Category Archives: effort

Mixed ability teaching-10 strategies that have worked for me.

Unlike any other year in my career, I have taught all mixed ability classes in 2015/2016. With previous timetables either dominated completely or almost completely of set groups based on prior attainment, it was a cause of anxiety. Could I manage to meet the needs of a much wider ability change? Would my approach to differentiation forged in sets be enough and if not, how much extra work would it take? The following are strategies that have helped considerably and rate favourably on the time versus impact axis.

1. Modelling learning.

I consider myself a growth mindset teacher, so modelling  such things as mistake making, being unsure, using a dictionary, memorising have always been there, but mixed ability teaching demands they are part of every lesson for every learner in the classroom.

2. Same style starter.

We have the same style starter every lesson for a half term. It will have different challenges and different entry points, but the instructions are the same and by the end of the third lesson and students start to do it without instruction. I am not sure if it is the routine, the absence of my voice or the space to settle, but it has had an extremely positive impact on at least one class.

3. TA is everyone’s friend

We are just starting to trial this, but it involves the teaching assistant having learning conversations with all members of the class to avoid being associated with one particular group or students. Likewise for me.

4. Everyone is a TA and everyone is a teacher

All students get short opportunities to observe group work as roving reporter. Students are invited to summarise instructions or give reminders about success criteria. Students can be asked to write up notes on the board and or work with another group.

5. No hands up and no pattern

Desperate to avoid the pattern of lower order questions at the start aimed at weaker students and then higher order with more able, I have had to work hard on this without completely randomising it. This has been my mantra: no discernible patterns in questioning for students; no being able to predict when their question might come up; and no being able to sit back when they think they have been done with.

6. Sophisticated vocabulary-again and again

Short and frequent bursts of whole class taboo (student in front of the board responding to clues about the key word on the board behind them). This also serves a ‘light breather’ in 100 minute lesson, but means that every student will present some range of sophisticated vocabulary in their writing.

7. Explicit outcomes and big arrows

This involves very clear repetition of expectations to the class about what exactly they will produce with no ceiling. ‘Everyone will write at least one paragraph’ about this extract. I have been worried that some students will attempt only the minimum outcome and this is sometimes the case and prompting and monitoring are required. However, there are many students who have unlocked ambition and consciously go beyond the minimum as they are not hemmed into an ‘orange’ task. I use a big arrow on the board to emphasise that the outcome can take place on a spectrum.

8. Support resources

Support resources are essential, but not for everyone as some learners, in my experience in the past, will use these when entirely unneeded. I will hand them out  separately based on apparent need. I have also placed them in exercise books before the lesson.

9. Challenge and support habits

This is embedded in my classroom talk and my feedback. For example, analysing sentence structure for certain students who have mastered language analysis or for others, ‘magpieing’ sentence starters from texts for their own writing. It has taken a while, but students are independently displaying these learning behaviours.

10. Explicit reading strategies

Inspired by various forms of CPD on reading, we regularly reflect prior to meeting a new text on the reading strategies we use (see previous posts). There are opportunities to draw what we read, label paragraphs and predict. When we encounter vocabulary, students are building the habit of looking inside the word and then around it before reaching for dictionary. I will discuss what previous experiences and reading, I am using to support my understanding of unseen texts.





The visual spelling strategy

Attending a CPD session on working memory from an Educational Psychologist prompted me to ask about effective strategies for spelling. Having taught a range of strategies before, I had failed to see real impact of the independent application of strategies by students. I was told about the NLP technique. A quick google took me to


  1. Place the correct spelling of the word in front of you so you can see it easily.
  2. Close your eyes and think of something that feels relaxing like a favourite place or spending time with a pet. When the feeling is strong, open your eyes and look at the correct spelling.
  3. Move your eyes up and to the left and picture the correct spelling in your mind’s eye. (If you have difficulty, use the Helpful Hints below.)
  4. Look up at your mental image and write down the letters you see. Check what you have written against the correct spelling. If incorrect go to step #1.
  5. Look up at your mental image and spell the word backwards (write the letters down from right to left). Check the spelling. If incorrect, go to step #3.


  1. Picture the word in your favourite colour.
  2. Make any unclear letters stand out by making them look different than the others in some way – e.g. bigger, brighter, closer, a different colour, etc.
  3. Break the word into groups of three letters and build your picture three letters at a time.
  4. Put the letters on a familiar background. Picture something like a familiar object or movie scene then put the letters you want to remember on top of it.
  5. If it is a long word, make the letters small enough so that you can see the whole word easily.
  6. Trace the letters in the air with your finger and picture in your mind the letters you are writing.

Introducing to classes

Using terms like brain trick, I introduced the strategy with some traditionally tricky words like diarrhoea. Level 4-5 students, with difficulties with common words, homophones and words not spelt how they sound, secured the word by employing the handy hints and there was an air of confidence and triumph amongst a group of year 8 learners. Class discussion teased out other strategies and when it came to securing students’ own tricky words highlighted in marking, a small number stated a preference towards strategies they had used before. In order to encourage students to internalise the process for future independent application, I asked them to write an email to an alien who had recently landed on earth and was struggling to secure some spellings.  Introducing the strategy to a group of much more able and confident spellers was less successful as baffled faces couldn’t equate closing eyes and relaxation to spelling.

Next steps

What I didn’t do last term was revisit the words with the same classes and see if the strategy had any long term impact. While I referred to it in DIRT sessions afterwards, perhaps I could have surveyed students who had used it or given the class a reminder of the process. A certain next step is to encourage students to apply the strategy in others subjects. Having demonstrated the techniques with colleagues from other departments, who were enthusiastic and positive about the process, I wonder what power and impact such a strategy could have with all staff referring to it as the responsibility for SPAG moves beyond the English classroom.

Scaling in the classroom

As a coach, I regularly use the simple tool of scaling with colleagues. After using it in one to one meetings with students, I wondered if its efficacy would be relevant in the classroom. This blog is intended to share that learning, seek feedback and warm the brain up as the summer concludes!

The original resource
Scaling 1

10 being the up most, I asked students to scale things like effort during an activity. Then we would discuss how they could boost that effort. This involved setting small goals like writing a paragraph before a certain time, writing more neatly or referring back to the their notes if they were stuck. It was important that we made the ways to move up the scale explicit and achievable and that students had choice. As we used the tool more, students who had scaled themselves 8, 9 or 10 would share what was going well for them. These mini goals were recorded and students would continue working. After sometime, we would revisit our scaling sheets and do it again. I would invite students to share if they wished. Sometimes there would be a notable change in the energy in the classroom after this opportunity for reflection. Scaling as a tool requires honesty and the students were incredibly open with and to the process. These scaling intervals  would range in the amount of time they required, 2 minutes to maybe 8 depending on discussion time and familiarity. With reluctant learners or those lacking confidence, I often had one to one conversations which began with questioning what had made them choose 3 instead of 1 or 0.


Group work
Scaling 2<

In the never ending quest to improve the quality of group work in my classroom, I developed the BLISS scaling sheet. When introducing this resource to a class, a ‘think, pair, share’  activity makes it real with questions like:

  • If a group is being supportive, what would you see?
  • How would you know if a group is sharing ideas?
  • What would you hear and see if students are listening to each other?
  • If a group was failing to be independent, what would you see?

The BLISS scaling tool is ineffective if these more abstract attributes are not broken down into behaviours students can recognise. During the group activity, I would clap my hands and this would invite the groups to reflect. This can be followed by a class discussion using questions like:

  • Who has felt their group is being very independent?
  • How do they know and what made it happen?’.

Alternatively, I might sit with a particular group and discuss their reflections and assist in goal setting if required. You can ask students to note timings for each scale and the same sheet can be used over a series of lessons to track how well the group has worked.

photo (1)

Making it easy: less preparation time and more impact.
I still use the BLISS sheet, but I realised that students can draw their own scales very quickly and it serves as a record in their exercise books and is evidenced beside the work that is its context. I don’t plan what we will scale as that depends what is happening so it might be resilience, independence, concentration or I might invite students to choose.

The key to using scaling is to ensure that students are familiar with the language and know how it translates into behaviours in order to avoid meaningless targets like, ‘be more independent’. It is essential to return to the scale as the mini goals students have set themselves will be worthless and won’t result in a behavioural change without an opportunity to reflect on progress.