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Michaela School Wembley London

Posted on May 16, 2015 by Olivia Dyer

The Key to Great School Trips

The key to planning great school trips is organisation, organisation, organisation! How does one know what to organise? Look no further than this blog post. Michaela Community School might have only had its second school trip ever last Thursday, but we would like to share how Michaela does things, and the rationale behind some of these things.

Choosing the trip

Ensure that all pupils have studied the units relevant to the trip. This means that pupils can engage with exhibitions, workshops and performances intelligently and the trip will aid their understanding of the unit(s).

Before the trip

1) Letter

Send out a letter a fortnight before the trip, with a permission slip at the bottom. In the letter, outline:

a) What unit(s) of learning the trip will complement;

b) Date(s) for the trip;

c) Time pupils need to arrive at school;

d) Expected time of arrival (ETA) back to school;

e) Contribution towards the trip;

f) Dress code;

g) Items to bring;

h) When permission slip is required back.

Royal Observatory Trip Letter


c) Plan the trip with at least twelve weeks notice, to avoid clashes with other school arrangements, such as sports matches and to ensure that the venue has the availability. You will need at least 14 working days for the Transport for London School Party Travel scheme.

d) Always push the ETA 30 minutes back from what you would expect. This way, parents do not worry unnecessarily if pupils are late arriving back.

e) This is a voluntary contribution, so the school should support families in genuine need.

f) Pupils will try to get away with wearing non-regulation shoes, headscarves, outerwear, bags and even trousers/skirts for a school trip. Pre-empt this by outlining the dress code in the letter and reminding pupils at every opportunity. Tell pupils the consequences of not wearing correct uniform, and stick to this consequence.

g) This includes whether or not pupils should bring stationary, lunch and pocket money. At Michaela, we set a limit of £20 for day trips, but make it clear that this is not necessary.

h) Anticipate that 50 per cent of families will miss this date. To avoid this, try and plan this date for just after the end of the calendar month. This will ensure that working families have been paid.

2) School uniform

Unless pupils are going on an overnight trip, full school uniform should be worn. If pupils are going to be undertaking physical activity, we would suggest that the school PE uniform should be worn. Wearing school uniform means that pupils can be easily identified, are more likely to behave in a professional manner and reduces chance of bullying.

3) Food

Michaela will provide full school packed lunches for all pupils. Inside these packed lunches are a piece of fruit, a snack and a bottle of water. Pupils have a choice of four sandwiches/baguettes (usually cheese, tuna mayonnaise, egg mayonnaise and plain). They will choose their sandwich/baguette on a first come, first served basis on the day of the trip. If the trip sets off early, they will have an additional break time snack to eat before lunch. If the trip begins later, pupils have the opportunity to eat a break time snack in school. Ensure that you book a lunch space at the venue, so that pupils have somewhere to eat their lunch. Pupils are not allowed to eat sweets bought in the shop on the trip.

4) Belongings

A standard trip requirement is that pupils bring their drawstring PE bag with a pen and their current reading book. Encourage pupils to leave all valuables at home.

Pupils may bring their mobile phones to school, but will need to hand these in before the trip. The phones will be locked in a secure place in the school, which pupils may retrieve on their return. Pupils are not allowed to take their phones on the trip. If pupils are found to have done so, phones will be confiscated as per school policy.

5) Trip exclusions

A few days before the trip, look through the list of pupils attending the trip. If any pupils stand out as having behaved extremely badly in the recent weeks, exclude them from the trip.

6) Assembly

On the day of the trip, hold an assembly which outlines:

a) How to behave on the road;

b) What to do if lost on journey/at venue;

c) How to behave on public transport (explicitly model);

d) How to queue;

e) What to do if you see if other pupils misbehaving;

f) How to behave at the venue (in the shop, toilets etc.);

g) How to view exhibits (explicitly model);

h) History and relevant information about venue (optional, but good for enthusing pupils).

Natural History Museum Assembly

7) Behaviour

Tell pupils upfront that you will be rewarding good behaviour with the school’s usual behaviour system, as well as sanctioning any behaviour that does not meet the school’s expectations. When the expectations are being outlined during the trip assembly, make it clear that there is no choice but to behave in the expected way. Pupils must read on public transport, must offer anyone older than them their seat (avoids ‘should I or shan’t I offer that person my seat?’ scenario) and must walk on the left hand side. The rationale is that this is how commuters behave, and to behave any differently will mean that you would not fit in.

8) Information pack

Produce an information pack for staff going on the trip and provide each staff member with a clipboard. There should be three sections of the information pack:

a) Directions

b) Itinerary

c) Groups

Use Google street view to show members of staff how to get to the venue. When you go on your pre-visit to the venue, use this as an opportunity to take photographs of the journey to put in the information pack.

ROG Trip Instructions

During the trip

1) Behaviour management

On the final page of the information pack, separate all pupils out into groups. Have an additional column on the table for behaviour management. This will enable staff to easily document any merits and demerits that they give out on the day. Recognise great acts of kindness, which will increase pupil motivation.

2) Registering pupils

Before the pupils set off, tell them their group and individual number. Get them into an orderly line and get pupils to shout out their number in order from 1-15. The last pupil should shout out their number and the phrase, “last man/woman!” This roll call can be done before pupils get on public transport and on the platform after all pupils have got off. The roll call can also be carried out before and after activities at the venue. This makes registering pupils stress free, and gets them into an orderly line.



Below are some photographs of our pupils on school trips. You will see them reading on the tube and lining up for a roll call next to the Diplodocus skeleton in the Hintze Hall of the Natural History museum.



Posted on 15 March, 2015 by Bodil Isaksen

Empowerment through no excuses

Excuses disempower. Taking responsibility empowers.

At Michaela, we have a no excuses culture. What does this mean? It means if a pupil does something wrong, we expect them to own that mistake. We do not expect them to deflect responsibility. We do not expect them to blame other people or their circumstances.

If they have no pen, rather than saying “my pen dropped out of my blazer overnight”, we want pupils to say “I didn’t check my equipment before I left this morning”. We want them to think “I’ll get to school 5 minutes early so I’ve got time to buy a pen from the stationery shop”.

No excuses does not mean we leave children to fail. We do everything we can to help our pupils succeed. The example of the stationery shop illustrates that on a small scale. We open the stationery shop in the office before school everyday so pupils have a chance to fix the problem. So Sue’s example doesn’t seem relevant. Were someone to lose their uniform in a fire, we would, of course support them in finding a solution.

These concepts are not in opposition; in fact, they complement each other. Turns out solutions are a lot easier to generate once a pupil has stopped deflecting responsibility. Taking responsibility, accepting the reality of the situation is often the first step in getting it right.

No excuses is empowering. If you believe a problem is the product of things you cannot control, you place the issue outside of your locus of control. Once you have placed it outside of your locus of control, you have mentally decided you cannot take steps to change it. If you recognise how your actions contributed to causing the problem, you can decide to change that in the future. How wonderful it is to recognise how much you can impact the world!

Excuses are rife in too many schools.
“I couldn’t help turning round; they called my name”
“I didn’t know what page to do for homework”
“The queue in the canteen made me late for period 5″
“My computer crashed with my coursework on it”

As teachers, we can indulge these excuses, or we can reject them. We can show pupils how different choices could have avoided the situation. We can enlighten them to let them see how they have more control and agency over their life they might initially believe.

Getting pupils to see the value of taking responsibility is one of the most valuable gifts we can give them. How much richer their lives will be, in every aspect, if they approach the world seeing what they can change rather than what they can’t.


Posted on May 9, 2015 by Olivia Dyer

Do Your Kids Hate Science Yet?

Last week, a science teacher who had heard about the knowledge-led, mastery-focused curriculum at Michaela asked me, “do your kids hate Science yet?” On the same day, I attended a ‘knowledge versus skills’ science debate. The skills troops were gathered and I was offered an insight into the ideological battlefield. There was a real sense of dissatisfaction by how little their sevens’ loved Science. The troops seemed to agree that the reason why secondary school science does not inspire young minds is because there are not enough opportunities for discovery, creativity and awe-inspiring practicals. I agreed that many science departments in secondary schools do not inspire young minds. However, this is because those departments do not have a high enough level of rigour in their curriculum at Key Stage Three. Even their lower ability pupils are not sufficiently challenged.

Quite frankly, science departments around the country patronise children. They do this by trying to get their children to be scientists and think like scientists. Ironically, by trying to treat the pupils like adult scientists, they end up patronising them by turning lessons into ‘playing grown-ups’. Even at Advanced Level, I did not think like a scientist. On starting out, even Aristotle did not think like a scientist. Instead, he was deeply influenced by his teacher, Plato. Aristotle’s work on geology, physics, metaphysics, psychology, biology and medicine were founded on the 20 years that he spent at Plato’s Academy, accumulating masses of knowledge and experience.

Thousands of hours of practice are needed to become an expert at something. This is what our pupils are missing. We cannot fast forward time. Instead, we need to embed knowledge into their long-term memory. If something has not been converted to long-term memory, nothing has been learned. Once pupils have mastered the content, we then need to give them lots of practice at retrieving that knowledge. This is how we can achieve skilled performance over years.

One thing I think that I can agree on with the troops, is that all teachers want their pupils to go out and change the world. Knowledge is power. It is knowledge about the intricacies of organelle structure that will enable them to go and study Biology at undergraduate level, not that practical that used iodine to measure the amount of starch in different foods. Children love knowing things. Watch the videos below; they speak for themselves.



Teachers need to think about the opportunity cost of ‘awe-inspiring practicals’. Time spent doing fun, whizzy practicals is time not spent mastering the particulars of the alkali metals or the halogens. Children feel successful when they know things. Next time you submit your practical requisitions, consider why your pupils are doing the practical. If it is to help them discover, be creative or awe-inspired, think again. Do not underestimate the satisfaction and awe your pupils can gain from being told facts.

Recommended reading:




Posted on May 3, 2015

Revise with self-quizzing books for every pupil across all subjects

What should teachers do about homework? And what should pupils do about revision?

Homework and its Discontents

Homework is a tough ask for pupils and teachers. Pupils have five hours of lessons, then more hours of work loaded into their evenings. Teachers teach 20 lessons a week, then have to set, explain, check, collect, mark, track, sanction, and chase homework.

Revision and its Discontents

Revision is often crammed into a few weeks from Easter in Year 11, and rarely coordinated across the school. Each teacher thinks that their own subject is most important, and expects pupils to do some ‘20-25 minutes a night’, mostly uncoordinated with other subjects.

The science of memory

When I read Make It Stick, 11 cognitive psychologists’ applied scientific research, this insight struck me:

What would that look like across a whole school? What if we combined revision and homework?

 A Long-Term Revision Strategy: Self-Quizzing

At our school, from Year 7 onwards, homework is revision: self-quizzing for all pupils across all their subjects. Revision lasts not five weeks, or five months, but five years.

Self-Quizzing Books 

Every pupil is given a self-quizzing book with every subject’s core knowledge. The book is organised in subject sections, with numbered pages. Knowledge organisers from each unit are stuck into this exercise book. For instance, in English by the end of Year 7, there are organisers for parts of speech, syntax and punctuation, vocabulary, spelling, myths, rhetoric, poetry, poems to be memorised (OzymandiasInvictus and If) and Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar:everything they study that year. Organisers for Maths, French, Science, Humanities (History, Geography and Religion) and Art are all kept within one beautifully organised book that pupils take home to revise every evening.

Practice Books

Pupils self-quiz from one subject’s knowledge organisers every night for homework, as guided by their teacher. For this they use a separate practice book that they take between school and home. They cover up one side of the knowledge organiser, write it out from memory (in a black pen), then self-check and correct any spelling mistakes, omissions or inaccuracies (in a green pen). They learn the most valuable knowledge in every subject by heart.

There is a timetable in the front of their self-quizzing books with five weeknights for the five main subjects: English, Humanities, French, Science and Maths. Every pupil in the year is revising the same subject on the same night. Everyone has the same five-year revision plan. This is important if pupils are absent for a day or two, or longer-term – they still know exactly what revision to do, precisely which subject to prioritise, every day. Self-quizzing becomes a daily, automated habit for the long-run.

Practice Book Checks

We aim for 100% of pupils to complete their self-quizzing every evening. It’s a high bar, and this is what we do to reach it.

Teachers check the practice book to see if the self-quizzing practice is of sufficient quantity and quality. On quantity, pupils must complete at least one page of self-quizzing for prep, with no spaces left on the sides or at the top or bottom of the page. On quality, it must be neat and accurate, with no uncorrected spelling mistakes. We turn knowledge organisers into online and in-class quizzes, so we can see precisely whose self-quizzing is ineffectual, and support them to improve their revision.

Because it is the same revision strategy each evening across all subjects, it becomes an automatic routine. Last week, for instance, we had 98% quality completion: out of 600 hand-ins, only 10 instances were of insufficient quality, and those pupils were put into detention to remind them of the importance of quality revision. The week before it was 97%. We track those who struggle and contact their parents to support them.

The other benefit of combining knowledge organisers, self-quizzing books and practice books is this: they reduce the effort teachers spend on extensions and cover.

Extensions as Revision

Pupils can use self-quizzing books to revise key concepts, definitions, dates and events whenever they have finished a task. In a Maths lesson, the fastest pupil might finish an exercise three to four minutes before the weakest pupil. That’s four minutes they can be revising, which means far less work for teachers providing extra extension resources.

Cover as Revision

No teacher at Michaela has to email in cover work or proforma when they are away. Pupils can simply self-quiz for the lesson, testing themselves on previous terms’ or units’ topics, writing from memory, self-checking and correcting, to help them remember what they’ve learned.

Extra Reading, Extra Maths

Subject self-quizzing is not the only homework pupils do. They quiz themselves online or on their phone with Quizlet flashcards and other multiple-choice apps. They also read for 30 minutes every evening. They also do 30 minutes of Maths practice online on IXL, guided by their Maths teacher as to the topic. All three habits (readingMaths practice and self-quizzing) are habits that are sustained over five years.

This homework-revision strategy requires coordination:

  • Department Heads and teachers must agree on and create organisers for each unit
  • Teachers must check all pupils’ practice books once a week and set detentions if not done
  • Maths Teachers must check IXL each morning and set detentions if not done
  • The Maths Department displays pupils’ rankings (in the year) by effort on IXL every day

Here’s what I like about this homework and revision plan: it’s long-term, (spread over 5 years)memorable (just 3 things to do each night: self-quiz, read, IXL), habitual (always the same strategy every day) yet still subject-specific (one subject’s content to self-quiz on each night),collective (all pupils in the year do the same subject on the same night), research-based(based on 100 years of science), inexpensive (a few exercise books a year per pupil), andminimalist (one sheet to photocopy and stick in for each unit in each subject every four weeks or so).

It’s still evolving, and we’re open to ideas, suggestions and alternatives. But I think this application of cognitive psychology could reinvigorate homework and revision in schools.

Posted on April 11, 2015 by Katie Ashford

Why being a SENCO is awesome

Whenever I tell people I’m a SENCO, or explain the nature of my job to non-teachers, I pretty much always get the same response.

“Crikey, I couldn’t do that job!”

“You must be mad!”

“That must be such hard work!”

“Why would you take that on?”

“Sounds like a complete nightmare!”

When I told one of my friends that I was applying for the position of Director of Inclusion at Michaela, they said: “I’m pretty sure nobody else would want that job, so you can guarantee you’ll get it.”

I’m really not sure why people react in these ways when I tell them what I do. People recoil in horror; they look at me as if I’m completely mad; sometimes, they even have the audacity to give me patronising pat on the shoulder, implying on some level that I’m a haggard soldier about to leave for yet another war-torn country against my will.

I hear loads of people say how much they want to be a Head of Department, a Head of Teaching and Learning, or a Head of year, or how they aspire to be a Head teacher some day, but I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who has said that they want to be a SENCO in the future.

This makes me really sad. It makes me sad not just because we need great people to do this job, but because it is an incredible role. Here are a few reasons why I think so:

  1. Clear focus

Too many people overcomplicate the role of SENCO, which can make it seem less appealing to prospective applicants. For me, my role is very simple.

My aim, first and foremost, is to make myself redundant.

To do that, there are two really important things I need to keep in the centre of my mind at all times: first, make sure every child can read. Second, do whatever needs to be done outside of lesson time to make sure kids learn when they are in lessons.

I’m so clear about what I want to achieve as a SENCO that I don’t fuss about with things that get in the way. So I avoid pointless meetings, unnecessary paperwork and attending timewasting conferences as much as possible. Instead, I teach, organise interventions, spend lots of time with the pupils, and make sure teachers and support staff have everything they need to teach their kids really, really well.

  1. Improves your teaching

In my first year of teaching, I was thrust into a bit of a nightmare situation at a bit of a scary school. One of the things that I really did love, however, was the fact that I had been given pretty much all bottom sets in my first year. Again, I received looks of pity and pledges of support, and although I was initially horrified at the prospect, I quickly grew to see it as a gift. Those classes- 10.6, 9.4, 11.5 and 11.6- crikey, they were tough. But I was a much better trainee and teacher for it.

Teaching bottom sets makes you a better teacher because you have to think really carefully about how to get weak kids to grasp tricky concepts. How can you get a group of illiterate boys to understand (and possibly enjoy) Romeo and Juliet? It forced me to chunk down content into minute parts, and to think deeply about exactly what I wanted them to master and how I could help them get there. It forced me to think about learning in a completely different way, and it transformed my approach, understanding and beliefs about teaching forever.

Long term, strategic thinking

Being a SENCO is more than attending annual review meetings and drinking cups of coffee. It’s an opportunity to shape the direction and focus of the school. As a SENCO, you are thinking constantly about what’s best for those who need the most support, and with a proactive attitude and a bit of gusto, you can fly the flag for SEN when senior team are cooking up the latest school-wide strategy. It is an excellent opportunity to have a huge impact on what is often (sadly) a big chunk of the student body. As a SENCO, you can introduce your own school-wide initiatives and strategies that support these kids. It’s an incredible opportunity to change and improve things.

  1. Strong relationships

At Michaela, I only teach the bottom two sets, and am the tutor for the weakest kids. This means that I know those kids really, really well. I teach them all of them for six hours a week. I see some of them another 3 and a half hours on top of that (for intervention and/or reading club). Our amazing team of Teaching Fellows run other interventions with them and report back to me on progress (quantitative and qualitative) every week. I observe them in lessons at least twice a week. I speak to several parents often. I know those kids really well. It’s a great pleasure and I’m excited to get to know them even better over the next five or so years.

  1. Transformation

If you have high expectations of SEN kids, the sky is the limit. Tell them they can do it, tell them you love helping them do it, and give them the right tools, and you will transform their lives. As I said at the beginning of the post, nobody needs education more than the kids with the biggest mountain to climb. When they do reach the peak, the view is more incredible than you- or they- could have ever imagined.

Posted on April 10, 2015 by Olivia Dyer


Two weeks ago, our illustrious Assistant Head Joe Kirby wrote a blog on the the most valuable content that subject leaders at Michaela want all pupils to remember for ten years and beyond. Although Mr Kirby and my more disciplined colleagues distil that knowledge onto a single page, I, the reprobate Head of Science, do not always manage this. Mr Kirby, the most pragmatic reformer of us all, sums up the advantages of knowledge organisers here:

“When a new teacher starts in a school, one of the first questions they have is ‘what do I teach?’ At a single glance, knowledge organisers answer that. Everything our pupils need to know for the year is set out clearly in advance.”

Today on Twitter, Nick Wells asked for me to share my Science knowledge organisers. I am not one to deny the people what they want. What can I say? I am basically a modern day Jesus. So here they are, my friends. Enjoy them. Relish them.

If you are not of the knowledge persuasion, you may choose to print them out, Pritt Stick them together and use them as a blanket for those balmy, but unpredictable spring evenings. At least then they would not go to waste.

Science Knowledge Organisers

Let me take this opportunity to plug an upcoming debate on ‘Science: knowledge versus skills’ on 30/04/15 (evening). The venue is TBC, but in London somewhere. Jip ahoy!

Posted on February 27, 2015 by Olivia Dyer

The vocabulary overload

Ashley squints at the interactive whiteboard as the glare from the sun penetrates the window and dazzles him. “One difference between the structure of a general plant cell and a bacterial cell is that with a bacterial cell, instead of a nucleus, the DNA is held on a plasmid.” As Mr Thompson points at a squiggly line occupying the inside of the bacterial cell, Ashley recoils at the sweat patches developing in the underarm region of Mr Thompson’s grey polyester shirt. The post lunchtime slump takes hold of Ashley’s consciousness, and he begins to ponder the definition of ‘DNA’. Minutes later, having decreed that DNA is a suitable abbreviation for ‘dubstep not afrobeats’, Mr Thompson concludes his explanation by informing the class that they have “five minutes: off you go!”

Moments later, Ashley turns around and it dawns on him that he has no idea what to do next. Completely boggled, Ashley gets out of his seat and furtively glances at the pair of the bookish girls in the corner – the ones who always get the best results. They plump for some sort of petri dish and so, not wanting to question their scientific wisdom, Ashley leans over to grab one too, whilst scanning the room for clues as to what to do with it next.

Of course, Ashley should have been listening to Mr Thompson’s period five lesson on pathogens, and would not have been quite so confused if he had not begun to muse possible definitions of ‘DNA’. However, the classic mistake that Mr Thompson and almost every other science teacher in the nation has made at some point in their career was to convolute their explanation with superfluous vocabulary. We science teachers need to be mindful that our subject is a minefield of unchartered territory for children. DNA might be in our everyday vocabulary, but to the average 13 year old, the word is jargon. It might as well be a foreign language. If pupils don’t know the meaning of words that underpin new concepts, they probably should not be used without prior acknowledgement from the teacher. Why overload a pupil’s working memory with alien terminology? It is said that young people struggle to hold more than five items in their working memory at any one time. Therefore, using unfamiliar words is an unnecessary distraction, which subsequently makes learning more difficult.

What about the words that our pupils are used to using in everyday discourse? Take energy, for example. Most pupils in year seven will associate the word ‘energy’ with food, fuel and the ability to undertake activity. Science teachers, irrespective of their specialism, feel familiar with the concept of energy. It is an important idea in biology, chemistry and physics. However, ask a science teacher to define energy or explain clearly what is meant by the word. It is difficult to do. Many science teachers do not, themselves, have a clear understanding of the scientific conception of energy. They see energy as a fuzzy ‘thing’ – something that is measured in Joules. The reality in science, however, is far more complex: energy is a quantifiable property that can be converted to do ‘work’ – what happens when a force acts upon an object, resulting in a displacement of that object. According to the First Law of Thermodynamics, energy can neither be created nor destroyed.

Quite frankly, the teaching of energy in secondary schools in England is a mess and improving the situation requires subject specific training. However, I will save that rant for another time! In order to communicate the scientific conception of energy, we need to simplify things. For those perplexed by the above definition, lets begin with a simplified definition: energy is the amount of work that can be performed by a force.

To understand this definition, teachers also need to explain the concepts ‘work’ and ‘force’. As with every academic discipline, explaining one thing requires the understanding of many others. But there are additional layers of complexity in science; take work and force, for example. These words have different meanings in the everyday discourse of a year seven pupil. From their point of view, ‘work’ is synonymous with ‘labor’, and ‘force’ is synonymous with ‘vigor’. I personally made the decision to teach Energy as the penultimate unit of my Key Stage Three curriculum in year nine. This is because, as I have outlined, it is such an enormous concept underpinned by many other concepts, which I want to make sure my pupils master first.

There is a huge gap between what is required to understand a concept and the reality of what many science teachers are actually doing in science labs around the country. ‘What are they doing?’ you ask. Throwing words around the science lab, I tell you! What this post elucidates is the tip of the iceberg. Energy is one concept in Key Stage Three out of hundreds, if not thousands. Imagine the breadth of knowledge we assume pupils have if we count the Key Stage Four and Five sciences. Currently, science teachers do not put this amount of thought into how they explain concepts. This is one of the reasons why children in England are not learning Science.

In conclusion, it is imperative that we acknowledge how huge a problem this ‘vocabulary overload’ is. Next, we need to identify the issues with using scientific vocabulary and systematically develop, sequence and share definitions. Here is a challenge for you science teachers out there. Over the next week, take one of these three words – particle, structure or weight. Pinpoint the issues that arise when using the word in Key Stage Three science, and then develop a comprehensive definition. Next, decide when it should be introduced in the curriculum sequence and thus, into pupil’s scientific vocabularies. After all, we are all in this together.

Posted on April 3, 2015 by Katie Ashford

How can we increase a child’s vocabulary?

It goes without saying that words are powerful things. Words are the difference between understanding and confusion; they deepen and enrich how we express ourselves; they allow us to communicate and connect with others. Without words, we are trapped, imprisoned, constrained within the confines of our own minds. Words allow us to escape ourselves. Words give us the power to reach out to others and share and understand the experience of being alive. Having fewer words at your disposal limits what you can say.

It is upsetting, therefore, that studies have shown that children from language-impoverished families may only hear as few as 13 million words before the age of 4. This is in stark contrast to children from language-rich homes, who are more likely to have heard nearly 45 million words by the same age.

If we do nothing to address this gap, it will only increase as children get older.

Teachers may feel startled and disempowered by such stats. How can we fill a 32 million-word gap in the short time we have them in school? Fortunately, children have a natural propensity for learning language. If we give them the right conditions and teach the right things, therefore, we can make a significant difference to a child’s vocabulary, and consequently, their ability to communicate.

As ever, I don’t propose to have all the answers. Below, however, are some thoughts on where we might begin to tackle this seemingly insurmountable problem.

Step 1: Assessment

As with a lot of things, it is vital to know where pupils are at when they come to you. There are a number of different vocabulary tests out there, such as testyourvocab.com andmyvocabularysize.com. These have different strengths and weaknesses, but are based on relatively robust methodologies.

We decided to create our own assessment using the tests in this book by researcher Hunter Diack. We took sample tests and turned the words into simple multiple-choice questions. For example:

What is the best synonym for ‘appreciation’?

  1. Desire
  2. Disaster
  3. Gratitude
  4. Relationship
  5. Alleviate

Diack’s research is complex, but in his book he argues that the number of correct answers (out of 60) multiplied by 600 will give you an approximate vocabulary figure. A pupil with a score of 15/60, therefore, would have an approximate vocabulary of 9000 words. Whether or not this is 100% accurate is by the by. What it does give is an indication of a pupils’ vocabulary. At age 11, the average child should have a score of about 9000-10,000 words on this test. A well-educated graduate should have around 30,000. The words on the test range from very simple ones like ‘beside’ and ‘appreciate’ all the way up to pretty tough ones like ‘bibulous’ and ‘cenacle’.

When we did these tests in September, the results correlated well with reading age scores. Pupils with reading ages of 13 years or more usually had a vocabulary of around 12,000-15,000 words. Pupils with reading ages of 8 years or below usually had a vocabulary of around 2000-3000 words. Again, these are startling statistics, and reveal just how much catching up some pupils have to do.

[Of course, EAL pupils will begin the year with very low vocabulary scores. Depending on how quickly they learn new things, they will usually progress at a much speedier rate than their native peers. It is very exciting to see this!]

Step 2: Which words?

In this article, Daisy Christodoulou outlines very clearly how we should choose which words to teach. In a nutshell, the words that will have the biggest impact on a child’s vocabulary are words that you see often in books, but hear rarely in speech. Words such as: derive, evoke, surreptitious, capricious, incredulous and eradicate all fall into this category. Focus on these sorts of words and pupils’ vocabularies will increase over time. This works because in order to learn new words, you need to know other words. The more of these words you are taught, the easier it is to learn other words. It’s a lovely, virtuous cycle. Combine a robust vocabulary strategy with high motivation and a school-wide reading culture, and your pupils will go far.

Step 3: Inflexible Knowledge

As cognitive science reveals, the brain tends to remember new information in concrete, inflexible forms that are difficult to apply to new situations and contexts. With this in mind, we begin by giving pupils an inflexible definition for a large number of new words, and encourage them to learn them by rote. Combining tradition and innovation, we utiliseQuizlet and knowledge organisers to support pupils’ memorisation.

Another aspect of our strategy for helping pupils to learn these new words is to link them to the units of work we have been teaching. For example, when teaching new words for describing people, we used lots of words that featured in our abridgement of ‘The Odyssey’. We have found that this helps pupils to remember new words as they have a point of reference for using them. It may be narrow at first, but our experience has shown that this is less overwhelming than introducing them to a wide range of contexts in the first instance.

Step 4: Flexible Knowledge

Once pupils have begun to learn the meanings of these new words in an inflexible way, we can now start to teach them the meaning of words in different contexts so that they have a flexible understanding of them. I highly recommend reading ‘Bringing Words to Life’ by Beck, Mckeown and Kucan for an excellent description of the challenges of vocabulary instruction, and the best ways to go about addressing them. If time isn’t on your side, though, I’ve included a brief PowerPoint summarising the book at the end of this blog post.

In a nutshell, pupils need to see and hear words being used in a variety of contexts. When learning the word ‘incredulous’ for example, pupils need to see it used to describe lots of different situations. They also need to begin using the word in a range of contexts too. Again, Beck’s book provides a wealth of different activities that could be used to do this. I have included an example lesson at the end of this post to give you an idea of what this might look like in practice.

If this post sounds a bit technical, that’s because vocabulary acquisition isn’t as straightforward as it might seem. It is simply not enough to point at a few new words on a word wall or ask pupils to use a thesaurus. In order to chip away at that 32 million word gap, we need a robust, systematic strategy that focuses on teaching pupils the most useful words in the clearest way. This isn’t an easy task, but it is certainly not impossible.


A PowerPoint Summarising ‘Bringing Words to Life‘ by Beck, McKeown and Kucan.

An example lesson teaching the word ‘Incredulous‘.

Posted on March 28, 2015

Specify subject knowledge in meticulous detail

What’s the difference between a knowledge curriculum and other curricula?

A knowledge curriculum specifies, in meticulous detail, the exact facts, dates, events, characters, concepts and precise definitions that all pupils are expected to master in long-term memory. Many teachers underestimate the value of specifying (and sequencing) such detail. It is rare to find an English, Science or even History scheme of work that sets this out.

The most powerful tool in the arsenal of the curriculum designer is the knowledge organiser. These organise all the most vital, useful and powerful knowledge on a single page. Here is an example for Year 7: the timeline, activists, quotations and political and legal vocabulary for a unit on apartheid South Africa.

There are two reasons they are so useful: clarity for teachers, and memory for pupils.

Clarity for teachers

Knowledge organisers clarify for everyone, from the Headteacher to brand new teachers, exactly what is being taught.

At Michaela, Heads of Department think deeply about the difficult trade-offs between breadth and depth. If, for instance, you only have one religion lesson a week, what exactly about the Bible should your pupils study, and what will you omit? A broad range of stories, or fewer stories in greater depth?

We try hard to choose the most valuable content that we want all pupils to remember for ten years and beyond. And for each unit, we discipline ourselves to distil it onto a single page.

When a new teacher starts in a school, one of the first questions they have is ‘what do I teach?’ At a single glance, knowledge organisers answer that. Everything our pupils need to know for the year is set out clearly in advance.

Now, any teacher can pop into anyone else’s lesson, look at the unit organiser, and see what every kid is working on. I love seeing the fantastic knowledge they are learning: from astronomy in Science, to European geography in Humanities, to grammatical structures in French. I love asking them questions about their subjects, and seeing their eyes light up as they see others love science, geography and history too.

Memory for pupils

Knowledge organisers are given to all pupils at the start of each unit to help them remember what they’re learning. No longer out of sight, out of mind: instead of leaving behind previous units’ content, teachers can recap quickly and easily in lessons. Instead of forgetting all about it, pupils continually revisit and retrieve prior learning from their memories.

Every lesson, across all subjects, we use knowledge organisers printed off as a pack of in-lesson quizzes. The numbers and columns here help turn the grids into simple in-class quizzes. Emboldening key words allows pupils to peer-mark the complex definitions, working out which terms are vital in them:

Lastly, knowledge organisers are brilliant for revision. In the past, I hugely underestimated the sheer volume of retrieval practice required for pupils to master all their subject knowledge in long-term memory. Specifying the exact knowledge is just a starting point. Sequencing it, explaining it, checking it, quizzing on it, practicing combining it, testing it, and revising it for years are vital if pupils are to remember it for years to come.

Next time, I’ll write about our five-year revision strategy across subjects.

Come Lunch With Us!

26 Mar 2015, Posted by admin in Latest News

Come Lunch With Us!

Family lunch at Michaela is one of the ways we ensure pupils really bond with one another. It’s all about instilling good manners, helping one another and taking on responsibility. It’s a time when every single pupil has a role. Each pupil either lays the table, or serves food, or clears away at the end. It really is something to behold. The pupils really work together as a team. It’s quite heart-warming.

Here are some comments, very typical in fact, made by a mother who recently visited us for family lunch:

“Your charming pupils could not have been more polite, helpful and informative. Their enthusiasm, knowledge and pride was immense.”

“I have never, ever, been in a school where, without exception, every single pupil behaves in such a courteous and confident manner. They truly are a credit to the school and their families.”

Again, I would urge all parents to take the opportunity to visit the school, to observe lessons, to stay for family lunch and to see for yourselves how much pupils enjoy both lessons and lunch and how much they learn every single day at Michaela. I guarantee you’ll be immensely proud of your sons and daughters and their enormous maturity.

I recently read a rather worrying report on the BBC, where, according to research, more than half of children in the UK don’t eat a single portion of vegetables a day.

As you doubtless know, the government recommends that everyone should have at least five portions of fruit and veg a day. But the BBC survey showed that 52 in every 100 kids don’t have any veg, and 44 in 100 don’t have any fruit, on a daily basis.

What we eat is a big issue at the moment because one in three children in the UK is obese or overweight. That figure has trebled in the last 25 years.

So once again I’d urge parents to come to lunch, to eat with the kids, to witness their manners and maturity and see how much they enjoy their time at Michaela. Please find below our daily menus for the half term ahead.

Remember too that we are always ready to discuss your child’s academic progress over the phone, or in person, at a mutually convenient time. Just contact info@mcsbrent.co.uk and we can arrange a time and date.