A Practical Resource for Teachers

 As teachers, we know that words matter. Words are the key to opening our pupils’ minds, to expanding their horizons and to helping them to express themselves as precisely as possible. We know about the ’17 million word gap’; we can see the difference between our strong readers and those who need a little extra support. We know that if we don’t do something to bridge the vocabulary gap that they might never catch up with their peers.


We know that they need to access texts rich in the tier two vocabulary they rarely hear in speech. We know that they need well-planned, structured lessons that tease out misconceptions and provide plenty of examples of the word in context. But we also know that these things take time to produce, and whilst teachers are wonderfully resourceful in many ways, there are only so many hours in a day.


With that in mind, I wanted to create something that was practical and timesaving for teachers. Rather than a theoretical guide (I’ll leave that sort of thing to people much cleverer than me), I thought it would be helpful to make a series of lessons that teachers can start using as soon as the book arrives on their desks. The introduction explains how the lessons work, and then we go straight into it. No faff. No time wasted. No unnecessary complexity.


What is it?

‘Building Brilliant Vocabulary: 60 lessons to close the word gap in Key Stage 3’ is pretty much what it says on the tin: a sequenced set of 60 lessons, fully planned, with accompanying worksheets that teachers can print and copy for their students.


Each lesson begins with oral questions to get your students thinking about the concept. The word is then introduced with examples and non-examples to tease out misconceptions. Next, you can test whether your students truly understand the meaning of the word by asking them to identify the correct and incorrect examples in a further activity. The remaining activities focus on seeing and using the word in context. Lessons end with a short text that aims to bring the word to life. For example, in lesson 56 ‘Subvert’, students read about the author Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie as a ‘subversive’ writer. I believe that the best way to bring a word to life is to see it used in context, so I think these reading pieces will be very helpful.


Finally, I have also added in book recommendations linked to the words your students study, in the hope that it may inspire them to read and learn more.


Which words are included, and how are they sequenced?


I spent far too long trying to select the right words and put them in the best order. The words I have chosen are all ‘tier 2’ words: words that we might read in books but only rarely hear in speech. These are the most high leverage words for improving a child’s vocabulary over time. I also wanted to choose words that would help to unlock complex concepts in the most commonly taught GCSE texts. So I chose the word ‘superstition’ for its links to Macbeth, but of course it has many other uses more generally.


Example words included in this resource: oppressive, revolution, justice, flaw and exploitation.


I’ve tried, where possible, to interleave previously taught words so that recap is built in, and to ensure that students continue to see those words in new contexts. It is my hope that this will help them to build deeper connections between the words and concepts studied.


How could it be taught?

The lessons are planned to last for approximately 10-20 minutes, depending on how much time the teacher dedicates to each activity, so this could work as a starter activity or a short intervention during tutor time.


The lessons have been planned with non-English specialists in mind, so schools may wish to use these lessons as a way to embed literacy across the curriculum, or to ask Teaching Assistants to deliver to smaller groups.


The lessons are aimed at Key Stage 3 students, but could be adapted for the top end of Key Stage 2 or as an intervention at Key Stage 4.


Teachers are welcome to adapt lesson to their classes, focusing on some activities in more depth in order to suit the needs of different learners.


This is a great way for schools to use their Catch Up Premium or Pupil Premium Grant. If your SLT are looking for ways to improve literacy in Key Stage 3, this may be helpful.


Where can I get my hands on it?


The programme includes 60 lesson plans and corresponding student worksheets, all sequenced and planned with high volumes of examples, non-examples and practice exercises.


You can order the programme on Amazon here, or on the Collins website here.


I really hope it’s useful. If you’d like to comment on this blog with any feedback for the book, I’d be delighted to read it. Similarly, if you’d like to contact me on Twitter (@katie_s_ashford )with feedback or questions, I’m happy to help.


I really hope that this is a useful resource. Happy teaching!


Teaching as Leadership

Teaching as Leadership


Some might dismiss the idea that ‘all teachers are leaders in the classroom’ as management piffle designed to convince the world that there’s more to teaching than tea breaks and long holidays. Suggesting that a 22-year-old NQT is somehow a ‘leader’ the instant they step in to a classroom is, perhaps understandably, ignored by many critics. But after setting aside my own instinctive mistrust of the phrase, I have come to believe that there is more than a grain of truth to this (admittedly a bit cheesy) rhetoric.


Last week, I blogged about relationships. As a teacher, your aim should be to get 100% of pupils to be ‘with you’- i.e. they are inspired to work hard for you because they trust you. But what specific actions can we take to ensure that every single kid is ‘with you’? What does that actually look like in the classroom?


‘Leader’ Teachers Read the Room


The best teachers know their classes inside out. They can read an expression on a kid’s face and instantly have an idea of what might be going on, and know how to fix it and get the kid back on track. Because great teachers put the time in to building strong relationships, they are in a better position to be able to respond appropriately when kids aren’t really on board with the lesson.


Despite our best efforts, it can sometimes be very difficult to get every single kid in the room to buy in to you and your subject. In some lessons, you’ll feel the ‘buzz’- you’ll know that every kid is working hard and trying to please you. But other times, the lesson might feel a bit flat, or you might feel that a few kids aren’t quite as ‘on board’ as you’d like them to be. Of course, kids will be kids, and there are some things that even the most inspiring teacher will struggle to overcome. But if you think about teaching as ‘leadership’ in the classroom, you are forced to consider how you might be able to influence every kid to be as engaged in the lesson as possible.


Leading them


As a teacher, you are the person who is managing everyone in the room. You are in charge of what they do, what they spend time practising and thinking about, and, to an extent, how engaged or interested they are, for the duration of each lesson. With this in mind, you need to be thinking constantly about what’s going on in each kid’s head, pre-empting issues and reacting to them in the moment. The best teachers spend the lesson trying to gauge each pupil’s mood and buy-in, continually asking themselves, ‘are they with me?’. Their minds move at a million miles per minute, considering the pupils’ behaviour and quickly coming up with strategies to get them back on track as quickly as possible. For example:


Robert looks a bit miserable today, so I’ll tell a quick joke to get him back on track: “Are you alright Robert? I know you’re loving the lesson really, so try to show it please”.


Fiona isn’t making as much effort as usual, so I might have a quiet word with her whilst everyone else is writing. (whispers) “Come on Fiona, I need your hand up for every question, yeah? After this exercise I want you back on top form, okay?”


Ben looks a bit sleepy, so I’ll ask him a quick question to make sure he stays alert. “Ben- What did I just say about Lady Macbeth? Can you repeat it for me so I know whether I said it clearly or not.”


-Maria looks a little down. I’ll chat with her after the lesson. Maybe I’ll email her Head of Year, too, just in case. “You okay Maria? You’re usually so brilliant in English. I was sad that I didn’t give you lots of merits today like I usually do.”


-Ahmed looks exhausted. I know his mum had a baby recently, so he probably isn’t getting much sleep. I’ll catch up with him at break time. “Ahmed- how’s it going? Baby brother still pooping and screaming every five minutes? Hey – do you fancy joining the homework club? Might make life a bit easier for you- bit of peace and quiet. What do you think?”


If you know your kids well, you are able to judge each situation. Some kids won’t react well to being put on the spot in front of the rest of the class- others will rise to the challenge. Some kids won’t mind a bit of a joke, but some might be upset by it. You have to know them really well and understand what motivates them in order to use the best strategy in every instance. Importantly, none of this is possible without knowing the kids really well. Knowing what motivates every single one of them- getting the best out of every child- that’s the key to great teaching.


Teaching as leadership


As much as I instinctively disliked the expression, it is in fact very useful to think of teaching as a leadership exercise. You are trying to get all your pupils to do something really difficult. You’re trying to effect change, to get them to go further than you ever expected, and to achieve things that they don’t yet know they are capable of achieving. Just like any good leader, you play to each person’s strength, encouraging and deflecting, prompting and reminding as necessary until you have them all with you.


The best teachers understand that kids are human – that they will have good days and bad, and that they need encouragement and guidance from their teacher. If you can read the room accurately, and respond to issues appropriately as they crop up, you are leading them. And if you lead them well, they will succeed more than you- or they- ever thought possible.


Like the sound of our school? We’re hiring! Find out more: https://mcsbrent.co.uk/teacher-vacancies/




Follow me in to Battle

Follow me in to battle.


Last week, I wrote about the importance of strong behaviour systems in a school. Without them, it is very difficult for teachers to form strong relationships with their classes.


And whilst I firmly stand by the idea that systems give teachers more- not less – autonomy, I wouldn’t want teachers to abandon the pursuit of strong relationships altogether. In fact, I would argue that teachers must work hard to make the most of their newfound freedom. Without the burden of challenging behaviour, teachers are now free to work on relationship building. But where does one begin with such a task?


At Michaela we talk a lot about getting the kids to ‘follow you in to battle’. A dramatic metaphor, yes, but it is a helpful way of looking at your class. Is every kid ‘with’ you? Are they all behind you? Will they follow you and do what you say because they believe that you have their very best interests at heart?


If kids aren’t ‘with’ you like this- then all the systems that you have put in place will only have so much impact. You might have a classroom of kids who are looking at you and listening to you- and yes, that will give them more chance of success than a chaotic classroom, but you won’t get the absolute best out of them unless they are 100% ‘with’ you. They have to believe in you, they have to be inspired by you- they have trust you enough to be willing to ‘go in to battle’ every single lesson.


This isn’t easy: it takes time, energy and a genuine desire to get the most out of your kids. It’s why I don’t think you should be a teacher if you don’t like kids that much. You have to really want to see them succeed or they’ll never be as ‘with you’ as they need to be.


But whilst it isn’t easy, it is possible. Assuming you do like kids, there are a few things you can do in the classroom that will have a big impact on your relationships. Here are a few general approaches that I think make a difference.


Be genuine

There’s nothing worse than false positivity or praise. Kids are like dogs- they can smell a fake a mile off. If you want to praise them or speak enthusiastically about something, do it but be genuine and never fake it. Find a way that is authentic to who you are: avoid phrases that you wouldn’t usually say, and avoid behaving in a way that doesn’t sit naturally with your personality. It has to be real or they won’t care. So with a genuine face on, show them you enthusiasm for your subject and narrate what you enjoy about the time you spend teaching them. Smile. Be genuinely happy to see them.


Be supportive

You are your pupils’ cheerleader. Tell them how much you want them to succeed. If you notice that one kid isn’t working as hard as they usually do, tell them that you don’t want them to fall behind. If the whole class has performed better than you expected on their most recent assessment, tell them how proud you are and how much you want them to keep this up for the next assessment. You are on the side-lines, willing them to succeed at every turn and hurdle. You show them that you will never give up hope that they can do it.


Be funny

This doesn’t come easy to everyone. If you are naturally funny, then great: you have a gift and you should make the most of it in the classroom. But you don’t have to be cracking jokes every five minutes to be a ‘funny’ teacher. You could, for instance, ask them to read aloud in a funny accent, or laugh along at the jokes that they make. Allowing a little bit of wiggle room for a laugh here and there works wonders for a class. Everyone loves a laugh. Of course, you don’t want a lesson to descend into chaos, but a few laughs make the whole lesson feel more relaxed and joyful.


Be thoughtful

If you’re on playground duty at lunchtime and you see one of the kids you teach, you could go over and ask them how their day is going, or try to find out their interests. A simple ‘how was the match on Saturday?’ or ‘hope you’re feeling better today’ can do a lot to show kids that you care. Similarly, if you notice that one kid looks a bit down or isn’t on form like they usually are, pull them to one side after the lesson for a quick pep talk- sometimes this can make a huge difference to a child’s day.


Be demanding

Expect the very best from them- and tell them this all the time. Don’t relent. Kids know when they are being pushed, and know when teachers give up on them. Every lesson should feel like a fight- you’re getting them to learn new and challenging stuff. You need every kid on board, listening and working hard so that they stand the best chance of being successful in the future. Always make the link between the lesson you are teaching them and the future that lies ahead: if they work hard today, they can succeed tomorrow. If they know that you are pushing them because you really care about their future, they will be inspired to work hard for you.


Every lesson counts

Don’t rely on systems to get you through a lesson. They are necessary, but not sufficient for great teaching. The best teachers understand that the systems in place at their school free them up to get on with the tough job of getting every single kid to learn as much as possible.


So make every lesson count. Get them behind you and get them feeling inspired to succeed.

Like the sound of our school? We’re hiring! Find out more: https://mcsbrent.co.uk/teacher-vacancies/

Freedom to Build Relationships

How can a teacher get the best out of his or her classes?


I am an unrepentant fan of strong systems and structures in a school. Without them, teachers cannot teach and pupils cannot learn. Without order and calm, a teacher simply cannot deliver a lesson. We’ve all been there- lesson derailed by a group of kids who keep interrupting or messing about, or by that one kid who insists on farting or doing something ridiculous every time you try to speak. It is utterly soul destroying, particularly when you notice a few quiet kids at the back of the room desperately trying to listen and get on.


Systems can, of course, put a stop to all of this. If every teacher in the school administers detentions for rule-breaking, kids will quickly learn to stop breaking the rules. This sounds easier than it is. It depends enormously on staff working together and following the systems consistently. Without this consistency, you have a situation in which the kids know they have to behave for one teacher (and probably resent them for it), but get away with messing about for another.


Behaviour systems provide everyone- pupils and teachers- with clarity. If you believe that every child is capable of reaching a high standard, and if you all enforce the rules properly, then disruptive behaviour is much easier to manage, and teachers can get on with the job of teaching.


Some of the more vocal sceptics of this approach point out that enforcing systems like this can be problematic. If we reduce behaviour management to a simple administration exercise, we lose something. We lose the chance to build meaningful relationships with our pupils. If you have to enforce a set of rules, you somehow lose the ‘human’ side of teaching, and the necessary teacher autonomy that goes with it.


Strong systems enable strong relationships


I don’t see this as an ‘either/or’: systems vs. relationships. It isn’t the case that teachers who enforce rules have no relationships with their classes- or that systems somehow get in the way of relationships or teacher autonomy. On the contrary, good systems give teachers the autonomy to form more powerful, enduring relationships with their pupils. Rather than being constrained by the challenges of bad behaviour, teachers are free to get to know their classes and teach their subjects really well.


In a chaotic classroom, where the teacher is standing at the front shouting ‘ssh- get on!’ every 5 seconds, or where they are constantly ignored or spoken over, or shouted at or sworn at, it is very hard to form meaningful relationships. In fact, it takes someone with the personality of a relentless bulldozer to overcome it. It is exhausting, and in fact it’s no surprise that so many teachers leave the profession. If every single lesson is punctuated with bad behaviour, you feel like you’re wasting your time. It’s hard to feel like you are changing children’s lives if you can barely get a word in.


In a calm, focused classroom, on the other hand, the teacher really can build those relationships. There is time for an in-joke, a smile, a conversation, or a genuine exchange of interesting ideas. If all pupils are in the habit of focusing and listening to their teacher, there is space for them to get to know each other. In a focused classroom, children feel successful because they come away from every lesson having learned something new. They learn to love their teacher because they know how much the teacher does for them. They are free to learn because their teachers are free to teach. They don’t have to show off in front of their mates, or pretend not to care out of fear of being called ‘boffin’: in a focused classroom, where learning is the norm, and where teachers are free to teach, children are free to get on, to listen and to learn.


Senior Leaders must encourage both


For every teacher to be able to get the most out of their classes, they need the freedom to be able to build relationships. School leaders must ensure robust systems are in place, and must back their teachers at every turn. But more than this, school leaders should continually encourage teachers to build as many relationships as they can. Connecting with kids- making them feel special, tapping in to their interests and likes and dislikes, making them love you so that they are mortified if they disappoint you- that is the key to excellent teaching.


Yes it may be the case that some teachers can achieve this even in the absence of strong systems, but it would be a heck of a lot easier for everyone if they didn’t have to.


Next week I will talk in more detail about how teachers can develop strong relationships with their pupils.



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Precise Practice

As I explained in my last post, practising the final skill over and over again does little to develop the final skill. Experts in any field won’t simply have practised the final skill in isolation: they will have spent a large chunk of time being drilled in the skills that underpin and lead up to the final skill. So why are teachers often tempted to ask their pupils to answer practice exam questions every lesson?


Writing a paragraph or essay in every English lesson has a couple of drawbacks. Firstly, it sets kids up to fail. If they haven’t yet had enough practice of the skills underpinning essay writing, they will likely write something poor and imprecise. When kids write things like “He uses a rhetorical question to make the reader think” or “She uses alliteration to make the reader read on” it’s not – contrary to popular belief- because one of their previous teachers told them that would be a good thing to write. No teacher in the history of the universe has ever said that. No, kids write things like that because they have no idea what else to say, and in their admirable attempt to try hard and impress you, they write the first thing that comes into their heads. Why waste their time on this? Instead, they first need more focused practice on the skills and knowledge that underpin essay writing.


Secondly, writing a paragraph or essay every lesson isn’t always helpful for the teacher. Particularly when the whole class seem to have flunked their essays, it’s so hard for a teacher to know exactly what to give feedback on, and exactly what to re-teach or which misconceptions to clear up. Instead, teachers need precise feedback that guides them as to what to do next.


So how might we go about this? How can we get pupils to practise the right things? And how can we ensure that teachers are given the most precise and useful information about their pupils’ progress and areas for development?


Here are a few things we do in the Michaela English department. (Sadly these are all English specific, but perhaps teachers of other subjects could offer alternatives that suit their subjects).


  1. Sequencing activities:

The new GCSEs demand pupils to know a whole text inside out. They sometimes struggle to make the best connections across whole texts- for example, being able to remember where in Macbeth we see ‘blood’ as a symbol for guilt. Rather than waiting until pupils have read the whole play, it is often useful to ask pupils to put events into order even when they are only a few scenes in. For example:


Put the events in order:

  • In an aside, Macbeth reveals his intentions to deceive: ‘stars hide your fires’.
  • The witches decide to meet with Macbeth
  • Duncan declares Macbeth the new Thane of Cawdor
  • The Thane of Cawdor is executed
  • Banquo and Macbeth hear the witches’ prophecies
  • Ross delivers the message to Macbeth


Pupils really have to know the text to be able to carry out this activity. Once they have grasped the sequence of major events in the plot, you can then begin to weave in questions about particular ideas, themes or images in the plot. For example:


  • In act 3 scene 1, Macbeth’s evil deepens. List three events prior to this where Macbeth’s evil is shown.
  • In act 3 scene 1, Macbeth’s evil deepens. List three events that occur before or after this in which Lady Macbeth’s evil is shown.


This enables them to make connections between scenes, and understand how authors develop characters and themes in the text as a whole.


  1. Quick Listing

Sometimes, a good old fashioned ‘mind map’ (or a list if that makes more sense for the content your pupils are studying- I don’t think it really matters) can be a really useful form of retrieval practice, particularly for those pupils who have struggle to think of points to make in their writing. This is particularly useful in the run up to exams, when you don’t have time to test the entire domain, but you want to make sure your pupils’ know enough to be able to answer any question that might come up.  I like to do this as a quick recap activity, e.g.:

  • Write down everything you can remember about Arthur Birling’s relationship with Eva Smith.
  • List 3 beliefs Priestley holds about society. Extension: add where these beliefs are best exemplified in the play.
  • Write down all the interactions Eva Smith had with the Birlings.
  • Write a plan for the following question: ‘Explore how Shakespeare presents Lady Macbeth as ambitious in act 1 scene 5’,

These activities test memory, of course, but they also give the teacher a sense of how much pupils know about specific topics. They tell you whether your class are ready to move on, can help to shine a light on misconceptions, and might provide a spring board on which to add further details about a particular idea or topic, as a way to deepen understanding.


  1. Concept Links

In order to develop their understanding of connections between ideas in a text, and to improve their interpretations, pupils need lots of opportunities to think about connections and interpretations. Asking them questions that force them to choose between different interpretations helps to cement their understanding whilst making this visible to the teacher. As with the examples above, these might develop as pupils’ familiarity with the text increases. Early on, I might ask them some questions like this: (click on image to enlarge):




I’d be careful to phrase these points differently each time I tested them, so that I could measure whether or not pupils really understand. So perhaps a couple of lessons later I might present them with this:



In the second set of questions, I’ve tried to increase the complexity ever so slightly by being less specific, and depending less on the most obvious description of the characters. I’d continue to add additional layers of complexity as we continue moving through the unit, perhaps by adding in more components to the question:



Over time, you can build up from pupils knowing who’s who, to what they represent and the significance of their role in the play.


To encourage pupils to think about their interpretations, you might want to give them a question like this:


  • Which statement best fit Arthur’s character, and which best fit Sybil’s? Write an ‘A’ next to the statements you believe match Arthur, and an ‘S’ next to the statements that match Sybil.
  1.  Pretends to be charitable
  2. Created to look stupid to a 1946 audience
  3. Is terrified of losing social status
  4. Represents the arrogance of capitalists

Again, this activity would tell you a lot about what your pupils understand about the text and the writer’s intentions. You could also have an interesting conversation about option 3 as arguably this applies to both characters. Either way, this prompts some deep thinking about the text.

 Because/But/So sentences:

This idea comes from this book, which is brilliantly summarised here. The idea is that you give pupils the same sentence stem, changing only the final word (to either ‘because’, ‘but’ or ‘so’). For example:

  •  Arthur Birling refers to himself as a ‘hard-headed businessman’ because
  • Arthur Birling refers to himself as a ‘hard-headed businessman’ but
  • Arthur Birling perceives refers as a ‘hard-headed businessman’ so

 What I particularly like about these questions is that they really force pupils to think about their answers. They have to draw on their knowledge of the plot, characters and ideas. These sentence stems also provide pupils with the opportunity to practise writing out the kinds of sentences they might have to write in an extended piece of writing later, but without having to worry about everything else. As ever, starting with sentence-level drills aids and supports writing further down the line.

Precise Practice

These tasks alone won’t be enough to develop the skill of essay writing, but I think they are useful as they encourage us to start thinking about the most precise forms of practice to give pupils when they are learning how to write about texts. Rather than simply relying on paragraph or essay practice, we need to come up with cleverer ways to ensure pupils practise the right things and that teachers receive the most precise feedback. As ever, knowledge leads to greater and deeper knowledge, and helps to develop skills over time. Without the right kinds of practice, pupils are left without the tools required for developing the final skill. Continued practice of application and manipulation of knowledge is a crucial step in skill development: it simply cannot be overlooked.



Is all practice effective?

Back in my early years of teaching- in the high-pressure ‘Special Measures’ school where I cut my teeth- I spent hours planning lessons that aimed to get kids through the GCSE as quickly as possible. I think lots of teachers are in the same boat. The high stakes accountability system puts the pressure on, and in many cases this can warp the curriculum and the way that we teach.


In the mad rush to get pupils better at the skills required for the GCSE, we teach the skills required for the GCSE directly. In my subject, English, this might mean getting pupils to practise writing a paragraph every lesson with the longer term objective being to improve their paragraph writing skills- a skill they need to demonstrate in the exam.


But isn’t this a bit like suggesting that, in order to get better at marathon running, you should run more marathons?


Not all forms of practice are equal


In my earlier teaching years I was under the illusion that the skill of writing good analytical paragraphs could be developed by practising writing lots of analytical paragraphs. But this, as Daisy Christodoulou makes clear in her excellent book ‘Making Good Progress’, is ineffective. Counter-intuitively, as Daisy explains, practising a skill directly doesn’t do much to develop that skill.


In the same way that a couch potato isn’t going to get up and run a marathon without any training, a weak writer isn’t going to be able to write a perceptive, analytical paragraph without a lot of baby steps beforehand- no matter how many times they’ve been shown to write a perceptive, analytical paragraph. Literary analysis is a complex skill made up of lots of smaller pieces of knowledge (and indeed, other, less complex skills, themselves comprised of more knowledge).


After a lot of thinking, this began to make sense to me. But why is it the case that practising analytical writing won’t actually do much to develop analytical writing skills? What makes someone a ‘weak writer’? And for that matter, what makes someone a good writer? In this post, I want to explain why I think it’s a bad idea teach skills directly. In my next post, I’ll discuss some alternatives.


Analytical writing skills aren’t transferrable


I’d say I have written a couple of reasonably good literature essays over the years. Does that mean I could write a decent microbiology essay? Unlikely!


Okay, I admit that example could be written off as a straw man, so how about this: I could probably write a good Othello essay, but could I write a good Much Ado about Nothing essay? Probably not- I barely know Much Ado. I’d need to spend a long time reading it, watching different versions, reading around it, thinking about it deeply, and so on. And I would wager that I wouldn’t be able to write as perceptively about Much Ado as I would about Othello because I haven’t been thinking about it in as much depth for as long. I know Othello pretty well, and the more I think about it, the more I see in it. It’d take me years to bring my Much Ado knowledge up to the level of my Othello knowledge.


In fact, I would even go so far as to say that I can write a better Othello essay now than I could when I studied it for A level. And I wouldn’t say that is necessarily because my analytical writing skills have improved (like I say, I’d still write an appalling Much Ado essay)- but rather, it’s largely because I have read and thought about Othello several times since then, and so my knowledge and understanding of the play have deepened.


Similarly, if writing a good Much Ado essay was dependent on my essay writing skills being good, then I’d be able to write one just fine because I’ve already proven that I can write a good Othello essay. But again, that seems unlikely.


It is difficult to transfer skills between domains. Knowing what the text is about is crucial to being able to write about it. This is why pupils struggle so much with ‘unseen’ exam questions: if they are given a text that they really don’t understand or know anything about, they are far less likely to be able to write something perceptive about it- even if they have been drilled and drilled and drilled in analytical paragraph writing skills. They could have written a brilliant essay on another text, but on a text they don’t understand, they are scuppered.


Missed opportunities


The other downside of teaching skills directly is that pupils miss out on the opportunity to practise getting to know the content better. In English, I’d much rather pupils spent time discussing and thinking about the characters in Macbeth, or getting to grips with complex Shakespearean language, than practising writing exam-style paragraphs. Knowing the text inside out is far more likely to yield results than pumping out PEE paragraphs every lesson.


Content matters most 


We shouldn’t let the pressure of impending exams shift our focus too far from the content itself. If we prioritise knowing the content inside-out, our pupils stand a much greater chance of succeeding in the exam when the time comes.


This has massive implications for assessments and for teaching. Next week, I’ll have a go at offering some suggestions for more focused practice activities.


Yes he can!


In my career as SENCO so far, I’ve often found myself at loggerheads with people who tell me that pupils with Special Needs can’t do things. Whether we’re talking about learning to read, writing for extended periods, or retaining focus in class, I always end up strongly disagreeing with anyone who tries to tell me that it is simply not possible for a child to do it.


This happens often, and every single time it does, I am appalled.


Sometimes, people blame the circumstances in the child’s life: “He’s got a lot going on at home, so he can’t do it.”


On other occasions, they blame the pressure the kid is under: “He’s really stressed, so he can’t do it.”


But most of the time, people use labels to explain the issue: “He has a special need, so he can’t do it.”


The people who spout these sorts of phrases seem to suggest (and in fact, sometimes explicitly assert) two maxims. Firstly, that some children don’t choose their behaviour. And secondly, that because they don’t choose their behaviour, we must never try to change it because that is unkind and uncaring.


This angers me because it imposes an obvious limit on the child’s capacity to improve. By telling schools, parents and pupils that struggling to learn or behave is a consequence of an irreparable issue within the child, we condemn the child to never being able to change.


This is precisely why, at Michaela, we believe that labels damage children. It doesn’t mean that I don’t recognise the challenges some children face, but rather I worry about the consequences of focusing purely on the ‘need’ instead of getting the behaviour we want in the long term. It is important that we at least aim for all children, regardless of need, to be able to learn and behave appropriately. If that’s not our aim, then what is?


I have met countless people who try to impose these astonishingly low expectations on the pupils at our school, and every time I do, I have to fight to keep expectations high. It seems mad to me that I have to defend the right to educate children effectively, but that is at the very heart of what it means to be SENCO at Michaela. As a school that does things differently, and that aims to achieve the highest possible outcomes for every child, I often feel as if we are fighting against a tide of negative defeatists who genuinely do no think that some children will ever be able to achieve our aims.


Tell a child that phonics won’t work for him because of his ‘needs’, and you disempower him.


Tell a child that starting a fight in the playground or swearing at a teacher was not his choice, and you undermine him.


Tell a child that he can’t concentrate for more than a few minutes, and you erode any belief he has in his potential future success.


Of course children may struggle to meet expectations (of learning and/or behaviour) at first. That’s the nature of the beast. But it doesn’t mean that, simply by virtue of the fact that the child has a label attached to them, that they will never be able to meet these standards. It just means they haven’t learnt the right behaviours yet. And the more that people come in to the school and tell me we’re wrong to do what we do, the harder it is for the child to overcome these barriers.


So if you are in my position- either as a SENCO fighting against a tide of the most despicable orthodoxy, or a classroom teacher or a Head of Department or a Literacy Lead just desperately trying to get your weakest or most vulnerable pupils to learn and behave, hear this. There is no limit to what a child can achieve if you focus on getting the behaviours you want. If he’s struggling to learn, create conditions for high amounts of practice and drill, drill, drill him until he gets it. If he’s struggling to behave, teach him how to behave with love and respect, and do not relent. As soon as you excuse his behaviour or his underachievement, you let him down because you are implicitly telling him that he cannot do it.


And he can. He really, really can.


How to Overcome The Curse of Knowledge

On a recent trip to my Nan’s, I was asked once again to fix her iPad. She was unable to watch something on “that BBC button” and was quite distressed about it. In exchange for several cups of milky tea and a Tunnock’s Teacake, I did my best to solve the problem.

“Well what’s wrong wit’ bloody thing then?”

“Right. Looks like your wifi’s stopped working and the app hasn’t downloaded properly.”

Befuddlement ensued. I did my best to explain what ‘wifi’, ‘app’ and ‘downloaded’ meant before trying to explain what had gone wrong without using those terms. My Nan was still confused, so she just left me to it in a sort of “I don’t care as long as it’s fixed” way.

It struck me that I possess a lot of knowledge about the internet, apps, etc. that my Nan does not. It was very difficult for her to understand exactly what I meant, never mind attempt to resolve the issue herself, because she lacks the basic knowledge that I have.

This often happens in classrooms and is a phenomenon Steven Pinker terms ‘The Curse of Knowledge’. It means that experts often underestimate the amount of knowledge required to access new information. As has oft been said before, teachers can underestimate their own knowledge, and overestimate their pupils’ knowledge.

For example, when teaching something as seemingly straightforward as the humble apostrophe, we can underestimate the amount of knowledge required to really understand it. In order to use an apostrophe correctly, pupils need to understand five complex, overlapping rules:

  1. Singular and plural nouns not ending in ‘s’: show possession by adding apostrophe s.

E.g. Tom’s book, Ali’s table, the children’s room.

  1. Singular and plural nouns ending in ‘s’: show possession by adding an apostrophe (and sometimes an extra ‘s’ at the end).

E.g. Ross’s house, The foxes’ den, Elephants’ tusks. In order to understand this, pupils need to know the difference between singular and plural, and how to form plurals from singular nouns.

  1. Plural nouns that don’t possess anything do not require an apostrophe.

Sometimes pupils write things like this: ‘I have two apple’s’ because they have misunderstood the relationship between subjects, verbs and objects, and have formed a misconception about how possession works. This is something that needs to be addressed when teaching the apostrophe, either through teaching it correctly in the first place, or confronting embedded misconceptions.

  1. Pronouns of possession do not require an apostrophe.

Common mistakes with this one include: Our’s is really nice, I want her’s, the pencil is your’s. This happens because, again, pupils have formed a misconception about possession. This usually also indicates that they don’t really understand that pronouns replace nouns, but not always.

  1. Contracted verbs/nouns: show omission by adding an apostrophe in place of the missing letters.

E.g. I don’t know, we won’t go, they’re out ‘n’ about.


And don’t even get me started on the difference between ‘its’ and ‘it’s’….!


The knowledge required to understand these rules is vast, and because experts are susceptible to the curse of their own knowledge, underestimating what they know and overestimating what pupils know, they sometimes fail to recognise just how hard it is to learn new, complex things. As a result, pupils end up confused and unable to understand and apply the thing you want them to learn.

Possible ways to overcome The Curse of Knowledge

At Michaela, we are working hard to overcome this. Here are some strategies for getting past the curse of our knowledge.

  1. Curriculum Sequencing

Joe Kirby’s post on curriculum design is well worth revisiting. A good curriculum takes knowledge into account, and prioritises teaching the concepts that pupils need to know in order to access new information. For example, it is far easier to learn how to subtract if you can count, so you wouldn’t teach subtraction before counting. The same applies for complex processes such as literary analysis. You can’t analyse a text unless you know things about it. You can’t write an essay until you know how to write a sentence, and so on.

  1. Knowledge Organisers

Looking at a unit as a whole, identify the 20% of content that will have 80% impact on pupils’ understanding. In an English literature unit on Shakespeare, for example, that might be key quotations, poetic and rhetorical techniques, plot, themes and a list of characters. If pupils learn this knowledge to automaticity, it will help them with more complex tasks later. Prioritise this knowledge at the start of the unit and refer back to it again and again until they have mastered it and are able to apply it flexibly.


  1. Drilling

Drilling the basics helps to free up space in working memory for more complex processes. For example, when writing an essay, pupils have got a lot to hold in their minds at once: grammar, spelling, punctuation, plot, themes, characters, quotations, links, paragraph structure, vocabulary, and so on. It’s overwhelming at the best of times, but helping pupils to automate many of the underpinning basics frees up thinking space. Experts can write grammatically accurate sentences without even thinking, weaving in interesting ideas and vocabulary with little thought. This is incredibly hard work for someone who has not automated the underpinning basics. At Michaela, we support pupils to automate the fundamentals by drilling them daily in quotations, grammar and knowledge. When it comes to essay writing time, they stand a much better chance of being able to get to grips with the complex ideas they want to express.



If Michaela sounds like somewhere you’d like to work, get in touch! We are currently looking for teachers of History and Science. More information here: http://mcsbrent.co.uk/teacher-vacancies/


Personalised Learning Harms Children

Here is a transcript of the speech I gave at the Michaela Debate at City Hall yesterday. I was debating the brilliant Tom Sherrington on the subject of personalised learning. Here is where videos of the debates will be posted in a few weeks’ time.



I want to begin today by telling you a story about a boy called Jason.

About a year ago, a file landed on my desk. It was huge. About the size of a rucksack. It contained hundreds of pieces of paper about Jason: a boy who was due to start at Michaela that September. As I waded through all the documentation I thought: ‘crikey, we’re going to have our work cut out with this one!’

The list of needs was long and boggling. Weak social skills. Low reading and spelling scores. Low maths scores. Weak writing skills. Low confidence. Low self-esteem. Poor social awareness. Poor self-control. Poor concentration. Poor behaviour.


Poor Jason.


The list of support mechanisms was even longer: a personalised curriculum that was heavily differentiated, differentiated vocabulary, different methods of recording his learning, targeted questioning, an individually designed literacy and numeracy programme, speech and language support… the list seemed endless.


A few weeks later, I went to visit him at his primary school.

“Jason” his teacher said “is very different to other children. He is a very unique boy and therefore requires a very unique approach.”

She told me that Jason was not a happy boy and that his self-esteem was through the floor.

He struggled academically.

He was poorly behaved, lacked focus and concentration.

He struggled to remember things.

He was perpetually frustrated.

He lost his temper easily.

He had few friends.


The conversation went on. She explained how she gives him different tasks and delivers lessons in diverse ways to suit his needs. She needs to go at a slower pace, otherwise, he won’t stay focused. She needs to plan strategically to fill in the precise gaps in his knowledge. Everything had to be highly personalised in order to help him learn.

Jason requires a very unique approach because Jason is a very unique boy.


In my head I compared Jason briefly to some of the other kids I teach. Kids like Emily who didn’t know what a triangle was when she started. Kids like Tyson who couldn’t sit still at first. Kids like Mohammad who didn’t learn the alphabet until year 5. All of them have various issues, granted, but Jason was by no means ‘weaker’ than any of these kids, nor was he any less capable than they were of meeting our standards.


We don’t offer those children a ‘highly personalised’ approach because, even though they are unique people, they are not unique in terms of how they learn.


And I suspected that Jason was the same.


Personalised learning harms children like Jason because it is premised on the idea that every child learns differently. This leads to a multitude of different activities that aim to suit the child’s needs, but often overlook tasks that best suit the content being taught. For example, when teaching a novel, I might be tempted to give children different extracts according to their reading ability, or give the Jasons of the world a vocabulary bank to support them with the reading. I might ask them to read their extracts in groups or pairs and get them to look up words in the dictionary. But at Michaela, we choose not to do that. Instead, we choose to read the whole text together as a class, reading along line by line with a ruler, stopping to annotate new or unfamiliar vocabulary and practise new pronunciations as we go. In Michaela lessons, everybody reads and everybody writes. That’s it. This is guided by the teacher – the subject expert, and pupils are expected to keep up.


Personalised Learning harms children like Jason because it lowers our expectations and prevents us from really believing that they can achieve.

There’s no escaping the fact that personalised learning necessarily requires creating different resources and teaching children in different ways. Not only is this inefficient and a huge burden on teacher time, and the weakest children miss out on the benefits of quality whole class instruction, but it is a clear statement that children like Jason are unable to access the same work as other children.

Knowing that a child has a need of any variety subtly skews our view of them. Somewhere deep down, we think ‘well, that kid has x need, so he/she will struggle’. Some of you may be sitting here thinking ‘well I wouldn’t think that’, but we need to accept the fact that labels inevitably colour our view of the child. And our entire system is set up to encourage this. Ofsted inspectors and SLTs demand colour-coded, differentiated seating plans demonstrating exactly how we intend to personalise the lesson for the pupil premium kids, the dyslexic kids, the kids with behavioural issues, and so on. But this is harmful! It is harmful because it damages our expectations and prevents us from believing that every child really can achieve.

At Michaela, we believe that everyone can do it. We believe that all children can access the same content if the teacher’s explanations and examples are good. CPD revolves around building teacher knowledge and determining optimal teaching sequences and concept explanations. And it works! Last year, our year 7 cohort made an average of 20 months progress in reading in just 10 months. The average pupil made 5 sublevels of progress in English and Maths, and pupils with special needs made 6. I promise you- nothing was ever personalised for these kids. Not Jason, not Emily, not Tyson, not Mohammed, not anyone.

In fact, the reason we achieved those results is precisely because we didn’t personalise learning at all! Instead, we prioritised whole class instruction where everybody reads and everybody writes.

Finally, Personalised Learning harms children like Jason because it lowers the expectations they have of themselves.

After all, if we don’t believe that they can achieve the same as their peers, then why should they?

Giving children personalised targets puts a ceiling on their expectations of themselves. Whether it’s “I need to work on sitting still” or “I need to work on analysing language in more detail”, the kid thinks that that is what they should focus on that lesson. And learning targets, just like any targets in life, are damaging because they are all we end up aiming for. It puts a ceiling on children’s expectations of themselves.


Since joining us in September, Jason has flourished. In his lessons, his teachers do not personalise his targets, set him different tasks, or record his learning in different ways. Instead, he gets consistently high quality, well-planned and delivered whole class instruction in a highly-structured, focused environment. He works at the same pace as everyone else in the class.

He works at the same pace as everyone else in the class because actually, he isn’t that different to everyone else. Lots of his peers found the same things difficult that he found difficult. He made the same mistakes as everyone else and got confused when everyone else got confused. Because that’s how learning works: our minds aren’t so different, but if the content itself isn’t presented to us in the right way, we stand less chance of understanding it. Get the instruction right, and everyone can learn.

And Jason has learned a lot this year. His reading age has improved by over 2 years. His behaviour has transformed. Where he used to lose his temper easily and end up in trouble often, he is now calm, focused and polite. He has made friends and earns lots of merits each week. He proudly wears a merit badge on his blazer for landing in the top 20 in the year group.


Sure, some pupils may require a little extra time to really digest new stuff, but they don’t need different approaches because they are somehow more unique than other children, or learn in a different way to other children.


We have mistakenly premised our entire system around the idea that each child is unique, when in fact they are not unique in terms of how they think or learn. Jason was far behind his peers, but that does not necessarily mean that he needs a personalised approach in order to make progress.


And yes, it was hard for him at first. He did struggle from time to time. But isn’t struggle a good thing when you’re learning? Isn’t struggle something we should expose kids to from time to time, to help build their resilience? Isn’t that how we learn to persist when the going gets tough? Doesn’t it make us feel even more proud of our achievements if we have to struggle to reach them?


Jason struggled at first, but he persisted, and consequently flourished.


Ladies and gentlemen, I know that before today, many of you voted against this motion, thinking that personalised learning doesn’t harm children. And intuitively it does seem like it’s a bit unreasonable to suggest that personalised learning is ‘harmful’. But I ask you to think again and in particular, to think of Jason. Is it unreasonable to ask that every child is given the same access to the same curriculum at the same pace with the same high quality teaching? Is it unreasonable to ask that every child is pushed as far as possible every single lesson, every single day? Is it unreasonable to want the best for every child, to believe that every child can achieve?


Every child can achieve, but it is precisely because we personalise learning that many in fact don’t.

Every child can achieve, but the cult of personalised learning tricks us into believing that some children are less capable than they really are.

Every child can achieve, and it is precisely because the system says that personalising learning makes things better that we actually make things worse.


Ladies and Gentlemen, personalised learning harms children because it reduces our expectations, it reduces their expectations, and most importantly, it reduces their outcomes.



How can we get kids to read widely?

Getting kids to love reading is difficult at the best of times. Reading is hard, particularly for children who, for whatever reason, aren’t exposed to new language or reading in the early years. By the time they arrive in secondary school, many reluctant readers hate books: they see reading as dull, pointless and arduous.


One way round this is to give reluctant readers books that appeal to their interests, or are relevant to their lives. The view tends to be that so long as children are reading something, then it doesn’t really matter what it is that they are reading. In lots of schools, this means that ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid’, ‘Guinness Book of World Records’ and ‘The Story of Tracy Beaker’ are the most popular titles.


This is something I have gone back and forth on over the last few years. On the one hand, we do want children to enjoy reading, and starting them on books they like seems to be a good way to do that. But I’ve always wondered what happens next? I’ve seen kids get into ‘Wimpy Kid’ and ‘Tracy Beaker’, but struggle to transfer that to other books that might be more challenging or different.


Ultimately, it is really important that children read as broadly as possible. Reading is one of the primary mechanisms we have for learning new things, and if we don’t promote wide reading in school, it is less likely that children will become wide readers in adulthood. So whilst I do think that children should be allowed to read books they like (obviously), I want to make sure that this doesn’t limit the breadth of their reading. At Michaela, we have several programmes in place to support children to read as broadly as possible.


Class Readers


At Michaela, we believe that reading is all about habit. For that reason, we read every day with every pupil. Our class reading programme is designed to give even the least able readers daily access to great works of literature. Books are carefully sequenced, and all titles have been chosen precisely because they aren’t the kinds of things that pupils would typically read on their own. We believe that reading with an adult is a powerful way to get through books that are difficult or out of kids’ comfort zones. When the class reads together, the teacher can pause and explain difficult vocabulary and concepts, and can ask questions to check for understanding.


These books – titles such as ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, ‘Silas Marner’ and ‘A Christmas Carol’ don’t tend to fly off the shelves in our school library, but pupils read them in class and, with the support of their teacher- get a lot out of them and end up really enjoying them. They may have enjoyed them had they read them alone, but it’s unlikely they’d pick them up in the first place! Class reading is a way to broaden pupils’ reading by pushing them out of their comfort zones.


Reading Club


Our least able readers stay for 30 minutes after school every day for Reading Club. Jo Facer, our wonderful Head of English, has created a brilliant sequence of Reading Club books. These books are more pupil-friendly, with titles that are a sort of halfway house between ‘classics’ and the books they’d pick up on their own anyway. They tear through ‘The Red Pony’, ‘Farenheit 451’, ‘The Woman in Black’ and many others. Again, these books are challenging for the least able readers, but with the support of their teachers, are made more accessible. Importantly, this means that the least able readers in the school are reading the most books with adults, and are reading even more broadly than other pupils.


Friday Reads


Jo Facer came up with this brilliant idea. We found that lots of pupils (of all abilities) were struggling to choose books from the library. Jo suggested that we recommend our classes one book every Friday. These are from all sorts of genres and appeal to a wide variety of interests. So far, we’ve had ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn’, ‘My Sister’s Keeper’, ‘Gone Girl’ and many others. We hold the book up, talk about it a bit, and then it goes in the library. At lunchtime, loads of kids turn up to grab one of the coveted ‘Friday Read’ books.


Team Reads


Following the Class Reader theme, we have lots of full class sets of books in the library that pupils can take out together and read in groups. These are called ‘Team Reads’. These are a mixture of classics and modern novels, and pupils are welcome to come in to the library at lunchtime and read them together, or take them home to read and discuss. If you’re stuck for resources on this one, check out the Penguin Classics offer for schools– you can get loads of books for a relatively low sum.


Personal Reading


Finally, our pupils are all expected to have a library book with them every day. They read this in silence in morning tutor time and at home in the evenings. This gives kids the flexibility to choose anything they want to read. Interestingly, pupils often choose books related to the topics they are studying in lessons. So we see lots of kids reading about Ancient Egypt or Astronomy, for example. ‘Tracy Beaker’ is still popular, but lots of our pupils challenge themselves to read more widely and push themselves out of their comfort zones.




Like the sound of this? We’re hiring! More information here: http://mcsbrent.co.uk/teacher-vacancies/