Researching the effects of SAM learning on class work and exam preparation in English at Key Stage 4

An Action Research project by Katie Sutherland (English)


To research the effects of SAM learning to monitor whether setting these tasks for homework can have a positive effect on class work and exam preparation at KS4.

From their promotional information comes the following statement:

“With more activities across more subjects and a wider range of exam boards than any other online service, SAM Learning is the most effective online homework and exam-preparation service for secondary schools in the UK today.”

This action research project was used to challenge prior assumptions with a specific focus on Year 10 pupils.

The prior assumptions based upon 16 years in secondary education were:

  • Year 10 pupils would engage more with e-learning homework tasks than generic reading and writing tasks
  • Boys completion of e-learning homework would be at least equivalent to girls, if not greater
  • There would be clear evidence in mock exam results that pupils had benefitted from e-learning homework

In order to broaden the breadth of study, reading was undertaken of previous research on the effectiveness of using online learning resources to improve progress. A convincing statistic was found and supported the objective of this action research project: ‘The impact of on-line revision on GCSE results’ by Karen Osborne, SAM Learning blog, 2005. The reference to boosting a ‘school’s GCSE results by over 30 per cent’ was an incentive to trial and monitor this method of setting homework and specifically the statement that, ‘improvements were more significant for boys’ as this remains a keen area of interest within my own practice as an English teacher.

online learning boosts school’s GCSE results by over 30 per cent. Improvements were more significant for boys, suggesting that online learning is an effective tool to help engage adolescent boys with their learning.’ (; 2005)


The process for this action research project included:

  1. Set specific exam related tasks from Sam Learning for Year 10 pupils
  2. Monitor and analyse the data provided in response to these tasks
  3. Evaluate any impact on class work and mock exam results
  4. Pupil voice survey on the use of Sam Learning as a homework tool
  5. Conclusions
  6. Next steps

1.  Set specific exam related tasks from Sam Learning for Year 10 pupils.

28 Year 10 pupils of mixed ability were set 48 tasks over a 6 week period all related to English Paper 1.

35% of tasks were cloze activities therefore allowing the least able pupils to achieve success by placing the correct words/ phrases into responses

35% of tasks required a more developed response and would challenge all pupils to type a response of between 30 and 50 words

30% of tasks required a developed response were pupils would have to write in more depth and write about 100-150 words

2. Monitor and analyse the data provided in response to the homework tasks set.

% of tasks completed by pupils 0-14% 15-29% 30-49% 50-69% 70-89% 90-100%
Number of pupils 5 6 6 4 0 3

Figure 1. Completion rate of all homework tasks set on SAM learning

The rationale of this division of tasks was to encourage pupils of all ability to complete the maximum amount of homework tasks to consolidate learning. Sam Learning offers tasks that are multiple choice, clozed activities that can help with progress of less able pupils. However, it also has tasks that require a more developed response and then the more challenging tasks that require a detailed response that demonstrate a breadth of understanding by pupils and would consolidate learning in preparation for exam responses.

K Sutherland - fig 2

Figure 2. Breakdown of the relative completion rate of tasks by gender in relation to the overall completion rate of tasks set (see figure 1)

Evidence suggests:

  • Girls have completed significantly more homework than boys
  • A proportion of girls were willing to complete all tasks set
  • The maximum that a boy completed was 45% of tasks set

This evidence contradicted initial pre-conceptions that boys would complete more homework using technology and online learning tasks than girls. However, disappointingly, the maximum amount of homework tasks that a boy completed was 45% even though boys had equivalent target grades to their female peers. This did not fit with the expected results and made me reflect on whether or not the claims that completing online learning tasks ‘boosted grades by up to 30 percent’ were either gender specific or possibly even subject specific and perhaps English was not a subject that had benefitted from these results.

3. Evaluate any impact on class work and mock exam results

All of the learning tasks set were focused on AQA English Paper 1 and it was hoped that the completion of online learning tasks would support progress and be evidenced in mock examination results.

Pupil Time spent


Position in class mock exam Base level
Pupil 1 43.5 1 5a
Pupil 2 19.5 2 5c
Pupil 3 30.52 3 5b
Pupil 4 (EAL) 43.35 4 4c
Pupil 5 11.05 5 5c
Pupil 6 7.00 6 5a
Pupil 7 8.35 7 5b
Pupil 8 4.3 8 4a
Pupil 9 (EAL) 10.35 9 4c
Pupil 10 23.33 10 4a
Pupil 11 5.55 11 5b
Pupil 12 1.10 12 5c
Pupil 13 16.3 13 4c
Pupil 14 8.00 14 4b
Pupil 15 35.2 15 4b
Pupil 16 14.3 16 4b
Pupil 17 3.25 17 3a
Pupil 18 (SEND) 3.5 18 3b
Pupil 19 (EAL) 35.2 19 3a
Pupil 20 (EAL) 17.45 20 4c
Pupil 21 2.45 21 4a
Pupil 22 .25 22 4a
Pupil 23 (SEND) .2 23 4c
Pupil 24 (SEND) 17.5 24 2c

Figure 3. A comparison of time spent on SAM learning task in relation to ranked position in a mock exam and student base level data.

Notable observations:

Pupil 4 has spent a significant amount of time completing homework and achieved 4th position in class.

Yet, pupil 19 has also completed a significant amount of homework and achieved 19th place.

Their base level was just one sub-level difference.

Pupil 10 has spent a significant amount of time completing homework and achieved 10th position in class.

Whereas Pupil 11 has a higher base level but has not completed nearly as much homework and is in 11th position.

4. Pupil Voice Survey

Pupil voice Survey        
Questions Girls Yes Boys Yes Girls No Boys No
Do you prefer homework tasks set on the computer? 10 11 3 0
Do you complete more homework if you can use the computer? 8 9 5 2
Are you satisfied with the amount of homework tasks that you have completed? 6 5 5 7
Would it help you to complete more tasks if you had a set amount to complete per week? 7 7 4 5
Do you think that SAM Learning has had a positive impact on your class work or mock? 8 5 3 7
Would you have completed more tasks if you could do this in an after school revision session? 4 10 7 3
Were your parents/ carers aware of your e-learning tasks? 5 2 6 9

5. Conclusions

  • Few pupils completed all e-learning homework tasks
  • The majority of girls completed more homework tasks than boys
  • One of the most able pupils from baseline data completed the most homework and achieved first position in the mock exam
  • Some of the least able pupils completed the least e-learning homework tasks
  • Boys were not as engaged when completing the extended responses
  • Most boys were honest in their response that they would probably complete more e-learning tasks if given time in school to revise.

Surprisingly, the data collected thus far has not supported the claims that ‘improvements were more significant for boys’. I can understand that if you are starting at a point of 0% completion of homework then there may be more significant improvements but my experience had been that it was difficult to gender stereotype as it really depended on the pupils who completed the work, rather than their gender. I was disappointed with the lack of extended responses from all pupils and with the boys in particular but I will consider their responses from the pupil voice survey when setting future homework.

6. Next steps

  • Set short manageable tasks on a fortnightly basis for pupils
  • Differentiate tasks for learners
  • Monitor pupils completion of tasks every fortnight
  • Offer lunch time / after school revision sessions (particularly for boys)
  • Group call parents with homework information
  • Reward all pupils who complete 75% or more of tasks

Further research would be beneficial whilst adapting my practice to include the ‘next steps’. I would hope that more manageable tasks, rewards and opportunities during the school day to complete learning will boost the quality and quantity of homework completed. Also, parental support via group call will be effective in ensuring completion of homework.

Featured image: ‘boy computer’ by OpenClipart-Vectors on Pixabay. Licensed under CC0 Public Domain


Supporting pupils with low-level literacy in Computing lessons

An Action Research project by Stephen Spurrell (Computing)

For my Action Research Project, I wanted to find various ways that allowed my Computing class in Year 7, which includes a number of pupils with low-level literacy and/or numeracy, to fully access the subject. Essentially, to differentiate for them and then use this research to modify future lessons.

I decided to write up my findings in a blog as I went along, and here are the posts from that blog in the period of this research project.

The blog can be seen at and I do intend to continue writing in it.

Computing and Low Level Literacy:An Introduction

Hello! Thank you very much for taking the time to read my blog. This is something I am doing as part of my CPD at a secondary school in Bristol in the UK. One of the classes that I teach has a number of pupils with low levels in Literacy and Numeracy. Whilst that isn’t particularly unusual, all schools have pupils that struggle more than others, I have found it a particular challenge to teach this class Computing at the start of the year. Computing, like many subjects, is a subject where precision and accuracy are paramount. How, then, do you get pupils who struggle to read and write to compose a working programme where they will need to write accurately, spell correctly and work out where the errors are? How do you enable pupils who struggle to count to ten to experience the success of seeing something they have created work on the screen in front of them? I did a quick Google search for tips, advice, schemes of work even for Computing with low level and low ability pupils (note that it isn’t just SEND pupils although they do make up part of the group if they have low levels too). I had a look on sites such as the TES to see if there were any materials there. I came back pretty blank and still left scratching my head. So I thought that I would try out some ideas, see which things work, which things don’t. If they work, I’ll use that idea again. If they don’t, I won’t. With the support of the rest of the Learning Focus Group (the small group of colleagues who are working on similar issues with their classes as part of our CPD) I’m hoping that this will be a successful year. Expect to find blogs about things that fell flat on their face. Expect to find blogs of something that worked really well! I hope that you find it useful and are able to help me reflect on my practise and ultimately improve the pace and depth of my pupils’ learning.

Computing and Low Level Literacy: Using Worksheets

The first module that is covered in the Year 7 Computing Scheme of Work is Online Safety. Not just spreading the message that children shouldn’t talk to strangers, but looking at how they keep their information safe, how to avoid plagiarism and the importance of reporting things when they go wrong. One lesson looks at scam emails and how we can identify them easily. A really useful skill that the pupils will then have to avoid giving their personal information away and to ensure they are not a victim of identity theft. There is a really good worksheet that goes along side this lesson which is provided by Common Sense Media. The worksheet lists the features of phishing emails such as being too good to be true, spelling errors (as phishing emails are often written by people who don’t speak very good English) or asking the user to confirm their password. It then gives three examples of a phishing email so that the pupil can highlight the feature and tell me what it is. Now, I knew that there would be people in the class who would struggle if I just put the worksheet in front of them like I did for my other class. They would struggle because perhaps they can’t read or because perhaps they struggle to understand concepts. So to make things easier for everyone, I read the instructions of the worksheet word for word, slowly and clearly, making sure I paused every few sentences to ensure they all understood what was expected of them. I had also created an ‘alternative’ worksheet for some of the pupils where I had already highlighted the feature or features in each email, they would just need to tell me what that feature was. After giving the pupils an opportunity to complete the worksheet and going around the room and helping them, being honest it is hard to see how this activity was in any way a success. The pupils who can’t read fluently (a surprisingly high number) still couldn’t tell me which feature had been highlighted because of course they couldn’t read it. Those pupils who can read still struggled because they can’t understand concepts so couldn’t make the link between a statement such as, “You have won £10,000,000 in the latest raffle” and it being too good to be true because they hadn’t entered the raffle. They would just guess which feature was which. Of the 15 pupils in the class, I would say only 3 or 4 made any real progress with understanding what to look out for in a phishing email. Interestingly that wasn’t through a lack of trying on the part of the rest of the class, they just couldn’t do it. Although I did notice their heads drop when I pulled out the worksheets at the start of the lesson, an interesting reaction, almost as if they knew this was going be like pulling teeth. As soon as I realised this task was not going to work, I had a swift mooch round Google to see if I could find a video that would explain this for me. I found one and put it on for the last 10 minutes of the lesson. Back to the drawing board then! Worksheets appear to be a big no-no for this class. I am aware though that I do not want to have too many videos. They need to do some written work, and need to be able to understand what is on the screen in front of them when they are at home. Otherwise they won’t be prepared for the real world.


The class I am working with who have low levels in Maths and some with Maths and Literacy are moving on to a topic of work that requires them to research, to write and to design an interactive quiz aimed at other people their age. Although on the surface a topic that might seem easy, for a child with low literacy/Maths and probably low confidence, this probably seems quite daunting. There is a lot of logic needed (which button goes to which location etc.) as well as having the confidence to use their imagination. The topic requires them to use specific knowledge – to know the answers to questions such as “How do I…?” Leading them to these answers, or giving them the opportunity to discover these answers involves demonstrations from the class teacher. So, how best to go about this? Recall is something that isn’t the best for pupils with low level literacy and low levels in Maths. So it is likely that they will be able to do something in one lesson, but then forget how to do it in another. I have decided to trial making videos available to them so that they can replay a demonstration over and over if they need it, or pause it when they need to think about an instruction.

It is also important that they are able to see a demonstration clearly, so I make use of Impero to broadcast my computer screen onto theirs so that they don’t have to strain or don’t end up too far away to see a detail. This appears to be working well although the proof of the pudding will be in the eating!

Helping Pupils with Writing

One of the many things I have noticed with teaching this low ability set is that they gain a lot of confidence from having things written down in front of them. This could be a word, a sentence, an instruction, information they need to copy or log in information. One of the pupils who has an LSA assigned uses a small whiteboard when he can’t spell a word they are researching, or when they need to remember an instruction for later. I tried this out with another pupil, and said to him to write down anything he didn’t know the meaning of whilst he was reading, or anything he wanted to ask me. Conversely, I wrote down things he needed to know or anything I wanted him to copy out. This massively boosts their confidence because they know that their exercise book will then only contain the right spelling, or the correct information and so be something that they are proud of. Perhaps this is because this is something they only associate the more able children with? It also helps them to plan a little bit more, as in think further ahead about something that they want to put into their work. As a consequence, I will be giving these boards to a couple of other pupils in the class. It will become a standard piece of kit for their lesson.

Coding with Low Level Pupils

One of the topics we have been looking at lately is coding. We use a fantastic website called which is full of resources, challenges and different types of coding to help teach this module of work. The great thing about is that you can easily differentiate the work pupils do because you can set them different courses depending on their ability. So the higher set that I teach will have a different course given to them than this low level set. The way works is to give some instructions either via a video or written text. These instructions then need to be carried out over a series of 15 small tasks which get increasingly complex as they go along. Once they have completed these 15 tasks, they then move on to the next level and the next series of instructions. This website was very popular with the class. It allowed them to work at their own pace, it allowed them to correct their mistakes instantly (as the website told them whether they had built the code correctly or not) and allowed them to make games which they had seen previously (such as Angry Birds).  By marking their work instantly, the website also allowed the pupils to see what level they were at as I put the success criteria on the board each lesson. They were then able to know whether they were working below, at or above target and what they needed to do to keep progressing. It was also a really good tool for me too as it allowed me to look at what they would be encountering in that hour and help them to succeed by giving them a little bit of knowledge before they started (e.g. keywords or examples of this bit of code being used already). All in all a really successful topic because:

  • Pupils worked at their own pace
  • They were given instructions broken down into small chunks
  • Instant feedback
  • Constant context of their level 

Importance of Routine

It has become apparent over the past few weeks and months that routine is incredibly important to a class who have low levels and as a consequence probably low levels of confidence too. They need to know where they stand.  To establish routine, I always structure the lessons in the same way so that there are never any surprises or something that unsettles the class. Essentially the structure looks like this: – Come into the class and stand behind their chairs – Sit down and log in – Whilst logging in, think about a question on the board (I would have read this question out) and write the date, title and objective in their book. – Go through keywords for that lesson (usually a matching exercise using the internet to help) – Introduce the main task, often with a demonstration – Complete the task – Plenary activity This routine has helped the pupils to settle quickly, to not worry if they can’t log in quickly (they know that the others are busy and not waiting for them) and help to make the room a ‘safe’ place.

Short Instructions

When completing the module on Scratch (a coding program that allows the user to create games or puzzles), there were lots of instructions that needed to be remembered such as which block of code to drag in or which object to add code to. Giving too many instructions confused the group – they needed to have a short series of instructions (two or three things) written down or explained carefully. Once they had completed these instructions, they were given some more. This meant that they did not have to worry about what was coming but just concentrate on that small particular section. When it came to the end of the module and they needed to build a game to be assessed, we used videos from the website to help the pupils. This would have an impact on the level they could achieve (maximum level 5) but by pausing the video every 15 seconds or so, allowed the pupils to experience success by building a working game well above their target level. This method made me realise that all tasks needed to be broken down into small chunks that were easily remembered.

Featured image: ‘learn school usb’ by geralt at Pixabay.  Licensed under CC0 Public Domain

Ten teaching techniques to practise – deliberately.

Making good practice second nature helps build excellence. 10 good ideas to focus on here.



It’s a well-established idea that, to develop expertise in a particular skill or technique, you need to practise. The more you practise, the better you get. As outlined by the excellent people at Deans for Impactin their Practice with Purpose document, it helps to identify a specific element of your teaching to practise on and then focus very deliberately on improving in that area.

Screen Shot 2017-04-17 at 00.56.10

Instead of flitting from one thing to another, dipping in and out, the suggestion isthat teachers would do better to select one thing from all the options and try hard to keep at it until the practice feels more like a habit. This approach absolutely applies to numerous elements of behaviour management and most of the Silver Arrows I highlighted in this popular post. However, for this post I wanted to focus on pedagogical elements of teaching.

Here are ten things you might want to try…

View original post 1,262 more words


An Action Research Project by Victoria Ryan (MFL)

Resilience in learning, as in life, is about being able to persevere through setbacks, take on challenges and risk making mistakes to reach a goal.

Resilience is often referred to as a quality that allows some people to be knocked down by life and to come back stronger. Rather than letting failure overcome them and drain their resolve, these people find a way to rise up from a troubled time.

Research has shown that resilience is ordinary, not extraordinary and that it is not a trait that people either have or do not have. Rather, resilience involves behaviours, thoughts and actions that can be learned and developed by anyone.


The vision…How do we want our pupils to show resilience?

Having researched the meaning of resilience it was important to consider which behaviours were necessary to develop in our pupils in order for them to become more independent learners.

Behaviours key to pupils being able to demonstrate resilience:

  • To be able to concentrate for long/longer periods of time (and not give up).
  • To be able to control their thoughts and emotions.
  • To enjoy challenge and problem solving.
  • To see failures/mistakes as part of the learning process and be prepared to have a go.
  • To show initiative when ‘stuck’


Research highlighted that life for our pupils isn’t exactly stress-free. What helps children in navigating the challenges they face is resilience. It has shown that resilient children are problem solvers who can face unfamiliar or tough situations and strive to find positive solutions.

“When they step into a situation, [resilient kids] have a sense they can figure out what they need to do and can handle what is thrown at them with a sense of confidence.” (Lynn Lyons, Psychotherapist)

This doesn’t mean that children have to do everything on their own. Rather, they need to know how to ask for help and are able to problem-solve their next steps.

As a Modern Foreign Language Teacher I often found pupils would say they couldn’t complete a task because they couldn’t speak the language. They would ask me for a translation rather than looking back through their work or looking in a dictionary or textbook for a solution, despite this being an obvious solution to me.

It became clear that my pupils needed to know how to be resilient and that I would have to teach them the behaviours and skills needed in order to do this.


I decided to focus my resilience research on a lower achieving Year 9 Spanish class who were particularly demotivated, needy and really just didn’t see the point in languages, despite my enthusiasm and passion for the subject. I had taught them as a group since Year 8 and they would not use the resources available to them to answer questions, rather they would ask me for answers. For a teacher with thirty pupils in the class constantly asking these questions, I was beginning to find the lessons draining. Something had to be done.

Whilst being a lower achieving set, it was a very mixed-ability group with pupils ranging from a Level 2 – 5 and a number of pupils having special educational needs and others having emotional and behavioural needs.

My initial thoughts on the group and how resilient they were that 12/30 showed no resilience at all, 14/30 occasionally showed initiative to seek solutions or use resources other than me for help and 4/30 did show an ability to problem solve themselves and attempt tasks before asking for assistance.

This was my subjective view based on classwork, homework, test results and general attitude in lessons in Year 8. There is no specific test to demonstrate how resilient a person is; rather I based this judgment on how I as the class teacher had seen the pupils handle work and situations that I had placed them in. Not a very resilient class then with only four pupils able to demonstrate resilience at the start of the year.  Something had to be done!


The first step was making “resilience” the language of the classroom. This was achieved by displaying the ‘Iceberg Illusion’ poster, explaining this to pupils by using examples of my own failures and then referring to this during lessons.

Iceberg illusion

The Iceberg Illusion by Sylvia Duckworth original image at (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

see also

It was also necessary to remember techniques as a teacher to instil resilience in pupils, so after research, I made a poster into a desk mat which I had in front of me each lesson.

The poster was based on:  ‘10 best phrases to teach resilience to your kids’ by Michael Grose at

This allowed me to change the language I used and to remind me of how I should act in order to promote resilience.

I then came up with a Resilience Plan of ten points that I would aim to do each lesson.

  1. Don’t accommodate every need.
  2. Avoid eliminating all risk.
  3. Teach them to problem-solve.
  4. Teach your pupils concrete skills.
  5. Avoid “why” questions.
  6. Don’t provide all the answers.
  7. Avoid talking in catastrophic terms.
  8. Let your pupils make mistakes.
  9. Help them to manage their emotions.
  10. Model resiliency.


Using these actions I noticed that barriers to learning/relationships were improved by the following means:

    • Awareness of the language used in the classroom – Both myself and the pupils began to talk the language of resilience often using humour to see ourselves through difficult tasks.
    • Different approaches to the four skills/exercises – Pupils took on board the advice and techniques that were taught for each language skill (reading, writing, speaking and listening) and were therefore better equipped to problem solve questions/tasks.
    • More confidence – Pupils were much more confident in their own abilities and were much less reliant on me.
    • A more positive classroom environment – Pupils would ‘have a go’ at the work rather than saying that they could not do it and just giving up. They recognised that I valued their effort more than getting the correct answer each time.

By the end of the year, in my opinion, 24/30 showed an a readiness to problem solve for themselves and attempt tasks before asking for assistance and 6/30 showed some capacity to show initiative to seek solutions or use resources other than asking me for help.

Whilst subjective, this data was again based on classwork, homework, test results and general attitude in lessons but in my opinion, all the pupils vastly improved and became much more resilient within lessons.


It is worth noting that the majority of pupils in my target class were not going on to study languages at GCSE level and that for the first time in three years, the inevitable question of “Why do I still have to study this?” or “What is the point in languages?” was not posed. This in itself was a major breakthrough and a sign that pupils not only had come to enjoy the lessons, being much more motivated as they knew the skills to problem solve, but they had also started to take pride in the work they completed feeling a sense of accomplishment when they could complete a task. Even if they got an answer wrong, they had come to realise that this was a stepping stone and part of the inevitable learning process.

Therefore in conclusion, the evidence shows that the work completed on resilience had a big impact, not just on my targeted group but also on other classes that I taught due to my language within lessons changing to a more resilience based approach.

My group and I believe that our strategies have made a difference, as this approach supports stretch and challenge allowing you to have higher expectations and avoid ‘helicopter’ teaching. It supports pupil independence and there is much less teacher dependence, however, it would be far more powerful if the language of resilience was consistent across the school. Something has to be done!

Next Steps

In order to promote resilience further this needs to become a whole school approach. Strategies that I intend to use in the next academic year include:

  • Remembering it works! Being patient with new classes whilst teaching the language of resilience.
  • Making resilience language part of school life – Success Iceberg posters in classrooms and assemblies on resilience with colleagues who have also worked on developing resilience.
  • Effort and reiteration – Spending time at the start of each lesson reinforcing the language of resilience and making expectations clear to students.
  • List of key ideas to focus on – I will choose three to four key ideas from my ten point plan to focus on with individual classes, thus better tailoring them to each classes’ needs to make them more resilient.
  • Resilience list for pupils – I will give each student the following table for their book:

Be Resilient

I’m not good at this What am I missing?
I give up I’ll use a different strategy
It’s not good enough Is this really my best work?
I can’t make this any better I can always improve
This is too hard This may take some time
I made a mistake Mistakes help me learn
I’ll never be that smart I will learn how to do this


  • Resilience level/mark at the end of each term – Rewarding attitude and effort is crucial in sending the right messages about what we value.


When will we also teach them what they are?”

We should say to each of them:

Do you know what you are?

You are a marvel. You are unique.

In all the years that have passed,

there has never been another child like you.

Your legs, your arms, your clever fingers,

the way you move.

You may become a Shakespeare,

a Michelangelo, a Beethoven.

You have the capacity for anything.

Yes, you are a marvel.

And when you grow up, can you then harm

another who is, like you, a marvel?

You must work; we must all work,

to make the world worthy of its children.

By Pablo Casals


Featured image: ‘Success’ by animatedheaven on Pixabay.  Original image licensed under CC0 Public Domain


An action research project by Kevin Magner (R.E.)


To develop a range of strategies to engage a group of Year 10 boys with lower level literacy in learning; to help build confidence in their own ability; a willingness to engage in written work and to help them achieve their target grades.


Examination of GCSE Religious Studies is based on the completion of two written exam papers. Pupils need to be able to express their learning in the appropriate written format for the exam.

Literacy is a skill for life and the ability to communicate effectively in both the written and spoken word is a basic skill for daily life and for employability.


The focus for this action research project has been my Year 10 GCSE RE group. The group is made up 13 boys, many of whom have lower level literacy skills.  The boys are taught together as part of a faculty initiative to teach pupils in single-sex groups.  The boys have a wide range of learning needs including six who are Pupil Premium, six have SEND needs (two being statemented), seven have dyslexic tendencies, two have ADHD and there are a mixture of emotional and behavioural issues also present in the group.

A significant proportion of the boys have relatively low self-esteem which manifests itself in many cases as a reluctance to participate in academic work. Behavioural and emotional needs mean they often find it difficult to work cooperatively.

The target grades for this group range from minimum target grades of C-F and challenge target grades of C-E.

During the course of the year it has been confirmed that eight of the boys will receive additional support in their final exams, including seven who will have the support of a scribe and reader. While these pupils will not have to physically write in their exam they will still have to know and explain verbally how they want their answers to be written.

Background Reading and Research

Background Reading

Historically, boys in general have been less academically successful than girls in Religious Education as they have been in most literacy based subjects.

“The one area of the curriculum where boys do tend to underachieve is English” (pg ii3)

Initially, in my research I looked for evidence of practical strategies to engage boys in learning. The document, ‘Me Read, No Way’ – A practical guide to improving boys’ literacy skills, produced by the Ontario Ministry for Education (2004)1 and which draws on findings from OFSTED, provided some very helpful strategies based around the structure and delivery of lessons:

Boys respond best when:

  • work is assigned in bite-sized, digestible pieces and is time-limited;
  • lessons are broken down into a variety of activities that include more research, or the use of information technology; “active” learning opportunities, such as drama, investigation,
  • the work seems relevant to them – that is, when it has a purpose they can understand;
  • lessons are delivered in a brisk, well-paced format, with an obvious direction, so that they can tell that progress is occurring;
  • the work includes an element of competition and/or involves short-term goals;
  • time is allowed for review and reflection following the lesson or assignment;
  • an analysis of the “concrete” aspects of a text precedes an analysis of one’s emotional response to it;
  • they receive regular, positive feedback.

(Wilson, 2003, p. 123) (pg161)

Other guidance focused on specific teaching strategies with reference to the development of written literacy:

“Some strategies for establishing the link between reading and writing:

  • Explicitly discuss models of good writing in detail, pointing out elements such as sentence structure, paragraphing, and vocabulary, so that students become aware of the choices that the writer has made.
  • Maintain a balance between the development of skills such as spelling and grammar and the exploration of content, meaning, and effect” (pg 141)

“Graphic organizers and other visual tools can be a useful means of demonstrating the relationships between things, both spatially and conceptually. They can be used in literacy activities in ways that may help “let boys in on the secret”.” (pg201)

Seeing a teacher model the use of writing frames or templates and using writing frames themselves helped students understand narrative structure.

  • Breaking text down to its skeletal outline helped students understand how writers develop a story
  • Writing frames were most useful to students of average ability, but they also helped lower-achieving students, especially when those students used the frames in groups, with a teacher’s guidance.
  • Writing frames built structure into the narrative writing task, improving boys’ writing performance.” (pg211)

However, it quickly became evident as the year progressed with the class that issues of self-esteem, motivation and social interaction were as much of a barrier to engaging the boys in my class as their practical skills. Low self-esteem can often become embedded in academic behaviours which can then be reinforced by gender stereotypes.

As the DFCS (Department for Children, Schools and Family) document, ‘Gender issues in school: What works to improve achievement of boys and girls’ (2004)2 states:

“The peer group is of central importance in reinforcing gender stereotypes. For instance, given the choice, pupils usually sit in same gender groups and both primary and secondary pupils ‘police’ the gendered behaviour of their peers, and punish failure to conform to traditional gender norms.”(pgiii2)

It soon became apparent to me that in my all male class a number of negative stereotypes were well established amongst the boys concerning their attitude to learning in general and to R.E. in particular. Working hard, or being seen to work hard, was not ‘cool’ and R.E. was not perceived to be of relevance to their current or future lives.

This exacerbates the social challenges the pupils have to overcome in terms of literacy development.

Boys designated “poor readers” are more likely to react against their perceived low

status in class than girls working in the same group. In an effort to bolster their standing with their peers this group of boys may avoid spending much time on a task they find difficult (pgvii2)

This effect is multiplied, even in a single gender class, given the ‘practice’ the boys have had in trying to avoid work they find difficult throughout their education.

There are therefore academic, personal and social factors that all combine to act as hurdles in the race to develop the literacy skills necessary to enable the boys to successfully reach the finishing line of their GCSE exams. This acutely highlights the tension for any teacher, between the desire to develop literacy skills for life against the all too real deadline of an exam date.

Visit to a primary school

Discussion with a colleague from a primary teaching background highlighted the idea that many of the boys may have struggled or indeed missed key steps in the development of their literacy skills while in primary education. As a result they have struggled to build more advanced skills over these gaps.  Similarly, a loss of confidence and a consequent lack of self-esteem may have resulted in their being reluctant to undertake, or even trying to avoid written tasks which expose their limitations – this being most obvious when it comes to public examinations!

I undertook a visit to a primary school which had undertaken a school-wide writing project to explore strategies, particularly those relating to boys who are struggling to develop their literacy, which I hoped would help me to find strategies which might be effective with my class.

Among the strategies used by the primary school were the following, which fall into three broad categories:

  1.  Practical support
  • Teachers model the writing process using pupils’ ideas. This is then used to model the ‘Review, Edit, Improve’ process
  • The ‘Think, Say, Write’ process is used to allow pupils to express their ideas using verbal skills in which most pupils are stronger, before the more challenging task of capturing them in writing
  • Pupils are supported in the drafting and editing of written answers through the use of mini-whiteboards so that work is improved before it is written in ‘best’
  • Laminated ‘placemats’ which include key words, vocabulary, grammatical forms and success criteria are used to provide individual pupils with immediate support and guidance on specific tasks/activities
  • Keyboards and voice recorders are used to support pupils who find the motor skills involved in writing difficult thus providing them with the chance to produce ‘written’ work they can be proud of
  • Written work is ‘reverse engineered’ by starting with a finished piece of writing and then working backwards to explore and understand how that answer was produced thus modelling the process that build towards successful written work in small steps

2. Social strategies to build self-esteem

  • Talk to small groups of pupils directly about the difficulties they are facing in their literacy and ask them what support or help they want, thus showing that they are not alone and that the teacher intends to support them
  • Share pupils’ best work with an appropriate audience (another teacher, the Head teacher, the rest of the class, display, a younger class, a visitor, sent home to parents) to celebrate success and foster self-esteem
  • Use practical/engaging activities (build…, make…, do…) as a stimulus for consequent written work
  • Use laminated speech bubbles with pupils’ names and board markers during lessons to capture and display good ideas from pupils, thus providing recognition and a sense of immediate success with aspects of a written task to build self-esteem and retain good ideas for later use

3. Whole-school principles and strategies to support literacy

  • Develop a culture which recognises the need for ‘practice, practice, practice’ in written work
  • Establish the expectation that every pupil will be writing
  • Ensure that all pupils learn and practise the ‘review, edit, improve’ cycle in their written work
  • Provide support at ‘the point of learning’ (placing an emphasis on helping pupils to succeed rather than waiting for failure and then providing remedial support)
  • Have clear expectations regarding legibility and spelling to ensure pupils do not try to mask their needs through poor handwriting
  • Have a regular (termly, weekly, module) focus on an aspect of literacy (spelling, handwriting, punctuation)


Strategies to engage interest

This was the first approach I tried at the beginning of the year as I sought to make lessons both stimulating and engaging for the boys. As far as possible I broke the lessons into small chunks and sought to use a wider variety of activities than those that were already built into the faculty scheme of work.  I did this to shift the emphasis of the lessons away from written activities and to encourage greater participation.  Increasing the emphasis on visual resources (including picture based activities and the use of short film clips) did stimulate interest and as the year has progressed, become a springboard for discussion which the boys enter into more freely than written tasks.

The use of IT based resources which I thought would appeal to boys has been of mixed benefit. The use of ‘Plickers’ (a discussion/quiz based activity) based on the principle of immediate feedback using QR coded cards proved ineffective for this group as the practicality of using the technology (the ability of an I-pad to read a set of QR codes held up by pupils in a single camera shot) led to frustration amongst the pupils.  The use of ‘Kahoot’ quizzes using mobile phones was more successful in engaging interest but was soon found to be open to abuse as some of the boys used the ‘give yourself a name’ function to use words which provoked a negative response from other pupils.  A creative use of the resource I had not foreseen – intelligence but employed in the wrong direction!

Other successful strategies have included an increased focus on vocabulary based activities which reinforce the learning of the specific terms required for the exam. This has included the development of both paper and Power point resources which link vocabulary to images and involve pairing, matching and odd-one-out type activities.  These have served both to introduce and to revise key words, with repetition of the vocabulary through a variety of activities – a fundamental principle underpinning lessons.  This has also resulted in the production of resources which the Teaching Assistant linked to the class can use when working one-to-one with key pupils.  These vocabulary games have been extended to include:

‘Chopped Words’ (take a set of key words – chop up and mix the words like the pieces of a jigsaw – pupils have to recreate the key words e.g.   IST   IAN  CHR  ITY  becomes CHRISTIANITY)

‘Scrabble’ (provide scrabble tiles of the letters of a key word. Pupils have to find as many words as they can from the tiles with a bonus for the key word using all tiles)

‘20 Questions’ / ‘Guess the password’ (pupils are given the opportunity to ask questions which can only be answered ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to ask their fellow pupils, to help them identify a key word which has been shared with the rest of the class)

‘Hangman’ (the traditional game using key vocabulary) – the boys particularly enjoyed this game, especially when it was played by them against the teacher!

‘Here’s the answer, what’s the question?’ (pupils have to identify the key word from its definition or a series of statements about it)

These, along with other activities have promoted familiarity with key words and an opportunity to practise the correct spelling at the same time.

An increased emphasis on discussion rather than Q&A tasks or note-taking has also helped increase engagement in lessons. Any discussion that includes personal anecdote or experience from teacher or pupils stimulates interest further.  This has been a particularly useful way of engaging the boys’ natural curiosity when discussing ‘big issues’ such as the existence of God, the morality of abortion and euthanasia or the existence of the paranormal – but is a greater challenge when discussing ‘drier’ areas of the curriculum.  When used together with skilled questioning techniques this has provided an effective way to explore an issue without reliance on a written text.

Developing good behaviour and promoting self-esteem

By far the biggest obstacle to engagement was the behaviour of pupils, much of which I believe is an expression of their low self-esteem. Many boys came to the class bringing a reputation or set of behaviours which they sought to maintain in the presence of their peers.  Some had a history of not getting along together which coloured all of their interactions.  Some are easily wound up and can be provoked at the slightest instance.

The consequence of this was that class management was a priority from the start of the year. It also meant that a number of cooperative learning strategies were not practical.  In consequence I focused on trying to remain positive in outlook, to be consistent with the class and to be optimistic in my expectations of the boys.

To move class management onto a positive footing I introduced two reward initiatives; reward stickers and a good behaviour report for the class.

The reward stickers are simply small praise stickers which are stuck on the cover of a pupil’s book in recognition of a positive effort, answer, contribution or achievement either in the lesson or in their written work. It is easy to use these either for a specific focus as required or for general recognition.  No specific attention is drawn to their use but pupils do take an interest in the number of stickers they have collected and consequently these are counted and the total transferred as they move into a new exercise book.  A number of the boys do take pride in the growing number of stickers and they do promote a sense of achievement and self-esteem.

To address common concerns regarding behaviour I introduced a Good Behaviour Report for the class. At the end of each lesson boys could gain a point in any, or all of five categories of behaviour I identified as those that would most benefit the overall performance of the class i.e. settling to work quickly, completing tasks, asking/answering questions, behaving well.  The foci were always positive and reward gained for achieving each foci rather than a negative consequence for failing to meet it.  Points were tallied and shared with the class across a two week timetable cycle and then rewards given in line with the school’s rewards system.  I ran this over two terms until I felt it had served its purpose of establishing expectations.

One strategy that was a chance discovery was the use of personal behaviour reports. Initially used to focus one of the boys with ADHD who is very easily distracted but who values positive feedback given to his mother.   This was a simplified paper version of the class behaviour report and was based on the idea that I would give his mum a phone call to acknowledge good behaviour if he had a series of successful lessons.  This report was then requested by another boy to help him to focus.  I continued to use these reports for the remainder of the year for those pupils.

Overall, I have found that the boys respond best to initiatives that are positive in nature, immediate in their feedback and tangible in their reward. A sticker given today with praise and either a call home or a positive referral, is more likely to have an impact than the promise of a greater reward in two weeks’ time.

Perhaps the most important approach I have tried to adopt has been to try and build positive relationships with the boys together with conveying an unfailing optimism in their ability to achieve academic success. This is undoubtedly a long-term strategy but a number of conversations with individual boys show that many need an awful lot of reassurance that their efforts are worthwhile and when they do succeed, they hold onto the successes they have achieved, however small or far apart they might be.

Developing writing skills

The principal reason for engaging the boys in learning was to develop their literacy skills to enable them to achieve a GCSE exam grade. With this in mind it has been important to maintain a clear focus on working towards the exam in every lesson.

Underlying this is what is referred to as ‘The Plan’ – a simple formula for framing exam answers to ensure that pupils access all of the marks available in each part of a question. A copy of this is glued into the back of each exercise book and folds out to provide an instant guide for pupils in lessons.  This is supported by the systematic way in which the format of lessons works its way around the four elements of a full GCSE question.   In almost every lesson we use our learning to address one of these four elements, giving their learning real significance.

Writing frames are used to help pupils to collect and record relevant learning as we work through each topic. These can be differentiated to support the needs of different learners, especially those with the greatest literacy needs.  Writing frames also help to ensure that as the course progresses pupils develop an orderly set of work in their books to support later revision.

Blank writing frames are also available for each part of an exam question. These are based on the same format as the exam paper they will sit at the end of the year and provide practise in applying ‘The Plan’ to the exam paper.  With minor differentiation in the form of sentence starters, they help establish the correct vocabulary for the exam and the principle of paragraphing longer answers – a skill many of the boys have yet to master.

Following my visit to a Primary School, I have increasingly used ‘Teacher Writing’ to model the writing process for the whole class using individual pupil’s ideas. This has allowed me to demonstrate how answers might be worded and edited to ensure that they meet the requirements of the exam.  I was pleasantly surprised to see how good the pupils often were in this exercise, especially in terms of correcting spelling and punctuation as well as in the need to explain points fully for the examiner.  However, while most of the boys could record such answers from the board there remains a reluctance to complete extended answers independently.

‘Teacher Writing’ also supports the process of ‘Think, say, write’, encouraging pupils to verbalise and rehearse an answer, with teacher input, before committing it to writing.


Overall, I feel that we have made some progress as a class. The pupils do understand the structure of exam answers and what is required to answer them.  They have become familiar with a wide range of key vocabulary though they are not always confident in its use.  The boys can engage in discussion and express opinions verbally and they have demonstrated the ability to frame exam answers when supported by ‘Teacher Writing’.

Behaviour continues to vary from lesson to lesson but we have had more productive lessons as the year has progressed. A clear format for lessons has been established and pupils understand the routines that shape lessons.

In the mock exams at the end of Year 10 results were still below target; however it was encouraging to hear from scribes that pupils did understand the structure of exam answers and tried to frame their answers accordingly. The ‘Teacher Writing’ activities had also helped pupils with the weakest written skills to make best use of their scribes by enabling them to try and put answers into the format that had been practised in lessons.


This is a challenging class to teach on many levels but with the challenge comes reward that is often measured in the small steps the boys have taken in their academic work or sometimes in those precious moments when ‘a penny drops’ or a pupil wants to stay a few moments beyond the lesson to make a point or ask a question. However, it has also been a rewarding process professionally if only in making me review, refine and re-think every lesson that I teach them.

On a broader level I have learnt a number of important lessons as a teacher:

  • Allow time to embed practice, even when it doesn’t seem to be working at first. Pupils like routine and clear expectations. If you have core behaviours or skills to teach you must stick with them even if you need to vary the way in which they are delivered.
  • Develop teaching strategies to meet the individual needs of your pupils. It is important to start from where the pupils are at academically and not simply expect them to fit the mould set for the majority of pupils. This requires patience, reflection and differentiation. Such differentiation can often be subtle and simple in practice.
  • It is important to build self-esteem at every turn. Pupils with low self-esteem take an awful lot of building up and their confidence can be very easily knocked. This takes a conscious and planned effort to maximise the opportunities to celebrate success and consistently reinforce, in the pupils’ eyes, your belief in their potential, where they may lack it themselves.
  • Identify your priorities for the course/class and stick to them. Even when you are not successful, you must be prepared re-iterate and re-define your priorities until they are achieved.
  • Develop routines and build expectations of how pupils will behave or learn. In time pupils come to accept and often rely on these routines, and will then hopefully, rise to these expectations.
  • Keep it simple. In developing new teaching strategies look for simple activities that vary and enhance your repertoire but are not overly complicated or onerous in terms of their planning and preparation. They must also be clearly focused on clear teaching points. Once you have found a strategy that works stick with it but be creative in the way you present and use it.
  • Time invested in resources or strategies that can be re-used is time better spent than investing hours in elaborate activities that have limited use.
  • Be persistent. Teaching a group of Year 10 boys with such a broad range of needs has been challenging. I have often left lessons frustrated, angry or doubted my own ability to teach but with patience and persistence I have learnt more about myself as a teacher and come to recognise the even greater challenges some of these pupils face both academically and in their future lives.

Next Steps

  • Continue to maintain or raise expectations the boys have of themselves academically and socially
  • Continue to work on using and developing the strategies that have proved effective so far
  • Work to develop greater resilience in pupils when faced by challenge or failure
  • Remain optimistic about the benefits to pupils of making small steps in their learning
  • Seek to establish a culture in which pupils are willing to write full exam format answers independently


  1. ‘Me Read, No Way’ – A practical guide to improving boys’ literacy skills.

Ontario Ministry of Education (2004)

  1. ‘Gender issues in school: What works to improve achievement of boys and girls’

Department for Children, Schools and Families (2009)

3. ‘Using the National Healthy School Standard to raise boys’ achievement’, Gary Wilson  Department for Education and Skills, UK. (2003)

Further reading:

Improving Boys’ Literacy

Improving literacy in secondary schools: a shared responsibility – OFSTED

Featured image: Texting boy by Fangirl on Pixabay (original image) licensed by CC0 Public Domain