Blog Archive

Sunday 8 November 2020

Making every moment count - how to avoid lost learning by the English Department

Now more than ever, we are continually reminded of the impacts of lost learning. Daisy Christodoulou tweeted that, based on recent evidenced research into Year 7 writing levels, the average student was 22 months behind where they should currently be. This stark reminder of how students prolonged absence from school, and the realisation that virtual learning does not replace the learning environment that prospers when students and their teacher share the same physical space, has led us at Mangotsfield to the need to reassert that making every lesson, and indeed every second count is beyond important. This term, CPD will be run by various departments, whose expertise within specific areas has been recognised. To ensure we all are reminded of the need for lessons to start with pace, that students are engaged on their immediate arrival into a classroom and to utilise every second with a love of learning, the English department have kindly shared their thoughts.

Johnny Suttle expertly writes: In the English department we feel it’s really important to make every single moment of each lesson count. Simply put there are two simple reasons we want to do this:
  1. To establish pace and rhythm in every lesson.
  2. To enable us to recap content or embed vocabulary without eating into too much lesson time.
Lesson Starts: A good pace to a lesson is vital, but the first few moments are possibly the most vital of all. It sets the tone for the learning experience and informs students of your intentions for how they approach learning in your classroom. It generates the feeling amongst students that they are moving along and that they are going somewhere in the lesson. This instantly gives the lesson more meaning and purpose to them, they can get their teeth into it and consequently a well-paced lesson holds their attention and students who are paying attention learn. 

The beginning of a lesson when the students enter the room is the first indication they get of what type of lesson is in store for them. It is where you establish the expectations you have for your lesson and to borrow a saying ‘what you permit, you promote’. If you let your students come in and have a lazy, laid back start you are permitting time wasting, you are signaling that time in your classroom is easy come easy go. On the other hand if you are communicating your expectations to the students that every second in your room counts then they will respond in similar style. Making such a start routine also has hugely beneficial results on behavior management. A pacey lesson give students fewer opportunities to misbehave. In addition you can use the activities that create a prompt and efficient start to build routines into your lessons and routines are the bedrock for behavior management. As Tom Sherrington says ‘if everyone knows how to respond and what happens in various situations, then it allows the focus to be on learning'. So this leads us to look at English. How do we start every lesson in a manner that has established a routine in which students arrive in our classrooms and know how they are expected to act and respond and therefore begin learning the moment they walk through the door.

KS3 English Lessons:

Each of our KS3 lessons commences with a vocabulary starter and are employed purposefully to build tier two words. Alex Quigley, in his excellent book ‘Closing the Vocabulary Gap’ talks about the importance of embedding and building a student’s vocabulary and talks about tiers of words. Tier one words are the ones used in basic everyday conversation, Tier three words are ones that are very specific to a subject I .e. ‘oxymoron’ in English or ‘Sodium Chloride’ in Science. Tier two words are the words that fall in between. The more complex words that allow us to express ourselves in a more nuanced way but with which students may not be familiar. An example would be looking at the difference between the words ‘sad’ and ‘dismayed’. If our students were to read this word they would need to first be able to recognize it and then to be able to articulately convey the more intricate emotions provoked by a sense of ‘dismay’. Equally in their own writing we need them to use this vocabulary appropriately. We want students to understand a sentence such as ‘the man was dismayed when his house burned down’ doesn’t really make sense and that they would need a broad enough vocabulary of tier two words to instead employ a synonym of ‘sad’ that would more accurately describe how someone would feel in this situation. 

So hence the importance of these starters. However we also have an English curriculum to get through and only three lessons a week to see the students. To be able to fit in the building of this important vocabulary as well as the main content requires us to make every second count. To achieve this and to embed links between the vocabulary and the main lesson focus we have split our KS3 curriculum into six themes that link to themes also found at GCSE. For each theme we have compiled a list of 15 tier two words which are linked to that theme and which we want our students to use. Then the first slide in every lesson has the driving question, and tasks based around this word (see example slides below). This ensures that the moment a student walks into the classroom they can get out their book and start building their vocabulary. Five minutes spent on this task and five minutes of feedback eliciting student response and they have built their vocabulary yet still have a significant amount of the lesson left to learn the main content. We are also savvy in our choices of the tier two word picked from the list in each lesson. We aim to pick ones that match the content of lesson so that having encountered the word in the starter they can then practice using it in the lesson. This allows us to tie our prompt start into the rest of the lesson further add a sense of purpose write from the first minute.

A final thought on KS3 (and indeed KS4) is we also frame our verbal directions and questions directed at the students through these words. Take the words in the starter above as an example I might wait outside my room and say ’I am going to be vociferous in demanding you enter my room right now’! 

KS4 English Lessons:

In a similar manner we need to maximise every minute of our KS4 lessons as there is so much information for us to get through and for students to retain. We therefore use our starters to help us interleave the content we have previously studied alongside new material. 

Our starters meet one of Rosenshine’s key principles of instruction in that they allow us to review learning on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. Rosenshine notes that it is 'important to strike a balance between covering a lot of material and also providing time for sufficient practice' and that is what we aim to do. Each term KS4 lessons have what we term a ‘main focus’ and a ‘recap’ focus. If for example the main focus is preparing them for their Language Paper 1 exam then the recap focus will be the starters used to retain knowledge of a text they have covered the previous term, perhaps Macbeth. The battle here again is to maximise time. We need to keep the Macbeth information fresh in the students mind but we have to teach them the new Language exam content, as Rosenshine says we need to strike a balance. This is where a prompt lesson start is so important. If the recap starter slide is on the board from the moment students walk in the door, they can get started instantly and just as with KS3 there can be 5 minutes spent on independent work, 5 minutes eliciting feedback and 50 minutes of lesson time remains, at the same time the lesson has started with that strong rhythm and pace that conveys purpose to the reader.

The slide opposite is an example of a typical recap starter. One of the key factors in the success of such a starter is how open ended it is. If a student arrives early they can really sink their teeth into this and are able to recall lots of different aspects of the play (quotes, events, contextual information) to support their point. However even if a student arrives late they are still able to make a start at the task as they can quickly select a word and then you can use questioning to draw out their thinking. 

It is important that a starter can be attempted in whatever time the students have available as otherwise a student who is already late and disengaged will feel there is not point trying to start and then even if the lesson pace is fast for everyone else it will have been a slow is demotivating start for them. These are all too often the students who we really need to engage and get on board from the moment they enter the room.

To further make the most of every moment in the room we have sought to use starters to combine skill practice with knowledge recall as the slides above demonstrate. It is a vitally important skill in English to be able to analyse quotations and explain what deeper information the words in the quote might tell you. 

Combining a quote to analyse as the starter with a retrieval grid gels the skill and the knowledge recall perfectly. The questions in the grid pushes them to recall knowledge which they can then use to help them annotate the quotation. A starter like this allows us to set up an English lesson as follows. The main focus will be a Language exam that centres upon analysing quotations from an extract.

Before we begin that content we recap Macbeth and analyse a Macbeth quote using the retrieval grid quote combination seen above. We have then, in the space of ten minutes recalled information about one topic, practiced a skill for that same topic (language analysis) and prepared students for the skill they will be using in the main focus of the lesson (language analysis again). It is a lovely way to make every moment count.

Interesting Further Reading regarding maximising the pace of lessons:

1. Teaching Walkthrus – Tom Sherrington and Oliver Caviglioli

2. Teach Like A Champion – Doug Lemov – also this interesting blog

4. An interesting blog by a head teacher of Batchwood School in St Albans -