Unlocking Potential in English

Strathmore College

I can envisage a time when I will read for pleasure.

– English Learner

This project looked at how to support learners, who have become disengaged with English, to re-engage with their core literacy skills.

You can download a PDF of this report on the Excellence Gateway (link pending).


The project aimed to address the challenge of progress and achievement in English for SEND learners. SEND learners achieve significantly lower than their peers in assessments for measuring national performance (Appendix 3a). We aimed to investigate what works in supporting our SEND learners. The SEND learners involved have a high level of awareness and understanding, but have been hard to reach because they have seen their (particular) SEND diagnosis as a barrier to their learning. We aimed to investigate how best to support these particular learners. More specifically, we aimed to investigate how to best support these learners with re-engagement, motivation, retention and achievement. We aimed to better understand how we could close the attainment gap (for these SEND learners), through an improved support network with better communication between Learning Support Assistants (LSA’s) and wider support teams.

Other Contextual Information

Our action research was part of the Education and Training Foundation’s OTLA 8 Programme. Strathmore College is an independent specialist college for young people aged 16-24. All the young people have an Education, Health and Care Plan and many require support for their social, emotional and mental health. They are taught in small groups or one-to-one, having been through the specialist education system prior to their post-16 education. They may have had long periods of absence from school. A lack of formal qualifications and limitations in English are expected. The college ethos promotes community-based learning and engagement in meaningful activities and work-related learning. The team consisted of the project lead, an English tutor, the deputy project lead, a tutor and lead on qualifications, key tutors and learning support assistants (LSAs) that work daily with the learners, embedding English skills development in practical sessions.


1. Assessment of learner strengths and areas for development

In a one-to-one teaching and learning environment, comprehensive assessments took place. This included standard BKSB initial assessments, so we had a benchmark reference for progress, Functional Skills style written assessments (some learners were not willing to take an online assessment), and discussions with learners around their perceived areas of strengths and weaknesses. Learners were all informed as to the outcomes of the assessments. Learners were then supported with identifying one or two key focus skills area(s), answering the question: ‘What area(s) can I develop to help improve my English?

Areas that learners identified included:
• Spelling
• Punctuating/writing sentences accurately
• Vocabulary and word recall.

These were captured on our Padlet (Appendix 3f).

2. Staff Training and Involvement

The aims of the project were to provide a close support network for the learners in order to improve their engagement in English, through increased opportunities to practise core skills with an informed team. As such, developing communication and understanding of the learners’ literacy needs was key. Strategies to support learners were shared with staff in meetings. Individual learner folders were created online, so that tasks and activities were accessible to all, across all sites. Learners all had an English skills folder, in which bespoke activities were kept. To develop consistency and increase communication, the Project Lead began to have one-to-one support meetings with the staff, to report progress, take feedback and discuss strategies. Learners could choose to be present, supporting their involvement in the process and this helped to secure learner buy in. This was supported through including a log of activity at the front of the folder to develop three-way communication between the learner, LSA(‘s) and project lead

As staff fed back, a key area that was identified for CPD was how to enable young people to develop their spellings in a way that did not make them feel patronised or belittled. To meet this need, bespoke CPD was organised and delivered by ‘That Spelling Thing’ (Millar, 2022). This enabled a consistency of approach with learners. LSAs found that learners were more willing than expected to read words aloud and sound them out as a spelling strategy; this worked especially well as learners realised they did not always pronounce words correctly, which had affected their spellings.

3. Learner involvement

Learners fed back verbally, through reflective activity and through written feedback forms. In response, additional project activities included making, and finding bespoke resources, for example, including adapting existing resources such as standard lesson feedback forms to better suit their needs (Appendix 3c).

Outcomes and Impact

Teaching, Learning and Assessment

Formal Awards

All the learners involved in the project made significant and rapid progress in their formally awarded qualifications. One (case study) learner, who did not formally study English during his first year at the college, was the first to complete his Level 1 Project; another, the first to take, and pass a Level 2 exam.

Motivation and Volition

Learner engagement significantly increased, as the images of Learner 1’s work below highlight. Learner 1 goes from ‘I don’t know’ to giving a clear and concise answer.

examples of work before and after

Learner 1 feedback in October 2021 and work in January 2022

Raised Aspirations

Learners began to work more creatively and become more ambitious with their work. The first image represents half of the entirety of work completed for formal assessment at the end of the previous year by (case study) learner 2. The second image shows 2 months into the project working closely and consistently with his LSA.

examples of work before and after

Learner 2 showed marked improvements in their work over the course of the project

Improved Resilience

Learners demonstrated resilience through a willingness to visit and revisit work. Learners were willing to undertake activities that they would previously have refused, as they focused on their weaknesses.

In feedback, learners commented on negative school experiences that had impacted on their resilience and motivation for learning – from wanting to give up when presented with easier work than their peers to being bullied because they were perceived to be ‘not as able’. This had a long-term impact on the learners and still led to heightened emotions and poor self-esteem. However, in at least one case a teacher differentiating work for a learner led to a sense that the teacher had given up on the learner being able to achieve with peers in a whole-group setting and led to a view that:

It is easier to say no you can’t do something rather than try and do it.

– Learner 1 interview

Whilst learners may have some negative views about being educated within a specialist setting – this too clearly has impacted the confidence of these learners; they could see that the close relationships with staff and the very small group setting had led, or was beginning to lead, to an academic achievement that was in line with their peers in school.

The images below illustrate the impact of our action research project in relation to teaching, learning and assessment practices:

Organisational Development

The nature of our organisation meant that the project was very person-centred in its approach. Focus skills areas were individualised to the learner, taking account of their individual strengths, areas for development and learning preferences. Having said this, key themes emerged, and it was found that learners wanted to, and felt there was a value in developing vocabulary, improving spellings and use of punctuation. Inevitably, even when their key skills focus was not vocabulary based, learners were introduced to a wider vocabulary and given more opportunities to read independently, and this positively impacted on reading comprehension. Both case study learners felt that it was their reading that improved the most.

This is in line with the research of Quigley (2018), who advocates teaching vocabulary as key to whole school literacy, which he feels is currently ‘too unwieldy’ (p. 98). As such, our review of English teaching policy and practices will include a focus on embedding English specifically through vocabulary development, with a focus on reading and the discrete teaching of vocabulary, in order to develop ‘word-consciousness’ (Quigley, p.99). This can be achieved through re-introducing key subject vocabulary focuses (as starters), word wheels (which a number of the learners enjoyed completing), ‘word of the day’, teacher/ LSA questioning and extension, modelling display, vocabulary worksheets in class and setting expectations with cross-college reading, where learners can identify and record new vocabulary. A number of the learners on the project were given alphabetised books where they could record new vocabulary.

Learning from this project

Some learners made rapid progress and some common themes emerged:

  • Strong relationships with their LSA/teacher and a belief that there was a plan for their success, which was individualised, leading to a growth of confidence, demonstrated in a willingness to make mistakes and associated improvements/developments.
  • An intrinsic or external motivating factor e.g., wanting to improve personally or an external goal, such as access to General Further Education or the workplace. Those learners that developed an intrinsic desire to improve, which may have not been present at the start of the project, spoke most positively about themselves and their achievements and showed the greatest willingness to continue to improve their skills after the project ended. In fact, the project could support the idea that ‘students can perform extrinsically motivated actions with resentment’ (Deci and Ryan, p.55). Such learners made rapid progress but did not readily talk of their achievements and remained self-critical. Those that became intrinsically motivated continued with activities when they had ‘free choice’ to do whatever they decided. For example, Learner 1 chose to read in the mornings at home, with no sense of expectation that he read outside of lessons at all.
  • A need for consistency – of staffing, timing of lessons, approaches to learning and staff expectations. The nature of the project meant that these expectations became shared across the team of staff and were based around the learner.

Fundamental to learner progress was the relationship between teachers/LSAs and learners. These relationships seemed to be defined by teachers/LSAs who had high expectations but were willing to give unlimited support and flexibility in order to enable the young person to meet those expectations. This was reciprocated by the learners who then became motivated themselves.

Where staffing changed regularly, the lack of consistency of expectation was seen to impact on the learner progress and motivation was seen to decline. One learner had a period of time out of college but quickly picked up where he left off as he was supported by an LSA who had helped him to succeed previously.

In all cases, the progress became rapid when the learners could see the progress for themselves and ultimately took responsibility for their own learning, with physical evidence that they could do something they had previously believed that they could not do, which perhaps had not been proved before because of a readiness to give up. These learners who could talk about their own progress were then willing to try new things and showed the highest level of resilience, even when presented with mundane or challenging tasks. There is a clear need to be ambitious for all learners regardless of their previous experiences.

We realised the impact of developing vocabulary knowledge on reading skills, through the focus on spellings. With hindsight, we would have introduced a discrete teaching of vocabulary, through the multi method approach to reinforcement, that all staff could support the learning with. This will be reflected in our development planning for 2022-23.

Professional Development

Using the ETF’s Professional Standards for teachers and trainers. Please note, this report refers to the 2014-2022 standards.

  • 6. Build positive and collaborative relationships with colleagues and learners.

    Learners appreciated being involved in decision making around their learning as it enabled them to link what they were doing to their own goals; for example, they were able to choose options of work to tackle the same literacy topic and this helped to forge relationships. They also witnessed and appreciated when staff were working together for the learners’ benefit, and this led to greater efforts on behalf of the learners.

  • 11. Manage and promote positive learner behaviour

    Our project enabled us to explore learner behaviour and motivations which are closely linked. Behaviour here means positive approaches to learning, a growth mindset, which a number of learners began to demonstrate as they witnessed and understood their own progress and as they realised that they were at the centre of the project.

  • 6. Build positive and collaborative relationships with colleagues and learners.

    Here the focus is overcoming ‘individual barriers to learning’ which proved to be learners’ historic experiences and what this had taught them, rather than their SEND. Strategies can be used and employed to tackle barriers of SEND but overcoming the impact on confidence, self-esteem and motivation due to perceptions of SEND has proven the greater challenge.


Appendix 2: Learner Case Studies

Appendix 3: Context and ‘in-project’ developments


Deci, E and Ryan, R (2000). Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New
Direction Contemporary. Educational Psychology 24, pp54-67 [online] Available at: http://www.idealibrary.com

Millar, T. That Spelling Thing: more than letters (2022). Available at: https://thatspellingthing.com/ [accessed 30.3.22].

Quigley, A (2018) Closing the Vocabulary Gap Routledge: Oxford