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A topic to chew on

Peter Greaves explains how a cross-curricular approach to teeth and healthy eating gave pupils something they could really bite into

Not so long ago, I was looking at some winter poems with my class and it began to snow. It was one of those beautiful coincidences that normally only happen in films and it "made" the lesson for me. Wouldn't it be great if events like that could be booked in advance?

Actually, there are many ways to make sure that lessons have that extra something that will make them memorable. A straightforward way is to use a more cross-curricular approach. When my year-team colleagues and I looked at our long-term plan, it seemed natural to shuffle things around and put them back together in different ways. This wasn't some great shift in our thinking; it was common sense.

An example is our topic on teeth. The National Literacy Strategy had produced sample materials for the Year 3 Term 1 Report Writing unit using the subject of teeth. We were also due to study dental health as part of our "Life and Living Processes" work in science, but not until the spring term, so it made sense to switch things around. It seemed to work, so this year we developed it further.

Here is a rundown of how subjects were taught during our Healthy Teeth work unit, which lasted about two weeks.


Using the objectives and resource material from the NLS unit, although not all the daily plans, we planned shared reading, writing activities where teachers work with the children, and note-taking, leading to pupils writing their own reports. In order to establish the particular "text features" of the report genre, the pupils read reports on different subjects and drew up checklists for report writers.

We examined how reports give information in an ordered way, with an introduction that sets the scene and a conclusion that draws things together. From our shared reading of reports, we created a writing frame that could help children structure their reports.

We then focused, as we do for all our texts, on what the purpose and who the audience would be for our report. This helped pupils determine the appropriate forms for their final report, which was to be aimed at Year 2 pupils.

In groups, pupils worked on mindmaps of what the class already knew about dental hygiene; then, as a class, we drew up a list of questions that our report should answer. This led us into our shared reading of texts on the subject.

We looked at different sources of information, including TV programmes, CD-Roms and websites, encyclopedias and science textbooks. We followed children with a range of toothy nightmares through their treatment in the "Crunch Time - Dental Health" programme from the Channel 4 series All About Us.

The website has interactive content, including games, while offers information in a more traditional, textbook style.

Alongside more usual written material, we considered the purpose and audience for each of these different texts and the corresponding presentational devices used.

The finished reports were written up neatly and illustrated as pupils felt appropriate. As part of the weekly cross-phase shared reading, our Year 3 pupils shared their report one-to-one with a Year 2 pupil.


As well as knowledge-based activities designed to promote an understanding of oral hygiene, we carried out investigations into the effect of acid on enamel using fizzy drinks and eggshells.

We also investigated the effect of fluoride on enamel by leaving toothpaste on one half of an egg for a week, before washing it off and dropping the egg into a cup of white vinegar.


The topic was used to extend pupils' use and understanding of e-mail.

Children were e-mailed links that led to a range of electronic texts. Along with the links were some pertinent questions, to which they replied by copying and pasting the sentence that they felt best addressed the question.


We developed a number of key skills under the theme, "You are what you eat". We used wrappers and packets from food that pupils deemed to be harmful to teeth to create a plaque monster. This whole-class collaboration demanded choice as to which textures and colours would best suit the different 'zones' of the monster.

Alongside this, we used the fantastical Guiseppe Arcimboldo painting Vertumnus, completed in 1591 and showing Emperor Rudolf II in the form of an ancient Roman god of vegetation and transformation (see picture, opposite page), as an inspiration for our own faces. Some sketched using pastels, others used modelling clay, while another group organised real fruit and vegetables into faces, capturing their work with a digital camera.


We invited a dentist in to talk to us. It allowed pupils to hear first-hand about the importance of oral hygiene and brought some concrete practice to the theory being studied.

The dentist was also able to show them some instruments of torture that are not readily available in most primary school resource cupboards!

Keep it natural

I am not interested in tenuous links. There are so many natural cross-curricular links out there it is not necessary to force them. None of my year group's teeth activities were contrived to fit into the topic. I well remember a teaching practice where I inherited a topic web based around "Volcanoes" and was asked to teach a series of lessons on "Rock Music".

The common sense of teaching related topics and subjects relaxes the pressure on curriculum time, reinforces learning and allows pupils to make links for themselves as one lesson builds on another. The links provide a natural context for pupils to apply their literacy and numeracy skills without compromising the learning objectives for either of these core subjects, or the foundation subject skills that still need to be explicitly taught.

It makes it easier to communicate with parents, who do not have to keep track of 11 focuses through the week. I also enjoyed parents thanking me because their children had become eager to brush their teeth before going to bed.

That reminds me, has anyone got a spare copy of Max Bygraves' "I'm a pink toothbrush"?

Peter Greaves teaches at Coleman primary in Leicester.The Year 3 Term 1 Planning Exemplification Report on "Teeth and eating" can be downloaded from: publicationsplanning63405

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