Shortly before the half term break, I asked a number of Year 13 students if they could remember the moment that solidified their decision to study English at A-level. The responses were interesting: some of them said it was a particular teacher whose passion for their subject had inspired a love of literature; some said it was one particular lesson that had given them that all-important lightbulb moment.
One student recollected an individual lesson that she recalled quite vividly: “It was Year 9 Shakespeare, Miss – we were debating who decides literary value.”
This was the response that interested me most. I asked what she valued about that experience and she said that it felt like she had really been forced to think for herself – that she felt unsure at first, but soon found the confidence and the words to argue her point of view on a topic she hadn’t really given much thought to in the past.
This conversation was another reminder for me about the importance of the Key Stage 3 diet. It reminded me that KS3 is indeed what some on EduTwitter are dubbing “The Wonder Years” and that key decisions and attitudes towards subjects are decided during this crucial time. It is, therefore, pivotal that the KS3 curriculum is a balanced one – providing a rich and diverse set of experiences that nurture a love for learning and a love for literature.
Here are three strategies to step up the challenge in KS3 English:
1. Start by defining the “end product”Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool have both conducted extensive research on what defines success and what makes the world’s most successful people achieve extraordinary things. In their book Peak the authors discuss the “virtuous circle” in which “honing the skill improves mental representation, and mental representation helps hone the skill”.
This got me thinking about the mental representations teachers have of learners. Are we always clear about where we want our students to “be” at certain times in their school career, beyond reaching centrally determined target grades? Do we always hold a clear vision of what “success” looks like for an individual learner/group of learners?
Over the past year, my department has spent quite a lot of time defining a vision for our KS3 “end product”. We met as a team to list attributes we wanted for our learners by the end of the key stage – an opportunity to vent about things they “couldn’t do” and skills they appeared to lack when it came to the start of GCSE. This discussion was about much more than examination criteria or working towards assessment objectives; our ideas about “progress” needed to delve much deeper. We wanted to be clear on the attributes we wanted learners to craft and hone, and we used this information to identify learning opportunities we would habitually offer to ensure success.
After some discussion, we decided that our aim for KS3 is to cultivate students who:
- Have a critical eye, so they do not blindly accept things;
- Openly welcome feedback, criticism and differing views and interpretations and do not feel threatened by these;
- Are skilled in planning, showing evidence of deep thinking;
- Will take risks, knowing that the learning they will experience is more valuable than the fear of failure;
- Actively listen to and reason with the ideas and expertise of others;
- Construct meaningful arguments, supporting their ideas with confidence and conviction.
2. Encourage oracy and debateI have always been an advocate for the “if you can say it, you can write it” mantra, but in English this is crucial. It’s important to create an environment where talk is both celebrated and expected – and there are several ways to encourage this in lessons and schemes of learning. Some of the best thinking that happens in English occurs when learners have had the opportunity to work with an idea, noticing its flaws/pitfalls and appreciating its various facets. Only then will they be able to show a profound depth of understanding.
Here are some ways in which oracy can be promoted in the KS3 English classroom:
- Make thinking visible in your lessons (in the words of Dylan Wiliam, play “basketball”, not “ping pong”). There’s real power in passing an idea around the room; this avoids learners needing to seek your approval of an answer and models thinking “live” in the lesson.
- Model high-level talk: explicitly teach vocabulary and make its various contexts clear. This can be achieved through “word of the week” displays or simply taking some time to discuss vocabulary choices in certain texts.
- Don’t accept mediocre verbal responses – keep expectations high. Give learners time to formulate a strong verbal response. This may include a “think, pair, share” visible thinking routine, or developing purposeful “think time” after a question has been posed.
3. Engage with academic researchOne of the most exciting challenges in teaching more able learners is knowing that you have to be several steps ahead in terms of your own knowledge and understanding – I have always enjoyed the intellectual thrill of this. As well as staying up to speed yourself, engaging with research and academic publications is also a great way to show learners the wider relevance of the programme of study and ensure that it also models high-level thinking and reasoning.
- Find academic works/essays that provide alternative views of your topic and work with these as extracts. These could then be useful sources for further investigation and debate. Students will go on to approach their set texts through a different lens. (Recently I experimented with an essay on madness and insanity in Victorian England, and we used this to help gather information for a debate on Dickens’ presentation of Miss Havisham.)
- Make time in department meetings to discuss new learning. Could members of the department take the lead on a certain aspect and be tasked to share updates at team meetings? An expert on 19th century literature perhaps? Or Shakespearean tragedies?
- Encourage learners to engage independently with available materials. For example, there are some excellent resources on The British Library website with scans of original sources, which are invaluable. Last year we introduced an extension activity called “Universally Challenged”, where learners were tasked to research a related topic and to produce a small resource/elevator pitch for others in the group. The activity aims to broaden students’ literary understanding and strengthen their ability to make pertinent links between what they are studying and the contexts within which other texts were produced.
Are you ready to step up the challenge?Join Tracy in London on 6 December 2018 for her workshop “Challenging more able learners in English (KS3-4)” – offering an array of practical strategies to review and improve the quality of challenge in your English department. View the full programme and book your place.
NACE Associate Tracy Goodyear is Head of English at King Edward VI Handsworth School for Girls in Birmingham. She has specialised in more able education since qualifying in 2008, supporting and leading projects across 20 schools in the West Midlands. Tracy regularly features as a speaker and trainer for trainee teachers, offering guidance on how to cater for the more able in classroom settings and across the curriculum, and is also a Fellow of and Assessor for the Chartered College of Teaching. You can follow her on Twitter @Miss_Goodyear
 Ericsson, A., & Pool, R. (2016). Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
 Ritchhart R, Church M, Morrison K. Making thinking visible: how to promote engagement, understanding, and independence for all learners. San Francisco, United States: Jossey-Bass; 2011.
 Black, P & Wiliam, D 1998, Inside the Black Box: Raising standards through classroom assessment, School of Education, King’s College, London, United Kingdom.
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