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Supporting all pupils to be successful in English

Mrs Shapland, Head of English and Media at Bethany School, gives an update from her department and explains the initial Marmite nature of English as a school subject.

The English and Media department gets to experience the pleasure and the pain of taking all of Bethany’s pupils through Key Stage 3 and the vast majority through Key Stage 4. We know that without a great grade in English pupils will find their way barred in terms of progression to the next phase of their education and that, because we are a core department with a compulsory subject, not all of our pupils would choose to be with us. However, the other side of that coin is that even the most reluctant readers and writers find the beginnings of their adult voice with us and it is always a great honour to be part of the journey the pupils make to becoming adults that can communicate in the wider world.

When pupils arrive with us in year 7 we often find that they will tell us they ‘love’ or ‘hate’ English. We are a Marmite subject for many. Experiences at previous schools will often lead a pupil to believe that they are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ at the subject and that they ‘like’ reading and writing or that they ‘dislike’ it. And yet, English is all about subtlety and is a long way from being binary with the right or wrong answers that can be found in Maths lessons!

To foster a broader appreciation of English, and indeed Media Studies, we have constructed and adapted our curriculum to play to our pupils strengths. Our Reading Challenge, run with our Key Stage 3 pupils, seeks to promote reading for pleasure, which studies show boosts both academic performance and wellbeing. Whilst many of our pupils will tell us that they don’t enjoy reading, or that they find it too difficult, we find that by approaching Reading for Pleasure with “The Rights of the Reader” in mind, and with a dash of patience, we are able to get all of our pupils reading and starting to challenge themselves with what they read. I have written about The Rights of the Reader in the Newsletter in the past and continue to believe that this is a fantastic route to more reading both in school and for parents who are despairing that they never see their child read, or wish their child read more. Audio books also play an important role in our approach. Whilst we have to get down to the nitty gritty of decoding skills, inference and close textual analysis too, pupils soon learn to distinguish more subtly between the reading activities that enjoy and the feel more successful at and those that they find more tedious.

Writing tasks face a similarly binary reception from most pupils initially, and it is often something which prospective parents raise with us as a question on open mornings when they visit: how do we support reluctant writers?

As the mother of an articulate year 5 child, who often presents me with the “can’t write, won’t write” challenge at home, I confess I find this question more perplexing. And yet, when I look around the department at the amount of wonderful written work being produced by our pupils, there must be an answer and we must have it right here under our noses.

One of the key things we do to move pupils away from a binary vision of themselves as writers is to encourage pupils to play to their strengths and use a range of approaches to tackling tasks – much like the Rights of the Reader we seek to promote the idea with pupils that they can control how they approach their writing and will develop as writers as a direct result. Some pupils are planners, others are checkers and proof-readers; some pupils are full of rich imagination and others will use factual information to develop cogent and sophisticated arguments. When supporting pupils writing, giving them permission to start over; to revisit; to dictate using voice to text soft wear; to follow a framework; to ‘free wheel’… all promote the autonomy needed for them to realise that they too are writers and, just as with reading, there will be tasks that they enjoy and feel more successful at and those that they find more tedious.

By the time our pupils arrive at Key Stage 4 the vast majority know that, even if they still put themselves in a binary ‘hate’ camp for English as a subject, we are able to support them to be successful. They trust us and when they follow our advice they produce superb reading and writing responses.