Assessment, Curriculum, English, Literacy, Literature, Progress

Reclaiming KS3: Driving questions for rapid progress

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Flickr: Creative Commons

When looking at examiners’ reports at KS5, there’s been a welcome move in recent years warning staff not to send students into exams with pre-prepared essay frames, writing templates and other formulaic crutches designed to get students through exams with the minimum of independent thought. Aside from my personal feelings about endless writing frames, they send the message to students that ‘you can’t do it on your own’. Students can become reliant on them and then panic and go into learned helplessness when you suggest that they write an essay independently – worse when it’s accompanied with cries of ‘but Mr/Mrs so-and-so gives us starters!‘.

At KS5 this is well overdue but with shifts in GCSE exams to new specifications, I’m inclined to say that this is a very welcome shift away from teachers dragging students through with check-lists and crib sheets, and towards a curriculum that values students’ independent application of knowledge.  On #EngChatUK there was a lot of pre-specification worries, which seem (largely) to have worked themselves out. (Whilst planning this blog I found a new post by Andy Warner on the new GCSEs which is worth a read here)

The relevance to Key Stage 3 is to work backwards from KS5. If we’re going to ensure that KS3 is challenging, engaging and unapologetically academic, then there needs to be time set aside for promoting the value of scholarship and high-level thinking. In KS3: The Wasted Years, Ofsted mention that it is the ‘most able whose progress was particularly affected when secondary schools did not build on prior learning.’

Using driving questions to structure and support learning ensures that all students make rapid and sustained progress.

When the lesson is planned for thinking progression rather than in terms of tasks, it enables the most able students to make high levels of progress, whilst giving space for weaker students to be guided towards their targets. At this point it’s worth saying that I’m sceptical about the ability of PEA, PEAD, PEAL (any other paragraph frame) to facilitate independent learning across the ability range. For the lower ability, there’s a danger of over-reliance and for higher ability students these frames risk limiting independent thinking and development required for future KS4 success – which under Progress 8 is going to be an increasing problem.

From this, I have moved towards a model of thinking prompts to guide student analysis. Not only does this promote the value of high-level thinking, it enables students to move towards the multi-structural level of SOLO taxonomy (which I’ve used loosely to underpin the lesson progression).

Example: A Year 9 assessment preparation lesson built on the 2015 AQA GCSE English Literature AO1/2

These slides were taken from a mixed ability (4c-7b) Year 9 class on The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon.

#1 Starter that builds on key grammatical and linguistic threshold knowledge

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If students lack specialist technical knowledge, their analysis and understanding of bigger literary ideas will be limited. Across KS3, aim to draw on a range of terminology from GCSE terminology banks to the KS3 non-statutory glossary available from DfE here.In this language starter students apply their linguistic knowledge to draw whole text conclusions about writing style. The aim is for them to see a clear link between WHAT conclusions they have drawn and HOW the author’s use of language helps shape their interpretations.

#2 Assessment question that draws together a range of whole text features 

Crucially, it’s one question for the whole class. Whilst I can be fan of different assessment questions, they should be challenging and exceptionally challenge (where the exceptionally challenging draws heavily on the next Key Stage). Easy questions for weaker students sets a bar of low expectations.

Flickr: Creative Commons

The aim is for the assessment question to be broad so that students can apply as much of their knowledge as possible. By working in the multi-structural zone of SOLO they’re not only developing their knowledge of the book but are developing wider subject knowledge in areas such as narrative voice, style, tone and authorial intent. For weaker students, they may focus only on language, whilst more able students move towards integrating structure and form.

#3 Provide thinking prompts/mats to guide students’ thinking

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Students were given an A5 sheet with a range of thinking prompts similar to the slide – extension questions were clearly signposted. Students located their own evidence from the novel (focus on reading skills). Weaker students were given a list of page numbers for key moments to select from so they could focus in on smaller chunks of text.

On finding a quotation, students explored the language and then used the thinking prompts to make notes around the quotation. This would then become their essay plan. There wasn’t a planning sheet in sight. The first time I did this panic occurred, but after 2-3 runs of the process in different forms, students now take it in their stride.

#4 Students write up an extended essay response

In the absence of writing frames, students use their notes and the questions to generate high-quality academic writing. Prior to this, they  had specific teaching input on crafting academic sentences (inspired by these blogs: LearningSpy and Doug Lemov). They also had access to a discourse markers display to develop cohesion across their response.

Their writing guide is always:

  • Open with a topic sentence or two that links ideas or links back to the question
  • Weave evidence into the paragraph
  • Explore a range of issues linked to the question (and focus on the question word).

The focus on ‘explore’ has come after teaching students how to analyse in detail so they are moving towards bridging analytical writing with a wider academic discussion of literary texts.


It’s not a perfect model and it took a few runs through for students to have the confidence to free themselves from crib-sheets etc. but the pay-off has been amazing. From students who started Year 9 worried about how to start their ‘point’ sentence, they’ve recently read an A Level critical article from the English and Media Centres eMag – a sign that their critical thinking has rapidly developed over the course of a term. I’d expect if this continued for students in this class to have the key GCSE skills secure by the end of Year 9 so they can focus on new subject knowledge and exam technique at KS4.

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