Riddle with vocabulary

In my last post I discussed the usefulness of puns for developing vocabulary. In this post I look at riddles as tools for language learning.

Riddles work in a similar way to puns but also encourage problem solving and lateral thinking as demonstrated by this popular riddle: What has a face and two hands but no arms or legs?  As adults it’s fairly easy to solve by applying our understanding of the words ‘face’ and ‘hands’ into our knowledge of the components of an analogue clock, rather than as human body parts. We make a semantic link. But for many children this is a challenging leap into using familiar language in a new setting. Dare I suggest, the notion of an analogue clock is one that is less familiar to many of our children than once it was; making this riddle particularly tricky.

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Very punny vocabulary

In this post I consider the use of wordplay for building vocabulary.

I like words. There are some words that I use frequently like ‘fabulous’, ‘certainly’ and ‘education’. And then there are words that I love like ‘rambunctious’, ‘filibuster’ and ‘pearlescent’: rich words, which sound pleasing to my ear, but I use infrequently as they can only be used in specific situations. A good vocabulary is like this – it needs to be full of really useful words to use in everyday situations, but to be really effective must also contain less common rich words which enable clear communication in very specific situations. The 2014 National Curriculum recognises the importance of a good vocabulary and mentions it in the programme of study for reading, and writing, and of course explicitly, in Appendix 2: Vocabulary, grammar and punctuation (yes, I’ve emboldened vocabulary because appendix 2 is about more than grammar alone).

Learning academic words and rich vocabulary is important for children. However, ensuring that vocabulary teaching is more than the list-learning of words, requires creative thinking. Let me demonstrate:

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A tiny bit of poetry

In a tiny blog post, I muse on the crossover between poetry and music and share a few things I’ve enjoyed listening to recently.

Two things have prompted me to write this blog post. First up, this week I have been mostly enjoying the National Trust’s advert on the television. I love Dr John Cooper Clarke’s poem, the sound of the sea in the line ‘Dishevelled shells and shovelled sands’, the rhymes ‘shrieks, creaks, weeks’ and the repetition of the ‘And that’s where the sea comes in…’ at the end of each stanza echoing the tide repeatedly breaking on the shore. As an inhabitant of landlocked Coventry, this poem makes me yearn for the coast. It isn’t finished yet and you can help Dr John Cooper Clarke finish it by sharing your memories and love of the coast using #lovethecoast. To get an idea of the ideas being shared for this Nation’s Ode to the Coast just click here.

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My office is a tip: and poetry is to blame!

The Primary English HQ office is a tip: and poetry is to blame!

messy-desk (1)This may come as a surprise to people who know that I organise my books in alphabetical order, my CDs in alphabetical order and release-date order, and my wardrobe by item type and colour. Ex-pupils will know that trays must be neatly organised in the middle of the table, dates are always underlined with a ruler and ABSOLUTELY NOTHING THAT HAS BEEN GLUED-IN SHOULD STICK OUT OF THE BOOKS!

I like things just so. It’s the way it is. I simply can’t think when the detritus of life obstructs my eye line.  So, how has poetry messed up my office? Quite simply, by being brilliant and inspiring me to write about it.

Let me digress. I was once told that there are two extremes of academic workers: those who work in a mess and sort out the piles of books and papers as they find what they’re looking for to complete their task; and those who are meticulously organised and know where to locate everything they need to complete their task but then leave it all out as they work towards completion. If these are the extremes, then I’m guessing there’s a continuum on which most people inhabit somewhere in the middle. I am at the extreme end of the ‘aesthetically-pleasing neatly-labelled box-files full of individually labelled books and documents’ spectrum. I can locate everything I need for a job but in my excited frenzy I pull-out all the documents and books I need, mark-up the pages and references I’m looking for and scatter the books around me as I start my task. I then make notes on post-its and scrap paper, get out my highlighters and pens, make several cups of tea and eat an inordinate amount of biscuits before completing the job in hand. That is what’s happened here. I thought the Primary English #PoetryCounts focus would benefit from a list of great poetry books. The result is a great list of books but the office is a tip!

The poetry books responsible for this housekeeping disaster are:

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Performing poetry aloud

performing poetry aloudPerforming poetry aloud

When former secretary of state for education, Michael Gove, announced that it would be a requirement of the new curriculum for children to perform poetry aloud there appeared to be a large intake of breath from across the political spectrum aptly illustrated by the following two newspaper headlines:

Primary school children to be expected to learn and recite poetry 

Now Michael Gove wants pupils aged five to learn poetry

Three years on, and there seems to be a much calmer approach to this aspect of the national curriculum; and rightly so. Learning poetry by heart for sharing and performing is not outside the abilities of our children, and in my opinion is a positive addition to the English programme of study. To support colleagues with planning for poetry performances I have outlined the following steps for consideration:

Choose poems with strong rhythm and rhyme and where possible with repeated refrains.

When I think about teaching English with the youngest children in our school I think about texts such as We’re Going on a Bear Hunt and Room on the Broom. Most young children are unable to read these texts for themselves but they are able to join in with them as they learn the rhythm, rhyme and pattern of the language. Whether you are choosing poems for the eldest or youngest members of the school to perform aloud think about repeated phrases, strong rhythms and supportive rhyme schemes. 

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Ten reasons to teach poetry

As we launch our new Primary English initiative #PoetryCounts, we take a look at ten reasons why we teach poetry.

05-keep-calm-and-write-poetry-poetry-quoteIt’s generally not chosen by children themselves

If you conducted a quick book audit of what was in the school bags of your class, I would hazard a guess that poetry would be in the minority. You may find the odd collection of funny rhymes but on the whole there would be a feast of fiction, some nuggets of non-fiction but a paucity of poetry. We all value recommendations and also have a tendency to read what is familiar to us. Therefore as teachers when we use poetry with children we are modelling how to read it, building familiarity with it, and widening children’s reading horizons.

It’s a great context for learning to choose words for effect

Poetry is the distillation of language into its purest form. Each word is chosen with care and placed in the poem with pristine precision. Learning to recognise how a poet chooses words for effect opens children’s eyes to language as something more than a list of ‘wow’ words. Poetry is a place for learning technical terms such as similes, metaphor, onomatopoeia, alliteration, personification but significantly for coming to appreciate how each of these creates imagery and effect.


Winchester cathedral

It encourages playfulness with language

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Christmas poetry

How to make the most of Christmas poetry

Now, we all know about my Christmas addiction  and my love of all things folk. So what about when those two worlds collide? You can only imagine the ‘giddy kipper-ness’ that accompanies one of my favourite Christmas Traditions – going to see Kate Rusby’s Christmas Tour. Not only are Kate and her boys there but at Christmas she invites the Brass Boys along too.

I know what you are thinking, what has this got to do with teaching and poems and stories? A lot actually. Around this time of year with all the distractions of Christmas: the nativity play; Mary having stage fright; the sheep needing a wee and the visit to church many people find themselves finishing off their English teaching with a Christmas poetry unit.

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My ‘impossible to teach without’ book

Do you have an ‘impossible to teach without’ book? A book that you have used year after year, with class after class. A  ‘Please Miss, read that one’ kind of a book?

I’ve got a few but the one that tops my list is Quick, let’s get out of here by Michael Rosen. The book is a collection of funny poems about the things that children say, do and think (or perhaps the things that they wish they had said, done and thought). It’s the place where you will find Rosen’s poem Chocolate Cake, along with: Washing up, The Watch, Go-Kart, and the ‘Eddie poems’.Each and every one of these poems connects with the children, talks to them in a language they know and takes them on a journey of gasps, sighs, anxiety and laughter. After 18 years of reading this book I still share the guilt of stealing chocolate cake in the middle of the night and the joy of a two year-old Eddie proclaiming ‘Hallo Gerbils’ at the exterminated mice in the Rosen’s kitchen bin. It is an ‘impossible to teach without’ kind of a book.

Now you may not know this, but this small ‘impossible to teach without’ book has magical powers! So magical that when placed in the hands of a KS2 teacher it can quell the most quarrelsome class, inspire the uninspired and engage the ‘unengageable’.

If read sparingly but regularly at the beginning of the autumn term this little book can be the carrot that every teacher needs for a quiet classroom, completed work and willing children. They simply can’t get enough of it! Every class I have taught have begged for an Eddie poem and of course pleaded for chocolate cake. This little book is one of the best behaviour management tools I know!

‘Quick, let’s get out of here’ was published in 1983. I bought my copy in 1995 when I was training to teach. I’ve read this book to every class I’ve taught and if I were to meet a new class tomorrow it would be the first thing I’d pack in my bag. My copy is now yellow around the edges and held together with sellotape and coverlon. It’s now far too fragile for little hands to handle but not so infirm that it cannot be read to their eager little ears. ‘Quick, let’s get out of here’ is definitely my ‘impossible to teach without’ book.

Rachel ClarkePrimary English Consultant

Click here to see Michael Rosen perform Chocolate Cake

Double, double, toil and trouble…

We were recently asked if we had any ideas for using Macbeth with Y5 and Y6 children. Being ladies who like to help, we turned to our very merry band of social media followers who came up with a great list of ideas for using ‘the Scottish play‘ in upper Key Stage 2. Knowing that there are more busy teachers out there looking for ideas to inspire their classes, we’ve taken the list, tweaked it, added a few of our own ideas and created a list of 15 ideas for teaching Macbeth in primary schools.

1. Reciting poetry aloud, or performance poetry as we prefer to call it, is set to take a central role in the proposed Primary Curriculum due for arrival in schools from 2014. Whilst our follower asked us for ideas for Y5 and Y6, we can’t help thinking that the Witches Spell (Act4 Scene 1) makes a great introduction to learning to perform Shakespeare by heart and we think it’s suitable from Y1 onwards.  You could also link this to Shakespeare’s sonnets and a comparision of the sonnets and the Witches Spell.

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Let me take you by the hand…

This story, like some of the best in this blog, starts in the seventies. So let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of London…..As a child my Dad would sing this song while playing the guitar until, before I could read words or music, I could sing it off by heart alongside him. Music is in my heart, it was planted there by Dad. And for me music is a story, because Dad is a folk loving, twelve bar blues playing man. The songs he sung told tales. Ok, so it put me right off London for a while, but the poetry of a folk song has always stayed with me.  The haunting lyrics (teaching metaphor, anyone?) of Annie’s Song:

You fill up my senses
Like a night in a forest
Like the mountains in springtime
Like a walk in the rain
Like a storm in the desert
Like a sleepy blue ocean

Lyrics I know like the back of my hand, ingrained through years of singing with Dad.

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