of momentum is a great feeling for children to have, especially as they head off for secondary school. All children have different aptitudes and begin the year from different starting points- instead of competing with each other we want them to focus on improving their own performance, trying to learn new things and getting better all the time. If they can see that happening, then they get to enjoy the feeling of being successful.
A bit of (independent) revision can be a handy thing
Every child is likely to have some gaps in what they know and what they can do. Not least because the curriculum they are being tested on was only introduced in 2014. Revising gives them the chance to return to areas of the curriculum they might not have understood at the time and finally crack it ready for secondary school. Asking children to think about whether they have understood a particular concept or idea provides a great opportunity to help children to become aware of their own learning. It can also help them to establish good study habits that will be useful to them at secondary school where they will benefit from being independent learners. Here are my top tips for parents and carers for ways they can support their children at home:
- Read: Reading is one of the simplest and most valuable ways a child can spend their time. Time spent reading is important for developing children’s reading skills, building their vocabulary and developing their general knowledge. It also helps to support their writing. And it’s an enjoyable thing to do at a potentially busy time of year. Even in Year 6, where the great majority of children will be independent readers, it’s helpful to remind parents/carers that children still benefit from both reading aloud to a parent/carer and hearing an adult read aloud to them. Reading aloud to children is a great way of building their understanding, showing them what expressive reading sounds like and letting them enjoy a story. By both reading aloud and listening, a child gets the best of both worlds.
- But don’t just read: Reading wonderful books is great, but the most effective home learning doesn’t involve sitting and passively reading a SATs revision guide. Improving at an aspect of maths or English involves writing or doing something. This might be making notes, answering questions or explaining an idea to someone else. For most children re-reading notes isn’t the best way of revising.
- Concentrate on the tricky bits: When working at home with a parent/carer, it can be very tempting for children to spend time on the topics they enjoy and are already good at. Instead, ask parents/carers to spend time on the bits of the curriculum that don’t come so easily.
- Space out the learning: Children should try practising the same thing more than once, leaving increasingly long spaces in between attempts, for example eight division questions one evening, followed by five the next day and then another five a couple of days later and then wait three days and do three more. Then…well, you get the idea.
- Mix up the topics: Remind parents/carers that little and often is a better model for revisiting things than in a block and then not thinking about it again for a fortnight. Ten minutes of spelling practice every day and then ten minutes of times tables will be more useful than an hour of each once a week.
- Make the most of odd times: Let parents/carers know that getting stuck in traffic on the way to school or waiting for the lift to arrive are all opportunities to fit some learning in. I used to tell my classes to practise a different multiplication table each night while they cleaned their teeth. Good for their maths fluency (and for making sure they brushed for long enough). However, I did use to get lots of complaints from parents/carers about toothpaste all over the bathroom.
Finally, all that remains is to wish everyone the very best of luck. We want the children we care about to do well, to feel good about themselves, knowing they’ve given it their best shot. What constitutes ‘doing well’ will be different for every child, but by focusing on the learning itself, rather than the tests, the SATs can be a vehicle for something useful. The opportunity to see the link between trying hard at something and achievement is one of the most important lessons that a child can take from primary school.
If you have parents/carers who are looking for additional support they can find more advice on Oxford Owl for Home.
James Clements is an education writer and the creator of the education website Shakespeareandmore.com. For ten years, James was a teacher and school leader in a wonderful school in West London. James is a member of the Advisory Board for Oxford Owl, Oxford Primary’s online school improvement service. You can find James on Twitter @James_ShMore