Working across 43 schools means I get to see a lot of English lessons and talk to a fair number of English teachers. In oder to support our teachers we’ve been working on identifying what we think are high impact, low effort approaches to teaching English that any teacher could adopt or adapt. I’ve learned from every single one of our schools and, working with my colleagues in the English lead practitioner team, have been working to combine and refine many of the great ideas and approaches I’ve experienced to a set of simple teaching strategies we can use to train teachers.
The criteria for inclusion are pretty straightforward. Here they are in order of importance:
- They must have a clear impact on all students’ ability to be successful in English
- The must be straightforward to implement and involve no unnecessary preparation
- Ideally, they should be enjoyable for students and teachers
This process has resulted in pulling together five teaching strategies:
- Regular retrieval practice
- Vocabulary instruction
- Couch to 5k writing
- Reading for meaning and fluency
- Structured discussion
Each is predicated on the notion that repetition builds success, that success leads to greater motivation, and that greater motivation leads to greater success. I advocate – and regularly demonstrate – the use of mini whiteboards to support these approaches. Together, these approaches to teaching are designed to lead not only to mastery of each of the three modalities of English, speaking and listening, reading, and writing, but also lead to the ability to make meaning from and with language and literature. Note, there is never a PowerPoint slide in sight.
1. Regular retrieval practice
This leads very little introduction. If you’re not convinced of the efficacy of retrieval practice by now, there’s little chance I’m persuade you here. (For an even handed discussion of the evidence base for retrieval practice see this EEF blog by Rob Coe) However, although many schools have made regular retrieval practice a non-negotiable expectation of lessons, what students retrieve and how they go about the process of retrieving varies widely.
The first point to note is that the evidence for retrieval practice is largely gleaned from experimentation into “relatively simple verbal materials, including word lists and paired associates”. (Dunlosky et al, 2013, p.32) This means that retrieval practice is likely to be effective for getting students to acquire fingertips knowledge of the definitions of subject terminology, but less effective at improving performance at complex tasks.
A second potential issue is that we often see students asked to retrieve information that they haven’t actually been taught, that teachers don’t care that much whether students can remember, or is not part of systematic process of ensuring students become increasingly successful over time.
The regular retrieval practice we advocate should
- Consist of the previously taught Curriculum Related Expectations specified within each module (see here)
- Be composed of regularly repeated questions and answers which students become increasingly fluent at answering over time
- Include previously acquired CREs taught in earlier curriculum modules
To support teachers in ensuring retrieval practice includes these three components, we’ve partnered with Carousel Learning to create banks of matched question and answer pairs for each curriculum module which can be used to both create quizzes in lessons and to assign homework for students to work on independently. This allows teachers to be systematic in quizzing students on the knowledge they will need to be successful in our assessments. If teachers are using Carousel to set quizzes, these can be projected very simply so that students expected to begin answering as soon as they enter a classroom. We strongly recommend that students use MWBs to record their answers for two important reasons: first, it reduces the stakes of retrieval which has been demonstrated to have a beneficial effect on retention and second, it makes students much more accountable for their answers.
Ideally, after students have been given sufficient time to answer the retrieval questions they should be asked to hold up their MWBs, maybe using a prompt such as “1, 2, 3, show me.” The teacher then has time to scan answers to spot any obvious mistakes or misconceptions. After, and only after this scanning process is complete, teachers should share the unambiguously correct answers and allow students to correct any mistakes before wiping their MWB clean and removing the evidence of failures.
If all, or most, students fail to demonstrate whatever we’ve been teaching them to be able to do, clearly something has gone badly wrong. This is not their fault. In such circumstances the only useful conclusion to draw is that there’s either something wrong with the curriculum or its implementation. In our case, the lead practitioner team regular asks for feedback about what teachers (and students) have struggled with and we then think carefully about whether we have left gaps in the instructional sequence which students have fallen into. Whenever we identify such a gap we make sure to update the curriculum and alert teachers to the changes we’ve made. However, the problem is sometimes down to local gaps – instances where teachers have overlooked or misinterpreted important areas of instruction.
As students become increasingly familiar with the finite number of questions within a module, teachers should reduce the time available for students to write the correct answers to encourage students to embed this knowledge.
2. Vocabulary instruction
As most teachers are now aware, vocabulary can be roughly divided into three tiers. Tier 1 words are those that are common to spoken language and are likely to be well known by students (hat, running, sad, quick). Tier 2 words are those that are common to written language but relatively rare in speech (fusillade, substantiate, obsequious, turgid). Tier 3 words are specialised, academic words that described the concepts of subject disciplines (osmosis, tectonic, algebra, onomatopoeia) These distinctions are important because the way we treat Tier 2 words (topic vocabulary and excellent epithets) should be different to the way we handle Tier 3 words (subject terminology). When teaching topic vocabulary – words which are important for studying the current unit, either because they describe important concepts or are used in the texts studied – students are asked to go through a familiar process each time they are introduced to a new word. This process asks them to say it aloud, spell it, and, wherever possible, learn a Tier 1 synonym. Or, as we’ve termed it, Say It, Spell It, Know It.
The ‘Say It’ phase of teaching simply requires the teacher to model the word’s pronunciation and then get the class to repeat the pronunciation back as a choral response. The idea here is that speech is particularly ‘cognitively sticky’ and that if students have not just heard the word pronounced correctly but also said it themselves, they are much more likely to remember it.
The ‘Spell It’ phase of instruction involves the teacher breaking down the word into morphemes, running over how each is spelt and then removing the word from the board and asking students to recode the sounds into letters. By ensuring students are familiar with both the pronunciation and the spelling, re increase the probability that they will recognise it the next time they see it.
Finally, the ‘Know It’ phase focuses on synonyms rather than definitions. Often, dictionary definitions are unhelpfully opaque and leave students move confused than before. By giving a synonym in everyday language and employing the phrase “it’s a bit like…” we build a bridge between familiar and unfamiliar vocabulary. Most Tier 2 words have straightforward Tier 1 synonyms and so, with a bit of thought, this is easy to do on the fly: ‘benevolent’ is a bit like ‘kind’. When students ask, as will inevitably happen, “Why didn’t they just say ’kind’ then?” we can say, “Because they’re not quite the same, benevolent is also a bit like ‘well-meaning’ and is also usually used about someone in authority.”
Subject terminology needs to be dealt with differently. Here, we suggest that students are taught to memorise agreed definitions. Often, students will have a vague understanding of words like metaphor, theme, or alliteration, but when pressed will often say something like, “I know what it means but I don’t know how to explain it.” By ensuring students have fingertips recall of an agreed definition, they are liberated. They learn exactly what these arcane sounding words mean and, over time, this frees them up to use them with increased clarity and precision
The other class of vocabulary we specify is what the English department at Ormiston Horizon Academy call Excellent Epithets. Part of our approach to academic writing is to pre-teach a set of appositives and adjectives for major characters or themes in a text. So, for instance, in the King James Bible module in Year 8, students will learn the following Excellent Epithets for King David:
The adjectives are chosen to reflect different aspects of a character and, as will become clear, there is a focus on students being able to transform words across word class – particularly from adjective to noun. Very often, if students only learn one form of a word, their writing – and thinking – is held back. If you only know ‘patriarchy’ and are unfamiliar with ‘patriarchal’, you end up torturing a sentence to make the version of the word you know fit.
As you can see, etymology and morphology plays an important role in our approach to vocabulary. When students (and their teachers!) learn what the prefixes, roots and suffixes that make up words mean, new insights can be unlocked.
3. Couch to 5k writing
Writing – the process of making marks to express ideas – is a verb, an action, and as such is not nearly so amenable to study in the way we normally approach it as we would wish. Maybe it is not in fact a ‘skill’.
The only way we can teach children to acquire skill is to try to break the skill in question down into the knowledge it is composed of, teach that, and then get students to practise applying that knowledge. This being the case, it ought to be obvious that teaching writing can never be a ‘once and done’ operation. Whilst the required knowledge of how to write could, conceivably, be taught just once, the practice required to acquire any degree of skill is a continuous process. What this suggests is that the teaching of writing might best be served by a ‘little and often approach’.
How we tend to go about asking students to write is often counter-productive. As you’re probably well aware, the NHS’s Couch to 5K programme kicks off by interspersing periods of walking with 60 second runs. For anyone unused to running, 60 seconds is a challenge, but – for the most part – an achievable one. We are motivated by our success to believe that running for 90 seconds is also achievable and that, in time and with practice, we’ll be able to run for five kilometres if we stick to the programme. Any who has used the Couch to 5k app will probably remember some of the useful nuggets of running instruction: advice on keeping your head still, or how to use your arms, how to breath, which anyone can immediately apply and see improvements.
But imagine if the Couch to 5k exercise programme took a similar approach to the way we tend to teach writing. Imagine if, on downloading the app, you were expected to run 5 kilometres straight away. What would you do? The vast majority of us would quit immediately. This is precisely what happens to far too many students faced with the expectation to complete extended analytical essays. And those who do persevere rarely acquire the fluency and freedom that we, their teachers, seem to apply so effortlessly.
The notion of C25K writing is simple: we aim to make students technically proficient, through explicitly teaching how to master a range of written styles and to practise applying this knowledge to the point where it becomes ingrained. Then students will be able to apply this hard-won skill to whatever texts they encounter.
The principles of C25K writing are:
- Gapless instruction: one reason why so many students fail to improve is because teachers tend to make assumptions about what students understand. Every assumption is gap into which some students will fall. Our approach is to attempt to eliminate gaps so that all students can be successful writers.
- Success before struggle: too many students believe they are bad at writing. To build motivation we focus on getting students to experience success early and often before expecting them to persevere with anything more difficult
- Less for longer: students are routinely rushed into extended writing before they have mastered the sentence. Our approach is focussed on sentence level mastery which we repeat not until students can write well, but until they can no longer write badly.
- Practice makes permanent: what we repeatedly do we get good at. This comes with a downside: if students practice doing the wrong things, they get better at writing badly. Many writing errors are caused not by a lack of knowledge but are due to bad habits. We recommend that students are held to account for ensuring that all errors are corrected, and feedback is requested where there is uncertainty.
Our C25K writing strategy is divided into two main strands: analytical writing and transactional/descriptive writing. The approach to analytical writing is based on an approach used at St Martin’s Catholic Academy in Leicestershire. As with all great schools, there are always too many variables to pin down success to any one strategy, but one of the approaches that impressed us was what Head of English, Liz Smart, referred to as ‘the deconstructed essay’.
If you were to order, say, a deconstructed burger from a fancy restaurant you’d have the bun, meat, relish etc all served separately; it is up to the patron to reconstruct the ingredients into a recognisable burger. The deconstructed essay is similar. Each of the elements of an analytic essay has been isolated into a discrete sentence which can be taught and practised to the point of mastery. These sentences have been distributed over the KS3 curriculum so that students master writing three analytic sentence types per year. Here is our deconstructed essay model.
The thesis statement is the most important part of the deconstructed essay as it not only teaches students to find a way into whatever analysis they’re conducting, it also – if written properly – forms the basis for the rest of the essay. As such it forms a crucial part of students experience of Year 7. The ambition should be for students to practise writing thesis statements so frequently that the process becomes second nature.
We recommend that time and effort is spent drilling students in the definitions of the key grammatical terms: subordinating conjunction (a word that introduces a subordinate clause,) subordinate clause (a clause that forms part of and is dependent on a main clause) and main clause (a clause that can form a complete sentence.) The idea is that these terms will be used so frequently that eventually students will possess fingertips knowledge of both their definition and application. This will make teaching much more efficient as not only will you be using precise definitions, you will not have to constantly explain meanings as students become more familiar with them.
The purpose of formalising the structure of a thesis statement in this way is that it forces students to write a sentence that contains different perspectives with the comma acting as the pivot or hinge between them. It’s important to note that different subordinating conjunctions produce different thesis statements. We start students off by using ‘Although,’ ‘Despite’ and ‘Whereas’ before later moving on to ‘Because,’ ‘As’ and ‘Since’ (cause and effect) and then ‘Once,’ ‘When,’ ‘While,’ ‘After’ and ‘Before’ (relationships). Mastering each of these will provide students with a sophisticated way into any essay question.
The ‘excellent epithets’ become a key part of integrating ambitious vocabulary into essay writing. Teachers are encouraged to introduce their own epithets whenever appropriate, but we have specified a range in each module specifically to be used with thesis statements. The essential teaching point is to show students how to group epithets with similar meanings on the same side of the comma. For instance, if the question students are answering is, ‘How is Anthony presented in Act 3 scene 1 of Julius Caesar?’ the first step is to consult Antony’s epithets:
‘Staunch’ and ‘eloquent’ are both positive adjectives, whereas ‘manipulative’ is unambiguously negative. ‘Ambitious’ could fit in either group depending on the context. So, when we come to write our thesis statement, we need to make sure that we use at least one positive epithet and at least one ambiguous or negative epithet. Like so: Although Antony is eloquent, he is also presented as manipulative. Or, even better, we could use more than one epithet on one side of the comma: Although he is presented as devious and manipulative, we also see that Antony is a staunch supporter of Caesar and an eloquent speaker. Over time, students will be shown how to construct increasingly sophisticated statements. But, once they are confidently using excellent epithets, students are ready to write topic sentences.
A topic sentence depends on a well constructed thesis statement. The idea is that students should be able to write a topic sentence for every one of the epithets they have used in their thesis statement. If we take our example above, Although he is presented as devious and manipulative, we also see that Antony is a staunch supporter of Caesar and an eloquent speaker, we can now write three topic sentences. Our first step is to turn the adjectives in our epithets into nouns:
- Manipulative = manipulation (and deviousness)
- Staunch = staunchness (or loyalty)
- Eloquent = eloquence
This allows us to construct noun phrases that will be the subjects of our topic sentences. For example:
- Anthony’s manipulation of the crowd
- The staunchness Antony displays in Caesar’s defence
- His eloquence as a speaker
To these noun phrases we also have to add a verb and then a connection back to the question, in this case, How is Anthony presented in Act 3 scene 1 of Julius Caesar?
Writing a good topic sentence tends to take more practice than writing thesis statements but, with sufficient repetition, students will master them. And once they’re mastered, these two sentence types have the flexibility to be the backbone of all analytical writing. Each of the 9 sentences is taught, practised, mastered and then integrated as the curriculum unfolds.
The second strand of C25K writing is designed to prepare students to compose transactional and creative writing. I first came up with the idea when teaching an intervention class of Year 11 C/D borderline boys in about 2008. (You can read more about it here.)
In our curriculum, we have again approached this process at the level of sentences and have decided upon 30 creative writing sentence types, with 10 sentences taught and practised per year. These are all embedded into modules so that only are students explicitly taught how to write each sentence type, they are also asked to write about the content they are studying using these sentence types:
Most of these sentences come from Peter Ahern. Once students have been taught and practised, say, the Adjective Attack, teachers are able to simply ask them to write another adjective attack sentence about whatever it is they are studying. Each curriculum module specifies which sentences should be taught and which should be practised. For example, here is the Slow Writing page from the Comedy Teacher Guide:
This approach to writing has been paying real dividends. Rikki Cole, an English teacher at Ormiston Victory Academy in Norwich who has been piloting C25K writing for the last two years saw incredible GCSE results this year with students who were targeted 5s getting 8s and 9s.
4. Echo reading
I first wrote about echo reading here. This approach isn’t going to completely close the chasm between text and meaning, but it’s a start. For students who have mastered the phonetic knowledge the decode fluently, this approach really could have the potential to move them from confusion to clarity. Over time, and as students’ confidence grows, the space between the teacher’s reading and the student’s echo can grow; instead of a single line the teacher might read two lines, then three, a whole paragraph and so on. At the same time, students can be encouraged to interpret the text differently and inject their own ideas on emphasis and tone.
At Cliff Park Academy in Great Yarmouth, Head of Department, Holly Lawes made reading fluency a central plank in her department’s approach to reading. Watching Holly teach a reading fluency lesson is a humbling experience. In one lesson from the Ancient Origins module, students are given a copy of the first scene from Simon Armitage’s brilliant play script of Homer’s Odyssey and told they will be building up to a whole class performance by the end of the lesson. Holly begins by modelling Zeus’s first line: “This is what I say: Odysseus must be punished!” She expertly captures the imperious tone of an angry Greek god. The class duly chorus back the line. They then discuss what Zeus was feeling, what his attitude to Odysseus might be and whether a different tone of voice might work better. Students are asked for suggestions of how to deliver the line and several interpretations are experimented with before they agree which is most successful. Bit by bit, Holly and the Year 7 class work through the extract, with some students echoing back lines individually and some being chorused by the whole class, until they have performed the scene with a fair degree of panache. At the end of the lesson, the students are buzzing. When asked what his favourite part of the lesson had been, one boy, with a wild grin on his face, hissed out, “Everything!”
Predictably, some classes are a harder sell than others. While anyone can get an enthusiastic reaction from a group of Year 7s, it can feel much harder to use this approach with a surly set of Year 9s. That said, it’s important for teachers to see the struggle and get a feel for how to make sure every student takes part despite their awkwardness and embarrassment. We recommend always starting with whole class choral responses before splitting students into smaller groups, or teams Maybe one side of the class echoes one line while the other side echoes another. From there, move to smaller groups, then pairs and eventually individuals. At first, some students are overcome with nervous giggles and need to go through their line word by word. Very occasionally, students point blank refuse to read Obviously, we need to make reasonable adaptations for students with specific special educational needs, but in the main students should be given the choice of following the school’s disciplinary procedure or complying with reasonable instructions. At no point is any individual made to feel humiliated: they’re only ever echoing back the teacher’s reading of the text in question.
Every class has experienced some sort of success. Even groups for whom this approach to reading feels utterly foreign have progress from halting mutters to a certain degree of confidence. But when it really works, the students are breathless with excitement and purpose. They feel they’ve been part of something powerful and special, and are hungry for more. Teachers are often surprised by some of the individuals who shine, with students who are thought of as ‘quiet’ coming to life. Students who are seen as brash and confident are not always the ones who get the most from fluency lessons: the inclusive group dynamic leads to a sense of accomplishment in which no one is the centre of attention. The key to this working is repetition: to keep modelling and echoing as many times as necessary for reading a line to become fluent. And, of course, the more often students experience fluency lessons, the more culturally normal the experience becomes.
At first, many students listen to the modelled reading and then read as haltingly and erratically as ever. It’s when the process is repeated to the point where they are made to be successful that things begin to change. When teachers give instructions such as, “Listen to what happens when the comma comes up – can you hear the pause? The change in tone? Make yours the same.” Or, “Pay attention to the way the pace and volume are picked up here – you need to show you’re changing form thoughtful to excited.” This focussing on how the detail or a text changes the way we read can transform students’ understanding of meaning. As they repeat a line and get it right, they can hear what it means. This is especially important for dense, unfamiliar texts like poems or Shakespeare plays, but it works with pretty much anything. The way students have to think about the effects of language, punctuation, character and tone really enhances their understanding, building a bridge from text to meaning. The emphasis in Fluency lessons should be on enjoyment and fluent performance.
5 Structured discussion
There is something particularly cognitively ‘sticky’ about speech. We are more likely to remember that which we have said than that which we have merely read or heard. One of the big problems teachers regularly encounter is that children who are able to articulate interesting opinions and make useful connections orally will often struggle to record these observations in writing. All too often this is because the way children have expressed themselves is the only way they have of expressing themselves.
As literate adults, we have the ability to instantaneously translate between what we say and what we would need to alter in order to write down what we’ve said. Although they’re related, spoken and written language are very different beasts, as anyone who’s ever tried to transcribe speech will know. If children are not sufficiently familiar with the academic language code, they will struggle to write down that which they find easy to say out loud.
The solution is something we’ve called ‘structured discussion’. It really isn’t anything especially new or exciting, but it does seem very different to the way most teachers teach, and therefore it can seem hard to grasp what needs to be done.
Essentially, it works like this: the teacher asks a question about the content being studied and then directs it at a particular student. The student then gives an answer. Instead of either paraphrasing their answer in academic language or just saying, ‘great’ and moving on, the teacher then asks the student to elevate their response so that they ‘speak like an essay’. This can be hard for students to do and so it may require the teacher to provide a scaffold to elicit a more academic response, or a model for them to repeat. Then other students should be asked to repeat what the first student has said. If they’ve said it, they’ll be able to write it down.
This pattern is then repeated with as many children as possible asked to participate. They can be asked to expand on or reply to other students’ answers, but responses must always be mediated by the teacher to make sure children are supported to speak in academic language.
Just in case this explanation has been hard to follow, you can see a rough transcript of a discussion following reading the first part of Simon Armitage’s version of the Odyssey with a Year 7 class in this blog post.
When I visit schools, I always offer to model lessons incorporating one or more of these techniques. Because they are so easy to set up, have a clear impact on students’ ability to do something and are, for the most part, enjoyable, this tends to be very well received.