The Elements of Language Revisited

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Back in January I blogged about our English department’s plans to replace National Curriculum levels with an internal assessment framework, The Elements of Language. Since then a number of noteworthy curriculum and assessment models have appeared, including this excellent post on whole school assessment from Durrington School and Belmont School’s great English example produced in collaboration with @learningspy. In both these instances there is much to admire and much that has caused us to reflect upon our own approach. Quite a bit of time has therefore been spent honing The Elements of Language, partly as a result of reviewing the work of others, and partly to complement the evolving whole school KS3 assessment model. This post is an attempt to explain the nature and rationale of these changes, and to explore how I think the model might go on to support aspects of language development across the school as a whole. Before going into more detail, it is worth clarifying the underlying principles upon which our work is based. I think many of these were implicit in my first post, but it might be useful to make them explicit so that it is possible to see how the design and application of the Elements cohere.

Guiding principles:

  • Threshold concepts are a useful means of understanding the different phases of learning that students experience
  • Redrafting work via the gallery critique model is an integral aspect of instilling an Ethic of Excellence
  • Understanding excellence must take into account students’ relative starting positions
  • Precise articulation of subject content and sequencing enables stakeholders (teachers, students and parents) to understand the path to improvement and be better equipped to offer support and guidance
  • Recognition of the interplay between knowledge and skill is helpful in enabling teachers and learners to understand how the subject knits together
  • Unashamedly sky high expectations that draw on the most rigorous standards of learning provide a framework for mastery: it is effectively Growth Mindset writ large
  • The principle of ‘desirable difficulties’ (interleaving, spacing, the testing effect) are crucial to the learning process and ideally should be embedded into the curriculum and assessment framework at source
  • Deliberate practice and effective feedback enable specific understanding and skills to be developed
  • Genuine learning takes time, with moments of failure, falling back and apparent stagnation – assessment must reflect this reality
  • There is an inevitable trade-off between mastery over fewer essential elements and mediocrity across a wider selection of non-essentials

The Revised Elements of Writing 

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Vocabulary (A01)

The original draft of the Elements mapped out an increasing hierarchy of words and phrases to be taught to students, largely in terms of their functionality. So, for example, at the lowest level were ‘comparatives and superlatives used for effect’ and ‘nouns, adjectives and verbs for description and detail’. At the highest level were ‘words and phrases to create irony, satire and parody’ and ‘popular sayings and phrases, including words of Classical and foreign origin.’ The intention was to help students to gain a wide, enabling vocabulary by focusing our instruction on how language is used for purpose and effect, and how individual words work in relation to larger structures, such as phrases and sentences.

In collaboration with our literacy intervention leader, the superb Josie Mingay, we have devised what we think is a more rigorous and effective strategy for developing student vocabulary. Our new approach is primarily based on phonological-grapheme correspondence, where the sounds and spellings of phonemes are used as the focus for improving word acquisition and developing spelling accuracy. The currency in this model is thus the individual phoneme, rather than the word. We are essentially applying aspects of primary phonics teaching to the secondary context and extending the principle of phoneme correspondence to that of high frequency syllables.

Alongside the teaching of these commonly used syllables and their spellings, we intend to systematically teach prefixes, suffixes and root words in relation to etymology. Our approach will therefore combine meaning and spelling – in our opinion, the most robust and enabling methodology. Students will effectively learn how to decipher the meaning of unfamiliar words by using their knowledge of prefixes, suffixes and roots whilst improving their ability to encode and decode by being able to break down words into sound units i.e. continuing the primary model of learning to spell using individual sounds but in longer units and with more sophisticated, often unfamiliar vocabulary.

The plan is for English to target around 200-250 academic words each year, drawn from Coxhead’s renowned list of the most commonly used academic language. We are aware this pales into insignificance compared with the number of words children at this age acquire naturally, but we think it is nevertheless an important means of ensuring some degree of rigour to the nature of the language that our students are learning. Over time, we hope it will be possible to apply this approach to other subjects, who will be able to systematically teach their own domain-specific vocabulary following the sound and meaning methodology adopted by English. Whilst there are obviously significant implications for staff and student training alike, the opportunity for widespread coverage and consistency of approach has real possibility.

Those interested in finding out even more about the mechanics of how this works, in particular how we are structuring and teaching our vocabulary instruction, should refer to a forthcoming post by Josie. I will tweet a link when she has finished it.

Organisation (A04) and Genre (AO5)

In the original version of the Elements there was a lack of clarity in the division between what we meant by the organisation of a text and what we meant by its adherence to a particular genre. It is clear to us now that the problem lay in trying to define specific assessment criteria for what are ultimately generic text types – the learning we specified to one genre in terms of organisation, register and convention was often redundant or different when applied to another. If we continued with this model we realised we were in danger of creating our own version of the ‘adverb problem’, as identified by Daisy Christodoulou in her excellent assault on the inefficacy of levels. We obviously wanted to avoid this lack of clarity at all costs.

The answer is to teach only two forms of writing in English: composition and the literary essay. Like others, I have long considered the efficacy of teaching certain types of writing, such as review writing, writing to advise or explanative and informative writing. Thinking about these things and doing something about them, however, are often two very different things, particularly when the notion of writing triplets is so entrenched in the minds of anyone who has been teaching English for a number of years. But after careful consideration of all the implications and devising plans for embedding the more valid genres of writing in subjects where they sit more naturally, the decision was made to focus on creative writing and literary analysis. Given the myriad permeations of successful composition, not to mention its inherent resistance to rules and structures, it seemed sensible to only build the criteria for effective literary essay writing into the assessment framework. This is ultimately where our students are at their weakest.

As it happens, teaching less but teaching it much better is entirely in keeping with our understanding of Growth Mindset. If we want students to grow in a genuine and profound way we need to make sure that precious lesson time is spent mastering the important concepts within each subject and that we eschew the froth that has been getting in the way for too long. That the recent English language and literature specifications have provided a mandate here is useful, but by no means instrumental in our decision: we had decided already and started ordering new books in readiness. It seems to me that the whole point of life post levels is the chance to develop curriculum and assessment from first principles – to develop a coherent whole school vision, not simply work backwards from GCSE criteria and assessment, or from dictates that have always been in place.

The Revised Elements of Reading

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Knowledge (A06)

Another problem with the first draft of our assessment model related to how to account for the acquisition of knowledge. Whilst we agreed that explicit knowledge teaching was extremely important – in many respects intrinsically related to notions of higher order thinking and analysis – recognising this within a system of assessment predicated on the principles of mastery proved very tricky to achieve. One method we considered was for every text or unit to have its own specific mark scheme, a model which others have explored and for which I think has as a great deal of merit. Such an approach, however, would not quite work with what we are trying to achieve with the Elements: the systematic laying bare of learning at KS3, where all students strive to master specific learning intentions which in turn enable them to pass through the threshold levels on the path to full mastery.

So, how do you delineate a hierarchy of knowledge of texts across a year, when that knowledge is almost entirely contingent on the text or texts taught during that time? The answer, we realised, is you can’t. The Elements therefore now reflect this reality by tying specific aspirations for knowledge acquisition in relation to each text taught. Unlike the other elements, such as ‘control’ or ‘style’, there is no progression or hierarchy of knowledge taught throughout the year. A certain level or expectation of knowledge – relative to a student’s starting position – is continually taught across the year with each new text or texts. What this effectively means is that this Element is always tied to a specific unit: there are therefore unit-specific criteria operating within an overarching model of mastery.

Interpretation (A07) Analysis (A08) Comparison (AO9) and Context (A010)

These Elements are the most resistant to specific statements of learning, since in essence they are the ‘skills’ of English: crudely, the application of the knowledge gained about texts and how to write about them. Whilst it has been possible to be relatively precise in articulating the standard of expectancy at each threshold level for most of the Elements of Language, it has proven nigh on impossible (at least to me) and probably even undesirable to avoid a degree of subjectivity in relation to any kind of act of interpretation. This is surely where understanding about something turns into the ability to do or show that understanding.


In developing The Elements of Language I have been reminded about what is so great about Twitter and blogging. Through effectively engaging in a dialogue with other schools we have been able to reach a far better understanding of what we are trying to achieve and, more importantly, to produce a robust model that will hopefully enact it. This can only be a good thing for all our students. I think the Elements will prove to be an extremely powerful assessment vehicle that not only defines highly proficient levels of reading and writing, but more importantly enables students to achieve them.

In my next post I will explain how all this works on a practical level, from day to day application of the Elements to baseline assessment and reporting progression to parents.

Exciting times!

Published by Phil Stock

Deputy Headteacher, Teaching, learning and assessment. Interested in education, spending time with my family and running - all views are my own. @joeybagstock

3 thoughts on “The Elements of Language Revisited

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