Tackling the lack of activity in lockdown through English

In this article, Jon Smedley advocates an active approach to English and across the curriculum to address the effect of lockdown on children’s academic, mental and physical benefit.

Who could have predicted the drastic impact COVID 19 would have on all our lives in 2020? Over the past few months we’ve all been affected in one way or another, whether it was the impact of our inability to see friends and family, the move to teaching online or dealing with the emotions brought upon by lockdown.

With the return to school there is the added pressure of trying to reverse the impact of the school closures had on our children as quickly as possible.

Too much down time
Although the effect lockdown had on children’s learning has been widely reported, with a YouGov poll during lockdown revealing that 70% of teachers were concerned that their pupils’ education has been harmed, there were many other impacts too, particularly to the physical health and wellbeing of children. According to the Youth Sport Trust (, the number of children meeting the Chief Medical Officer’s guidelines of taking part in sport or physical activity for an average of 60 minutes or more every day, dropped from 47% to 19%, and as many as 43 per cent of the nation’s children did less than half an hour of daily activity during the coronavirus lockdown. Even more worrying, 7% did no physical activity at all.
The same report found that at least one third of children experienced an increase in mental health issues including stress, loneliness and worry.

The impact on mental health and attainment
The findings show how important the role schools play for children, physically and mentally as well as academically.The government has recognised the role of physical activity as we move forward with Vicky Ford, the Department for Education minister, stating that the government ‘are encouraging schools to prioritise physical activity as they welcome more children back to school.’ And that ‘there are well-established links between physical activity, improved mental wellbeing and educational attainment.’

Active learning in English teaching
So how can schools prioritise the physical needs of their pupils while also addressing the attainment gap? One proven strategy is active teaching, where physical activity is brought into the teaching of English and other subjects. Many schools are already using these strategies with some success and are counting on active teaching to help them tackle the many needs of pupils as they emerge from lockdown.

Holy Family Catholic School in Addlestone, Surrey is one school that is targeting inactivity by giving children the chance to be physically active in English lessons. The school uses Teach Active, a website that provides teachers with lesson plans for teaching primary English lessons through a range of physical activities linked to the national curriculum.

The aim is that rather than learning conjunctions sitting at desks in the classroom, pupils get out into the playground and having collected two clauses from the teacher, run to the area displaying the correct conjunction to form a sentence. An element of competition can be added to the learning experience too. Teams can race against one another to find the correct answer to a comprehension question or play charades to act out the meanings of new words.

Another idea is to create race circuits in the playground so children can collect nouns along the way and create possessive noun phrases in teams. Or they can become dictionary detectives and spot misspelt words dotted around the room.

The impact
Steve Tindall, headteacher at Holy Family Catholic School, is also a firm believer in active learning to help improve mental wellbeing. ‘Active learning changes the psychology of learning as children forget that it’s English or maths. They are just learning while they run round having fun with their friends.’

The school has noticed that being more active is also helping mental wellbeing, as many of the activities require children to work together in teams. ‘The activities will help them reconnect with friends and adjust to socialising in school once again, following what for some has been an intense period of isolation,’ he continues.

The impact on children’s enjoyment of the subject is palpable too. The school first began using active learning techniques in maths and the results prompted them to introduce the techniques into English as well. ‘Maths used to be our pupils’ ninth favourite subject, but since we introduced active learning in lessons, it had risen up the ranks to take third place after art and PE. We’re delighted about that.’

Duckmanton Primary School in Chesterfield has seen a similar impact on English learning. After using the active teaching approach throughout the school, the children’s confidence in English has grown, as has their enjoyment and independence within lessons, particularly among the lower ability children. The best measure of progress was a 98% pass rate in last year’s Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling test after using it for revision with the year 6 children.

Government backing
Luckily, education secretary Gavin Williamson recently recognised the importance of keeping active and itsbenefits to both physical and mental health, offering a guaranteed £320 million of funding from the PE and Sport Premium during the academic year 2020/21.

Designed to help children get an active start in life and support primary schools improve the quality of their PE and sport provision so that pupils experience the benefits of regular exercise including becoming healthier mentally and physically but also improved behaviour and better academic achievement.

The Department for Education also confirmed that any PE and Sport Premium funding from the previous academic year 2019/20 that schools were unable to use as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic could be brought forward to use in the next academic year giving school leaders an opportunity to add to their existing provision or make improvements that will benefit pupils in future years.

If used wisely, some of these funds could be directed towards more active learning and so help address the attainment gap as well as improve the physical and mental health of pupils.

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