June 11, 2024

By Jane Broadis, Head of English Preparing Children for Exams

All children at Edge Grove, from Year 1 upwards, take a range of assessments that help us monitor their progress in English. Some assessments are weekly and ‘light touch’ such as spelling tests, whereas more formal assessments in written comprehension are half termly from Years 2 to 4, along with tests in grammar and punctuation. ‘CATs’ (Cognitive Abilities Tests), which measure underlying ability, are once a year from Year 2; then from Year 3 upwards, children take GL Progress Tests in English twice, NGST spelling tests three times; and Lexile tests four times each academic year.  From the beginning of Year 5, assessments begin to reflect the structure and expectations of external exams, and homework tasks are designed to consolidate the key skills and understanding required for success. More tasks become time-limited so children are trained to produce within a fixed period. All these assessments overlay a broad curriculum, through which we teach children the core skills of reading and writing, using a range of diverse literature: fiction, non-fiction and poetry.

The results of assessments inform you as parents and us as teachers of your child’s progress in English. They also help me as Head of English monitor the effectiveness of our curriculum in equipping children with the knowledge and skills in English that they need for life beyond Edge Grove. It is during exam season – which we are in the thick of currently – when I discover whether our work in the classroom over the years has been effective. Over the past month, as I have quizzed children returning from external exams at some of the country’s most academically selective schools, there is a certain satisfaction to be felt when children share that nothing they faced on their English papers was unfamiliar.

“I could do it all. It was easier than I expected. The work we’ve done at Edge Grove is much harder than what was on the exam.”  Year 6 pupil returning from English paper at Habs Boys, Nov 2023

It is becoming more and more common for 11+ and 13+ exams to be sat in two parts. The children who emerge most successful from these online ‘pre-tests’ in English are readers who have broad vocabularies. Have a look at this challenge that I remember from the ISEB pre-test, where children have to identify the letter that finishes the first word and begins the second:

affra ielding

condem efarious

mimi rease

At school, it would be impossible to ensure that children have been exposed to all the vocabulary that appears in such a test. Academically selective schools want readers, so the hardest questions in verbal reasoning questions test the vocabulary that only avid readers possess.  (The answers are y, n and c!)  This is why I am relentless in ensuring pupils and parents understand the importance of reading regularly with an adult, as this is where children are regularly exposed to new words and can ask for help to define them. Having said that, we are ambitious for our pupils and ensure that the texts they study in English offer significant challenge. Year 7 and 8 are currently studying texts more often found in GCSE syllabuses.

The regular weekly homework that we set using platforms such as ATOM (historically), and now Century Tech, familiarise children with the sort of questions they will face in these online ‘pre-tests’. We also ensure that we teach all the required grammar terminology, introduced into the National Curriculum by Gove in 2016, and knowledge of the use of punctuation. The best way of consolidating this knowledge is for children to apply their knowledge in their writing. A ‘fronted adverbial’ is only useful if you can accurately write and punctuate one: With a limp, he slowly walked down the long path.’ ‘Nervously, she entered the examination hall.’ Spellings are another requirement, and the introduction of Spelling Shed this academic year is proving to be a much more engaging way to consolidate the learning of spellings rules – but children need to login and practise!

Children who are successful in pre-tests are then called to sit written papers which test children’s comprehension skills and their ability to write imaginatively.  Again, children who read regularly are those who emerge from these papers the most confident. Why? Because they are the children who are regularly decoding the writing of others and building meaning. They also have the broadest ‘bank’ of model texts from which to draw inspiration for their own written work. Whereas knowledge-based aspects of the curriculum, such as naming an adverb or recognising a subordinate clause, can be learned by those children who have struggled to learn them in a mad rush before exams, there is no quick way to accelerate improvements in the skills of reading and writing, which are developed over years.

Parents often want to see past papers coming home in order to prepare children for exams, but time is much better spent reading and thoroughly engaging with the tasks set for homework. These are designed to consolidate the skills children need, such as this week’s homework comprehensions set in Years 5 and 6. Some children have returned from the Christmas break having done no reading – they haven’t had time because they are studying. This is a mistake. Making time for reading is essential, as reading builds vocabulary and underpins a child’s ability to write, and writing is where senior schools see a child’s creativity, individuality and originality. We are seeing more schools set ‘creative comprehensions’ where children are presented with a text or two, a graph or map, and a puzzle, and they have to draw connections between them. This is a great way for senior schools to discover those children with a broad knowledge base and who can solve problems, make links and think creatively.

To end, I want to address the final area which senior schools ‘test’, and that is speaking and listening. This year more children have faced group tasks where they have been asked, for example, to discuss an issue together. Interviewers are looking for the child who is interesting, thoughtful, original, can deliver an idea sensitively, but can also be appropriately assertive without being dominating. Our classrooms at Edge Grove are filled with discussions throughout the day, and the strength of the children’s oracy was recognised in our inspection. Staff sit with children over lunch and we engage in small talk – this is excellent interview practice – and these mealtime conversations in your homes are vital in providing children with the opportunity to develop their ability to articulate their ideas, discuss and share. Also vital are your family visits to special events, museums and places of interest, which educate, promote curiosity, build knowledge and give your children plenty to talk about.

I am confident that the English curriculum here at Edge Grove prepares children well for the next step in their educational journey, and equips them with the knowledge, understanding and skills to sit the exams that can stand between them and the next leg. However, I also acknowledge that success in English, more than all other subjects, relies on active support at home – and I thank you for that.