Top Tips for Teaching Suave Words book cover

Top Tips for Teaching Suave Words

Updated 01/09/2023

As so often happens, the more I watch children at work in the classroom on Talk:Write and the more I talk with talented teachers, the more examples and ideas for additional support spring to mind. It was this behaviour that led to the generation of over 900 quality resources that are already available on our free resources page, with new ones being added all the time. It is as a result of this constant stimulation and reflection that I am working on the Top Tips for Teaching Suave Words book. The book is available now from our shop.

From the launch of the suave word of the week, to the fun suave word champions sessions, this book has it all and is mainly written in short, bulleted tips for quick and easy access. Dip in to read about assemblies, EAL, effective use of time, teaching across the curriculum and gen-up on a range of quick-fire activities to embed your latest suave word. Because important points are repeated in different sections when still applicable, this book can be read from cover to cover to ensure you are not missing a trick, or the busy teacher can quickly access a particular aspect that they need more ideas or support with.

Schools already successfully embedding the system need not fear that goal posts have moved, but everyone will be excited by some of the enrichment that has been provided through this addition to the programme.

Top Tips for Teaching Suave Words book cover

Top Tips for Teaching Suave Words

A handy book with advice and activities for the pro-active teaching of ambitious vocabulary.


Top Tip for Launching the Suave Word of the Week

One example is avoiding the use of a pronoun for a new suave word when first launching it, instead the teacher should constantly use the new word in full throughout discourse and embedding activities. For example, instead of saying something like:

“Our new suave word of the week is ‘muse’. This is a delightful word and you will find you can use it in many subjects, both in speaking and in writing. Here is an example of how I have used it in a sentence. Please tell your friend what you think it may mean.”

The teacher may instead say:
“Our new suave word of the week is ‘muse’. Muse is a delightful word and you will find you can use muse in many subjects, both in speaking and in writing. Here is an example of how I have used muse in a sentence. Please tell your friend what you think muse may mean:

‘I was musing about the life of the baby lambs in the snow on the moors.’

“Now, what do you think muse might mean? That’s a very good guess. It means to think about or to reflect. Well done. Now, quick as a flash, spell muse. And spell muse again. And spell muse again. Well done everyone. Now I would love to hear you all using muse in your talk or see you use it in your writing.”

This constant repetition of the word would not be considered good practice in normal speech or writing, but because the teacher wants to embed the new word for all children, the constant re-use is a deliberate ploy that really is effective.


Suave Word Champions

Another great tip from the new book is the suave word champions. On the last day of the school week, each class has an internal contest. This may only take about ten to fifteen minutes at the start or close of an English lesson or between any other two lessons, and is mainly played through ‘fastest shout first’. The teacher will suddenly fire the suave word of the week at a small cluster of pupils and they all have to shout the spelling back. The fastest to complete scores a point. This is then repeated for the definition and for the use of the word in a made-up sentence. The child or children winning the most points is the class suave word champion of the week. We have a selection of four certificates available to download from the free resources page.


Suave Word Assembly

The climax is reached the following week in the suave word assembly. This assembly usually opens with a rapid ‘fastest shout first’ review of the past few week’s suave words with their spellings and meanings. The new suave word of the week is then introduced and the meaning given with an illustration of its use. The final celebration of the assembly is the suave word champions of the week, when the class winners of the previous week play off against each other to find the school suave word champion of the Key Stage for the week. There is a free suave word assembly resource on the free resources page.


In the Staffroom

One of the fun comments we have received from headteachers during this whole launch has been that, not only are children rapidly expanding their knowledge and use of enriched vocabulary – but so are many of the staff and there is frequently great laughter in the staff room as teachers vie to use the most new suave words of the week in discussions and chat as they go about their daily business!

What a privilege to work with our amazing profession!


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A Ray of Hope

What a year! Schools and teachers everywhere have done such a great job in the face of so many repeated crises and every member of the profession must be exhausted and so much in need of the summer break.

Of course, we can’t really think of it as one year – it has been one long continuation of the pandemic – two and a half years of closures and adaptations, home schooling, catch up and – most infuriatingly – blame of anyone for poor decisions, except those to blame. Right from the first closure in March 2020, teachers and children have been expected to cope with repeated changes in procedures and practices. That first year with the March to June closures followed by more from December into February 2021 was a huge period of stress for everyone.

And everyone I know followed the lockdown rules to the letter – unless they worked in Downing Street of course!

We shall never forget that first lockdown when the rules were so strict and I, like so many, saw nobody except my bubble – my daughter, her husband and their two children. Schools were not yet au fait with home schooling and parents were very much on their own in a strange new world. Soon my grandchildren’s school were sending through maths and English activities for parental supervision and the mornings – including a P.E. session – were more or less sorted. By request, I took over the afternoons, with a mix of science, history, geography, art and ‘stuff’. No resources – where would we have been without the internet?

But we are privileged – we all three had the good fortune of higher education – all are in professions and with me being a teacher as well. What of the millions of deprived children suffering hunger and a restrictive environment – many without even a small garden to play in – and with parents who were themselves educationally deprived and so scarcely able to support their children in any meaningful educational ways? Coping with that first long lockdown of four months must have been a nightmare.

For ours, lockdown learning had some benefits. As a direct consequence, my grandson was the only eight year old in year four to be able to name the five oceans and seven continents at the start of a later unit about The Earth, and my 11-year-old granddaughter was the only one in year six to know the name of the capital city of Australia. What fun we had had playing ‘fastest first to find’ in Gammy’s (yes – that IS what they call me) two huge atlases! Geography on the hoof…

By the end of April 2021, however, the novelty had long worn off and signs of child stress were evident. Having no company their own age and being confined to house and garden took their toll and the last month of that first lockdown was a source of stress for all of us. But what if we had lived as part of a large family on the 13th floor of a multi-storey in a deprived location with no outside access?

This last academic year was mainly uninterrupted, schooling wise. Even the much loathed school bubbles had disappeared and despite several panics, not one lockdown was imposed on schools. Staff were valiant, covering and collaborating as covid spread, always seeking to keep life as normal and productive for children as they could, and the dreadful memories quickly began to fade. That’s the miracle of children’s brains! Time travels so very slowly – a year is a lifetime when you are in primary school. Can you remember how many years it seemed from one birthday to the next or from one festivity to the following one? That first, terrible year of the pandemic must have seemed to last forever for so many of our children. And yet unpleasant memories fade quickly if distracted by new and exciting experiences.

Today I accompanied my grandson (now 9) and my daughter on an inner-city ‘adventure’ to find ‘Football World’, where he was to attend a friend’s birthday party. My daughter and I were chatting as she drove, while my grandson was ‘busy’ on technology in the back seat. We were discussing the fact that everyone we knew had a cold, now at the start of July, all with a hacking cough, sneezing and a runny nose – but no-one felt poorly. That was when my daughter said that she had had a call that morning from her friend, who has ‘the cold’ – she had just tested positive for covid!

“Has covid gone away now?” my grandson piped up from the back seat – clearly that ‘one-ear-on-the-adult-chat’ policy was still in full force!

“No,” his mother told him, “but fewer people are getting ill now.”

When we got back to their house, I was tested. And I was positive! The radio news tells me it is probably the BA4 & BA5 variants that we have – highly infectious and fast moving but not causing illness for most. But this could morph again when the winter comes…

So, I am isolating – although I expect to be testing clear again in a day or two – and reflecting on the past two years and thinking about the future.

A time to reflect and review… a time to push harder for change and reform. The summary of the Times Education Commission, published mid-June, has given me such hope – I truly was beginning to despair that I would not see any improvement or significant change in my active lifetime within education, but at last the first buds of spring are showing.

As the commission says, ‘the way people shop, work, travel, bank and watch television has been utterly transformed over the past decade but schools have failed to keep pace. Instead of adapting to the 21st century, education remains stuck in the 20th and in some ways the 19th century.’

The 2nd lesson of the review describes the curriculum as ‘a narrow and rigid rubric that leaves no room for creativity.’ The progressive curricular models of so many other countries – some of which we, in our ignorance, would barely rate in terms of education – and of progressive schools in the UK, clearly far outstrip our national, historically knowledge-driven relic. Professor Dame Mary Beard is quoted as saying that the country has become ‘terribly snobbish’ about what education is for, adding: “It is still held back by class and privilege aspirations, which rank… [learning] …into what clever, posh white kids do, and what the other people do.”

The commission tells us that communication skills – ‘oracy’ in the jargon – should become mainstream in state schools, and that the independent sector has long understood the importance of the spoken as well as the written word.

The commission describes the huge ideological rift in the current curriculum as not being between left and right, but rather between knowledge and skills. ‘The national curriculum is described as being designed to introduce pupils to the best that has been thought and said rather than to help them to look to the future.’ The commission sees this as a false dichotomy, quoting Kevin Ellis as saying: “Education should be about both character and qualifications. It should open up pathways and support creative, inquisitive learners.”

How many of us have said similar over the past 40 or more years, to no avail? Throughout the 1990s and 2000s I, myself, designed many skill-driven curricular models for schools and organisations. These were all rooted in the English National Curriculum to allow for the pedants of Ofsted, but interpreted the required high knowledge content through investigation, communication, construction and analysis. Yet tradition dictated that – under pressure – many teachers cut back on the skills and reverted to teaching to the knowledge.

As the commission tells us, the next generation needs to be ‘…adaptable, inquisitive and empathetic.’ More than half the children who start school this next academic year will live to be 100. They will have to retrain many times over the course of their long careers…’

One hundred years ago from today fell between the world wars. The average life span was 54 years; Britain was recovering from the first world war and a global pandemic of 1918 to 1920 – the Spanish flu! The BBC began broadcasting in 1922 and by 1929 the first black and white television was being developed, as were fridges and crossword puzzles. The first commercial flights commenced and beach huts, bathing machines and Punch and Judy shows were all the rage at popular seaside resorts in England. The following decades saw the first telephones, computers and washing machines, yet 50 years later the 1970s were known as the decade of bell bottoms, discos and roaring inflation.

And from the commencement of my teaching career in 1965, I survived over 500 significant changes in education across Britain. My 57 years in education have been a constant of rethinking and re-skilling. Thus, I empathise so with the words of Tom Fletcher, principal of Hertford College in Oxford, when he says: “Those who adapt faster will win and those who adapt slowest will lose… This is about survival.”

It is my profound hope that this powerful report from the commission is the start of reform; that the pendulum of politics will cease to swing and great educationalists will take over the lead, bringing rational thought and the needs of the future to bear on the world of education and the curriculum.

Post script

And here we are… a few days after I completed this latest blog and once again the government is in shambles due to dishonesty and deceit, and we have another new Education Secretary! Much of this new blog may have read as controversial due to being inspired by, and often quoting from, the words of the Times Commission. Today is a sign of the times – we need change in how education policy and practice are decided – and we need it NOW!’


A fun and flexible approach to improving children’s vocabulary, speech, and writing.

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Suave word of the week resource with the word 'splendid'

Be Word Wise

The following blog is one of a series linked to the Talk:Write programme to improve children’s oratory and writing.

The series includes:
Be the Speaker: improve children’s confidence, clarity, correct use of English and skills of oratory as a speaker. Aim: to enable all children to speak clearly, confidently and articulately in Standard English when required, and thus to influence the accuracy and style of their written work. Read Blog

Be the Teacher: empower children to correct their own and other’s grammar and pronunciation in speech, or grammar, spelling and punctuation in writing. Aim: to enable all children to recognise their own and other’s mistakes in written work and to edit or correct appropriately. Read Blog

Be Word Wise: enrich children’s vocabulary with a wide range of suave words that they know, understand, can spell and can use correctly in appropriate contexts. Aim: to expand children’s vocabulary significantly, including the use of words that are normally found in the speech or writing of a child of that age.

The contents of these three blogs complement each other and support each other in empowering pupils to be mature and articulate speakers and writers.

It was very gratifying to see the following synopsis yesterday, when I was due to write this blog to complete a series in support of our new programme, Talk:Write. My start had been slower than slow – inspiration being obstructed by a rash of proof reading and editorials – and suddenly here it was!

An article in the Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, Volume 8, 2015, Issue 3 entitled Efficacy of Rich Vocabulary Instruction in Fourth-and Fifth-Grade Classrooms summarising research conducted by Vadasy, Sanders and Logan Herrera of the University of Washington.

The trio conducted a randomised trial to test the effects of pro-actively teaching ambitious and exciting vocabulary to over 6,000 fourth and fifth grade pupils, comparing the impact to a similar number of children learning in ‘business as usual’ settings. Not surprisingly, the overall understanding and absorption of the words by pupils in the pro-actively taught set supports the application of pro-active teaching.

Since 1997, I have actively promoted the pro-active teaching of ambitious vocabulary in both primary and secondary schools. From 2000 to the present day, I have written, modelled and presented CPD on the importance of talk and vocabulary in improving children’s prowess as speakers and writers.


Step 1

Pro-actively teach a suave word each week throughout the school year. To facilitate this, we publish a set of free suave word resources each week in our free resources section and on Twitter (another of my passions!) for busy teachers to use if they wish. Most of our suave words are single syllable, yet still ambitious when used correctly. This enables a whole school to focus on the same word each week, meaning siblings can share suave word homework with each other and their parents or guardians, and one assembly a week can celebrate the word and play one or two of the games across the school.

There should be one suave word homework evening a week in a school. It is usually launched at the beginning of the week with the head or another leader introducing the word to the whole Key Stage or school during the assembly. The word would be displayed, explained and exemplar uses shared with the children. The words are carefully chosen to be accessible and achievable to all years in the school, making the homework discussion with family members much more attainable.

An example of a single syllable word might be ‘thrill’ or ‘angst’ while an accessible double-syllable one might be ‘headlong’ which is quite easy to learn and spell because it combines two known short words. We do offer a suave word of the week and supporting activities free on the website, however this programme is totally flexible and teachers may choose different words that they feel are more appropriate for their class or school, and may adapt games and activities to suit their classes. We also offer a ‘Suave Word Plus’ resource for children around 7 to 12, which involves learning more complex words.

‘Playing games’ with the children through a range of suave word activities is essential for embedding the word itself, its spelling, its meaning and its correct usage. Each game only takes a few minutes when the children are used to them, and they can be used as warm-ups before a lesson starts, as brain breaks within a lesson, or as ‘cool-downs’ at the end of a lesson. By applying the word appropriately in the context of any subject of the curriculum, the application and usage can be varied and flexible – and not dominate the English curriculum time.

At the start of the Talk:Write publication, I quote research that shows the importance of multiple exposures to new words, including meeting them and using them in a wide range of contexts. Although I have frequently said this myself and have advocated a multi-opportunity and cross-curricular approach to practising and embedding new language, I was surprised to read that – for many children – as many as 12 varied and relevant exposures may be needed to truly understand the different uses of the word in different contexts and to embed the word and its meaning/s in long-term memory.


Step 2

Enable children to work together in twos or threes to make up their own games and challenge one another, taking it in turns to ‘Be the Wise Word Leader’ and lead the activity. The most efficient approach is to give the whole class about ten minutes to make up around three different games on paper using suave words, before splitting the class into small groups. There is then no delay between turns, other than the copying of the next game onto the whiteboard. You can find the below games (except Suave Scramble) on our free resources page.

Suave Scramble is a very good option for this, the ‘teacher’ chooses one of the suave words the class has already learnt and re-orders the letters on a small whiteboard. They then show it to their partners who have to work out the word.

lidey = yield

Suave Spaces consists of making up simple sentences with a space in which one of their known suave words should be inserted. This is also a simple and effective game, providing the class are mature enough to do that without support.

The soldier was forced to _____________ to the King’s wishes. (yield)

Suave Select is based on Call My Bluff. The leader offers one suave word with three simple definitions and their partner or group have to shout out which is the correct definition.


To tickle someone
To excite someone
A pretty edge on a dress

Suave Sense gives three sentences that each have the target suave word in, but only one is used correctly and the group need to spot the correct usage.


The bird landed on the aspire
She aspires to run in the Olympics
Dad aspired the supermarket in the rain

Suave Meaning Match is a fun game, especially for Key Stage 2. The ‘teacher’ lists three suave words down the left-hand side of the whiteboard (copied from their pre-prepared list) but puts the wrong meaning next to each. Their partners have to shout out the correct meaning or join the correct pairs.

yield   extremely fast
rapid   the start of a river
source   to give way


Step 3

Expect the children to start using their new suave words when appropriate, in their talk and presentations throughout their lessons and in any writing they do. For example, ‘angst’ would complement talk or writing about deforestation, climate change, floods, fire, volcanoes, war, extinction or a narrative such as a lost child. Initially, the teacher will prompt them to do this, but soon the children should take on this role themselves, asking the teacher and class which of their suave words would work well in this situation.

Children should clap or cheer when they hear one of their class use a suave word without prompting and also celebrate when they meet them in text. This may need to be prompted by the teacher at first – and taught through the teacher slipping one or two suave words into their taught input or explanations in a lesson – but it should soon become a spontaneous celebration that brings pleasure.


Parklands Primary School

At Parklands Primary School, where these approaches have been on trial in Years 6 and 3 since January, children are already getting highly excited when they hear someone use one of their suave words – or see them in text or a book they are reading. Using traditional tales and classics as the class reader is a big help in exciting the children, as they tend to be written in more mature language than some children’s books today.

Parklands Primary is located in one of the top 10% areas for deprivation, poverty and crime in the country, yet through a policy of love, rich experiences and curriculum enrichment children love their school, their teachers and their learning. Once a week, there is a Talk:Write assembly in Key Stage 2 which includes a celebration of children’s progress in writing, involves the children playing two or three of the games and introduces the suave word of the week, with its meaning and ways it might be used. Year 6 are also trialling the first public speaking exercise this term through writing their ‘Be the Speaker’ paragraphs on an aspect of the Victorians that each child chooses for themselves.

I have been amazed at how eager and enthusiastic the children have been to learn their new suave word of the week and to join in with the suave assembly. In Year 6, we have been introducing our own suave vocabulary weekly too and it has totally transformed our English lessons. The whole class have a greater understanding of complex vocabulary, they are able to explain the meaning of words in context, when reading our novels, and they are able to apply their suave words in their writing. The children are constantly striving to up-level their work and to include their newly learnt suave words. There is a renewed excitement, an enjoyment and a new-found passion for learning in English, which I am extremely grateful for.
Sam Rennison, AHT and Curriculum Lead


The use of suave words has been extremely effective in Year 3. The children have been learning two new suave words per week and are loving learning new, tricky words. They have been so excited when spotting suave words in books they are reading and have been making a real effort to use their new vocabulary in their writing. They have been keen to represent their class as the weekly suave word champion in assemblies.
Grace Huby, English Lead


How do children learn? How are they inspired? What makes a child want to write exciting vocabulary? Excitement does! Excitement to showcase their new skills in a fun environment. Rewarding the children by having an all singing and all dancing assembly, full of showcasing of all that they have learnt in front of the whole school. Talk:Write allows the children to speak the words, to express the words, to understand the words before implementing them in their writing. If you can’t talk it; you can’t write it. The suave assembly is to writing, oracy and English as the Times Tables Challenge is to maths. Simply awe and wonder!
Chris Dyson, Head Teacher


A fun and flexible approach to improving children’s vocabulary, speech, and writing.

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Ros with child in classroom in Hong Kong

Be the Teacher

The following blog is one of a series linked to the Talk:Write Programme to improve children’s oratory and writing. The series includes:

Be the Speaker: improve children’s confidence, clarity, correct use of English and skills of oratory as a speaker.

Be the Teacher: empower children to correct their own and other’s grammar and pronunciation in speech, or grammar, spelling and punctuation in writing.

Be Word Wise: enrich children’s vocabulary with a wide range of suave words that they know, understand, can spell and can use correctly in appropriate contexts.   


‘Be the Teacher’ is a simple, fun and effective way for children to achieve multiple exposures / opportunities to embed new language features or correct use of English in line with the research quoted in the ‘Talk:Write’ programme.
The aim of ‘Be the Teacher’ is for children to take on the role of the marker, proof-reader or audio-checker for their peer or peers, and behaving like a teacher through offering advice and corrections as necessary and when able.
This activity can be ‘played’ in several ways. All are fully adaptable and do not have to be pursued in exactly the same ways as described below. They can, also, be ‘played’ as stand alone activities in classes or schools not implementing the Talk:Write programme, however greater impact will be seen, and at much greater speed, when the programme is fully implemented.

  1. Be the Teacher: Spot the slips in Standard English during discussion and teaching within the class.
  2. Be the Teacher: Spot the slips in Standard English with pre-primed visitors to the classroom.
  3. Be the Teacher: Spot the slips in Bud’s writing.
  4. Be the Teacher: Spot the teacher’s slips in writing on the whiteboard working with your writing partner.
  5. Be the Teacher: Spot the slips in your writing partner’s work.
  6. Be the Teacher: Spot the slips on whiteboards or handouts.


1. Be the Teacher: Spot the Slips in Standard English Within the Class

I recommend this is the first ‘Be the Teacher’ activity to be introduced and that it should be launched as soon as the teacher starts to address the issues around all children speaking in Standard English.

The teacher should model some of the differences in sentence structure between Standard English and most strong accents or dialects. There are free resources for Talk:Write subscribers on the website that give many examples of the types of errors children need to watch out for when striving for Standard English, the most common being the noun/verb mismatches such as ‘we was’, ‘I were’ and ‘them are’.

I suggest that several times a week, the teacher should warn the children that they are going to intentionally make some mistakes as they talk. This could be in the introduction or conclusion of any lesson in any subject, so that the time taken to do this is subject-specific time. If the children think they have spotted a mistake they must shoot their hands up. The teacher will ask the first child to say what the mistake was and what the correct form should have been. If correct, the class will clap.

Children become very excited by this game and soon many hands will be shooting up in response to an error. This is the time when the teacher might suggest that the children could also deliberately make slips in their comments or answers, and the class will respond to these. At this point, it is useful to change the response from hands up and taking answers (which can take a lot of time up) to the class shouting out the correction. However, the teacher must prepare the class for this, instructing them on the need to shout in a friendly and supportive way. There must be no sneering or superiority in this activity. All children should experience the same respect.


2. Be the Teacher: Spot the Slips in Standard English with Visitors to the Classroom

The second step is to ask for members of the wider staff and older children to visit the classroom and give an oral message to the whole class, including a deliberate error in their spoken English. The class should call out the error with the same light-hearted positivity as they did between themselves.

It is important to note that, depending on the catchment area for the school, some members of the wider staff may naturally speak in a strong local accent. All staff should have been introduced to this activity previously, but it is important to protect staff from potential embarrassment.


3. Be the Teacher: Spot the Slips in Bud’s Writing

Bud is a fictitious member of every class. Teachers may wish to explain him as ‘an imaginary friend’. A teacher might name their class’s imaginary friend by any name they wished, providing there is unlikely to ever be a boy of that name in the school. It is usual to have a male imaginary friend as he can both protect the boys, who often tend to make the most small slips early in the process, and he can exemplify wonderful phraseology coming from a boy. His errors usually represent the errors the teacher has seen or heard being made by pupils in the lessons. Thus, use of Bud protects the self-esteem of pupils in the class.

The following is the procedure for using Bud in teaching Standard English:

  1. Have an empty chair at the front of the classroom for Bud, and talk to him from time to time, or ask him a question and pretend he has answered.
  2. A day or two after the class have done some written work – it may be only a paragraph in any curriculum subject at all – the teacher brings Bud’s paragraph to the class (written by themselves, of course) and puts it on the whiteboard. It will have some of the common errors in it and the children will work together in pairs to spot all the errors. The teacher will correct the errors on the whiteboard. Spelling and punctuation errors could also be included in this.
  3. In any lesson, in any subject, if no member of the class succeeds in spotting an error in oral input by the teacher or a child, or in written work on the whiteboard, Bud may appear to have spotted it and have ‘alerted’ the teacher.
  4. Occasionally, Bud may do a brilliant piece of work that illustrates recent points the teacher has been working on. The class will discuss his work in pairs and identify all its strengths.


4. Be the Teacher: Spot the Teacher’s Slips Working with Your Writing Partner

The teacher may now start making ‘mistakes’ when writing on the whiteboard. If the class fail to alert them, Bud (see item 3) may do so. The teacher corrects the mistakes as they are pointed out. If a mistake is not spotted the teacher may sometimes ignore it until later, and then ask the whole class to read the piece out loud together. They would be told there is a mistake they have not spotted. If the class still have not spotted the mistake, either Bud or the teacher will now announce it and correct it.


5. Be the Teacher: Spot the Slips in Your Writing Partner’s Work

At pre-planned points in the week, all children may occasionally be asked to write sentences or a short paragraph for their writing partner, with errors in the English deliberately included. The partners swap writing and identify and correct all the errors.


6. Be the Teacher: Sort the Slips on Whiteboards or Handouts
Occasionally, the children may be given a handout or an exercise on the whiteboard, with a range of sentences with errors for them to correct. The errors will be mainly in grammar but may also include spelling and punctuation.

The sentences may be about subject matter in any subject of the curriculum, so that the exercise comes out of that subject’s time budget.

Production of the corrected piece may be completed in pairs or alone, depending on the age and stage of understanding of the children, and may be done orally with feedback or on whiteboards or on paper.


Please remember – whatever the activity, all learning in Talk:Write should be fun and enjoyed in a positive, caring atmosphere. The above activities and ideas are aimed at supporting all pupils to be confident and accurate code switchers, being users of correct standard English when required, yet protecting their right to use of a personal accent, dialect or street talk when appropriate.


A fun and flexible approach to improving children’s vocabulary, speech, and writing.

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Ros speaking at an event

Be the Speaker

The following blog is one of a series linked to the Talk:Write Programme to improve children’s oratory and writing. The series includes:

Be the Speaker: improve children’s confidence, clarity, correct use of English and skills of oratory as a speaker.

Be the Teacher: empower children to correct their own and other’s grammar and pronunciation in speech, or grammar, spelling and punctuation in writing.

Be Word Wise: enrich children’s vocabulary with a wide range of suave words that they know, understand, can spell and can use correctly in appropriate contexts.   


Public speaking, also called oratory or oration, has traditionally meant the act of speaking face to face to a live audience. Today it includes any form of speaking (formally and informally) to an audience, including pre-recorded speech delivered over great distance by means of technology.

Confucius, one of many scholars associated with public speaking, once taught that if a speech was considered to be a good speech, it would impact the individuals’ lives whether they listened to it directly or not. His idea was that the words and actions of someone of power can influence the world.

Public speaking is used for many different purposes, but usually as some mixture of teaching, persuasion, or entertaining. Each of these calls upon slightly different approaches and techniques.



Public speaking has rarely been taught in State Schools, and certainly not in primary schools, and is often perceived as being the jurisdiction of public schools and the ‘elite’. Talk:Write breaks this code and embraces public speaking, making it accessible to all so that every child may learn to speak clearly and confidently, with expression, with passion if appropriate and with deep sincerity.

In the individual disciplines for public speaking in the Wikipedia item quoted above, the definition for public speaking in the world of education is defined as:

The transfer of knowledge, which has many forms is not without public speaking. Here, it is not only the audience who learn from the speaker, but the speaker learns as well. Skills learnt can boost performance and productivity.

This philosophy is promoted through the half termly (or termly) speech where the pupil learns through the production, practise and improvement of their speech, and the class or school learn through listening to one another’s speeches.

We may have historically dismissed the need for public speaking in the schools where we teach, and yet we would all agree that the confident and articulate speaker has a far better chance of success in adulthood than the inarticulate or hesitant speaker may have. Furthermore, my work over the past 30 years has provided clear evidence that if ‘the child can’t say it, the child can’t write it’, but if the child CAN say it, the child can write it – providing they have both the basic skills and mechanical skills to write. Thus, the more we invest in improving speech, the greater the impact on a child’s writing.

The process for launching and maintaining this practice is easy, and children both enjoy and are enthusiastic about it. It can be implemented as a stand-alone strategy – the school need not be implementing the Talk:Write programme.


The following is the most commonly used approach:

Once a term, in the second half term (after children have had an opportunity to study and learn several aspects of subjects). It may be launched initially in Year 6, or across Key Stage 2 or across the whole school.

Year 6 Launch (Guidance Only)


Children will need to witness speakers in oratory on things they care about. This may be done through video clips – for example of David Attenborough talking about our planet. The Headteacher or another member of staff could record the same speech twice, once in a form of local speak and the second time in full public speaking mode. The speech should be about something they care passionately about that is not related to the school.

Lesson 1:

  1. Children choose an aspect of their current studies (from any appropriate subject) that they are truly enjoying.
  2. They draft a paragraph about it, saying why they are enjoying it or finding it interesting.
  3. They identify two or three additional things they would really like to know about it.
  4. They may find additional detail or information through research.
  5. They may enrich their paragraph by adding suave features*.
  6. They practise reading it out loud (softly).

Lesson 2: (or part 2 of Lesson 1 if the lesson is longer than 50 minutes)

  1. Each child reads their piece out loud to their peers in small groups, in turn, concentrating on clarity and expression.
  2. They insert suave features* based on feedback from their group peers and adults and read them out loud again.
  3. Children read their own paragraphs several times and start to memorise.

Lesson 3: (or part 3 of Lesson 1 if a whole afternoon)

  1. Children take turns to stand at the front of the classroom and read or present from memory their pieces to the class or year.
  2. Teachers and peers use agreed criteria to check for: interest, sincerity, suave features*, clarity and confidence, expression and emotion, etc.** and provide feedback.


Children take their paragraphs home and ‘perform’ them for family members by standing and reading or presenting from memory with expression and enthusiasm as appropriate.

They continue to practise reading aloud and memorising.

Final Lesson:

Children perform their paragraph for the class or year group.

There may be a mini vote for the ‘best’ three or four, based on the public speaking criteria. Teachers decide on three or four children to read out their speeches to the school in assembly, which will be recorded.

The chosen children should be given opportunity to practise delivering their speech in the school hall or the site for the assembly.

The Next Term:

Classes start preparing a new speech at the start of the second half of the next term and all classes in KS2 start doing public speaking.

All years in KS2 present their selected speakers in a final assembly at the end of the academic year.


History, science or geography are particularly good for this activity, but children should choose their own themes based upon their own personal interest, so the class overall may cover several subjects and many aspects of learning. For example, one child might be focussing on Tudor architecture, another on the incarceration of Ann Boleyn in the Tower of London and a third on the purpose and usage of ‘piss pots’, all under the umbrella studies of the Tudors. At the same time, one child could be writing about the lifestyle of a lumberjack, another about the impact of deforestation on climate and a third on its impact on wildlife in their studies of rainforests. Meanwhile, one child could be doing an explanatory paragraph about cloud formation and rainfall, based on their science studies, whilst another wrote a short report on the tracking of weather patterns over a month in their community.

The class teachers should explain why good speaking skills are important for later life, model code switching between two or more codes of speech and engage their classes in discussions about how they feel about ‘Be the Speaker’ and how they might improve their own performances. They might identify role models and style their own performances on their personal role model. Older children could work with younger children to coach them and encourage them.


Be the Speaker Contest:

Towards the end of each academic year, there could be a ‘Be the Speaker’ contest with selected speakers from each class / year performing for parents and the school and a trophy awarded to the ‘best’ or most improved.

The beauty of this is that – as the speaking improves and becomes more confident and fluent – so will the children’s writing within the wider range of their studies, as they transfer the qualities of voice and style learnt through their pursuit of the ability to be an effective speaker.


* Suave words, suave sentence openers, suave punctuation, suave connectives, rhetorical questions, detail and description.

** More examples are provided in the Talk:Write programme, which also includes advice and appropriate resources and activities. 


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Don't Dis Ma Dialect

What fun we are having with dialects! It all started as part of the writing of our new resource Talk:Write, aimed at improving children’s speech and writing through talk. This is, of course, a very familiar area for us but we have so many new messages to reflect advances in research and the government’s agenda on Standard English.

It’s gratifying for us to see the government so focussed on things we have been saying for 20 years – that the way children talk (or don’t talk) affects their performance as writers across the whole spectrum of education. It’s a surprise, however, that they make it sound like a new discovery! My guru of 20 years for talk, Dr. Todd Risley, died in 2007 – sadly. He has just been reborn in national reports.

In pursuing our own research, we realised that this whole initiative for institutionalised Standard English across all primary schools could prove detrimental for parents and communities, and the way they speak. This drive for improving communication cannot be seen as a criticism for the way whole communities speak. Thus, we undertook an analysis of the main types of speech and language found in communities in the English-speaking world.

And so we addressed dialects!

Dialects evolved before the days of free movement within countries prior to the development of public transport, inexpensive transport systems and revolutions in industry that led to mass relocations and a huge growth in cities. Originally, there was little movement outside the home locality for most of the population and their language developed its own accent, grammatical structures and – often – vocabulary for daily use. Due to their isolation, the dialects of different localities were diverse and often difficult for outsiders to access or understand.

Today, many communities are integrated with people of different accents and dialects living and working together. Families are divided and living in different parts of their own countries and other countries. Since ‘Windrush’ West Indian patois has had a huge influence on street talk across the country. Street talk and patois are both forms of dialect, now enriched by a mingling with words and phrases from the daily chat of so many, diverse communities.

I was born the youngest of four children who all grew up and were educated in Yorkshire, yet my mother was from Shropshire and my father was from Northumberland. My mother monitored our speech fiercely, determined that we should not speak with a Yorkshire accent or dialect, yet she and her sister (who lived with us for some years) often spoke in broad ‘Salopian’ – laughing heartily as they did so. It was from them that I learnt to say, ‘Thar cans’t’na sing ser good as thar cudst’cost?’

I consciously developed a Yorkshire accent as a young teen, to ‘fit in’ with the huge street gang – ‘The Oakwood Gang’ – that dominated our locality in the late 1950s and early ‘60s. We were a law-abiding rabble of around 60 teenagers who were purely gathering to socialise and have fun, but the police clearly had complaints from people who felt threatened, and frequently circled us in their Ford Anglia police cars – driving us away from the clock tower and into the woodland. I spoke Yorkshire on the streets and Standard English at home.

In my professional life I have consciously kept my Yorkshire accent, being proud of my heritage. Speaking in Yorkshire does not mean that the speaker is not speaking in Standard English. The latter purely means talking with grammatically correctly structures. I do that – except when I consciously switch into dialect. Imagine my hilarity when I attended a course on writing, as a recently launched independent consultant, led by a secondary English specialist back in the early 2000s. She was in full flow – but I was bored as she was saying nothing new or innovative – when my sub-conscious suddenly tuned in to her saying: ‘… a fat old Yorkshire woman setting herself up as a writing consultant and she can’t even speak English properly!’ I did laugh – she should see me now if she thought I was old 15 years ago!

I introduced myself at lunchtime…

Every Sunday we post a word on Twitter and ask folk to contribute any dialect forms they know of – particularly things that their grandparents might have said. Most weeks we gratefully receive around 100 responses and my colleague then makes an attractive free resource for teachers that we post on the website. We are always struck, however, how dialect has now morphed into what we would call ‘street talk’, it is now rarely confined to one specific locality. We often receive the same word or close versions of it, from North and South and from East to West. For example – this week’s free resource focussed on the word ‘hungry’. We received ‘starvin’’ from Sussex and ‘stervin’ from the Scottish Borders; ‘clammed’ from the Black Country and ‘clammin’ from Tyneside; all tributes to the spread of populations across the land.

Who knows what this week’s word will be and what it will bring?

Us’ll soon see thar knows’t!


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Ros with child in classroom in Hong Kong

Vocabulary - Research and Practice

I remember being irritated, ‘back in the day’, when – after several years of highly effective implementation of my work across four continents (people may remember it as Big Writing) that raised standards in both writing and reading significantly for many thousands of children – an academic wrote of my work that, ‘if practice is not underpinned by research it has no validity.’ What is consistent effective practice across primary schools of all demographic profiles, if not in itself empirical research?

So, what price research and the world of academia? Far be it from the fact that it underpins ‘best practice’, quite the opposite can sometimes be true. For a start, I have never read research into a seemingly ‘new’ educational approach or system that was not rooted in an approach or system that already existed in some schools. Thus, the research did not lead the practice, it reflected existing interesting and / or successful practice and then proved statistically that which was already proven by the outcomes in some progressive classrooms.

Furthermore, research can lead to distorted or false conclusions that may lead to wasted investment, mediocre practice and dumbing down of outcomes for many. At its worst, it can impede learning and progress for many children.

Consider the very short life of the ITA (Initial Teaching Alphabet) of the 1960s, which led to a generation of children being unable to spell because so many found the transition from ITA to orthography (conventional spelling by each letter) and phonics so difficult. It advocated an approach to teaching vocabulary and initial writing that customised every word individually to its own, unique set of 45 phonetic codes. Learned ‘spelling’ then had to be ‘unlearned’ at age 7 and the reality of accurate orthography and phonics introduced. Many children never mastered the truth because their practise remained cluttered with ITA symbols and sounds. I know – I was there, teaching in a Year 3 class of children raised on it.

Let it not be thought that I don’t value research. I most certainly do. It gives a wider perspective, relevant statistics and ways of making proven comparisons when well conducted. It enables a common dialogue and language and is often thought provoking.

Recently, a well-respected English Consultant, Alex Quigley (@HuntingEnglish) – whom I hold in high regard – posted a Twitter link to extremely current research on teaching new vocabulary. Teaching vocabulary is the buzz of the moment, with reports, panels and research seeking frenetically for the ‘right’ answers to an age-old issue that we offered a solution for all those years ago. I didn’t do it by reading academic reports, I did it by many years of striving for the most effective practice in the classroom, trialling my own ideas and those of colleagues – reading, observing, assessing and evaluating to discover which worked and which didn’t. Not empirical research? Just the best practice I could manage as a primary school teacher with no access to professional development.

So, here I am in the final stages of preparing a new approach to an age-old issue for publication – ‘Talk:Write’ – improving communication through oracy, and someone I regard is posting a link to new research. I take pause – shouldn’t I read this and make sure there is not something new I have missed? I download the document:

‘The Hidden Depths of New Word Knowledge: Using graded measures of orthographic and semantic learning to measure vocabulary acquisition’ (Ricketts, Dawson and Davies 2021).

Part way through the first paragraph of the Introduction, the premise of the research, and indeed – its ultimate findings – were summarised:

‘In emphasising the importance of orthography as well as phonology and semantics in lexical representations, the lexical quality hypothesis (Perfetti & Hart, 2002) is consistent with the prediction that orthographic facilitation will occur in word learning.’

This revealing statement may, sadly, be lost on some as it is buried in a plethora of technical terminology from the academic world of linguistics. I learnt long ago that it is often better not to waste time on decoding the world of academia, but rather to wait until the reports on its findings emerge, which are more usually written in comprehensible language. How amusing one could find it that research intended to make the understanding of communication more effective is communicated in a form incomprehensible to many – unless they have infinite time on their hands and a large academic glossary.

The above quote tells us that, if teaching of new words is backed up by the visual and conventional spelling of the word, as well as it’s sounds and meaning, children learn and retain the word so much better.

This very long report is highly challenging to decode and absorb. It will not change classroom practice until experienced and skilled educators have simplified and clarified it. This is not a problem, however, for most teachers – as it is purely validating that which they already, intuitively, do.

However, there is always a gem in thorough research, although sometimes even the researchers themselves have not realised which small element is the actual new insight. For me, the gem came a little further on when the researchers reported that:

’Moreover, whilst spoken and written representations of language vary across contexts as a result of changes in voice, accent, handwriting, font and so on, arguably, this is more pronounced for speech. Therefore, orthographic forms may be more readily learned than phonological forms, providing a more effective anchoring device, or hook, on which to hang semantic information.’

I do not know if this report is actually the first to say this – I will have to read more widely to establish that. What I do know is that it makes me stop and throw up my hands in horror. Has all this focus on teaching reading and spelling entirely through phonics from the earliest stages of education over the past decade been a serious detriment to learning for more children, due to the fact that pronunciations vary so greatly that the accurate identification or application of phonetic rules will be an inaccurate science? I struggled to help my own grandchildren with spelling when they were at the start of primary school over the past six years, because they had neither been taught the alphabet nor the names of the letters. Everything had to be done through phonemes. Another generation deprived and damaged perhaps?

This report emphasises the importance of applying a rounded perspective to the teaching of new vocabulary. The study, unusually carried out with latitude, showed that when children learnt new words through a combination of seeing, saying, spelling and semantics, more retained the words eight months later.

At this time, this so reassures me and ratifies our revised approaches that we shall be introducing by this summer through an exciting new initiative named Talk:Write.


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Teacher Wellbeing

Recently I read an excellent Q&A session published by TeachCare. It led to my getting involved in a brief discussion on Twitter, firstly about the damage Ofsted is doing in some or many schools (I haven’t seen the stats) and this morphed into my being asked whether I thought teaching had become a more difficult job over the last 15 to 20 years. Having made a fairly glib answer that I didn’t and that the curriculum for example, has actually become more flexible, the discussion ended… but the issue has become an earworm and I can’t escape it.

When I look back to my first 27 years in education, from 1965 to 1992, I can list the headteachers I worked for: TM, DT, TE, PB, BW, XX, CF, DE… eight heads in 27 years. We could enjoy a minor diversion here, called ‘spot the female heads’. It won’t be a lengthy diversion because there is only one – seven of those heads were male. Now I shall award each three main characteristics of leadership based on my experience of them in the profession and the schools they led.

TM: Aloof, Dictatorial, Priority: Unknown – rarely seen
DT: Distant, Non-assertive, Priority: Smooth operation
TE: Gregarious, Disorganised, Priority: Anything but his school
PB: Devious, Dictatorial, Priority: Control
BW: Approachable, Organised, Priority: Smooth running
XX: Aloof, Unprofessional, Priority: The music teacher
CF: Caring, Thorough, Priority: Wellbeing for all
DE: Approachable, Disorganised, Priority: Child-centredness

Two of those heads definitely showed caring to their staff in a crisis, but only when the need was glaringly obvious. Three of them seemed oblivious to the fact that the staff were living people with worries, difficulties and issues. One head was extremely efficient and knowledgeable, but always had time for anyone – pupil or staff or parent. One head was sacked for immorality – frogmarched off the premises after refusing to leave discretely.

Today’s heads are cut from a very different cloth. They are mainly extremely professional and knowledgeable about educational matters, and they toil long hours to keep abreast of change, the latest dictats from above and the needs of the pupils, parents and communities that their schools serve. Yet they also, in the main, work hard to have the issues of staff wellbeing and self-esteem strongly to the forefront of all that they do. And this has been so evident in the way their staff have coped with the terrible traumas, track changes, pendulums and pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic.

So why are the current generation of teachers generally so much more stressed than their colleagues of the past? Disregard the pandemic of course, that would do it for anyone, so let’s consider the teachers who entered the profession from 1995 to 2015. Pre-2000, I was mainly working as an LA advisor across 150 primary schools and I never saw a teacher cry about school-related issues or heard that anyone else had. Over the 12 years that I was involved in Ofsted inspections, I never heard that we had left a teacher in tears, or a head teacher for that matter – although I fear that we must have. The National Strategies were inflicted on primary schools and changed and rechanged. Testing was reviewed and changed. Ofsted was reviewed and changed in 2005, 2009 and 2015. Teachers were often stressed but rarely to the point of tears and they did not leave the profession in the numbers that do today.

So why today? The Ofsted regime and its associated inspection framework changed again in 2019 and that has certainly led to huge stresses and anxiety across staff at all levels. School leaders and teachers also report feeling undervalued by the government. In actual fact, heads work incredibly hard to try to meet the constantly changing demands and pressures from above. Historically, education has always been the scapegoat of new governments and the pendulum has swung constantly – reversing policy, practice and curriculum with each incoming regime. Now, however, one party has been in government since 2010, so why is the pendulum still swinging so violently and why are heads running themselves ragged to keep up with it? The answer has to be that a change of party or portfolio leadership is almost as impactful as a change of government… and the further we edge away from the principles of ‘Every Child Matters’, the less we address the needs of the majority of our schools’ populations.

The issue of teacher wellbeing is not unique to England:

‘In one study, 85 percent of teachers reported that work-life imbalance was affecting their ability to teach. Other research has shown that at least 30 percent of teachers leave the profession within their first five years of teaching. Like our research, these studies found that the general causes of teacher stress and burnout are related to a lack of strong leadership and a negative climate, as well as increased job demands, especially around testing, addressing challenging student behaviours, a lack of autonomy and decision-making power, and limited-to-no training in social and emotional learning (SEL) to support educators’ and students’ emotional needs.’

(Education in the Face of Unprecedented Challenges: Yale Centre for Education USA; April 2020)

I have always felt that NPQH, introduced as a qualification for headship in 1997, had something to answer for in generating teacher stress. We now have a nation of schools almost totally led by NPQH qualified head teachers, many of whom have been inculcated into the theory of the tick-box route to success. The current programme provided by most institutions is much improved and deals far more with reality and practice. Our heads strive for the best for their pupils and community, and in doing so they are constantly trying to improve their systems and solutions to match the best they see around them. Best practice is shared and circulated. Ofsted has only to praise an approach and a network of schools will adopt it tomorrow. So – for the teachers – the pendulum swings. A new requirement, method, format, system… change… change… change…

Finally, the constant changes in policy and practice lead to stressed leadership and stressed leadership unintentionally transmits stress to the staff of their school in so many ways, especially with increasing expectations, increasing demands and regular changes in decision or direction.  We all need to sit back, take a great sigh and say, ‘Enough is enough!’ Education should be led by educators, with education at the heart of the process. I wish we could throw everything out and start again with wellbeing of pupils and staff underpinning the process rather than tagged on alongside. However, we can’t. All we can do is believe in ourselves and our staff, consult and consider, and ensure that all changes are only for the better. If in doubt, don’t do it (or not yet) – and if change truly can’t be avoided, make it gradually in a planned and managed way.

Relevant publications I have enjoyed recently include:

Back on Track by Mary Myatt
Teacher Wellbeing and Self-Care by Adrian Bethune and Emma Kell
Wellbeing in the Primary Classroom by Adrian Bethune
Preserving Positivity by Haili Hughes
What They Didn’t Teach Me on My PGCE by Sarah Mullin

And, of course, our own It Takes 5 Years to Become a Teacher


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Stamina with Style

Building stamina with style is very achievable – it is about expectation. And expectations shape outcomes – so Robert Rosenthal said in November 2003. It is known as The Pygmalion Effect! If you expect children from aged 7 upwards to complete a side or more of lively, relevant and technically accurate writing within 50 minutes, the majority will be successful by the 4th session of weekly unsupported writing. Stamina will now be maintained for as long as the weekly sessions and the expectation are sustained and teaching for writing can focus much more on building of extensive and rich vocabulary and sentence structures.

And don’t let anyone hear you say, “We haven’t got the time!”

We are developing a new programme that teaches children to a) talk correctly in Standard English b) use sophisticated language structures and vocabulary with confidence and c) re-develop writing stamina.

The teaching of accuracy and style should be taught in schools as most children will not develop these skills spontaneously through reading. In Talk:Write it is achieved in bite-sized, fun activities and games enjoyed in short sessions (often of around 10 minutes) scattered across every week in between lessons or as a ‘brain-break’ in the middle of a lesson. They are made relevant to the teaching that is taking place and thus may be adapted to any subject of the curriculum. The sustained, unsupported writing is deliberately moved around the subjects that lend themselves to extended writing, so that it does not dominate the English curriculum; for example – this week it might be reporting a science investigation, next week it might be a discursive text on decimation of the rainforests and the week after it may be a persuasive piece for PSHE on the importance of a daily PE session for every child.

What fun the children have had in our trials! They love the short role plays with characters of different speech registers and attitudes. Our programme values and cherishes regional accents and dialects which we believe should be used in parallel with learning Standard English and sophisticated structures. Pupils also compete eagerly to solve a challenge or register the most examples against the clock and they laugh with glee as they spot specific features or errors. Classes cheer when they know it is time for Talk:Write – and week by week their writing becomes increasingly mature and sophisticated. And when it comes time to produce their extended writing – they are eager to showcase their newfound writer’s voice and style.

Dedicating one hour a week to such an important skill as written communication that is the vehicle for testing of subject knowledge across the whole curriculum for their entire secondary (and for some – higher) education should be an easy decision to make. If you study marked GCSE and ‘A’ Level scripts in subjects like science, geography and history – the differences between the highest and the lowest scoring scripts is very often NOT subject knowledge per se, but rather the ability to communicate that knowledge in grammatically correct and often expressive writing, while working at sufficient pace to be able to complete the paper within the time scale. It takes true stamina to write at length while responding to stimuli or questions that were previously unseen. Thinking about answers takes time. Composing the language of answers will take time if it has to be done consciously. The process of producing 2 or more sides of writing can be tiring if not pre-programmed. All these factors can spell doom for a pupil who has not previously been required to complete such work in one sitting.

Rest assured, the choice is yours! The current government and testing agencies don’t seem bothered but for us and for the children we teach – STAMINA WITH STYLE MATTERS!

Find out more about the Stamina with Style Online CPD course. We have a School or Single Licence option.

Get in touch to find out more about Talk:Write and building stamina with style.

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Chapter 1 of It Takes 5 Years to Become a Teacher

Setting the Scene of My First Five Years

Times have changed so much over the years. When I started teaching in 1965, there was no help at all. I clearly remember being abandoned in an art room with a register and left to get on with it. No one offered advice and I knew no one to ask. It was a 700-pupil secondary school with a head, two deputies and 50 members of staff. I cannot remember any of them asking if I was alright or if I needed help. I had never marked a register before, my blackboard writing wobbled and I had planned no lessons as I had not been given a timetable.

I do remember being petrified. Nothing I had done at school or at college seemed to have prepared me adequately for this. I stood and looked at a class, sometimes in abject fear, not knowing what to say or do. Some ‘lessons’ proved totally unsuitable for the age of the groups they were prepared for and some were completed in 15 minutes with nothing else prepared to last the rest of the hour. I didn’t feel like a teacher, I didn’t think like a teacher and I didn’t look like a teacher.

Worst of all, I didn’t know how a 21-year-old teacher was supposed to feel, think or look and the school seemed to be populated with ‘old’ teachers so I had no immediate role models.

It didn’t help that I didn’t have any ‘real’ clothes suitable for a teacher, I keenly felt that my image was all wrong – I had never planned on teaching. Female teachers were not allowed to wear any form of trousers in school at that time, with the exception of PE teachers who were allowed to wear track suit bottoms in winter. As students, we were cut some slack, but now it was ‘for real’. Every day was a dilemma of what to wear, with the only two skirts I possessed both being very short and tight. Today, everyone is used to seeing women of all ages in fairly short, tight skirts, but in the 1960s it was only the younger generations and so – even on such a large staff – it was me, alone. My summer tops were basically different forms of T-shirts, mainly baggy and worn – and in winter I wore the same big home-knitted jumpers I had sported in college. Money was short and cheaper clothing was confined to the big cities. There was no internet, of course, and on a salary of £45 a month after tax, it was a long time before I could afford to make myself more presentable.

How I wish I had asked family for contributions to my wardrobe for my birthday when I knew I had been appointed. How you feel about your appearance is important (although you should not worry about what others think) and getting it right can be a big help. I was demoralised enough in those first months in the profession and worrying about my perceived unprofessional image only compounded the low self-esteem.

My register class was a Year 8 class of 12 to 13 year olds and the day was full of ringing bells. One bell brought the pupils in at 9am and one signalled us to go to the hall for assembly – a daily event led by the head wearing his graduation gown. The students stood in rows and sang two hymns accompanied by a woman on the grand piano. Then the head read a passage from the Bible, everyone said the Lord’s Prayer and we filed back out again. It was about as spiritual as a visit to the doctors. As this was going on, the second deputy head, Basher Burgess, was roaming up and down the rows of students, punching them in the kidneys and growling: ‘Jesus loves yer,’ in their ears. Periodically, he would fling an arm towards the double doors and a troublesome child would shuffle out to join the ever increasing line-up outside his office and – when assembly was over – Basher would fetch his cane and give each pupil three strokes on each hand. It was clearly a highly effective form of behaviour management as it was almost always the same pupils there the next day and the day after…

The final bell at the start of the day told register classes to go to their first lesson and I waited to see who would arrive in my room for their double period art lesson. In the end, I sent a student to the office to ask if I could please have a timetable so that I could be better prepared.

There were three art rooms, two were adjacent with a shared stock room between them and one – that of the head of art – was at the other end of the school. He never came down to my art room in the four and a half years I was there, and we never had a team meeting. Gordon was in the adjacent room to mine and I didn’t even meet him until my second week. I was petrified. I hid in my room and quaked. Classes came and went. Most of them were quite co-operative but I did have run-ins with the Year 10s on many occasions. They were leaving at the end of the year and were demob happy from my very first day in September. I didn’t know what to do about them and had no one to ask. I began to dread their lessons, the rudeness, occasional missiles flung and the loud conversations across the room.

When I plucked up the courage to ask Gordon about it after a month he just laughed and said Year 10s were always like that every year, but I couldn’t hear any noise coming from his end of the stockroom. There were no policies for guidance and no detentions.

The staffroom was large and full of easy chairs, usually in two circles with a single line round the extremities. I was totally ignored for the first two months and dreaded going in there. People appeared to have their own seats and sat in the same place at both break and lunch time. My first visit resulted in a rather large lady saying, ‘That’s Dennis’s seat!’ quite sharply when I went to sit down. Lunch was served in the hall and was equally traumatic. I hadn’t the courage to walk straight to the front of the long queue and could waste most of my lunch time waiting to be served. I soon abandoned school lunches and took a sandwich, which I ate in my art room, alone.

Building strong relationships with your colleagues is important. We all need to feel a part of something, we need friendship and a smile from time to time. We also need to have colleagues we can trust and whose advice we can seek. Professor Sam Twiselton has written about ‘getting in with the wrong crowd’ in her contribution, to be found in the opening section of the book. In a large school that is an easy mistake to make – there are always a few grumblers and dissenters in a staffroom. Unfortunately, in the last full-time post I held in a primary school in Kirklees, the dissenters were led by the deputy head! I didn’t ‘get in’ with anyone, grumblers or otherwise.

Leadership of a school is so important for newly qualified teachers. There was no leadership in my first experience of teaching – it was every one for themselves. I struggled, but I certainly wasn’t the worst. I remember passing poor Mr Baum’s class with horror. He had first years – aged 11 to 12 – and first years were with one teacher for all lessons except PE and science. Mr Baum’s class was totally out of control, missiles flew round the room and children climbed on chairs and desks while he stood – red faced and apoplectic – at the front trying to shout above the noise. He was a mature man who had trained late and this was his second year at the school. He left the profession at the end of my first year.

What I soon learned in that first school was that you can’t win by trying to out-shout pupils from challenging backgrounds. That first school was located in a small coal mining town, in the days when the pits were still open. In those days, the narrow streets were lined almost exclusively with two-bedroom, red brick terrace houses within which there were often two or three adults and three or four or more children. Life was crowded and noisy and frequently tempers would flare. Our students knew all about how to win by shouting… they knew less about how to respond to calm and peace and praise and kindness, so focusing on those qualities, and praising pupils who responded, was far more effective. Yet I still struggled, and there were many days when I stood in despair at the front of a noisy rabble and didn’t know whether to scream or cry.

Gradually, however, I made a few friends, earned my own seat in the staffroom and started to feel more a part of things. Perhaps I had been giving off the wrong vibes and that deterred staff from speaking? But I never found a mentor to advise me and support me in my early, blindfolded venture into the profession.

How I Bumbled My Way into Teaching

How could I go through three years at teacher training college and come out at the other end ignorant and totally unprepared for the job? There are three answers to that question.

The first thing to say is that I never wanted to be a teacher. I disliked teachers and schools intensely due to my own personal experience as a pupil in both primary and secondary school. My family circumstances deteriorated due to the death of my father when I was five, after he had spent two years in bed totally paralysed following a stroke. Mother was left with four children aged five to ten and no income in the days before widow’s pension or any sort of state benefit. In order to keep us all together, we moved to a huge Victorian semi-detached and took in six students from Leeds University. Life was hard and during the lengthy holidays we were quite impoverished. Sadly, I became quite dirty and neglected. The primary school I attended was quite ‘middle class’ and gradually I became isolated and lonely, and acquired the label ‘stink bomb’.

Secondary school was a little better as I learned to keep myself clean and tidy, and my two older sisters were already in the school. However, I was already disaffected and – although I was able enough to keep my place in the ‘A’ class of four streams – I didn’t work hard and I didn’t get on with many of the staff. It is a sad indictment of the profession to admit that, when on a day’s professional development, we were asked to think of the most inspirational teacher we had ever met during our own time at school, I was the only one of the 60 on the Kirklees Local Authority team unable to find one inspirational teacher from my personal past.

My one passion at the girls’ high school was art. In those days, I thought I was quite good at art and it led to me really wanting to leave high school at the end of Year 11 to go to Leeds Art College in order to become a commercial artist. However, when I informed the school of this midway through Year 11, I was summoned to the headteacher’s office and she reduced me to tears with a mix of sarcasm and ridicule. It transpired that no one left an ‘A’ class without completing sixth form and going to university. If I persisted in my application, she would tell the college the ‘truth’ about me as a scholar, but if I stayed on for sixth form, she would give me a reasonable reference. It was all about the numbers in a sixth form for funding in
those days.

I stayed on.

Part way through the first year of sixth form, however, I discovered that I could enter teacher training college with just six O-levels and no A-levels (I had scraped eight GCEs) at the end of first year sixth form due to the difference in age specification for entry. To start school, the age requirement was to be aged five by the start of the September of that school year. To enter college, the age requirement was to be 18 by the end of September. My birthday is in September – I had always been the oldest at school and now I was to be the youngest at college.

So, I escaped school early after all and ended up training for a profession I had no intention of pursuing in the future.

The final factor was that, due to the massive snows of 1963 and my partner-in-crime, who was on first teaching practice in the same rural primary school as myself, we managed to get through the second term’s teaching placement by not arriving at the school until 10.30 in the morning and leaving again at 2.30 in the afternoon, thus only teaching one real lesson a day. Ron, the minibus driver, was amazingly receptive to bribery and so we achieved being last to be dropped off in the morning (after enjoying a mug of steaming hot tea in a transport café with Ron) and the first to be picked up in the afternoon, even though we were not ‘at the end of the line’. We arrived at school with tales of being stuck in snow drifts or blocked by others stuck in the snow. A packet of cigarettes a week for our driver certainly did the business!

Our second teaching practice was in the final year, and this time I was on my own in a secondary school. This could have been regarded as a realistic introduction to ‘the other side of the desk’ as the experience was very similar to my first true post two terms later. The head of art spent my lessons in the staffroom and was quite disparaging about my outcomes yet offered no help at all – and I asked for none. I made no friends, and nobody gave me any advice. My teaching was mediocre, and I learned little from the experience – and especially because halfway through I was taken ill in school and sent home (a journey of which I have no memory). The next day mother called for the doctor and he came twice in four hours as he was so worried. My right arm and side were temporarily paralysed. Sufficient to say I missed over three weeks of the practice, and was threatened with a repeat of my third year as no one could miss longer than one week, but thanks to the senior lecturer at college, I was given a reprieve.

The amazing thing is that I entered a profession I disliked intensely, without any desire to teach at all, and with scarcely any actual teaching experience under my belt, but as soon as I discovered that you could treat pupils and learning in quite the opposite way to the way I was taught, I grew to love it and have loved it ever since.

I learned to model my practice on the teachers I admired most, I learned confidence and approachability, and most of all, I learned to ask for help when I needed it, even if it was never offered. Watching and learning from others is a great way to get started – you will soon adapt and customise your practice to reflect your personal preferences and style.

Departing from My First Post

A final complication in my early career was my chosen means of transport to school – a Honda 50 – a very small motor scooter, quite new to the scene at the time.

When I accepted the job at the secondary school, I hadn’t thought about how I would get there. It was a shock, therefore, to discover that the journey would involve a 20-minute bus ride to Wakefield bus station and then a change of buses for a 35-minute ride to Normanton followed by a ten-minute walk to the school. With delays and waits for buses, a total of up to one and a half hours at the beginning and end of each day. I only tried it once before school opened to know it was not feasible for a reluctant traveller, so I went to a garage in Wakefield and came out with a brand-new scooter bought on credit.

I loved that machine! I practised conscientiously prior to the first day of term and found I could complete the whole journey in anywhere between 30 and 45 minutes. Perfect! It would have helped if I had known what time teachers usually started at schools in those days (not nearly as early as they do today), so I made a guesstimate and roared into the front gates at 20 to 9 of day one! That was not early enough – even for the ’60s – as a really angry faced woman standing with folded arms and legs akimbo on the top step of the main entrance informed me in no uncertain terms.

Very Angry Lady did not introduce herself by either name or post, she did not shake my hand or welcome me to the school or the profession. She snarled:

‘Follow me!’ and I grabbed my bags and followed her, helmet flaps flapping, down two corridors, through a hall, down a third corridor and round a corner where she opened the door on the left, virtually pushed me in, thrust a register at me, and growled:

‘This is your room, this is your register,’ and left.

That lady never spoke to me again in the four and a half years I was at the school. She was the first deputy head. Actually – that was not true – she did turn back at the door and snap:

‘And shift that wretched machine from the front of the school and never park it there again!’

Riding a small scooter not built to travel at more than 50 miles an hour may be a pleasure on most summer and early autumn days, but in the depths of winter it is often a horror. I would arrive at school battered and bedraggled, often soaking wet and very cold. I couldn’t afford (and probably wouldn’t have worn) suitable waterproofs for the job, and a duffle coat and helmet are not the most protective all-weather wear. 

I often set off a little late and would be pushing the small machine beyond its capacity, hurtling round bends as though I was in the TT on the Isle of Man. I had many near misses but only actually fell off once, skidding sideways in heavy rain on the top of the moorland – much to the pleasure, it seemed, of the gentleman following me in a small, grey car. He parked close to me, got out and greeted me (still lying on the road in the rain) with
the words:

‘I knew you were going to fall off, you were riding much too fast.’

Luckily, I was completely alright except for one grazed leg, but it did take some of the fun out of my future journeys. I also got tired of the endless jokes on the playground and in the staffroom about Batman, Super Woman, Ros Sheene or Ros Dunlop (after two famous motorcyclists), Chug Chug Girl, Ros the Drip and so on and so on…

After four and a half years, I had had enough of the travel and was seeking a job nearer to home.

My Top Tips for Starting a New Post

  • Remember that everyone struggles in some areas at the beginning, persevere – it will all come right in the end.
  • Keep calm or at least fake calmness!
  • Praise those children who work hard and behave, and ignore those who don’t – unless there is danger!
  • Ask for help if no one has offered it.
  • Accept all the help you can get and listen to your mentor and others.
  • Make friends and ask them for advice when you need it.
  • Buy a couple of appropriate professional outfits and a change of shirts/tops to accompany them – dress to feel good about yourself.
  • Consider your journey to school before accepting a post. Many new teachers need to accept the first job they are offered, but you still need to take care of yourself and – if you can afford it – a small car is still the best means if public transport is too challenging. After a few weeks, you will probably be able to agree a car share with another member of staff for the environment’s sake.


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