Creating well-rounded narrative writers

Creating well-rounded narrative writers

Many students agonise over creative writing and believe they aren’t good writers. Some believe, for example, that they can’t have good ideas. Some students believe that they can’t be good writers because they get low scores in spelling, and some students have been crushed when their entertaining story has achieved a C-grade. How do we help students overcome these doubts, creating well-rounded narrative writers?

How can we create well-rounded narrative writers?

There are some key teaching and learning strategies that need to take place for students to write successful narratives (or complete any assessment really!), and they aren’t always obvious when we have a unit of work in front of us.

1. Explicit teaching of each component.

Each component of the task needs to be explicitly taught.

For example, students do not know how to brainstorm or generate ideas. 

Professional writers don’t just have great ideas. They seek inspiration, they storyboard, they build characters slowly using words and images – there is an entire process that helps set writers up for success. Sometimes it takes writers weeks to come up with ideas.

Students are no different. We need to explicitly teach this process, model it for them, and allow them to practise it. Repeatedly.

2. Students need to be assessment-literate. 

They need to understand the learning intention of the assessment, and they also need to know the success criteria they need to demonstrate to be successful. Just knowing the success criteria can help students to identify their strong and weak points, and what they need to work on. This awareness alone, can improve student success.

Understanding success criteria (and unpacking them within the assessment rubric) helps students to understand that while they may not be the best speller in the world, they can be successful in other success criteria. Good writers aren’t always good at everything!

Being assessment-literate also helps students to understand that they can’t just write a great story – they need to use correct spelling, grammar and punctuation as well.

How can we ensure that we are doing these two things to create well-rounded narrative writers?

  1. Backwards mapping assessment.

By starting with the assessment piece, identifying every piece of success criteria, and building that into our planning, we can make sure that we teach everything the students need to know.

We do students a disservice when assessment doesn’t match what students have been taught.

  1. Using learning walls – also known as working walls.

Implementing a learning wall means displaying the task sheet, the assessment rubric, clearly identifying success criteria, providing good examples of text types, and modelling how to achieve each success criteria.

Using a learning wall helps students to see each component of the task, and gives them clarity on the learning task.

It also helps us as teachers to see what has been taught, and what we may need to teach and reteach.

Well-rounded writers are assessment-literate writers, understanding what success looks like. As teachers it’s up to us to ensure that our students have the skills and knowledge to meet the demands of the assessment, and we meet our gaol of creating well-rounded narrative writers.

More teacher tools for narrative writing can be found here

More teacher tools for learning walls can be found here

You can also find our narrative tools on Teachers PayTeachers here

Sound Walls In The Classroom

Sound Walls In The Classroom

You’ve probably heard about sound walls in the classroom through colleagues or social media – maybe you’ve been asked to implement a sound wall in your classroom. 

Implementing new tools can seem overwhelming at first, but the investment in student learning is always worth it.

If you’re not sure how to get started with sound walls in the classroom, or how best to implement your sound wall, then we’re here to help!

What are sound walls?

A sound wall is organised by sound, helping students to move from speech-print using phonemes (letter sounds), mouth formation(articulation), and recognition of common and uncommon graphemes (letter patterns).

A sound wall is a fantastic tool, easily differentiated for younger and older students. It aids in explicit and systematic phonic instruction, orthographic mapping, spelling and decoding, while also providing students with a working reference wall for reading and writing.

Why use a sound wall?

Explicit instruction of phonemes is known to improve student reading outcomes. Even older students can benefit from a review of phonemes, and common and extended grapheme knowledge.

Secondly, on a sound wall, words are grouped with sounds. This means that instead of learning words from a word wall, students learn letter-sounds and letter patterns, and transfer that knowledge to decoding and spelling other new words. Sound walls are also more easily used. For instance, when a student looks for the spelling of a word such as ‘one’, on a word wall, where do they look? Normally they start at the letter ‘W’. On a sound wall, they are not mislead by the letter ‘o’, but are instead led to find the phoneme /w/, which can be represented by (in this case less-common) graphemes This is far more effective at teaching different spelling patterns.

Finally, they fit into your phonics/spelling program and are an ongoing visual aide. They are not meant to have every word a child needs to spell – rather, the goal is the transfer of letter-sound knowledge and retrieval of taught phonemes/graphemes.

How to get started – basic principles

Sound wall pedagogy is not something you will perfect overnight. Even the experts can’t agree on the categorisation of sounds, so being confused about how sounds are represented, how words are segmented and blended, and the ‘best way’ to use a sound wall is normal. That said, some basic principles apply:

  • Introduce one phoneme at a time.
  • Explicitly teach each sound.
  • Don’t introduce similar sounds at the same time.
  • Introduce the most common letter or grapheme that represents that sound first, but aim to display as many as is age-appropriate.
  • Display mouth formation images for each sound. 
  • It’s best to display as you go. Preparing the entire wall and then carefully storing by sound type all at once, is useful for being able to add sounds throughout the year.
  • If you need to put up your entire wall (some of us NEED to do this LOL), cover up the sounds that haven’t been explicitly taught. Some sound wall kits come with lock images that are handy for this purpose. 
  • MODEL HOW TO USE THE SOUND WALL. Review the sounds every day and then model how to use the wall. It’s not useful if it’s not used!

How to set up a sound wall 

A sound wall uses sound groupings to organise the phonemes. When using a sound wall, it is actually better to have two distinct walls for vowels and consonants. The classic sound wall includes all of the phonemes:

Wall #1 (see image below)

This wall includes :

  1. Vowel valley Long and Short Vowels /ē/, /I/, /ā/, /e/, /a/, /ī/, /o/, /u/, /aw/, /ō/, /oo/, ōō/, yū/ & Vowel Dipthongs /oi/, /ou/,  Vowel Sounds Influenced by ‘R’ /ûr/, /a(r)/, /ā(r)/, /o(r)/, Schwa

The mouth formations in vowel valley move left to right,  from /ee/ to /ou/. They should be grouped together.

Wall #2

This wall includes the consonants and consonant digraphs:

  1. Stops Unvoiced /p/ /t/ /k/  Stops Voiced /b/ /d/ /g/ /j/  Continuants Unvoiced /f/ /s/ Continuants Voiced /v/ /z/ Glides /h/ /y/ /w/ Liquid /l/ /r/ /m/ /n/ Others /k//w/ /k//x/
  2. Consonant Digraphs /th/ voiced and unvoiced, /ng/ /sh/ /ch/ /wh/ with breath /zh/

Alternative ways to display sounds

Consonants and consonant digraphs can be grouped different ways. It is up to your own pedagogical approach whether you feel speech pathology terminology is useful in your classroom. 

You can simply display consonants in the order they are learned, distinguishing between stops and continuants (acknowledging Schwa isn’t added onto the end of sounds – eg /p/-uh).

You can also use groupings such as Fricatives /f/, /th/, /s/, /sh/, /h/ and Affricates /ch/, /j/. 

Being playful with your wall, for example placing voiced and unvoiced sounds (/b/, /p/) next to each other for comparisons, can deepen your students’ understanding of phonemes. 

Differentiating the pedagogy

Differentiating the wall for your classroom is also important.  A complete sound wall may be overwhelming for your class. Displaying just Vowel Vally, or the week’s focus sound, and one or two previous sounds can work for one class. 

If you class is requesting how to spell sounds that aren’t on display, consider if you need to add more to your wall, while highlighting the sounds you have explicitly taught.

Being relaxed about sound walls

If you are confused about sound walls, you should know that even the experts can’t agree on how many phonemes there are. Are there 42 or 44? Do we include vowel digraphs in the final number or not? Academics have even written entire papers trying to prove there are only 35 phonemes. 

It’s not because anyone is incorrect – it’s because the English language is incredibly complex and sounds are changed by dialects, pronunciation and accents.

Now, imagine trying to convince your colleagues there are only 35 phonemes. The thought would probably fill you with dread – and this is how we can feel when trying to implement new things. We get imposter syndrome and worry that we will expose ourselves as not knowing enough.

The key is to do your best, listen to advice from people you respect, continue to learn and implement the things you learn in your classroom.

Creating a Calm Classroom

Creating a Calm Classroom

What is a Calm Classroom?

A calm classroom is a learning environment that gives students a sense of safety, relaxation and equilibrium. The calming environment is created mindfully through routine, decor, temperature and sound.

Why create a calm classroom?

A calm classroom makes your job easier. Students are more engaged, display less behaviour issues, and your own anxiety as a teacher is reduced.

How to create a Calm Classroom:

  • Decor: use neutral and natural tones; plants in the classroom, and avoid over stimulating colours and displays (or at least walls full of these). Our Gum Leaf Themed Decor Kit is a great starting point.
  • Lighting: Use natural light as much as possible. Don’t block the windows – let students see trees and gardens outside; let them see what the weather is doing. If you are next to a busy walkway, or your classroom feels like a fishbowl, use light coloured curtains or blinds (or even light-coloured paper) to shade your windows without blocking the light.
  • Temperature: Warm, stuffy classrooms are irritating classrooms. Children have trouble concentrating and tempers flare. If you want to reduce your behaviour problems, lower the temperature. Open windows, turn the air-conditioner up. Even on cold days, allow fresh air to circulate for a few minutes per day before heating goes on.
  • Noise: Set the tone of the classroom with relaxing music playing when students walk in for the day. You can choose ambient relaxation music, or light happy guitar music. Students also love Disney tunes played on the piano. You can find videos playing relaxing music with nature scenes on YouTube. Continue to play on a low level throughout the day, particularly during quiet work time.
  • Fragrance: If your district allows it, calming essential oils, such as lavender and lemongrass, can help to calm your students.
  • Calm spaces: teepees, cushions, reading corners and retreat areas are important for students that need time out.
  • Reading buddies – soft toys that students bring from home to hold during independent reading time

You can find a range of resources to create a calm classroom in our ‘Calm Classroom’ category.

The Third Teacher in Your Classroom

The Third Teacher in Your Classroom

Who is the Third Teacher?

The Third Teacher in your classroom is the learning environment. The first teacher is the PARENT, the second the CLASSROOM TEACHER and the THIRD is the environment you create for your students. Healthy relationships between all three contribute to student wellbeing and success.

To be a Third teacher, your classroom environment needs to foster independence in learning, nurture creativity and curiosity, provide clarity on teacher expectations (academic and behavioural) , encourage risk-taking and critical thinking, but most of all be useful.

In the context of Learning Walls and Bump It Up Walls, the ‘Third Teacher’ starts with assessment in mind, and facilitates HOW students interact with and use these walls together to improve their own achievement. You read that right – the learning environment actually encourages interaction and participation through purposeful selection, placement and modelling by the classroom teacher.

Why is ‘The Third Teacher’ in Your Classroom Important and How Does it Help You?

The ‘Third Teacher’ is literally that – another helping hand in the classroom. Do your students need help with setting a goal? Refer to the Third Teacher (e.g. Learning Walls, Bump It Up Walls, Success Criteria). Does a child need help with text structure or language features? Try the Third Teacher (e.g. writing exemplars- good & bad, colour-coded examples detailing text structure, student checklist)! Anything relating to achieving success criteria? Refer to the Third Teacher!

Your ‘Third Teacher’ can help you to:

  • Be clear on curriculum goals
  • Share success criteria alongside examples/anchor charts/checklists
  • Provide ongoing support to students either by directing them to the wall, or being able to support students 1:1 because other students are accessing the Third Teacher.
  • Be a facilitator of knowledge, rather than the gatekeeper.

How your students engage with the ‘Third teacher’ determines its effectiveness. The ‘Third Teacher’ is effective when; students have ownership over the learning environment; students know what is in the classroom and where to find it; know how to use the information/tool they find; and students know they have permission to go to the classroom environment first.

How do you encourage students to seek the Third Teacher?

How you craft your classroom environment to encourage students to refer to the ‘Third Teacher’ comes down to a few basic fundamentals:

  • Your classroom environment needs to be set up for individual, group, whole-class work/lessons, with breakout areas that have access to materials they need to explore, engage and scaffold (in Early Years these materials may include counters, manipulative, small investigation areas. Older students may have access to white boards, post-it notes, text books, highlighters etc).
  • You may have a collaborative learning space where students contribute items relevant to the learning.
  • Everything on your classroom wall must be relevant. This means the content has been explicitly taught; students have seen the content before it has appeared on the wall; the content is regularly referred to within lessons and students had an opportunity to co-create some of the content (eg co-constructed anchor charts, success criteria, writing samples)
  • Use student-created work samples, anchor charts, post-its and more. Students are more engaged by theirs and others’ work.
  • You can also create interactive elements and ‘take-aways’ – elements of the learning environment that students can use in their own space (eg WOW word bookmarks that students can take back to their desk).
  • Use the ‘three before me’ rule. Students should ask the peer next to them, a ‘peer expert’, and the Third Teacher (where can you find help in our classroom?), before seeking out your help (unless of course, someone is hurt or there is an emergency).
  • Model the independent processes with ‘think alouds’. For instance, model how to self-assess against success criteria for your students. In your classroom, self-assessment may look like this:
    • your students complete a draft;
    • before the teacher views the draft, the student goes to the learning Wall to access a self-assessment checklist;
    • the student identifies a success criteria they have not achieved – this becomes a learning goal;
    • they write their learning goal in their goal book, or on a post-it for the wall;
    • they seek information on the learning wall to help them achieve the success criteria (e.g using speech marks to indicate dialogue)
    • they edit their draft to include the success criteria, and submit for peer/teacher feedback.
  • Regularly directing students to the Third Teacher by referring to the 5 Questions, specifically, ‘Where can you go for help?’. Answers can be:
    • Look at the Learning Wall: Re-read the Learning Intention; Read the success criteria – look at the work examples and anchor charts linked to the success criteria
    • Knowledge centres: vocabulary walls, dictionary, iPads for research
    • Feedback, goals, past work (always keep students work in individual folders with previous student checklists attached, so students can see their own growth and use these samples to set goals). Also keep your own tracking document so that you know where each student is sitting and which feedback has been given.
  • Display answers to the 5 Questions in your classroom, so students can read the answers (include visual cues for younger learners).

Where do I start?

  • Complete an audit of the classroom environment – is it all being used? Has it all been explicitly taught? Is it there just because it ‘looks nice’?
  • Remove what isn’t useful to your students. If it is useful but hasn’t been taught, teach it! Make a connection for your students and show them how it is useful.
  • Ensure your Learning Wall has all of the elements that students need. Have you deconstructed the Learning Intention? Have you got co-constructed success criteria? Have you provided a checklist of success criteria that your students can use, repeatedly as the act on feedback?
  • What needs to be a ‘take-away’ – think of students that need additional support with tangible resources in front of them. Print multiple copies, hang them on hooks, stick velcro to the back of mini-anchor charts, put information on bookmarks that can be reused.
  • Model, model, and model again, the use of the learning environment.
  • Reinforce the 5 Questions
  • Praise independence and autonomy.

In essence, many of us have used the Third Teacher within our classrooms, without giving it a name. Giving it some structure, educating students in its existence and application, and creating the learning environment intentionally, can help to implement the Third Teacher as a pedagogical tool within the context of Learning Walls and Bump It Up Walls, in your classroom.

As always, we welcome your thoughts about this blog post. Please email with thoughts and comments. We also welcome sharing this blog post with your colleagues.

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