Wise About Words

Published: 15 November 2023 
Author: Sarah Waterfield 
Group of nine teachers and senior leaders participate in Wise About Words CPD session. Credit: Richard Jarmy.
Teachers and senior leaders participate in Wise About Words CPD session. Photo credit: Richard Jarmy

Headteacher of Arden Grove Infant and Nursery School, Sarah Waterfield, tells us about the steps she took to ensure that their Teacher Development Fund programme has a long and lasting legacy within her school.

In Round 4 of the Teacher Development Fund, Norwich Theatre Royal partnered with eight schools in the Wensum Trust to collaborate on a programme that harnessed the power of story-sharing to support the development of literacy and executive function skills.

Wise About Words (WAW), three small words that shaped a project between Wensum Trust’s infant and primary schools and Norwich Theatre Royal. Two years later, the impact on the teachers’ professional development and learning has been immense and so much more than we anticipated.

At our school, it started with a small group of excited teachers, who despite their nerves for the first WAW training day at the theatre, returned newly enthused and ready to set the world alight in their literacy lessons. 

Over time, we became aware that children in those classes were not only more engaged, but we were seeing a more positive approach to writing, which was the primary focus of the programme.

Getting involved in the practice

The theatre also offered optional twilight training sessions, which my enthusiastic deputy convinced his rather nervous headteacher to attend with him. I am glad I did. It helped me understand my own and others’ possible worries resulting from our early experiences of drama, or indeed the dreaded​‘role play’. I learned ways to overcome these worries and grew to love the sessions, enthused by the ways immersive techniques support learning and make learning fun!

Iterative development of the programme

In the second year, we realised WAW was not just about literacy but that it was also about developing children’s skills in the broader sense. Why wouldn’t a child be irresistibly engaged by freeze-framing religious or historical events? Using emotion chairs to imagine how historical or fictional characters may have felt? Or working together to​‘become’ bridges as a way to understand construction? We realised we were tapping into children’s communication skills, creativity, empathy, confidence, problem-solving, turn-taking and teamwork skills whilst we covered our curriculum. All those skills and probably more accessed in one, 15-minute drama input! 

These skills are life skills, vital for our children to become adults in the world. As adults, we need to have the confidence, knowledge and words to articulate children’s skills and strengths and maybe, most importantly, like the person they are or the person they are becoming.

We want children to have the emotional language and tools to enable them to form healthy relationships at home and work; be resilient, resourceful, empathetic, kind, and make a positive difference to the world they live in. WAW has enabled us to see our children’s capabilities, understand how we can develop the skills to better engage them and reflect on how the techniques can be adapted in many ways. 

We have forged wonderful relationships with Norwich Theatre Royal and our artist, Sarah, and our ongoing collaboration supports us now and as we continue to develop as a team. We work together to explore the potential of how WAW is more than wise words but how it helps us develop key Executive Functions of self-control, mental flexibility and working memory in our young children. We know these are prerequisites for any learning and a better predictor of outcomes.

Group of young children in brightly coloured outfits take part in Wise About Words session joyously led by artist practitioner Sarah.
Pupils take part in Wise About Words session led by artist practitioner Sarah. Credit: Richard Jarmy. Photo credit: Richard Jarmy

Embedding the approach

Two years later, WAW is woven across our curriculum provision. It aligns perfectly with our Trust’s strategic aims, supporting Mental Health & Wellbeing; Learning & Achievement; Careers & Life Skills. It is not an addition, or something extra. It is simply a tool we use to engage our children across all curriculum areas. All aspects of our development plan sit in harmony with WAW techniques. It has revitalised our curiosity and reflection about how we deliver learning to our infant-aged children. Most importantly, it has provided us with alternative approaches to better include children who learn in different ways — our many neurodivergent learners. We stand by our ethos that we are a​‘Learning for All’ school. 

Next steps

This year our new focus is to develop the confidence of TAs to use immersive learning and increase their knowledge about how it develops our children. Looking ahead, we will consider the potential impact the work between the theatre and our schools can have on the social, emotional and academic outcomes for all our children. From our current experience, that potential is very exciting!

No headshot
Headteacher of Arden Grove Infant and Nursery School