Group work can be great

I started writing this post after reading Tom Bennett’s 2015 mostly sceptical article Group Work for the Good that he recently linked to on Twitter.  I tweeted back to him that I had only the week before decided that group work would be my way forward in raising attainment with a Year 3 class that I teach every week.  (His reply? – ‘Careful now ;)’!)

Bennett’s justifiable reservations notwithstanding, I’ve found group work to be an effective teaching tool, specifically in raising attainment by changing learning behaviour.

The class in question is not my class but I’ve taught them every week since January this year.  In that time, the same children have behaved more or less every week in the same way, leading to the same failure to achieve the outcome of the lesson.

I won’t be talking about behaviour management at a class or school level; nor how SEND provision, including parental engagement, might help these children’s attainment.  Though in real life it is false to make this separation, this post will focus only on the idea of using group work to achieve successful outcomes for the whole class.

My experience

I should start, as Bennett did, by talking about experience as a factor in using group work.  I’ve been teaching Key Stages 1 and 2 for about 15 years, much of it doing interventions – with EAL pupils and with low, medium and high attainers.  I was Literacy Co-ordinator for five years.  I’ve been a supply teacher and at the moment I’m a PPA teacher.  I’ve done team teaching and whole class teaching using a variety of methods, including ‘fully guided instruction’ as Bennett puts it, and group work.  Group work is certainly not the only answer to low attainment.  Whatever the context or approach, I’m looking for a) task completion to b) a standard that indicates attainment, leading to c) progress.

And that’s what I’m not seeing from the children I’ve mentioned, who make up about a quarter of the class.  I’m getting some of a) but without b), but mostly neither a) nor b), which clearly leads to a dearth of c).

My concern is not just for the lack of progress in this numerically-significant group of children.  It’s the knock-on for the rest of the class: the messing around, chatting, irritability and distress that causes stress and lowers attainment for everyone.

That’s not to say that some of those whose attainment is fine are models of good learning behaviour. There will always be children who can mess around, chat, get bad-tempered or cry and still manage to achieve a), b) & c).  But they could probably achieve more with improved learning behaviour, just as much as their classmates attaining at a lower level could.

So, how?

Below are the strategies I built into planning to pre-empt the drawbacks that Bennett identifies in his article, namely unequal participation because some children are coasting or not doing anything.

  • Grouping

I started by grouping the children not just by their usual attainment but by the learning behaviours that I’ve observed over the last 10 months.

This is where it gets quite unscientific.  There are seven groups of four, as follows:

Group 1: These children always listen attentively during whole class teaching, have good recall and good working memories, can manage complex tasks, retaining a sequence of instructions from beginning to end, co-operate, don’t complain, manage their problems – personal and social – appropriately, always complete their tasks to the desired standard.

Group 2: These children’s attainment is always good, but this is in spite of often chatting and messing around, arguing, getting upset with other children and complaining – all learning behaviour that means their attainment is very likely not as good as it should be, and which affects other children too.

Group 3: This is a group of children with low self-esteem as learners.  In one case it is catastrophic, with frequent outbursts of anger and crying.  There is active avoidance in every lesson – asking to get water, to go to the toilet, complaints about headaches etc.,  as well of off-task behaviour – chatting, day-dreaming, simply doing nothing.  Co-operation is often poor because the children are not sure that they are esteemed or even liked, and attainment is consistently low.

Group 4: This group of children works really slowly.  Most of them lack confidence.  Most of them have poor attention during whole class teaching.  For one of them there is usually an episode of crying which ends up with an inability to complete tasks unless an adult intervenes and supports.

Group 5: The attainment of the members of this group of children is usually okay.  They’re fidgety, they call out and chat, they’re noisy when they work, one of them tends to get really upset about some aspect of sharing or fairness, but they do usually get there with a firm hand.

Group 6: The members of this group usually don’t complete the task, plus there are usually conceptual errors in the work that they do produce.  They’re diligent but don’t follow whole-class input and/or don’t retain it between the teaching and the task.

Group 7: This group are similar to group 6 but, in the case of three out of the four children, without the diligence.  They probably have difficulties with processing and retaining information.  They often get distracted by things outside of learning – i.e. what other children are doing – and have difficulty co-operating.

The idea of grouping by learning behaviour is that children are not compensating for each other’s weaknesses.  They can see what is it that impedes their own learning in the behaviour of the other children in the group.  If the teacher is explicit, as I am, about what those learning behaviours are, they can support each other in overcoming them. This brings me on to the next strategy.

  • Teacher’s role

The teacher’s role here is to comment on learning behaviours rather than task.  The teacher reflects back to children the learning behaviours as problems that need to be solved.  I describe behaviours repetitively and over-praise any shift away from them.  Children can ask the teacher questions related to subject knowledge and the task, but are encouraged to seek solutions from each other rather than from the teacher.  I will allow more leeway with children that have difficulties managing cognitive load, for example by repeating key words, putting key words into sentences for them to repeat etc.

For this, cognitive load needs to be carefully managed, which leads to the next point.

  • Modelling the outcome

In this week’s lesson, each group’s task was to produce a poster.  The poster had three sections: the first involved a map, the second a diagram and the third a piece of writing – a high cognitive load.  I made a poster with these three sections so that the children knew what the outcome should look like and contain.  I went over the content and skills for each section, relating it to learning from previous lessons as well as new learning,   I turned the poster over after introducing it so that children could not just copy it, but allowed groups that needed to to look at it again if they asked.  I made explicit which parts of the poster were based on previous knowledge and which required application of knowledge taught in that lesson – the next point.

  • Layering knowledge and skills

I wouldn’t use group work when teaching only new material.  If children are able to apply knowledge they already have, each child should be able to contribute something. The knowledge that children had to apply was layered as follows:

  • Previously taught and revisited over several lessons, so fairly embedded: in this case, five countries, their names, their place on the world map and their continents
  • Recently-taught, still needing to be revisited: tectonic plates – what they are in terms of the structure of the Earth
  • New, taught for the first time in that lesson: the risk of earthquakes in different parts of the world (information to be read from a map showing this) and how earthquakes happen in relation to the different types of plate movement (information to be gleaned from a video).

Children had to make a contribution in all of these areas of knowledge.  This was ensured by the next strategy.

  • Rotation of roles

The poster was planned to have three sections so that each child could spend an allocated amount of time (in this case, ten minutes) on each one.  Children could check information or ideas with other members of the group, but as long as the ten minutes lasted it was their responsibility to work on one section.  The fourth role was ‘observer’, the child who observed learning behaviours while the other children worked on the poster.  Whenever children made a written or drawn contribution to the poster, they had to write their name against it, making shirking visible.

  • Immediate feedback

Bennett finds group assessment unfair.  But if feedback is about the learning behaviour that every member of the group demonstrates then it can be useful for the individual members of the group.  With something as large and visual as a poster, it is possible to bring the class back together as a whole and make comments about each poster in terms of how much of the task has been achieved by each group.  This has the added benefit of making task completion a group responsibility, with shortcomings being shared between members of the group, rather than felt on an individual level, which for some children has already become an ingrained and difficult part of the learning experience.

I made a start on this this week. I was able to deliver the lesson so that there was a play time separating ‘how to do this poster’ and ‘the video containing the new information you need to complete this poster’, which was important considering the high cognitive load.  Outcomes in the next post….




A non-fairy tale heroine: Queen Anahit of The Golden Bracelet

Queen Anahid

The resource here is for using with ‘East of the Sun West of the Moon’.  It is intended for a Year 6 class, though a comparison with an un-alike text is not explicitly suggested in the Power of Reading unit.  The story the resource is based on, ‘The Golden Bracelet’, has similarities with the Norwegian story but it is mostly the differences that underline and draw out the fairy tale features.

It is a US picture book set in ancient Armenia and based on a story written down in the 19th century by Ghazaros Aghayan, an Armenian writer.  I was trying to think of Lost Husband stories and kept coming back to this one.  The thing is, though there is a lost husband, the story as told here is not a fairy tale.  It can be found in an Aghayan collection called ‘Fables and Fairy Tales’ and it tells more like a fable in this version by David Kherdian.

The story has been animated (in Armenian) recently, and from the clips online it seems that there is a lot more magic in it than in the Kherdian version.  However, I’m going with the Kherdian book as a down-to-earth comparison with ‘East of the Sun West of the Moon’.

Anahit animation
A still from a 2014 animation of The Golden Bracelet story, ‘Anahit’


The picture at the top of this post illustrates very well the difference between Anahit and the lassie of ‘East of the Sun West of the Moon’: Anahit is a queen with practical tools at her disposal.  The point of ‘The Golden Bracelet’ is that Anahit values practical action above all, and it is this that saves the day.

There are lots of different ways to approach a compare/contrast exercise.  Click here for mine, which sets the magical against the realistic.

P.S.  Anahit gets the ‘Rejected Princesses’ ( or Women too Awesome, Awful, or Offbeat for Kids’ Movies) treatment here, with the sub-heading ‘The Queen Who Made the King Get a Job’.  It also has a link to the entire animated film.

East of the Sun West of the Moon – resources for comparing with similar fairy tales

East of the Sun West of the Moon tale is categorised by the Aarne-Thompson index as a ‘Lost Husband’ type, which can be useful to know when approaching Session 9 in the Power of Reading sequence.  It suggests comparing different versions of the story and this great blog,, has a wealth of information for teachers.

I’ve copied (and slightly edited) the list of features of the ‘Lost Husband’ type of tale, and then copied the list of similar stories (again, slightly edited) from

Characteristics of Type 425A Fairy Tales 

As you read various 425A stories, you’ll likely notice similarities throughout multiple fairy tales and folk tales.

  • The motif of three is often used in these fairy tales and folk tales, such as with three daughters, three days/nights, three questions, three objects, etc. (Read our blog post on the Power of Three: Why Fairy Tales Often Feature a Triple for more on the use of three)

  • The fairy tales typically feature an enchanted man who has become an animal

  • A daughter is required to or is asked to marry the “beast”

  • The husband may appear to be a man at night or when he gets to his home

  • Once at the castle or beast’s home, the bride is treated lavishly but is homesick

  • The bride may go home to her family, but is told to not stay beyond a certain number of days

  • The heroine goes on the quest for her husband after he disappears

  • The bride may receive magical objects to help her return home as well as assist in her quest for the husband

  • The fairy tale or folk tale may feature an appearance by the winds, sun or moon

  • The enchantment over the husband is broken when the bride finds him or performs certain tasks


The Enchanted Pig is a Romanian fairy tale about a king’s daughter who is fated to marry a “pig from the North.” She doesn’t want to, however, her father convinces her the pig must be under a magic spell, and she agrees, then heads to his castle to be his bride…

East of the Sun and West of the Moon is one of the more popular fairy tales of this type, and comes to us from Norway…Here the bride is a daughter of a peasant, and marries the bear in exchange for her father gaining riches. East of the Sun and West of the Moon was authored by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe

In the Italian fairy tale The Enchanted Snake, a snake is raised by a woman who longs for a child. After the snake grows up, he wishes to marry a princess. The story was authored by Giambattista Basile for his collection The Pentamerone…

A Sprig of Rosemary is … unusual compared to other stories that are type 425A, because the husband is a magician who can change his shape; his animal form isn’t the result of an enchantment.

The Brown Bear of Norway is an Irish fairy tale originally published by author Patrick Kennedy in 1866. The story was later collected by Andrew Lang, who shared it in The Lilac Fairy Book.

A bear or beast isn’t the only enchanted form that the prince may have in these types of fairy tales. In The Tale of the Hoodie by John Francis Campbell, the prince is a hoodie, also known as a hooded crow. The fairy tale … features a twist from other type 425A fairy tales, as the bride is allowed to choose whether the crow will be a man by day or by night.

Like in East of the Sun and West of the Moon, here the husband is a giant animal upon which the bride can ride…The Black Bull of Norroway features a large bull who gets separated from his bride when she is left in a valley of glass…

White-Bear-King-Valemon or King Valemon, The White Bear comes to us from the Tales of the Fjeld: A Second Series of Popular Tales from the Norse. This fairy tale has traces of East of the Sun, West of the Moon …

The Daughter of the Skies by J.F. Campbell … comes from Scotland. This folk tale features the husband as a dog, however, he goes to the skies, so the author notes he may be a “Gaelic deity.”

The other ones I’ve looked at were from the list here.

I’ve made a table comparing features of five of the fairy tales.  The criteria for comparison are quite comprehensive and it’s up to you how many you wish pupils to examine.  I’m imagining that you could give one tale to a group of six for reading and analysing (perhaps working in mixed pairs), with a version of the table for them to complete, as many boxes as you think they can manage.  You could make the first row empty, for them to fill in the information for East of the Sun West of the Moon.

Once each tale has been analysed by a group using the same format, you can collate them into a class table, for children can then use to look for patterns, similarities, differences etc.  You can of course ask children which is their favourite – which means making sure that they know all the tales.

The tales themselves vary in word count, so I’ve done abridged versions of each to make them similar in terms of length and demand: you should be able to literally print them off and distribute without making any changes, though as ever they are in Word format should you wish to edit.  You can use these abridged versions for the analysis stage, and for reading them to the class yourself.

If I was doing this session with a class, I wouldn’t want to miss the opportunity to ask them to think about what the symbolism in each tale might be.  My experience with children is that they become very engaged, attentive and thoughtful when working at this sort of depth, and are more than capable of coming up with ideas that surprise and impress us.  This can be particularly the case with children whose decoding in reading is at a lower level than others, but whose understanding of human matters might be deeper.

At the same time, it might be useful to give the class some ideas as starting points – such as, ‘the sun shines during the day, the moon at night, but the wind can blow during the day and at night – what could this symbolise in the story?’  Another suggestion is that the children could highlight with highlighter pens the things in the stories that might be symbolic of something – such as the chicken bones in The Enchanted Pig – so that they can discuss some ideas with partners or in groups before a class discussion.

East of the Sun West of the Moon – resources for teaching children about symbolism in fairy tales

Ell-Nosed Princess
The Ell-Nosed Princess, from P J Lynch’s illustrations for East of the Sun West of the Moon

The Power of Reading sequence for East of the Sun West of the Moon treats it to some extent like it does its other literary texts.  For example, it asks the class to examine the characters of the protagonists (Session 3), with a focus on the portrayal of the heroine (Session 5).

But of course – as the sequence acknowledges – fairy tales ‘preserve key features of an oral storytelling tradition’ and are quite different from literary texts in important ways.

From the blog ‘Fairy Tale of the Month’:

The literary writer spends 80,000—90,000—100,000 words to get the reader to see, hear and feel what the author wants the reader to sense and understand. Characters need to be developed: have names, have clear motives, and follow long, logical, exciting, interesting progressions. The reader is allowed into the heads of the characters and experiences the progressions with them.  Fairy tales are short, compact, and sketchy on details. We never get inside the hero or heroine’s head; we may not even know their names. We see them on the surface. Motivations and logic are optional…

…If we are to measure the fairy tale as an artistic form—not that it cares—we would do better to use the terms we use to describe paintings. What are the images? What does it say to us? What is the atmosphere of the work? What memories does it evoke? What is the impression it leaves behind?

The sequence goes some way to acknowledging this by suggesting a focus on ‘how elements of northern folk tales are conveyed through pictures and language’ in Session 4: Looking closely at pictures.  In the notes for this session it directs the teacher and class to ‘note what the pictures show that the words don’t’.

However, this isn’t quite the point that the quotation above is making: for the reader to respond with feeling to the story, rather than to the pictures that go with the story.  In this case, would the writing of a poem be the best way for a class to end this unit?

It is worth saying that the sequence does not explicitly build towards a final piece of writing.  The last session, Session 10, is called ‘Devising a quest story’ and suggests that any plans devised ‘could be continued as piece of extended writing’.  This seems to be an implicit acknowledgment that the real power of fairy tales is in the reading of them rather than the writing.

Whether you choose to end the sequence with the writing of a poem or a fairy tale, it is an opportunity to introduce pupils to the idea that characters, both animal and human, can represent human qualities and fates.  As Nikki Gamble says in her chapter on Traditional Tales and Fairy Tales in ‘Exploring Children’s Literature’:

..characters in folk tales are archetypal, representing ideas rather than attempts at realistic characteristics.

You can use the PowerPoint here to demonstrate this as a starting point for writing a poem or a retelling along these lines.  Before using it, Year 6 children and even more so Year 5, will need parallel input on symbols and symbolism.

I used this essay by a Jungian psychologist Dr Stephen A Martin for this PowerPoint (which is copyrighted).

Halibut Jackson – ideas for Power of Reading sequence

DashikiSessions 11 to 13 suggest that children design and describe an outfit for inclusion in Halibut Jackson’s shop.  I have to admit I haven’t actually tried this with a Year 1 or Year 2 class – but here’s how I would approach it.

Session 11 suggests using Halibut’s shop at the end of the story as the starting point.  However, I think there’s nothing lost and a lot gained by using the picture children will know from Session 9 – the double page spread with the text ‘Everybody noticed Halibut Jackson’.

Not only is there more to look at in terms of numbers of outfit, it’s also a way of capitalising on one of the real strengths of the book, namely the depiction of both male and female clothing from a range of times and cultures.  The PowerPoint shows eight of these outfits.  Each slide is labelled with key vocabulary and a short bit of writing following the PoR suggestions: what is the item made of, who might wear it, where might they wear it, how would it make them feel wearing it, and what might the reaction to the outfit be?

The text follows a formula which children may but don’t have to adopt in their own writing.  Each slide has the same sentence structure and order of ideas, but don’t expect or require children to repeat it.  Let them take in what they can and reproduce – or surpass! – as they are able.

At the end of the PowerPoint is a template which you could use or adapt for the children to design their own outfits.


The Mousehole Cat – ideas and resources

storm close-up

I’ve been guided by the Power of Reading notes that go with this book.  I personally find the text way too demanding for Year 3, even for Year 4, but it does fit with the current Year 4 Geography unit on coastal areas well.

Session 2 suggests that children highlight words or phrases from ‘Then one year there came a ….’ to ‘But they could not get out’ that convey the fierceness of the storm.  Session 10 and 11 suggest that children write the story in role as Tom.  The ideas below help with both, particularly if the focus of Tom’s story is the fishing trip into the storm.

I’ve done a ‘storm mountain’, which mirrors the shape of a ‘story mountain’ – you can download it here.  It starts with a slide that you can use to compare the climax and the ending of the storm as they are depicted in the illustrations.  The second slide has the mountain showing the shape of the storm: Antonia Barber describes how it begins by trying to breach the sea defences, then reaches its peak when Old Tom and Mowser are fishing, and finally starts to die away as they return to harbour.

I’ve mostly used photos, prints and paintings to illustrate the stages of the storm, with just the two I’ve already mentioned by Nicola Bayley.  I’ve put extracts from the text alongside each stage.  You could put the ‘storm mountain’ in the middle of a larger sheet of paper so that the children have space to note and annotate words and phrases describing the storm (from beginning to end, rather than the shorter section suggested in the Power of Reading notes).

There is another book that describes a storm at sea really well – The Adventures of the Little Wooden Horse by Ursula Moray Williams.  In this part of the story the hero, the Little Wooden Horse of the title, is attempting to swim across the ocean to return to his master.  While swimming, he is chased by ‘sea horses’ – waves – who are angry that he calls himself a horse too.  He is rescued from the sea horses by a passing ship, then locked in a chest by one of the sailors.  The storm comes on while the Little Wooden Horse is locked in the chest and is so strong that the ship breaks up.

The version I’ve got (The Kingfisher Classics one) has an illustration of the sea horses by Paul Howard.

Little Wooden Horse sea horses pic

Below is the text (edited), which provides good ‘compare and contrast’ opportunities – e.g. the characters of the storm cat and the sea horses, or the relationship between the stormcat & Mowser and the sea horses & the little wooden horse.  There’s a lot of work that could be done on the sounds of the storm, as depicted in the noises that the storm cat/sea horses make.  The description of the movement of the ship is also useful:

With a hundred piercing whinnies and squeals of joy the white horses plunged down the next wave after him, their manes flying wildly.  Others hurried to join them.  Soon the sea was full of the fairylike creatures, all chasing the poor little wooden horse, who had to flee for his life.

“How dare you call yourself a horse!” they shrieked, tossing their heads gaily, delighted with the hunt.

“I may be drowned,” said the little wooden horse, “or killed by these cruel creatures, but a horse I shall die.”

He was now being chased by at least a thousand of the mischievous, proud little sea horses.  Their shrill neighs and whinnies filled the air; they screamed with joy as the little wooden horse before them.  “After him!  After him!” they cried.

Suddenly a dark shape loomed ahead of him, almost hidden at one moment by the great waves, but at the next the whole of its enormous hulk came into view.  A big ship was riding into the storm, right across the path of the little wooden horse.

The sea horses neighed still more shrilly when they saw the big ship, and rode the waves even faster than they had done before.  The little wooden horse could feel the salt spray from their nostrils stinging his painted back.  They had nearly caught him… (he is rescued and taken on to the ship here)

…(he is then locked in the sailor Pirate Jacky’s chest below deck) Another thing which worried him very much was the clamour which he heard through the porthole above Pirate Jacky’s chest.  Outside the sea horses were still charging the sides of the ship till it shook with their buffeting, and he could hear their shrill, piercing whinnies.  The little wooden horse soon slept, he was so tired, but the sea horses followed the ship all night.  Sometimes they were quite silent, plunging in and out of the waves with easy flicks of their silver fins and tails, but towards morning they began to neigh again, waking the little wooden horse with their wild, shrill clamour.

Pirate Jacky left him in the sea chest the whole of that day, but at nightfall the sea horses were still following the boat.  They were wilder now than ever, battering at the timbers till the vessel shuddered and leapt and rolled.  On deck the men were busy, for they expected a bad night.

About midnight the little wooden horse, who had been listening for hours to the gathering storm, felt the ship give a sudden heave, and then roll over so violently that the sea chest slid acros the floor and crashed violently into the opposite beams.  The next moment a second violent roll sent it back again, and thenceforward it could not lie still, but was rolled, shoved, rocked, and buffeted across the planks.  The sea chest was pitched on end, turned completely over, rocked violently from side to side, as the ship swayed, yawed, and wallowed in the teeth of the storm.  The noise was terrible.  There was the wind in the rigging, and such a wind as had never been heard.  There was the hissing scream of the rain, the shatter of thunder, the clattering roar and tumble of the waves.

The noise was so deafening he thought he must die, when all of a sudden there came the loudest crack he had ever heard in his life.  With a desperate shiver the ship stood still – then with one terrible downward plunge she dived to her doom.

Click Little Wooden Horse extract to download this in Word.

The Power of Reading guidance also suggest that children draw what the storm looks like with pastels, as if they were Mowser looking out of her window.

The very beautiful illustration of the storm by Nicola Bayley is a stylised one.  You could supplement it with images of paintings by the 19th Century maritime specialists Charles Napier Hemy, Winslow Homer and Ivan Aivarovsky.

Teaching fronted adverbials with picture books – ‘with’

Image from North, by Nick Dowson, Illustrated by

Click here for a PowerPoint with scans, examples and notes from a range of picture books – Leon and the Place Between by Angela McAllister, The Tale of the Mandarin Ducks by Katherine Paterson, Cloud Tea Monkeys by Mal Peet and Elspeth Graham, Fox by Margaret Wild, Fly, Eagle, Fly! by Christopher Gregorowski and North by Nick Dowson.

Ask children to look out for this way of adding an adverbial in their reading books, during Guided Reading sessions too.