6 reasons to bring mastery to primary English

Getting to grips with mastery doesn’t have to be hard work – far from it. School improvement adviser and NACE associate Sarah Carpenter outlines a simple but effective use of mastery to improve primary English provision for all learners, including the most able…

While teachers and schools are at different points in the maths mastery journey, it’s now fairly clear what that looks like and what’s expected. When it comes to English, however, there’s relatively little guidance on how to use mastery effectively.

Inspired by Michael Tidd’s advocacy of longer literacy units, covering fewer texts and focusing on writing for a social purpose, over the past three years I’ve worked with schools to develop a mastery approach for primary English. This is certainly not the only approach to mastery in English, but it is an approach that I and the schools involved have found effective.

The concept is simple: each half term the teacher selects a central “driver text”. This is paired with a range of supplementary texts, including fiction, poetry, non-fiction, multimodal texts, and cross-curricular links. The unit is planned around the driver text, building in curriculum requirements and a broad range of writing opportunities.

This approach gives all learners the opportunity to develop a secure understanding of the driver text, subject matter and key skills – as well as the scope to work in greater depth and to explore and showcase their creativity and writing abilities.

Here are six reasons to try this mastery approach in your primary English provision:

It works for learners of all abilities

First and foremost, mastery is about providing support and opportunities for learners of all abilities to develop at their own pace. This approach allows time for all learners to become familiar with the central text and subject matter, and to practise specific skills such as predicting, comparing, making connections and synthesising.

For learners working below age-related expectations, you’re not moving on too quickly, and there are opportunities to consolidate skills through repetition. At the other end of the spectrum, more able learners have opportunities to broaden their knowledge and understanding of the writing purpose, bring together multiple texts, and deepen their subject knowledge.

The inclusion of poetry in each unit helps to expand learners’ vocabulary and get them thinking creatively about the choices they’re making. The use of non-fiction and cross-curricular texts provides opportunities for the more able to make clever use of sources, and to play with their writing styles, taking the audience and purpose into account. They have a bigger toolbox to draw on, allowing them to really show off their finesse as writers.

It engages even reluctant writers

When choosing a driver text, I try to choose one that will capture the interest of everyone in the class, particularly keeping boys in mind. Then I plan the unit to incorporate a wide variety of writing opportunities – short, medium and long – so even reluctant writers face something manageable and interesting, that breaks the mould in terms of what they’re usually asked to write.

It develops deep subject knowledge

Bringing in supporting texts with a shared theme allows learners to develop a deep sense of subject knowledge, so they can write as experts in the field. Just as a published author wouldn’t start writing without doing their background research first, we’re setting the same expectation for our pupils. This approach resonates very much with highly able learners in English.

It makes more effective use of time

This approach takes up no more or less time than would already be used for literacy sessions, but makes more effective use of that time. Covering fewer texts in a more focused way means more time to get deeply into the full range of curriculum requirements – in terms of reading, writing, drama and spoken language. You can even use the driver text or an accompanying text for guided reading sessions, so everything is working together.

In terms of planning, you do need to allocate more time at the beginning, because you’re essentially planning out the full half term in skeletal form. You can adapt as you go along, but you need to plan ahead to ensure you extract everything you can from the driver text and stop at the right points, building up that sense of mystery and anticipation, and allowing for reading and writing opportunities along the way.

Once you’ve chosen the driver text, you’re looking for those opportunities to bring in non-fiction, and searching for appropriate poetry connections. Once you’ve done this groundwork, you should find you spend less time on weekly planning, because you’ve got the framework in place.

It works for all types of text…

…even (or especially) picture books! I often choose picture-based story books or graphic novels, such as David Wiesner’s Flotsam or Shaun Tan’s The Arrival – which can be interesting when you tell people the unit is going to improve children’s vocabulary and grammar! Other driver texts I’ve used include Robert Swindells’ The Ice Palace, Rob Biddulph’s Blown Away, Helen Cooper’s Pumpkin Soup and Alexis Deacon’s I am Henry Finch.

Essentially, you’re looking for a text where you see lots of potential to go off at all sorts of different angles, and bring in cross-curricular links. For example, with I am Henry Finch, there are lots of links to be made with PSHE.

It’s fun!

Last but certainly not least, this mastery approach is fun. I’ve developed units for KS1, lower KS2 and upper KS2, with positive feedback from all. Not only have schools got some fantastic writing and reading responses from learners, but the children have really enjoyed it. They appreciate the opportunity to get deeply into one particular text – but not to the extent where they get bored, because they’ve got the addition of other texts of different types, and the scope to show off just what they can do.

Find out more…

With 20 years’ experience in the early years and primary sectors, Sarah Carpenter is currently West Berkshire’s school improvement adviser for primary English and maths, and an associate of the National Association for Able Children in Education (NACE). Join her at NACE’s upcoming English for the More Able conference in York on 15 March 2018. In partnership with Rising Stars, the conference is dedicated to sharing the latest research, resources and evidence-based strategies to challenge and support more able learners in primary English.

For a limited time only, Schools Improvement readers can benefit from the same special rate as NACE members – a saving of over £100. To take up this offer, book your place online by 9 February, and enter discount code SI2018-01.

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