Visual Learning: using graphics to teach complex literary terms


I have always tried to pay attention to the way that I present material to my students. Don’t get me wrong, I am not interested in style over substance, and I certainly don’t spend hours labouring away over every resource that I use in class. If there is a quicker, equally effective way of teaching something, then I will take it. I’m not a masochist.

Most of my resources now are paper copy quizzes for retrieval practice and elaboration, many of which have proved very effective at A level. I try to use the board as much as possible, whether to post the all-important learning objective model writing, record the unfolding of the lesson to ease the pressure on working memories or as a means of explaining tricky ideas or concepts more fully, often with an accompanying visual.

The problem is that I am a terrible artist. Unlike the wonderfully talented Oliver Caviglioli, whose illustrations and generosity are first class, my drawings are sad and pathetic. I would love to be Rolf Harris a great illustrator, but I can barely write legibly, let alone draw anything beyond a stick man! I remember a couple of years ago I drew a picture of a horse for a year poetry lesson, and the final product looked more like a pregnant camel with IBS than the thoroughbred I’d intended.

Fortunately, in the age of the Internet and Powerpoint (sorry, Jo), I have some pretty decent tools at my disposal to help me to make up for my artistic deficiency. As I have become increasingly aware of the power of combing words and images in boosting student learning, I have spent more of my time thinking about how images, in particular graphical representations, can be used to help with my teaching, such as in my explanations of complex literary concepts.

One of these troublesome concepts that seems to crop up whenever I teach Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’ is allegory. ‘Goblin Market’ is a narrative poem with a familiar story: a young girl tempted into sin; her subsequence loss of innocence before salvation through sacrifice. Most people reading will get the allegory to the story of the Fall of Man. There are one or two differences in the poem – there is no Adam, only horny and grotesque Goblin men, and the saviour is a woman, not the Son of God – but the overarching parallels are pretty clear.

The problem is when it comes to explaining the concept of allegory in and of itself to students – in other words outside the context of the specific example – students really struggle. No matter how hard I try to explain allegory clearly, with examples and analogies aplenty, students just don’t seem to fully get it. Now, you might be tempted to say that I should look to hone my explanation. Trust me on this one: I have honed it to within an inch of its life. There is simply no room for any more honing.

So, this year I thought I’d take a different tact and invest a bit of time producing a graphical representation to sit alongside my verbal explanation. I don’t have any hard evidence to show that I what have done has been any more successful than usual. It seems to have made a difference, with more students being able to explain the concept than before, but then again this may well be a case of confirmation bias. Or brighter students. Or chance.

As you can see from below, the slide I have used in the past to explain allegory is pretty contemptuous – an overreaching definition which I expand and exemplify, with a bulleted breakdown of the two main types, political and the allegory of ideas. There are even a couple of token images thrown in, which I am not really convinced add any real value.

Screenshot 2017-04-22 08.32.40

My next effort is, I think, a real improvement. The graphical representations make the points of comparison between in an allegory between Text A (‘Goblin Market’) and Text B (The story of the Fall of Man) much clearer, and they have the added advantage of being able to highlight where the biblical comparison breaks down, in that some pretty big parts of the Bible story are missing in Rossetti’s poem, such as the presence of God.

Screenshot 2017-04-22 08.32.48

I then attempted to flesh out this initial explanation with an amended version of my original effort. This time I added a relational dimension to my diagram which enabled me to visualise the difference between allegory and other related literary concepts, such as fable and parable. The trouble was that whilst I had made some visual links between genres clear, I had lost the power of the previous graphic to embody the workings of allegory itself.

Screenshot 2017-04-22 08.32.56

My final version therefore combines the best elements of my previous attempts, including the graphical embodiment of the concept of allegory, the relational links to other genres and better images to exemplify examples of the different forms of allegory. The visual cues and graphical representations, along with my honed explanation, seem to have been much more successful in shifting my students’ understanding of allegory. At least, I hope that is the case.

Screenshot 2017-04-22 08.33.07Allegory is not the only literary concept I have attempted to represent graphically this way. I hope to blog about others in the future, so watch this space.

Thanks for reading.

What’s in a word?


Ever picked up a class, in say year 10 or year 11, and been surprised that they don’t seem to know some pretty fundamental terms relating to your subject? For an English teacher, those words might include ‘metaphor’, ‘simile’, ‘juxtaposition’ or perhaps even ‘fronted adverbial’ – the kinds of subject specific terminology you would hope, nay expect, students to have pretty much nailed down by the time they are 14, 15 or 16 years old. I have experienced this many times in different schools.

This is most definitely not about bashing KS3 or KS2 colleagues. I’m fairly sure that when I taught more year 7 and year 8 classes, I encountered the same thing, and I’m guessing that a year 5 or year 6 teacher probably experiences something similar too. Likewise, it wouldn’t surprise me if the teachers who inherit my classes find themselves having to explain the same core terminology again that I thought I had successfully taught the previous year. It’s a seemingly endless cycle.

But why does this happen? Whilst the forgetting curve is inevitably partly to blame, I suspect a fuller explanation lies in the way most of us approach teaching vocabulary and some of the assumptions we routinely make about what our students know. This is possibly more prevalent in the secondary setting, where depending on the subject you teach, it can be very difficult to have an accurate grasp on your students’ vocabulary levels. Yet it is crucial that we do because it is those tier three words that carry the fundamental ideas and concepts upon which other knowledge and skills are then built.

It is not hard to understand why we often make assumptions about what students know in relation to vocabulary knowledge, or any other kind of knowledge for that matter. For a start, words like metaphor and simile are supposedly covered at KS1. My 7-year-old daughter, for instance, can provide an example of a simile and a rudimentary definition because she has recently been doing poetry in class. But I think there’s a big difference between covering a word in a unit that is then subsequently assessed, and really knowing that word more fully, including its intricate web of conceptual links and associations. Coverage is quite clearly very different from learning, but it can be too easily conflated.

The other probable reason why we teachers assume too much about our students’ knowledge base is because we are usually so reliant on very unreliable proxies to make our inferences. Too often, assessments of students’ linguistic fidelity are bound up in rubrics designed to assess more generic skills. As a result we can fall into the trap of assuming that a level 4 in this, or 85% in that, corresponds to a certain level of understanding of the subject more generally, including all its attendant terminology. The result is that we can end up building on sand if we assume that our students are secure with core subject concepts (and the words that encapsulate them) when they are not.

If a teacher realises that her class doesn’t really know what an image or imagery is – as I have found every year of teaching question two of the iGCSE! – she will decide to teach that concept and how to apply it correctly in context. The problem is that by the time the next year rolls around that understanding often disappears and a new teacher comes along and finds herself in the same position. What I think is needed is a clearly-defined vocabulary programme, detailing exactly what subject-specific terminology students are expected to have learnt and by what stage. Without such a system, and a reliable form of assessment to underpin it, we run the risk of continuing to make unfounded assumptions about what students know and therefore continually waste our time re-teaching the same thing.

As part of our school’s initial attempt to construct such a coherent, school-wide vocabulary sequence, I have been carrying out some exploratory work with our current year 7. I have designed some core knowledge quizzes aimed at getting a more accurate picture of what specifically our students do and do not know across a range of subjects, including history, art, geography, music and religion. A key component of these quizzes is vocabulary, so there are questions asking for definitions of foundational terms like ‘primary colour’ or ‘portrait’ in art, ‘monarch’ or ‘civilisation’ for history and ‘island’ and ‘hemisphere’ for geography.

It is early stages at the moment, and I may blog in more detail in the future, but for now I want to share with you one small insight gleaned from the process so far, which in many respects perfectly illustrates some of issues I have touched upon above. The definition in question is ‘island’, a word I’m sure most would expect the majority of 11 and 12 year olds to be able to define. Everyone knows what an island is, right? So you might think, yet the students’ responses seen to suggest otherwise. As you can see from the definitions supplied by one year 7 tutor group, we might need to seriously challenge our assumptions about our students and their levels of understanding, and think more carefully about what it means to truly know a word.

Correct responses:

  • ‘Land surrounded by water’
  • ‘Land that is surrounded by sea on all four sides’
  • ‘It is a bit of land surrounded by water’
  • ‘A bit of land surrounded by water’
  • ‘A piece of land surrounded by water’
  • ‘An area surrounded by a sea of ocean’
  • ‘A piece of land surrounded by water’
  • ‘A piece of land surrounded by water’

Mostly correct responses:

  • ‘A large or small part of land not connected to anything’
  • ‘A broken piece of land’
  • ‘A small place where, people or animals may live, but is surrounded by the ocean’
  • ‘A part of land away from a country’
  • ‘A big or small place covered with sand and surrounded by the ocean’

Not really correct responses:

  • ‘Land, flat land’
  • ‘An abandoned land’
  • ‘Some small land on the sea’
  • ‘A small place in the ocean’
  • ‘A piece of land covered by water’
  • ‘Is a place in a country near / on a beach’
  • ‘A tiny bit of land’
  • ‘Surface’
  • ‘An island is a cut off region of land that has little civilisation’
  • ‘A piece of land’
  • ‘A place’
  • ‘A big bit of rock formed after volcanic eruption under water’

For me, the crucial aspect of understanding an island is that it is a piece of land surrounded by water on all sides. Whilst we may quibble about other aspects of a successful definition, these strike me as being the defining features of what make an island an island, particularly for children at this age. Based on this admittedly loose definition, 9 students out of 30 got the correct answer, 5 get the benefit of the doubt, whilst 12 don’t really manage to define an island successfully. 4 students did not provide an answer at all. What this means is that, even if we say that 2 of the students who failed to answer could define the word island correctly if asked more directly, then there would still be around 50% of the class who either cannot articulate their understanding of what an island is, or that harbour some pretty serious misconceptions about it. Neither of these situations is desirable.

Now, you could argue that this doesn’t really matter, or that were I to probe the students more thoroughly with more specific questions than simply, ‘define the term island’, the results would be different. Maybe; maybe not. If, however, we park that for the moment and look at some of the student responses in more detail we begin to see a couple of important, and I would argue potentially damaging, misconceptions about the nature of islands. The first of these seems to be that islands are ‘abandoned’ places that are ‘cut off’ from civilisation. Perhaps adventure stories in films and books lead to this particular misunderstanding. Then there is the suggestion that islands are ‘tiny bits of land’ or ‘small places’. Again, popular depictions of island settings may create this association.

Whilst in many cases islands are indeed small and remote places cut off from people and more recognisable signs of society, there are also plenty of very good examples of islands that are not, such as the very place in which we live. If you stop and think about the implications of this for a minute, you realise they are potentially quite significant. For instance, if you don’t understand that islands are surrounded by water, you might not fully appreciate the challenges and opportunities this might pose for a group of people who live on one. Likewise, without a foundational grasp of the nature of islands, you may not fully understand the importance of Britain’s island status, in relation to both its history and its present, such as its ongoing relationship with the rest of the European continent.

It is for these reasons and those that I have written about before that I think the priority for developing student vocabulary, particularly in our school context, is improving the quality of teaching in relation to tier three, not tier two, words, at least in the initial stages of building a school-wide approach. When you consider what it really means to know a word you see how important it is to teach subject-specific vocabulary as well as you possibly can at the first time of asking, so as to try and avoid having to repeat the process every year ad nauseam. Obviously, improving students’ wider academic vocabularies is extremely important too, and it may well be possible to do this simultaneously given the time and support necessary to do it justice. Perhaps, though, it is better to leverage the effects of solid, consistent tier three terminology teaching first and then scale up to address the wider language gap later on.

After all, ‘no man is an island’.

Why I’m (mostly) enjoying teaching the new linear A level

I have taught an A level class of some kind every year since I was an NQT. I really enjoy the challenge of teaching the older students, and over the years I have been lucky enough to teach some incredible texts – Paradise Lost, Doctor Faustus and Larkin’s poetry are amongst my favourites. The background reading can be daunting, but I have always found that by improving my subject knowledge I have really helped my students to improve their learning.

A level English teaching is not easy, though. One of the main difficulties I’ve found teaching English in three different mixed comprehensives is that a great many students do not have the necessary grounding in literature and often their writing is not controlled enough to handle the demands of higher-level essay writing, even when grades achieved at GCSE would suggest otherwise. Whilst this may not be everyone’s experience, I have seen the result of curriculum narrowing and an imbalanced focus on English language at GCSE.

So, as much as I enjoy teaching A level, to a certain extent this enjoyment is tempered by the sometimes overwhelming demands of not only teaching the syllabus, but also in addressing the issues that remain as a consequence of a superficial emphasis on skill acquisition at GCSE. In my experience, these issues can get exacerbated, or rather perpetuated, by the AS and A2 examination format. Under this format, where year 12 students sit exams sometime in May, there is not really enough time to teach for learning rather than performance, with the result that nothing really changes.

Since September I have been teaching an AS class who are pursuing the linear course. I had arrived at the beginning of term expecting to teach a year 13 class the legacy specification with texts that I know well and have built up considerable resources and subject knowledge. For one reason or another, the class got cut and I found myself at the last minute faced with the prospect of teaching three texts I was not very familiar with and without time the time I would usually set aside to prepare. Despite feeling vulnerable about my lack of subject knowledge, I have greatly enjoyed teaching the new specification and feel liberated by the possibilities that the linear structure affords.


Whilst I am sympathetic to concerns about linearity, more teaching time is available now the burden of preparing for exams in May has gone. Because the AS exams come so early, you are revising and preparing with past exam papers before you know it, sometimes before you have taught all the poems or finished reading the novel. Once you knock out study leave and the exams themselves, only a few weeks of learning remain when students return in June. In those remaining weeks of term, it doesn’t seem to matter how you try and structure the time to make it purposeful – and trust me I have tried everything from AS/A2 transition units to beginning coursework – it rarely seems to amount to much.

Spacing and interleaving

I think by now that most people, particularly those reading this post, know about the benefits of spacing and interleaving. Unfortunately, knowing and doing are often two completely different things, particularly when you don’t have the time or the opportunity to implement the structures you think will make a difference in the classroom. In my experience, putting spacing and interleaving into practice is hard: aside from practical internal and external constraints, as Robert Bjork himself acknowledges, ‘students don’t like it’.

For the last couple of years I have been trying to introduce these desirable difficulties into my classroom, but I think it has only really been since September and with my current year 12 class that I have got close to implementing them in a way that is reasonably true to the ideal. I spoke at a conference earlier in the year about interleaving and a delegate came up to me at the end and said she thought it sounded a good idea and would ‘try out some interleaving later in the week’. Either my explanation was terrible, which is quite possible, or there was a bit of misunderstanding on her part about what implementing interleaving actually entails.

The reason for this disconnect is, I think, quite simple: introducing desirable difficulty into the classroom is actually quite hard and, like all learning, requires a prolonged period of time to understand it conceptually and making it effective in its practical application. I think where I have been more successful with my attempts this year is because I have had the time and the freedom to do so: I have been able to weave between texts and to allow a decent amount of time for forgetting to take place. The table below provides a brief overview of how I have gone about this and divided up my teaching time between Hamlet and Rossetti over recent months.

Screenshot 2015-12-06 09.30.25

The testing effect

It is much easier to take advantage of the testing effect as a classroom teacher. Designing frequent low-level tests of quizzes is relatively straightforward and does not really require too much unnecessary time in design or execution. Starting a new syllabus from scratch allows the additional opportunity to build a coherent programme of quizzes and sequence them in such a way they are testing and encoding the learning in a planned and systematic way. With my A level class I am now ordering my quizzes, so that next year I can gather them together in a master resource for students, which will should make my teaching easier and allow students’ to become more independent in their own quizzing and self testing.

Assessment hour

At my school we have taken what I think is quite a bold decision by insisting that most students only take three A levels. This, in part, has allowed us to offer an additional hour’s teaching to all subjects. On top of this, and I realise that we are lucky here, we have created an additional assessment hour every cycle. This means that every two weeks, each student completes a one-hour assessment under supervision for each of his or her three subjects. The assessment can take whatever form the department thinks is appropriate, such as a quiz, a set of comprehension questions or an essay. This format was designed to provide departments with the opportunity to assess students’ learning (ok, performance) on a regular basis, but it is also proving to be a fantastic mechanism for regular low stakes assessment.

Building knowledge

For me, probably the greatest benefit of the new linear course – with fewer texts studied in greater depth, together with the specific structures put in place by my school – are that it has meant I can teach in such a way that build up my students’ knowledge and understanding of the texts, whilst also addressing their individual and collective weaknesses. With the need to prepare for an exam early next year removed, I now have more time and freedom to build up a web of knowledge around the text, to methodically introduce relevant contextual details, to tackle grammatical misunderstandings one by one and teach analytical skills through extensive modelling and practice. In short, to do things the right way.

End note

I don’t wish to paint my teaching as great or somehow perfect; it is far from it. I have not got everything right and some of my quizzes are more effective than others. Interleaving in the way that I have illustrated above has been a challenge: although I genuinely believe in the efficacy of distributing learning and weaving between units, it stills feels unnatural and requires a courage of conviction. So conditioned are we English teachers to the practice of teaching a text or unit in a term that to break up this dominant structural arrangement can feel weird and unnerving. I also don’t mind admitting that I am still struggling with my own knowledge of the texts. I hate being just one step ahead of the students, even though I know that this is not really anyone’s fault – it is just the way that things sometimes go in large schools with lots of variables. If anything, being not so well prepared has reminded just what it is like for less experienced teachers, where everything is new and every new text is a body of knowledge to learn!

Thanks for reading



Teaching vocabulary – a whole school approach

In my last post, I queried whether schools should focus their vocabulary programmes on teaching tier two words, or if they would be better served directing their limited resources on improving the teaching of tier one words, particularly in the first instance. My reasoning was that, whilst there are undoubtedly clear benefits for students of having a wide general vocabulary, perhaps even greater impact on academic achievement might be achieved if students better understood the concepts embedded within subject-specific terminology. The correlation between achievement and background knowledge is well established, so getting the teaching of tier three words correct might be the best course of initial whole school action.

In Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement, Robert Marzano offers a six-step guide to the teaching of academic background knowledge through vocabulary instruction. The first three steps are part of the process of fast-mapping, which entails introducing students to new terms and increasing their initial familiarity with their meanings and their various constituent parts. The next three steps, termed extended mapping, are concerned more with deeply embedding the learning of new vocabulary in the long-term memory through different activities that deepen understanding by linking to existing knowledge and elaborating to new contexts.

Screenshot 2015-11-01 12.34.00

At our school, together with my colleague Josie Mingay, we have devised a plan for systematic whole school vocabulary teaching. Initially to be run as a controlled trial at year seven, the plan involves departments teaching subject-specific vocabulary alongside some topic-related tier two word, alongside a another taught programme of roots, prefixes and suffixes during tutor time. Josie has written about our tutor approach last year, with an updated outline to follow shortly in the coming weeks. She will be exploring these issues at length next week in her workshop session at ResearchEd Literacy, which as long as it doesn’t clash with my session on assessment, you should definitely attend!

At the heart of our approach is the vocabulary journal. The journal is important as it draws together Marzao’s six steps into a common framework that students and teachers can use to record new vocabulary, as well as a place to develop that understanding through fast and extended mapping activities. I trialled the use of the vocabulary journal and activities that link in with the 6 steps advocated by Marzano with my set three year 10 class in the second half of the summer term. Whilst this was probably not the best class to experiment with, I learnt a lot about what works and what doesn’t and, although admittedly anecdotal, I could see how teaching vocabulary in such depth increased students’ understanding of key concepts, which as I suggested in my last post may not always be the case

Screenshot 2015-11-01 12.36.39

The unit was a drama text for the AQA modern literature exam. The text was Kindertransport, a play written by Diane Samuels about the experience of several hundred German Jewish children sent to the safety of England in the build up the to the Second World War. I selected 10 largely tier three words that I not only wanted students to understand by the end of the term, but also to be able to remember for the exam in twelve months time. I intended to refer to these concepts a lot and build upon them with practical examples within the play. Deep understanding of their meaning was therefore of paramount importance, as well as the added benefit of some having clear links to other areas of literary study.

The words were:

  1. Kindertransport
  2. Duologue
  3. Monologue
  4. Proxemics
  5. Dialogue
  6. Stichomythia
  7. Juxtaposition
  8. Parallel
  9. Symbolism
  10. Holocaust

Step one – Introduce the new term through description

The first step in Marzano’s guide to vocabulary instruction involves introducing new terms through description. This approach is much more detailed and I think more helpful than using dictionary definitions alone, which are often limited by their formal listing conventions and further confined by a lack of space. As I explained previously, Marzano organises words into different categories, which require different types of description to address the core semantic features. My example below, Kindertransport, comes under the category of man-made event and therefore requires information in the description about the people involved, the specific processes or actions, any equipment used, the setting and any related causes or consequences.

Screenshot 2015-11-01 12.37.21

Step two – Students restate the term linguistically

After the term has been introduced, the next step is for students to begin the process of understanding meaning for themselves. Marzano advocates that students should engage in restating the term linguistically as a means of increasing familiarity with meaning. I did this in several ways, including getting students to talk in pairs and targeting individuals to explore their understanding in larger group discussion. I did not spend too long on this before getting students to write up their definitions in their journals. The common format of each page made it easy to check understanding and address misconceptions.

Screenshot 2015-11-01 12.38.08

Step three – Students create a non-linguistic representation

This step draws upon the idea of dual coding theory (Sadoski and Paivo, 1994). In short, student understanding of key vocabulary is helped by making visual representations of new words as well as linguistic ones. I found this process extremely useful in helping to unlock aspects of meaning. Making a simple sketch of a concept sometimes allowed for greater clarification. These visual representations are not purely image-base, though. A key part is helping students to see how words are broken down into smaller units, such as roots, prefixes and suffixes. The brace format illustrated below is a great way for students to see how the word kindertransport is made out of other roots, with learnable and transferable meanings. In the year 7 tutor time trial we are hoping that as a result of students learning about morphology they will be able to make connections to tier three terminology in their subjects, particularly geography and the sciences which heavily feature common roots, prefixes and suffixes.

Screenshot 2015-11-01 12.38.42 Screenshot 2015-11-01 12.38.35

Step four – planning for multiple exposures

As we know from the work carried out by Graham Nuthall in The Hidden lives of Learners, students tend to require a minimum of three different interactions with new material to help make it stick. Vocabulary learning is no different, and so the trick is to plan for multiple exposures to the new terminology introduced, ideally in different formats that encourage students to think hard about meaning. Marzano offers several practical suggestions here, including looking at the similarities and differences between words, classifying them, using them to form metaphors and using them as analogies. Beck’s Robust Vocabulary Instruction also provides good examples of activities that can be used to deepen student understanding of words

Step five – Students should discuss new terms

Again, a key part of vocabulary learning is for students to take ownership of new words and use them for themselves, such as by discussing meanings, making associations and talking about word formation. I found this the trickiest step to complete with my set three year 10 class, who were perhaps not as well versed in this kind of open-ended discursive task. I certainly have more work to do here in developing a clearer more structured set of opportunities for students to practice word meanings. As a side note, I briefly chatted with Joe Kirby at TLT15, who voiced what I would imagine is a similar experience for many other teachers, where a child learns a new word (say, the noun hubris) but then proceeds to use it incorrectly in its adjectival form (i.e. hubristic). Properly handled, I think this step provides a wonderful opportunity to negotiate some of these issues.

Step six – play with new terms

The final step involves students playing with the new terms they have learned, trying out their meaning in different contexts and building confidence with using words accurately and with real purpose. Marzano describes these activities as sponge activities, since they provide the means through which students soak up the underpinning concepts that lie beneath the word. Some of these activities include charades, Pictionary,
multiple choice quizzes and other word association tasks. I tended to avoid some of the more game-orientated sponge activities, partly because of my own doubts about their efficacy, but moreover because of a lack of time. Short, sharp quizzes worked best as a means to check for misconceptions but also to deepen understanding for retrieval.

Screenshot 2015-11-01 12.40.42

The future

Our year 7 vocabulary trial will last for the year – a decent amount of time to see whether the dual-pronged approach of subject-specific vocabulary teaching in lessons and morphology instruction in tutor period works. Because we set in English, we have been able to isolate three classes across the ability range who can receive both these forms of teaching, with one of the two other sets of three classes acting as a control group. Assessment will include looking at baseline data compared with an end of year position, in addition to evaluating relative student performance in end of unit tests. We will also use more qualitative measures such as student and teacher interviews.

Screenshot 2015-11-01 12.40.12

I will blog about how all this goes in due course, regardless of whether we see any material gains or not.

Thanks for reading.

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.