Published on: 15 Mar 2018

Confidence, enjoyment and allowing children to make mistakes – three themes from our Primary Literacy Conference

By Lucy Hadfield, Commissioning Editor, GL Assessment

Our Primary Literacy Conference was held last Friday at the British Library, and we were thrilled to have such a fantastic line-up of speakers. Our delegates were able to learn from the knowledge and experiences of Anne Teravainen, Research Manager at the National Literacy Trust, Abigail Steel, Education Consultant and Author at Blackberry Education, Rhona Stainthorp, Professor of Education at the University of Reading, and Donna Nelson, Vice Principal, SENCO and English Lead at St Joseph’s Catholic Academy in Stoke on Trent.

Each talk was very useful in its own way with some focusing on research to provide an overview on current reading and spelling trends and others taking a more practical approach with useful tips on classroom practice.

Anne Teravainen spoke about the research the National Literacy Trust has recently conducted on the close relationship between reading skills and reading for pleasure. And there’s positive news here – reading enjoyment levels are currently at the highest ever recorded. A child who reads often for pleasure will have almost certainly have better reading skills, a wider vocabulary and as a result will be more confident and able to express themselves more clearly in all of their subjects. 

Rhona Stainthorp highlighted another important research finding: a longitudinal study of the relationship between early language found that vocabulary at age 2 predicts reading comprehension at ages 9 and 12. We therefore need to actively teach vocabulary – it can’t be incidental.

A topic that was discussed a number of times throughout the day was interventions, particularly ensuring that the right ones are being used and that they are having the desired effect. It is so important to make sure that an intervention isn’t too difficult or too easy and that it is actually helping the child to make progress. One way that this could be achieved is with ongoing formative assessment to check if the intervention is working.

Educational consultant Abigail Steel gave a memorable example of a pupil who was being given a digital literacy intervention that appeared to be working well. The child was content and engaged with the activity but following a closer look, her teachers realised that this was because she was enjoying the game-like aspects of the intervention and was having fun as she was able to answer all of the questions easily. This intervention was, in fact, far too easy and wasn’t the right one for her.  She wasn’t being stretched enough and was capable of far more. As Abigail rightly pointed out, “Raised expectations are so important for struggling learners; we should have no glass ceilings on attainment and lots of exposure to challenge.”

Abigail also encouraged teachers to notice when a child makes small improvements to help build their confidence – for example, commenting positively when a pupil has written the letter F in a particularly interesting way. This will make them feel that their attempts are being noticed and will encourage them to continue trying.

In her presentation, Donna Nelson also spoke about interventions and emphasised the importance of encouraging good spelling but that teachers should not put too much pressure on children to spell a word correctly. Children mustn’t be so afraid of spelling a word incorrectly that they won’t even attempt to try and write that word unless they are absolutely sure they can spell it correctly. This can affect their confidence and hinder their writing progress as they will be scared of trying more adventurous, interesting vocabulary.

At St Joseph’s, pupils are taught that making spelling mistakes sometimes is fine and the important thing is that you keep trying to get it right rather than to get frustrated when you can’t spell a word correctly straight away. Donna told us the story of one of her pupils who was very nervous about making mistakes and who wanted to please her teachers so badly. With lots of reassurance that we all make spelling mistakes sometimes and that this is all part of the learning process, her confidence has grown and she has made a lot of progress.

The Primary Literacy Conference left many of us feeling inspired and encouraged by all of the different stories and information that our speakers chose to share with us. If a child is having difficulties with literacy, it has an effect on their performance and confidence in all subjects; therefore it is incredibly important to ensure that the most effective intervention strategies are being used.

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