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Two facts for parents who want to improve children’s reading at home:
The 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress showed that only 34 percent of US students were rated ‘reading proficient.”
A 2012 report by Renaissance Learning on 29,000 students showed that English 15 and 16-year-olds had an average reading age five years lower than their actual age.
The effects of a low reading age
In the UK, the reading age requirement for GCSEs is 15.6 – that’s the average age of students who sit them. If their reading age is well below that at the time of sitting the exam, it becomes frighteningly obvious they will not be able to understand the exam papers well enough to pass the examination or do as well as they should.
It also means that throughout their entire time at school they will have been struggling to read the texts books and worksheets handed to them by teachers. They will have had a consistently poorer understanding of the subjects they were studying than those who have better reading skills. So, even if they did manage to understand the exam paper, the knowledge they had to answer the question would have been inadequate to get them through.
This will no doubt have a negative effect on their futures. Having a low reading age stops children getting into college and university and prevents them getting better paid jobs. These children will be less competitive in the jobs market and will have increased chances of living in poverty as a result.
No-one want this for their children.
What can parents do at home to help improve their child’s reading?
According to Renaissance Learning, children make the most progress when they are reading challenging books for at least 35 minutes a day. Less than that and the progress is smaller. The single most important thing you can do as a parent, therefore, is to get your children to read more. We all know, however, that this is easier said than done and the older the child, the harder it is to do, especially if they are really starting to read for pleasure for the first time.
Here are some useful tips to get you on your way:
1) Find how much time your child already spends reading
You should have an idea if your child reads at home and how much time they spend doing it, but you can add to this how much private reading (i.e. reading a book of their own choice for pleasure) they do at school. For example, in my last school, every child between 11 and 14 read privately for an hour and a half each week during school time. This would mean that at home they would only have to read for 22 minutes a day to reach the 35 minute a day goal.
2) Explain to your child the benefits of reading
Explain to your child why you want them to read at home and the benefits they will get from it. This is not just about improving their reading age but also about the telling them of improvements it will bring to their lives in the long run. It’s also about the benefits of reading good literature and the brilliant adventures they can experience when getting into a good book.
3) Find suitably challenging books for your child to read
Finding a suitable book is not as straightforward as it seems. The first thing you need to know is your child’s reading age. You should be able to get this from your school, but don’t count on it! Not all schools have well organised reading schemes where there is regular testing of students’ reading ages. However, if they do not have your child’s reading age ask for an assessment to be done.
If you can’t get it from school, an excellent test to use is the Burt Reading Test. Originally created in 1974 and since updated, this has been used extensively as a way to help understand a child’s reading age based on their ability to read increasingly more demanding vocabulary. What it doesn’t do, unlike the Renaissance Reading tests, is give you a reading age based on the child’s ability to understand the meaning of texts. However, it will help as a guide to get you started. You can download both the guide and the instructions here.
Only once you have the reading age can you begin to find suitably challenging books. If your child has a reading age of 10, then giving them books with a reading age of 8 will not benefit them and similarly, giving them a book with a much higher reading ages will be too difficult to help them progress. As a guide, in order to make the best progress, children need to be reading books that have a slightly higher reading age than they are currently working at. From here, they can then move to more challenging books as they progress.
4) Find children’s books with suitable content for their age
The big issue comes with the discrepancy between the real age and the reading age. A teenager with a low reading age might find it difficult to find an interesting book. No teenager wants to read childish content. Similarly, a seven year old with a reading age of 14 might find books that are a little bit inappropriate for their age and maturity.
Where to get help finding the right books
Renaissance Learning runs a program called ‘Accelerated Reader’. Unfortunately, it’s only available to schools, not to parents. However, there is a free tool called the AR Book Finder. Here’s what to do:
Go to the tool
click on advanced search tab
select the ‘Interest Level‘ for your child’s real age
select the ATOS book level for your child’s reading age. (For example, a book level of 4.5 means that the text could likely be read independently by a pupil whose reading skills are at the level of a typical fourth year pupil during the fifth month of school.)
If you leave the title and author boxes blank, the results will show you all the books that match both your child’s reading ability and are suitable for their age. The results will also include an image, a rating from other readers and a brief description.
What else do you need to do?
Encourage and support
Help them choose a book:
show them it’s cool to read by finding out who their heroes are and what they are reading
go to the library with them
sit down together and check out book reviews on Amazon
Talk about books you have read which they might be interested in or get them the book version of their favourite film or TV series.
Remember that 35 minutes a day may take some time to achieve. It doesn’t all have to be done at the same time either – it can split up over a couple of sessions. If your child is finding hard to focus for so long at first, don’t worry, just give it time.
Whatever, you do, don’t leave it too late before you start your 35 minutes a day routine. Perhaps you can join them and read at the same time? Acting as a role model is one of the best ways to improve children’s reading at home.
There is a new abridged Romeo and Juliet available for pupils and teachers. ‘Romeo and Juliet: Abridged for Schools and Performance ‘ is specially for teachers and students of English and drama. It’s is a pacy and engaging version of the Shakespeare play that maintains the coherence of the plot and contains all the essential elements needed for classroom study and dramatic performance.
It’s ideal for the updated National Curriculum which requires teachers to move away from focusing on one or two scenes to actually engaging with the play from start to finish. This version of the play does this by carefully removing extraneous scenes and editing the text to ensure that it is easier to follow and understand than the original.
Drama teachers can use it in a number of ways. The abridged version is just over an hour in length and it is perfect for using in drama lessons for working on short scenes in small groups.
The book is also ideal for children who want to have a go at reading the original text for the first time but who may struggle with it’s complexity and wordiness.
For reluctant readers, using technology can be an excellent way to improve children’s reading and overall education. One thing I’ve noticed in the classroom in recent years is that whilst many children are reluctant to pick up a book and read it, hand them a gadget with a screen and they can’t keep their hands off.
Why don’t older children want to read books?
There is a psychological barrier that many children, particularly as they approach their teens, have with reading a book. It’s not an aversion to reading, but more to do with social acceptance.
In their teenage years, they are at an age where being socially acceptable is more important to them than at any other time of their lives. They have a need to fit in with their peers and the trendy kids at school.
This is why they demand only certain brands, have to style their hair in a particular way, listen to specific types of music and dress in similar ways to each other.
Truly, life can be devastating if they feel cast out of their social group for not conforming – and reading, unfortunately, is not seen as cool. It’s geeky, it’s what the swotty kids do. Not reading books can be part of the norm they have to conform to. So, to improve children’s reading we need to find a way around this problem.
The modern solution for reluctant readers
Thanks to technology, there is a solution. If you are the parent of a reluctant reader, then dangling an Amazon Kindle Fire HD in front of your child’s nose might be the perfect answer to improving their reading skills. Why? Well, although it has many of the same features as an iPad or other tablet PC (they can surf the net, download thousands of apps, store and play all their music as well as play videos and watch movies) the primary function of the Kindle is as a book reader.
The Kindle makes reading cool. It removes the social barrier as there’s no turning of paper pages. Children see it more as ‘surfing a book’ or using a ‘book app’ rather than ‘boring reading’.
Of course, being made by Amazon, there are an almost endless number of books to be downloaded and read – and frequently cheaper than the physical version – all of which can be stored on the device itself. These include not only novels and stories but also graphic novels and other similarly formatted texts that your child might feel more comfortable reading. There are many educational and school textbooks available on Amazon, too. With an Amazon Fire, your child can carry around a whole library with them in one small package.
This might seem like an odd approach to improving children’s reading, but it works. I have seen it working in schools. Kids who wouldn’t be seen dead in a library will sit engrossed in the classroom, almost unaware that what they are doing is reading. E-readers remove the social barriers and at the same time provides a medium that young people prefer to use to read. This allows parents to help their children form good reading habits though those vital teenage years.
The Kindle also has one more trick up its sleeve – it allows children to listen to audio books. Whilst not as beneficial as actually reading a text, this can be extremely useful for older children who have to work their way through longer texts for school. A child who might take several weeks to get through a 200-page novel might find it much easier and quicker to listen to it through an audiobook. There are thousands of suitable audiobooks available for download, at very reasonable prices, from Audible, another Amazon company.
Like all good devices, the Kindle Fire HD offers you parental control over what your children can and can’t have access to. And the other big advantages? It’s significantly less expensive than an iPad and as it can also be used as a tablet PC there’s no need to buy another device. There’s also a new larger version available too.
If you pre-school children and want to teach them to read the you can begin by using YouTube videos to help them learn basic literacy skills. You can also use it for numeracy and a whole range of other things about the world they live in.
Youtube is no longer just a place to go when looking for entertainment. It’s now a fantastic library of educational information on virtually every subject and aimed at every age group or level of understanding. There are thousands of outstanding resources on there which allow parents to use Youtube to teach preschool children many of the basic skills they need to get them to begin reading, counting, naming the things around them and even learning how computers work.
Nursery Rhymes and Songs
I started using Youtube with my eldest daughter before she was a year old and we did this to introduce her nursery rhymes and children’s songs in an interesting way. The video shown, ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ has, at time of this going to press, had close to 313 million views, which just shows you how phenomenally popular these videos are with parents around the globe. Once your child finds one they like they’ll want to watch it over and over. What’s more, no matter what nursery rhyme you are looking for, you’ll find it on Youtube.
What I particularly liked about the nursery rhyme videos was that there were many variations of the same nursery rhyme, all with different musical arrangements and animations. Not only was I introducing my daughter to language, rhythm and rhyme through doing this, I was also letting her discover music, new accents and art.
The Alphabet and Numbers
Another use of Youtube is for teaching the alphabet and numbers. ‘Phonics Song 2’ by AJ Jenkins is an excellent resource, not only helping children learn the alphabet, but also teaching your child the correct phonics sound for the letter, something which will give them a head start over other children when they start school. ‘Phonics Song 2’ has notched up 225 million hits so far, putting AJ Jenkins alongside the likes of Justin Bieber when it comes to having your music heard on Youtube.
There are many brilliant resources for teaching the alphabet and numbers to young children on Youtube and many do so in a variety of imaginative ways, using song and imagery to reinforce and strengthen the learning taking place. Children eventually find their favourites and from here soon begin to be able to recite the alphabet or numbers themselves – their first steps towards reading and counting all gained in a fun and engaging way.
Learning about the World
As your child beings to develop, the next stage in their preschool education where Youtube can be really useful is in helping them learn the names of things in the world about them. Once again there are many of these videos which can teach children the names on lots of different things: colours, shapes, animals, vehicles, foods and body’s parts (Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes) being the most common. There are also quite a few videos for encouraging children to move either by dancing or exercising in simple ways.
The final benefit of using YouTube, and this was a side effect of my searching for my daughter, was that within a few months of us watching these videos, she was beginning to be able to operate the computer and understand in a basic way how it worked, knowing for example, that if you clicked on an image a song would play and that you scrolled up and down a page to see what songs were available.
If you have very young children and have never thought about Youtube as a resource, I would suggest you spend a couple of hours exploring to find videos that you think are suitable for your own child. You can easily create playlists on different topics and use these when you are with your child so that you don’t have to keep searching whilst you are actually with them.
In the current educational system, your children are taught to read using phonics or, to use its full name, systematic synthetic phonics. This method uses a very different approach to teaching reading than that which most parents will have experienced when they went to school. For that reason, many parents feel very much in the dark and out of their depth when it comes to helping their own children to read using phonics. For that reason, I’ve put together a parental guide to phonics and how young children are taught to read in schools so that you can begin to understand how phonics works and how you can help your children to read at home.
What is Phonics?
The word phonics derives from the word for sound. The words: gramophone, microphone, telephone and even the band name, Stereophonics, are all sound-related words. Phonics is the practice of teaching children to match sounds to letters and from there to teach them to ‘blend’ the sounds together when they see a combination of letters in a word so that, when they say them, they pronounce the word correctly.
For this reason, teachers are more focused on teaching the sounds of the letters rather than the name. For instance, when they teach the letter Z they are taught how to say ‘zzz’ rather than its name ‘Zed’ (UK) or Zee (US). Instead of teaching the alphabet, ‘ay, be, see, dee, he, ef, gee,’ they would teach ‘ha, buh, kuh, duh, eh, fuh, guh.’
By teaching duh, ho, guh, rather than dee, oh, gee, it is hoped children would soon be able to associate and blend the sounds to say ‘dog’ when they see the three letters together.
Please note that the way I’ve spelled the phonics sounds is only a guide to how they should be said, there is no actual way of writing the sounds down accurately: to find out how they really should be pronounced you need to watch the video below from the BBC series, Alphablocks. The sounds the characters say in the video are the ones you need to teach your child. For those of us brought up to learn the alphabet by saying the letters, it can seem quite odd at first – but this will be how your children are taught at school and if you want them to be able to find learning phonics and reading at school easier, you can help by teaching the method in the video below.
Phonics terminology and why you need to learn it
Once you have got your head around the basic principle underlying the teaching of phonics, the next thing you need to be aware of is the terminology used to teach it. One reason why you need to learn this is because your children will be learning it too and these are the terms they will understand when you help them at home. Despite the fact that your children are still at a very early stage in their actual reading, these challenging and technical words will be part of the everyday vocabulary they will be using in lessons. Using these terms at home when teaching your children phonics will reinforce the learning they do at school and make sure you are communicating accurately.
Below are the main phonics terms you will need to know together with an explanation of what they mean.
In basic terms, a phoneme is the smallest unit of sound in a word. Usually, a phoneme represents the sound of an individual letter spoken out loud, but sometimes it can be a sound that represents more than one letter as in the sound ‘uh’ the middle of book, or the ‘eye’ sound in the middle of night. The English language uses around 44 different phonemes, I say ‘around’ as there are debates about the actual number, some insist the number is 42.
If a phoneme is the sound, the grapheme is the letter or group of letters printed on the page that represent the phoneme. Using the example above, if the word is night and the middle phoneme is ‘eye’ then the grapheme that represents it is, quite simply the letters ‘igh’.
It is worth pointing out here that there can be several different graphemes associated with a single phoneme. The sound ‘eye’ for example, can be used in the words ‘by’, ‘bye’, ‘lie’, as well as ‘night’. So, the phoneme pronounced ‘eye’ can have the written graphemes ‘y’, ‘ye’, ‘ie’ and ‘igh’.
You can see from this that there is a downside to phonics when it comes to teaching spelling: whilst it can make reading easier to learn, the number of possible graphemes to choose from can make spelling more of a challenge. For the 44 phonemes in the English language, children need to learn many more graphemes in order to spell them all. There is some considerable debate over the numbers, some conservative sources state there are around 130 graphemes whilst others say there are as many as 461. However, even at its lower end, you can still see how children can become easily confused.
Segmenting and blending
Segmenting is the term children are taught to mean the breaking down of words into individual phonemes when trying to spell (they find breaking into sounds easy, the difficulty, as mentioned above, comes with matching the correct grapheme to the sound). When teaching a child to learn a spelling using phonics, the first thing you need to do is to get them to segment the word into its phonemes and then write down the corresponding grapheme. If they choose the wrong one, then you may need to point them in the right direction.
One of the difficulties with English, particularly with spelling, is that many of the words in the language are imported from other languages. Words beginning with the letters ‘ch’ are a good example. Used as in champagne, with a ‘sh’ sound, the origin is French, used as in chaos, with a k sound, the origin is Greek. This means that there is really no uniform spelling pattern which links sounds to letters, hence the larger number of graphemes in comparison to phonemes.
Blending is the term they are taught when putting individual phonemes together to pronounce a word when reading.
Digraph is the term used to describe a single phoneme that in written form is made up of two separate letters. For example, the ‘oa’ that comes in the middle of ‘coal’ or the when ‘s’ and ‘h’ come together to make ‘sh’ as in ‘show’. In addition, if both the letters are made from vowels this is called a vowel digraph, where they are both consonants they are called consonant digraphs.
A trigraph is when three letters represent a single phoneme, as in the ‘igh’ in ‘night’ or ‘eau’ in beautiful.
Split digraphs are one of the most difficult phonetic concepts for children to understand, but they are so common in the English language they will not be able to read fluently until they have grasped the concept – so it’s vital that they learn this quickly and using the split digraph terminology to do so.
Most parents will grasp the concept quickly if I refer to it by it’s old nickname – the magic ‘e’. Basically, if you add an ‘e’ to the end of a word it changes how you would pronounce the word, or more precisely, how you would pronounce the previous vowel in the word.
The word ‘fat’ when pronounced has the phonemes ‘fuh’ ha’ and ‘tuh.’ However, if you add an ‘e’ on the end to make ‘fate’ the letter ‘a’ is now pronounced ‘hay’ instead of ‘ha’. The letter is the same, but the phoneme is pronounced differently because of the addition of the magic ‘e’.
In phonics, this is called a split digraph, because it combines the ‘a’ and ‘e’ to make the digraph ‘hay’, but the two letters are split up by the ‘t’. Other examples of split digraphs include ‘life’, ‘rate’, ’tile’, ‘hope’ etc.
You can tell when a child has not grasped how to pronounce split digraphs because instead of reading fate as ‘fayt’ they will say ‘fatty’. Here, they are saying the ‘a’ and ‘e’ as separate phonemes instead of a single one.
Teachers are renowned for using abbreviations and this is apparent in the teaching of phonics. However, there are only two you need to be aware of and these are easy to grasp: C for consonant and V for vowel. They are used to show children the pattern of consonant and vowel graphemes in written words. So CVC stands for consonant – vowel – consonant as seen in the word ‘big; and VC, vowel – consonant is seen in the word ‘each’ (remember although ‘each’ has four letters, it has only two graphemes ‘ea’ and ‘ch’ as the grapheme is a written version of a phoneme and some phonemes, digraphs and trigraphs, can be made of more than more letter). There are more complex patterns of vowels and consonants in words, children encounter these as they move on to longer words.
Phases of Phonics Teaching
The teaching of phonics is divided into six phases which usually begin as soon as children begin school, sometimes phase one is even taught in preschool. The first phases are very basic but soon begin to get increasingly complex as children’s reading develops. Although most children learn at a similar rate some children will develop at a quicker pace to others.
Also note that children who have learned to read before they get to school may not have learned using these skills, so whilst they may be fairly fluent readers and reading itself may not be difficult for them, learning phonics will be something they have to start from scratch. Learning new terminology and techniques for this way of reading is likely to be as challenging for them as every other child, indeed, it might make it even more difficult for them if they have already trained their brains in one way of learning words.
There is also some concern in academic circles about whether there is any need to teach phonics to children who can already read by the time they get to school. Some believe it can hold these children back. From a personal point of view, my eldest daughter could read fluently, without phonics, by the time she started school and whilst it’s been a new skill for her to learn, I don’t see it has been of any benefit to her at all. Whilst she could not phonetically blend words she did not know, she was quite capable of blending syllables by herself if she was unsure of how to pronounce a word. I can’t say for definite that it has held her back, except to say that all the time spent learning phonics could have been better spent on developing other literacy skills. In contrast, my youngest daughter could not read more than a few words by the time school started, yet by the time she got to the end of reception year the phonics system had helped her massively, she can now read exceptionally well for her age and constantly uses blending to help her when she is stuck.
I can’t say for definite that it has held her back, except to say that all the time spent learning phonics could have been better spent on developing other literacy skills. In contrast, my youngest daughter could not read more than a few words by the time school started, yet by the time she got to the end of reception year the phonics system had helped her massively, she can now read exceptionally well for her age and constantly uses blending to help her when she is stuck.
Phase One focuses on developing a child’s speaking and listening skills and is designed to familiarise children with everyday sounds in order to get them ready to blend and segment phonemes. Phase 1 has seven stages all of which involve: tuning into sounds and being able to look at similarities and differences between sounds; listening to and remembering sounds and patterns of sound; talking about sounds and learning new terminology.
Phase 2 is when children are introduced to letters, graphemes and their sounds. This is often done one phoneme / grapheme at a time in the following sets:
Set 1: s, a, t, p
Set 2: i, n, m, d
Set 3: g, o, c, k
Set 4: ck, e, u, r
Set 5: h, b, f, ff, l, ll, ss
At this point, children will start learning to blend and segment simple words usually three or four letters long. Alongside this, children are introduced to simple but irregular words where phonics cannot be applied to the reading and spelling. Children are taught to call these, ‘tricky words’ and they include such words as ‘I’ and ‘the’.
Phase 3 begins when children are at a stage when they are able to blend and segment words using the the graphemes / phonemes taught in Phase 2. During Phase 3 twenty-five new graphemes / phonemes are introduced one at a time. these are:
By the time students reach Phase 4 it is expected that children will be able to recognize all graphemes above, be able to pronounce them and in most cases be able to write them. During Phase 4 they will blend these phonemes to read CVC words and segment CVC words for spelling, doing so with increasing confidence. At the same time, they should also develop the skills to read simple two syllable words. Finally, they should also be able to read all the irregular words learned during these phases and be able to spell most of them.
In phase 5, children begin to learn new graphemes and where they exist, their differing pronunciations, for example, ‘ow’ can be pronounced differently depending on whether it part of ‘sowing’ or ‘how’. It’s the complexity of the English language which can cause problems for children here – for ‘sow’ itself can be pronounced in two separate ways depending on whether one is talking about growing seeds or female pigs!
It’s at phase 5 where children begin to focus in on spelling. Using phonics again, they learn to spell by choose the right grapheme to represent the phoneme. This is why, when you read young children’s work, it often is spelled incorrectly, but when read phonetically, makes sense. This is because they have not yet grasped the right grapheme to choose.
In phase 6, the focus is even more on learning spelling. Here they will be taught the rules for adding suffixes (endings) to words. This includes rules like adding ‘-ed’ to create past tense and -ing’ to create present tense, eg, walk becomes waled or walking. The main suffixes taught at this stage are:
I would start off by showing Youtube videos, such as the Alphablocks one shown above that you can watch with your child to help them to learn the sounds and associate them with their graphemes.
Playing with things like foam bath letters and magnetic letters is another way to make learning fun. If you do this, make sure you start with lower case letters and not capitals, as these are where they will start at school. Mixing capitals and lower case letters can be confusing for a child so stay with lower-case until they know them all before moving on to capitals.
When you name letters or talk about them, do use the phonetic sound, rather than the name of letter. Ha, buh, Kuh, duh, eh, instead of hay, bee, see, dee, he.
There are also some excellent resources available. Jolly Phonics is an educational publisher who was recommended to me by primary literacy advisor. They have a fantastic reputation in schools for providing phonics resources to help children learn to read. Their catalogue includes: reading books, workbooks, flashcards, dvds, phonics sounds and graphemes wall stickers and even phonics song CDs.
For those of you who teach in the UK, you’ll be aware that Ofsted have considerably revised the focus of school inspections and this includes what they look for when they observe lessons and judge the performance of individual teachers doing their job.
Having worked in ‘Special Measures’ and ‘Notice to Improve’ almost consistently since September 2006 means I’ve been at the sharp end of the Ofsted dissecting scalpel all too frequently. Indeed, I’m now a veteran over 20 Ofsted and Local Authority inspections. If I’d worked in outstanding schools, I would have needed to teach for over a century to knock up that total: and whilst teachers in those schools get inspected only once every 5 years, I, together with my colleagues, averaged once every four months.
However, the process has left me with an experience of Ofsted inspections that few teachers will ever have and most, I’m sure, wouldn’t ever wish upon themselves. So turning a negative experience in to a positive one, I’ve written up what I’ve learnt, especially the more relevant things I had to do under the new Ofsted framework, so that other teachers can benefit.
The hope is, that any teachers out there who want to know how to achieve outstanding under the new framework can learn from my experiences, not only as a classroom teacher but in my role as the senior leader responsible for improving teaching throughout the school.
If you are a teacher who’s due a lesson observation or a school Ofsted inspection in the near future, then there are plenty of tips for you on what Ofsted are looking for and how to ensure your classroom practice meets the grade.
I’ve just come across a perfect selection of books for advanced young readers. The Usbourne Young Reading Classics are a collection of beautifully illustrated classic novels rewritten for younger readers.
What makes this collection excellent is that it includes many of the great texts from the English literary canon that high achievers would be expected to read. There are many traditional older children’s books, such as Robinson Crusoe, Heidi and Pinocchio and then there are some really grown up classics from writers such as Shakespeare, Dickens, Jane Austen and the Brontes.
Whilst these are suitably challenging books for advanced young readers, they are ideal for younger children because they have been rewritten especially for them and are heavily illustrated with lots of colourful pictures which young children still love to lok at no matter how well they can read.
If you have a four to eight year old who is a good reader, needs challenging to the next level and is running out of suitable books aimed at their age group, then these are the books for you. The books come in several difficulty levels, so once your child improves their reading skills you can move them up to the next one.
It’s hard to conceive that there is a link between how clever your child is and how much money you earn, but statistically, your family income affects your child’s educational development. According to the studies undertaken, if you are on welfare benefits or working class, your child is much more likely to be falling behind children of professional families from as early as three years old. You can see this clearly in the infographic below.
It’s obviously an average and doesn’t take into account the abilities of all children, but as statistics go, it’s quite alarming. However, it’s not a given and there is a solution. You need to get your child talking and reading as early as possible to develop their vocabulary and consequently their ability to understand and express their understanding of the world about them.
When you send your child to a school, you know from the off that they are going to spend many years there. If you don’t make the right decision this can have a devastating effect on your child’s happiness, their educational and social progress and their lives and careers after their education there has finished.
The decision of which school to choose needs to be an informed one and the best way to find out is to go to school open evenings and take your child with you. I would also recommend that you visit at least two different schools so that in making your choice you have something to compare.
What to look for at an open evening
The School Talk
Open evenings usually start with a talk by the headteacher or principal and there’ll be time after to discuss things with senior leaders and key staff like the Special Needs Coordinator and your child’s potential Head of Year.
Headteachers live in ‘Eduworld’ and you’ll often be given an overlong presentation with lots of statistics full of educational jargon. Try glean what you can from this, but a good talk will discuss the students as much as it does exams results and inspection findings.
The most important thing is to make a note of anything that you are unsure about and speak to someone about it before you put in your application.
Things you should want to know:
Does the school have the same values at your family?
What was their last inspection result?
Are results improving over time?
The percentage of students meeting or exceeding what is known as ‘Expected Progress‘. (The percentage of students making 3 or more levels of progress during the time they were in the school.)
Below are specific questions, which if they apply to your own circumstances, you should want to ask. The school will have the statistics for them.
How do results for children with special needs compare to the rest of the school?
How do results for low-income families compare?
How do results for other groups compare? (English as an Additional Language, children from minority backgrounds, etc.)
How do boys compare to girls?
For parents of students with Special Needs, it’s crucial that you speak to the special needs coordinator.
How does the school work with the particular special need your child has?
What support will they be given?
Will they have access to facilities to help them?
Will they have in class support from a teaching assistant? If so, how much and is this guaranteed? (This is particularly important if your child has a Statement of Educational Needs.)
Is the school fully equipped so that your child can participate in all activities?
The School Tour
A good school will put on a good show. You should be given the opportunity to look around, either as part of a guided tour or on your own. A really good school will be showcasing their students and the work of individual departments. There will be children performing music and drama, an exhibition of artwork, science experiments and sports activities. Technology departments will have equipment on display and a range of the products students have made. In the other departments, there will be displays of textbooks, resources, kids’ work, perhaps even sample lessons taking place. There should also be time to look at the facilities the school has to offer such as the canteen, library and IT centres.
This is what you would expect in a school that is proud and enthusiastic about itself and its students. If all you get to do is stroll around dimly lit corridors and poke your head through the doorways of drab classrooms, then what does it tell you about the enthusiasm with which they will teach your children?
How well resourced is the library?
How up to date are the IT facilities?
How abundant are IT Facilities? (Many schools struggle to meet the needs of all students to get on a computer when they need to.)
How good are the science, technology, sports, art, and performing arts facilities?
What condition is the building in?
Are there graffiti and vandalism?
How up to date and colourful are the wall displays?
What are the facilities for students at break and lunchtimes (inside and out)
How large and clean is the canteen?
How healthy is the menu?
How clean is the school? (Take a look in classrooms not used for open evening)
What are the Special Needs facilities like?
What facilities are in place for students removed from class for poor behaviour to continue their learning.
Meet existing students
Another aspect of a good school is that parents and prospective students are often given the chance to meet existing students – sometimes they are guides, sometimes they are taking part in activities. Remember that these students will be the best the school has got: kids who volunteer to come back in the evening and who have been handpicked by the staff because they represent the ‘corporate image’ that the school is trying to promote. If these students are running amok around the school, what are the rest of the students like?
How well presented are the students?
How polite and well behaved are they?
How confident are they?
Do they have high expectations of themselves?
Ask the students about:
behaviour in the school
their favourite subjects
least favourite subjects
how they rate the quality of teaching
opportunities for extracurricular activities
what they like best and least about the school
what things the school could do better
the pupil-teacher relationships in the school
the other children in the school
Meet the teachers
This is a perfect opportunity to ask questions, especially subject specific ones. Pay particular attention to subjects your child especially enjoys.
number of students in each class (especially exam classes)
how many hours a week a subject is taught
expectations for homework, classwork and behaviour
how students are rewarded and punished
general classroom and corridor behaviour around school
whether they think the school is improving
Other families looking around
You can learn a lot from talking to existing parents and there are always some parents at open evenings who already have an older child in school and can talk to you with experience.Try talking to different parents to get different points of view.
Another thing to look at is the other families looking around the school. In order to fit in, your child will have to work and play with those children. They may socialise and befriend each other.
Ask yourself :
Are these the types of children who my child will easily make friends with and settle in?
Would I want my child making friends with these children?
Will these families have the same set of values for raising their children as I do?
Will my child feel comfortable working alongside these children?
Other things to consider
Open evenings are not the only thing to base your decision upon, but they are your main opportunity to see the school and get to know it first hand. However, I would also recommend the following.
Ask to be given a tour around the school on a normal day (if a school won’t do this for you, they have something to hide!)
Read the last inspection report. In the UK this can be downloaded from Ofsted
Drive past the school at closing time and see how the students behave and are dressed as they are leaving.
Is the school in a good neighbourhood? Does it have issues with drugs or violence?
Is the school too big? Some children would be happier in smaller schools.
There are, no doubt, more questions that will come to mind as you read these and it’s important that you ask questions to make sure you make the right decision. At the end of the day, though, no school is perfect and all schools, even those in Special Measures, have their good points. The important thing is not the school but whether the school is right for your child – and every child is different.
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Congratulations to Jenny Q who has won our first ever giveaway on VerybestForKids.com. She is now the proud owner of a copy of Jonny Duddle’s ‘The Pirate Cruncher.’
Thanks to all who entered.
Read about all 3 Jonny Duddle Books
About ‘The Pirate Cruncher’
Our daughters adore this fantastic book by Jonny Duddle. His illustrations are absolutely fab: highly detailed, bright, funny and colourful with lots of hidden things to spot every time you read it – and your kids will want you to read it with them a lot.
Written in rhyme with a real sea shanty feel to the rhythm, the story is about a mysterious fiddler who shares a treasure map with Captain Purplebeard and his crew of greedy pirates.
After they set sail to find the treasure, the fiddler gives them a fearful warning about a pirate-eating monster, but Captain Purplebeard carries on on his quest, regardless. As they sail across the seas the crew become increasingly unnerved by the fiddler’s terrifying song. The crew, as to be expected eventually come to meet the dreaded pirate cruncher – but there’s a very unexpected twist on the spectacular fold out page at the end!
There is so much to learn, see and here in this book that it has to be one of our very best reads of all time.
Jonny Duddle’s second book Pirates Next Door is illustrated in the same fab way as The Pirate Cruncher – lots of highly detailed, fun illustrations with lots of hidden things to spot as you look at them and the wonderful fold our page with the story’s twist at the end.
This book, again written in roll off the tongue rhyme is the hilarious story of the Jolley-Rogers – a pirate family, who have decided to move to Dull-on-Sea, a too quiet seaside town where nothing ever happens – until of course the pirate family move in! Whilst waiting to mend their ship, this quirky family get the whole town gossiping and spreading rumours.
Against the wishes of the grown-ups, Matilda, from next door befriends with the youngest pirate son. And when the Jolly-Rogers finally have their ship repaired and leave, the townsfolk discover their rumours were wrong – the Jolly Rogers had buried treasure in everyone’s gardens. This makes Matilda feel very sad until she discovers her own treasure!.
Again, my girls thought this book is absolutely fantastic and is a brilliant addition to your collection that will certainly rival the Gruffalo.
Beautiful, detailed illustrations abound once more in Duddle’s latest book that has another fun story with a moral to be learned just like the previous pirate books. With aliens, warbots, dung-blasters, and more, this is truly imaginative intergalactic adventure – and this time there is more text to be read with a slightly longer tale.
The story follows Rex, who although he may look like your usual six-year-old, living on his parents’ moog farm and attending the mini intergalactic citizen school, knows he’s destined someday to become the King of Space!
With the aid of his unsuspecting friends, Rex disobeys his parents and begins his conquest of the known universe. But, and here’s the moral of the story, he goes too far, kidnapping the Emperor’s daughter and bribing her with ‘choco-goo’. Now the tables turn and the might of the Galactic Alliance come after him. Who can rescue Rex now?
The Pirate Cruncher Kids Book Giveaway Competition
The competition will be open until midnight 30 Sept. Open to adults in any country, only one entry per household permitted. The winner will be informed by email. For full details see our terms and conditions on the entry form. Winners are picked at random via the Rafflecopter giveaway software.
All opinions in this review are our own, however, we may be compensated should you make a purchase through the links provided.