The Elements of Language – Lessons learned


It has been interesting to read the recent online discussions between David Didau and Daisy Christodoulou about the merits and pitfalls of different assessment models. Many of the issues they raise are ones that anyone who has invested time in creating an alternative to National Curriculum Levels has almost certainly encountered for themselves. This is probably the case even more for those working in schools that have piloted these approaches and seen flaws emerge that were not necessarily apparent from the outset. It is easier to envisage an alternative to levels, but perhaps harder to make it work in practice.

This post is about my current thinking in relation to assessment at KS3. It reflects the specific context of my school and the types of challenges and opportunities that we face in the months and years ahead. I wrote the last of my two previous posts on our English assessment model, The Elements of Language, about a year ago and since then my thinking has moved forward quite a bit, partly as a result of our experiences to date, but more as a consequence of us moving towards a significantly enhanced CPD programme next year, which will include substantial and enshrined professional development every week. This significant investment of time should enable departments to collaborate on planning, share their understanding and interpretation of assessment data and get the chance to look closely at student work together – the actual results of what happens in the classroom.

The current beliefs that underpin my approach to assessment can be summed up as follows:

  • performance descriptors are often too vague and unreliable for drawing useful inferences
  • performance descriptors can often mask student underachievement and gaps in learning
  • specific statements of the learning to be mastered organised in a logical sequence are generally more useful
  • in some subjects it is hard to reduce certain aspects of achievement down to a manageable amount of specific statements about learning
  • in practice, a mastery approach to assessment can be time-consuming for teachers to implement and can detract from planning better lessons
  • threshold concepts are a useful way of mapping out transformational pathways to achievement for both students and teachers alike
  • most assessment should primarily aim to inform the next steps, whether in the classroom or more widely across a department or year group
  • any inferences drawn from assessment should be acted upon as quickly as possible
  • assessment can be a useful means of ensuring students learn and make necessary progress, with the caveat that learning takes time and progress does not look the same in every subject
  • looking at and discussing actual student work with colleagues is a powerful way of understanding the impact of classroom teaching and reaching a shared understanding of what success looks like and how to get there
  • assessment is more robust if its draws upon a range of different forms and provides multiple opportunities for that learning to be demonstrated e.g. MCQ, essay, short answers

If, as Dylan Wiliam suggests in the comments at the bottom of Daisy’s recent blog, ‘an assessment is nothing more, or less, than a procedure for making inferences’, then it is wise to make sure that whatever is used in place of levels, ensures these inferences are as reliable as possible and are acted upon as quickly as is necessary. I think that what I am proposing here achieves both these ambitions and, perhaps more importantly, provides a means through which subject professionals can engage in meaningful discussions about student learning, where gaps or misconceptions can be identified and appropriate action can be taken.

Learning from past mistakes

On reflection, I made several errors in my earlier iterations of the Elements of Language. My first mistake was to include knowledge acquisition within the overall assessment framework – knowledge and vocabulary were distinct thresholds of the reading and writing Elements respectively. Whilst I am still very much committed to the centrality of knowledge development, I can see that there are probably better, more robust ways of assessing students’ acquisition of it. Broadly, I am working on the idea that in English – and perhaps other humanities subjects such as history and religious studies – there should be a core knowledge component. This component would be assessed at strategic points throughout the year, using an efficient format such as multiple-choice that provides accurate formative data on whether students have learnt the requisite knowledge or not. I suppose this is a variation on the principle of knowledge organisers, though in my thinking the notion of core knowledge would probably be a bit more detailed as well as closely linked to a systematic programme of vocabulary instruction. There will be more on what I mean about this over the coming months.

My second error was to place the notion of mastery too much at the forefront of the assessment framework – the ‘rubric’ seen by parents, teachers and students articulated what was to be learned in a very explicit way. I now believe that it is probably better for any overarching framework to contain more generalised articulations of the different thresholds (see example below) so that it is clear what stages of transformational learning students need to pass through in order to achieve genuine mastery, say with regards to developing an ability to control writing or adopting an academic voice.  More specific items of learning to be mastered are, I think, better served sitting behind these threshold definitions, encoded as objectives but acting more as standards to be achieved by the end of each academic year. It is possible in my revised model to have different sets of standards depending on where students are at the beginning of the year, thus ensuring rigorous objectives are well matched to different starting points. I should stress that I really only see the notion of standards applying to maths and English at KS3, who have the time, resource and sense of urgency in terms of securing core competences.

From threshold concepts to classroom teaching

In my proposed assessment model specific to-be-learned items would be drawn from the threshold objectives (which, remember, are operating as standards) and these individual learning items would be pursued relentlessly by each teacher until an agreed level of mastery is achieved, in or around the 80% figure. In this model the threshold concepts have effectively been broken down into objectives which have then been mapped out across the units of work for the year. These objectives, or standards, would be assessed in a holistic way only once or twice every year – suitable periods of time in which inferences about long term learning are more likely to be valid.

On a day to day basis the standards across a unit of work would be reduced down yet further into specific learning items that would need to be mastered across a sequence of lessons. This sequence is a manifestation of our version of a teaching and learning cycle, one which we are introducing next year and that I will try and blog about in due course. Bodil Isaksen is right when she explains how the lesson is the wrong unit of learning. I think it is far better to see learning planned across longer periods of time, rather than in discrete one off lessons where there is insufficient time to properly introduce, deconstruct, revisit or assess in a meaningful way. For me, the notion of a sequence or teaching and learning cycle feeds directly into the collaborative subject-based CPD we are planning for next year. Departments will be able to regularly review the relative strengths and weaknesses of a teaching sequence and teachers will be able to get closer to understanding how their students learn.

Worked example:

Below is a copy of my revised Elements of Language for writing, where you will notice I have reduced the amount of threshold concepts from five to four and slightly reconfigured some of the others.


In the document below you will notice how the Year 7 standards (where as I suggested above, there might be some students who work to different standards in accordance to their starting point) has been drawn from the overarching threshold definition to coded objectives mapped out across the year’s units of work. Some of the information has obviously been simplified here for illustrative purposes.


The document below outlines how the codified objectives across units are then broken down even further into specific to-be-learned items across a teaching and learning cycle.


I think this model – where the unifying idea of threshold concepts is used to inform a mastery approach in the classroom – has the potential to be a very powerful driver of learning, particularly as it will be wedded to systematic and collaborative review by departments working collaboratively to better understand student learning.

In truth, there is a lot more to this assessment mode than I have explained, especially around its implementation and wider application in other subject areas. I am, however, minded about the length of this post, so if anyone wants to ask me a question in the comments below or tweet me a query, I would be more than happy to go into more detail.

Thanks for reading.


4 thoughts on “The Elements of Language – Lessons learned

  1. Hi, thanks for your Blog. Could you explain what the 0, 1 and 2 signify in your tracking table? Thanks. John.

  2. Thank you. Again. Really helpful, as you know I am going through the same process and it is incredibly useful (if somewhat intimidating, as you are way ahead!) for me to see the progression of thinking.

  3. Pingback: The Elements of Progression: threshold concepts meet mastery learning | must do better…

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