Teaching to the test doesn’t work. But teaching students about the test is imperative. Not only that, exam performance IS a thing, and you can assist students to get better at that performance. It’s all about mitigating cognitive load.

GAME TIME – Any sports person will tell you that match fitness is everything. Regardless of how much you prepare, you never achieve the same level of fitness and game knowledge compared to actually playing. Why? Because when the real thing happens, not only do nerves and adrenaline consume vast amounts of energy, interfering with the ability you have coming to the surface, but lots of other unexpected occurrences happen, all leading to increased cognitive load, and leading to exhaustion quicker. The cognitive load can be so debilitating that the player has to rely on muscle memory to get them through. When a student sits an exam, adrenaline and anxiety will naturally surge through their veins. Helping them revise the content is a must, but importantly, helping them become more familiar with the game/exam context is climactical, and this can be achieved by training students to automaticity with exam technique.


1. Exam layouts

 Show students, and get them used to, the layout of the online exam. The more they see the module and layout of the exam and understand what the expectations are of each section, the less pressure they’ll feel when they see the real thing.  

Of particular importance with students having to complete exams online is detailing the processes involved if they experience technical issues. Take them through the procedures so if it happens during the exam they don’t lose all confidence and panic. ALSO: Ensure students have read the academic integrity policy and that you discuss it repeatedly – the more you talk about academic integrity the more of it you’ll get.

cognitive load
 Student A – no trainingStudent B – training
Before beginning exam20%20%
Exam layout5%0%

2. Question requirements

Ensure students know what each question is demanding of them.

How long is a piece of string?

What does a short answer look like? What gets you full marks? What does a long answer look like? What gets you full marks? How much working out is necessary? How much detail is required?

Don’t expect students to guess the answers to these questions. Students who have to worry about what constitutes a good answer expend lots of valuable cognitive load. Model the expectations by showing previous examples, past exams, etc.

Manageable student
cognitive load
 Student A – no trainingStudent B – training
Before beginning exam20%20%
Exam layout5%0%
Exam content 30%0%


1. Time training

Training students with timings of questions in exams will significantly propitiate cognitive load. It’s one thing to know what the question demands of you, but another to actually do it in a stressed environment. If a student isn’t used to the pressure of time, the longer the exam goes on, the greater the likelihood of their cognitive load increasing and their performance reducing as they panic with the evaporation of time. So, get them to practice doing a mock of a section in the exam – let them experience what it’s like to type in the allocated time – do their fingers get tired? What’s it like to upload if necessary etc. The more practice they get the better, but if you are running out of lesson time to train students, at least give students the chance to practice once – just one section that requires an upload process for example.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image-2.png

The other aspect of time training is in helping students to set personal timers. Obviously, the online exam doesn’t have all the usual cues that an invigilated exam offers: a large clock, a warning by the invigilator of 5 minutes to go, and even the cues of students completing and organising their work on the next desk. But an advantage of online exams is that students can set their own alarms to negotiate each individual section of the exam, and not accidentally spend too much time on a certain section:

Manageable student
cognitive load
 Student A – no trainingStudent B – training
Before beginning exam20%20%
Exam layout5%0%
Exam content 30%0%
Exam timing training20%0%

2. Editing their work

Rereading responses is difficult for exhausted students to do at the end of a lengthy exam. It is usually at this point that they have a sense of relief, and the last thing they want to do is reread what they’ve done. Of course, it’s madness not to, to ensure there are no silly mistakes, particularly in multiple choice questions, or content mistakes. Even checking for structural, punctuation and/or spelling issues could benefit the overall grade. 

So, I have to build that practice into their normal way of working, so it becomes a part of the process, and not an add on. This can really only be achieved by repeatedly physically getting students to do it: at the end of each ‘mock’ assessment, stop the test and get students to spend 4 – 5 minutes in dedication to proof reading…and explain the rationale, repeatedly: I always tell my students they WILL lose more marks with errors (they can fix) than they are able to gain by writing more response in the last 5 minutes. But without it being a normal way of working, exhausted students won’t do it automatically.   

Manageable student
cognitive load
 Student A – no trainingStudent B – training
Before beginning exam20%20%
Exam layout5%0%
Exam content 30%0%
Exam timing training20%0%
Editing responses5%0%

3. Being professional

Not panicking in certain situations is crucial in reducing cognitive load. Taking students through possible scenarios will help to calm them if the situation presents in the exam, scenarios such as:  If you’re running out of time what should you focus on to get you the most marks? What to do if you can’t answer a question – do you panic and lose total focus for the rest? Should you move on and come back to questions? Are you aware that the brain will warm up and so coming back later may be easier than it is now? This last point is absolutely crucial to convey to students. As the exam progresses, lots of the exam content itself may trigger or cue retrieval of content that couldn’t previously be answered, so teaching students this metacognitive notion could make a significant difference to their overall performance.

Manageable student
cognitive load
 Student A – no trainingStudent B – training
Before beginning exam20%20%
Exam layout5%0%
Exam content 30%0%
Exam timing training20%0%
Editing responses5%0%
Being professional 10%5%

As you can see by the very much made up numbers, the cognitive load experienced by Student A is significantly greater than Student B, and would indubitably affect performance in the exam. The student’s knowledge would have to fight a great deal to break through the pressure. 


The more you do something the better at it you get, provided of course you’re doing it the right way. Students don’t really get that many opportunities to learn to negotiate the exam environment on their own, especially in the current context of moving to online non-invigilated exams, and so providing them with such training is critical. 

I’m Paul Moss. I’m a learning designer at the University of Adelaide. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger, and follow this blog for more thoughts on education in general.  

ASSESSMENT IN HE pt 4 – worked examples

This is the 4th in a series of blogs on assessment, which forms part of a larger series of blogs on the importance of starting strong in higher education and how academics can facilitate it.

Even though the nature of higher education makes it harder to formatively assess, it can be done. Below is a list of sources of data that a tutor can use to triangulate their understanding of where a student sits on the learning journey, and importantly, whether what they think they are teaching is actually being learnt:

  1. Using the lecture
  2. Using the tutorial
  3. Using online quizzes
  4. Using mastery pathways
  5. Using online discussion boards
  6. Using groups
  7. Using participation
  8. Using analytics

Using the tutorial

The tutorial is very much the place to check for learning. In the much smaller populated room, the tutor can use techniques that are known to be effective in a regular classroom, including using worked/completion examples, asking lots of questions, and wandering the room when students are solving problems to check progress. As the very wise Tim Klapdor suggests, ‘tutorials are not a time to lecture students or introduce new concepts.’

1 Using Worked and Completion Examples

Worked examples are priceless in learning. The lecture ideally was full of many completed examples related to the topic, each part of the example deliberately verbally narrated to help students begin the process of either connecting the new content with existing schema, or actually building new schema. The tutorial is now the place where the tutor can assess where the students currently sit on the learning continuum, and this will determine the stage of worked example they present.

To begin the session, the tutor may present a problem of similar ilk from the lecture. If students appear to not be secure in their knowledge the tutor will realise that the schema is not established sufficiently for any independent work. The image below from Sweller’s Efficiency in Learning captures the progression necessary to develop the relevant schema and move learners from novice to expert/independent.

backwards fade.png

The narration of processes involved in solving problems must now take place. The tutor articulates their own schema in this process, providing a live model for students to capture in their own memory. It is this captured memory they will draw from later to solve similar problems. In this way, learning is truly constructivist. Consequently, through logic, this stage can’t be rushed, or worse, bypassed, as it is by those those who conflate the epistemology of constructivism with a method of teaching, rendering learning to a free for all of unscaffolded inquiry, inquiry that inevitably fails as students exhaustively scramble to locate relevant connections in their minds that simply aren’t there.

cogload theory
BIg thanks to Tom Needham for enlightening me on worked examples

To further deepen the memory of the worked example, students should complete paired examples at this point. This means that they are provided with a completely worked solution and one to solve that is analogous to the one presented. The key here is analogous. It must be of the same difficulty and according to Engelmann, differing in as few elements as possible. This allows students to build the required schema that can then be transferred to similar problems later.

Once students are able to do this, then they move onto the completion problems, where a solution is only partially completed and they have to finish it. Eventually, after sufficient practice that helps to automatise the processes, the established schema allows a multitude of problems to be able to be solved. It is here they have become expert in the topic, and are able to inquire about it independently and creatively.

Preventing plagiarism – I’m a huge believer that success motivates success, and when students are confident and succeeding in solving problems, they will do it as often as possible without anyone else’s help. They won’t cheat because the feeling of getting things right and understanding concepts is a far better feeling than simply getting the grade by itself. All it takes is to honour the learning continuum, identify the extent of students’ schemata, and support their development using examples. I talk lots more about this in the online assessment posts, because it is online where plagiarism can be difficult to stop.

2 Asking Lots of Questions

Effective questioning is a powerful way to assess for learning. The key to effective questioning is to ask, wait for students to process the question, and then check a number of answers before saying if the answers are right or wrong. Repeat the questions at least 3 times during the processing stage. Allowing time for students to think about the answer gets the retrieval process activated as they search their minds for connections to previously encoded information. By doing so it is quite easy to gauge the knowledge of a tutorial sized group. By carrying out this formative assessment you will be able to direct the next sequence of learning with far greater precision.

3 Wandering the room checking for understanding

These opportunities would present themselves at each of the worked example stages. Initially, the extra guidance afforded to the student could be enough to make a final connection to understanding if it hasn’t sunk in yet, or it could be, at a latter stage, a chance to deepen thinking by asking more open ended questions and applying them to different contexts.

By the end of each tutorial, your assessment for learning and the modifications you make to teaching as a result would have facilitated the development of relevant and necessary schema in your students’ minds.

Grading tutorials

The tutorial could then be used as a means of assessment, with you providing a grade for participation as well as solved problems.

  • The participation will almost be tokenistic, but you will know that the easy marks rewarded are merely a superficial representation of the greater significance and incentive for their attendance and work ethic: the development of schema.
  • The latter quarter of the tutorial (or perhaps a whole tute after several tutorials of practising) could also be assigned for the testing of students independently solving problems. The final 5 minutes would be peer marking from your displayed answer sheets so you don’t have to do any marking, only the recording of their grades.

As students walk out of the tutorial, be explicit with what they have achieved. ‘Jane, today you not only solved lots of problems, and clearly got past a bit of a barrier, but you also picked up all of your eligible participation points. Well done!’ Guaranteed, they’ll be back next week.

The next post discusses how you can adapt to a virtual tutorial.

I’m Paul Moss. I’m a learning designer. Follow me @edmerger


This is part 2 of a series on creativity in schools. Part 1 is here

Ben Newmark’s rousing and simply wonderful treaty on why we teach insists that knowledge is to be taught so students can make connections with their world, and to respect what has gone before them in so much as the gift of what it provides. But I think there’s another purpose: invention.

Invention, or its synonymous ‘innovation’, or ‘creativity’, is an attributing factor as to why society advances. From medicine, to technology, to science, to entertainment, we value dearly our ability to invent, innovate, and create. Great thinkers, musicians, scientists, writers, artists etc all become great because they master multiple components of knowledge in their respective fields, but then crucially have opportunity to draw on that knowledge to mix and reshape and experiment with it (sometimes by mistake) to solve a presented problem.

So yes, there most certainly is a place for creative problem solving in schools, but in order to avoid the dreaded Matthew Effect, ONLY once a sufficient amount of knowledge has been acquired first. This seems antithetical to prominent proponents who excoriate traditional teaching practices want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, like here, but I don’t really think that the majority of teachers share such an extreme position. I think that most teachers who understand the importance of building knowledge in a curriculum also see education as more than just learning knowledge. They see education as an avenue to develop a student’s capacity to DO something with the acquired knowledge, to offer opportunities for them to become the next innovator in a chosen field, rather than just moving on to the next thing to be learnt in the scheme. But this inclination isn’t so easy to put into practice, and I’ll try to explain the issues with this below.  

Caught in a trap

An ideal curriculum would explicitly teach content to continually develop schemata, then encourage inquiry into that knowledge and then if relevant, some sort of application of the knowledge to both deepen the understanding of it and to cultivate a habit of experimenting with it. But it is the last of these that tends to be omitted from modern curricula because:

  • Lack of reliability in assessing it summative standardised tests are the only valid method of assessment at national level, so how do you assess creativity, which is highly subjective? How then can we safely say that everyone in the class is benefitting from this context? Are there some (many) who are simply bludging? and if the amount of time dedicated to creatively applying knowledge is several lessons, is this wasted time?
  • Creative application is messy – in a class of many children completing multiple projects, it is extremely difficult to manage their progress and whether there is sufficient application from all. Each project would have to be assessed in terms of its practicality and feasibility, and adjusted if unrealistic on both fronts. Like EYFS teachers who insist that scripted lessons are impractical in terms of managing the children, likewise secondary students left to open undirected learning can be equally troublesome, and most teachers could do without the exhaustion of it all.
  • Lack of expertise in other fields– students working on projects may not have the appropriate skills needed to carry out the intentions of their project. E.g. artistic, technological, etc. and employing other areas of the school to assist is a logistical issue. This then takes us back to the original issue that prevents this type of learning from being successful – when the knowledge base isn’t sufficient for actual learning to happen.
  • There’s so much content – as soon as a unit is completed, it is assessed, and the next one introduced, predominantly with external examinations in mind. Boards of education seem to have rammed so much content into the curriculum possibly because of a fear of there being empty spaces – because creative aspects can’t be assessed, those who don’t provide such learning experiences need something to do – the corollary of this is that everyone pays the price with the need to add more content.  
  • It’s hard enough teaching the knowledge right – few of us have mastered the intricacies required to take students to mastery, and with the next part of the course needed to be got at, not only is there not time to foster an experimental context of the knowledge, but students likely haven’t mastered the knowledge to be able to use it effectively anyway. I hold myself up against educators like Tom Needham and Adam Boxer in this regard, educators who are meticulous in their planning and delivery of content to ensure mastery. I recommend you check them out.
  • To allow space for practising skills – Inexorable accountability results in schools panicking, ‘like swimmers that do cling together, and choke their art’*, by sterilising curriculum, and teaching to the test. Opponents to this aspect of modern schooling are numerous, correct and vociferous about the reductionist outcomes of accountability, but nevertheless, this elephant is very much still in the room.

English creativity?

I am certain every subject would identify with the above, but for me as an English teacher, English is certainly guilty as charged. With a disproportionate emphasis placed on decontextualized grammar and analysis, secondary students rarely have opportunities to create their own content. Poets, writers, speakers, dramatists, are usually only offered such opportunity to participate in these artforms in extra-curricular clubs. Most creative writing is restricted to a time limit in externalised testing, and if it is internally moderated, is likely to also be restricted so as to be managed.

So are there solutions to these barriers? Is it actually possible to include creative exploration of content and knowledge in a school curriculum?

That’s the subject of the next post.

* do you know what text this quote is from?

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger , and follow this blog for more education and English teaching posts.

If You Don’t Model, Learning’s a Lottery

The video below is a perfect demonstration of why it’s so important to model learning for students.

What it highlights is what most motivated people do when not instructed properly: we improvise. Sometimes it works for us. Lots of times, unfortunately, it doesn’t. Oh, how much easier it would have been, all those hundreds of times opening the stock packet to have known how to do it as it was intended to be done. Oh the time we could have saved; how much better our cooking may have been with the stock evenly distributed. Oh the lament thinking of the times when the stock didn’t completely dissolve: the looks of disdain not even nearly disguised on my kids’ strained faces.

I use the 1st person plural pronouns deliberately, because actually when we teach a class, there is collective learning, learning that is taken out into the world by our students and disseminated. If it’s incorrect, or just not as good as it could be, lots of people can be affected.

Careful and precise modelling of the learning we want our students to engage in is crucial. Andy Tharby discusses ‘live modelling’ and ‘worked examples here, as does Tom Needham here. If we don’t, success in the task is only possible by passing through several hoops.

  • The first is the student’s level of motivation. Joe Kirby explores motivation wonderfully well in this post citing a Willingham hypothesis of what drives motivation: it is not so much the relevance of the content as the challenge of the task. ‘Curiosity has staying power if we judge that the mental work will pay off – we quickly evaluate the mental work it will take to solve the problem’. In other words, when students are finding the task difficult to do in the absence of effective modelling with incremental steps and appropriate amounts of practice, if the perceived chance of success is 50% or less, which includes social success, most will give up.
  • Despite this probability, if students are able to hang on through this and attempt the second hoop, they are now at the mercy of having to hope that their efforts do not expend too much cognitive load in processing the task. Again, if this overload renders perceptions of success low, students will give up.
  • However, some students will show remarkable resilience, which can be trained, and persist in tackling the task and producing learning. But the learning is a lottery, sometimes producing success, often not. The proof is in the OXO example.

If we want students to learn what we want them to learn, we have to show them what it is we want them to learn.

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger, and follow this blog for more on educational discussions and English teaching.

Should examiners be expert in the subject they mark? Duh!

I know what you’re thinking. This is obvious. Well, think again.

An examiner has to provide evidence they are teaching in their field, but they don’t have to show they are any good at it.

Take the recruitment of English examiners for example. So desperate are boards to attract markers, rather than make it an attractive proposition financially to attract the very best people, they accept teachers who have been teaching for a minimum of 3 years. They literally advertise the positions as excellent CPD – in other words, you’ll be training and making all kinds of mistakes whilst students’ grades are on the line.

Examiners do not have to have read a certain text to be able to mark an exam on it. For example, the Shakespeare component offers students a range of Shakespeare plays to write about, but at no point are teachers allocated to specific texts to match their expertise in a particular play. Consequently, there is a strong chance that an examiner may have marked a script in the last GCSE exams on Othello, or The Merchant of Venice, or Much Ado About Nothing without any real knowledge of the play.

Even if they do know the play, if a student provides a quite nuanced response, is the unread or inexperienced teacher/examiner going to be able to appreciate the insight? I doubt it. Is the student’s grade going to be compromised as a result? Of course.

As teachers, we spend a considerable amount of time trying to push our brightest students to explore the subtleties of these great texts. What a shame that some of that won’t be recognised in exams.

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger, and follow this blog for more discussions about education and English teaching


Recent observations from marking transactional writing draw me to the following hypothesis: when students are pushing their working memory to capacity in order to produce developed arguments, if grammar is not at the point of automaticity, it is neglected.

This post will present the case for this assertion.

There seems to be 5 types of writers in transactional argumentative writing:

  1. Strong content, strong grammar
  2. Good content, poor grammar
  3. Ok content, poor grammar
  4. Poor content, ok to poor grammar
  5. Very poor content, very poor grammar

Grammar, as defined by Aarts, Cushing and Hudson (2019) in their book ‘How to Teach Grammar‘, is a ‘system of generalised patterns in a language that convey meaning.’ Tools to assist in that shaping include inflectional and derivational morphology as well as syntax. Essentially, morphology refers to the structure of words (so spelling is grammar) and syntax to how words are used in a sentence. There are numerous grammars in the world, but an important consideration for proponents of functional grammar is that these patterns must be explored in context, which makes sense in terms of evaluating their effects. Students secure in the grammar understood by schools engage in the ‘playing with’ of structures and patterns to create meaning; and analyse how an author has used words to create particular effects.

Phrasing and the creation of competent sentence constructions is an axiomatic consideration at GCSE level, usually employing subordinate clauses for effect, as well as spelling words correctly. I also contend that punctuation is inextricably linked to grammar in that syntax is defined or bounded by punctuation. Accurately signposting the bounds of these constructions on the page is critical to successful syntax, and therefore, grammar. Out of the VSSPS criteria, that leaves vocabulary as the only element not technically a grammatical choice.

Marking students’ work is a difficult thing to do because the argument of what constitutes grammatical control undoubtedly means lots of different things to lots of different people. Who judges what is appropriate? Modern writers flaunt every convention we are taught, and are rewarded for it. The dilemma for teachers though is that in order to mark exams fairly, criteria need to be established and adhered to. This post can’t delve into this debate, but more so offers a discussion into the benefits of teaching grammar (whether that is contextualised or decontextualized) in helping reduce cognitive load in student writing.

Observations on each of the 5 types of responses (of course, shocking generalisations)

  1. These students obviously score highly in writing tasks. They develop their points, and control their sentence construction well, and usually for effect. These students tend to be on the higher end of the bell curve, and thus don’t represent the majority.
  2. These students are relatively rare. They write with good strong arguments, yet forget about rules of punctuation or basic grammar constructions as they go. They tend to be very good orally, and possibly see language as purely functional, like in text messaging etc, and convert that into their writing tasks.
  3. These students tend to make up the majority. They tend to be band 3 responses in content, and often band 2 in VSSPS. It is the poorer grammatical control that usually prevents them from getting more than 50% of the available marks in the task.
  4. These students, like number 2, are quite rare. They tend to have done well in primary, but then struggled during high school for one reason or another, which results in inability to produce good content in examination. In terms of VSSPS, they feed off the cultural fat of their primary knowledge (lots of participation in reading and writing), but still only just scrape through, and sometimes not. Their handwriting tends to be very neat, and large.
  5. These students seriously struggle in writing. They lack organisation in ideas, and control of grammar in general. Their handwriting tends to be very poor.

A common thread in 4 of the categories is inadequate grammatical control. Bear in mind I am talking about end of GCSE examinations, where really, grammatical control should be at least consistently competent. It should be more the quality of ideas that are being assessed. But sadly, this is not the case.


In examination, students’ working memories are at capacity. I believe that the majority of their focus is ascribed to the question presented in front of them, in trying to plan a response and remember the appropriate layouts and conventions of the text type. If grammar is not secure, and is not at the point of automaticity, it invariably will take the backseat, and suffer miserably. The student simply has to decide (unconsciously) what will be compromised, and the choice is essentially made for them with the palpable exhortation of content over style: ideas over grammatical control.

The enormous irony here is that a good understanding of grammar would assist in the presentation of the students’ arguments. The construction of sentences to frame discussions, if clear and concise, would assist in the working memory’s generation and organisation of present and future ideas.

But, something that maybe is not understood or considered enough, when writing, is the effect of reading back disorganised work on the generation of the next thought. It is normal to read what we have just written, to check and validate the thought process. For the good writer, the reading back is essential in providing a clearer picture of what the next point should be; the past literally frames the future. A poorly organised grammar would make that reading fuzzy, and seriously disrupt that sequencing process. It would create moments of incertitude with where the next thought should be directed. In a timed high stakes examination, despite the unconscious focus on content over style, it is little wonder that students then produce poor content: their working memories have become overloaded BY THE DISORGANISATION. I doubt struggling students would even be aware that they have robbed Peter to pay Paul, but Judas has come and taken the lot.

This seems an appropriate analogy:

Just as fluent lower order phonological processes assist reading comprehension by reducing the demand placed on attention of decoding, so skilled spelling assists written expression by enabling the student to attend to the higher order process of expressing ideas lucidly.

Singer, B., and Bashir, A. (2004). Developmental variations in writing. In Stone, C.A., Silliman, E.R., Ehren, B.J., and Apel, K. (Eds.), Handbook of language and literacy: Development and disorders, pp. 559-582. New York: Guilford.

I’ve talked before about the benefits of teaching grammar as a dedicated explicit discipline, but if the veracity of the claim made at the beginning of the post becomes validated by research, then it most certainly would demand a stronger emphasis on making grammar a dedicated and much more considered ingredient of any literacy programme. As a minimum, if we are able to develop students’ knowledge of grammar to automaticity, so its use facilitates dedicated attention solely on the development of ideas and points in a discussion, I think we will see a large improvement in the quality of transactional writing across the boards.   

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger, and follow this blog for more educational discussions and English teaching resources.


This is the second part of a post about transactional writing and utilising the power of the contrasting subordinator HOWEVER. The first post is here. In this post, I will provide a model of the technique being used for a question given in a typical GCSE writing exam.

This is part of a letter that appeared in a newspaper: 

‘I can’t understand why we have pets. They can be expensive to look after, they take up lots of time, children want them then get tired of them, yet if you dare to say you would never have a pet, people think you are strange.  I would never have one.’ 

Write a letter to the newspaper giving your views on this subject.  

How to go about answering this using a polemic argument as a base

1st job is planning 

  1. Separate the points provided by the question – there should be 4. 
  2. Decide if you will agree with the point of view about pets or disagree – you could have a mix of opinions. 
  3. Come up with the opposing view for each point – some points may have several ‘angles’ to follow up on.

Let’s imagine you are against the letter – in other words, you disagree with the points raised. Decide on the opposing argument for each point. 

Point 1 Point details Things person believes make pets expensive Your argument against 
Expensive  Vets     
 Food and care (cages, bedding toys, etc)     
 Buying to begin with     

Putting it all together 

However, …………………………………………………………………….…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

Now let’s do the same for the next point about them being expensive: food and other costs.

Another thing that can make pets expensive is the cost of food and keeping the pets, like cages or baskets. This can put pressure on the family budget.

 However,……………………………………… ………… ………… …………………………………………………………………… …………… ……… … …………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

Now let’s do the same for the next point about them being expensive: buying them to begin with. Copy the format above.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..……………………………………………………………………………………………………………… …………………………………………………………………… …………… ……… …

Now we’ll move onto the second major point: they take up too much time.

Point 2 Point details Things person believes make pets expensive Your argument against
Take up too much time          

What is happening is a development of a strong case against the person who dislikes pets. But crucially, their perspective is acknowledged, and countered with sensible and logical responses. It is indeed the polemic argument in poetic motion. The number of points and discussions will be governed by the amount of time in the assessment, but a gradual building of writing stamina is advised for struggling writers. This can be achieved by building resilience with small but important successes, having students tackle the first point only, and giving them a time limit that is gradually reduced with each new attempt. Then the second discussion would be expected, again with varying time limits once mastery is achieved. And so on…

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger, and follow this blog for more English teaching resources.

A GRAMMAR SEQUENCE – what it looks like

This is part 2 of developing grammar knowledge. Part 1 is here.

Knowing where to begin a sequence of learning grammar in secondary school is a difficult one, for a variety of reasons:

  • a teacher’s picture of what a student knows and brings into the yr 7 classroom may be incomplete. * The expectations of knowledge are at the bottom of the post, but also see James Durran’s blog which discusses the literacy gap.
  • the existence of a detailed sequential scheme of learning is difficult to find. Daisy Christodoulou’s seminal work ‘Making good progress’ identifies the need to design learning sequences that provide practice of tasks that may not reflect the final summative task, but in fact are individual components that make up the whole. She writes specifically about grammar design here. There are of course a limitless number of resources available online dealing with every aspect of grammar, but I am yet to find anything that takes a student step by step through word classes in a logical and functional manner, and/or does so in a way that doesn’t suffer from the curse of knowledge (the idea that when you know something it is difficult to imagine others not knowing it, which can interfere with teaching something to adequate depth). This is important – i hope to goodness that i am wrong, but I am not aware of a functional approach to grammar (which i espouse) that is connected to a specific scheme of learning. I’ve seen lots of examples of how functional grammar can be applied, but not an actual scheme that could be incorporated into a real curriculum.
  • some don’t value the power of teaching grammar as a distinct discipline
  • building a scheme into a curriculum may interfere with the core content, and as time is everthing’s enemy, takes a significant backseat in most English classrooms.
  • as a corollary, lots of schemes actually don’t include grammar as a focus.

I talked about the power of grammar in the last post, as a tool that strengthens a student’s control of language and improves the feedback process with significantly more explicit direction. I also truly believe that understanding grammar significantly helps with punctuation, especially helping to elimate the dreaded comma splice and the equally as frustrating fragmented sentence. But without any shadow of a doubt, a successful grammar curriculum must be assiduously designed so that it is sequential, incrementally moving a student forward once mastery of each element is achieved.

To that end, I have created such a scheme, and am in the process of creating the resources to match. I have provided an example of how mastery would be achieved with each element.

Here is a short video of the whole scheme. What you will hopefully notice is the progression style of each element. As much as possible, one element blends into another:

The sequence is the following:

  • ​​Nouns​
  • Determiners​
  • Subject + object​
  • Verb forms​
  • Finite verbs​
  • Auxiliary verbs​
  • Modal verbs​
  • Clauses​
  • Conjunctions​
  • Adjectives ​
  • Relative clauses
  • Adverbs​
  • Phrases​
  • Prepositions​
  • Participles 

The sequence is broken into distinct sections, and the teacher would, depending on where they begin, teach each element and then provide activities for students to master their knowledge of the respective element.

Section A: begins by explaining the various types of nouns, and how determiners are used to introduce certain nouns. The subject of a sentence is then taught as this is essential for the understanding of what constitutes a clause.  

Section B: introduces the concept of a verb. The 5 main forms of verb are discussed. The reason for going into depth here rather than simply encouraging students to say that all verb forms are merely ‘verbs’ is that each of the forms serves a particular purpose in our language, and so a secure knowledge of each assists them in being more precise with their language. The great bonus of this is that the teacher can then provide more precise feedback to students. 

The distinction between finite and non-finite verb forms is made clear, which allows for a discussion about tense, and how and why we must use the correct tense. Auxiliary verbs, including modal verbs are presented to assist the understanding of tense. 

Section C: introduces how nouns and verbs are used in combination to form sentences primarily via clauses. Main and subordinate explanations provide opportunities to discuss conjunctions, both coordinating and subordinating, and what rules we use to punctuate both compound and complex sentences.  

Section D: introduces modifiers. The scheme begins by discussing adjectival and adverbial clauses. In terms of adjectival, the common use of relative clauses is explained and restricted and non-restricted clauses are explained; an important consideration for punctuation.  

Section E: introduces how non-finite verbs are used to create phrases. The 4 main types of phrases are explained, and how they are used as modifiers. Prepositions are defined, and lots of attention is given to participles. Participle phrases are highly effective modifiers, and the adjectival nature of past and present participles is explored. As well as this, the adaptive nature of participles explains how they are used in the passive voice, as well as in combination with auxiliary verbs in 9 of the 12 tenses


Where your students enter the scheme is of course determined by their prior knowledge, but upon entering, each element MUST begin as though the student is a novice, and therefore assessment of the new element MUST only test that element. Isolating assessment is crucial to not only prevent cognitive overload, but also so you can see any errors that arise, and if more activities to achieve mastery are needed. Students MUST master each component of grammar before moving onto the next stage of the sequence. This is crucial.  The table below illustrates this design, with the scheme beginning with proper nouns, and designed activities that incrementally build knowledge. The number of errors to check understanding embedded in each activity would remain roughly consistent, and each element ends with a summative assessment combining the various types of questions that could be asked of the element. As you can see, by the time the summative test is issued at the end of this element (sentence example), a secure knowledge of proper nouns would be certain.

What is essential is that there is an adequate number of activities to achieve mastery. This means creating a bank of resources for each element, a process I have begun, but which will obviously take some time to complete. For example, as illustrated below, if a student needs 10 activities to master the element, then 10 activities must exist. This would be an unusually high number however, as the incremental design should naturally eradicate this occurence.


The road to mastery is not a short one. Daisy Christodoulou discusses the difference between a spiral curriculum and a mastery approach here, espousing the benefits of the latter succinctly, and convincingly. Beginning the grammar scheme as soon as possible in secondary school would be the ideal, utilising SATS tests as a baseline (see Sarah Barker’s blog on this), in combination with other measures. Some older year groups may begin the scheme near its end, with participles for example, with students having already demonstrated security in every previous element. Teachers may wish to use the scheme as an intervention tool, arming interventionist staff with a deliberate approach to bringing students up to speed, so they can begin to analyse and use language in classes with increased confidence.

How you deliver the content is up to you. Where possible, the reason for the existence of the grammatical function would be explicitly explained to the students. Why are there nouns? etc. There are cues to this in the scheme, but the teacher would add their spin on the reasons. Advisably, a strong focus on contextual grammar would be best, as superbly illustrated here by James Durran, but of course this can only happen once the form has initially been taught. You may adapt activities to reinforce mastery with examples from respective texts you are studying, but remember that the design of the activities is still crucial in terms of minimising extraneous load. Either way, constant discussion in class about the elements already covered would significantly assist in students encoding the knowledge. Empowering students with the technical language to discuss the functional grammar used in texts you are studying I think makes teaching those texts infintely more enjoyable, as you get a step closer to being truly able to evaluate the meanings contained within.

The important consideration however, is that you can’t cheat the process of developing grammar knowledge. The power it provides students is irrefutable, but you simply can’t rush the process, or skip parts of the sequence. Learning gaps will result if you do, and we end up with the current state of serious and debilitating VSSPS issues at GCSE level.


The ultimate aim is to add videos to help explain each element, maximising the process of dual coding, and then have the activities embedded into an adaptive learning platform, so students are AUTOMATICALLY directed and guided depending on their success rates to the relevant section in the course. Stay tuned!

*Below is the Yr 6 Curriculum signalling expectations of grammar knowledge:

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger, and follow this blog for more English teaching and general educational resources and discussions.

A GRAMMAR SEQUENCE – why we need it

It is not an accident or platitude that primary school students are taught grammar, and to an impressive degree too. Teaching grammar literally equips students with an understanding of the building blocks of language, the tool that we use extensively, and would be utterly lost without. In primary, the teaching of grammar is a mixture of form and function, the distinction well explained here by Bas Aarts, with functionality, inextricably connected to context, deemed as the superior strategy. The quantitative nature of SATS however anecdotally fixates attention more on form, mostly in Yr 6, rendering it a practice that many believe to be incongruent to the ideal. It may be, worryingly so, earlier for some.

Being pragmatic, both foci offer secondary teachers a significant opportunity to harness the incredibly important work done by primary teachers. Unfortunately, this opportunity seems to be rarely taken up. There exists a great irony in the recent spotlight into curriculum design that doesn’t take heed of what students bring to the table from primary education*. Issues in getting the transition right and avoiding the ‘wasted years‘ is intelligently discussed here by James Durran. It is certainly not an easy thing to get right, especially when students may arrive from a multitude of feeder schools, but having a better understanding of what a student already knows as they enter a Yr 7 classroom has got to be a step in the right direction. A recent post by Sarah Barker raises the possibility of teachers gaining more precise awareness of prior-knowledge in English, with access to specific breakdowns of errors available to secondary teachers:

Of course, all of the information is practically pointless if what students know is not going to be built upon. Yes, grammar, punctuation and spelling are perennial areas of concern, and make up a substantial ratio of an English GCSE grade, but how much focus is actually given to them as discreet components of language development? Or are they simply add-ons to the core of what we teach, with greater attention given to a more contextualised focus on language meaning?

It is my contention that a rigorous grammar focus would significantly improve schoolwide literacy as well as language analysis and expression in the English classroom.

Teaching grammar in secondary school has potency. Continuing the empowerment inducted into primary students with the knowledge of how our language is constructed not only provides opportunity for students to read and comprehend increasingly complex written information with understanding, and hence enjoyment, in almost all subjects, but it also gives them a platform from which to build, shape and refine their own writing.

Be Explicit!

Explicitly and continuously directing students to the functionality of grammar in everything they are exposed to is a sure way to help students achieve automaticity in parsing language. James Durran’s blog on doing so is a must read for all KS3 teachers, in which he beseeches teachers to discuss grammar contextually, continuously drawing students’ attention to the purpose and meaning of the language use. Explicit grammar teaching also significantly assists in providing explicit feedback to students’ writing, as you are able to suggest more refined and precise instructions for improvement. It is far superior to say to a student, ‘Would that sentence be better if you added a more interesting adverb to that subordinate clause?’, or ‘I think an appositive would improve the description in the sentence’, or to assist in punctuation, ‘Why do you have a comma placed between two independent clauses?’, or ‘Can you use a semi-colon there if the second section is a phrase and not a clause?’

This sentiment echoes the great Tom Needham, who adds to the invocation of Doug Lemov when he says: Although I want my students to be able to name these particular parts of a sentence, most importantly I want them to use them. While there may be disagreement about the ‘correct’ name to give these (absolute phrases seem to be known as ‘nominative absolutes’ as well as ‘noun phrases . . . combined with participles’), we still need a name to give them if we are to discuss, analyse and practice them, creating what Lemov refers to as ‘a shared language for your team’ p.66. If we have this shared language, we are able to minimise confusion and be precise, allowing us to create focussed practice activities.

Essentially, my belief is that having a better grasp of the science of our language will ultimately help in understanding and producing the art of our language.

How to integrate a grammar scheme

Well, that’s the next post… here.

*Below is the Yr 6 Curriculum signalling expectations of grammar knowledge:

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger, and follow this blog for more English teaching and general educational resources and discussions.

MAKING THE MOST OF MOCKS – primary and secondary

Whilst invigilating the other day a yr 10 science mock exam, and watching students sitting there believing to have completed the exam with 10 minutes to go, I couldn’t help but think that a large opportunity was missed in me not providing examination performance advice right there and then, in real time. And so I did.

I explained to students that as hard as it may be, that going back over their work was crucial. Now I know we all say this to students ad nauseum, and I’ve presented to them possible scenarios they may encounter in the exam and how to handle them, provided advice on exam performance, and utilised Elisabeth Bowling’s wonderful mock walk through advice, but my observations are that because students are totally over the whole thing at the end of the exam and can’t wait to get out, and because they haven’t had enough practice of exam performance to embed the end of exam processes, without a physical reminder (kick up the butt), they simply won’t do it. Well some will of course, but not the majority.

My contention is that they need a teacher/invigilator in every mock guiding them at the end, explaining to them so they can embed the conversation to replay back in the real exams. This may contradict with what you envisage a mock to be (and you may think my advice in the mock unfairly benefitted those in the room). But for me, everything is a progression to the next major summative assessment and an opportunity to learn about how to do the REAL thing, especially when the pressure of strong performance in the REAL thing, SATS, GCSE and A-level, is more than ostensibly paramount.

Here’s my spiel:

‘It’s probably the last thing you feel like doing right now, but going back over your work is absolutely crucial, as it can, and usually does, help you see any fixable mistakes. Also, what’s really important is that you read back your work from the beginning of the exam, because as at this stage of the exam, your brain is warmed up significantly more, and is now more likely to be able to think better or make connections to other parts of the exam. This is essential if you have missed a question or 2 (maths, science etc) that you didn’t know how to do when you first encountered them. If you do this, it could be the difference between a grade boundary.‘

‘Ok, well done. As I said (signalling those who had obviously changed an answer or written more), going back over work could be the difference between a grade boundary.’

The necessity of this in subjects that assess for language construction speaks for itself, adjusting common errors such as spellings, apostrophe dis/use, punctuation and grammar, and even adjusting vocab for effect and rephrasing if opportunities arise, but arguably it’s even more important in maths.

Imagine the impact of a student hearing this and carrying out the procedure in every mock or KS2, KS3, and KS4 summative assessment, for as many mocks or assessments as they are given over their schooling career.


The imperative of this preparation ISN’T MISSED IN THE PRIMARY SECTOR. The vigilance taken in ensuring students understand and can react to the multiple nuances of tests, from how to sit, to how to hold their pencils to avoid tiredness, to prescriptive time warnings throughout assessment, to the more powerful active teaching of ‘how’ to check for errors (for example: giving students papers with errors on them and asking them to spot them), is something that the secondary sector could have a better understanding of, so that they can carry it on and utilise the significant effort and energy that has gone into cultivating assessment performance in primary schools.

Recently spending time with a primary teacher, who is quite clearly exceptional at what she does, has made me much more aware of the terrible waste of resource that secondary teachers perpetuate by not being more attuned to what goes on in primary, (such as grammar knowledge), and this must change (blog pending).

A Way forward

If we use summative assessment to measure learning, and we must, then it is essential that we assist students as much as possible in training them to perform in exam conditions. Some may argue that the performance is part of the exam, and those who can handle the pressure and can adapt and pace their answers demonstrate higher ability than those who can’t, and consequently should be rewarded for it. But if you don’t hold this view*, the validity of the exam itself becomes reduced if exam performance interferes with our quest to measure what students know and can do.  

A possible process:

  • †Assessments are extended (not known by students) by 5-10 minutes for the process to be carried out
  • Large posters are displayed in the examination room/hall with the process outlined
  • Teachers/ invigilators work off a script so the information is consistent and therefore more memorable
  • Students could possibly highlight sections/parts where additions/adjustments have been made, making it easy to see the rewards of the exercise once exams are handed back (highlighting to see what is and isn’t known is a highly effective process introduced by Blake Harvard)
  • Post exam feedback could include statistics of gains made

Ideally, by the time students arrive at yr 11 mocks the process would have been embedded to the point of automaticity, thereby reducing the number of permutations of possible errors in examinations, and providing the teacher and school with a more accurate inference of what students know and can do, and of course, what they can’t.

*Actually, even if you do, I think every student has the right to be prepared for the exam as much as possible.

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger and follow this blog for more English teaching resources and general teaching and learning ideas.