Towards a vocabulary rich KS3

This week, I have had the genuine pleasure of observing the department. I love watching other people teach. There is always a ‘takeaway’- something to learn from someone else, something to reflect on. It often prompts some of my most furious bouts of creating new things!

One of these moments came from my wonderful mentee. She was in the midst of introducing the opening of a text to Y7, when the term pathetic fallacy came up. She began explaining the meaning of the term, when a student said ‘Aaah, we’ve learnt that!’ This then rippled around the classroom as the students pieced together their memories and collaboratively worked out that they came across it in term 2, with A Christmas Carol. I realised that, as a second placement trainee, unless she had time and inclination to go through each scheme of work, or look at every unit skill tracker (with key words collected), she wouldn’t have known what students had done, especially as some students are on exercise book 3. It made me realise that even class teachers might be hard pressed to remember precisely what, when, & with how much frequency words had been encountered.

So, I set about collating everything we have introduced for Y7, 8 & 9 this academic year. The results can be seen on the slides that appear at the end of this post. Below, is a walk through of what I want the team to know we have or intend to cover.  It is as close to a ‘knowledge organiser by year group’ I could come up with. Grammar is being mapped on by my KS3 lead, so that will be added later.


There are roughly 100 key words for each year. The majority are context dependent and there are words revisited throughout years, and across years. Schmitt (1997) confirms that the ‘frequency of occurrence of a words is…especially important when it comes to dealing with low frequency words’ and that ‘grouping is an important way to aid recall’ (197).

In addition, I want to know that students are learning both sophisticated words for analysis and tier 2 words that have been selected from Dave Grimmett’s vocabulary lists by year group, a brilliant resource ( @dave5478 ) and from Geoff Barton’s Planning for A* vocabulary lists, here.  These words have been chosen to match the topics, texts and tasks, grouped together to enable students to use them more independently. They are ambitious and do set a high challenge, but I distinctly remember my frustration last year when I had my Y7 class confidently using vocabulary that our Y11 had never come across, and I knew, quite frankly, it was too late. By then, the students were at risk of genuine cognitive overload dealing with everything else we had to teach them.

We will test a small number of terms each week, and check again at the end of term. A next step will be to create short, non-fiction reading passages for each term using the words in context so that students can see them ‘live’. Schmitt also states that ‘writing vocabulary begins with reading it’ because of the complex interdependency of language (2013). This will enable teachers to unpick student knowledge of prefixes, suffixes, roots etc. Finally, as well as reading tasks and written responses, speaking and listening opportunities are embedded throughout the year as further opportunities to use and model.

As we’ve been using vocabulary lists all year (although we all agree our testing routines need tightening) this is nothing new. However, what it will give to staff, is a very clear overview of where we have been and where we are going. It sets out the language we can assume familiarity with, and quickly check for gaps, rather than starting from zero every time we begin a new unit.

Two arguments can be levied at any attempt to boost vocabulary with word lists: one is that a list of any kind limits students (at the HA end), the second is that it does not allow for differentiation (at the LA end). Since we have been using termly word lists, what I have noticed in student books, is an overall higher quality of language used generally. My personal vocabulary is different to that of my colleagues and that far from limiting students, I’ve observed teachers confidently using more ambitious vocabulary from their own personal stores, enriching the classroom further. As for differentiation, the lists are our ideal baseline, what we hope for every student. Some may need support getting there, the testing will flag this up. Hopefully, if I can pull off my great intervention plan this year  (more about that here ) this will be a space to give that support.

Next on the list will be to map KS4 in the same way, and include sentence structures as part of the explicit knowledge to acquire. But for now, the sun is shining and the garden is literally screaming at me.





Further reading:



Department Improvement, inch by inch 2016-17

So, this is my version of an end of year DIRT task; an opportunity to look back on my first year as HoD. There is a klaxon of a theme that runs through all that I’ve learned this year, that will lead to ongoing improvement: routines and consistency. Once you have the big stuff in place, it is by sweating over the details that you start to move that really entrenched old school C/D borderline.

Learning Questions

This was the year I ditched Learning Objectives and replaced them with Questions. My department have heard more than enough about this, as have my students. The outcome, I think, has been lessons with a very sharp focus on the key learning, with activities, vocabulary and tasks that meaningfully link to it. If it doesn’t help answer the question, it shouldn’t be in there. This does mean a lengthy pre-lesson, pre-SoW process, but the clarity and understanding the teacher has of what, why and how is vastly improved. Gone are random worksheets that ‘relate to the topic’ and in their place are slow deliberate, consolidation tasks that check understanding and highlight gaps.

Schemes of Work

Watching my class of Y7 this year confidently identifying anaphora & hypophora, discussing to what extent Brutus is a tragic hero in Julius Caesar, deciding on Beowulf’s flaws from Seamus Heaney’s translation and reciting Ozymandias, you realise that the only ceiling over children is the one we construct. I don’t doubt that there are some things we could deliver better or differently, but we are much more confident about the challenge of material that students can successfully work with.


Quite possibly, in my humble opinion, the most powerful differentiation tool in a teacher’s armoury (with not a Red Amber Green/Bronze Silver Gold/Must Should Could in sight). Teachers need to think through who to ask which questions, when to use pause and collaboration, how to not let a student off the hook and when to include evaluative questions that extend the learning for the HA students. It is an excellent area to develop and reflect upon as a teacher at any stage of their career.


We have generated ambitious and sophisticated vocabulary lists from KS3-4 which we pre-teach each term and are part of the end of unit success criteria. They are in context of the unit and are modelled by teachers in delivery of the content. This is consistent across the whole year group. The challenge now is to make sure, as a department, we establish routines for explicit vocabulary testing.  Developing excellent MCQs for every unit is a long process and one that we’ve started. It is an area I want to prioritise next year and ensure the department feels knowledgeable and confident about effective explicit vocabulary instruction.

Profiling students:

I want every student to be reading age tested, handwriting tested, SPaG tested and vocabulary tested in September. Our wonderful Inclusion department does this as standard for the incoming Y7s, but I want to create a detailed profile of every student from Y7-11. The reason for this is two-fold. My strong suspicion is that it has been too easy for some students to slip under the net, that a single test in Y7 does not accurately inform us of who is in our classroom by the time we get to Y10. With the new GCSE in mind, I want to know, for sure, what we dealing with in a single tiered system, that requires all to access the same text. The second reason for creating a detailed profile is that it will help inform an intervention programme that I’m keen to set up. We will have a much sharper focus of how to group students according to need and address some of their literacy barriers, in similar groups. Something to tackle before, in the blink of an eye, we are attempting to analyse Jekyll and Hyde extracts and write extended responses.


So how does intervention look in reality? Like almost every school in the UK, our senior leaders are stripping meat from the bare bones of the teaching staff, as budgets dictate. There is no slack. There are no light timetables. But in English, we do have  staff with odd hours here and there. The square pegs and round holes of the timetable jigsaw.

Intervention has always been problematic. We have only been able to offer piecemeal support for small numbers of students, and there is always a push and pull with the curriculum and removal from key content.

But I think I have a solution. One of our department goals is to embed the weekly write, 200 word challenge, brainchild of @Xris32 and developed by wonderwomen like @heymrshallahan. I plan for this to be a rolling programme to maximise exposure to unseen, unknown tasks: unseen fiction, unseen non-fiction, unseen poetry, creative/descriptive writing and writing to present a viewpoint. This embedded, writing curriculum, throughout every year means that while the class is engaged in these tasks, students with an intervention need can, for a short time, be matched to a ‘free’ English teacher, with a ‘free’ period (below quota) for small group A side/B side intervention. No content is missed, no conflict with the SoW. Students grouped according to their profiled needs, and protected by being timetabled.


Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about the department is the team – the house that we have built. We’ve been through a very challenging period as a school and by and large, no-one wants to leave the department. It seems like we’ve now got the timber frame, and in 17-18 we’ll be working on the doors, wallpaper and floors -not a 60 minute makeover, but a model for sustained and visible improvement.


Re-posted from  June 2016

With update June 2017 at the end of the post:

My first and most urgent job taking over the department has been to reform our KS3. Having been without a HoD and KS3 lead, we had got by with a sticking plaster approach for KS3 for some time; re-hashing units cobbled together from a variety of years, taking the path of least resistance, enabling us to wrestle with KS4 and see the legacy spec out with a flourish.

In the great KS3 reform, I started with the end point – EoY9 as a line in the sand, but with eye firmly fixed on EoY11. I wrote a list of 15 skills we wanted students to be meeting by EoY9. They tie in with GCSE, but should run through any KS3 curriculum anyway.

These became our guiding outcomes to map KS3 onto. I firmly wanted KS3 to be dictated by this, not the texts or the tasks.

The next stage was creating a period of consultation with the whole department. I read the amazing @fod3‍ blog here which really helped clarify this stage. Everyone in the dept. received a pack which included extracts from the Ofsted report ‘KS3: The Wasted Years’, the 15 guiding outcomes and around 8 KS3 LTPs, wonderfully curated by @saysmiss‍  using #KS3LTP. We discussed the vision we had for KS3, which included depth over breadth, high level of challenge and access to the ‘best of what has been thought and said’. The 8 LTPs I chose all contained these elements to reinforce that message. Colleagues were sent off to look over the LTPs and highlight what they liked with these principles in mind. We met again and together rebuilt Y7, 8 & 9. Each year with an overarching theme and chronological texts (with some exceptions that I conceded). One colleague said how excited she was about teaching KS3 after this process.

The next stage involved meeting with the newly appointed KS3 lead and mapping the 15 outcomes across the years.

We decided on a progression of skills that included a heavy focus on response to text (developing opinions and independent response) and creative writing in Y7 and gradually introduces Structure, Comparison & Contrast and Evaluation, interweaving other skills throughout. With the skills mapped and end of unit assessment tasks clarified, we began building! I printed all resources we had and using term overview sheets, the collective experience in the team enabled us to consider pitfalls and successes.

Before setting pairs off to plan, I reiterated the vision for KS3, to keep planning focused, so that we didn’t drift again into lots of busy-time resources and activities.

We now have the basis of all units. There is still LOTS to do – firming up the schemes for a start. We then have our grammar for writing to map across years, essential vocabulary list for each term, cover booklets with 6 lessons per term, HW tasks, skills to map onto trackers, our additional reading lists to distribute… But, after just 3 weeks, what was a mountain, now feels doable.

June 2017:

Nearly one year on, and we have almost made it. Some SoW worked better than others, but this may be a case of adjusting challenge at key points.  In Y7, Beowulf was a big hit, as was Animal Farm and Julius Caesar. In Y8, our new, rigorous Love Poetry unit was successful, as was the Gothic, and I am hoping, the Writer as Camera unit (structure) for term 6. Y9 have got a head start on viewpoints & perspectives, as well as what characterises Robert Browning’s poetry and the Victorian era.

We have raised expectations. Students write often, in silence and are encouraged to reflect more on their work. We have slowed the pace and can work on three extracts over a 7 week term, digging much deeper into rich texts. We have raised the status of reading. We have generated ambitious and sophisticated vocabulary for every term in advance and use these as success criteria throughout.

But, like any journey, the landscape of KS3 will change as the GCSE seeds are sown, and will need refining for a few years to come. We are a little way off our destination yet. Our main 17-18 KS3 targets look like this:

  • Embed our grammar syllabus fully – very much confirmed after hearing @katie_s_ashford at researchEd Oxford. We need to set up our grammar homework, followed up with Grammar Gap lessons.
  • Embrace the 200 word challenge, brain child of @Xris32, and include a rotation of unseen poetry, unseen extracts, writing prompts and comprehension.
  • Use whole class feedback across the department.
  • Use the S&L opportunities we have in each year group and demand more of students, as well as providing routine opportunities for memorising poems and quotes.
  • Use learning questions as the driver for lessons to keep the focus and intention sharp.
  • Build evaluative questions into our SOW as part of our challenge syllabus, paving the way for KS4 but also ensuring our most able students are not simply doing extra, but learning to scratch under the surface.
  • Test reading every year, to make sure no-one feels they are falling under the radar, falling behind or failing and work closely with our inclusion department to support them.


Hopefully, next year, we will really start to see the impact of everything we have set in motion.

Coming Clean

Excuse the exciting title – this is not however, a confessional blog, in which I declare some terrible dark secret (like those days when I feel like I have completely lost the ability to teach – is it just me…?) No, today was a ‘clean copy annotation’ day for Year 10. It has been one of the successful new strategies I’ve embedded this year. It has become habit, and students seem to see value and purpose in it.

Designing the course for the new spec AQA, I decided to put as much of the content into this year as I could, leaving next year for perfecting skills, deep learning and practise. As we’re whooshing through the poems, I periodically whip out a clean copy and ask students to fully annotate it,  based on what they’ve remembered. And rather than groan and wail ‘Miss! That’s long!’, they pick up pens and tackle it.

It seems to be helping on many levels: it is building confidence, it’s forcing thinking hard about something and activating memory, and it’s embedding quotes, terms and analysis, and it is repetition – which I think we seriously underestimate the importance of, for fear of boring students.

Clean copy annotation has become one of my very quick-win teaching strategies. and could be used in just about any subject. No matter what damage students have done to a previous poem, it is also the promise of a fresh, clean start!

How does it feel?

How can* it feel for children from separated homes?

Nerve wracking telling friends you’re not here this weekend. Sad missing out on things, again. Guilty about trying to be loyal and trying to grow up, be independent, make choices all at once. Confused about where feelings of anger come from and terrified by the strength of them at the same time. Understanding of your parent’s flaws in a way only older sons and daughters are. Slightly more vulnerable, slightly more needy of approval and reassurance. Plagued by a sense of something missing that just doesn’t go away. Drawn, inevitably, into adult worlds even with the most discreet and harmonious ending of a relationship. Embarrassed because the homework you thought you had is actually in another house. Exhausted negotiating through home(s), routine(s) and rules(s). And sometimes isolated, when those around you really don’t get how it feels.

As a parent, I don’t want school to make allowances or make excuses. I want school to believe in my children as much as I do. I want firmness with compassion that takes into account that not everything is within their control, but seeks to help them work with what is in their control.

As a teacher, do I always know which children are from separated families? No. Do I need to know? No (although it is useful to know if children are in process of a separation so that they can be given support if needed). The point is, these could be my children, or anyone’s children, carrying around enough luggage for a month long trip. And it’s worth remembering.  Sometimes, some people need building up a little more than others. It doesn’t mean the rules are off or that the policies don’t work. It means we are responding, just as we do with marking when we adjust our teaching accordingly, to the people in our care.

Last year, my 5 year old didn’t really need to be told she was in the bottom 2 of her class every week with her spellings homework, leaving me trying to drag her to school each day as I tried to get to my own tutor group on time. A case of procedure gone awry, as @Xris32 Chris Curtis describes so well here. Thanks goodness reason won out in the end and this year she is beyond grades and beyond happiness at school.

*Disclaimer – Can not does, every child is different.

Enter the Dragon: The grit, resilience, character and mindset death match

I felt very proud to have my first article appear in UKEdMag this month. A jolly, upbeat piece about implementing a new course in my school – the main aim to bring together PSHE, Citizenship and engage learners in thinking about themselves, their learning and so on. My pride has been slightly short lived as I have been keenly aware of the growing momentum against the explicit teaching of ‘qualities’ and character, and have read some fantastic blogs this weekend voicing these concerns, trawling Twitter to gather as full a picture as possible.

I am not overly surprised that the idea of explicit Character Education has got so many people in hot and bothered. It’s a politicised rolling pin to once again beat teachers with. But coining a new name has simply made us forget that schools have been doing this to a greater or lesser degree for a long time – what else are assemblies, tutor time, vertical tutoring, mentoring, PSHE, Citizenship and extra curricular clubs for?

Below is what I have concluded about what seems to be of value and how it can be brought into the curriculum so far. I will avoid using the term Character and Character Education, as I think it’s a divisive term, preventing meaningful debate. Before I do, it may be useful to set out my stall, so to speak. I’m an English Teacher and Head of Media. I like the rigour of tests at KS4 & 5. In my dojo of teaching, expert subject knowledge and good behaviour management are king. So, I agree with much of the criticism against fad ideas and know enough to think ‘this year’s brain gym’ is already sounding like a cliche.

1) The rationale behind the programme we have implemented seems sound. The key focus is on developing articulate learners, able to clarify and justify opinions. Students debate, present, discuss and problem solve. This underpins the lesson activities. This does develop ‘qualities’ desirable in young people. Surveys of desirable skills in employees frequently ranks communication, team work and problem solving in the top 5. Developing a culture in the classroom which values and promotes these skills should lead to greater competence in these areas.

2) Martin Robinson, whose writing I admire very much, argues that what is really needed is to teach young people the ‘stuff of importance and value, the best that has been thought, said and done, give them time to question it, think it, argue it, debate it, agree or disagree about what is ‘the best’. Allow them time to develop enthusiasms, to enthuse – from en theos the Ancient Greek for ‘With God’: give them time to practise’ . I wholeheartedly agree here. The big problem for the current curriculum, what with gathering assessment data, hitting levels and targets, is that the life blood has been squeezed out of every subject. Where do teachers have time to allow students to debate, argue and enthuse? It sometimes can feel as if thinking (teach, memorise, teach!) only really occurs at A level and even then, teachers frequently wail ‘why don’t they just think for themselves?’ A course, even an hour each week, off assessment, is a gift surely? Especially if it has been developed with genuine thought and overview.

3) Chris Chivers, another person I much admire, argues ‘grit, determination and resilience are internalised, personal to each and every one of us. Some have more than others. This can be our ability to tolerate discomfort or pain, in different forms, mental or physical. We sometimes don’t know what we can endure until we are tested…..Making learning challenges such that effort is needed, over time, so that grit, resilience and decisions are in-built, might just offer a greater chance of success.’ It is perhaps this that causes people the greatest degree of nagging doubt, that any course claiming to teach Grit or Resilience cannot really do that. Again, I wholeheartedly agree. Whilst we can teach students about grit and resilience , and their role in achieving success through anecdotes of great triumph, we cannot teach grit and resilience. The key must be in the course and activity design. Let students find out for themselves. Isn’t that what great lessons do? Rather than telling students what these qualities are, give meaningful opportunities to encounter them – problem solving, initiative exercises, team tasks with end objectives. One of my most powerful memories from school, and I was by no means a high achiever, is still an enterprise day group task. I was flooded with feelings of success as we achieved that thing we set out to achieve. Not content, not subject.

4) I loved @DisIdealist ‘s blog ‘ Telling Penguins to Flap Harder’ and I recommend everyone to read it. The arguments against a ‘no excuses’ culture are strong. Telling children they aren’t winners because they didn’t want it enough is profoundly wrong, but is this really happening in schools? I would hope education, in it’s real terms of teachers interacting with students, amounts to more than a collection of inspirational PPT slides on grit, resilience, growth mindset or character. These are the dumbed down headlines, not the reality of what is taking place hour after hour, day after day. The operation of schools cannot be condensed into soundbites, even if books, theories and research can. Schools are complex, institutional systems, with governance on many levels and a thousand human interactions taking place every minute.
With this in mind, as well as @DisIdealist ‘s parting statement that although penguins can’t fly, they are expert swimmers, do we not then owe it to young people to offer the richest experience possible, ‘to educate’, during the years of school, so that they can find out what they do do well?

If anyone is keen to know more about our Core Programme, please contact me via Twitter @evenbetterif or via this blog.

Sweating the Big Stuff

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There can be no doubt that sometimes we forget to look at the big picture in favour of the tick box mentality of assessment criteria, method, outcomes, grades etc. Wood and trees, in a word.

Three weeks into term, looking back over the work completed by my classes, I realised that many of my new students had habits that were holding them back –  no matter how well crafted a sentence here or there was. It was the big stuff – handwriting, punctuation throughout, completing tasks fully, taking risks with vocabulary, presentation and so on. This needed to be highlighted right from the start and given as ‘big’ targets for students be mindful of before beginning each task. They help to remind students that every time they write in lesson – it is for an external audience. Writing for someone else means presentation & handwriting always matters, as does punctuation, as does trying out new words to communicate new ideas.

The form I created is stuck in the front of book. It is headed by the statement ‘If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got’ – a catchphrase used by a wonderful former colleague. I wanted students to be aware that making progress is not just about learning to do new things, it is also about, in some case, changing their ways of doing things and developing NEW habits. I collated the targets and gave practical advice on how to start making these changes.

I will review book work with students on these big targets on a termly basis. Meanwhile two very useful outcomes have arisen from the form. Firstly, students are accountable. They have a clear statement showing what they need to do to improve the quality of their work overall, which we can keep going back to. Second, time spent doing this means I also have a very clear overview of where we need to go and how each individual can develop as a writer, not just train for the exam.