Teaching Beginners in Primary Schools

I recently posted about the three services primary schools might like to provide for their pupils.

The first of these is teaching chess to beginners.

Please understand, before I go any further, that learning the moves is not the same as learning how to play chess. If you’re running a chess club without insisting that the members have learnt chess correctly first, you’re doing your pupils no favours. You’re also, if you’re employing an external chess tutor, doing him or her no favours. (On the other hand, in the real world, you may not have the resources to do chess any other way.)

To take an example from one of my schools. It’s a great school and usually I get a reasonably good intake but this term we had only three new pupils. They fit neatly into three of the five categories outlined here. Boy A is a 1. He plays chess at home with his dad, but has very little idea what he’s doing and doesn’t understand all the rules. I suspect his dad doesn’t understand all the rules either. Boy B is a 2. He told me the first week of term he’d read my book, but he knows even less about chess than Boy A. It seems his parents bought him the book and expected him to teach himself, but chess doesn’t work like that. Boy C is a 4. He knows nothing about chess and, because he’s getting no support at home, doesn’t remember anything from one week to the next. He also requires 1 to 1 support during the class, which makes it difficult for me to give much time to the other children.

There are four ways schools might wish to address this problem.

  1. Put chess on the curriculum. I’ll write more about this in a future post. If you’re interested (and in the UK) you might want to contact CSC, who will be able to help you, or you might want to talk to me about alternative approaches.
  2. Use minichess in gaps in the school day, and perhaps run minichess competitions as outlined in various earlier posts. The main purpose of this site is to provide material for schools wishing to take this approach.
  3. Run two clubs, one for beginners (which will introduce the game using minichess) and one for children who are able to play a complete game. Ideally, the beginners’ club would be led by a teacher, perhaps using a chess tutor as a TA.
  4. Provide coaching resources for parents, explain what is required of them, and have children take a simple test (to demonstrate they know the moves and understand check/checkmate/stalemate) before joining the club.

I’m happy to discuss any of this with any primary school in the UK. You can contact me here. If you’re within easy reach of me (Twickenham) I can probably help you directly if you want.

More Mini Games

So far we’ve looked at minigames with 8P v 8P and B v 3P.

You’ll remember the rules: you win by a) getting a pawn to the end SAFELY, b) capturing all your opponent’s pieces, or c) leaving your opponent without a move.

There are also good minigames using other pieces which are suitable for competitive play.

prechess3

This is probably the best rook game to choose, although you could also use five pawns with younger children.

Games with fewer pawns are probably too trivial and best used for group activities within classrooms.

This is all about planning and thinking ahead. The rook will win with correct play, but in practice the pawns will often triumph.

prechess4

This queen game is excellent for learning about FORKS, where you create two threats in different directions at the same time. For instance, White might start by playing Qd5, forking the pawns on b7 and f7. White can win this game by using forks to win black pawns while at the same time being careful not to let a pawn reach the end safely.

If you don’t have spare pawns, replace one of the black pawns with a white pawn. Alternatively, you can play the game without the pawn on d7.

These two games are ideal for competitions: each pair of opponents plays two games, one with each colour. So the score could be 2-0, 1-1 or 0-2. Again, you can play team matches between classes.

Email the rules to parents, display posters on classroom walls, and, a couple of weeks later, once children have had the chance to practice the games, run a competition.

Crossing the Board

I wrote in an earlier post recommending the European Chess Union’s First Rank newsletter.

The latest issue appeared yesterday. I’m very pleased to see that they recommend the pawn game (8 pawns v 8 pawns, first to the end wins) as the very first minigame for beginners.

If you want to go straight to the video you can do so here.

Jesper’s rules are slightly different to mine: He plays that if one player can’t move, the player with more pawns wins, while I play that the player who can’t move loses (the opponent can keep moving until reaching the end of the board). In reality it usually amounts to the same thing, but I prefer my method for the single and double pawn games.

I usually call the game ‘Capture the Flag’: many children will be familiar with this concept through PE lessons.

It’s reassuring to know that I’m in good company in promoting this game. Now to find some schools interested in promoting good practice in teaching beginners!

The Wrong Way to Teach Chess to Kids

As you may know, I’ve written a book (which has sold very few copies) called The Right Way to Teach Chess to Kids.

Most parents and teachers, I guess, don’t see the need, but I’d suggest that this is because they don’t really understand chess.

Here, then, are the five WRONG ways to teach your kids chess.

  1. Get that old chess set down from the attic, show your kids what you half remember your dad showing you 30 years ago, and play a couple of random games.
  2. Buy a copy of Chess for Kids (or any other chess book for children), give it to your kids and ask them to teach themselves.
  3. Download a chess app for your kids’ mobile phone and expect them to learn from that.
  4. Sign your kids up for a chess club full of kids who can already play, expecting them to learn by osmosis.
  5. Encourage your kids to learn chess from a friend who has probably been taught incorrectly using one of the above four methods.

Whether you’re a parent or a teacher, your children deserve better than this. Playing chess without learning the basics correctly is very much the same thing as a small child hitting random piano keys and saying “Look, Mum! I’m playing the piano!”.

Chess is an adult game at which some children can excel, not a children’s game. Good practice in teaching young beginners (aged, say, 6-8) involves setting aside 20-30 hours for minichess activities before playing a complete game. How can schools promote good practice? My next post will provide some suggestions.

Chess in Primary Schools (2)

If a primary school asked me about starting a chess club, this is what I would tell them.

There are three chess services you might consider offering your pupils. But before I tell you what they are, there’s something you should know.

Young children, with a few exceptions, will not be helped by learning the moves in half an hour and then starting a full game. Good practice, as recommended by leading experts on early years chess throughout the world, involves children learning one piece at a time, one rule at a time, one concept at a time. Knowing the rules is not enough: you need chessboard vision, understanding of relationships between pieces (attack/defence) and specific cognitive skills. Most young children will learn these best through activities with small numbers of pieces, rather than through complete games.

Yes, it’s part of childhood that children will try lots of different things. They’ll like some, but not like others. They’ll be good at some, but not others. But if children have been taught the basics incorrectly at home before they join a chess club they will stand no chance of making very much progress.

So, what are the three services:

  1. Teaching chess to beginners.
  2. Providing facilities for children to play social chess with their friends (where talking is allowed and no one minds much about taking moves back).
  3. Providing facilities for children to be introduced to serious, competitive chess (which should be played in silence, with ‘touch move’ strictly enforced).

You might logically decide to offer any one of these services, any combination of two, or all three. You might also, once you’ve thought about it, decide you don’t want to do chess after all.

What doesn’t make sense, (although, to be realistic, as chess has a low public profile in this country, you may not have much choice) is to say ‘Let’s do chess’ and start a chess club trying to provide all three services at the same time.

If you want to teach beginners, you will not, if you agree with Jesper Hall,  need a chess tutor at all, but what you will need is a course written by primary school teachers in conjunction with chess players. If you can afford to do so, employing a chess tutor as a classroom assistant might be helpful. My next post will address this further.

If you’ve ensured that all children learn the basics correctly you probably won’t need a chess tutor for social chess. You’ll need someone in the room to ensure that the children don’t start throwing the pieces about, but that’s all. If children haven’t been taught the basics you’ll need someone there to answer simple questions.

If you want to offer serious competitive chess (playing against other schools, taking part in the UK Chess Challenge) then you will, unless you have a suitably knowledgeable member of staff or parent, need a professional chess tutor. But it will help both the children and the tutor if you ensure that children have sufficient chess knowledge and maturity before joining a club of this nature.

If you try to offer all three services at the same time in the same club you won’t be doing any of them very well. In particular, teaching beginners should be taught separately from children playing ‘big chess’.

You might wonder why I feel so strongly about this, and why I’m so critical of what happens in most primary school chess clubs.

The answer is very simple. If this system had been in place 60 years ago, I would not have become a serious chess player. In fact, very few children from my background, with non-academic, non-chess playing parents, now take up competitive chess. That, and precisely that, is why I say what I say and do what I do.

 

Chess in Primary Schools (1)

I’ve been saying for nearly 20 years now that typical primary school chess clubs are not the best model for developing chess in this country. Let me explain, in brief, why. I’ll be covering some of my points in more detail in later posts.

Before I continue, I should add that there are a few primary (and prep) schools which have the interest and resources to provide an excellent product, but they are very much the exception, not the rule.

Now don’t get me wrong. Superficially primary school chess clubs are great. The children have a good time and, at least in some clubs, play reasonably quietly. The teachers are happy because they see the children concentrating (more or less) on their games. The parents are happy because it’s a cheap childminding service which might ‘make their kids smarter’. The chess tutors are happy because they get paid for something they enjoy. But the standard of play, by and large, is low, and the number of children who continue playing after primary school is pretty close to zero.

Here’s the sort of thing that usually happens.

A couple of parents knock on the door and say “Hello. My children play chess. Why don’t you start a chess club?” The Head says “What a lovely idea! I read in the paper the other day that ‘chess makes kids smarter'”. So she asks in the staffroom: “Does anyone want to run a chess club?” She’s met by a sea of blank faces. “Chess? No, I don’t know how to play.” “I tried it at school 30 years ago but didn’t get anywhere and can’t remember much anyway.” No success, but never mind. Most of the parents can afford to pay £5 a week for after-school clubs, so she types ‘chess teacher’ into Google and contacts the name at the top of the list. Would she appoint any other teacher in the same way? Probably not, but there we are. Financial arrangements are made, safeguarding checks are carried out and, at the start of next term the parents find ‘chess club’ added to the list of extra-curricular activities.

So the chess teacher arrives. Who is there? There might, if he’s very lucky, be one or two kids who are pretty good and have played on tournaments. There’ll be some kids who have played at home, and because their parents are reasonably proficient players, have some idea what they’re doing. There’ll be some kids who think they’re really good at chess because they can beat their dad, but think a rook is called a castle and that you win by capturing the king. There’ll be some kids who can’t play at all. There will also be a wide age range in the club. It’s not at all easy to keep everyone involved at once.

At one level, yes, it’s great. But, at a higher level, it really doesn’t work very well, does it? I think our children deserve better than this.

The basic problem, it seems to me, is that most children have been taught the basics incorrectly by well-intentioned but ill-informed parents. In principle, there’s a simple solution: put chess on the curriculum. I’ll consider this later, but next I want to consider how we might approach schools and encourage them to be more proactive about how they think about chess.

Who Should Teach Chess in Schools?

If you have any interest in chess education you should certainly subscribe to First Rank, a newsletter published by the Education Commission of the European Chess Union.

If you’ve missed any issues, don’t worry. The link to Issue 7 below will enable you to access everything.

First, an explanation. The ECU are promoting chess in schools (up to the age of 11), specifically NOT as a competitive game, but as a learning tool designed to produce social and educational benefits for young children. They call it ‘scholastic chess’, but as this term has a very different meaning in the US I’d prefer to call it ‘educational chess’. We’re told every year at the Chess and Education Conference that this has nothing at all to do with what Carlsen and Caruana play, or even what you and I probably play.

I’d like to draw your attention in particular to Issue No. 7 of First Rank. Here’s what IM Jesper Hall has to say about who should teach ‘educational chess’ in schools. I hope Jesper doesn’t mind that I’ve taken the liberty of making the English a bit more idiomatic.

“Two years ago ECU Education carried out a survey on the CiS (Chess in Schools) movements in Europe. The most striking thing was that every country was struggling with the same main problem: How to teach chess when the goal is to obtain social and intellectual benefits? First of all who should teach? When you teach you need skills in the subject and skills in teaching. Chess instructors have knowledge of chess, but struggle with teaching skills, teachers struggle with the opposite problem. What I believe in is teachers taking care of the younger years, maybe up to 10-11 years of age: after that there will be a need for more chess knowledge and the chess instructors can come in and train the most interested children. The second problem is that the instruction materials normally focus on chess development, and not on the actual goals of CiS. This means that it is even more important to understand how to use the material, and to add good exercises beside the materials.”

I’m sure many of my chess teaching colleagues will disagree with this, and, in particular, would deny that they struggle with teaching skills.

I’ll write a lot more about my views on this later. For the moment, I’d be very interested to hear your views about whether chess in primary schools should be taught, as Jesper thinks, by class teachers or, as usually happens in the US and the UK, by professional chess tutors.