Category Archives: Memory

The Science of Learning

A group of American independent school headteachers have summarised what teachers ought to know about how children learn and the practical implications of this in the classroom.

The summary can be found here.



#MathsCPDChat on times tables strategies

Pre-reading: Strategies for learning, remembering and understanding the times tables. Some additional thoughts for starting out teaching the times tables with year 2s onwards, prompted by a #MathsCPDChat These are the things I think are important for mastery of the tables (most of which, I suspect our primary colleagues are doing): 1. Begin with manipulatives…

Penn Wood Professional Development – Language acquisition and reading comprehension

The York Reading for Meaning Project (Snowling, 2010) compared three interventions with a control to determine their effectiveness in developing reading comprehension. The interventions were led by teaching assistants and lasted for 20 weeks, each week comprising of three 30 minute sessions. The three interventions were:

  • An oral language comprehension programme
  • A text comprehension programme
  • A combined oral and text comprehension programme

Their findings showed significant gains in reading comprehension scores for each intervention compared to the control group. Interestingly, the most effective intervention was not the text comprehension programme, but the oral language comprehension programme, which also resulted in greater gains in reading comprehension scores than the combined programme. These gains were still evident 11 months after the interventions ended.

With such an impact, it makes sense to attempt to turn this effective intervention by TAs into part of our day to day teaching. Perhaps we can adapt the programme to see even greater and longer lasting gains in language acquisition and reading comprehension if the ideas were embedded in our English lessons.

SVRHirsch reading

The simple view of reading identifies the importance of decoding and language comprehension in tandem to master reading for meaning. Hirsch would add to this the importance of domain knowledge, without which a reader would not make rapid connections between new and previously learned material. As such, explicitly teaching the general knowledge required to understand a text can support comprehension significantly. Of course, the challenge to this idea is that we can’t teach children the entirety of general knowledge. However, selecting great texts which reflect a variety of general knowledge schemas gives children the opportunity to develop key chunks of general knowledge on which further domain knowledge can be built through listening and reading.

Using great texts to teach language acquisition and reading comprehension is a perfect place to start. Once these texts have been selected, the first thing that teachers need to do is consider the following question:

                Which words, phrases or concepts are children likely to find difficult to understand?

Jean Gross, in Time to Talk talks of three tiers of vocabulary. Tier 1 vocabulary includes words and concepts that children will come across first when they begin to communicate. Tier 2 vocabulary includes language that children will be able to understand the concept of and that is tricky yet functional. These words could be used in a number of contexts. Finally, tier 3 vocabulary includes language that is domain specific and only used in a small number of contexts.

When we’re looking at the bits of a text that children are likely to find difficult to understand, we’d need to be looking for those tier 2 words within a text. For children learning English as an additional language and for children in the early years, we’d also need to explicitly teach tier 1 vocabulary. Usually, these would be common nouns, verbs and concepts and these guidelines from Stories for Talking by Rebecca Bergmann are helpful when selecting them:


  • High frequency
  • Functional
  • Related to the story being studied
  • Related by topic
  • Feature around the classroom or school
  • Easily supported with concrete objects


  • High frequency
  • Functional
  • Relate to the chosen nouns
  • Easy to act out


  • High Frequency
  • Functional
  • Relate to the chosen nouns
  • Most visually represented or repeated in the story
  • Can be studied as a pair (big/little)
  • Can be experienced practically around the classroom

Once that language has been identified, teachers can introduce it to children. By introducing it before children listen to or read a text, we can go some way to guarding against cognitive overload. Also, by increasing the number of interactions with this vocabulary, and by spacing those interactions, we increase the likelihood of long term retention of those ideas. Having said that, language is best learned in context so defining words for children will not suffice. The image below is an example of how language is introduced from the York Reading for Meaning Project programme materials:


This works well because the images provide contexts in which the word is used. The variety of images and contexts helps children to make connections between ideas. A slight amendment that includes the Talk for Writing approach would be to include the sentence from the text that the word is in.


Children will not internalise this language after one interaction with it. Children need to think hard about the meaning and application of the vocabulary over time if it is to be assimilated. The following question types come from Bringing Words to Life by Beck, McKeown and Kucan.

Aggressive 2

Where children have to differentiate between two scenarios, such as in the Example or non-example?’ question, the quality of the question comes from the two scenarios being minimally different and rooted in misconceptions about a word’s meaning.  With a set of questions like this for a number of focus words across a unit of work, children’s practice of thinking about and using language can be spaced over time in a variety  of contexts, giving children a great chance of adding permanently to their vocabulary.

Oral and text comprehension

By understanding the typical difficulties that struggling readers experience, we can plan to address those issues with some carefully panned practice. If we then consider the implications from the York Reading for Meaning Project, that the materials from both the oral and text comprehension can have such an impact on reading comprehension, then we can provide great lessons.

Developing Language Acquisition and Reading Comprehension at Penn Wood outlines those difficulties and what might be done. The York Reading for Meaning Project found that oral comprehension work is more effective than a text comprehension or a combined oral and text comprehension programme when measured using reading comprehension tests. All of the suggestions for addressing the profile of the struggling reader could be applied through reading a story but also through listening to one. Talk for Writing provides a great opportunity for this as children internalise and retell stories using text maps. Oral comprehension work can quite easily be introduced at the point of retelling. With the opportunity presented, the next step is to find ways of making oral language development work in the classroom on a day to day basis.

Maths Marking and Feedback Decisions

This post is a record of the CPD session from Spring 2014 where we worked on our maths feedback.


These are the principles behind the decisions that we make about the type of feedback that we give. Marking should not be a time consuming chore so any decision that we make about how we give feedback needs to consider the impact for the time and effort that we invest.

Bright Spots

In this example from Year 1, the teacher, seeing that the child was successful with the given task, has written a more challenging question where the position of the empty box has changed. Any written work would have been a waste, as the child will have found reading and understanding difficult. Clearly, there has been some communication between child and teacher to explain the twist – that an inverse operation is needed.

In this example from Year 3, you can clearly see that the teacher’s explanation and modelling has led to the child understanding the calculation strategy well. A simply written, short question here probes understanding further and encourages links to be made.

This Year 4 example shows a couple of strategies. First, the teacher has reminded the child of how to approach the problem, which resulted in the child able to correct their initial mistake. Second, the teacher asked the child to clarify the calculation needed, which led to the child being able to sort the information in the problem and then solve it.

Here in Year 5, the child originally made mistake. The teacher helped the child to focus on the important bit of the problem, which enabled them to successfully correct the mistake.

In this Year 6 example, the child identified the calculation needed but made a mistake calculating. The teacher, though, knew that the child may not have understood the nature of the problem so the bar model was drawn to help the teacher explain the problem. Also, the teacher clearly intervened in terms of prompting a calculation method that enabled the child to correct the original mistake.

Mark the process or mark the answer?

This photo is from a child’s book in Year 2. The child has calculated accurately but the strategy that they used was particularly inefficient. In this case, that inefficiency definitely needs to be the focus of the feedback. This is important because we show what we value by doing this – that understanding is more important that simply getting questions right.

They got everything right!

Getting everything right can mean a number of things. It could mean that there was a lack of challenge; that it was pitched too low. Of course, there is also the case the child couldn’t do it before, had a clear explanation and understood it quickly. Knowing the situation determines the feedback. We also need to acknowledge another situation where children get it all right. Over learning something until they can do it with minimal thinking is an important part of mastery. In the example above, the child had already been shown how to divide using short division, but the purpose of the practice was to stave off forgetting. It was a situation where the teacher should expect that there’d be very few mistakes. There was only a few questions and this would have been repeated, spaced out over time to aid the transfer to long term memory.


The feedback still needs to be considered carefully though. There are a couple of choices. The feedback could focus on pushing further, perhaps introducing trickier numbers. Alternatively, the feedback could centre on the expectation that this is remembered, that the child should practise at home and that in a week or so, they can be as successful.

Making decisions when marking

So to aid the decisions that are necessary when considering the appropriate feedback, these decision trees are provided. One is for basic practice tasks, and one is for problem solving tasks.

What followed was some deliberate practice of this decision making. Teachers worked in year teams to decide on appropriate feedback, using some unmarked work that they brought with them.

To continue to ensure that our feedback in maths books is effective, it is important that we discuss and question the possibilities, so that those decisions can be made with increasing efficiency.

Further reading

Suspense: a Talk for Writing unit (Phase 2: Innovation)

This post follows on from the first in this three-part series which talks through a successful Talk for Writing unit.

Following on from the imitation work of reading as a reader activities and then reading as a writer during toolkit construction (all explained here), we then began to create save-it boxes – banks of sentences which would be drawn upon in innovation sessions. After teachers had picked specific parts of the toolkit on which to focus, children looked through other texts and ‘magpied’, innovated and invented their own sentences which could be used during writing. Save it boxes generated collaboratively by the teacher and the class were then displayed on the working wall whilst children also had ideas saved in their literacy books, ready for writing.

Save it boxesinnovation save it boxes chn

After working on Writers’ Toolkits and save-it boxes as well as all of the sentence work that had been completed throughout the unit thus far, children were well prepared to innovate. During this unit, we used post-it notes to plan our innovated writing. Simply placing post-it notes with our new ideas over the original text map ensured sentence structures were maintained – the key to innovation. Children then created their own ‘post-it note plan’ ready for writing their version of the story. Teachers ensured that the different sentence types on which we had focused were explicitly modelled and picked from our banks of ideas on the working wall.

post it note plan teacher

Each day during the innovation and invention phases we included short bursts of grammar or sentence work, usually as a ‘Jumpstart’ activity (a quick starter to a lesson). In the main, these were based on elements of their writing from the previous day that we had identified as needing focused work.

Grammar throughout writing

Having planned their writing in detail using the scaffold of the original text map, children then wrote a number of paragraphs per day. In this suspense unit, children wrote two lots of three paragraphs. During shared writing sessions, teachers made explicit reference to the Writers’ toolkit, modelling the writer’s thought processes by talking aloud the intention behind the various language choices made. We modelled from both the long and short versions of the focus text.

shared writing innovation Innovated writing

During every writing session, children related their analysis of their own work back to the toolkit – to the intended effect on the reader. In the image above, the class have been encouraged to self assess by identifying a particularly successful section of their story and to then explain how they wanted to make the reader feel at this point in their writing. As with shared writing, this meta-cognitive process requires clear modelling and explanation by the teacher. However, after their immersion in the suspense genre, their reading as a writer work and their subsequent internalisation of the Writers’ Toolkit, children were well prepared to relate their analysis of their own writing back to the intended effect. As well as highlighting a successful section of their story, children were also encouraged to identify a sentence or two which they felt could be made even better. After careful modelling of this process by the teacher, children would then have a second attempt at this part of their writing.

To give the children the opportunity to write an entire text in a single lesson we then planned a second innovation, changing the setting of the story. Writing was planned in the same way using post-it notes. Again, teachers and children made intentional use of the different sentence types we had worked on both in this unit and previous ones. Therefore, although children were sticking to the general structure of the text, they dropped in extra sentences where appropriate and effective. In their second innovation, many children were confident enough to move further away from the focus text, which in turn prepared them well for inventing.

Whole text innovation

Suspense: a Talk for Writing unit (Phase 1: imitation)

Our recent Talk for Writing unit on suspense in Year 6 has been the most successful of the year. A number of factors have contributed to this: children internalised the text well and this happened early in the unit; we focused heavily on sentence accuracy, ensuring that there was daily opportunity for children to practise writing accurately; children internalised and were able to recall the writers’ toolkit and therefore it was used well by all in the writing phases. This series of three posts will be an overview of what our Talk for Writing unit looked like, including snapshots from planning, our working walls and children’s work.

To begin with, we assessed the children’s writing within the genre of suspense. Children were given a context and we had a class discussion about content so that they were well prepared to write. Image, video and sound were used to create an atmosphere and immerse them in the genre. This writing provided us with an overview of children’s individual writing needs within the genre whilst also highlighting any general needs across the class and year group which could then be planned for.

Pre assessment imagepre assessment

We prepared children for reading the focus text by exploring the context of the story and by introducing and discussing any unfamiliar vocabulary that they would encounter. Image and video are used regularly at this stage to ensure children have a grasp of difficult concepts. This vocabulary was then used to create a set of speed words for the unit. Speed words were practised daily as part of the warm up for each imitation lesson. Children working on a shorter version of the text had a differentiated version of the speed words, based on the vocabulary in their story. After daily practice, it  means that decoding and word comprehension are not a barrier to reading, even for children working below expectations.

Vocab speed words

Once children had a sound understanding of the vocabulary they would encounter, the differentiated versions of the focus text were then introduced. Most of the class worked on the main version, whilst children whose reading and writing levels are below expectation and those who struggle to write accurately, worked on the shortened and simplified version of the text. We then introduced the text map as soon as possible. Children experienced daily rehearsal of sentences and paragraphs from the text. The class teacher’s role here is key – we modelled reading behaviours such as re-reading and ‘going over bits’ in order to perfect retelling. We focused on the intended effect of our suspense text throughout our daily retelling – in this case ‘to make the reader think something bad will happen’. Knowing the intended effect at this stage helped both teachers and children when we came to creating writers’ toolkits later in the imitation phase.

Focus texts Text map

We used work on adverbials as a bridge between reading the text and understanding (being able to answer comprehension questions about it). Most children annotated the text identifying the type of adverbial being used by the writer to give more information about the verb:

adverbial annotate chn

Children who would find the writing need of this too challenging completed a colour coding alternative.

To follow the work on adverbials, children completed sentence work which focused on innovating adverbials in a sentence. This not only prepared them for the next phase of innovation but also provided us with valuable time to work on sentence accuracy. Following the structure of sentences from the focus text by innovating early in the unit contributed towards their internalisation of a variety of grammatical structures.

Innovate adverbials

Children then completed AF2 questions about the focus text. Those working beyond age-related expectations worked on a mixture of AF2 and AF3 questions. Having completed the bridging activity on adverbials, children were well prepared for success in this activity.


As children are immersed in oral rehearsal of the text, work on ‘talking the text’ is valuable. In this unit of work, children annotated with codes we generated together on how best to read the text aloud. Like our daily retelling of the text,  focusing on the intended effect in this activity – making the reader think something bad is going to happen – was crucial. This is what a child’s work from this activity looked like:

talking the text chn

Alongside retelling, once children had a good grasp of the text, they would also ‘quick write’ it. This involved them writing 1-2 paragraphs accurately per day using the picture prompts from the text map. Children working on the shortened version of the text would ‘quick write’ in this structure:

Quick write

Here , sentences have been structured so that they are seperate and therefore easier to follow. 

During the imitation phase, quick activities focusing on grammar were dropped into lessons. These were usually based on children’s needs which either came to light during their pre-assessment or during their daily sentence work. Activities are either jumpstarts (quick activities at the beginning of lessons) or dedicated lessons focusing on new grammatical concepts.

grammar jumpstarts

After picking out and selecting various sentence types for our focus text, part of the imitation phase involved deconstructing, discussing, modelling and practising these, in preparation for writing. Children and teachers created save-it boxes of sentences which could then be drawn upon during innovation and invention.

Sentence work sentence work chn

As well as introducing new sentence types, we also dropped in short activities which revised old sentence types so that children were building a repertoire of tools for their writing. Revision of previously covered sentence structures were all within the context of the new unit and the new story.

Towards the end of the imitation phase, we collaboratively created writers’ toolkits. Teachers modelled identifying and analysing how the writers of suspense texts had achieved the intended effect. Children then worked in small groups to continue this with other extracts of text. This activity ensures that children are exposed to and talk about what good writers do and how to achieve similar effects in their writing. For children who wouldn’t be able to access this work and who still need to work on accuracy in writing, we devised activities such as this:

Toolkit BE

Here, children were exposed to the language of the toolkit that the rest of the class were constructing, but were also taking part in activities which met their needs as writers.

For the next couple of days and throughout writing phases, we practised recalling the toolkit because in order for children to write well, they need to be able to remember how to achieve certain effects. We blanked out the main wording of the toolkit, leaving only a short prompt. It was then covered with a sentence which shows the effect in action. For example ‘describe a sudden noise’ is covered with ‘A door banged’.  Daily practice recalling the toolkit ensured that it was internalised, just like the focus text.

Recall toolkit

The next two posts will describe the key moments from the innovation and invention phases.

Hassan’s internal number line

Hassan is a wonderful boy. He’s polite and has a great group of friends. But Hassan started Year 6 working significantly below his peers. His school history is of sustained underachievement with very little progress. He did not have an internalised number line with which to think about numbers, to the point where he could not reliably say which number out of two was biggest.


This post is an account of an intervention carried out by Amy Coyne. It is one of the most successful interventions I have seen and has resulted in vast improvements in Hassan’s ability to think about numbers. Here’s what happened:

These number cards were prepared: 53, 67, 54, 35, 76, 45

Two of the cards were presented to Hassan and, with the use of Numicon or dienes blocks or arrow cards, Amy modelled explaining which was the bigger number. Hassan picked this up fairly quickly, but to help him to retain this procedural knowledge, it was repeated little and often over the course of a few days.

A third card was added and Amy again modelled, using appropriate concrete equipment, how to order them. When he could consistently order three numbers, a further card was added until he could deal with ordering six cards. Using those six cards, Amy made seven different sequences:

53, 67, 54, 35, 76, 45

67, 35, 76, 54, 53, 45

76, 35, 67, 53, 45, 54

45, 53, 35, 76, 67, 54

54, 45, 76, 53, 35, 67

53, 54, 35, 76, 45, 67

45, 76, 54, 67, 53, 35

The cards were presented to Hassan in these orders, one set at a time, and Hassan was asked to order them. At first, with this slight change in task, he would place the numbers in fairly random order for each sequence. After completing each sequence, Amy ordered them with him, using concrete models when necessary. When Hassan was asked to read out the order, if he was incorrect, he often didn’t notice. However, when the sequence was read aloud to him, he could hear the error and would correct it.

This was repeated over several days for short periods of time. Sometimes this was in maths lessons and at other times it was not. The seven different sequences would be laid out in a straight line and he would pull the cards out and order them. As the days progressed, he could very quickly pick out card 35 and put it furthest left and also card 76 and put that furthest right – the smallest and greatest numbers. However the other cards in between were never placed consistently in order.

After a week of doing these sequences once or twice a day, he could order every sequence in the correct order. A new set of numbers was introduced: 12, 27, 45, 54, 59, 72

Hassan was very good at picking out the biggest and smallest numbers. The numbers in between were still more difficult for him. Amy modelled looking at the tens and units columns and this prompted him to order them correctly.

The cards were then mixed up, with more numbers being added one at a time to see if he could order them again. His confidence was growing and once he was happy with the order he had put them in, he was asked to read the numbers out to see if he could spot any errors himself. He often did and corrected them without Amy needing to intervene.

After a few days starting with six or more cards, he could reliably order them correctly every time. Next, some three digit numbers were added to make twelve cards overall. He was quickly able to deal with this progression. He was then given cards with multiples of ten to see if he could slot them into the correct places. He struggled a little with cards 10 and 20 but he placed multiples of ten more than twenty in the right places every time. If he needed to, he referred to a tape measure to check.

Once he was confident in ordering these numbers and could do it correctly every time, two numbers from the sequence were chosen. He was asked: ‘What are the smallest and biggest numbers that could go in the gap?’ This proved to be quite tricky for him and he would often say the number before the smallest card. This took him around a minute to process each time, and many answers were guesses. Amy modelled looking at a tape measure to find the two numbers (53 & 59). He then could see, using the tape, which numbers would come after 53 and before 59, and therefore the biggest and smallest that could go in the gap.

From here, Hassan is now working on adding and subtracting one digit numbers and multiples of ten from numbers in his card sets, with increasing success. Soon, the goal is that he can add and subtract any two digit number from any other.

Why this intervention worked, when other have failed

Spacing and interleaving

Regular short sessions, interspersed with other topics in maths lessons, with varied lengths of time in between those sessions has given Hassan time to internalise patterns of numbers and procedural knowledge for dealing with them.

Building knowledge of the number system

The more he practised recalling facts about numbers and procedures for how to think about them, the more successful he became. Each nugget of internalised knowledge enabled further memory development until he had internalised the basic number system.

Deliberate practice to mastery

The moment that Hassan understood and was successful did not signal the end of the intervention. It will continue until he never makes a mistake, even when tasks are altered.

Making links between ideas

Any new concepts were introduced alongside concepts that Hassan was familiar with.

Detailed dialogue between teacher and teaching assistant

Using video and observing ‘live’, the Amy and I talked about the nuances of the decisions that Hassan made to tweak tasks and feedback. This precise tailoring resulted in explanations, tasks and feedback which were accurately matched to Hassan’s needs.

This intervention was put in place because Hassan was working significantly below his peers at number. It was clear that he had not internalised a number line at the beginning of the year, but this shows that he now has. He will need more practice to cement his understanding but the progress that he has made has been good. We did not work on this with him for a week before the Christmas holiday. He had just over two weeks off school over Christmas and when he returned to school after the holiday, he could still deal with the number tasks accurately. Next, we are looking to see if the results are replicable with other children.

Details about the child have been changed to preserve anonymity.