Can a child's ability in English go sharply downhill?

(20 Posts)
PrettyBelle Thu 24-Oct-13 15:32:31

Would be grateful for your views - feeling totally confused, worried and upset...

Ds is in Year 6 prep school, until the end of Year 5 he was in a state school. He is brilliant at Maths however has always been weaker in English - but at his previous school I was always given an impression
that he was just a bit behind.

Having said that, I haven't seen much of his work of that period because they didn't have homework but his teacher was pleased about his progress. The headteacher, whom I saw about DS's chances for a local selective school, said that he has good chances of getting in.

Now DS is at the prep school and they are doing 11+ preparation - and while he continues to excel in Maths it feels as though he is completely lost where writing and comprehension are concerned. It's like he is lacking the actual technique of doing the exercises, he can barely do a half of the paper saying that he cannot understand the rest questions or that he understands but doesn't know how to answer them. His writing is better but he seems unable to use complex structures, make a story more interesting, write in different genres. He gets more and more reluctant to do his English homework, it upsets him.

His prep school is much more sceptic about his chances for the academic school, at least this year.

I am totally confused - has his previous school been overly positive about his ability? From his young age I was always told that he was very bright, I have no idea what's happening to him.

Thoughts please?

UKsounding Thu 24-Oct-13 16:47:49

Sounds like a change in expectations rather than ability. If the prep school has a history of getting children into this academic school then they will have an accurate understanding of what is required of their kids (their business depends on it....)

whendidyoulast Thu 24-Oct-13 16:48:02

Unlikely that a child would go backwards but he perhaps hadn't mastered the basics as much as his teachers had thought he had and has just not made much progress. Think you need to back off with the pressure and enjoy doing more reading and talking about what he's read and likewise writing for fun. Does he read independently for pleasure?

ClifftopCafe Thu 24-Oct-13 17:23:03

There isn't a huge emphasis on composition and comprehension in state primary schools that's probably all it is. Was he looking at classic children's literature from Y4 and being taught to identify literary devices etc? Was he frequently working to time in composition and being taught what he needed to include so it became second nature? These things can all be taught but he will be playing catch up. I'd get a tutor and plug all the gaps but you might not want to if you are paying for Prep. It does not sound like it's his ability that's declined here just he has lower current attainment as he's unfamiliar with what's going on in literacy.

PrettyBelle Fri 25-Oct-13 09:58:13

Thanks so much for your views.

UKsounding, his prep school HT says that he hasn't been there long enough for them to have an accurate understanding of his abilities and prospects. His current attainment in English is lower than what he demonstrated at the entrance test last spring. On the recent CAT (I believe) paper he scored 96. His previous state school's HT is believed to be very knowledgeable about local schools and their pupils regularly get into that selective.

whendidyoulast - I agree completely. The best thing is to enjoy it and ease the pressure. But being in Year 6 he is sitting 13+ pretest in January so he needs to do his preparation. He reads for pleasure enough - would not pick Dickens or poetry but enjoys good quality children's authors.

PrettyBelle Fri 25-Oct-13 10:12:22

ClifftopCafe - Was he looking at classic children's literature from Y4 and being taught to identify literary devices etc? Was he frequently working to time in composition and being taught what he needed to include so it became second nature?

That's exactly what DS needs and is currently struggling to do. Don't think they covered a lot of it in his previous school.

He did have an English tutor for 6 months last academic year but as things stand now I don't see that he helped a lot. DS seemed to be doing well while he had the lessons but doesn't seem to have any skills now.

Especially with comprehension exercises. I am helping him but getting desperate. They take hours instead of 30 min. He understands the text, can find the bits where the answers are, but he cannot analyze it, doesn't know how to structure his answers so that they corresponded to the questions asked, cannot do questions such as "explain three ways of how the author makes the passage tense and dramatic". It's like a 7-year old doing 11+ papers.

ClifftopCafe Fri 25-Oct-13 10:39:17

I am finding exactly the same thing re: comprehension exercises. For example we have spent 3 hours on a comprehension passage thus far that is supposed to take an hour to answer and to do the extended 'continue the story' at the end.

We have about a year to get up to speed but that currently translates into only about a hour a week after school. I think the issue we face is that this is utterly unfamiliar territory rather than a lack of ability & you too by the sound of things. Our primary tell us if the child can't do this unaided then they are not of selective school ability but some of the passages are incredibly hard and would challenge many adults. How many 9 year olds routinely read Austen, Robert Louis Stevenson, Charlotte Bronte etc? Just getting their heads around the language and preventing that rabbit caught in the headlights moment takes time IMO.

Our Prep offers a gentle introduction to this sort of thing and by Y5 and Y6 many children are up to speed in what he expectations are and how to answer the questions. It's essentially a formula and the same things are asked for time and time again. The children know what's expected and go through these passages as a group and do them twice weekly to time from Y4 and that doesn't include homework. It really isn't rocket science and any child in the top 20% of the general ability range should be able to tackle this sort of comprehension with practice no problem at all. No poster making or ICT or craft literacy homeworks for the children at the Prep.

PrettyBelle Fri 25-Oct-13 11:09:16

ClifftopCafe , then we are doomed. sad

DS was at an outstanding state school and many state school children do get into grammars and selective indies. How on earth do they do it then? And DS even had tutors - a general one first, and then one specifically for English.

You are right, I too find some comprehension exercises difficult and plain confusing - i.e. don't know what exactly is required from the student in some questions. And I have a Masters, for God's sake.

I really don't know what to do... To engage a tutor again? My heart breaks at the sight of poor DS literally crying over those papers. This is not right.

He was actually a keen writer last year, he composed and put together his own hand-made book on football. And he read me some of his stories (which he did with tutor) - I thought they were pretty good.

PS. Thank you very much for your PM!

ClifftopCafe Fri 25-Oct-13 11:40:01

Ok, read this with your son with a cup of tea and cake in hand: Bond The Secrets of Comprehension - it's pretty clear and takes you right through things from the basics up. ISBN: 9780748784806

Note the three steps to comprehension: Read and understand the text (find clues in the text, discover active reading, recognise different text types) understand the question, evaluate your work.

Head over to the 11 plus forum there is a comprehension guru over there and great advice on the English forum. Post there and people will help and offer more advice. Google Baldworm for comprehension tips & clips from Mr Hitchens at the Falcon's Girls school.

In answer to your question not many Grammars have comprehensions that require a full written response (usually just VR element). For some selective state schools many acknowledge the comprehension aspect can be notoriously tricky and it's all won or lost on the comprehension.

I know someone that runs classes in Herts (on comprehension) that has a fantastic success rate (children attend from as early as Y3 once or twice a week). Over time they generally get the hang of it. As I said it's pretty much a formula and they ask for the same thing. Key is not to be phased by the text. Remind me how long you have?

In your shoes I might try another tutor and get them to work with your son methodically through questions. They are also ISEB comprehensions but these tend to be at the gentler end I've found (including pictures etc). With tutoring, IMO, getting the chemistry right is key. Find the right person and you should get back on track. Reassure your son it can be done! smile

PrettyBelle Fri 25-Oct-13 11:50:29

ClifftopCafe, I wish I could send you a box of chocolates - you've been extremely helpful with all your tips. Thank you.

DS in Year 6 so his exams are in upcoming January 2014. So not much time for such a problem. I thought I had begun in good time, having started him on preparation from the early Year 5, and did not at all expect to have such difficulties at this late stage.

There will also be a chance to sit 12+ and his prep school is positive that by then he will be far more ready.

DS is actually very good at VR...

Good to know that it's "a formula" - I thought so too, just need to help DS to decipher it.

I have an 11 year old who moved to prep school only in y5.

For him, a selective secondary was never an option, we were just trying to get him from "2 yrs behind for his age" to average, for English.

He is good at maths and science though.

The first term was flummoxed by comprehension, he just did not know what theywanted from him. Regular practice at school helped him understand what was required, and the pitfalls, tricky things to look out for.

A BIG thing was for him to learn that all the answers are in the text. He thought he had to "just know" some things, but really, it's all there.

He has made such good progress with test papers, that they think he could get into the selective. We won't however, as i think he will be happier and less stressed at the comp.

Just mentioning all this as i think kids can get the hang of these tests after a while. Like the school says, if not now, he can try at 12.

There can be a lot of pressure on kids, from prep school ANd parents, and even peers. I know two boys in DS. Class who are sick every monday, as they are so nervous about the 11+, and get tutored after school and then their parents make them practice more tests over the weekend. This makes me feel sad and even angry ( must mind my own business though). I would avoid putting too much pressure on your son, or too much tutoring unless he is very emotionally robust (though lots of boys crumble when put under too much pressure for too long).

Also, it is not the end of the world if your son does not get into this particular school, or are state/non-selective indies where you live dire?

PrettyBelle Fri 25-Oct-13 13:26:52

FiscalCliffRocksThisTown, thank you very much for sharing your experience and for your advice.

I agree about the pressure thing and DS is not robust emotionally at all. What you write about the two boys from your son's school sounds awful and I don't want to be that kind of mother.

Re other options for DS - that's another problem. I moved him to his private prep in order to improve his levels and try for senior selectives. I see a lot of positive difference compared to his previous state school so would like to keep him in the private system - IF he gets into a good school.

Our local comp is sought after and is supposedly very good.

If he doesn't pass the 11+ (for him it will be 13+ pretest) this year he can move to comp but then he can forget about private secondary education.

Or he can stay at his prep until 13 - but if he doesn't get into a reputable senior school even at 12+ then he probably won't be able to go to the comp anymore because it won't have spaces (being very popular). So I will have to pay a lot of money for non-selective private seniors which offer questionable value to money.

I know prettybelle, that is what it is like for us.

A friend of mine tried to get her son into the oversubscribed comp at 13 after he failed to get into the selective school. She had to move heaven and earth to get him in ( Appeals).

It is a luxury, really, to have a good comp as our catchment school, and I guess you and I are lucky to have choices.

It is hard though, I only made the decision this week really. It is hard to know what is best! DS having made such fab progress at the prep, has made me see the value of private schools...But we really liked the comp, as did DS. And he is very grateful not to have to sit an enteance exam as ge tends towards anxiety. Last year he could not do his music grading as nerves made him vomit just before it started.

Good luck!

Forgot to ask, what would your DS prefer?

PrettyBelle Fri 25-Oct-13 14:09:23

FiscalCliffRocksThisTown, it is a transitional year for all of us.

When DS was at his previous school he wanted to go to the local comp because that's where his friends would go.

Now that he is in prep, in the midst of the 11+ preparation and among boys aiming for various boys' schools, he is thinking in that direction too. But I get an impression that his heart isn't really in it - he does not especially 'want' to get into any particular school.

He says that he likes his prep and wants to stay there until 13. Not really fussed about what'll happen then.

I realise that this is not a good time for him to sit exams. He is not ready emotionally or in terms of English. He is a keen learner - he's been amazing coping with all the new requirements at his new school.
His form teacher actually says that he is one of the less mature students in his year group despite being an Autumn-born boy. I would much more prefer for him to just enjoy his education at this point. But it's year 6 and because of the 13+ pre-testing he has no choice but to sit the exam this year.

bronya Mon 28-Oct-13 19:34:44

In that situation, I'd find a tutor to help him with the jump from state to prep. A good tutor can do amazing things!

maree1 Mon 28-Oct-13 22:45:08

For writing skills check out the BBC 500 words and creative writing magic money cards websites. For comprehension it is often useful to spot the techniques authors use and ask what this has achieved. If in a wet windy passage a question arises on how the author builds atmosphere then find any examples of onomatopoeia which will saturate the text and look for examples of how other senses are engaged for the reader. Look for impactful dialogue, alliteration and clever use of imaginative techniques. Spotting the techniques in play always helps.

Ilovegeorgeclooney Tue 29-Oct-13 09:22:11

Sad that when people discuss English here creativity is not mentioned.

Eating Poetry
Mark Strand

I

Eating Poetry

Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.

The librarian does not believe what she sees.
Her eyes are sad
and she walks with her hands in her dress.

The poems are gone.
The light is dim.
The dogs are on the basement stairs and coming up.

Their eyeballs roll,
their blond legs burn like brush.
The poor librarian begins to stamp her feet and weep.

She does not understand.
When I get on my knees and lick her hand,
she screams.

I am a new man,
I snarl at her and bark,
I romp with joy in the bookish dark.

bunnybing Tue 29-Oct-13 19:17:11

I agree IloveGC

DD is in a state school in y 6 and recently has been given some v hard comprehensions - it seems that is all they are worried about.

Her teacher last yr enthused about her poetry writing skills and understanding of metaphors. Went to a parents evening recently and it all seems to be about scores and I guess those are only measured by comprehensions, poetry/creative writing being too subjective.

PrettyBelle Wed 30-Oct-13 13:43:46

bronya, you are probably right but he had a tutor and it didn't seem to make a lot of difference. He is getting some other 1-to-1 help now though, hopefully, it will bring better results!

maree1 - thank you for the tips! If in a wet windy passage a question arises on how the author builds atmosphere then find any examples of onomatopoeia which will saturate the text and look for examples of how other senses are engaged for the reader. Look for impactful dialogue, alliteration and clever use of imaginative techniques. It is truly scary. I don't think I was able to do this kind of analysis at the age of ten being I a straight A student. And I have no idea what onomatopoeia is.

Ilovegeorgeclooney, bunnybing - they have to sit the exams (be it SATS or 11+) which consists of comprehension and writing. So looks like they can enjoy their reading and be as creative as they wish but they need to be able to do these exercises in the first place.

Join the discussion

Join the discussion

Registering is free, easy, and means you can join in the discussion, get discounts, win prizes and lots more.

Register now