The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Elizabeth Holmes

Mastery, picture books and teaching styles: a headteacher's view

Elizabeth Holmes sat down with headteacher Simon Smith to discuss mastery learning in primary schools and the benefit of using picture books to develop young readers.

Simon is the headteacher at East Whitby Academy, a primary school in North Yorkshire. He is a dedicated champion of literacy in schools, and particularly of what picture books can offer young readers.

Elizabeth: What, in your experience, gets primary school pupils enthusiastic about learning?

Simon: In our school, learning is ‘fun’. I see children bounce into school in the morning and bounce out again at the end of the day. Key to that fun is relationships: teachers who know their children well. Pupils learn that being difficult and being fun are not mutually-exclusive, and with the right teacher a lesson can be both.

We work hard to give ‘purpose’ to learning, so that pupils see value in what they do. The challenge is embedding the idea that learning, that acquiring knowledge is something to which we should aspire. Strong relationships are crucial.

What does mastery learning and assessment look like in a primary school classroom?

I don’t think there’s a set model for how mastery looks in a classroom. A mastery lesson in poetry would look very different to one in maths or art, for example.

However, there are a number of core elements, first and foremost being the skill of the teacher. The best lesson I have ever seen was a teacher-led class discussion of Snow by Ted Hughes. The extent to which the teacher understood the material allowed them to use deeper questioning to give all pupils a greater understanding of the text.

Do you think the concept of mastery learning is applicable to primary schools?

I don’t think one can ever be a master of something. Some people are better at things than others, and it’s often the people who are better at applying knowledge rather than just acquiring it.

For example, the best writers are almost always the best readers. To be a ‘master’ you must be able to use knowledge in a variety of different ways. 

Tell me about picture book codes.

Mat Tobin shares his understanding of codes in Reading Rocks 16, which stems from the work of Jane Doonan.

Codes are a series of methods for interpreting the stories in picture books: position, line, perspective, colour and so on. These codes give children a framework for interpretation, from which they can understand the craft of picture books.

However, Mat is the real expert here.

Is there still a role for phonics?

Yes, children still need to read and decode. Everybody I know who loves picture books will maintain that pupils should be able to decode. Phonics is a vital element in reading development, and all schools should ensure it’s taught properly.

Do picture book codes help children to develop critical thinking skills?

One of the greatest benefits of using picture books is the discussions we have around them. Give pupils the time and tools to explore a book fully and discuss its meaning.

One of the greatest benefits of using picture books is the discussions we have around them

By imposing our own interpretation, we deny children one of the greatest joys of reading: to imagine, and interpret in our own way. I would recommend Mary Roche’s Developing Children’s Critical Thinking through Picturebooks for more on this.

Leland, Harste and Huber (2005) suggest that ‘children who take a critical approach to literacy learn to “read between the lines” and generate alternative explanations regarding the author’s intent. They are encouraged to take an active role in questioning both the texts themselves and the beliefs and personal experiences they bring to them.’

What other benefits have you observed as a result of using picture books?

As Martin Galway, teaching and learning adviser puts it, using picture books creates ‘a swift democracy, a shared world experience that can mitigate/compensate for varying levels of experience of the world’.

The best picture books allow children and adults to share a common experience, and challenge our thinking.

The Arrival by Shaun Tan, The Journey by Francesca Sanna and The Island by Arin Greder are all good examples. They all take us into a migrant’s journey, and tell beautiful stories that can significantly challenge children’s pre-conceptions.

The importance of talk in child development is often downplayed but picture books are a brilliant conduit to discussion.

There is lively debate in the education ‘Twittersphere’ about progressive versus traditional teaching styles. What is your view?

 Getting stuck in one way of teaching precludes the possibility of moving learning forward

It’s vitally important that teachers understand pedagogy. I believe we need to invest in developing excellent teachers. The debate seems to have lost its way, focusing on how you should teach rather than what you should teach. This also gives it the potential to be more explosive.

In view of what we see in most schools, the debate has very little significance. Most teachers will use a range of teaching methods depending on the lesson and the children involved.

After all, getting stuck in one way of teaching precludes the possibility of moving learning forward.

Ultimately I think that an evidence-based approach to teaching is crucial, but this is as much an art or craft as it is a science! 


Leland, Harste and Huber (2005), 'Out of the Box: Critical Literacy in a First Grade Classroom', National Council of Teachers of English

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