Avoiding the Acronym

The College of West Anglia

This project aimed to pilot the use of small, simple sentence starters to frame a response which we would also repeat for reading and use for all questions.

You can download a PDF of this report on the Excellence Gateway.


Anyone who has been an English examiner will know that students love to write an acronym at the top of their question paper. Unfortunately, anyone who has ever been an examiner will also know that this very rarely helps a candidate.

When marking, you almost become amused by the variety and absurdity of the range of acronyms used – my personal favourite was ‘TEACHER SLAPPER’ for use in poetry analysis. We all face challenges in teaching a ‘resit’ subject: one of the biggest is understanding what and how a student has been taught before.

At the College of West Anglia, we deliver AQA English language to over 600 students, each with a range of previous conceptions or often misconceptions. For many years, we wanted students to build on previous knowledge and allowed them freely to use whichever acronym had worked for them. However, we have increasingly discovered that the very tools designed to help students were often in fact confusing them.

As a large English department of 10 staff, we decided to avoid the use of such acronyms and use simple sentence starters to aid students instead. We wanted to use these to help students to think more clearly about how to approach and start a question.


One of the first English lessons we deliver attempts to explore the previous experiences that students have had with English language in their secondary schools. As part of this lesson we actively encourage students to be honest about what worked for them and what they struggle with.

These first few lessons present teachers with a mass of information and highlight common issues that all colleges face: the muddle between English Language and Literature; the feeling that “I didn’t need to revise as it was English”; a lack of belief in reading and the plethora of approaches to structuring a coherent exam response.

Every year, there is a distinct connection between these issues: confidence. As such, teachers often feel lost and unsure of where to begin in re-teaching a large and complex qualification. The information from students is discussed in the staffroom with collegiate exasperation and then battled with throughout the year. We wanted to focus on one of the specific issues faced by our students and re-direct their knowledge.

As part of these sessions, we noticed that we had collected approximately 8 different common acronyms used by students, with ‘PEE, PEEL, PEEZL’ used most often. We also noticed that common letters were used in acronyms but often meant different things. For example, an ‘R’ in ‘PEARL’ could mean ‘relate to context’ whereas it could also often mean ‘repetition/rhetorical question’ in another.

We had used acronyms ourselves when teaching writing and allowed students to use the one they felt most comfortable with. But we still faced the problem of ‘How do I start this?’ and students would often write very little in exam responses. As a result, our intervention aimed to pilot the use of small, simple sentence starters to frame a response which we would also repeat for reading and use for all questions.


Although we operate across several campuses, we are lucky to be able to meet as a whole team every Friday afternoon to complete training. We used some of the Friday sessions to plan our project in four stages.

Creation of resources

  • Met as a team to discuss one key area to focus on
  • Discussed some common acronyms and how they were being used
  • Collected data from students about which acronyms they used, and asked them to ‘translate’ them
  • Created some sentence starters:
    o ‘The Writer uses language to’ or ‘I agree with’
    o ‘For example, they have used the word/phrases.’
    o ’This makes me think/feel/imagine’
  • Issued scaffolds for each question as we taught each question, including them in our pre-planned lessons
  • Explicitly taught the scaffold by introducing, modelling and getting students to identify them in their own work

Adaptation of resources

  • Examined a cross sample of student exam responses
  • Discussed how we had taught these to ensure consistency
  • Agreed how to teach a scaffold and how to communicate the reasoning behind it with students
  • Adapted the sentence starter of: ‘This makes me think/feel/imagine’ to ‘This suggests’ as we found that the word ‘feel’ did not always apply to every question

Application of resources

  • Used the scaffolds with students in every lesson (as we worked on exam questions in every lesson)

Collection of data

  • Collected data and feedback from students via:
    o a short questionnaire
    o discussion
  • Observed teachers using the sentence starters in class
  • Gathered feedback from staff throughout
  • Identified that on average, students gained 1.6 marks on each question from using scaffolded sentences

Professional Learning: Evidence of changes in teaching, learning and assessment practices

The most notable change to teaching, learning and assessment practices in the team was the heightened awareness of students’ previous learning. This led to an increase in professional dialogue across the team and created further questions about how we could adapt teaching to maximise the transition from previous education.

Teachers are now hoping to create another action-based research project on the use of reading age data to further inform our first lessons with them.
Additionally, the use of a scaffold style task meant that staff had to clarify instructions, build relationships with students and model writing. Whilst this is deemed to be good practice anyway, it did refresh staff and reiterate the need for instructions to be clear and explicit.

Evidence of improvement in learners’ achievements, retention and progression

Learner feedback showed that 98% remembered the teachers using the framework and 75% felt that it was useful in helping them to start an answer which had previously been a problem for many of them. 68% felt it helped to structure a response whilst 76% expressed positive aspects that they liked about using the scaffold, including ‘helps to understand what to include/do’.

As well as this, we analysed a random sample of twenty 16-18 year old learners and compared results from one assessment point (without the use of the scaffold) to another assessment point where staff had used it. Although the data taken from the second assessment point captured the use of the scaffold in its early stages, we saw an increase of 32 marks in the overall score.

Staff consistently commented that relationships with students had benefitted from using clear and repeated guidelines. As the scaffolding sentences could apply to any previous exam boards that the students had studied, they also felt that this made their learning easier. Students also spoke positively of discussing their prior learning experiences and enjoyed having the freedom to voice their thoughts on their previous experience of English teaching.

Whilst we need to continue to tweak the phrases used, and the way in which we approach exam questions and how we utilise previous knowledge from students, it is clear that the framework supported them in starting and approaching an exam question.

Evidence of improved collaboration and changes in organisation practices

Using a common set of sentences across all lessons allowed students to clearly understand the importance of the scaffold. In addition, students were able to make links and refocus, building their confidence. In one lesson, a student appeared to be overwhelmed when asked to apply newly learnt knowledge to an exam question, but then asked their tutor ‘Will we have those sentences again?’ and responded with an enthusiastic ‘yay’ when told that they would be displayed shortly.

Using a repeated strategy also provided a clear signpost to students that an exam response was needed at that part of the lesson and therefore also required improved written output. This demonstrated to teachers that they need to review all lessons (including those used for Functional English) to ensure that students always approach writing with clear preparation.

Collaboration between colleagues improved greatly, sparking debates around the value of including an analysis of other misconceptions and confusions in our initial assessment. It also led us to discuss peer marking as we had asked students to highlight the use of the sentence starters in a critique of their work. Staff felt that getting students to read and analyse their own responses was incredibly effective.

Learning from this project

Clear gains:

  • Students enjoyed the scaffolded sentence starters: they felt less confused, more willing to write and enjoyed the way they were repeated across lessons. Most remembered the sentences clearly in comparison to struggling to remember an acronym.
  • Better teaching was observed with teachers as the sentence starters needed clear explanation. It evoked further discussion and ideas on how to build upon previous learning experiences faced by students.

Further Developments:

  • To embed use of sentence starters into all writing tasks, in all lessons across GCSE English.
  • To review and update our induction/ initial processes so that we can more fully capture student views on what has helped/hindered in prior learning of the subject.
  • To continue to work on peer assessment with a view to getting students to fully understand how they have applied a framework and how it has affected their exam responses.