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







Applying Cognitive Load Theory to English Part 4: Combining The Alternation Strategy and The Problem Completion Effect-Examples from teaching writing.

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

Teaching students how to write is an essential part of not just teaching English, but also teaching other subjects too. Over the last few weeks, an excellent series of blogs has been written by science teachers exploring the importance of written expression in their subject and these posts are worth a read whatever your subject specialism. Like them, my teaching has also been heavily influenced by The Writing Revolution, a book that explains the importance of explicitly teaching students to practice and apply specific sentence structures to their writing, thereby developing not only their range of expression, but also the precision and sophistication of their written output. When teaching writing explicitly, both at sentence and paragraph level, the use of worked examples and backwards fading can help students achieve a high success rate as well as ensuring that learning is as efficient as possible.

Here is a conceptual model of this process from Efficiency in Learning by Clark et al:

backwards fade

This post will explore the application of Cognitive Load Theory and specifically backwards fading to the teaching of noun appositives.

One of the sentence constructions explained in The Writing Revolution, noun appositives allow students to add extra detail into their writing. This blog post explains their form and usage in more detail.

Although I would have begun the teaching of appositives with multiple lessons that contain sequences of examples and non-examples, allowing students to see the range and limitation of the construction as well as anticipating any common misconceptions, what follows demonstrates the application of the worked example effect and backwards fading to an instructional sequence.

Lesson 1 Step one: Present and label examples

  • A poem that denounces exploitation, London conveys the omnipresence of suffering.
  • Ozymandias, a poem that highlights the transience of human power, demonstrates that nobody is immortal.
  • A callous capitalist who disdains collective responsibility, Mr.Birling is only concerned with ‘lower costs and higher prices’

Depending on the class, this may be entirely teacher led or may involve a series of questions asking students to help with labeling: What is the subject of the sentence? Where is the verb? What is London? It is a poem that denounces exploitation. What is Ozymandias? It is a poem that demonstrates the transience of human power.

As mentioned in this post, using arrows, prompts and labeling can help make the implicit interactions and relationships between different components obvious to students.

Lesson 1 Step two: Begin further examples and ask students to orally complete them

Teacher writes this under the visualizer:

  • A manipulative woman who berates her husband,

The teacher can then ask a number of retrieval practice questions like Who does this describe? What does manipulative mean? What does berate mean? Why does she do this? With a weaker class, the teacher may want to give several completed oral examples before asking students to attempt their own. Students can then complete the sentence orally, a task that allows students to experience success before even attempting to write their own answers. Stronger students can offer ideas first, allowing weaker students to hear further examples before attempting it themselves. Asking students to narrate the punctuation in their spoken sentence (A manipulative woman who berates her husband COMMA Lady Macbeth…) helps to draw attention to the necessity of punctuation in the construction.

To further focus the practice or raise the level of challenge, the teacher can ask students to include specific things in their completed oral sentences.


  • A manipulative woman who berates her husband,


  • ‘pour my spirits in thine ear’
  • sinister

Lesson 1 Step three: Begin further examples and ask students to complete them in writing

Students are presented with a series of half completed examples and are asked to complete them. With weaker classes, it may be useful to complete an example or two under the visualizer, narrating your thought process so that students know exactly what they are supposed to do.

  • A tyrannical and vainglorious King, Ozymandias
  • Hyde, a sadistic character who…………………………………………………., seems
  • A criticism of……………………………….., An Inspector calls encourages the audience to
  • The archetypal Victorian gentleman, Utterson

Because of the restricted nature of these completion problems, precise and immediate feedback can be given by the teacher. Students can be asked to read out their sentence, again narrating the punctuation so that the teacher-or students for that matter-can ascertain whether it is correct or not. This is a much faster feedback loop than taking all the books in and marking them. The teacher can then ask further questions to the student who gave the sentence (or different students) about the completed construction in order to draw attention to the function of the appositive or to provide further retrieval practice about the content of the sentence.


Student: The archetypal Victorian gentleman COMMA Utterson is ‘austere’ and secretive COMMA avoiding fun at all costs.

Possible Teacher questions: Read out just the appositive. Who does it rename? What does archetypal mean? Which word in the sentence is a quotation? What does ‘austere’ mean? What specific things does Utterson do that make him ‘austere’? Is he always like this? Why is his secrecy a form of duality?

If the sentence contains a weak point, the teacher-or other students-can make suggestions for improvement:

What is a better word for ‘fun’? Frivolity. Crucially, all students are able to answer this as the question is asking them to apply vocabulary that has been explicitly taught in previous lessons.

Like with the oral completion exercises, the level of challenge can be raised by asking students to include specific things in their answers, helping them to make links between different bits of knowledge.


  • The archetypal Victorian gentleman, Utterson


  • ‘repressed’
  • ‘never lighted with a smile’
  • contrived socializing with Enfield

In Expressive Writing 2, a Direct Instruction writing scheme, most lessons end with a single or multi-paragraph piece of writing and students are asked to complete a series of precise checks when they have completed their writing in order to ensure that they have applied a necessary skill and avoided making common, careless errors. This approach is also useful to the everyday classroom: instead of asking students to check their work-a vague statement that may be interpreted by students as ‘skim read a bit of it’, it can be useful to specify exactly what they are checking for. These common errors can either be based upon what is being taught (the most likely mistakes that students will make when attempting the task) or they can be based upon the class that you teach, having been chosen as a result of feedback to the teacher: if a weaker class are, on average, bad at using full stops, then include that as a check. Like in Expressive Writing, I would ask students to complete one check at a time in order to prevent cognitive overload.

Possible example checks for appositives:

CHECK 1: Does your appositive rename a noun that is right beside it?

CHECK 2: Is your appositive separated from the rest of the sentence with a comma or pair of commas?

CHECK3: Does your sentence end with a full stop? (This check would be unnecessary for more proficient students!)

You may have noticed that I have still not asked students to complete problems on their own and this is deliberate. I want students to experience quick, initial success with writing these structures and spending time and effort on worked examples and completion problems allows this to happen. By doing so, students-even weaker ones-can experience high initial levels of success, something that both Engelmann and Rosenshine have identified is of crucial importance in instructional sequences. If students are successful, this raises their motivation levels: even the most apathetic students can become enthused if it is clear that they can succeed.

One lesson is not enough however, and instruction should continue in a track system across multiple lessons so that students develop automaticity. The instructional sequence should aim to broadly follow the idea of backwards fading, slowly removing prompts and scaffolding so that students eventually apply their knowledge independently and without support. Finally, tasks should slowly change from isolated and decontextualized sentence practice to wider application within paragraphs and extended writing.

Here is a rough overview of what might happen in subsequent lessons:

Lesson 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6: Further worked examples and completion problems

Although the first lesson that I described would probably be a dedicated ‘Appositives’ lesson, the subsequent lessons would more likely be practice tasks within lessons that contain many other foci.

While earlier lessons saw the teacher leading the labeling and annotation of the worked examples, as students become more proficient, they can be asked to do this themselves. The completion problems would be less restrictive, giving the students more autonomy and requiring them to complete more of the steps themselves. While the earlier completion problems provided the noun that does the renaming (A vainglorious and tyrannical king, Ozymandias…) the examples below require students to generate it for themselves:


  • Hyde, a…………………………………………………………, is the opposite to
  • A…………………………………………………………, Lady Macbeth
  • A……………………………………………………………, The Prelude

Lesson 7, 8 and 9: Interleaved Completion Problems

These lessons may ask students to complete a range of different sentence styles, interleaving appositive practice with other constructions. In the example below, semi-colon practice is mixed up with appositive practice. Like with the appositives, students would have already completed the ‘I and We’ stages with semi-colons before encountering them in this interleaved exercise.


  • A denunciation of…………………………………………….., London……
  • The Inspector admonishes the Birlings for their callousness; he wants
  • Macbeth’s sword ‘smoked with bloody execution’, an image that demonstrates….
  • Lady Macbeth, a manipulative……………………………………………, berates…….
  • Duncan is oblivious to their plans; he…..

Lesson 10, 11 and 12: Independent Problems.

At some point, the worked examples become unnecessary and redundant as students will have developed a mental conception of what it is that is being taught. Instead of studying a model, they can retrieve the relevant schema from their long term memory when attempting the task. Asking students to write a few specific sentences is a useful exercise.

Later lessons: Wider application

Once students have demonstrated the ability to accurately produce the construction in isolated drills, they could be asked to write a paragraph that contains noun appositives as one of the success criteria. Currently, I am teaching a year 9 class to write analytical essay introductions using noun appositives. They broadly followed a similar instructional sequence to the one above and, as a result, they have achieved a high success rate with this wider task.  Later still, they could be asked to apply the constructions to more extended essay type answers.

General Principles

How long should you spend on each stage of the backwards fading continuum?

If we are to maximize efficiency in our instructional sequences-a key and important goal given that lesson time is finite-then we need to carefully consider two competing demands. Firstly, we should ensure that students have a high success rate: at least 70-80% for new material and even higher for material that is being practiced and firmed. Using worked examples and completion problems can make this level of success a reality, helping to minimize unwanted cognitive load. Secondly, we should use backwards fading so that students are asked to complete applications independently as quickly as possible. If we keep presenting worked examples, then not only will this waste time, but it may also prevent students from developing the ability to complete tasks without support. The example lessons above are an attempt to show how support should be faded, following the I-we-you continuum and ending with independent student application. How long students spend on each stage of the continuum is an empirical question and will largely be determined by the quality of examples (and non-examples) and completion problems that you use as well as the proficiency and prior knowledge of the students. Feedback to the teacher is key here: if students are performing successfully on a stage, then you can make the transition to a lower level of support, increasing the number of steps that a student is expected to complete.

How do you optimize practice drills?

Practice sentences should probably involve content from whatever it is you are studying as this will stretch and develop student thinking about the subject matter. Not only will students be developing their writing skills, but they will also be deepening their understanding of the content.

In Teach Like a Champion, Lemov explains ‘At Bats’, the idea that ‘succeeding once or twice at a skill won’t bring mastery, give your students lots and lots of practice mastering knowledge or skills’. This is crucial. When students are asked to complete problems independently, they should practice extensively, ideally across a number of lessons and including ‘multiple formats and with a significant number of plausible variations.’ Here are some of the possible variations when teaching appositives:

  1. Varying where the appositive is in a sentence (start, embedded or the end)
  2. Varying the writing genre for the task (analytical, descriptive, rhetorical)
  3. Varying the content (Macbeth, An Inspector Calls)
  4. Adding quotations to the appositive
  5. Varying the number of appositives in a sentence
  6. Varying the length and level of detail within the appositive: adding ‘who/that’ is a great way of adding further description
  7. When they have mastered all of the above, combining the appositive with other sentence skills that you are teaching

Engelmann’s track systems within his programs are fixed and have been created based upon rigorous field testing so as to ensure on optimum spacing, fading and efficiency. This requires a phenomenal amount of work and is almost certainly beyond the reach of busy teachers. At present we are not at a stage where these sequences have been formalized into our booklets, but this is slowly changing as we have developed progression models for both grammar and analytical skills, ensuring that we are consistent and that students master the skills of writing in a logical and methodical sequence.

Next Post: Further examples of backwards fading in English

Applying Cognitive Load Theory to English part 3: The Problem Completion Effect: An Overview

cogload theory

This is the third post looking at the application of Cognitive Load Theory to teaching English. The first two can be found here and here.

In Cognitive Load Theory, Sweller et al posit that ‘One early concern about the use of worked examples was that they led to passive rather than more active learning. Would learners attend to and study the worked examples in enough depth or would they simply gloss over them’. One of the solutions to this concern was the development of The Alternation Strategy, an approach that I wrote about in the previous post. Another solution to the concern that students would not pay sufficient attention to the worked example, and therefore not build the required schemas within long term memory that they could use when attempting subsequent problems, was the development of Completion Problems, tasks that include ‘a partial worked example where the learner has to complete some key solution steps’.

So why do they work?

efficiency in learning cover

In Efficiency in Learning, Sweller et al posit that ‘completion examples reduce cognitive load because schemas can be acquired by studying the worked-out portion. Requiring the learner to finish the worked example ensures that she will process the example deeply.’ If we accept the idea that when teaching novices, our time in class should be spent largely on building schemas and developing background knowledge, then this is important. Completion problems could help ensure that students pay sufficient attention to the worked examples. As Sweller et al point out in Efficiency in Learning, the completion example ‘reduces cognitive load by incorporating some worked-out elements and it fosters deep processing by requiring completion of the remaining elements’. The authors summarise their efficacy by positing ‘a completion example offers psychological balance. It reduces cognitive load by incorporating some worked-out elements and it fosters deep processing by requiring completion of the remaining elements’. An intermediate approach, completion problems are an attempt to alleviate the concerns and possible shortcomings with fully worked examples and problem solving. While problem solving may create excessive cognitive load, completion problems help to mitigate this. While fully worked examples may be ignored by students, completion problems require more mental effort, hopefully resulting in students thinking harder about them.

What does the research say?

worked example and completion problem table




The table above displays the results from a 1992 study where students were taught statistical concepts like mean, median and mode. Students were placed in one of three instructional set ups: all problems, worked example and practice pairs (The Alternation strategy) and completion problems and practice pairs. Further studies (Paas & van Merrien boer 1994; Trafton & Reiser 1993) also found that worked examples and completion examples were ‘more efficient and equally effective in terms of learning outcomes than lessons that required learners to work all problems’.

So, if both worked examples and completion problems are ‘equally effective’ then how are we to know which one to use? This is an important question and there is a possible solution in an approach known as ‘backwards fading’.

Backwards Fading

One of the six principles of task design in Engelmann’s Direct Instruction is the shift from an emphasis on the teacher’s role as a source of information to an emphasis on the learner’s role as a source of information. This shift broadly matches the notion of the ‘I-we-you’ model common in explicit and direct instruction. The three stages also seem to broadly link to some of Rosenshine’s principles of instruction. This broad convergence should make us stop and think: if three frameworks all broadly identify a similar approach as being effective, then perhaps this is a continuum that should be systematically threaded into our instructional sequences and schemes of learning.

3 frameworks.png

Cognitive Load Theory also describes this gradual fading of support and presents an almost directly analogous continuum that students move along as they gain in proficiency. In Efficiency in Learning, the authors suggest that ‘fading techniques allow you to accommodate a gradual learning process’, a statement that seems to echo the DI approach of small, manageable and incremental steps along a learning pathway. As learners begin, they ‘should devote as much working memory as possible to building schema’, and the most efficient way of doing this is probably by studying worked examples that precisely exemplify not only the concept that is being taught, but also what success looks like. While abstract and ambiguous success criteria may be useful for teachers, concrete examples are probably far more useful for students.

A lesson, or series of lessons, that involve ‘backwards fading’ will begin with worked examples, providing concrete models of what is being taught. The next worked example could be a ‘completion problem’ where students are expected to finish a particular task that has been started for them; eventually, learners will be asked to attempt entire problems for themselves.

Here is a conceptual model of this process from Efficiency in Learning:

backwards fade.png

While this conceptual mode describes a lesson, if we follow Engelmann’s guidance, new concepts should be initially taught across at least two lessons and then continued in a track system across many more, resulting in distributed practice and becoming interleaved and integrated with other things that have been taught, eventually resulting in flexible, wide application.

What does ‘backwards fading’ look like in English?

Here is an example instructional sequence from teaching ‘Even though’ sentences to a very low ability year 7 class. The sequence was during one lesson and it combines ‘backwards fading’ with Engelmann’s ideas about examples and non-examples:

Written Worked Examples:

  • Even though it was raining, I went outside without an umbrella. (surprising/opposite)
  • Even though it was raining, I went outside with an umbrella     (not surprising/not opposite)

Following Engelmann’s guidance, I presented minimally different examples that share the greatest number of irrelevant features to make clear the meaning of ‘Even though’, ensuring that, logically, only one interpretation is possible. I labelled them as ‘surprising’ or ‘not surprising’ in an attempt to describe the function of ‘Even though’. To avoid ‘stipulation’, the idea that students will erroneously infer that ‘Even though’ sentences are always about weather or involve umbrellas, I followed these written examples with a series of wider ranging oral examples, asking students ‘OK’ or ‘Not OK’. I did this using choral responses where students responded to a signal-in this case, me dropping my arm-in order to maximize student response rate and allow me to get feedback from the whole class as to their understanding. If only one student answered, this would not tell me if the others had understood. The signal is to ensure that everyone responds at the same time so as to minimize the opportunity that students will merely copy their peers. Although the sequence below certainly breaks some of the rigorous theoretical principles that examples and non-examples are supposed to adhere to, it resulted in a very high success rate.

Oral Example sequence:

Even though I was the fastest, I lost the race.    OK

Even though I was the fastest, I won the race. Not OK

Even though she loved pizza, she ate one.       Not OK

Even though she hated pizza, she ate one.          OK

Even though I loved football, I played tennis.     OK

Even though I wanted to see my friends, I met them.   Not OK

Even though he had no money, he went shopping.      OK

Even though I was the best at physics, I passed the test Not OK

Completion Example 1:

  • Even though I was starving, I
  • Even though I hated eating anchovies, I
  • Even though she was brilliant at Mathematics, she

After the choral responses, students attempted these styles of sentence where I had begun the construction and asked them to complete them.

Completion Example 2

  • Even though
  • Even though
  • Even though

Here, the worked part of the construction had been stripped back even further, allowing students to attempt even more of the problem themselves. Following the conceptual model from Efficiency in Learning, the final task saw students creating their own sentences with no completed steps or support.

I am currently teaching the same class how to use embedded evidence in sentences, a crucial foundational skill for analytical writing which is entirely new to my students. Because of the complexity of what I am asking them to do, the instructional sequence has already spanned over four weeks, broadly following the ‘backwards fading’ continuum. Typically, practice exercises will be completed every lesson, although they are limited in duration and combined with lots of other activities. I will write about this process in more detail in a later blog.

Backwards fading seems like a sensible approach when teaching almost anything as, if it is done correctly by spending sufficient time on each stage, it seems to hit a sweet spot where cognitive load is managed and student effort is maintained. The ‘backwards fading’ continuum is a sequence of tasks that slowly increases learner application and effort whilst simultaneously reducing the need for worked steps. As students grow in proficiency, they are required to solve more of the problem themselves, a shift that represents the transition from novice to expert.

Next post: Combining The Alternation Strategy and Problem Completion Effect-Examples from teaching writing.

Applying Cognitive Load Theory to English Part 2: The Alternation Strategy- How example problem pairs can work in English.

This is the second post looking at the application of Cognitive Load Theory to English. The first one can be found here.

‘The Alternation Strategy’, also referred to as ‘worked example problem pairs’, is the idea that ‘for an example to be most effective, it had to be accompanied by a problem to solve.’ The most effective use of worked examples is to ‘present a worked example and then immediately follow this example by asking the learner to solve a similar problem.’ Interestingly, the researchers found that if you give students a number of massed worked examples and follow that later with a similar massed set of problems, then this led to poor outcomes. For The Alternation strategy to work effectively, both example and problem need to be presented simultaneously.

Greg Ashman has written here about how this applies to Maths teaching.

efficiency in learning coverOne of the specific benefits of using worked example problem pairs is that they accelerate learning, reducing the time required for instruction. In Efficiency in Learning Evidence Based Guidelines to Manage Cognitive Load by Clark, Nguyen and Sweller, the authors explore a 1985 study by Sweller and Cooper which used algebra problems. Students were assigned to two groups: one in which students completed eight problems and the other in which they studied 4 sets of example problem pairs. Here are the findings:

worked example results table

The ‘all practice’ group took nearly six times as long to complete the instructional sequence. Students in the example problem pair group were not only faster at completing the lessons, but they were also faster at completing the test which followed. Additionally, the number of test errors was less for those students who had studied under the Alternation Strategy (example problem pairs).

Another later study quoted in the book was ‘Conducted in Chinese middle schools in which a traditional three-year course consisting of two years of algebra and one year of geometry were successfully completed in two years by replacing some practice with worked examples!’ This confirms the findings of the previous study and suggests that the technique can be adapted to real life classrooms and learning.cogload theory

Although both of these studies involve maths, in Cognitive Load Theory by Sweller, Kalyuga and Ayers, the authors make the important point that ‘the cognitive architecture…does not distinguish between well-structured and ill-structured problems’ meaning that the findings of Cognitive Load Theory apply to all domains.

So why does this work? In Efficiency in Learning Evidence Based Guidelines to Manage Cognitive Load by Clark, Nguyen and Sweller, the authors explain that ‘Having a worked example to study just prior to solving a similar problem provides the learner with an analogy available while solving the problem. When having to actively solve a problem without the benefit of an analogous example, most working memory capacity is used up for figuring out the best solution approach, with little remaining for building a schema’. Not only does the worked example present an indication of the ‘best solution approach’, providing students with a clear idea as to what is expected when they attempt the problem, but it also exemplifies the level of quality that they are to aim for.

Applying the Alternation Strategy in English

This is how we apply this approach in English. Here is a screenshot of a typical double page spread from one of our ‘booklets’ (essentially in-house textbooks that we produce and centrally plan for each unit of study):

booklet double

Before working through the stages, students would have typically completed a cumulative recap quiz or a sentence practice activity. They may also have begun the lesson with some whole class feedback and tasks that address common misconceptions from a previous piece of work.

An overview and key:

In the screen shot above, I have numbered each section in order to make this explanation clearer; lessons would normally work through the sections in numerical order.

Stage 1: A vocabulary table

This provides students with words to use in their analysis. We list all forms of the word, labelling each one with word class, an approach that, as a result of systematic and regular usage, has helped students to categorise words and to make generalisations about how different affixes can change one class to another. Crucially, the table contains an example sentence for each word, deliberately using the sentence structures that we want students to use when they are writing and each one acting as a mini worked example. The teacher will ask questions about the vocabulary, provide further examples, antonyms and synonyms and elaborate further. Students will make annotations to their vocabulary table, following how the teacher annotates under the visualiser. The teacher will make links to previous learning, asking about preceding lessons on the same text as well as other units, taking advantage of distributed retrieval practice.

They may ask student to complete oral because/but/so sentences:


After reading and discussing the relevant row from the table

Teacher: Finish the sentence, starting from the beginning: ‘Gerald objectifies Eva Smith because… .

Student: Gerald objectifies Eva Smith because he complements her appearance.

Teacher: Add evidence.

Different Student: Gerald objectifies Eva Smith because he complements her appearance, calling her ‘Young and fresh and charming.’

Stage 2: The First ‘problem’

In this case the question is What kind of man is Gerald?

Stage 3: The first extract to annotate

Students have already read many of these quotations in the vocabulary table. Many of the example sentences from the table contain embedded evidence that uses these lines. Through a process of quick questioning, the students will get lots of massed practice in seeing how the vocabulary words apply to the quotations. The teacher will annotate their copy under a visualiser: I tell students that their annotations must look at a minimum exactly the same as mine, although they are free to add additional ideas, opinions and interpretations that come up in focussed discussion and questioning. This stage of the process allows the teacher to directly and ‘live’ model what annotation looks like, providing a worked example of this crucial stage of textual analysis. The skill of annotation, something that Joe Kirby has written about here, allows students to engage in close analysis and deconstruction of language, helping them to understand the important link between text and interpretation. Annotations also serve as a useful source of revision, capturing ideas and thoughts and making them permanent.

Underlined quotations are the ones that students will memorise (essential for GCSE literature), most likely in a test that will be given a month or so after they have encountered them here, exploiting the benefit of distributed practice.

Stage 4: Worked Example

The worked example uses the example sentences from the vocabulary table. The idea here is to demonstrate how the constituent sub-components (sentences and vocabulary) fit together to form a more complex whole. It also uses the lines and ideas from stage 3, demonstrating how annotations and notes can be transformed into analytical prose. The worked examples also contain ‘The 6 Skills’ (our analytical framework) and exemplify how they are applied to a specific problem. The 6 Skills are first taught in year 7, the idea being that they are a generalizable strategy that can be applied to a wide range of analytical problems and situations. In year 7, they are taught and practiced at a sentence level, building cumulatively to their application within more extended writing. Over a five year curriculum, students will see them used in conjunction with the full spectrum of analytical writing, including character, setting and thematic responses.

How do we use the worked example?

In Efficiency in Learning Sweller et al posit that ‘To be effective, a worked example must be studied’. Following Engelmann’s ideas that tasks should ‘shift’ from prompted to unprompted  as well as from teacher led to student led, none of the worked examples are labelled in the booklets, allowing teachers to judge the approach based upon the proficiency of the class. All classes use the same models and the level of in class support, as well as the focus of the final writing task, is chosen by the teacher.

Here are some possible approaches:

A) Low level class who are inexperienced with writing analytically.

Under a visualiser, a teacher may underline, label, explain and question most if not all relevant aspects of the model, making it clear which parts are important and asking students to do the same on their copy. They may choose to merely focus on the easier skills like ‘3 part explanations’ or ‘zoom in on a word’, or even simpler, more fundamental skills like embedded evidence.

B) Class who have some proficiency with analytical writing.

In Efficiency in Learning Sweller et al describe something called A Completion Example, essentially a hybrid strategy where ‘some of the steps are demonstrated as in a worked example and the other steps are completed by the learner as in a practice problem’. With students who have already acquired some of the analytical skills or specific sentence constructions, a teacher may label one or two examples of a specific analytical skill within the model paragraph, asking students to copy their annotations. The teacher may then ask student to find other examples, using the teacher directed ones as models to guide their annotations. The next post will explore the utility of completion problems in more detail.

C) More proficient students

If a class is proficient, the teacher may ask students to annotate with minimal teacher instruction, essentially using the model as a means of retrieval practice of analytical skills as well as allowing student to broaden their understanding of their scope and breadth. If a student has seen multiple, slightly different examples of how a specific skill has been applied across different contexts, then this exposure will hopefully lead to a firmer understanding of it.

These particular approaches will be used, irrespective of proficiency level:

  • Teachers will ask multiple questions about the target vocabulary, asking students to cover the vocabulary table beforehand to ensure that they are engaging in actual retrieval practice. They may make annotations next to words e.g. exploit=use/take advantage
  • Teachers will ask about the interpretations and analysis, often asking students to use vocabulary from the table. Why might Gerald’s attempt to find food mean he is benevolent? Is he exploiting Eva here or being compassionate? What does ‘distressed’ tell us about Gerald?

Stage 5: The second extract to annotate:

Students have already been taught vocabulary in stage one, applied it in stage 3 and 4 and now they will need to apply it again in stage 5. Again, the proficiency of the class will determine how teacher led this annotation segment will be, but most importantly, students will apply the vocabulary from the table in stage 1 when annotating the lines. In stage 4, students were led through a worked example of annotations and this can be used as ‘an analogy’ with which to support their annotations in this second text extract. Thinking analytically about a text is, by its very definition, something covert and implicit, a process that exists in the mind of a writer but cannot be observed. Asking students to ‘overtise’  this process by annotating a text can provide valuable feedback to the teacher. Have they understood and applied the vocabulary from the table to the appropriate evidence or extract? Have they correctly identified a technique? Have they made a link between similar pieces of evidence to build up an argument? The teacher can circulate during this stage and address any misconceptions promptly, preventing them from becoming embedded and ensuring that the errors do not manifest themselves when the student completes the final written task. During the acquisition stage of learning, when students are learning new content and lack proficiency, immediate feedback is key to prevent errors from becoming embedded.

Stage 6: Second Problem

When I first started using model answers, I would demonstrate one and then ask students to write their own. This almost always resulted in indolent or weaker students copying the model without thinking at all about the task. Higher ability students would also explain that the model was a hindrance. It was as if the model had an intrusive and malign anchoring effect: students didn’t want to deviate from it as the implicit assumption was that it exemplified excellence; however, they didn’t want to entirely emulate it as this was clearly just plagiarism.

Here is a sequence from the old, problematic approach:

1) Question

2) Worked Example


4) Student response (plagiarised from or hindered by the model!)

Here is a sequence for the new approach:

1) Vocabulary that applies to both questions (containing multiple worked examples of sentences to be studied)

2) First Question

3) First extract to annotate (acting as a worked example of annotation)

4) Worked Example to study (contains lines vocabulary and lines from stage 1 and 3)

5) Second extract to annotate. (these are different lines to the ones explored in the model)

6) Second Question

This six stage process has been designed in order to avoid the weakness with my earlier approach. The first and second questions may vary in focus and wording, although they may be exactly the same. Because the lines in stage 5 are different, it prevents students from merely copying the model answer. Instead, the model can act in the way that Sweller intends when he explains that ‘Having a worked example to study just prior to solving a similar problem provides the learner with an analogy available while solving the problem’. However, students are still able to apply the sub-components (vocabulary, sentence structures, analytical skills) that they have been explicitly taught.

We have methodically and systematically threaded this approach into all schemes of work from the start of year seven onwards. When students engage in analytical writing, they almost always encounter these double page spreads.

The alternation strategy is a core part of our resources and this table provides a summary of how it works in our booklets:

abNext Post:  ‘The Problem Completion Effect’: An Overview