Christmas comes but once a year…. at the end of a very long and tiring term!

 

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I have noticed many posts, on Facebook recently, asking for recommendations for a Christmas play and the merits of different productions.   I have taught early years for over 20 years and never realised how many different productions there are available.  One thing that doesn’t surprise however is  how much preparation and time these performances take at the end of a long and very busy term.

The first term of the school year is such a long one what with settling in, baseline, the first parents evening, shorter days, Christmas cards and the Christmas performance to produce. And that’s just the teachers!  How exhausting is this for the children?

I experienced this in the run up to my first Christmas performance, as a newly qualified reception teacher.  It was a ‘bought’ performance and I was in charge of the choir, which was quite large as there were too few parts for our 90 reception children.  It took weeks and weeks to learn the songs, and dances, and for children to know when and where they had to enter, and exit, the stage.  Some of the children couldn’t see why they had to stop what they were doing, to keep singing the same songs and I have to say it was the most depressing thing I had ever been involved in!   I was frustrated by having to stop children, who were highly involved in their play, to troop down to the hall to sing the same songs again and again.  By the time of the performance, the children and I were completely fed up with the whole thing.

At this point in the year the vast majority of children are still only 4 years old. They will be used, hopefully, to having time to lead their own learning and follow their interests  and may find it confusing to have their days then broken up for rehearsals and singing practice, particularly if this is done en masse.

In addition, there are always some children that need to be re-settled, after the October half term break and there are usually a good number, in each cohort, who are not developmentally ready to sit for extended periods of rehearsal time as they need opportunities to be outside, to use their whole body to explore, experiment and learn through doing!

If I thought the first year was bad enough, the following year we were told that Reception and Year One had to do an Easter production together – with 180 children!  That put paid to the whole first half of the spring term.  Thank goodness that was never repeated!

I dont know anyone who has attended a Christmas play however who hasn’t thoroughly enjoyed it, particularly when, given the age of the children, it all goes invariably wrong as this just adds to the fun!   I must admit I completely get the ‘aaahhh’ factor, having attended the performances of my children, and grandchildren, over the years, in addition to the many I have produced.

But what are the children gaining from their involvement in the production and is it worth it in terms of time and effort?  Is there enough of a benefit for the loss of independent learning time over the half term?

THE NEED FOR AN ARTS CURRICULUM

There are widespread concerns about how the arts are being sidelined, due to a narrowing of the curriculum, with teachers under pressure to prioritise maths and literacy in order to improve outcomes.  Yet there are many benefits to participation in the performing arts, even for young children, such as developing confidence and the excitement of performing in front of an audience, learning the lyrics and melodies to the songs, developing listening skills when following stage directions, collaboration, with everyone is working towards a shared goal, and a sense of pride and achievement in the end result.

It is a fallacy that focusing only on reading, writing and maths will produce better results. Schools that have embedded the arts within the curriculum, such as Feversham Primary Academy, in Bradford, have seen the positive impact that this has had on attainment in other subjects too.  If we are to have a broad and balanced curriculum then it is vitally important that we make sure that children have access to the arts as, after all, this is where some of them will shine!

But, with limited curriculum time it is important that this is used wisely.  My granddaughter, who is in Year One, came home last week with the Autumn 2 curriculum map. Every music lesson, up to Christmas, has been blocked out for the children to learn the Nativity songs which to my mind raises a few issues. One, the amount of time allocated to learning these songs, as I’m quite sure that by the time of the performance she will be as fed up singing them as we are listening, and two,  I wonder what elements of the music curriculum will she be missing out on during this time?

WHY A NATIVITY PLAY?

After my first two awful experiences of full scale productions,  I was determined to do a performance that was simple to produce, involved many of the children as possible and kept true to the Nativity story, as I think that the true meaning of Christmas is often lost in commercialism and think it benefits the children to know the origins of this special time of year, as most children think its all about Father Christmas!

In addition, not so long ago, the traditional nativity play was dying out, as many schools, replaced this with a ‘winter festival’ so not to offend those who observe other religions.

Over 75% of the children at my school had English as an additional language.  We celebrated most religious festivals, as these were pertinent to our children.  This allowed for the sharing of experiences and beliefs, enabling the children to talk about their similarities and differences.  Over all these years, I have only ever had one parent ask for her child to be excluded on religious grounds.

QUICK AND SIMPLE BUT EFFECTIVE 

I felt I needed a balance, between producing a great performance without too much disruption to children’s independent learning, so I adapted a Christmas play that nursery had performed at my previous school.  It was so simple, took little time away from play,  fulfilled the expectations of the school, produced the ‘aaaah’ factor for families and friends and, more importantly, enabled all children to participate, develop a love of performing and have FUN!

I produced this nativity for many years, on a stage and off, with cohorts ranging from 50 to 90 and kept it fresh by changing some songs each year whilst keeping the format the same.   I varied the number of characters to accommodate the number of children in the cohort.  The story is told by a narrator, who has many lines, but this makes it very adaptable as these can either be read by an adult or by lots of different children.

I found organisation was key to ensure that we weren’t stopping and starting throughout the day and only needed a few whole class rehearsals towards the end.   Costumes were sourced and labelled at the beginning of the process so they were ready to use the following year.

We sang the songs at the end of each day, accompanied by song clips from You Tube, for some but often played the songs throughout the day too, as there were many that enjoyed singing and dancing along to them.

The number of characters with speaking parts were few but there were a core group of children who had to move around on stage and so needed a bit more rehearsal time.  These were taken to the hall at the end of the morning, as the others tidied up and had a story, so it didn’t interrupt our day.  Narrators were given the lines to take home to practice with parents.

All in all it took only 2 weeks, from start to finish, to produce this play, and it only  interrupted our routine in the last few days before the performance, so that by the time we got to the dress rehearsal, which we performed for KS1 and 2, the children were really excited and raring to go.

In order to make links to the story (and performance) back in the classroom,  I cut out and laminated some pictures of the characters then attached them to cotton reels, along with other resources so children could create their own story map.  That way they could all have a speaking part as they took the roles of the different characters and could often be heard saying their lines to one another.

Once the performances were complete we left out the costumes so that children could continue to re-enact the story should they wish.  This was really popular and provided us with some great observations of child initiated performances.

OUT WITH THE OLD – IN WITH THE NEW

It seems, from looking at social media, that practitioners often look for something new to perform rather than rely on that which is tried and tested however I found that, despite the story and structure remaining the same each year,  each new cohort brought with them new personalities with different strengths and abilities so every year we produced something unique.

Should you be of the same mind and want the benefits of a performance without the weeks and weeks of preparation then you can find my Nativity play here.    I have provided stage directions, character lists, song lyrics and you tube clips to ensure that you have to do as little as possible.  I just hope you enjoy this as much as I did.

I believe that all practitioners do their best for the children in their care, whether this be a full blown or very simple production but I do think that we need to take time to reflect on what we are doing, why and who is it for.    Is it for the children’s benefit, at the behest of leadership or to please parents.  Maybe it’s all three.  Either way evaluation and reflection is key to our role as educators and worthwhile thinking about in the run up to Christmas.

 

Process V Product – which is best?

Process V Product – which is best?

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Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Pexels.com

I have recently read a wonderful article by Dr Gai Lindsey on the need for educators to value the work of children and not reduce creativity to a factory line existence churning out multiple copies of the same thing.   There are so many examples on Pinterest, of cards and pictures made from children’s handprints which, whilst they are cute, involve little learning, are adult directed, remove children from their play and are created by means of a production line.

Happy Halloween

Happy Halloween

 

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With Halloween fast approaching here are some great ideas for HALLOWEEN FUN!

Halloween wouldn’t be Halloween without pumpkin carving, the scarier the better! Child friendly carving sets mean that even young children can participate in this activity and, if carving proves too much for them, they can scoop out the flesh which makes for a great sensory experience.  Put the flesh in a tuff tray and encourage them to pick out the seeds with tweezers.

What is the point of the phonics screening check?

photo of a boy reading book
Photo by mentatdgt on Pexels.com

What is the point of the Phonics Screening check?

THE introduction of the Phonics Screening Check (PSC) in 2012 was introduced as a ‘light-touch screening to identify pupils in need of additional support in the classroom’. In reality, it ranks highly in the accountability stakes and brings with it the expectation of an ever increasing pass rate, regardless of the needs of each cohort.  

The publication, in December 2017, of the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS 2016)  saw England move from 10th (in 2011) to 8th place (in 2016). This led schools minister, Nick Gibb, to praise the government, linking the improvement in the ratings directly to their mandatory policy on synthetic phonics as the only method of teaching reading. He stated that “Today’s results put the success of our increased emphasis on phonics and continued focus on raising education standards on a global scale.  Our rise through the global rankings is even more commendable because it has been driven by an increase in the number of low-performing pupils reading well.” 

He omitted to mention the fact however, that England still lagged behind the ratings of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, both of whom have different literacy policies. 

Is it as good as it seems? 

In June 2015, the final report from the Evaluation of the Phonics Screening Check (2012-2015) was published.  This was undertaken by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), and was commissioned by the DfE.   It found that, although there was an improvement in attainment in the PSC, over the 3 years, there was no evidence that the test impacted on wider literacy performance or progress.

Over two thirds of literacy co-ordinators felt the check didn’t provide them with any information they hadn’t already gleaned from their own assessments and concerns were raised by some teachers, about the teaching of pseudo words and having to ‘teach to the test.’

The government however appeared to take no notice of these findings and pressures on schools increased.  The report stated that  ‘…accountability has moved down the school, with Reception teachers more mindful of their role in phonics teaching since the introduction of the check in Year 1; one school also referred to an increased focus on phase 1 phonics in Nursery.’   Unfortunately, I have very recently read posts, on early years Facebook forums, from nursery practitioners stating that they now teach phase 2 phonics, almost from the beginning of the year. 

It appears the government doesn’t want to engage in a discussion about the relative merits of the phonics screening check as, during the Primary Assessment Consultation in 2017, there were no questions relating to the impact or future of the PSC, instead there was just a reference to it remaining a statutory assessment.  

In addition, so pleased were they with the ever increasing pass rate, the phonics screening check was being advocated abroad, as the way forward in improving literacy.  Following this Margaret M Clark OBE, a visiting professor at Newman University and Emeritus Professor at the University of Birmingham, decided to create an independent survey of the PSC, and sought views from head teachers, teachers and parents, via an anonymous survey on Survey Monkey.  The Phonics Screening Check 2012- 2017: An Independent Enquiry into the views of Head Teachers, Teachers and Parents

She states in the report,  “I was aware that the lack of evidence of the views of teachers might lead politicians to assume they fully subscribed to the policy and to the statutory check. However, I was also conscious that many teachers were reluctant, even fearful, to speak out in opposition to the policy, even to express their concerns about the effects, intended and unintended, of this “high stakes” assessment of children at six-years-of-age, not only on those who failed, but even on children who passed.”

What do schools say?

Responses were garnered from 180 Head Teachers, 1,108 teachers and 295 parents. They were asked a number of questions in relation to their experience of the implementation and impact of the screening at school, at home and on the children taking the test.

The report revealed the many concerns held by schools. Concerns about the check itself and the effect it is having on teaching, pupils and the wider literacy curriculum.  It found that:

  •  89% of head teachers and 94% of teachers felt that the PSC doesn’t provide any additional information than that already gathered from schools’ own assessments 
  • 80% of teachers and head teachers felt that pseudo words were not useful. Many responses reported pseudo words causing confusion as children tried to make sense of them e.g. misreading strom for storm. This was also backed up by parents views. 
  • 64% of headteachers and 74% of teachers felt it wasn’t useful to re-test those who failed the test in Year 1
  • Only 16% of head teachers and 12% of teachers thought that the PSC should remain statutory.
  • Only 6% of headteachers and  10% of teachers agreed with government policy that synthetic phonics is the only way to teach reading in England. There was also a difference in views held, dependent of length of service, with more experienced teachers being more likely to disagree with the PSC remaining statutory.   The report states that “Many recently qualified teachers in England may not have been alerted to the controversial nature of some of the evidence cited by the government as Teacher Education programmes may be dominated by a focus on synthetic phonics to enable them to meet Ofsted requirements.”

 Many teachers also stated that:

  • it had negatively affected their teaching practice. 
  • they had concerns about children’s stress levels during the implementation of the PSC – nearly 63% said they had observed some children being affected

Many teachers were vocal in their dislike of test.   ‘Better readers try to turn alien words into similar words that they know are real. To prevent this from happening, children have to be ‘trained’ in how the test works. This time would be better spent teaching them actual reading skills.’  

Parents views

Responses from parents were also negative, in fact there were only two that were positive, with the general consensus being:

 ‘…it had a negative impact [on] reading for enjoyment’.

‘it made her reading slow and stilted for a while because she was told to sound everything out. She did not need to.’

The majority of parents surveyed weren’t in favour of the PSC continuing for all children.  60% said that their children could already read and write words prior to the implementation of the PSC and some parents felt that the use of pseudo words were confusing.

Has the PSC impacted on the wider literacy curriculum?

Responses from parents and teachers indicated that too much time is spent teaching children to read words that make no sense (and serve no purpose other than to pass a test).  This, as a result, is limiting time for teaching the wider set of skills needed for children to become well-rounded, confident readers.  

As one teacher commented, ‘We teach to the test. It’s depressing and goes against everything most teachers want to deliver. Reading should be for pleasure, for learning and for life. Subjecting 5-year olds to ‘failure’ at reading is just crazy. All any good teacher needs to know is where their children are showing gaps in knowledge or understanding of phonics. Teaching children phonics every day for a year and listening to children read gives teachers far more information than this check could ever produce.’

The PSC is purely an indication of a child’s ability to decode single words. It does not assess their reading ability or their understanding of what is being read.  The very fact that there is no transfer of skills across to the wider literacy curriculum just makes a mockery of the governments assertion that synthetic phonics is the only way to teach reading.  Were this check to have any real benefit on raising standards then surely the impact would be felt across the board? 

Education Secretary Damien Hinds, spoke recently about the number of children starting school unable to ‘communicate in full sentences’. He went on to say that ‘This matters, because when you’re behind from the start you rarely catch up. Your peers don’t wait, the gap just widens. This has a huge impact on social mobility.”   However, unless the PSC is discontinued, the gap is likely to widen even more as the teaching of literacy is under threat, as explained by one teacher who wrote,  ‘Because we have to concentrate so much on ‘phonics’, reading for meaning, language development, vocabulary all suffer.’   

In addition, the pressure placed on schools to increase the yearly pass rate, means that many nursery teachers are being told to introduce developmentally inappropriate practices earlier and earlier each year.  58% of Nursery teachers surveyed, even grouped children by ability despite there being no evidence that this improves practice.

Implications for the future  

So far the government seem committed to continuing with the PSC and synthetic phonics as the only method of teaching reading.  In fact, the report reveals,  so committed were they to this endeavour that they even considered extending the check into year 3, for children who failed the test in year 2!  Fortunately, Nick Gibb said this will not be implemented but the reasons why are unclear, as the report (of a pilot in 300 schools by NFER) was never published. 

Given the amount of information surrounding the implementation and impact of the PSC since it’s conception,  Clark (and Glazzard) have advised that government policy should be seriously reconsidered and suggested the following (p 44-45):

  • either discontinuing the PSC or making it voluntary and more of a formative assessment tool 
  • the removal of pseudo words
  • reconsidering using the percentage pass mark as a measure of school improvement
  • implementing a range of strategies for the teaching of reading, rather than rely on just one approach in schools and as referenced in the teachers standards
  • ensuring that all stakeholders are involved in discussions about the future of the PSC and the use of synthetic phonics as the only method of teaching children to read

I have witnessed the amount of time spent teaching children to decode pseudo words and experienced the frustration and futility felt by teachers doing this. I have seen children, who are independent readers and read for pleasure,  being given discrete lessons in decoding nonsense words as they try to make sense of them and so get them wrong.

Surely a better way to assess reading is through reading books?   This will provide not only evidence for children’s ability to decode but more importantly, provide information on their level of comprehension and demonstrate their abilities to infer, deduce and predict.  Isn’t this what  ‘the simple view of reading’ (The Rose Report 2006) was advocating?

We can only hope that the government stops being so intransigent and listens to the views of head teachers, teachers and parents, in order to ensure that children are taught to read effectively but more importantly develop a love of reading that will continue throughout their lives. 

 

 

 

 

 

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