The 6 Skills part 3a: Zooming In

This is the third part in a series of blogs exploring different analytical skills. The first part looked at tentative language; the second part looked at the 3 part explanation.

Analytical Progression Model

  1. Embedded Evidence
  2. 3 Part Explanation
  3. Zoom In/Technique
  4. Multiple Interpretations
  5. Evidence in Explanation
  6. Link Across Text

‘Zoom In: Why Teach it?

Literary analysis requires students to respond to both the bigger picture and the finer details within a text: sophisticated analytical writing will contain a well-balanced mixture of the wider overarching ideas-perhaps thematic concerns or authorial intention-and a ‘fine-grained’ analysis of salient textual evidence. If students are able to identify and interpret a significant word, phrase or technique, then this skill can help to develop the precision of their writing. Although more general textual references can also be effective, zooming in on a noteworthy word or two helps students to be specific, ensuring that their interpretations are firmly based in evidence from the text.

With regular practice in zooming in, students become more economical and efficient with how they use their quotations as they are conditioned into moving beyond merely making a cursory remark and then hastily moving on to the next piece of evidence, and instead ensuring that they analyse each significant word or phrase in turn. This can be particularly useful with lower attaining students who often fail to get the maximum usage out of a quotation.

‘Zoom In’: What to teach?

In the initial stages of instruction, students could be taught to respond to a piece of evidence and then zoom in on one or two significant words or phrases within it.


Creon angrily commands ‘never let some woman triumph over us’ showing his fury towards Antigone because of her defiance. The phrase ‘some woman’ conveys his scathing and dismissive attitude towards his niece.

While the instructional sequence below could be seen as overly detailed, it was written to help the lowest performers in year 7; more able classes could probably cope with less practice at each stage. The sequence broadly follows the I-WE-YOU continuum. Apart from the first lesson in the sequence, each lesson below is not an entire lesson of instruction (we have 50 minute lessons) and the rest of the lesson would be taken up with other instructional sequences, application of previous content and other teaching. This approach aims to emulate the track system that DI schemes use.

Like with tentative language and the three part explanation, from the beginning of year 7 students will have encountered and read many sentences and model paragraphs containing this specific skill: our booklets deliberately model the skills that we want our students to master.

LESSON 1: Step One

Present an example under the visualizer:

lesson 1 step 1 zoom in

The teacher can then label the example, ensuring that there is a prompt that links the zoomed in part to the original quotation. The teacher can then ask questions about it:

  • Why have I used the word ‘command’ here?
  • What does ‘phrase’ mean? Low attainers may need further practice on the difference between ‘word’ and ‘phrase’ and this can be taught through a series of examples and a test sequence much like the one described below in LESSON 1: Step Four
  • What have I zoomed in on? How do you know?

LESSON 1: Step Two

Present a second, minimally different example  under the visualizer:

lesson 1 step 2 Zoom in

Following Engelmann’s theory, the intention here is to ensure that all irrelevant aspects of the example are held constant. By carefully manipulating only the relevant aspects-in this case the part of the evidence that is being zoomed in upon-students are less likely to become confused. This second example deliberately zooms in on a word rather than a phrase: students should be presented with examples that cover the full range of the concept that is being taught and with ‘Zoom In’, students need to be able to zoom in on phrases as well as words.

The teacher can then ask questions about the second example:

  • What does ‘obstinate’ mean? This is a retrieval practice question
  • What have I zoomed in on? How do you know?

LESSON 1: Step Three

Present a third, minimally different example under the visualizer:

lesson 1 step 3

This third example contains two separate examples of zooming in, demonstrating how students can combine evidence in their responses. Looking for patterns and links between language and pieces of evidence-the two examples here both conveying a sense of resolve and certainty-is a key skill when analyzing a text. Later skills (evidence in explanation/link across the text) broaden the range and scope of this approach to using evidence.

The teacher can then ask questions about the third example:

  • What does ‘domineering’ mean? This is a retrieval practice question
  • What have I zoomed in on? How do you know?
  • How are ‘must’ and ‘never’ similar?

Presenting three minimally different examples allows students to see the breadth of the skill of ‘zooming in’. While there are certainly other variants of this concept, the range presented here gives a good starting point.

LESSON 1: Step Four


When teaching through examples, it is necessary to demonstrate the limits of the concept by presenting non-examples that are minimally different. One possible misconception for very low attaining students is that they will make poor choices as to which words or phrases to zoom in upon. Staying with the same example paragraph, the teacher can then present a sequence of examples and non-examples.

In the sequences below, the bold text are the examples that are presented to the students and the italicised words are the responses given by the teacher.

Teacher Presentation:

Creon angrily commands ‘We must defend the men who live by law, never let some woman triumph over us’

 TEACHER: Can I Zoom in on this word? No. How do I know? Because there is nothing interesting to say about it.

Creon angrily commands ‘We must defend the men who live by law, never let some woman triumph over us’

TEACHER: Can I Zoom in on this phrase? Yes. How do I know? Because I can say something interesting about it.

The teacher should stress the underlined words here to make clear the difference between the Yes and No response.

Student Test Sequence:

A student test sequence is designed to test whether students have made the intended generalization. DI schemes teach ‘the general case’ and students are expected to perform on examples that have not been taught directly: their success is dependent upon the careful selection of examples and non-examples within the teaching and testing sequences. Importantly, the test is in an unpredictable order (not YES/NO/YES/NO), ensuring that the teacher can gain valid inferences from student responses. Student responses should ideally be given chorally, maximizing their response rate and further ensuring that the teacher can make valid inferences about whole class performance: if only one student answers a question, this is a pretty poor measurement of the understanding of the group as a whole.

 Creon angrily commands ‘We must defend the men who live by law, never let some woman triumph over us’

 TEACHER: Your turn: Can I Zoom in on this word?


TEACHER: How do I know?

STUDENT: Because there is nothing interesting to say about it.

 Creon angrily commands ‘We must defend the men who live by law, never let some woman triumph over us’

 TEACHER: Your turn: Can I Zoom in on this word?


TEACHER: How do I know?

STUDENT: Because there is nothing interesting to say about it.

 Creon angrily commands ‘We must defend the men who live by law, never let some woman triumph over us’

 TEACHER: Your turn: Can I Zoom in on this phrase?


TEACHER: How do I know?

STUDENT: Because I can say something interesting about it.

 Creon angrily commands ‘We must defend the men who live by law, never let some woman triumph over us’

 TEACHER: Your turn: Can I Zoom in on this phrase?


TEACHER: How do I know?

STUDENT: Because there is nothing interesting to say about it.

 I have deliberately chosen reasonably clear cut cases here as the intention is to get students to recognize that they need to choose interesting words or phrases that are worthy of analysis. There are obviously going to be words that may be worthy of analysis, but I am focusing on the easiest discriminations first. Two of the overarching theoretical ideas from Theory of Instruction support this decision: firstly, we should teach easy skills before harder ones and secondly, consistent instances should be taught before exceptions. This post explores these ideas in more depth.

LESSON 2,3,4

DI programmes never teach something in just one lesson, instead spreading initial demonstration and teaching across at least two or three lessons. In these next few lessons, the teacher should follow a very similar process to lesson one except with a different set of examples for each lesson. While these examples should focus on the same specific types of ‘zoom in’ (a word/a phrase/two separate words that are to be combined to strengthen a line of argument), they should have a different content focus each lesson. They could focus on a different character, be from a different part of the text or even come from a different text altogether. If we are to teach to the general case, ensuring that students learn a skill that can be generalized, we need to present a sufficient range of examples. If we only present limited range of examples, the danger is that students will incorrectly infer that the concept is limited to the instances that they have experienced.

While the examples in lesson one had a prompt arrow linking the zoomed in word or phrase with the quotation that it came from, this prompt could now be removed.

LESSON 5 Step 1

While earlier lessons involved the teacher presenting examples to the students, these lessons should see students completing examples that have been started by the teacher.

The teacher can begin by writing an embedded quotation:

Tiresias explains that ‘stubbornness brands you for stupidity-pride is a crime’ because he wants Creon to recognize he is at fault.

The teacher can then give students further practice on choosing words worthy of analysis:

Teacher Presentation:

Tiresias explains that ‘stubbornness brands you for stupidity-pride is a crime’ because he wants Creon to recognize he is at fault.

TEACHER: Can I Zoom in on this word? No. How do I know? Because there is nothing interesting to say about it.

Student Test Sequence:

 Like in lesson one, student responses should ideally be choral, allowing students to maximize the amount of practice that they complete.

 Tiresias explains that ‘stubbornness brands you for stupidity-pride is a crime’ because he wants Creon to recognize he is at fault.

TEACHER: Your Turn: Can I Zoom in on this word?


TEACHER: How do I know?

STUDENT: Because I can say something interesting about it

TEACHER: What can you say that is interesting?

The teacher can then use this final question as an opportunity for individual students to give interpretations and analysis. The teacher should insist that a student expresses their ideas using the same language that they will be expected to use in their writing as well as NARRATING the punctuation: this maximizes student practice whilst allowing the teacher to make precise and swift corrections with regards to accuracy.

EXAMPLE STUDENT RESPONSE: The word QUOTATION MARKS brands QUOTATION MARKS has connotations of pain as if Creon’s decision is causing him to suffer.

 After listening to the oral example, students can write their own, zooming in on the same word. Because of the restrictive nature of the task-all students will produce something very similar-feedback can be precise. The teacher can either use their own model or another student’s work to give feedback (like LESSON 1 step 3 in this blog).

LESSON 5 Step two

The teacher can then present a series of additional examples, covering a broad range of structures and containing opportunities to practice all forms of zooming in (one word/one phrase/two separate words to be combined). While earlier instructional sequences had prompts and opportunities to practice choosing an interesting word, this and later practice sequences should see students making choices themselves in the absence of visual prompts, fading support so that students gradually learn to complete the skill independently.

Here are two possible examples:

Tiresias warns Creon that ‘Great hatred rises against you-cities in tumult’ in order to make Creon aware of the ramifications of his obstinacy.

 Creon is ‘poised once more on the razor edge of fate’ because of the difficult decision he has to make.

Students could then be asked to copy each example and add in a second sentence that zooms in on a word or phrase. These are completion problems, allowing students to

Later Lessons

This skill can then be integrated with other skills and students can be asked to complete restricted, interleaved practice drills as explained in this post.

‘Zoom in’ should then be included as a success criteria in increasingly wider writing, beginning with isolated paragraph practice. Eventually, this prompt should be removed, the expectation being that students know that this skill is required when responding to texts.

General Points:

  • Do not expect them to use ‘Zoom In’ in a paragraph or more extended writing until they are able to do it accurately and independently at a sentence level.
  • Success rate should be continually high at each stage (70-80% correct for all students)
  • If it is lower: maybe you need to provide more scaffolding, give more examples, move back a stage on the I-WE-YOU continuum

I originally intended to include ‘Technique’ in this post but I will write a follow up that explores this skill on its own. Perhaps this means that the 6 Skills should actually be The 7 skills!

Next Post: Teaching Techniques



The 6 Skills part 2: The Three Part Explanation

The 6 Skills: Three part Explanation

Analytical Progression Model

  1. Tentative Language
  2. 3 Part Explanation
  3. Zoom In/Technique
  4. Multiple Interpretations
  5. Evidence in Explanation
  6. Link Across Text

Why Teach it?

Like a Tricolon in rhetoric, a three part explanation allows a writer to present three, sequential ideas about a piece of evidence. Skillfully unpacking a quotation often results in a range of interconnected yet distinct interpretations and the students who are able to recognize and explore these nuances demonstrate a deeper understanding of the text that they are analysing.

What to teach?

In the initial stages of instruction, students could be taught to respond to a piece of evidence with three ideas.


Napolean spoke ‘in a terrible voice’ demonstrating his tyrannical, authoritarian and oppressive nature.

How to teach it?

While the instructional sequence below could be seen as overly detailed, it was written to help the lowest performers in year 7; more able classes could probably cope with less practice at each stage. The sequence broadly follows the I-WE-YOU continuum.

Like with tentative language, from the beginning of year 7 students will have encountered and read many sentences and model paragraphs containing this specific skill: our booklets deliberately model the skills that we want our students to master.

LESSON 1: Step One

The teacher writes a short paragraph that uses a three part explanation:

3 part henry

The teacher can then label the three part explanation and ask questions about it:

  • Where is the evidence and how do you know?
  • Is the evidence embedded and how do you know?
  • What does ‘respectful’ mean?
  • Why is there a comma between polite and kind?
  • Why does he need to be ‘polite/kind/respectful’?

Students should then copy the model paragraph into their books, labelling it in exactly the same way. At this point, the teacher can ask them to check specific things. Instead of have you checked your work, it is probably more useful-at least with novice learners-to ask them to check for the most likely mistakes:

CHECK 1: Have you got quotation marks around your evidence?

CHECK 2: Full stops?

CHECK 3: Capitals?

LESSON 1 Step Two

Write another paragraph and then get them to label it. They can use their first model as an analogy, allowing you to test their ability to generalise to another example. While you could cold call students and ask them to tell you each of the three parts of the explanation, this only allows feedback from a maximum of three students. Instead-and copying the approach in DI programmes-you could ask for a choral response, allowing all students to respond at the same time.

3 part henry2.png

LESSON 1 Step Three

Following the idea of backwards fading, the teacher can then present a skeletal plan version of a paragraph containing a three part explanation:

3 part henry3

First, the teacher can give a spoken model of how this plan can be converted into a full, written construction:

EXAMPLE: Henry calls his men QUOTATION MARKS noble QUOTATION MARKS because he thinks they are brave, worthy of respect and honourable FULL STOP

Narrating the punctuation draws attention to it, making all important steps overt and explicit. After the teacher has given an oral example, a stronger student can have a go. Yes, this initial task is mimicry, but it reinforces the form and conventions of the structure and allows students to experience instant success. After a further few oral examples from more competent students, the teacher could ask for a choral response, maximising the response rate of all students.

Once the teacher is happy that the class success rate is very high, students should then write a response, using the same skeletal plan. While students are writing, the teacher can circulate and give instant feedback, correcting student errors.

Because of the restrictive nature of the task, the teacher is able to give instant and precise feedback to the students. The more precise the feedback, the more useful it is. The teacher can show their perfect example under the visualiser, or even better, find a perfect bit of work from a student and show that. With the work under the camera and pointing to the relevant bit, the teacher can draw attention to different elements:

  • My/Student X’s work starts with a Capital…check that yours does
  • My work has quotation marks around the evidence…………….check that yours does
  • My sentence makes sense….check that yours does
  • My 3 part explanation has a comma in between the first and second ideas….check that yours does
  • My sentence ends with a full stop…..check that yours does.

Students should be given time in between each of these instructions to complete the relevant check.

Error checking or giving feedback using a model is much more efficient than marking. It is also instant as there is no need for the student to wait. In early stages of instruction, feedback should be instant so that errors do not become embedded. Unpicking errors and misconceptions can take a very long time: it is much more efficient to prevent them in the first place.

Lesson 2, 3 and 4

Students should do more practice using paragraph plans, following the same process as step three in lesson 1:

3part henry 4

If student success rate is high, you could ask them to come up with their own interpretations. You can then ask them to add a further clause that explains why:

,so he can win the battle/so that they will  destroy the enemy

Lesson 5 and 6

No note plans this time, ask them to do it independently.

Later Lessons

Ask them to include 3 part explanations in their wider writing. Initially you should include prompts to remind them to use the skill and these should be removed once students demonstrate the ability to produce the skill. In Expressive Writing, the DI remedial writing scheme, students are asked to underline the construction after they have finished, providing a further prompt to remind them to include it in their wider writing: this can be really helpful. In Theory of Instruction, Engelmann states that if students fail to produce a desired behavior or specific skill within a wider, less restrictive application (in this case paragraphs without scaffolding) then the teacher should highlight the ‘sameness’ between the original restrictive drills (in this case, the paragraph plan exercises) and the wider application.

General Points:

  • Do not expect them to use 3 part explanations in a paragraph or more extended writing until they are able to do it accurately and independently at a sentence level.
  • Success rate should be continually high at each stage (70-80% correct for all students)
  • If it is lower: maybe you need to provide more scaffolding, give more models, move back a stage on the I-WE-YOU continuum

The 6 Skills: An Overview and Skill 1: Tentative Language

Writing analytically is a complex skill which needs to be broken down, made explicit and demystified for students. In my early days as an English teacher, I would set lengthy written tasks and foolishly hope that written corrective feedback (which was always necessary as the success rate was so low) would remedy the poor output that I received. I gave well meaning but absurd comments like ‘You need to analyse in more detail’ or ‘You need to develop your points further’ without really considering the opaque nature of the verbs that I was using. I understood them with a rich level of detail; my students did not.

Analysis, like all genres of written expression, can be split into purpose and form or the ‘what’ and the ‘how’. Claire Hill and and Becky Wood have both written excellent blogs explaining how the ‘what’ of analysis can be split into three broad categories:

1)What is the author saying

2) How are they saying it

3) Why are they saying it

While these three broad areas can help students understand the types of declarative knowledge within an essay, what we have tentatively called ‘The 6 Skills’ (I am still unsure if these 6 are sufficiently distinct or whether they comprehensively encapsulate analysis!), is an attempt to formalise the approaches, methods and techniques required when writing analytically.

What/How/Why allows students to understand the content of the writing; the 6 skills exemplify the form.

PEE/PEEL and other similar frameworks were problematic and restrictive, resulting in clunky, predictable and overly formulaic paragraphs. Invariably, iterations of these abbreviations and acronyms also have fixed orders, placing evidence in the middle, one of the problematic inferences being that each train of thought contains only one quotation. Interesting analytical writing does not follow a predictable, sequential order. Finally, PEE also precludes embedded quotations, due to the unnatural scaffolding of sentence stems like ‘My evidence for this is….’.

Unlike PEE/PEEL, there is no fixed, consecutive order for how the 6 skills are deployed and applied, meaning that student responses are not as formulaic and rigid. As Becky mentions in her blog, the How/What/Why approach also allows for different ordering.

Although students will study worked examples that contain most if not all of these skills from the beginning of year 7, they will practice the skills individually and cumulatively, through a process involving backwards fading and slowly building students up to being able to use all 6.

This annotated model gives an overview:

6 skills

6 Skills Progression Model

Before teaching any of the skills, students need to be secure with using embedded evidence. The list below is an attempt to sequence them in order of difficulty and utility, the later skills being more difficult and requiring a deeper knowledge of the text before they can be attempted successfully.

1) Tentative Language

2) 3 Part Explanation

3) Zoom In/Technique

4) Multiple Interpretations

5) Evidence in Explanation

6) Link Across Text

Engelmann’s DI programmes contain ‘tracks’ where teaching is spread across multiple lessons. Initial teaching and practice is through restrictive drill exercises, often beginning with copying models or only attempting a few steps in a procedure. Through a process of backwards fading, exercises become less restrictive and students are eventually asked to apply the specific knowledge or skill within a wider application. While DI programmes have these ‘tracks’ meticulously and methodically planned into the scheme, ensuring that learning is as efficient as possible, we are currently using a separate progression model in the form of a table:

6 Skills progression model

The 6 Skills are listed vertically, ordered by complexity and beginning with the simplest-tentative language. This follows Engelmann’s philosophy to the sequencing of skills:  easier things should be taught before harder things and we should teach the components before the whole. Horizontally, the table moves from restrictive drills to eventual wider application. The number of lessons here is a rough guide to how long a teacher should spend at each level of application: more competent groups may be able to move quicker and really low groups may need further practice.

DI programmes use extensive field testing to ensure that this continuum from restricted practice to wide, free application is fine tuned: programmes should spend as little time as possible teaching concepts whilst ensuring really high success rates for even the weakest learners. In future, we will plan our progression model and 6 skill ‘tracks’ into our booklets. In the meantime, teachers have a copy of this progression model table for each class and can use it as a reminder document, ticking off the boxes to ensure that students receive adequate teaching and practice on each of the analytical skills.

Skill 1: Tentative Language

Why teach it?

Studying literature at a sophisticated level requires a reader to recognize that there are a plurality of acceptable interpretations available. Literary analysis often has a tentative and exploratory tone: interpretations are inherently subjective and tentative language implicitly demonstrates that a line of argument is one of many and certainly not definitive.

What to teach?

  • Perhaps
  • It is as if/ as if
  • It could hint at
  • seems
  • It could suggest
  • …gives the impression
  • ..appears to be


How to teach it?

While the instructional sequence below could be seen as overly detailed, it was written to help the lowest performers in year 7; more able classes could probably cope with less practice at each stage. The sequence broadly follows the I-WE-YOU continuum.

LESSON 1: Step One

Our booklets are filled with worked examples of analytical writing: in vocabulary tables, there are models of sentences and when students are asked to write, they will have usually have deconstructed an analogous paragraph. From the beginning of year 7, students encounter sentences that contain tentative language. Teachers can begin by highlighting and drawing attention to the specific constructions within these worked examples and asking students to copy their annotations.

LESSON 1: Step Two

Write model sentences that contain tentative language; ask students to copy and label.

  • Henry commands his men to ‘imitate the actions of the tiger’. It’s as if he wants them to be vicious, aggressive and brutal.
  • Henry commands his men to ‘imitate the actions of the tiger’. Perhaps he is asking them to be predatory and violent.
  • Henry commands his men to ‘imitate the actions of the tiger’ which could suggest that he wants them to be dominant in battle like a predator

LESSON 1: Step Three

Ask them to complete sentences ORALLY, using the same structures that you used in the models that you wrote in step two. Keeping the same sentence structure here is crucial, allowing students to use them as analogies.

  • Henry asks his men to ‘disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage’

LESSON 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7:

The teacher should continue to highlight the tentative structures in model paragraphs and sentences, asking students to copy their annotations. Student could then be asked to complete retrieval practice of the specific tentative constructions, perhaps giving them clues to aid recall:

  • Pe……….
  • It is ………………
  • It c……… h…….. at
  • s…
  • It c……………… suggest
  • give the im………..
  • ap…….. to be

Once they have demonstrated perfect recall of the structures in retrieval practice, students can be asked to find the structures in model paragraphs themselves.

The teacher can write a short paragraph with NO TENTATIVE language. Under the camera, change the first few sentences to TENTATIVE, then ask them to do ones that are underlined:

Henry gives a rousing speech to his men, commanding them to ‘stiffen the sinews’. He wants them It is as if he wants them to toughen up and steel themselves for battle. He orders them to ‘summon up the blood’ which means which could suggest he wants them to be impassioned and prepared. He knows that the odds are against them and that the battle will be arduous and dangerous. He commands them to ‘set the teeth’. This means that he wants them to look menacing and threatening. This is because he wants them to terrify the enemy.

The teacher can then ask them to complete sentences with tentative language in them, using the same structures from step two in lesson 1. While lesson 1 involved fully worked examples, this task involves completion problems.

LESSON 8, 9, 10

Students could be asked to write their own sentences using tentative language. By this point, there is no scaffolding or support and students are working at the ‘I’ stage of the I-We-You continuum.

Wider Application

  • At first, include ‘tentative language’ as a success criteria in their paragraphs. Eventually, take this success criteria out.
  • Similarly, include ‘tentative language’ as a specific check when they read through their work; again, remove this check when it is no longer needed.

General Points:

  • Do not expect them to use tentative language in paragraph or more extended writing until they are able to do it accurately and independently at a sentence level.
  • Success rate should be continually high at each stage (>80% correct for all students)
  • If it is lower: maybe you need to provide more scaffolding, give more models, move back a stage on the I-WE-YOU continuum

Next Post: Skill 2: The 3 part explanation

The Application of Theory: 8 Propositions that Underpin our Approach.

Designing and implementing a five year curriculum is no easy task: there are so many different things that need to be considered and combined. When we started out on our journey a few years ago, we began with a number of overarching ideas gleaned from both cognitive science and practical teaching guides. What follows is a list of 8 propositions that underpin our approach, along with summaries of how the idea is applied as well as links to further reading.

Proposition 1: Explicit instruction is the optimum strategy for novices


  • Teachers teach from the front as experts, using extensive modelling, demonstration and guiding student practice
  • Most lessons involve whole class teacher led explicit/direct instruction

Further reading and evidence:

‘Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching’ by Kirschner, Sweller and Clark. Accessible here

‘Putting Students on the Path to Learning. The Case for Fully Guided Instruction’. This AFT article summarises the Kirschner paper.

Oliver Caviglioli has produced a useful, visual overview of the AFT paper here 

‘Drivers of Student Performance: Insights from Europe’. Accessible here:

  • According to the report ‘Our research found that student outcomes are highest with a combination of teacher-directed instruction in most to all classes and inquiry-based teaching in some classes’

mckinsey data

Cognitive Load Theory

  • ‘Cognitive Load Theory (Explorations in the Learning Sciences, Instructional Systems and Performance Technologies)’ by Sweller, Ayers and Kalyuga
  • Oliver Caviglioli has produced a useful overview here
  • ‘Efficiency in Learning: Evidence-Based Guidelines to Manage Cognitive Load’ by Clark, Nguyen and Sweller
  • ‘Cognitive Architecture and Instructional Design: 20 Years Later’ by Sweller, Merrienboer and Paas. This recent paper gives a useful review of CLT.
  • I have written a series of practical guides and overviews to CLT

Engelmann’s Direct Instruction and Project Follow Through

Project Follow Through was the largest controlled comparative study of pedagogical techniques in history: from 1967 – 1995, over 700,000 children in 170 disadvantaged communities across the United States participated in this $1 billion study to discover the best practices for teaching disadvantaged students. This was the result:

‘Eighteen school districts, some rural, some urban, applied Direct Instruction (DI). When the testing was over, students in DI classrooms had placed first in reading, first in maths, first in spelling, and first in language. No other model came close. Many of the others underperformed the control groups. DI even defeated the developmental and affective models on their own turf: DI students also placed first in self-esteem. Apparently children who mastered reading, writing, and maths felt better about themselves than those who did not.’

proj follow

  • Kris Boulton has compiled a list of further reading about Engelmann’s DI here.
  • I have written a series of blogs about applying Engelmann’s ideas to the the everyday classroom.

Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction

  • This AFT article explains the principles.
  • This blog links to a useful reordering of Rosenshine’s principles.

Proposition 2: The definition of learning is a change in long term memory


  • Regular, cumulative recap quizzes
  • Teachers focus on retention; wherever possible, content is chosen for utility-what is taught in year 7 is retrieved and applied in later years.
  • Distributed and interleaved practice of ‘The Big 3’ (analysis, description, rhetoric)
  • Booklets and resources are centrally planned to a word level of detail, allowing distributed retrieval practice.
  • Recap lessons and retrieval based homework planned into the curriculum.

Proposition 3: Novices learn better when studying worked examples; experts learn better when attempting problems.


  • If we accept that most students are novices, we should be systematically using worked examples in our instruction
  • The ‘Alternation Strategy’ is a useful approach, allowing students to use worked examples as analogies when solving similar problems
  • Backwards Fading and completion problems can help students make the transition from worked examples to problem solving

Further Reading and Evidence:

  • ‘Cognitive Load Theory (Explorations in the Learning Sciences, Instructional Systems and Performance Technologies)’ by Sweller, Ayers and Kalyuga
  • Olvier Caviglioli has produced a useful overview here
  • ‘Efficiency in Learning: Evidence-Based Guidelines to Manage Cognitive Load’ by Clark, Nguyen and Sweller.

Proposition 4: Once decoding is secure, reading ability is almost entirely based upon background knowledge


  • After a brief instruction in reading strategies, time is probably better spent building background knowledge
  • Systematic, explicit vocabulary teaching throughout KS3 and KS4, focusing on high-utility words.
  • Challenging reading across units.
  • Texts chosen to raise cultural capital, ensuring student’s knowledge of the world is broadened
  • Non-fiction articles threaded throughout units

Further Reading and evidence:

Ask the Cognitive Scientist: ‘The Usefulness of Brief Instruction in Reading Comprehension Strategies’ by Daniel T Willingham. AFT article from 2006

  • This paper looks at how at the importance of background knowledge to reading ability and makes the point that ‘reading strategy programs that were relatively short (around six sessions) were no more or less effective than longer programs that included as many as 50 sessions’. There are diminishing returns to teaching them; they are ‘a low-cost way to give developing readers a boost, but it should be a small part of a teacher’s job. Acquiring a broad vocabulary and a rich base of background knowledge will yield more substantial and longer-term benefits.’

‘Reading Comprehension Requires Knowledge— of Words and the World’ Scientific Insights into the Fourth-Grade Slump and the Nation’s Stagnant Comprehension Scores By E. D. Hirsch, Jr. AFT article from 2003

  • This paper makes some recommendations as to how to improve student comprehension:
  1. Fluency allows the mind to concentrate on comprehension
  2. Breadth of vocabulary increases comprehension and facilitates further learning
  3. Domain knowledge, the most recently understood principle, increases fluency, broadens vocabulary, and enables deeper comprehension.
  4. Don’t spend excessive time teaching formal comprehension skills. Hirsch asserts that ‘the point of a comprehension strategy is to activate the student’s relevant knowledge. That’s great, but if the relevant prior knowledge is lacking, conscious comprehension strategies cannot activate it.
  5. Systematically build word and world knowledge. Hirsch asserts that ‘World knowledge is an essential component of reading comprehension, because every text takes for granted the readers’ familiarity with a whole range of unspoken and unwritten facts about the cultural and natural worlds’

Proposition 5: “Skills are domain specific. Knowledge is the key to successful critical and higher order thinking. As teachers, we should spend the majority of our time building student background knowledge”


  • Systematic, explicit vocabulary teaching throughout KS3 and KS4
  • Challenging reading across units.
  • Texts chosen to raise cultural capital, ensuring student’s knowledge of the world is broadened
  • Regular retrieval practice, ensuring that knowledge is retained. This is made easier by teaching from centrally planned booklets.

Further Reading and Evidence:

‘Minding the Knowledge Gap The Importance of Content in Student Learning’ by Daisy Christodolou AFT Spring 2014

  • Daisy makes the important point that ‘factual knowledge is closely integrated with creativity, problem solving, and analysis. It allows these skills to happen’. Although it may seem counter-intuitive, if the goal of instruction is to solve problems, then the optimum approach may not be to practice problem solving: building background knowledge may be a more useful approach, at least in the early stages of instruction and when dealing with relative novices in a domain.

Critical Thinking Why Is It So Hard to Teach’ by Daniel T Willingham AFT article from 2007

‘Domain-specific knowledge and why teaching generic skills does not work.’ Tricot, A., & Sweller, J. (2014). Educational Psychology Review, 26(2), 265-283. Accessible here

Proposition 6: Practice and drills ensure success; learning tasks may look nothing like final assessment tasks.


  • Because/but/so vocabulary practice activities
  • Progression model of analytical skills (the 6 Skills) and grammar. Initial teaching and practice is through restrictive drills to allow a high success rate; later, student support is gradually faded and application is widened.
  • Stand alone grammar lessons to practice sentence constructions.
  • Focus on components to whole continuum: practice of vocabulary, sentences and paragraphs, building cumulatively towards application in extended writing
  • Information is almost always delivered through extended reading, providing regular reading practice

Evidence and further reading:

prac perfPractice Perfect by Doug Lemov

  • This book fundamentally changed my approach to teaching and explains how effective and purposive practice can accelerate student learning. It explores how to set up drills and exercises as well as how to use modelling effectively. The examples are taken from all walks of life, including the classroom, sports and professional training. The authors describe their approaches with a level of clarity that means that they are easily adaptable to whatever subject you teach.

writing rev

The Writing Revolution by Hochman and Wexler

  • The best practical writing guide that I have read, The Writing Revolution explains how to practice sentences, paragraphs and essays. Because/But/So is such an efficient way to practice vocabulary and is now a regular part of my lessons.

The Components of Direct Instruction by Cathy L. Watkins and Timothy Slocum

  • If you want an overview of DI theory, then this paper is probably the best place to start. It explains ‘the sequencing of skills‘, a framework for planning practice sequences.

making good progress

Making Good Progress by Daisy Christodolou

  • As well as exploring the important difference between summative and formative assessment, this book also explains how practice activities may look nothing like final performances.

Theory of Instruction by Engelmann and Carnine

  • Engelmann’s main theoretical textbook provides a wealth of information about sequencing practice activities and teaching through examples and non-examples. It also describes how items that are taught move gradually from restrictive drills to eventual wider application.

Proposition 7: Comparative judgment is faster and more reliable than traditional summative marking


  • All end of unit essays are assessed using comparative judgment

Evidence and further reading:

Proposition 8: Written Marking is laborious and inefficient: whole class feedback has a lower opportunity cost


  • Teachers use whole class feedback, deconstructing models of excellence and reteaching common errors and misconceptions through responsive teaching and retrieval quizzes.

Evidence and further reading:

  • A marked improvement: a review of the evidence on written marking EEF report April 2016 Accesible here
  • The Effects of Feedback Interventions on Performance: A Historical Review, a Meta-Analysis, and a Preliminary Feedback Intervention Theory by Kluger and DeNisis 1996
  •  Adam Boxer has compiled a useful overview of the evidence surrounding effective feedback and marking.


I hope that some of the summaries and links here are useful!

Next Post: An Overview of The 6 Skills: An Analytical Progression Model

Applying Cognitive Load Theory to English part 6: The Expertise Reversal Effect


efficiency in learning cover

Cognitive Load theory-and specifically the ‘worked example effect’-is dependent upon treating students as being somewhere upon a continuum between ‘novice’ and ‘expert’. The difference between expert and novice is more than a mere labelling exercise and has real implications for instructional and curriculum design.

Novices learn best by studying worked examples, model answers that build up their schemas and background knowledge and effectively act as analogous solutions to subsequent problems. While worked examples are optimum for novices, they can actually hinder the learning of more competent learners. In Efficiency in Learning, the authors point out that ‘once a learner has acquired a basic schema for the skill or concept, he learns best by applying the schema to problems, rather than investing redundant effort in studying more worked examples’. As well as being a potential waste of time for the more competent student, it is also the wrong instructional choice: he or she would be better attempting problems in order to ‘solidify his or her schema by exercising it.’

Expert or Novice?

So how do we decide who is an expert and who is a novice, who is best served by completion problems or worked examples and who will learn better from problem solving?

Although we can debate exactly what makes someone an expert or a novice in a particular domain, we could reliably say that there will be a difference in the amount of knowledge that they have: novices have little prior knowledge; experts have a lot. I would tentatively place most secondary students towards the novice end of this continuum, although as they make progress within a specific area of study, they clearly begin to gain in expertise. According to Clark et al, ‘prior knowledge is the one individual difference that has been consistently shown to interact with different instructional methods’.

If the authors of Efficiency in Learning are correct, then the simplest and most obvious solution is to assess prior knowledge before instruction and group the students accordingly. If students are grouped according to levels of prior knowledge, then we can make informed decisions at a group level about which particular instructional choices should have the greatest efficacy. Although ability setting is a fiercely contested area (Mark McCourt has written an interesting piece on the topic here), Engelmann would also argue that setting students according to ability is of fundamental importance in order to maximize the efficacy of instruction. From my own experience, I have found teaching groups that have been set by ability to be more efficient and effective. Interestingly, the advantage of ability grouping is most apparent when teaching the hierarchical parts of my subject like grammar. If, as Clark et al assert, it is essential to match the instructional approach to the competence of the student, then the expert reversal effect seems to lend further support behind ability setting (as long as ability setting refers to a student’s level of prior knowledge).

How does this impact upon Curriculum design?

Even if you have begun by setting students according to their level of background knowledge, there will still be a wide disparity within a class. When an instructional sequence has begun, there will almost certainly still be a need to choose the optimum method of instruction based on feedback to the teacher as to how students are performing. An important part of not just teaching but also curriculum design is the process of evaluating and refining what is being taught and the sequence that is being used.

Whether a student has been successful or has produced the desired behaviours that you intended is an empirical question that can be answered by looking at student output. If you are teaching a particular sentence style and, after your instructional sequence, it is clear that students have not mastered what you have taught, then it is likely that your instructional sequence is defective and needs adjusting. While student failure could be down to students generating misrules as a result of misinterpreting your communication, it could also be a result of a mismatch between the level of student expertise and the chosen instructional approach. Sometimes this evaluation happens at the end of a unit and can be used to refine the curriculum so that it is more effective when you teach it again. More often, it will require an adaptive and pragmatic approach where the teacher changes their teaching within a lesson or unit in order to ensure that students succeed. Perhaps their low level of prior knowledge means that they need to see further worked examples before attempting guided practice. Perhaps their struggle and lack of comprehension means that the teacher should postpone freer practice and wider application until students have developed and retained the necessary background knowledge needed to complete a task. This is the essence of responsive teaching: adapting instruction based upon evidence. The broad continuum from worked example to completion problem to application (or I-We-You) provides a framework for the teacher, allowing them decide upon the most suitable instructional choice for their students.

3 framework table with expert novice


Following Engelmann’s guidance, the curriculum should be methodically planned out so that each step forward is both manageable and small enough for all students to experience a high success rate. Instruction should broadly follow an I-we-you format, gradually fading out support in order to account for the incremental development of expertise. If learners are deemed to be novices, then at the beginning of the instructional sequence-the ‘I’ stage-worked examples and the alternation strategy should be used in order to provide ‘schema substitutes’, helping them overcome the limitation of their working memory and slowly building their background knowledge. Towards the end of an instructional sequence-the ‘you’ stage-learners should increasingly be asked to apply their knowledge to problems. By retrieving and applying their developing background knowledge, learners will hopefully develop in automaticity as well as increasing the storage and retrieval strength of their schemas.

With our curriculum, all classes receive the same resource booklets and the adaptation and instructional choices are made by the teacher so that they best fit the level of student expertise. As would be expected, Year 7 booklets are simpler than year 11 but we have not gone down the route of creating different iterations of the same booklet in an attempt to match the level of expertise of the class, as this would be an unsustainable approach that would be far too time consuming. Top and bottom sets use the same booklet. Instead, the teacher of a higher level classes may choose to skip a worked example if it is deemed unnecessary. The teacher of a lower level class will be careful to use a worked example, aware that this is the optimum approach for their novice students. At the end of year 11, the systematic usage of worked examples slowly begins to fade away and students are asked to solve problems independently. Some classes may get to the requisite level of expertise needed to complete independent problems before this point: if so, the teacher can choose to ignore the worked examples in the booklet. There is an important balance here: maximizing the efficacy of the instructional materials whilst keeping the workload sustainable.

What else can we do to accommodate different levels of learner expertise?

Differences in learner expertise are not only accommodated by deciding between worked examples and problem solving. Here are some other recommendations from Efficiency in Learning.

  1. Text Coherence

When creating texts for novice learners, we should be investing time in making them as clear as possible. A 1996 study compared the learning of high and low prior knowledge students after reading high and low coherence texts on heart disease.

text coherence

In figure 10.3, you can see the low and high coherence texts. The more coherent text replaces pronouns like ‘it’ with the appropriate reference such as ‘heart’. Extra sentences have also been added in order to explain and clarify. There is also a heading, making the text easier to follow. While you might expect additional clarity and coherence to be of benefit to all types of learners, the results suggested otherwise:

text coherence graph results

High prior knowledge students (experts) who had studied the text with low coherence performed better on a problem-solving test than those who had studied the high coherence text. Low prior knowledge students (novices) performed better when studying a high coherent text. However, despite this finding, the authors assert that ‘we need more research on text coherence before we recommend writing low coherent texts for more experienced learners’.

A further recommendation is that text should contain definitions and examples of unfamiliar terms. In our booklets, we highlight and define high-utility tier 2 words as well as words that are of central importance for understanding the text. Here is an example from An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce, a short story that we teach in year 9:

owl creek2

Although Clark et al say that we should make texts as easy to follow as possible so that novice readers can access them, this poses a problem because it means less challenge. If reading was solely about communicating and acquiring literal information then making texts as clear, coherent and simplistic as possible would be ideal. Reading texts is not like this though: students need to encounter dense and complicated texts where meaning needs to be teased out and several reading are often required before clarity is reached. Students need to get used to following chains of pronouns in a lengthy exposition or narrative. One of the core arguments in Lemov’s Reading Reconsidered is that we should be exposing students to complex and challenging texts if they are to develop and improve as readers. With the help of explicit instruction, whole class reading and teacher led annotation, complex texts can be unlocked for students. A teacher can provide the additional explanation or elaboration that is necessary. A teacher can stop, question and check that students are following if the text has become labyrinthine.

reading recon

2) Interruptions

Clark et al argue that we should not interrupt weaker readers or they will quickly become confused. While this makes a lot of sense as it will hinder their comprehension, it is often necessary, particularly if you are reading a challenging text that requires additional explanation or frequent checks for understanding. In Reading Reconsidered, the authors look at lots of different ways to read a text and make the point that the more challenging a text is, the more likely you will read it using ‘layered readings’, reading it several times with slightly different approaches. Typically, the first read will be a ‘contiguous read’ which is reading with minimal interruptions so that students get the gist or overview of a passage. Subsequent reads will be more methodical and forensic, involving annotations to unlock challenging vocabulary or teacher led questioning to ensure that students understand. Layered readings can help novice learners to access challenging texts.

3) Eliminate redundant content for more experienced learners

When teaching more experienced learners-students who are closer to the label of expert-then we should be thinking about whether information is necessary or redundant. Do students need a diagram as well as the text? Is one or the other sufficient?

diagrm plus text graph results

The table above displays the results from a 1990 study where the researchers wanted to investigate the effectiveness of diagrams when they were added to text on high and low prior knowledge learners. Participants were learning about mechanical processes, including the operations of brakes, pumps and generators. Before the experiment, students completed a survey to ascertain their prior knowledge levels and were then grouped accordingly. As you can see from the results, novice students performed better when presented with text and diagram. According to Clark et al ‘the diagram provided a schema substitute for low prior knowledge learners’. In contrast, the more expert students did not benefit from the addition of the diagram as they ‘had sufficient schema to make sense of the text alone’. This suggests that, for experts, the diagram was redundant information here.

In another study (Kalyuga, Chandler and Sweller 1998), researchers used a staged experiment to evaluate the effectiveness of two different lesson versions designed to teach how to interpret the circuit diagrams of a motor. The researchers were interested in whether there was a different effect for novices and more experienced learners. Comparing text alone with text plus diagram, the researchers tracked the effects across three learning stages as the learners gained in expertise. Here are the results:

diagram results graphs 108

Figure 10.8 demonstrates that at stage 1, the novice students performed better when learning via diagram plus text. Those students who only had a diagram performed worse. At stage 2, learners had learnt more and increased their background knowledge. At this point, both approaches were equally effective. Learners had enough knowledge to benefit from studying using only a diagram but not enough knowledge to be disrupted or hindered by the combination of both diagram and text. As they developed and learnt more, the text became redundant and by stage 3, learners were performing better when studying from only a diagram. This demonstrates the ‘expertise reversal effect’: a strategy that began as optimum for novices (diagram plus text) became redundant as the students developed in expertise.

So how can we apply these findings? Clark et al recommend that ‘when the text alone is self-explanatory, it is more cost effective to eliminate diagrams in lessons designed for more experienced learners. In contrast, if the diagram is essential to the task, drop the text.’ The optimum choice will be based upon the requirements of the content that you are teaching: if you need to display information in a diagram, then do so!

In Summary:

  • Most students are probably more likely to be ‘novices’ and therefore worked examples and completions problems should feature heavily in instructional sequences, particularly in the early stages.
  • Teachers should be aware of the I-We-You continuum and that each stage best suits a broad level of student expertise and background knowledge. Although our assessment of ‘expertise’ is always going to be woolly, being aware that different instructional choices are likely to fit different levels of expertise could help teachers choose more appropriate strategies.
  • Making information simplistic and easy to follow will almost certainly help students to understand. However, the teacher can act as a valuable resource to help students unlock and access more challenging texts.
  • We should think carefully about whether information is necessary or redundant and choose the format that best suits the requirements of the subject

Next Post: A Pedagogical Overview: Recommended further reading

Applying Cognitive Load Theory to English Part 5: Combining the Alternation Strategy and The Problem Completion Effect-English Language GCSE

This is the fifth post looking at the application of Cognitive Load Theory to teaching English. The first three posts can be found here: one, two, three, four.

This post will explore how I have applied ‘backwards fading’ to teaching GCSE Language reading questions.

Taken from ‘Efficiency in Learning’ by Clark et al, this diagram explains the idea of ‘backwards fading’.

backwards fade

GCSE English Language has unseen extracts, meaning that it is easy to claim that there is no fixed or defined domain of content knowledge to be taught. Extracts can vary widely and students who are successful are often those who read widely outside of class, have developed vocabularies and possess good general knowledge. So how can we prepare students for this exam? There is no quick fix here. Students need a knowledge-rich five year curriculum that teaches vocabulary explicitly and unlocks challenging and canonical works of literature. Lessons should involve lots and lots and lots of reading to develop fluency, accuracy and promote the building of background knowledge. Students also need to be taught accurate and sophisticated writing beginning at the sentence level.

Despite it being utterly tedious, the one thing that we can teach about this exam is the procedural knowledge for approaching the questions. Like the directions to an important job interview, being able to recall and apply this knowledge is of vital importance….for a few hours….on one day. After that, it is largely useless.

When we begin teaching the language exam in year 11, we give them a procedural knowledge sheet that explains exactly how to answer each question, complete with timings, and often including diagrams to help the lowest attainers understand what they need in their answer. We ask them to memorise this information and regularly test them on it in the hope that if they know the recipe for a good answer, they are more likely to produce what is required. I want them to instantly know what approach to take in the exam: automatic and precise recall of this procedural knowledge is crucial for success and ensuring they answer the question correctly.

We use exactly the same backwards fading and instructional approach for all of the GCSE Language questions, the aim being to minimize unnecessary extraneous cognitive load so that students are able to focus completely on practicing and learning the required approach for each question. We use the ‘Alex Cold’ extract from the AQA sample assessment materials and the exemplar scripts that come with it. When introducing a new question type, we look at these models. When we introduce question 3, students have already read the extract several times and have practiced question 2. By this point, they are already familiar with the extract, meaning that they can direct their full attention on the specific requirements of the question. Although students can groan when presented with the same reading extract, complaining that it is boring or that they have done it already, if they were to be presented with a new extract each time they attempted a new question, there is a greater chance that they will reach the limits of their working memory capacity, experience cognitive overload and become confused as they try to juggle far too much new information at once.

Here is how I have combined the alternation strategy with backwards fading to teach AQA GCSE English Language Paper 1, Question 3 to a low attaining class:

Lesson 1: Present and Label Examples and Non-examples

The teacher reads the question and explains the important parts that are underlined here in red:

question 3 annotated question

The teacher reads the entire model answer. They can then draw a rough answer structure underneath the model:

q3 answer chain

These answer diagrams can be really useful. Not only do they tell student what they should include, but they can also be used for retrieval practice, allowing students to test themselves on the procedural knowledge for each question.

As this is the first time students have encountered this answer, the teacher will then annotate the entire model answer, using the diagram above as a key and narrating their thought process throughout. The purpose of this lesson is for students to develop a conception of what a typical question 3 answer looks like. Explicitly telling them what is required is probably far more efficient than letting them discover what is required for themselves, the latter approach potentially resulting in confusion and the embedding of misconceptions. Later on in the instructional sequence, when students have a firmer conception of what is required and a more developed ‘question 3 schema’, they will be asked to do more of the steps for themselves, eventually resulting in independent problem completion.

Here is an annotated Alex Cold model. The answer is a typed up version from the sample assessment materials:

q3 model

After they have annotated the exemplar of quality, they would then look at a substandard model answer, a ‘non-example’ that contains common errors and features that you would associate with poor responses. Like the previous model, we have taken this from the sample assessment materials. It contains rubbish like ‘In my opinion, this is a really good way to get the reader’s attention because it makes me stop and think about what is going on’ and ‘The writer uses language techniques such as verbs, adjectives, similes’ and ‘It made me understand the text more’.

Students then open their books and draw the same answer diagram from before at the top of a new page, this time from memory. The teacher then writes down some ineffectual phrases (taken from the poor quality model) as well as any others that are relevant (They have done this to make it sound interesting/This makes me want to read on etc), ensuring that students know what not to include. Students are provided with some structure sentence stems to use:

structure phrases.png

Students then write an answer of their own while the teacher writes another example answer under the camera, providing a further model for the weaker students to read and use for inspiration. This is the application of the alternation strategy: students have studied a worked example and can use it as an analogy or a support when attempting their own response.

One of the criticisms directed at model answers is that they are often plagiarized by students, preventing them from thinking for themselves and coming up with their own ideas. Because students have seen a model answer in this first lesson, it is inevitable that their answer will look very similar to the example that they studied. In this case, I don’t think that this is a problem: the aim of this initial lesson is for students to gain a solid understanding of the structure of the answer and what is required in their response. I want them to have a high initial success rate and the models and sentence stems allow this to happen.

LESSON 2, 3 and 4: Completion Problems:

Like many lessons, these would begin with a retrieval quiz, asking questions about Literature texts, vocabulary, quotations and anything else that we have covered. I would include a number of questions about the preceding language paper lessons:


  • How long should you spend on Q2?
  • Draw an answer diagram for a Q2 answer
  • How long should you spend on Q3?
  • Draw an answer diagram for a Q3 answer
  • Write down four ‘structure phrases’ that you could use
  • Write down four banned phrases.

All of this information is crucial for student success. I want them to have automatic and flawless recall of what is required and constant (the procedural knowledge for the exam) so they can focus on what we cannot predict or teach directly: the extract itself.

Ideally, before this lesson, the teacher would have checked the books and listed some misconceptions from the student responses. These can be dealt with at the start of the lesson through explicit teaching. Here are some examples from recent lessons that I taught:

  • A student has mistakenly written about the effect of language in their question 3 response.

The teacher presents the problematic response:

At the beginning of the extract, Alex dreamt about ‘an enormous black bird’ which has connotations of death and suffering.

The teacher then rewrites it under the visualizer, narrating their thought process and making it clear why this is an improvement:

At the beginning of the extract, Alex dreamt about ‘an enormous black bird’, allowing the reader an insight into Alex’s emotional trauma. When he snaps at his sister at the breakfast table, we can understand the reasons for his irritable and aggressive behaviour.

The teacher then presents a further problematic response:

When Alex gets up, the writer focusses on his thoughts as he thinks that it will be a ‘terrible’ day, making it sound pessimistic, negative and despondent

The student can then rewrite this, using the first worked example as an analogy. If needed, several more of these worked example-problem pairs can be presented and attempted.

Engelmann believes that teachers should look at ‘mistakes for qualitative information about what you need to change in your instruction to teach it right.’ Following Engelmann’s approach, these errors are a fault of the instruction not the student and next time I teach this, I will include this task in the initial teaching sequence, hopefully ensuring that less students make these mistakes. This is why the curriculum is never entirely complete: we should be constantly taking evidence from student responses and using it to inform changes and adaptations in our teaching sequences.

For each of the ‘Completion Problem’ lessons, we look at a different extract. By this point, students should already have a firm understanding of the structure of an answer and as a result, can apply this knowledge to a new extract. We read the extract and then the teacher explicitly tells them which parts of the extract to underline and why, again, narrating their thought process throughout. Instead of studying an entire worked example like the previous lesson, students are presented with half of a model answer.

half model q3

In this half model, a teacher might start to annotate the specific parts of the answer (the Number 1 bracket) and then ask the student to do the rest. The student is able to use the teachers annotated part as a worked example, helping them with their own annotations.

This ‘half-model’ is a completion problem and students are asked to complete the answer themselves. They can use the annotated ‘half-model’ as a guide that demonstrates the structure of their answer as well as exemplifying the level of quality and depth that is required.

Lesson 5: Problem

After beginning the lesson with whole class feedback, retrieval practice or both, I would then ask students to attempt a question 3 independently, initially splitting the task into logical, sequential steps. Breaking the task into smaller steps allows the teacher to give more precise feedback and to pinpoint misconceptions. If the task was not split up like this, it would be harder to diagnose why a student is struggling.

  1. Read the extract and question 3: underline relevant parts in the text that you plan to write about.
  • Getting feedback here prevents students from making poor choices regarding their textual references.
  • You can ensure that students have broadly included something from the beginning, middle and end, or at least a reasonable section of the source.

2. Ask students to draw answer diagram from memory at the top of the page

  • If students cannot do this, it is clear that they have not retained the procedural knowledge needed for the question
  • After they have finished writing, you can ask them to self-assess their answer, checking that it contains all aspects in the answer diagram.

3. Students then complete their answer in silence, allowing the teacher to circulate and give live feedback.

Later Lessons: Building up stamina and combining with other questions

After massed practice on question 3, we combine it with other questions, slowly building up towards an entire paper.


  • Teach and Practice Q2
  • Teach and Practice Q3
  • Cumulative Practice: Q2 and Q3
  • Teach and Practice Q4
  • Cumulative Practice: Q2, 3 and 4
  • Teach and Practice Q5
  • Cumulative Practice Q2, 3, 4, and 5

General Points:

The sequence of lessons above uses ‘backwards fading’ to slowly move students from studying worked examples to completion problems to independent practice. The speed in which a class progresses through this continuum is determined by the level of success experienced at each stage. As a rule of thumb, I would not change stages-thereby reducing the scaffolding and support-until students have achieved a very high success rate. Often, we rush through the worked example and completion stages, enthralled by the promise of independence and keen to allow our students autonomy and agency. We should not confuse methods with goals: independence is a goal and is best achieved through the methods of explicit instruction, scaffolding and support, not through repeated independent practice.

Every year, when I teach students how to approach the language questions, I know that even if they are able to master what is required for each question and successfully apply the procedural knowledge, the unseen nature of the exam means that they still might not do very well. If a student doesn’t read and has a limited knowledge of the world outside their immediate existence, then the probability of them fully understanding an extract is low. Although I earlier claimed that GCSE English Language has no fixed domain of knowledge, perhaps it is more accurate to claim that it does: the domain is reality itself (or at least the parts of reality that a literate teenager with a reading age of fifteen would be expected to understand).

Next Post: Applying Cognitive Load Theory to English Part 6