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Benefits of Whole Class Teaching

Felicity Marsh, Teacher Years 5 and 6

Teaching year one children literacy in a classroom.

I have been teaching for 23 years and while my experiences during that time may reflect that of many New Zealand trained teachers, I am Australian, studied in Sydney and taught for many years in my home city. Over the years, I have taught reading with a focus on the three cueing system, spelling with essential lists that were sent home to be learnt, tests on a Friday and students unable to move onto the next list unless they spelt them all correctly. There was minimal explicit teaching and no teaching of phonemic awareness.

Ten years ago in my first year of teaching in New Zealand, I began looking for other ways of teaching reading to NE students. My introduction to explicit and systematic teaching was with Liz when she worked with me as an RTLit in 2015. Her suggestions inspired me and I immediately began to try some of this teaching with my class. This was the beginning of my Whole Class teaching. I started with Phonological Awareness and soon followed this with whole class handwriting and dictation with sentences focused around a sound-to-letter correspondence. I then attended a few courses with Liz to increase my knowledge of the alphabetic code (The Code hadn’t been released at this stage.)

Since 2019, I have been teaching middle to upper primary and back then I had up to seven reading groups with a range of some reading decodable books while others were reading level 3 Junior Journals. Also, my teaching of spelling using the Code had another four or five spelling groups. Groups, groups, groups…

However, in 2023, I decided to change my literacy programme. I started to

  • teach writing using the Syntax project from Australia

  • shifted to the exclusive use of lead pencils and daily handwriting lessons

  • changed to whole-class spelling

  • and my students thrived with the structured lessons of daily review, new learning and plenty of practice. As well as whole class teaching I had a group of target students for spelling who had a ‘preload lesson’ each Monday in a small group situation with extra review.

Seeing the impact of this teaching approach I wanted to extend whole class teaching into teaching reading where all students were exposed to the same content. Why? I noticed that my very low readers were interested in other students' rich conversations during their group sessions, so I began my knowledge-based teaching. My first attempt was students learning via projects involving a variety of mediums including videos or podcasts but I was still taking the six or seven reading groups.

Attending Sharing Best Practice, Auckland in term 4 in 2023 gave me what I had been looking for to consolidate my whole class reading. I enjoyed all the learning but most of my inspiration came from Mary Brown, Summerland Primary (LINK HERE) and Dr. Nathaniel Swain (read2learn and LINK). I left feeling excited that I had already started using a knowledge-based curriculum and, upon hearing all the research, I now had permission NOT to continue with so many reading groups.

On my return from Auckland, I tweaked the structure of my lessons and created appropriate texts on Diffit and ChatGPT to suit the topics the students would be learning about.

The focus of these daily lessons has been:

  • explicit teaching of vocabulary related to the topic

  • teacher reading the text to the class

  • choral reading where the whole class reads together

  • partner reading of the same text focusing on fluency

  • independent project work based on the same topic

Children reading book in classroom

Image: Partner reading with using laminated coloured “rulers” that I made. Partners can choral read or take turns. Supplied.

While students work independently I teach the target students individually or in small groups. The target students are getting the CORE reading, vocabulary, topic-rich discussions the same as everyone else, and they then get MORE with additional targeted teaching, whether that be reading and discussing the same text again or a similar text on the same topic or reading a decodable text at their level.  

So far, all texts have been nonfiction, on topics I have chosen. Topics I have selected have been based on events at school or what I knew the students would enjoy. Some topics have been ants, fruits and vegetables, helicopters, axolotls, rock climbing and continents of the world. The students have been very engaged, loved learning new knowledge, and shared it with their families. The parents have given me positive feedback about the rich discussions and additional research that happens at home!

Wall of Knowledge classroom poster.
Image: Wall of Knowledge example. After a week of reading and a Podcast project on the same topic,
students wrote all they now knew about ants. Supplied.

The self-esteem of the lower students in the classroom has improved as they have loved being included in the new learning along with their peers. Even though I have aimed my texts at the higher readers in the class, everyone's vocabulary is extended as they all learn the new words. Some students who struggle with reading sometimes choose not to participate in choral reading, however, they follow the text with their ruler, listening and being exposed to the new vocabulary and knowledge. Learning new vocabulary is one of the most crucial elements of whole class reading. As I have read more about the teaching of vocabulary (LINK) I understand the clear link between vocabulary, background knowledge and comprehension. Not all of the vocabulary words we explicitly teach are always topic-related words, some may be words that are used more often in written language and words children will come across again.

Why did I change my practice?

  • The research - Scarborough’s Reading Rope shows skilled reading happens when students have developed both Language Comprehension and Word Recognition.

  • I wanted to increase their background knowledge, vocabulary and language structure (components of language Comprehension).

  • The easiest way for me to teach this to my class and to create skilled readers was to teach them all.

  • I had already seen the benefits of teaching spelling whole class and wanted to expand whole class teaching to other areas of literacy.

  • I wanted to give all my students access to everything I was teaching.

  • Most importantly, I wanted my teaching to be equitable.

The challenges and celebrations

  • My planning is much easier and now more specific and focused. I enjoy planning our reading topics and sessions.

  • All of the knowledge is accessible to all the students.

  • My time is freed up to work with the students with the greatest needs in developing proficiency in literacy and who require targeted teaching.

  • All my students love working on the projects I design based on the topic. They find more information to build on the knowledge I teach them which informs our writing and flows into other areas like art.

  • All students are involved in the rich conversations and demonstrate their understanding orally.

  • An increase in the amount of time students are reading: All students have 20-30 mins of reading each day and the target students have another 10-15mins on top of that. This is way more time reading with the teacher than the 10-15min guided reading session (usually interrupted) that each child had previously.

  • Topic Choices: These are focused not only on their interests as growing their background knowledge is exposing them to new knowledge. They don’t know what they don’t know! We as teachers are the engagement, providing the hook to learning!

  • My new challenge this term is introducing a novel we will read together as a class with the same approach as the non-fiction.

I encourage anyone thinking about whole-class teaching to give it a try. I have tweaked what I saw to fit my style of teaching and the students in my class. What I did in term 4 last year is not the same as what I am doing now. It is evolving and changing as I grow in confidence and knowledge and as the children get used to this teaching approach and learning. I have seen a boost in confidence in many of my students. Reading together, re-reading and introducing the vocabulary before they even begin has been the game-changer.

Timetable example

Image: Literacy timetable example. The writing is an example of what you can do if you link the nonfiction text to writing an information report. Supplied.



Ngā mihi Felicity - I have recently made a change to whole class teaching of phonological awareness and alphabetic principles but have 4 reading groups, only because my class are at different places on the scope and sequence. I do whole class poetry which introduces vocabulary and we choral read these. I am really interested in how you are planning your Y5, 6 class, very inspiring!


This is inspiring, thanks for sharing! Are you open to having visitors observing your literacy block? I am a visual learner 🤩

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