Celebrating the 'good stuff' about reading teaching: Affinity TSA's Teachmeet

After reaching out to professionals on social media about CPD opportunities in reading - as you do in this millennial age- I was introduced by school improvement expert and lead professional, Estelle Ewing, to the Affinity Teaching School Alliance's Teachmeet which was to be held in Leicester on the 13th of February. The focus of the Teachmeet was the improvement of reading teaching which in itself was enough for me to sign up right away. The TSA, based at Kibworth Church of England Primary School, had the pleasure of hosting members of their 28 partner schools along with other lead professionals with key notes from the phenomenal Mary Myatt and other speakers from the Strategic School Improvement Fund led project towards the Improvement of Reading. I did some background reading of course and was impressed by the TSA's work around professional development, initial teacher training and partner school support. Needless to say as I wound through the back roads from Coventry that Wednesday evening, I was eager to attend.

I arrived to a room buzzing with activity with over 100 professionals mixing, greeting and ready to discuss reading teaching. I instantly saw inspiration for my own authority here. Teachers and educators from schools across the city with one goal - to improve practice. I met and thanked Estelle for extending the invitation to an 'outsider' like me and was efficiently seated by the TSA's Administration and Communication Manager, Amy. Everything was well organised and what made it better was the impressive display of books on sale by Roving Books.

As I sat, waiting for the event to begin Mary Myatt walked over with curious eyes. Her first words were 'So what is your context?' You must know I always have an instant like for bold personalities and to be honest it wasn't until after explaining how I arrived to be there when she introduced herself that I recognised her as the Mary Myatt. I told her immediately I admired her work and her approach - I recalled an interview I read where she said she never advertised herself and preferred her business (she quickly corrected me - 'my work' - loved that) to be known instead. She was open and direct and had a real sense of knowledge. Her fun side was not to be missed however as she quickly noted her like for my glittered nails and headed back to her seat while James Brown (Discovery Schools Academy Trust Deputy CEO) called us all to order and centred the audience on the purpose of the event.

Pedagogy was the focus and it was refreshing. The why we teach reading was evidenced by James as well as how the SSIF helped the Trust to really focus on driving their RAG rated standards, look at best placed effort and develop actions in Reading teaching and learning based on the Education Endowment Fund's improving Literacy recommendations across the Key stages. The approach was robust and thorough and it was no wonder I felt privileged to be a part of the Leicester aimed event as a new primary consultant based in Coventry. I took in the facts and it confirmed my own professional drive to keep delivering quality work aimed at raising standards around reading in my own city and eventually beyond.

Then Mary took centre stage. She encouraged participation and disagreements making it clear to us this as how she grew as a professional. Her keynote was titled : 'Closing the Vocabulary Gap'. Her delivery was engaging and always tinged by a candid sense of humour which had us hooked on every wise word.

Her opening statement resonated. In the world of education "we don't spend enough time celebrating the good stuff". Of course she is so correct. As teachers we are naturally self-critical and there really are amazing practices happening of which we ought to be very proud. Throughout her presentation, she referred to the practices of several teachers on twitter whom she followed and quality examples of word work that celebrated outstanding practice in teaching vocabulary all of which gave context to words and made them relevant to the classroom environment derived from quality texts, empowering children's access to a wide range of vocabulary.

She reminded us to remember the priority focus of the curriculum as 1. Speaking, 2. Listening, 3. Reading and then 4. Writing therefore placing maximum emphasis on the power of reading aloud. She wondered at the possibility that we should see reading aloud as privileged and intentional as phonics. This has always been at the core of my practice but it was wonderful to hear it out loud and with such passion. Mary referred to reading aloud to children as the 'collective cuddle'. What a beautiful metaphor that was: An opportunity to surround children with 'lovely things'(words, images, sounds and meaning). All of which will enrich their understanding and knowledge of the world around them.

From 'Telling Tales in Latin' by Lorna Robinson

We were given good insight into the power of etymology and moving 'beyond definition' to arm the children with lifelong skills in vocabulary that were transferable across contexts and genres. She emphasised how word history was key to deepening comprehension and gave us sound examples from a book (I now proudly own in kindle format) called 'Telling Tales in Latin' by Lorna Robinson who has written a few such treats so do look up this author. She spoke about using 'high challenge, low threat' cognitive practices which enforced what I had always felt instinctively as a teacher - make learning challenging while making feedback critical and positive, in effect embrace errors as teaching moments so that true learning takes place empowering children to move from cognitive dissonance to cognitive resonance. She spoke about intentional vocabulary teaching through etymology by demonstrating language origin to give the children the 'why' words are used as they are.This meaning making made great sense to me and immediately impacted on my practice. Her keynote was edifying and needless to say - nobody challenged and if anything, everyone agreed (I openly). Who could disagree with such clear, common sense logic? It really made me think. Why do teachers often get criticised as not being able to teach reading properly when there are so many amazing examples around us of teaching that works? Is it that these examples are not enough or that we do not or can't seek them out? To be honest, as a class teacher I would never have had the wherewithal to make my way to Leicester from Coventry after a long day of teaching, marking and possibly meetings after school. In fact I would have been too exhausted to even ask and learn about what CPD existed in my region and would not have been at all bothered about not being in the know providing my boxes for SLT were ticked. As a consultant I have that freedom to collaborate, observe, learn and explore that I now wish could be made opportune for all teachers. Not enough collaboration not just within schools, but across authorities leaves the well often dry and practice 'unreplenished'.

I had to make an early departure - with my own training sessions due to be delivered over the following days and my children demanding my attention (which I now didn't need to deny them as I had when I was a full time teacher). But on my journey back, I reflected and appreciated what the TSA put together with great effect. I am grateful for SSIF (round 2) making such events possible and giving teachers such an inclusive open forum to evaluate, learn and develop. Above all I am thankful for pioneers in the classroom with an outside view of including parents in the power of reading to ensure that this and future generations are not disenfranchised. I am relieved that pioneers, like Mary, like Estelle and her team and other professionals make it their work (not their business) to share best practice in reading teaching feeding pedagogical growth. So let's celebrate the 'good stuff'. Essentially we all want to teach with maximum impact and if we are doing this already in our own space - join that open forum of good practice where you can, so all can see what's good about reading teaching. We know it is happening.

Kala Williams

Kala Williams is a primary based Education Consultant specialising in the teaching of reading for Mastery who works across primary schools in Coventry, UK. She works with schools to develop a rigorous approach for the teaching of group reading using unique and impacting strategies from years of successful practice. She has trained, coached and collaborated with dozens of teachers and driven the standards of hundreds of students in reading with a very high success rate of greater depth attainment. Her company, Bright I's, is a fast growing consultancy born out of passion, research based approaches and what actually works! Follow her on twitter @rogue_reading or reach out via email brightideased@zoho.com