A ‘Mastery-light’ Subject Curriculum Model

My latest piece for the school blog on curriculum models.

Class Teaching


By Andy Tharby

Before we consider the shape and dimensions of a subject curriculum, we should first consider its purpose. In my opinion, a curriculum should always be challenging in its depth and breadth so that:

  • students acquire powerful knowledge that takes them beyond their experience;
  • students are encouraged to enjoy and take an interest in the subject;
  • students are well-prepared for terminal exams at the end of five years of study;
  • students build their academic background knowledge and cultural capital by acquiring Tier 2 and Tier 3 vocabulary;
  • students acquire the foundations needed in each subject for further study beyond GCSE should they wish.

However, these lofty aims will not be realised unless the subject curriculum is designed  to support the incremental accrual of knowledge. Cognitive science research points us to two useful findings: first that ‘higher-order’ thinking skills cannot exist without factual knowledge, and second that we learn…

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The essential ingredients of great English teaching


Image: @jasonramasami

What follows is an article I wrote for the latest edition of Teach Secondary. It is based on ideas from my book Making every English lesson count, which was published last summer.

No two English teachers will ever fully agree on what makes effective English teaching. And why should we? Each new teacher joins the profession with a vision about the kind of teacher they would like to become as well as a very distinctive set of personal aims and values. Over time, each of us develops a more and more nuanced conception of the factors that make for successful English teaching. We usually draw this from our personal experience, the wisdom of colleagues and our understanding of what has been shown to work in other contexts.

For me, great English teaching is defined by a genuine love for the subject and an extensive knowledge of how students learn to read and write. I am sceptical of the suggestion that a great English teacher is some kind of charismatic maverick or mystical sage. Passion is paper-thin without method. However, a teacher without a genuine enthusiasm for language and literature will struggle to soften their clinical approach.

So, in light of this, and drawing on what I have discovered from educational research, what do I believe to be the six features of great English teaching?

Great English teaching requires an understanding that the subject is an inter-connected body of knowledge. With the best teaching, students come to see the subject of English as its own universe rather than a series of atomised tasks and texts. Key Stage 3, therefore, should be used to induct students into this strange and beautiful world, laying the all-important foundations for Key Stage 4 as we do so. This requires a coherent, sequential and systematic approach to the English curriculum. From Year 7, students must be explicitly taught about literary genre, form, structure and devices. They should gain a strong understanding of these and should experiment with them in their own writing. Ideally, each new text should introduce a convention or concept that can be taken forward and used to enhance the next text that the child reads, and the next after that …

Great English teaching is always supported by ambitious text choices. All children are entitled to read literature that challenges them to imagine a world beyond the limiting confines of their own. A text should provoke a student to consider times, places, people and ideas that they would not encounter in everyday life. We should be brave. Many children’s only experience of literary texts will be in school. We should not cave into the fear that we will bore them or put them off for life. Reading Lord of the Flies – or similarin its entirety at the start of Year 7 is a daring and exciting move. Go for it! I find the following questions to be useful when choosing texts:

  • Does the text provide enough (or too much) lexical challenge for the age group?
  • Does the text allow for conceptual and philosophical thought about the human condition?
  • Does the text introduce literary conventions that induct the students into the discipline of literary study?
  • Does the text provide students with cultural capital and/or useful knowledge?

Great English teaching places great literature at the heart of every lesson. We should adopt a simple philosophy. The pedagogical methods we use, the activities we plan, the lives and interests of our students, the weather and the time of day should play subservient roles. The throbbing heart of the English lesson should be the text itself. Often the best way to engage a student is to ensure that she understands what she is reading. At first, at the factual, obvious level – the who, what, where, why and when. Engagement and interest are often a result of this slowly deepening understanding. A ripple that, eventually, becomes a wave.

Great English teaching hinges on subtle and sensitive modelling. This stage is so important but so often overlooked. Many young people arrive at secondary school with little knowledge of the features and structures of the genres they will be expected to write in. This is especially true in the cases of analytical essay writing and rhetorical writing. Unless the implicit underlying procedural thinking that goes into writing in these genres is made explicit, then students will fail to grasp them securely. The two modelling strategies I find most useful are ‘live writing’ and ‘worked examples’. Live writing involves writing on the board, from scratch, with the help of the whole-class, discussing and editing as we go. Worked examples are completed pieces of writing that students use as a guide when they are writing on a different topic in the same genre. Students can then emulate the genre features with their own ideas.

Great English teaching places a great value on words. A single word is a complete concept that forms a gateway to our storehouse of knowledge on a topic. A wide vocabulary not only helps students to comprehend a text, but it also helps them to make precise and perceptive interpretations and inferences. Bringing Words to Life by Isabel Beck, Margaret McKeown and Linda Kucan offers the best evidence-informed advice on vocabulary teaching I know: teach a new word in context; explain how the word operates in other contexts; give students lots of opportunity to practise; and provide multiple exposures to the word. Ideally, your English department will design a five-year sequential approach to vocabulary that begins in Year 7, finishes in Year 11 and includes a mixture of words commonly found in academic books and broadsheet newspapers – such as coincidence, absurd and industrious – and subject-specific words – such as protagonist, anaphora and omniscient narrator.

Great English teaching gives students lots and lots of writing practice. It comes as no surprise that there is a strong and well-established correlation between the quantity of writing in English GCSE exams and level of attainment. Over five-years, students need to develop their stamina and their skill. They can only do this when teachers dedicate lots of lesson time to writing practice. It is very important that this writing is carefully scaffolded and that time is given to practising the component parts of writing – sentences, grammatical structures and paragraphs – as well as full texts. This should also be supported by precise formative assessment. Inexperienced writers often require minutely focused feedback.

Great English teaching, therefore, is not about spectacular lessons – although it might include these of course! This is because student learning is slow, erratic, associative and cumulative. It does not readily conform to hour-long, bite-size chunks. Great English teaching starts as soon as the students arrive in Year 7 and is supported by a carefully designed curriculum and collaboration between teachers. In other words, a heady concoction of love and method.

A masterplan for vocabulary teaching in the English curriculum

A while back I stumbled across this awesome critical vocabulary document on the website of Yokohama International School. It was created by an English teacher called Liz Davies. I suggest you have a glance at it before reading the rest of this post.

It is, I hope you will agree, an extraordinary piece of work. Under categories such as ‘verbs for literary analysis’ or ‘adjectives to describe imagery’ or ‘adjectives to describe the moral qualities of characters’, it provides an exhaustive lexical map of the academic domain of English literature. For instance, in the category of ‘mental qualities of characters’ we have such beauties as precocious, wily, shrewd, imbecilic, erudite and, my favourite, thick-skulled.

The problem with the document, however, is what to do with it. It would be foolish – or should I say imbecilic – to hand it to students as it is. There is far too much to process here – far too much, even, for one academic year. It was all too difficult for me – so I filed away the document and did not think about it for a while.

Earlier today, however, I had a eureka moment. I finally worked out how I could unleash its potential. In other words, how I could teach my students to know and use these words accurately and in relevant contexts.

It is best to think of a document such as this as a grand knowledge organiser – a 5-year rather than a half-term plan. Because the words it lists are not presented in a context-specific way, it can be superimposed upon any existing English curriculum. The process – which could be undertaken as an individual teacher or as a department – might look like this:

Decide which words are useful and which are not. I would cut down the first list (‘verbs for literary analysis’) and include more literary and poetic terminology in its place. Significant time should be spent on this part of the process. In essence, you are mapping out the vocabulary you will see in all students’ essays in 5 years’ time.

The next stage is to map it against your 5 year curriculum. When and where, for instance, should you introduce the term ‘euphemistic’? In your Y10 lessons on An Inspector Calls or at some point before? This, again, is a time consuming but vital part of the process. If you are working alone, you might find it easier to map it out as you go; this may lack the coherence of a pre-planned approach, but it is still likely to bear fruit. If you use knowledge organisers, you can adapt them to incorporate the words.

Now start teaching the words. If they are mapped into the curriculum coherently, then you will find yourself teaching the words in context –  a vital component of effective vocabulary instruction. Your Y7 unit on narrative poetry, for instance, might allow you to teach the terms ‘romantic’ and ‘sentimental’ to describe a writer. Spend time teaching the words and have students record their meanings. Explain the words in detail and how they operate in other contexts too – e.g. Give an example of a ‘sentimental’ movie you have seen? Give students time to practice saying and writing the words. Discuss the morphology and etymology of the words too.

Make sure students have multiple exposure to the words. Use them in model written pieces and include them as part of daily and weekly review and retrieval practice sessions. If you use spelling tests, be sure to include the words too.

Create a vocabulary test for the end of each half-term. This should be a cumulative test so that it includes words from this half-term alongside words from previous half-terms too. By Y11, students should be expected to use and be tested on every word they have been taught over 5 years. If you do this as a department, every teacher and every student will be using the same list of words. This is an incredibly powerful position to be in.

And that’s it. I think such a scheme can work for two reasons. One, because it does not involve ripping up schemes of work and starting again – it enhances but does not replace. Two, because it makes use of what we know about effective vocabulary teaching as well as the key principles of learning science – retrieval practice, distributed practice, overlearning and interleaving.

Your thoughts, as always, are much appreciated.

Further reading:

On explicit vocabulary teaching – Beck, Isabel L., Margaret G. McKeown and Linda Kucan (2002). Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction (New York: Guilford Press).

On evidence-informed learning strategies – Dunlosky, John, Katherine A. Rawson, Elizabeth J. Marsh, Mitchell J. Nathan and Daniel T. Willingham (2013). Improving Students’ Learning with Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions from Cognitive and Educational Psychology, Psychological Science in the Public Interest 14(1): 4–58. Available at: http://www.indiana.edu/~pcl/rgoldsto/courses/dunloskyimprovinglearning.pdf.

On academic vocabulary teaching – Marzano, Robert J. (2004). Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement: Research on What Works in Schools (Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development).

On the value of daily and weekly review:

Rosenshine, Barak (2012). Principles of Instruction: Research-Based Strategies That All Teachers Should Know, American Educator (spring): 12–19. Available at: https://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/periodicals/Rosenshine.pdf.

My post on Memory platforms.

See Joe Kirby’s super podcast on how to use knowledge organisers effectively.

‘Making every lesson count’ development programme

In 2015, Shaun Allison and I wrote Making every lesson count, an evidence-informed book of practical advice for busy teachers. Since then, three more books in the series have been published: Making every English lesson count, Making every science lesson count and Making every primary lesson count.

In September, our school – Durrington High School in Worthing, West Sussex – was designated a Research School, one of 22 nationally. The aim of a Research School is to lead the way in the use of evidence-informed practice by sharing approaches to putting research evidence into practice and supporting schools to make better use of the evidence.

To that end, we will be running a development programme based on the six teaching principles – challenge, explanation, modelling, practice, feedback and questioning – we shared in the original Making every lesson count book. The programme will run for three days across the year (12th December 2017; 23rd March 2018; 20th June 2018) and is open to teachers, subject leaders and school leaders from schools inside and outside our immediate network. The programme will seek to answer the following questions:

  • What does the evidence suggest are the key features of effective teaching?
  • How can teachers use this evidence to inform their day to day teaching and learning in the classroom?
  • How can we mobilise this evidence into a cohesive teaching and learning/CPD strategy across a whole school or department?

The course will draw on a number of evidence sources, including The Sutton Trust report What Makes Great Teaching?, The EEF Toolkit and Barak Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction. From our own experiences we understand that knowing and understanding the evidence is one thing, but putting it into practice – as teachers or leaders – is quite another! The course is designed to cater for participants from all phases and with different levels of experience. Shaun and I will facilitate the secondary side of the programme.

If you would like to read more or book on to the course, please click here.

If you would like more information, then please email Lisa Edwards: ledwards4@durring.com

We are also running two further development programmes (follow the links for more information and booking):

And finally, we will also be hosting a ResearchEd conference on 28th April 2018. The theme of the day will be ‘effective evidence informed strategies that can be taken straight back to the classroom’. Confirmed speakers so far include Professor Daniel Muijs, Dr Becky Allen, Tom Sherrington and Peps Mcrea … Click here to find out more or to book a ticket.

We really hope to see you at Durrington in the next few months.

Connecting and organising knowledge in English literature

Much has been written about the value of knowledge retrieval practice in English literature – it is impossible to think critically about a text until you know it very well. However, I think it is now time to also consider how this knowledge might be connected and organised. In other words, what kinds of mental representations – or schema –should our students be building? What shape should these take for individual texts? What shape should these take for the subject  as a whole? And how do we ensure the smooth transfer of this knowledge to the extended essay format which is favoured by summative examinations?

Each text is represented by a number of interwoven knowledge frameworks. These include:

  • knowledge of plot, events, character, setting – and associated inferences;
  • knowledge of the text’s thematic breadth and its ‘big ideas’;
  • knowledge of the writer’s methods and devices;
  • knowledge of contextual factors.

These frameworks also sit nicely with the AQA English literature assessment objectives.

One of our most important jobs is to help students to connect this knowledge in useful and creative ways. If they do not, then their essays become unbalanced. Too much isolated historical context, for example, leads to what my colleague Tod Brennan calls ‘context dumping’ – lots of historical events and facts, but no understanding of how all this has influenced the writer’s viewpoint. Similarly, too much emphasis on the ‘big ideas’ leads to vague, poorly evidenced essays, and too much focus on quotations and textual evidence can stand in the way of a genuine understanding of the writer’s overall purpose. Balance is everything.

It is often more helpful to think of ‘analysis’ as ‘connection’. The more fine-grained our textual knowledge, the more subtle the connections we can make. The more we practise making connections, the more original and interesting our analysis becomes. (We do not just make connections within a text of course – we also make implicit links with the wealth of general knowledge we already have.)

Put simply, whenever analysis is written on the page, some kind of connection must have happened in the mind.

If we were to simplify most sequences of lessons, they would probably look like this:

  1. Knowledge acquisition – reading the text, knowing the plot, learning quotations, understanding the context and ‘big ideas’ etc.
  2. Knowledge strengthening – exploring the whole text and connecting the main ideas.
  3. Knowledge application – writing an essay or completing a mock exam.

Often, too little time is spent on 2 and, as a result, students struggle to organise their knowledge appropriately. Consequently, they do not develop the kind of broad and conceptual knowledge that helps them to understand that a text is a construct – the product of a living, breathing, thinking human being rather than a lifeless paper thing to look at in an English lesson. 

When studying any text, we must constantly juggle between the big picture and the small picture, the main ideas and the small details – the zooming-in and the zooming-out, as David Didau has put it. We would probably prefer that our students always use bottom-up reasoning to come to a conclusion: Priestley makes the audience side with Sheila; Sheila listens to the Inspector’s socialist message; Sheila is a young woman; therefore, Priestley wanted the audience to believe that young women, like Sheila, hold the key to a socialist future. However, if we are realistic our students probably use top-down reasoning more often: Sir tells me Dickens was concerned about the plight of the poor in Victorian times; therefore, we are probably supposed to feel sympathy for the impoverished Cratchit family.

In the early stages of literary study (I would include GCSE in this) and with less-proficient students, this second kind of inference – or connection – should probably be encouraged, even if it feels a bit less authentic.

So what can we do to help our classes make more and better connections? In no particular order:

Break ‘big ideas’  and themes into smaller propositions. This way, students can explore the finer subtleties. Romeo and Juliet is a play about love could become:

  • Shakespeare explores the spiritual nature of true love;
  • Shakespeare highlights the damaging effect of unrequited love;
  • Shakespeare warns us about the dangers of breaking romantic social conventions;
  • Shakespeare shows that love causes violence.

Get students to ‘connect backwards’ from main propositions. This week, my colleague Emma Rose shared these statements about J.B. Priestley’s purpose in an An Inspector Calls and then asked her class to find supporting evidence from the text:

  • Capitalism leads to selfishness.
  • We need to look after one another.
  • The reason the rich were so powerful was because they relied on the working class to make them richer.
  • Women deserve an equal place in society.

You can see how students can link these statements to their existing textual and contextual knowledge.

Get students to ‘connect forwards’ towards big ideas. Give students sets of textual facts and see what conclusions they come up with. For greater discrimination, add a potentially contradictory statement too. For instance:

What does Priestley believe about the role of women in society?

  • Priestley showed that Eva Smith was willing to take a huge risk in being the ‘ring leader’ of the strike.
  • Sheila is willing to side with the Inspector over her parents.
  • Sheila recognises the humanity of working women – “they’re not cheap labour – they’re people.”
  • Mrs Birling is emotionally ‘cold’ and does not understand her own children.

Consider the big ideas that connect across more than one text. Rich vs poor; powerful vs powerless; man vs nature; gender discrimination; appearance vs reality; the physical world and the psychological world; old and young, etc.

Multiple links. Consider how one piece of textual evidence can be utilised in multiple ways. Take one quotation, for instance, and link it to every theme of a text.

Plan, plan, plan! The act of structuring and organising ideas is essential to effective essay writing. You can plan four essays in the time it takes to write one. Model the planning process and its implicit steps very carefully, and remember that full essays and mock exams – as Daisy Christodoulou argues – are not always the most effective means of assessment. The act of planning without your notes also provides effective retrieval practice.

Self-explanation. Consider also the way students can explore their understanding verbally. I prefer structured pair tasks that allow student to ‘speak like an essay’; once again, they can be far more efficient than writing a full essay as it allows for lots of connection-making in a short time span.

Think non-linear. Consider how slideshows, resources, worksheets and notes in students’ exercise books can be designed in ways that make connections easier. Visual-spatial organisers like mind-maps are very helpful.


Useful links:

Chris Curtis on why you should cover the extract when planning an answer to AQA English Literature Paper 1.

Mark Roberts’ brilliant warts-and-all advice on how to prepare students for exam questions.

Making every English lesson count


Image: @jasonramasami

Two years ago my colleague Shaun Allison and I were fortunate enough to have the opportunity to write a book on teaching practice. This became Making every lesson count, a handbook for teachers based on six interlinking pedagogical principles: challenge, explanation, modelling, practice, feedback and questioning. It was our pet project and we had great fun writing it. Since then, we have been thrilled and humbled by the positive response to the book we have received from teachers across the country. In truth, we had not expected this.

Over the past year or so, Shaun and I have been considering one of the weaknesses of the original book: the fact that most of the advice is generic rather than subject-specific. Given the crucial role that pedagogical content knowledge has in the development of teacher expertise, we decided to launch a series of books that examine how the six principles work in different academic subjects, along with a version for primary teachers too.

I have written the book on English teaching, Making every English lesson count: six principles to support great reading and writing. As with the original book, my aim has been to provide precise and gimmick-free advice in an accessible style. It is also illustrated by the ever-brilliant Jason Ramasami. The book is not only informed by research evidence but also the excellent practice of many English teachers from up and down the country. Once again, the book has been written to read from cover to over or to dip in to. I am proud of the final result and I hope that my fellow English teachers will find it useful and inspiring.

If you want to learn more, you can read a sneak preview of the introduction and a few pages of the first chapter here. I hope you enjoy it.

All being well, the book is due out by the end of the month – watch this space. If you order directly from Crown House Publishing you will get the book a few days before Amazon customers.

Making every primary lesson count, by Jo Payne and Mel Scott, can be ordered from here. Making every science lesson count, by Shaun Allison, can be ordered here. I can heartily recommend them both.

Scroll down to read the first reviews of my book:

Jill Berry, leadership consultant and author of Making the Leap:

Andy Tharby is clear from the outset that there are no silver bullets, and no strategies that will work for all English teachers in all classrooms. He stresses the importance of individuality and context, but also recognises that we can learn much from reading and research, from collaborative dialogue with other professionals and from careful reflection on all we learn as a consequence. How can we adapt what others have found to be successful in order to continue to build and strengthen our own practice?

Making Every English Lesson Count is firmly grounded in the principles of challenge, explanation, modelling, practice, questioning and feedback, and considers these elements of effective practice from a subject-specific perspective: offering practical strategies, specific examples and questions to prompt reflection. Tharby encourages the reader to consider how these ideas could be usefully adapted for best effect in their own teaching practice. The book explores, for example, the central place of the text in English teaching; the importance of background knowledge, both in terms of textual content and context and with respect to mastering literary skills; the crucial place of developing our understanding of vocabulary; and the effective use of supporting visual images. Meanwhile, throughout the book, suggestions based on sound underpinning theory about what learning is, and how it happens, are fleshed out with helpful close analysis and annotation of specific literary passages.

Tharby claims, “Great English teachers must live and breathe their subject.” Making Every English Lesson Count is testament to the fact that Tharby himself is definitely among their number.

Hélène Galdin-O’Shea, English and media teacher, research advocate:

This is a fantastic follow-up to Making Every Lesson Count, a book that has proved a solid resource for professional learning at all levels of experience.

Andy offers us a manifesto for great teaching of English, informed by research evidence, experience and pragmatism. His style is thought-provoking and insightful, and altogether a pleasure to read.

Making Every English Lesson Count will no doubt be a staple of all English departments, offering a wealth of advice to support the planning of an ambitious curriculum for our students and allowing colleagues to deliberately practise specific strategies in the classroom, with a focus on explicit teaching based on strong subject knowledge.

An advocate for reading and for expanding our students’ vocabulary, Andy’s enthusiasm is contagious. He has it right when he quotes Ludwig Wittgenstein: “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” What a fantastic challenge for all English teachers!

I couldn’t recommend this book more.

David Didau, author of What If Everything You Knew About Education Was Wrong?:

Andy Tharby has written the best book on English teaching that I have read. Not only is it full of practical wisdom, arresting anecdote and a thorough understanding of the implications of cognitive science for English teachers, it’s also couched in elegantly composed prose and is a joy to spend time with. It will bestride the educational world like a colossus.

Chris Curtis, Head of English, Saint John Houghton Catholic Voluntary Academy:

As with his blog, and previous collaboration with Shaun Allison in Making Every Lesson Count, Andy Tharby continues to demonstrate his knack of decluttering and demystifying teaching. This time he effectively, effortlessly and succinctly sets his eyes on the English lesson.

Making Every English Lesson Count cuts right down to the quick of English teaching. Tharby painlessly gets straight to the important issues in the classroom and moves us away from the superficial aspects that distract from quality teaching. Using his friendly and approachable style of writing, he guides us through the principles of what a lesson should have and what a teacher can do to ensure that every lesson counts.

Great teaching is about making the unfamiliar familiar and making the complex simple. This book does just that and it is a welcome addition – I really wish I had had it as an NQT.

A perfect gift for an NQT or established teacher of English.

Carl Hendrick, Head of Learning and Research, Wellington College:

One of the central challenges facing English teachers today is the huge chasm between research and practice. For many, the field of education research is an impenetrable forest that is simply not worth the effort of exploring at a time when workload is already at unmanageable levels. Making Every English Lesson Count is an indispensable guide for English teachers that combines important research from a range of fields with practical advice on how to implement it in the classroom. As a researcher, but more importantly as an English teacher, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Simply put, this is the book I wish I had read in my first year of teaching.

Creating a culture for academic excellence

I wrote this last week for our school blog. Thought I’d repost it here too for anyone who missed it:

Class Teaching

more able

In this week’s 15 minute forum, English teacher Andy Tharby discussed how we can create and sustain a fertile culture for academic excellence.


Our school is situated in a coastal town and has an intake that covers a large social demographic. We are currently asking an interesting question: how can we help students from all backgrounds and academic starting points achieve academic excellence? One small but significant group of students have been at the forefront of our attention – those who achieved highly at KS2, but are making less progress than those who arrived at lower starting points.

In The Hidden Lives of Learners (2007), the researcher Graham Nuthall (2007) theorised that there are three interlinked worlds that shape a student’s learning:

  • the public world of the teacher;
  • the highly influential world of peers;
  • the student’s own private world and experiences.

If we are to help more students achieve academic excellence and aspire to the top then we need to tap into each…

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Hop, skip, jump: the origin of useless teaching & learning policies

hop skip jumpImage: @jasonramasami

Jonny Edwards is a great teacher. Everyone says so: his pupils, his colleagues and his end of year results all bear witness to the fact.

One day, during Jonny’s free period, the school’s inquisitive new CPD leader, Dave, comes to see him.

“Jonny,” he says, “I’d love to learn the secret behind your classroom success. What’s the magic ingredient?”

“Ah,” says Jonny with a mischievous glint in his eye. “Then you must come and see the first few minutes of my next lesson. Watch carefully.”

Later that day, Dave, clipboard in hand, finds himself seated in the back row of Jonny’s Y11 class. The class file in, settle down, open their books and write down the lesson title. All is fairly standard until, precisely three minutes into the lesson, an extraordinary event occurs.

Jonny stands at the front and calls the class to attention. Once every eye is settled on him, he turns himself ninety degrees so that he is facing the door. He lifts one foot from the floor and jerks forward; next comes a shuffled canter; finally a two footed jump.

“Right class, let’s get started!”

Our new CPD leader is amazed; he has never seen anything quite like this before. Who knew that teaching could be this simple? Hop, skip, jump!

For the next few weeks, Dave starts to practise Jonny’s manoeuvre on his own classes. Sure enough, he starts to notice an improvement. If he starts his lessons with a triple jump three things happen: students work harder, they appear more attentive and the quality of their work improves. Incredible.

Over the next few months a transformative new teaching and learning policy is rolled across the school: The Triple Jump Start. A full INSET day is set aside in which Jonny guides teachers through the routine, step by step. The nuances are important. You should stand directly in the centre of the room. You should hop forward an optimal 80 centimetres. You should land with both arms outstretched. You should, like Jonny, raise your eyebrows at the moment of landing. The perfect Triple Jump is performed with a soundless poise and grace.

While some teachers appear slightly quizzical about the new policy (one culprit is reprimanded by the headteacher for being unable to stifle a high-pitched squeal during Dave’s insistence that planning one’s triple jump routine should take precedence over planning the content of one’s lesson), the staff seem broadly supportive. After all, the school is failing and nothing else has seemed to work.

For the next term, Dave insists that every teacher hones their triple jump routine. Dave understands that teachers are tricky customers so he announces that from the first week of February there will be a series of lesson pop-ins: the focus will be on the implementation of the Triple Jump policy. SLT will expect to see it at the start of every lesson. And, he assures a few concerned faces, don’t you worry if we come into your lesson a little later – we will quietly check in with a member of the class to see whether you have already performed it.

By the end of the academic year, The Triple Jump policy is in full swing and Dave has hard data to prove it. In January, only 2.5 percent of teachers – i.e. Jonny – were opening classes with a hop, a skip and a jump; now, at the end of July, there are only three sticking points – two recalcitrant English teachers and a wheelchair-bound R.E. teacher. This amounts to a staggering ninety percent take-up rate!

Come August, come exam results day. The school’s progress data is still well below national average but, encouragingly, it demonstrates a five percent improvement on the previous year.

It’s an upward trajectory! The start of the Great Leap Forward! In the following year, The Triple Jump becomes a cornerstone of the school’s teaching and learning policy. (It is rumoured that Ofsted, in their next inspection, will want to see it implemented by every member of staff).

Content, thinking and shaping: three principles for working with brighter students

untitled_artworkImage: @jasonramasami

In 2013, Ofsted published a pretty damning report about the provision available for more-able students at secondary schools in the UK. One statement from the report rings true to me:

Many students become used to performing at a lower level than they were capable of. Parents or carers and teachers accept this too readily.

The report argued that there are three main challenges for schools: to ensure that our most able students do as well academically as those of our main economic competitors; to ensure that students become aware, early on, of the academic opportunities available to them; and to ensure that all schools help students and families overcome cultural barriers to attending higher education.

I think it is fair to say that individual teachers cannot solve all of these problems alone; however, there is probably much we could be doing better. If I am honest, I have long hidden from the fact that I could be challenging some of my students more than I am, and even though I have long prided myself on ‘teaching to the top’, this has rested on a fairly conservative estimate of what the ‘top’ consists of.

Perhaps the first port-of-call for all classroom teachers is to introduce students to university and further education opportunities as early as possible. We must help our students to consider the long-game: their GCSEs are merely stepping-stones on a much longer journey – even if they mark the end point for us. Not all bright young people will have high aspirations and expectations set at home; for them, we teachers are very important. We can start tomorrow by making a simple modification to our language use – it’s not if you attend university, it’s when you attend university.

It is important to consider the moral argument, too. Every successful society must nurture its finest young minds. And this is not just about the future economic prosperity of the nation; this is also about creating a new generation of thinkers, scientists and artists who will keep us safe and enrich the culture of the future. We talk a lot about improving equity in schools, but this should never be at the expense of allowing some to move way beyond their peers if they can. It is also important that these young people, our future, see beyond the functional and competitive purposes of education. Learning has intrinsic value and knowledge is its own reward. It is a fine message to take into the future.

Let’s take a step back from all this idealism. What can we do every day to help our highly capable students to make progress? While extra-curricular opportunities play an important supporting role, my hunch is that the answer lies in the place students spend most of their time in school: in our classrooms. I think that there are three areas worth considering: content, thinking and shaping.

Content – what will they be learning?


Cultural capital. Whatever we choose to teach them in the limited time they have with us must contribute towards their cultural capital. It is no good being intelligent and hard-working if the knowledge and skills you have gained at school do not help you to become socially mobile. At a very minimum, all able students should leave secondary school with the knowledge and skill needed to read a broadsheet newspaper from cover to cover with understanding.

Coherence and cumulativeness. The curriculum must be carefully sequenced so that students learn new concepts in the context of what they have already learned. This is especially important for disadvantaged able students who rely so much on school lessons as they have nothing else to full back on.

Exam specifications as springboards, not straightjackets. Exams are designed to sample knowledge and skill, not dictate what is taught. An over-focus on exam technique leads inevitably to the narrowing of the curriculum. Sadly, this has the most impact on able students as they require far less time on exam preparation. Once again we need to play the long game: what they learn now can be stored away for the future. Bring in A-Level and undergraduate level content, and lace your lessons with stories and ideas from the great wide world. (And let’s be honest: in a norm-referenced exam system, it is those who are taught ‘beyond’ the specifications who will achieve the highest grades.)

Depth and breadth. Our able children need a broad school curriculum, but must also be given the time and opportunity to explore topics in great detail. A balance is preferable.

Knowledge and vocabulary. It is no use being bright if you are not actually learning anything. Being exposed to high level content is not the same as actually learning it. Expect students to reel off facts with great depth and accuracy. Expect them to use advanced subject-specific vocabulary – and make sure you model this for them. The language culture of your classroom goes a huge way.

Wider reading and research. Twenty-five hours a week is not long enough. Give your bright students extra reading and research to do. This should be more specific than ‘just Google it’. It could include books, journals, carefully-chosen web-sites, news reports and documentaries. You could start creating a bank of extension resources to go with each topic. Make sure you place books in your students’ hands – the personal touch goes a long way.


Thinking – what kind of thinking will they do?


Subject-specific thinking. Your able students need questions and tasks that allow them to think deeply and accurately about the content at hand. As such, you should be mindful of generic approaches to ‘thinking hard’ – such as Bloom’s Taxonomy. Resources like subject-specific ‘question templates’ can help you to get students to think deeply about your subject in an appropriate way. 

Integrated extension questions. Teachers often leave the more difficult tasks to the end of the lesson – the ‘extension’ questions. This makes logical sense when working with students of very similar ability, but not when working with mixed-ability groups. Resources and worksheets need to allow students to move quickly on to more challenging material, rather than endlessly completing tasks they already know how to do. (I have a strategy whereby all ‘stretch’ questions are coded in red – students can choose to go to these first if they are ready.)

Probe thinking. As Doug Lemov says: “The reward for a correct answer should always be a harder question.”

Risk-taking. Many of our able students are those who are used to getting things right; this has become part of their identity, and their peers expect them to uphold this. They become typecast if you like. Often these students also like to please their teachers. This, however, is what holds them back. They need to take more risks and ask more questions otherwise it is unlikely that they are learning as much as they could be. They can help to drive the process by taking on the responsibility of asking for harder work.


Shaping – do they know how to create excellent products and performances?


Do we know what excellence looks like? It is important to share student work with our colleagues as often as possible. We should work backwards from great examples to help us plan our lessons. We should also look out to other schools to compare and contrast their top standard with ours – sometimes the only reason that we do not stretch our students is that we do not realise that more is possible.

Do our students know what excellence looks like? We should also share excellent exemplars with students as often as possible – and sticking them on the wall is the least helpful way of doing this. Students need to read them, discuss them and deconstruct them. Furthermore, sharing descriptive success criteria is a pretty useless strategy unless this is accompanied by concrete examples of work.

Live-modelling and upscaling. Complex thought-processes need to be explained explicitly. We need to learn how to model A* standard work and thinking, even if it is difficult for us. Sometimes this can be made easier through upscaling: take an average example and given it the full makeover with the class.

Break down complex procedures. Even an A* student will need guidance on how to proceed with complex tasks. She will also benefit at times from the ‘marginal gains’ approach – this involves sharpening her skill with the constituent parts of a task before tackling the whole.

Parameters versus freedom. Not all bright students are the same. Some need a lot of guidance, support and parameters; others need these to be stripped away. Our knowledge of our students, therefore, should always guide our decisions.


My school’s motto is ‘Going beyond our best’. For our weaker students, it is easy to imagine this place beyond current performance. For our brighter students, however, we might need to define it more clearly.

I hope this simple check-list – content, thinking and shaping – can help you to achieve this.


10 prevalent myths about English teaching – part 2


This is the second part of a double-bill based on common myths in English teaching. Part 1 and myths 1 – 5 can be found here.


Myth 6: Young people find quiet hard work boring.


In the first place a third to a half of your class are likely to be introverts who probably prefer a quieter environment and time to think. Not only that, but reading and writing are silent pursuits – in the same way that music involves noise and PE involves movement. That’s not to say there should be no noise in an English classroom, just that reading and writing are complex cognitive processes that require huge levels of concentration and attention and as few distractions as possible. Many students are happy to tell me how quick and enjoyable lessons of quiet hard work are. If anything, they feel like they go faster!

Myth 7: Because young people learn new vocabulary implicitly, there’s no need to teach words explicitly.


The human mind has evolved to acquire new vocabulary naturally; however, we need multiple exposures to these words in multiple contexts for this to happen. This is why we need to design these contexts and exposures ourselves – the opportunity for practice and repetition will not be available outside school for many children. It’s useful to choose the vocabulary you will teach and think of ways to make it stick: by teaching it in context; by giving students lots of ways to use the word; by sharing its etymology; and by testing their understanding and knowledge regularly.

Myth 8: Closed questions do not challenge students to think critically about a text. 


If students can answer lots of closed questions about a literary text then they know it very well; this wide-ranging, connected knowledge is the stuff that deep analysis is made of. Closed questions and tasks also range in difficulty. Consider the difference between these two closed questions about An Inspector Calls: ‘What is the Inspector’s surname’ and ‘Explain three critical interpretations of the  Inspector’s  role in the play’. The second is clearly a more challenging task.

Myth 9: You can elicit anything about a text through good questioning.


Questioning can elicit some pretty fine stuff, especially if your class are knowledgeable and interested. But good questioning is not alchemy. Sometimes you will have to explain ideas, concepts and interpretations of texts yourself. Never be afraid to do this. Often, there is no other way your students can learn new and challenging ideas.

Myth 10: There is no such thing as a wrong answer in English.


This myth has a twin sister: Any answer is is valid – as long as you can back it up with evidence. Ultimately, right-versus-wrong is the wrong frame of reference. Instead, our students need to be able to discriminate  between good and bad. In other words, the difference between a strong interpretation and a weak interpretation – and all the shades of quality in between. To develop a sensitivity for this, our students need to be exposed to a wealth of sophisticated and critical  insights over a sustained period of time.


Thanks for reading. If you can think of any I have overlooked, please add them in the comments.