This is the first time in my twenty-year career as an English teacher that I can’t picture the start of the academic year. My memories of September’s new uniforms, shiny pencil cases and pristine planners feel contradictory and outdated, and the future feels unpredictable. With a few simple strategies I can start to plan for a smooth start in September.
Just today, new guidance was released from the DfE that outlines some details of the planned partial return for Years 10 and 12, but these are just ‘plans’ at this point – who knows what the next few weeks will hold?
It is difficult to perceive what our schools may look like come September, but it seems sensible to assume that all students will be back in school in some capacity and will be in English lessons from the outset. So what might this mean for you and your subject? How can you get a clear picture of where they really are and how might you bridge gaps in their learning?
Where are your students?
I’m sure, like every English department across the U.K, you have a thoughtfully mapped KS3 and KS4 curriculum, and whilst throwing it in the bin, isn’t sensible, some immediate redrafting probably is.
Students will be coming back having had wildly different experiences of homeschooling and therefore will all be at different starting points. Assume nothing and check everything -and by that, I don’t mean setting a test in the first week back.
Yes, you will have to check student’s starting points and what gaps they have, but bear in mind, that they have not sat in a formal classroom setting for four months. They need to be reintegrated not only into your subject but also into ‘how to behave in school’. Sitting down, concentrating, writing at length, class discussions will all be a distant memory and so, along with revisiting skills and knowledge, a revisiting of classroom and learning behaviours is necessary.
It may be worth considering starting September with a scheme of learning built around a text – a novel or a collection of short stories.
Tethering students (and your staff) to something tangible and formulaic which enables them to work in a linear fashion will support students to rebuild both subject specific skills – retrieval, inference, analytical writing – and learning behaviours – listening, turn-taking, focused silent working time, holding a pen and writing at length.
Such a unit could then be formatively tested throughout using a skills tracker (for both English and learning related skills). At the end of the unit, you could test students for decoding and comprehension skills in a formal way – using something like the New Group Reading Test or equivalent – if you feel it is needed.
Though it’s tempting, asking year 7 students to sit a year 6 SATs months after they have been prepared for it seems pointless. Test them in a way that gives you the information you need – and for secondary school English departments, a student correctly ticking ‘subjunctive verb’ is an indication of…well very little that’s useful.
How can you bridge the gap?
Inevitably there will be gaps, and you will need to consider the fine balance between delivering new content and bridging the gap in order for students to access the new content. So how could you balance?
If you adopt the suggested text driven approach described above, you could consider adding in another track – an ‘online learning track’ – which maps the text driven scheme of learning to additional online ‘catch up tasks’.
One of the more positive aspects of the lockdown has been the creation of a wealth of wonderful online resources. Many external agencies have produced a collection of materials that deliver new and consolidate old content. Consider how students could be set specific homework tasks, identified through use of the skills tracker, that involve using such materials to fill their gaps.
You could link these to short assessment tasks set by the class teacher that check if those skills have now been acquired. Some might consider creating automated multiple-choice quizzes or tests here as they require less marking: these work best with objective questions, for example, those related to grammar, punctuation and retrieval. Students then get an immediate result and the teacher can see very quickly who needs further support. You could continue using online classrooms to track completion.
Along with externally sourced materials, your department could produce recorded materials. Key concepts could be delivered via a real time video with time left for students to complete tasks, answers provided and explained using a range of analogies and sources. If capacity was available, you could produce differentiated versions – one for those who need additional support and one for those who would benefit from greater challenge.
This September might not be the start that you envisaged, but if you start now, keep it simple and make use of what you already have, you could build a smooth and settled start to the year for your students.
Rebecca Geoghegan is a secondary English teacher and former whole school Literacy Lead with 15 years experience of teaching KS3, GCSE and A Level.