Begin With Little Ones

Explicit Instruction in the Reception Classroom  

“Does it work for all of the students? Perhaps many of the various methods work reasonably well for above-average students (they are going to learn despite our efforts), but the quality of instruction is most paramount for those below average (and whatever method works for these students often also works best for above-average students).” 
John A.C. Hattie

There are many areas of debate in Early Years, arguably none more contentious and polarised than the one surrounding ‘Schoolification’ and the application of explicit instruction in Reception Class. What I am outlining here does not seek to undermine the EYFS Framework Principles but rather to complement them. In order to address ELG gaps in attainment, I believe we need to re-examine the role explicit instruction can play in enhancing good practice, in particular with regards to Reading.  I will not be attempting to define what learning (the noun or verb) is. That is a rabbit hole and others are better qualified to explore it.

 In 2017, the publication of the ‘Bold Beginnings’ Ofsted Report provoked EYFS sector practitioners, academics, early childhood experts and consultants to respond with calls for more consultation. Some believed that the publication would start a ball rolling and open up discussion both within the sector and outside of it, promoting transparency and cooperation. As an EYs teacher and leader, I did not view the publication as a threat but rather as an opportunity to revise my own practice in the light of new research. I was perplexed and taken aback by the sector’s overwhelmingly negative response.

We feel strongly that we must protect the children in this critical foundation stage from the ‘top down’ pressure that is a main theme of the ‘Bold Beginnings’ report.

That ‘top down’ pressure referred specifically to what was felt to be a narrowing of the curriculum for Reception Class. 

Perhaps justifiably, many in the sector also felt a lack of recognition and representation in the process of restructuring the framework.  A great number still feel there is a lack of respect for Early Years professionals and a body of research that actively promotes a child-centred, holistic way of thinking about Early Years Curricula and pedagogy going back to 2006 when the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) was established under the Childcare Act 2006 as a framework for learning, development and care for children from birth to five.

One of the criticisms of our report is that it does not consider the research base on early years education. This is a simplification of the evidence base, which ignores a range of research supporting the balanced approach we advocate in Bold Beginnings. Daniel Muijs 4th July 2018 Research Ed Magazine issue 1

Government advisory groups have pursued lines of enquiry for change informed by those working in the fields of cognitive science. Draft proposals for revised programmes, Early Learning Goals, the assessment and moderation process and a re-drafting of Development Matters indicate a shift in emphasis towards goals involving the development of Knowledge-Rich Curricula based on ideas about changes in Long Term Memory and the implications of this on practice. 

‘Life is an ongoing effort to upgrade our models of the world in an effort to make them more powerful. More powerful models mean more successful action. More successful action leads to better chances in life. This is what learning is and why schools exist. Our job as teachers is to increase the life chances of our students by helping them develop more powerful Long Term Memory.’ Peps Mccrea (Memorable Teaching 2017)

At first, these ideas may seem incompatible with previous guidance materials (e.g. Development Matters 2012) and for many in the EY sector, the implications undermine the tenets enshrined in The Characteristics of Effective Teaching and Learning. Perhaps this may be because LTM and ‘remembering’ are not addressed explicitly in the CoETL (which promotes learning through building episodic memories rather than semantic ones).

When the inspection framework changed in 2019, some significant indicators emerged signalling potential changes within the Early Years Framework itself; changes that might allow for more alignment with the Primary Curriculum. This would certainly have an impact on the ‘identity’ and position of Reception Year. Is it the end of the beginning- the last year of birth to five, or is it the beginning of compulsory education? 

Reception has always straddled this uncomfortable never-land. 

For EYFS practitioners, ECE experts, consultants, parents and ITT providers, the statutory EYFS framework is characterised by its Principles:

  • A Unique Child. Every child is a competent learner from birth who can be resilient, capable, confident and self-assured.
  • Positive Relationships 
  • Enabling Environments 
  • Learning and Development

Getting it right in the EYFS: A review of the evidence (Authors Chris Pascal, Tony Bertram, Liz Rouse of Centre for Research in Early Childhood)  presented recommendations and evidence from the sector in response to proposed changes in the ELGs and Framework including: ‘The EYFS should continue to promote the importance of a balanced teaching approach which incorporates play-based and relational pedagogic approaches alongside more structured learning and teaching, especially when children are in transition between EYFS and Key Stage 1. 

How Learning is delivered is specified in the EYFS Statutory Framework:

1.8. Each area of learning and development must be implemented through planned, purposeful play and through a mix of adult-led and child-initiated activity. Play is essential for children’s development, building their confidence as they learn to explore, to think about problems, and relate to others. Children learn by leading their own play, and by taking part in play which is guided by adults. There is an ongoing judgement to be made by practitioners about the balance between activities led by children, and activities led or guided by adults. Practitioners must respond to each child’s emerging needs and interests, guiding their development through warm, positive interaction. As children grow older, and as their development allows, it is expected that the balance will gradually shift towards more activities led by adults, to help children prepare for more formal learning, ready for Year 1.

‘Ongoing judgement’ about what constitutes ‘balance’ between adult led and child led has always been where Reception Class pedagogy is debated, defended and at times, misunderstood. One practitioners ‘balance’ may be another’s idea of overly formal. One teacher’s adult directed activity may be another’s developmentally inappropriate strategy for young children. 

Inside the framework package, we find that judgements can and are continually made and adjusted.  Teachers and practitioners who seek to integrate and align with whole school approaches can find potential for innovative pedagogy in the transition year of Reception. The last section of 1.8 (As children grow older….) is where different versions of explicit instruction can operate. Formal teaching has its place here in the small window, with that word – judgement. 

 In the schools visited, inspectors observed Reception teachers using direct, interactive whole- class instruction, particularly for reading, writing and mathematics. Leaders and staff ignored the perceived tensions between the principles of the EYFS and teaching a whole class directly. They recognised that teaching the whole class was at times the most efficient way of imparting knowledge.   Bold beginnings

This does not tend to sit comfortably alongside conventional EYFS pedagogy. Many in the EYs community have profound misgivings and genuine concerns about the government’s apparent lack of acknowledgment for developmentally appropriate curricula and a more pronounced focus on ‘the three Rs’ have led many to challenge and lobby. There is a view that political strings are being pulled with young children being relentlessly driven towards a narrowing curriculum and are prematurely required to take part in more and more ‘formal’ education when they are not yet ‘ready’.

Objections include many recommendations in the new ELGs, for example- Reading as a core purpose. They included the recommendation that children learn the correct pencil grip and sit properly at a table when writing, for example. Some objected to the focus on fluency in number, some to the omission of Shape, Space and Measure from the ELGs. 

What does the data tell us?

If we focus on the DfE statistical reports for how well the sector is doing, it seems clear that there is a strong trend of improvement nationwide with more children achieving a Good Level of Development (GLD). In 2013 the figure was 51.7% and in 2018 that figure had risen to 71.5%; an amazing record of improvement. However, the lowest 20% have not done so well and the gap is now widening albeit marginally.

‘Their point score is creeping up which not only means that the school system is failing to tackle inequality in the early years, but is also creating classes of children in year one that will be incredibly hard to teach because of significant gaps in development between the majority of children who have achieved GLD and the small but still significant number of children in the lowest 20% group who are often so far behind.’ Julian Grenier- Inequality –We aren’t doing nearly enough in the early years. Oct 2018

The data for 2019 showed the gap widening further still. The percentage inequality gap has risen from 31.8% in 2018 to 32.8% in 2019.

We could celebrate how far those in the lowest 20% have come in their time within mostly ‘High Quality Provision’, or we can do something that will make a very big difference and is within our power as educators. We could investigate and act on that which we have control over instead of blaming cuts and government directives, loss of Sure Start, lack of funding; all of which no doubt impacts on outcomes. We could allow more freedom in the way teachers and practitioners deliver a curriculum. We could look more closely at the potential for explicit instruction in early reading, writing and number.

We don’t need a false debate that’s merely loud and passionate.’ (Julian Grenier 2018 NAHT Early Years Conference address)

While many schools seem uneasy about the idea of explicit instruction in reception classes, in fact nearly all settings already use it for learning songs, rhymes, rules, counting, modelling turn taking and keeping children safe, for example, road crossing.

Many schools teach handwriting and tripod pencil grip to all children in Reception. Most schools have explicit instruction for phonics and this is a statutory requirement (though the quality of provision is not homogeneous and still includes mixed cueing). Number would be another obvious area where explicit instruction could be usefully and effectively employed. 

Cards on the table?

There is a place for formal, whole class teaching in YR that does not undermine EYFS tenets but complements them. Most settings would broadly agree with this.

During the Reception Class academic year, there is certainly scope to integrate with whole school, knowledge rich approaches. It is possible to do this without undermining the principles. The nature of such an undertaking means it will always be subject to what has so far been the statutory nature of the framework. The ever shifting tectonic plates of our political landscape necessitate adaptive ebb and flow. The ‘What’, ‘How’ and its ‘Outcomes’ or – Intent, Implementation and Impact, will always be subject to socio-economic forces and ideological battles. The word ‘judgement’ is as important as it is vague.

Explicit Instruction in Reception Year

‘Leaders and staff knew that most learning could not be self-discovered or left to chance through each child’s own choices. Teachers appreciated that most knowledge, skills and processes needed to be taught directly, especially processes such as learning to read or write or understanding and using numbers.’  Bold Beginnings

Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction can provide an anchor for good teaching and learning in an accessible and clear way. For some areas of the Curriculum, explicit instruction is supported by powerful evidence from controlled studies showing instructional guidance for novice and intermediate learners to be highly effective. In addition, Cognitive Load Theory provides a model with which to secure learning in the long term memory. If considering a whole school approach to favour knowledge, fluency and mastery, then there is a need to alter some pedagogical approaches to favour cumulative retention in long term memory. In theory, explicit instruction in appropriate areas of the Reception curriculum makes sense. Balance is important as always given the variety of starting points and needs in any cohort. Teacher agency in Early Years can step forward and do what it says on the tin. 


“Young children are just as much in need of teaching approaches that build up semantic memories as older ones – indeed, more so, since having been alive for a shorter time, they necessarily have less knowledge stored in their long term memory; they literally have less to think with. This puts a strain on their working memories, which are in any case less well developed.” Clare Sealy PRIMARYTIMERYDOTCOM Jan 2018*

We need to look at what is effective and efficient. Ultimately, the aim is to concentrate our efforts on what will make a real difference to the lives of the children in our care. As Clare Sealy explained later in the same blog entry –  “ To refuse to do so out of some personal dislike of so called ‘drill and kill’ is to rob children of the very thing they need to become independent, creative, critical thinkers.”

There are very good reasons for regular, explicit instruction in the teaching of Reading, in particular, the teaching of Systematic Synthetic Phonics and number fluency, in the reception classroom. There is certainly a difference in how we have an evolved instinct to communicate our needs from birth contrasted with no such similar evolved instinct for reading or written language. Hence, given that reading and number are biologically secondary, Geary (2002) clearly states that reading acquisition is biologically secondary and requires instruction. Learning biologically secondary knowledge is hard work. In addition, Geary helps us to understand why children are naturally motivated to learn through play, experimentation, and discovery, and they might not be so naturally motivated to learn how to read, write, spell or do maths in a different way. (Learning Through Play? Why We should Play It Safe- Kirschner & Neelen Nov. 2019**) Of course, just because children naturally enjoy learning through play it does not follow that they will learn to read, write, spell or do maths in this way. ‘NO ONE learns how to read magically.’** In his book ‘Making Kids Cleverer’. David Didau explains how, if we look at ancient Sumer, where one of the earliest writing systems developed, there is also archaeological evidence of early schools created for the purpose of teaching scribing. 

EYFS Practitioners sometimes comment that rather than requiring explicit instruction, readiness is of more importance and that this is a consequence of the nature of child development: young children are simply not ready to understand such notions until they reach a higher stage of development. Yet this ‘stage theory’ has long been rejected by psychologists. As Usha Goswami, professor of cognitive developmental neuroscience at the University of Cambridge argues, ‘Children think and reason largely in the same way as adults. However, they lack experience, and they are still developing important metacognitive and executive function skills.’ (Goswami, 2015, p. 25)’ From Julian Grenier Impact May 2019

Questions, questions….

What about developmental considerations? What about the unique child and their needs? What about relationships and child agency? What about all the research promoting play based, child initiated curricula and planning in the moment? What about the second teacher (other children)? What about the third (enabling environments)? What about all the skilled practitioners who co-learn and use provision creatively alongside the children? Consider those who know how to tease the right kind of learning from any given situation and interaction with children to great effect; what of them? Yes, they are succeeding year on year. But perhaps not so much with those unique children who comprise the lowest 20%. The Matthew Effect – ‘For unto everyone that hath be given, and he shall have in abundance; but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.’ If knowledge and skills are the currency here and if we consider The Matthew Effect in this context, then we are failing those who need us most. Daniel Mujis cited the evidence of  Olofsson & Niedersoe, 1999; Foorman et al., 1997; Sparks et al., (2014) and Chatterji, (2006) supporting the need to address these effects. (Research Ed 2018 issue 1)

The Matthew Effect and Reading

‘Thus, just as when we gaze at the night sky we are actually observing the past history of stars, when we measure differences in phonological decoding skills in adults we may be tapping the mechanisms that earlier in their development histories led different individuals to diverge in the rates at which they acquired reading skills, but are not currently causing further variations in reading fluency.’ Matthew effects in reading: some consequences of individual differences in the acquisition of literacy. Keith E. Stanovich, Reading Research Quarterly 1987

The above quote reverberates through time and more than thirty years on there are echoes within a recent blog post from The Quirky Teacher (Hannah Stoten), The EYFS butterfly and the storm in Year Seven.

 ‘The undeniable logic of this situation is that children with SEN and/or those who come from certain kinds of disadvantaged homes (where routine, rules, calm and language/literacy is in relatively short supply) are least likely to access and rehearse core knowledge during continuous provision, even if the TA and the teacher gently encourages them (remember, there are 30 children and over 1000 potential observations). So, for every unit of time, they are engaging with core knowledge less than their more advantaged, social and knowledgeable peers. We know that these at-risk groups of children need more practise and explicit instruction, yet they are receiving the least; they are already behind and they are developing at a slower pace. Despite what is said, these children do not catch up ‘when they are ready’, partly because they are not likely to choose to do what is hard any more than I am going to choose to go for a ten mile fell run in the rain. Further, it is mathematically impossible to catch up while learning at a slower rate than everyone else.’

Hannah Stoten and Stanovich both talk about gaps and what causes them. Stanovich explores research that shows large differences in reading emerging as early as five or six years of age. Results from tracking groups of children reveal that cycles of falling behind create gaps that continue to widen because they don’t get enough practise, books are often not matched to need and they lack the prerequisite decoding skills. This delays the onset of automaticity and fluency. ‘Slow, capacity draining word recognition processes require cognitive resources that should be allocated to higher level processes of text integration and comprehension.’ (LaBerge & Samuels 1974; Perfetti, 1985; Stanovich, 1980). 

These groups of children who begin school life ‘behind’ not only stay behind but fall further and further behind and they tend to read less as a result. This has a profound effect on vocabulary growth not just further exacerbating the ‘rich get richer’ or cumulative advantage but further embedding it. The latest EYFSP results show only 56.5% of pupils eligible for free school meals achieved a good level of development, compared to 74.3% of all other pupils. The disadvantage gap remains, especially in literacy and maths. The gap at this early stage is an important contributor to attainment gaps in later years.

What goes on in YR classrooms? 

In terms of what YR might look like to a casual observer, those that may not understand how learning can happen there; what might they see? Perhaps they may see one adult and thirty children because that is the minimum requirement. More likely, they will see two adults and up to thirty children per class. There may be two or three classes. That means up to ninety children and six adults. That’s an awful lot of work for the ‘third teacher’ (learning environment). What are our 20% (around 18-20 children) doing? In any given moment, we honestly may not know. We have to trust the ‘third teacher’ because we cannot spread the adults out thinly enough. Some settings have focus groups on a weekly rota. Adults work with focus children that week. As for the ‘second’ teacher (other children), they may be a source of misinformation as well as unreliable models. They should not be considered ‘teachers’! 

The resulting picture is one of uncertainty for those who are not in the focus groups during 80% of their time in class. Those children may or may not be learning anything of value. Many ‘opportunities’ to learn may be occurring: children’s fascinations and discoveries explored, their creative endeavours pursued, their physical needs challenged and their interactions with each other all contributing to a melting pot full of potential…..or maybe not.

One thing is clear, the carefully planned environments and ‘in the moment’ interactions will not teach the 20% how to decode or enable them to develop fluency in number.

That is not to say our 20% are not making progress. They have their turn with the adult and may choose to interact with other children. No doubt they are learning to love story time and perhaps they manage to stay focussed until the end of it. Who knows, they may be taking it all in. Expert practitioners questioning and interactions as well as children’s own contributions may tell us the extent of understanding and engagement. Perhaps the 20% didn’t enjoy school to start with, maybe the Lueven Scales indicate they are hitting the sweet spot of well-being and involvement.  Perhaps parents are telling us they love school and look forward to coming in each day into a setting where they feel safe, nurtured and have relationships with adults that help them to thrive. These are incredibly important elements and should be highly valued. But the 20% are still behind and falling further so with every passing year. It simply isn’t enough to rely on enabling environments when these children are without adult guidance. 

Reading as Core Purpose

Dr Steven Dykstra on Don Meichenbaum Trauma and Reading Dec 2019 (from CORE –Consortium on Reading Excellence in Education): ‘….More important than therapy, more important than social programs, more important than anything else. The research shows that the single most powerful predictor of their ability to overcome the trauma and survive their circumstances is the ability to read. If they can read, they have a chance to find success in school and overcome all those terrible things in their lives. If they can’t, school will only be another source of pain and failure. If they can read, they can benefit from therapy and everything else we may try to do for them. If they can’t read, all of that is a waste of time.’

Don Meichenbaum talks about a relatively small number of children; those who suffer acute trauma. But the core purpose of Reading applies to all children, especially those who are most vulnerable and we already know who they are when they come to us in Reception.

Fast forward

By the end of the school year our 70-80% are almost ready for year one. Maybe some of them have been ready for a while; most are thriving. Our 20% are not ready. We could endlessly find fault with the new curriculum and raised expectations. We could mention that most countries don’t even start school until seven – Emillio Reggio schools in Italy don’t begin reading instruction until then but Italian is a ‘transparent’ code and easier to learn than English. 

Rebecca Allen (Musings on Education Policy) ‘How an economist would decide the what, when and how of reception year’ Jan 2018, questioned the efficacy of teaching reading in reception year from the light-hearted perspective of a cost/benefit, economist. Contrary to her view that too much time is spent for not enough benefit on early reading and decoding, it is clearly the case that over the course of the year, decoding/encoding can be explicitly taught alongside everything else, benefitting the whole cohort. Given that the blog concedes adult child ratios are ‘sub-optimal’ too, this points to there being more mileage to be gained in explicit instruction as a time efficient method of teaching. 

We need to give the 20% as much of a fighting chance as we can and explicit instruction in twenty then thirty rising to forty plus minute sessions is extremely economic.

Once again- Reading

The Sector recommends:

Learning to read should take place once relevant skills such as phonological awareness, memory skills and vocabulary and oral comprehension are in place. There should be a single ELG for comprehension and decoding, to avoid undue emphasis being placed on reading at this stage, noting that the current ELG for literacy is already clearly pitched too high given the consistently lower scores achieved compared to other ELGs. Getting it right in the EYFS

Once more it seems, there is conflating of comprehension and decoding. In addition, and of relevance to our 20% lowest attainers, we note the prerequisites before any SSP can take place. Here is where the Matthew effect widens the gaps and this is at least partly why those gaps persist and widen further. It is almost as if that by giving decoding status or prominence, comprehension and story-telling might cease to exist. It doesn’t.

Add to this the sector’s recommendations that: Systematic phonics programmes can strengthen reading skills but simplified phonics programmes, teaching only the most consistent mappings plus frequent words by sight may be more effective in comparison with other phonics approaches for children who have poorer phonological awareness. Getting it right in the EYFS

They are recommending less knowledge for those who already have the least as well as throwing some sight vocabulary into the mix. In other words, poorer quality programmes for the 20%.

Seidenberg is clear about the value of being read to. He is also clear about how reading needs to be explicitly taught. Of course, those who come into school with an excellent vocabulary and knowledge of speech enter the world of reading at an advantage our 20% don’t have. But is this a reason to delay SSP? In the Nursery World article, Early years experts weigh up the revised ELGs, July 2018, Helen Moylett, commenting under the ‘Reading’ section stated that ‘Literacy grows out of Communication and Language, not the other way around.’  But if we recall Geary, speech is biologically primary and reading is biologically secondary learning. Seidenberg states that reading already lags behind speech from the start, so our 20% are at a double disadvantage. ‘Becoming literate is the scenario by which reading catches up with speech and then surpasses it.’ (Language at the Speed of Sight). 

So do we delay because our 20% are not ready? In much the same way that delaying the instruction of SSP to EAL learners does them a disservice, delaying SSP instruction for our 20% may ultimately ensure the gap increases incrementally through the year while we focus on teaching the children to communicate or manage executive function. It would make more sense to combine the focus of provision and manage communication and self-regulation at the same time as we teach children to read.

How do we do this?

Before diverting the EYs train into ‘explicit instruction’ territory I feel the need to stress all the good things that go on day in day out in EYFS settings everywhere. These should still of course be happening. However…..

  • Explicit instruction is just one tool in the EYs box but it needn’t be the hammer and it most certainly is not the bluntest or easiest of options. 
  • Explicit instruction should be utilised in appropriate ways (trust teacher judgement)
  • Play as a vehicle for learning is important for the Prime Areas in EYFS and there is more than enough evidence of this! It should also be celebrated and pursued as an end in itself 
  • Early Years teachers should have a good understanding of child development as should all teachers. They should also learn about Cognitive Science and be given opportunities to see how  explicit instruction can work in Reception Classes
  • Pedagogy (how) should not be conflated with Curriculum (what)

Reception Class is a transitional year with children in a cohort at times having as much as twelve months difference in age from the oldest September born children through to the August born ones. Obviously age is a factor. It doesn’t necessarily follow that children in a reception class cannot begin to engage, partake in and enjoy explicit instruction sessions. Some may need less time accessing them to start with. Rosenshine’s small steps apply just as much to how a session is paced as to the content of new and cumulative learning therein.

Once again, there are parts of the Reception Class curriculum that fit well inside an explicit instruction model. They are Systematic Synthetic Phonics (SSP) and Mental Maths or Number. For successful outcomes, the sessions need to become part of the routine of the reception class day. 

The SSP sessions would involve the teacher teaching from the front to whole classes or small groups. The children have a whiteboard and a pen. The teacher uses a variety of resources. These would include a whiteboard, a magnetic board and letters or phoneme cards. It’s as simple as that.

I am sure that my own explicit instruction sessions are not unique across the sector as a whole. I have always used a whole class approach from the word go. A recently completed Sounds-Write SSP course reaffirmed this method with the addition of scripted lessons. This made a lot of sense from the perspective of continuity and predictability lowering load. The Prime Areas are important here and groundwork has to be done for sessions to work effectively.

Paying attention and addressing cognitive inequality.

Teacher and psychology researcher, Mike Hobbiss, says we should view ‘paying attention’ as the outcome of instruction methods. Minimising distractions, maximising what children can focus on and learn about inside of a short carpet session as well as keeping the class together may have more of an effect than separating out those who learn less well while allowing a free-flow climate to prevail. 

In his piece ‘5 ways to support pupils with poor working memory’’ Mark Enser focuses on what can be done to mitigate poverty and its significant impact on cognitive development by reducing the load on working memory. He highlights “Understanding Working Memory” (Gathercole and Alloway 2007) and underlines routines, clear, small steps, scaffolding, practise (or over-learning) and keeping things simple by avoiding tangential digression

This lines up well with Rosenshine’s Principles.

How does this work for a phonics session?

  • Daily review – recap learning from previous session. A quick practise and an introduction of a new (if review is successful) SSC (sound/spelling correspondences)
  • Small steps – any new content is limited in quantity and builds on what has been learned in previous sessions 
  • Guided Practise- Skills (e.g. blending, segmenting) are modelled. Using the correct vocabulary becomes second nature with repetition. Word meanings or type might be briefly discussed later on in the learning sequence but digressions are generally avoided in early sessions.
  • Scaffolding- There is a system of scaffolding for learning based on limited SSCs ensuring high success rate. The teacher uses their discretion to ascertain how much or how little scaffolding is required at any given point in the cycle. Addressing general misconceptions is important here.
  • Independent practise- Children have a go- guided to start with, repetition and overlearning being key for confidence building and fluency. Opportunities to address individual misconceptions may present themselves here.
  • Repetition- The teacher monitors the children assessing in the moment and correcting mistakes. Making mistakes is a given and normalised as part of the learning process.
  • Aiming to end the session with a high percentage of success (around 80%). All children deserve to experience success. Small steps and over-learning make this possible. With high levels of success comes genuine praise which motivates all children. 

The importance of cognitive routines

Routines are vital to make the most of a twenty to thirty minute session. Cognitive routines are just as important as temporal and physical ones. The children need to internalise the steps required to decode and encode in order to release working memory to learn new material. The over-learning of these steps/routines are as important as over-learning the sound/spelling correspondences. Without attention, quality learning cannot take place.

In recent years, I have used some embodied cognition techniques to embed the phonemes and give the lessons a gestural/physical component. As confidence increases, the actions/gestures are dropped. By the time children reach the end of year 1, most children have dropped the actions altogether as they are no longer necessary to prompt or remind themselves of SSCs.

We encourage and use a finger hovering under letters. Children track the teacher’s finger and elongate sounds in order to blend them more easily. 

During the encoding part of the lesson, we use correct vocabulary and segment (mirrored) left to right on fingers. Children chant this together. As they gain confidence, this process may take place in their heads. Occasionally, we might use the action/gestures only. This encourages a playful ‘sounding in your head’ and a different quality of attention that requires internalising the steps of the decoding process. 

Attention is the bedrock and instructions are built into all the routines. Everything from where a whiteboard needs to be during the decoding section, to how you hold the whiteboard close to your chest during the encoding section, to waiting for three, two one before revealing answers together. Quite a lot of self-regulation is involved from beginning to end. It’s not everything that self-regulation is about but it’s a considerable expectation most children can easily rise to. 

The routines are built up slowly because understanding how a lesson works and how to learn from it is part of the cognitive routine. Teachers can then present domain knowledge in a way that can be remembered long term.

The lessons are inclusive, predictable, simple and repetitive. There is an inbuilt, proportionate challenge at every level and this is accessed via prior learning. 

The children enjoy the lessons. They know exactly what is coming and they are ready for it. They do not appear to be aware that the instruction sessions are affecting their ability to manage their focus and attention as well as their metacognition but it is not long before they are equipped to apply their learning and this foundational domain knowledge can be applied across the curriculum. Automaticity and fluency arise out of their efforts and achievements because they are built up with steady predictability. The explicit instruction sessions teach pupils effectively in less time and with less cost ultimately connecting more and more knowledge via other forms of provision such as play or group work. This overlap ensures it is as far away from passive learning as it’s possible to be. And the prize is continually reiterated as the most valuable of all; Reading is the prize. 

What of the lowest attaining children in the cohort?

‘When phrased in this way, the use of explicit instruction – however tightly defined – becomes one of efficacy, not ideology. For those children who are lower attaining, a structured route into knowledge seems a far surer bet than writing the map themselves.’ John Blake ‘Explicit and Direct Instruction’

Isn’t this what we all want?


Published by madeupteacher

Teacher/Runner/ Cyclist

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