How can deliberate practice reduce cognitive overload?

This week I have made my squash comeback… though as I stepped into the court, I realised it had been about 15 years since I had last played and it seemed I had forgotten quite a lot about how to actually play!

And so I had what was my most notable personal experience of cognitive overload, as I tried to remember and use the skills that I was once previously competent with.

I was struggling with serving, holding my racket and generally hitting the ball; I was thinking about how to hit the ball so much that if I did actually hit it, the relief and excitement was so much that I was then too distracted to move or run around the court in order to return it. And don’t even mention the scoring. I had no idea of the rules, somehow lost the ability to count to 9, and was clueless about which side of the court I was supposed to be serving  from when it was eventually my turn.

Then my teacher brain kicked in… I asked my partner to take care of keeping score and just telling me when it was my serve and where I should be standing. This relieved my cognitive load enough for me just to focus on the physical aspects of the game. I improved a little, but at the end of the game I still wasn’t hitting the ball or serving correctly, so we tried some deliberate practice.

Firstly, I watched my partner serve and we deconstructed the skills that were needed. He then watched me serve and helped me to identify the gaps: initially that I was swinging through with my whole arm, resulting in my racket impacting the ball, and losing all the power in the impact (and hurting my wrist). So we worked on this. Initially just moving my arm, then moving it with the racket, then finally with the racket and the ball.

Next we looked at the positioning of my feet – as my serves weren’t going where I had hoped. Once again, after a little practice, I saw improvement. Finally I worked on how I released the ball to serve. Again, a little practice and I could put these skills together for a fairly adequate service.

We finished the session there, but came back for a second game last night – I was keen to have another go before I forgot, in order to apply my skills in an actual game, and hey presto! It worked! I immediately picked up the racket and my motor memory kicked in… I was able to serve easily and it was automatic. I no longer had to think about it. This automaticity allowed me to focus on other aspects of the game, like strategy, and my placement on the court. I gradually took on board the rules, and was able to keep score – much to my partner’s relief, we actually had quite a decent match.

But this was the first time I can recall having encountered such overload that I struggled to manage it. As a teacher and reflective learner I had the metacognitive strategies to tackle the problem, by relieving cognitive load and using deliberate practice to master a core component that was holding me back. It was really quite enlightening to see the process from my own experience – I am conscious that my struggle was due to the fact that I am (after such a long break) a squash novice. But that this will be the experience of many children in my classroom.

I have written previously about using cognitive load theory in the classroom, but this has reiterated to me the importance of deliberate practice as a tool for reducing cognitive load, supporting learning, providing challenge, and facilitating mastery.

If you would like to read a bit more about cognitive load and deliberate practice in the classroom, take a look at my previous posts:

The Writing Rope: managing cognitive load, metacognition and developing effective writers

Deconstructing the teaching of Writing

How does Cognitive Load Theory Relate to the Teaching of Reading?


Deconstructing the teaching of Writing

I have been thinking this week that we may need to change our approach to the teaching of writing. In particular, considering how we can apply the principles that inform our teaching of mathematics for mastery, such as deliberate practice, variation theory, retrieval practice and interleaving. Where mathematics teaching has moved on significantly over recent years, the shift in how we teach the English curriculum has not been as noticeable. Yes, the content has become more focused on SPAG for sure, but how have we developed our teaching approaches in order for our pupils to truly master English?

When talking to colleagues about their English teaching, and their teaching of writing in particular, I find that English is being taught in discreet lessons: a grammar lesson here, a sentence-level lesson there,  a spelling lesson for 30 minutes before lunch, and a weekly extended writing session, as an example. My gut response to this is that learning intentions are not intended to be achieved, and nor should be required to be taught, in discreet 1 hour blocks (or 50 minutes, or 55 minutes or however long the school, timetable dictates)! In fact, there is much consensus that the individual lesson is not the best unit of time to be planning for. Rather, we need to plan English (and any other subject) with a much longer time frame in mind.

Planning a ‘learning journey’

I tend to plan my pupils’ learning journey by starting at the end of the journey and planning backwards from this point, carefully crafting a route from where children are currently, to the desired end-point. This may sound obvious and may be what most teachers believe they are doing. But by starting at the endpoint, I mean not only the objectives. I consider in detail what the writing outcome for this learning sequence will look like by drafting the piece of writing at the highest possible standard (most likely, this will form my model for modelled / shared writing later in the sequence anyway). I then deconstruct that piece of writing, in order to inform what I need to teach my pupils in order for them to be successful. My previous blog about The Writing Rope details the different aspects of writing that I consider:

  • Vocabulary: What vocabulary do I need to explicitly teach? What opportunities are there for chn to explore, discuss and generate vocabulary needed to enable them to make informed choices when writing? This includes considering different types of vocabulary choices (e.g. nouns, verbs, adjectives).
  • Spelling: What Common Exception or decodable words will they need to use and be able to spell? What morphological rules do they need to utilise? Are there words to explore in terms of etymology?
  • Punctuation: Are children confident in using the punctuation that will be required in this composition? Do they understand the purpose and why it is required?
  • Sentence level: What type of sentence construction is required? What grammatical structures or stylistic devices can be utilised? Are children competent in using these? Which should be a focus for teaching?
  • Grammar: Underpinning the above, which aspects of grammar do children need to be secure in to write at this standard?
  • Knowledge of text type: Do they know how to construct writing in this format? What features are required? Have they seen and deconstructed a range of examples?
  • Context: Do they know the subject they are going to write about? Wherever possible, I base writing on a rich text, rich experience or on wider curriculum topics which have been studied in depth.
  • Text structure and organisation: What is the best way for them to plan their ideas and the organisation of their writing? Does this need scaffolding? If so, how will I do this, and how will they use the scaffolding?

From this deconstruction I will develop a pathway, considering the teaching approaches that are required for each aspect. Some will require explicit teaching, others will be woven into the journey more discreetly. There will be many aspects that I will return to throughout the learning journey – drawing on the research behind retrieval practice, and these will not be revisited by chance, but planned purposefully into the sequence of lessons.

Achieving Mastery – Deliberate Practice

Similarly to mathematics, we need to plan opportunities for children to develop a deep understanding of English by taking time to explore the subject in detail; by allowing them to play with words, sentences and compositions through systematic, guided instruction or exploration, followed by opportunities to apply concepts in their writing more independently.

In her book ‘Making Good Progress’ (2016), Daisy Christodolou cites Dylan Wiliam in describing the models of progression used by sports coaches whereby rather than repeatedly rehearsing the end-performance, the coach selects particular aspects of that performance to focus upon and drill. The drill and performance are separate, but linked. The steps between them are the models of progression. This very much aligns with the concept of deconstructing the endpoint in writing, and then working backwards to practice and master the features in order to write at the highest possible standard.

The lesson is the wrong unit of time

Returning to this idea that the individual lesson is the wrong unit of time, by deconstructing the teaching of English, we can utilise lesson time much more effectively. Vocabulary work does not need to consume a whole lesson, but may form 10 minutes of a lesson prior to another task. That same lesson may involve some rich text analysis, followed by some rich sentence work. In another lesson, a teacher might do some extended writing followed by some work on spellings or vice versa. The following day vocabulary work may consume more of the lesson…

The amount of time spent on teaching an aspect of English should be decided according to the need. No longer do we need to follow a 3 part, 4 part or 5 part lesson, but instead teachers require a range of teaching strategies and approaches that they can draw upon in any sequence or order to provide the most coherent pathway through from the start to the endpoint… the craft is in the planning! A lesson therefore may have a number of learning intentions, a number of parts and may be fluid as teachers teach, assess and respond to their pupils.

The benefits of crafting the learning journey from the endpoint

Because children have the opportunity for retrieval throughout the learning journey, they are more secure on the knowledge and skills required for writing. When it comes to the point of writing, they can free up working memory to focus purely on composition, without having to spend too long ‘searching’ for the other knowledge or skills required.

Because each part of a lesson is building towards this known endpoint, learning time is more purposeful – less time is wasted. Every opportunity can be taken to reinforce learning – across lessons, subjects, and in the wider life of the classroom and school.

Because the teacher has a clear point that they need to ensure children reach, formative assessment is stronger – there are clear markers which need to be achieved, and if children are not reaching those markers, teachers know they have to respond in order for those children to achieve the end outcome.

The bigger picture

We also need to remember that a single learning sequence needs to fit into a much bigger picture. In fact, a school’s entire English (and ultimately entire) curriculum needs to be planned with as much thought and cohesion. I’ve written a little about curriculum here. In English we need to ensure children are revisiting their learning at regular intervals, applying concepts across different contexts and moving towards increasing independence.

I have a lot more to think about on this subject, and in particular, I’m thinking at the moment about what will help our pupils achieve mastery with sentence-level grammar and composition and how best to ensure a rich diet, with lots of opportunities for practice and consolidation. I will keep you posted…

blue and purple color pencils
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How can Performance Management support teacher development effectively?



When Performance-Related Pay (PRP) was introduced in 2014, there was general consensus from unions that it wouldn’t work. Since then, there have been continued arguments that PRP has been damaging to the profession: increasing workload, and contributing to teacher retention issues. Discussions with colleagues, and twitter threads suggest that too often, teacher perception of PRP and Performance Management is highly negative: that leaders either use it to ‘manage’ teachers out of a role; or that it is a box-ticking exercise – something that is done to a teacher, and a process that is not always valued by either the teacher or leaders. Of course, this is not always the case – there will indeed be many schools where Performance Management works well… as the 31st of October deadline approaches, I’m thinking about what has worked well for me in the past and advice I would give to help make this process (that we’re stuck with) work for everyone.

So here goes…

Firstly, Performance Management (PM)  has to be interwoven with a school’s approach to developing its teachers. The PM meetings are an ongoing part of the CPD cycle –  a chance to reflect, plan and review. Nothing at any meeting should be a surprise, nor should it be necessary for the teacher to supply a portfolio of evidence (I truly hope that no school still does this, but who knows?). The evidence base for discussions should be formed from the professional dialogue that has taken place throughout the cycle: dialogue surrounding formal teaching and learning evaluations (lesson observations, book scrutinies, pupil progress) alongside the less formal dialogue (coaching, mentoring, staffroom and corridor chats). At the core of these discussions there must be a culture of professional trust, and a shared and collective respect for professional learning. These learning conversations are not about accountability, but about teacher development.

When setting objectives, we need to agree objectives that are going to work for everyone. These objectives need to enable teachers to flourish. They need to be well-informed: they should be accurately matched to the teacher’s and the school’s development needs. They should be things that were going to happen anyway – because they are the things that are being worked on presently. The implication here is, that the Performance Reviewer therefore needs to have be astutely aware of these needs, and must be equally invested in achieving the desired outcomes. Perhaps all too often, Performance Management Reviewers are allocated without considering this. Ensuring the quality of the reviewer must surely be a key factor for schools in ensuring this process works. The relationship between reviewer and reviewee should mirror that of mentor / mentee: the teacher needs ownership of their objectives, and their professional development, but with the guidance and support of an expert mentor.

How do we set effective objectives? 

The objectives themselves should naturally develop from the ongoing dialogue of professional learning that takes in the school on both a whole school and individual level. I generally tend to select three of the following to focus on when agreeing objectives with a teacher:

PM objectives

Oh… and sorry, but I just have to shout this at  the top of my voice: PLEASE DON’T SET DATA OBJECTIVES!!!!! Yes, you may want to believe that this makes the objective measurable, but there are just way too many factors that are outside of the control of individual teachers here to put that on them. Putting such high stakes accountability onto teacher assessment is only going to distort the teacher assessment and result in ‘iffy’ data that doesn’t help teachers or pupils. If you set data targets, you are going to end up with skewed data. That’s all. Just ask James Pembroke.

My final plea in making Performance Management more effective is that schools take an approach that is research-informed. Whether that be through incorporating research-informed approaches into the CPD that teachers receive, into the objectives themselves, or through an action research project. I can’t emphasise enough how much impact using action research can have on teacher development and whole school improvement. My personal anecdote here is when we asked every teacher as part of their performance management to engage in action research on inclusion. Initially, we had identified inclusion as a key area of our school improvement plan, and it frequently came up as a CPD request from teachers. The difficulty was, that teachers all had different experiences of inclusion, and their pupils all had different needs, so finding a one-size-fits-all approach to inclusion CPD was a non-starter. By facilitating action research projects, teachers were able to develop their own research questions, which we then supported through allocation of time and resources (teachers could request money for books, courses, classroom resources, or visits to other classrooms or different settings). We launched with a ‘how to’ event to guide teachers through the process of undertaking research, and culminated with a dissemination event 8 months later. The dissemination event was just wonderful – with such a high-degree of staff engagement, the sharing of expertise learnt meant that it was a great CPD opportunity for all, and the high-profiling of teachers as experts in their research area was ongoing, lasting long-beyond the 2 hour dissemination session… ideas are still discussed and used in classrooms years later. Most importantly, teachers had agency, were supported in developing their pedagogy, and it made a difference to their pupils.

And that is the essence of effective teacher development.


The Writing Rope: managing cognitive load, metacognition and developing effective writers

I recently wrote a blog about cognitive load and reading, utilising Scarborough’s ‘Reading Rope’ to consider how we can scaffold and teach reading skills more effectively.

Since then, I have been thinking about how those ideas could apply to writing and have a few thoughts on this to share.

When writing, just like in reading, our pupils are juggling many different skills – initially we could define these as ‘composition’ and ‘transcription’ as the national curriculum (2014) does. In reality, teachers know that these two aspects are also multi-faceted:

Writing Rope


When composing writing, children must take into account their knowledge of the form / text type; they must draw upon their vocabulary, ensuring appropriate and precise word choice; they must compose each sentence individually, considering syntax and grammar for effect and meaning; and they must be able to organise their ideas for purpose, clarity, cohesion and effect.


In addition to this, writers must manage the secretarial aspects of writing: spelling, punctuation and handwriting, again underpinned by the common thread of grammar. As teachers we need to aim for automaticity when it comes to transcription: if children are able to manage the physical aspects of writing;  instantly recall and apply spelling patterns and phonic knowledge; and have a secure understanding of punctuation (including concept of a sentence) and the grammatical structure of language; then they will not need to actively think of these aspects, freeing  working memory to focus on composition.

Scaffolding Transcription

Just as we can for the different aspects of reading, teachers need to explicitly teach, model and provide opportunities for pupils to practise each aspect of composition and transcription independently and interdependently.

Importantly, we need to support children in managing cognitive load when writing, by providing scaffolding where appropriate, for example, with transcriptional skills:

  • using visuals or mnemonics, aswell as resources such as phonic mats, grapheme charts, spelling records or displays to support spelling.
  • oral rehearsal of sentences, ‘kung fu’ punctuation, cut up sentence strips, picture strips, repetitive sentences or writing frames to enhance children’s awareness of punctuation.

It is important that we do not misunderstand the use of visual, auditory and kinaesthetic support here – the theory of learning styles has been largely debunked however there is substantial evidence that tells us that visual, auditory and kinaesthetic cues support the encoding of information into the long term memory, and will support retrieval when that information is required in future.

In my own teaching, I have found it vital that these transcriptional skills are taught and practised both discreetly (in discreet SPAG-focussed lessons or as a discreet part of the main  English lesson) and that I also teach and model to children how to apply these transcriptional skills within the context of compositional writing. I teach and model often, with whole class, groups and individuals where feedback is required on the processes of applying transcriptional skills, gradually shifting the onus onto the children to take the greater responsibility for this aspect of their learning, supporting metacognition.

The gradual release model explains how we can gradually move towards independence – and with enough practise, automaticity:


Image source:

Scaffolding Composition

In the early stages of writing, we scaffold children’s ideas so that they can focus on their transcription skills (for example, we may give them a picture to write about, or model writing as part of rich play experiences). It is likely that we will initially scaffold transcriptional skills too (as outlined above) but hope that children will require less scaffolding for transcription as they progress into KS2 (though of course some children will need support with transcription so KS2 teachers need to have the expertise to support this).

As children begin to write more cohesive pieces, we need to scaffold composition in a more focused manner. If we ‘teach to the top’ we can scaffold those who need it by teaching, modelling and scaffolding:

Knowledge of form

Ensuring children have an in-depth awareness of the form of writing – looking at real-life examples to analyse the features, sharing good examples written by others, modelling through shared writing, guiding writing for those who need it, or providing a structure which they can follow.

Word choice

My aim is always to create a classroom climate where children are curious about words, where we play with them, test them out, discuss word choice as part of shared reading and writing, magpie words for our word wall or make a note in our reading records/journals of vocabulary that we want to capture. Teaching children how to choose words for effect through analysis of texts, or specific vocabulary focused sentence-building activities prior to writing and then modelling or reminding children  to refer back to this when writing will support those who need it. Remembering as a teacher, that some will need to be shown how we select and utilise vocabulary within the process of writing, as not all will do so automatically.

Sentence structure

Sentence structure is often not taught as explicitly as other aspects of composition. All I’m going to do here is point to Alan Peat’s sentence types, Kilgallon‘s sentences, and Pie Corbett’s Jump Start Grammar  and say: explicitly teach different sentence types; then model, practise and apply these repeatedly – analyse texts for sentence types when reading, analyse one another’s writing for sentence types, and discuss the effect of different sentence structures when reading and writing. Not only do effective writers think about their choice of words, but how they structure these words into effective sentences. By encouraging them to imitate, innovate and then invent their own sentences we can scaffold and support this process. And for those who really don’t know how to begin their writing, providing one or two key sentence starters they can draw upon will give them the support they need.

Developing, organising and sequencing ideas

Before children begin writing, they need to have a strong knowledge of the subject they are going to be writing about. It is helpful then to set purposeful writing tasks linked to texts or topics children have already studied in some detail and developing their ideas and understanding before and throughout their writing journey.

Planning before writing is key, and though some may be able to do this independently, SO many children would benefit from more guidance and structure when planning. Too often teachers (myself included!) stick to comic strips or story mountains to support children in planning writing, but there are SO MANY more ways we can help children structure their work: again analysis of existing texts is a starting point. In addition to this, structure strips or picture strips are great if a child needs support on sequencing ideas. Again, a mention for Pie Corbett’s talk for writing – a whole lot more than pictorial storymapping – ‘Talk for Writing across the curriculum’ has some great ideas for scaffolding non-fiction writing too. Finally, I cannot recommend enough using mindmaps and organisers to scaffold writing – some examples in use here.

Editing, redrafting, refining

This final phase of writing can become a bit rushed for some – squeezed into a plenary session before playtime, or at the beginning of the next lesson. Alternatively, we might dedicate whole lessons to this following a mammoth marking session and pages of written feedback and notes on children’s books. It’s great to hear so many teachers using whole class feedback, which has a role here in making this final phase more manageable and effective. The key for me is to narrow the focus of editing, redrafting and refining – teaching children explicitly how to edit for spelling, vocabulary, cohesiveness or whatever it is they need to do. Again teaching, modelling and returning to these often supports metacognition and a move towards doing these things independently as reflective learners. Some fab resources: visualisers (a must in any classroom – I don’t have one for the first time this year and it’s made this much harder!); editing stations / editing dice / prompts. It’s also important to separate editing and revising (redrafting and refining). Editing typically refers to the transcriptional skills, whilst revising focuses on improving the effectiveness of the writing which will often require a greater amount of discussion and thought.


I could write so much more on this, but I will save that for another time. For now I will finish with these final points:

There are multiple skills that we have to ‘juggle’ when writing. We therefore need to support children to manage cognitive load when writing, and we can do this in a number of ways:

  1. Specific, targeted, focused teaching; support; scaffolding; and practise of transcriptional skills so that children become fluent and develop automaticity.
  2. Scaffolding of compositional skills, taught discreetly and practised often, across different contexts.
  3. Using scaffolding to support metacognitive processes so that children know how to select, use and check how effective their own writing is.

In order for children to develop and improve their writing we need to be specific about how they go about doing that. This means teaching skills explicitly, independently and allowing them to focus on the aspects they need to improve.

Teachers need to plan carefully in order to scaffold these multiple aspects of writing throughout the whole learning journey. When planning an English unit of work, I plan through three phases which may last anything between 2-6 weeks. These phases may be distinct from one another; may be planned and taught concurrently; or I may repeat the process many times within a unit:

Three Phases of writing


However we go about teaching writing, we need to make sure we, as teachers, are aware of every aspect of transcription and composition and to ensure we communicate these explicitly (and repeatedly) to our pupils, so they are able to make conscious choices about how they approach their writing, in order to write effectively.

For more on self-regulation and metacognition, take a look at the EEF report here.

Can cognitive science help us make sense of assessment?

In 2018, cognitive science has been a hot topic on EduTwitter and huge numbers of teachers are using the insights of Dylan Wiliam, Clare Sealy and others to inform their classroom practice.

And of course I have done this myself. But as a leader I am conscious that current educational research and theory around the science of learning needs to be embedded in a whole-school approach: leaders need to reflect on what this means for school systems, and in particular, we need to develop our school curriculum and assessment systems with cognitive science in mind. Below I consider three key points from cognitive science and their implications when developing curriculum and assessment in schools:

1. Cognitive science tells us that we cannot directly observe learning – we can only infer learning from observable behaviour.

It is generally agreed that learning is characterised by a relatively permanent change in the long-term memory, however this change cannot be physically observed. Instead, we tend to measure learning by observing what an individual may be capable of doing following the learning episode and subsequently inferring that learning has taken place.

We can attempt to make this measurable by giving comparable tasks prior to and following instruction, and observing how an individual’s performance changes between the two points. This is typically how much testing in schools works – however we must recognise that this is measuring performance, not learning and that there may be many other factors affecting that performance.

Implications: Schools need to consider whether more frequent, low-stakes testing can provide a better picture of learning over time, minimising the effect of any temporary fluctuations in performance. 


2. Cognitive science tells us that there is a pivotal point when learning takes place.

If learning represents a change in long-term memory, the point of learning is the point at which information is decoded into the long-term memory and can be retrieved as and when required for future utilisation. The process of recall is as significant as the process of decoding. In order to retrieve information in a manner that is effective, our neural pathways must be strong. To be able to retrieve that information quickly requires practice. Learners may be able to retrieve that information quickly on the day they first learn it, but they must be able to retrieve it 3 days later, a week later, a month later and so on. There is increasing research on retrieval practice that suggests learning happens best when we are reminded of it almost at the point of forgetting. It is at this point that our retrieval pathways are strengthened and more permanent changes are made.

Implications: When designing our curriculum, it is absolutely imperative that we plan opportunities for practice and retrieval. This has implications for teachers not only when planning sequences of work, but also in medium and long term planning. We must take every opportunity to revisit learning within and across year groups and subjects. Our school assessment systems must be based on our curriculum and the extent to which learners are meeting the curricular expectations we set. Thus, planned opportunities for assessing pupils’ learning need to be intertwined with our curriculum planning. 

3. Cognitive science differentiates between learning (a verb) and knowledge (noun).

Learning as a verb indicates the learner as actively participating in a process. We do not know that this process has been truly effective until we can be confident that there has been a change in long term memory – this physical change of learned knowledge / understanding being a noun.

Implications: As leaders we must recognise that we can go into lessons and observe learning as a verb, but will not know whether this learning was effective until much later in time, when we can make inferences about whether learning (as a long term change to the memory) has taken place. 

We can also use this distinction to clarify our position on assessment: assessment for learning (as a verb) is how teachers refine the processes and strategies that support that process – that is, making sure children are keeping up with what is being taught; it is this day to day assessment that informs teaching and that teachers do exceptionally well. This must be separated from summative assessment: the type of assessment that assesses whether a child has remembered this learning or knowledge (noun) at a later point in time. 

The science of learning is still quite a mystery, but there is considerable research that supports the assertions above as reasonable theories that are reflected in the experiences of many learners and their teachers. Assessment is one of the most inconsistent and confusing terms in education, and leaders need to unravel what it is we actually mean when talking about assessment in schools. We need to separate teaching from summative assessment – however of course, with Teacher Assessment used as the basis of assessment and accountability systems throughout the primary system (with the exception of Y6) this is incredibly difficult. Instead, my reflections have led me to suggest two points:

Firsty, let’s trust teachers knowledge of their pupils enough so that all we need to ask of them is for them to identify who is or is not keeping up with the curriculum; where individuals are exceeding expectations; and where and how intervention is needed.

Secondly, let’s utilise our curriculum, alongside retrieval practice and low-stakes testing to check that children are able to remember and utilise what they have learnt and to ensure that our schools are places that make a real difference to pupils in the long-term.

Finally, let’s base our assessment systems on scientific theory and research, rather than trying to create complicated or burdensome assessment systems based on fear of accountability.

Further reading

I have not used any direct references in this blog, but I have undboubtedly been informed by some regular reading from some great blogs and reference points which I can highly recommend:

Clare Sealy’s blog: and twitter feed @ClareSealy

James Pembroke’s blog and twitter feed @jpembroke

Dylan Wiliam – on Twitter @dylanwiliam and in audio via @MrBartonMaths podcast

and Daisy Christodolou’s book ‘Making Good Progress’

The importance of morphological awareness for reading and spelling

This week I delivered my first ever lesson in Year Six. My focus was spelling and so I started the lesson by checking they were confident with the vocabulary I would be using, initially: phoneme, grapheme and morpheme.

I gave the class 3 minutes to explain the meaning of these words to their partner, and give examples. There were three further words to define if finished: digraph, trigraph and split digraph.

Tumbleweed. The children sat in stunned silence looking at the words, unsure how to start. I gave them a few clues:

  • look at the meaning of the parts of the word
  • think about ‘phone’ what other words have you seen that in? What does it mean?

Eventually they got talking. Suggestions that phoneme were something to do with sound, graphemes were about graphs and trigraph must mean three graphs, split digraphs were broken graphs and morpheme was a drug given to cure pain. Sure they weren’t accurate (or anywhere near the ball park on the most part) but at least they were talking about language. I then gave them some examples of words and graphemes and from these examples, they were able to deduce a bit more about what I was talking about.

The thing is… had I have asked my Year Twos the same questions, their answers would have been spot on. This was why I was here teaching these Year Six children: because I am accutely aware of the importance of progression, and that we really must make sure we build upon previous learning as children progress throughout the school. These children had simply forgotten their previous KS1 learning, which had they been reminded, would have supported them as they developed their knowledge in KS2.


Teaching Morphology and Expanding Vocabulary

Morpheme (noun) 

Definition: The smallest unit of meaning in a word.

Our teaching of morphemes begins in Reception, where children are learning to read and write single morpheme words (sun, cat, dog, chip). As children progress to Year One, their reading vocabulary grows; by the end of Year One they are expected to read some polysyllabic words, which might include compound words (laptop, sunshine), and as they come across these words teachers divide them into parts to support the reading process. These parts may be syllables, or may be morphemes. It is in Year One that we introduce our first suffixes: I usually begin with the suffix -s.

We teach the root word then we add the suffix and explore how the meaning of the word has changed as a result:


So adding the suffix -s tells us that there is more than one apple.

When exploring morphology, I find that reading and spelling go hand in hand: I tend to initially teach a word in the context of a text, either as part of my vocabulary pre-teaching, or post-reading we will return to the text to re-read and analyse the vocabulary used and what it tells us. I will display the root word, ensure children can read this, and know the meaning, then show the word with the suffix and discuss how the word has changed. If this is the first time we have come across this suffix, I will then give the children the opportunity to play with the suffix a little – we will explore adding it to other words, and of course any rules that we need to consider.

Most importantly, I will return to this often in my teaching – in whole class reading I will encourage children to identify words with suffixes as we come across them: I will expect them to tell me the root word, identify the suffix, and explain how that has affected the meaning of the word in the context of the text. To quote one of my Year One pupils when talking about the Golden Goose in Jack and the Beanstalk ‘it says eggs… that means the goose laid more than one! They’ll be SO rich!’ We can see that this pupil has used their knowledge of suffixes to support their comprehension and inference of the text.

Furthermore, I will return to this regularly in writing activities – when modelling writing or undertaking shared writing I model strategies for spelling words with suffixes: I ask children to spell the root word, then we add the suffix, identify why the suffix is needed, and the children tell me any rules (it ends in ‘sh’ and has another syllable so we need to add -es). Because I know retrieval is so important, we’ll also drop in words with known suffixes or prefixes into spelling practice on a regular basis.


This approach can work in KS2 as well as it does in KS1, and is vital for comprehension as children tackle increasingly complex texts.

What is important however, is that teachers do not only focus on those aspects that they teach in their own year group, but they also have an excellent awareness of what is taught in previous year groups so that children have continued opportunity to practice, explore and explain their understanding of an increasingly wide range of words and their parts.

When attempting to create an awareness of progression in morphology, we can look to the national curriculum to see when and how we teach suffixes and prefixes as a starting point:

suffixes by year group


An approach to spelling using morphology

My main aim working with Year Six this week was to encourage them to break words into morphemes to help with their spelling. This strategy works as well with Year Two as it does with Year Six.

  1. When attempting to spell a word, first identify the root word.
  2. Use knowledge of graphemes to select the appropriate spelling for the root word (see below)
  3. Spell the root word, then add any affixes using known rules.

e.g. for spelling words disobeyed, happily, toughest

Root words and suffixes

This simplifies the process of spelling as once they know the suffix rules, children only really have to think about how to spell the root word.

For this I encourage them to use the 123 approach if unsure. For this, children to refer to a spelling chart (here is mine if you wish to use it please do), and try up to three different versions of the word, using their knowledge of the spelling system to select the most likely choices. E.g.when spelling obey there are 8 different graphemes for the phoneme /ai/ however only two of these would be used at the end of a word /ay/ or /ey/

  1. obay
  2. obey
  3.  there are no more likely graphemes

Breaking the spelling into the root word simplifies the choices available. If a child was unable to identify the individual morphemes, they may have ultimately believed there were many more options for spelling disobeyed:

  1. dissobade
  2. disobaid
  3. dissobaid

…and may never have found the correct spelling for the word.

The idea is that the children spell the word, and then check it as a reader

The word ‘toughest’ featured in the 2017 spelling paper, and I saw a number of errors where a better awareness of morphology would have helped (tufist, tuffist, tuficed to list but a few examples). Again, if the child were able to break the word into morphemes, they would have recognised the root word as tough, and the suffix -est used to create the superlative. To spell tough they may have required a few attempts but would have unlikely tried to spell it as ‘tuf’ – as readers they would know straight away this would be incorrect, and may have tried something like:

  1. tuff
  2. touph
  3. tough

As a reader, the child could have then quickly identified the correct spelling of the word, and added the suffix.


Creating a model of progression

In order for teaching and learning to be effective, our teachers need an excellent understanding of progression which is separate to their knowledge of the national curriculum for their year group. This is why it is so important for schools to develop our own curriculum with clear models of progression identified, alongside CPD which can support teachers in developing specific and expert subject knowledge in their fields.

As I’ve already said, what is important is that we use this awareness of progression and ensure that we identify regular opportunities for children to consolidate and master those affixes taught in previous year groups.

Like many schools we have a vague curriculum for teaching spelling, based on what the requirements are for each year group. I think there is some work to be done here, and I’m going to begin looking at how we teach spelling, and what progression in spelling looks like for children at my school, but this needs to go deeper than spelling lists for year groups.

When teaching spelling, we need to consider models of progression in:

  • phoneme-grapheme correspondences (our teaching of phonics)
  • morphology (the units of meaning in words – this includes, but is not limited to root words, suffixes, prefixes)
  • etymology (the origins of words, and how their meanings have developed over time).
  • the strategies we use to support independence in spelling, so that we have a clear route to ensure our children leave primary school as confident, independent spellers.

Although I was initially thinking about spelling, of course we can see that each of these is also related to reading, and so need to be reflected in our reading curriculum.

Not only this, but there is also an opportunity to look to our schools’ wider curriculum and how we provide opportunities to teach morphological awareness through rich texts, and by ensuring vocabulary is taught and explored throughout the core and foundation subjects too.

Creating this model of progression is my next project. It looks like a big one!

I’ll share my findings when I’m done…

Can the new Reception baseline be an effective progress measure?

This week (during school holidays for many – when most important DfE info seems to be released) we were informed that the NFER had been selected as the provider of the new Reception baseline test. The idea being that children are tested on entry to Reception, and then again at the end of primary and that this will provide a progress measure which will then be published and compared with other primary schools.

The BIG news here though, was that this progress measure would not be published for first, middle or junior schools. Gasp!

I just cannot quite work out what I think of this announcement. On one hand, it is right that infant, junior and middle schools are not held accountable for the data of pupils who spent half of their time in another school entirely. I previously worked in an infant school and would not have been happy to have been judged on the work of colleagues in the school across the playground where I had no say, no impact and actually no idea whatsoever about what was going on for the pupils who had moved into their care. On the other hand, how can the progress data from schools be comparable when there are thousands of schools that would not be able to be compared? Even if the data is not designed to be comparable, it will undoubtedly be used as such. And to what extent would this distort the data?

My other reservations relate to the reliability of the baseline as a progress measure and its use for accountability purposes. In particular, it’s the assumptions that are often made about what such a measure implies – in it’s most basic, that a pupil who is average / below / above at baseline, will be average / below / above at the end of KS2. That there is a causal correlation between the two points, and that any improvements made (i.e. a move from below average to average would be the indicative of great teaching and ‘better than expected’ progress). Now… am aware that this is way too simplistic, and that there is no causal correlation, simply a correlation, nor can we say with any great certainty that the great teaching at any school was the factor that made the difference. I understand that this is simply a method of comparing groups of pupils against how other pupils have improved and progressed on a national level. And this is fine. The difficulty I see is that in our high stakes accountability system, that these conclusions will be drawn, possibly without seeing greater context.

In those years of a child’s life between the age of 4 and 11, there are SO many wider factors that will affect their attainment and progress. National initiatives, government changes, school staffing and leadership, not to mention the social, emotional and life experiences of the pupils themselves!

I think the DfE recognise this, and their Response to the Consultation on Primary Assessment clearly states that the information from the baseline:

‘would not be used to judge, label, or track individual pupil progress, to set targets for them to reach,to ‘predict’ the key stage 2 results of individual pupils, or assume that they make linear progress.’

However, this does not mean that school’s and leaders will not do this, and THAT is what worries me most about the Reception baseline.

Progress continues to be inextricably linked with primary school accountability. In 2027 we will have a progress measure which will be published and which (some) schools will be held accountable for. So many of these schools will undoubtedly brace themselves for this. They will attempt to measure children’s progress from their starting points in order to reassure and justify their positions. Those in infant, junior and middle schools will seek out different ways of measuring progress so that they can prove their worth. And our assessment system will continue to be flawed.

There was one other part of the DfE assessment consultation response that struck a chord with me: the section on the EYFSP and how confused schools were about the purpose of the EYFSP, ‘with many believing it is an accountability measure for schools’ which apparently is incorrect! I can only talk from personal experience, but as an infant school, our end of EYFS data was certainly used as an accountability measure by the local authority and by Ofsted when they visited. And always with a focus on progress in literacy and maths, without much of a nod to the prime areas which we felt were hugely significant (I blog here about the importance of GLD).

The consultation proposes to do more to ensure the EYFSP is a low-stakes formative assessment, but whilst any data is made public, or sought by other professionals, it will always continue to be an accountability measure.

There is so much more I could write on this subject, but my parting thought is to reflect back upon the original principles behind Assessment Without Levels, and that as a profession these are what we must re-establish and fight for. Building our assessment system on accountability and fear does not put our children and their learning at the heart of what we do. And this of course is the purpose and point of it all…