14a. BCOT

Improving feedback for assessments

Basingstoke College of Technology (BCoT)

This project aimed to explore whether feedback could be improved for GCSE and ESOL written tasks using a software extension called Mote. We predominantly chose a cohort of 16-19 year old GCSE resit learners for the GCSE research group. The ESOL group was a cohort of adults completing an ESOL Entry Level 2 Skills for Life qualification.

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


Our intention was to identify a digital approach for GCSE and ESOL learners that would work for learner feedback, development and target setting. Learners do not often read the feedback provided in their books, or after assessments, and written feedback is very time consuming (we have over 100 learners each). We intended to create a digital learning feedback journal using Mote software. This tool allows teachers to add voice comments to Google documents. We were intending for learners to listen to the teacher feedback and then reflect and record what their next steps were.

Other Contextual Information

Our action research was part of the Education and Training Foundation’s OTLA 8 Programme. It took place in the English department of our FE college, where we worked with two groups of 16-19 full time GCSE learners and one part time class of adult ESOL Entry Level 2 learners. GCSE learners were using the feedback given to set targets and understand any gaps in their learning. ESOL learners used the same feedback tool but were also able to read the transcript and then translate into their chosen language. BCoT has embraced technology during the pandemic and we used Mote previously on tasks submitted digitally. Our intention was to attempt digital feedback on handwritten assessments.


We knew that we wanted to improve and streamline marking and feedback processes but knew that some learners would be more receptive than others. All existing learners from BCoT had been used to online delivery (some had used the Mote tool before as a method of feedback). The majority of learners who were in their first year from leaving school had not heard of, or used, Mote before.

Due to the success of using online tools in the pandemic and trying to steer away from a school approach, we decided upon this new approach for written task feedback.

GCSE learners:

Two different groups of learners for GCSE were chosen. Both groups consisted of learners who had achieved grade 3. One class was working at a higher level than the other. In total 20 GCSE learners were chosen to be provided with online feedback. Not all learners engaged in the feedback given. Following an initial and diagnostic assessment, all learners had to complete three additional progress tests and a set of mocks throughout the academic year. We chose to:

  • Provide a Mote audio recording for up to 3 minutes – the feedback followed the form of What went well (WWW) and Even Better If (EBI). It included how to answer certain questions, use different vocabulary and how to improve their responses.
  • This was for all learners.
  • This feedback was available as a transcript.
  • This was listened to by learners and targets set.
  • We followed the same process for all three progress tests.

Feedback from one of the GCSE learner A who gained a Grade 4 in the November exams:

I listened to my progress and targets from my verbal feedback. I was able to then share this feedback with both Emily and Jane during my extra English sessions… I think feedback from teachers will help me with getting the skills needed to find a part time job and improve my job at the radio station.

ESOL learners:
An Entry Level 2 class of 15 part-time ESOL learners were chosen. They completed a writing initial assessment in class. The teacher marked the spelling, punctuation and grammar (SPaG) errors on their writing but did not write the customary feedback on their work. Instead, they recorded the feedback for each learner and produced an individualised QR code which was inserted into a presentation (see Appendix 3a). The presentation was shown in the next class and the learners were able to come to the board and scan their code (each code was labelled) with their phones so they could listen to the feedback on their phones. The feedback consisted of what went well and how they could improve on their next piece of writing. The focus was on constructive feedback. The learners then completed another writing activity and the teacher analysed this to ascertain whether they had taken into account the feedback given previously.

Functional skills English:
We also used Mote for a small number of learners resitting their Functional Skills English writing exams to pinpoint areas for improvement to assist them in the resit. The Mote feedback was sent as an MP3 recording to their learner email.

Feedback from Functional Skills learner C:

As a learner at BCOT, I was very impressed when I used Mote, it was incredibly easy to use and the instructions were easy to follow. One of the things I like about Mote is that I can quickly clearly hear feedback. In my opinion, voice comments are more clearly understood because you can hear the teacher’s tone of voice and the nuances of what they are saying. I would 100% recommend this product to teacher’s and other learners.

Outcomes and Impact

Teaching, Learning and Assessment

The methodology of the research changed during the project. We were hoping for an ongoing journal for learners, but we were unable to find a platform that provided this. Instead, we used Mote for the three progress tests for English and in preparation for the ESOL exams. As Mote was developed, we used the tool for additional things such as voice-based questionnaires, the use of QR codes and voice instructions. We found that most learners engaged with the tools offered, but we realised that some just could not show the ability, or the enthusiasm, to work on feedback. We have a number of learners that have sat the exam more than twice. Their confidence has been reduced as a result of them being expected to resit the GCSE year on year. A minority just found the Mote process too difficult to understand, or were not able to understand the correct tool to listen to the feedback offered.

Throughout the process we gained feedback from learners to assess the impact on their learning. The activities chosen worked with the two types of learners identified, but we now need to identify how we can implement this across the entire cohort. We need to ensure that the teaching and support staff are given appropriate training and support to enable them to deliver and assess in the future.

We have had a number of successes with the Mote feedback. The learners have enjoyed scanning the QR codes and listening to the feedback. We have some case studies where learners have stated that the feedback has directly impacted their learning and future skills. We have also managed to use Mote to embed in Google Slides as verbal instructions and for all class feedback.

There have also been barriers. Not all learners have the access to a QR reader on their mobile device. We do also embed feedback by using ‘hypermotes’ but then the learners have to log on to a laptop and find the document. This can be lengthy and confusing for some. It can take 10 minutes to listen to the document where it would have been instant for written feedback, or teacher 1:1 verbal feedback. Additionally, many learners do not have access to headphones and it can be the case that they would rather listen to it when they return home and they may forget to play the feedback. If we play it in the lesson, they can then hear 20 versions of the teacher giving individualised feedback.

Moving forward, we will continue to use Mote but will use it alongside other forms of feedback such as peer and self-marking. It is still a ‘work in progress’ as we have yet to find the right approach to using this for paper-based tasks. It works effortlessly when learners create a typed response using Google Docs as we highlight the text and then record the relevant feedback.

Lastly, we still need to work with how to store and track the progress made as a result of the recordings provided. We can see who opens the recordings – but need to understand how and why it may improve their English skills. We also need to understand the next steps in supporting learner progress. We have attempted this during the year but have not created an accurate tracking system.

Organisational Development

We went into the project with an ambition to change and streamline our marking process for all GCSE and ESOL learners; however, the numbers were too great. By choosing smaller groups of learners across different abilities we were able to identify who benefited from the project. It was great to see the ESOL learners embrace the feedback given and we feel this is only the beginning for them. Working with the ESOL department and understanding how the learners developed their skills will be ongoing after this project concludes. We were able to work closely with the Mote team to evaluate the correct tools for our learners and suggest improvements for future releases of the app. Elsewhere in the organisation, colleagues are using Mote effectively for digitally produced assignments and we will have shared our experiences using the same tool, but on paper-based assessments.

Learning from this project

We have enjoyed the project and have realised that Mote is a very useful tool for feedback. As the project developed, we soon discovered that we could use the tool for many other purposes.

The main challenge we found was the quantity of individualised feedback we had to record and share with the learners. Every GCSE lesson is three hours long and during that time a task is completed by the learners. At first, we found that we could not record the feedback on a weekly basis for these 20 learners for each lesson. When the lesson had finished, we then had to record the feedback. It was more time efficient to continue with our usual methods of in class feedback such as peer marking, all class feedback and face to face feedback as the teacher checked learners’ work during class.

Instead, we chose to use the Mote feedback method on the three progress tests for GCSE. This was much more effective and straightforward as we had to provide clear feedback to enable them to improve their practice. Similarly, the same approach was used with the ESOL team as they delivered the feedback following the assessments that took place during the year. We were using this for the paper-based assessment and when learners received the marked paper they had the audio Mote feedback to listen to whilst looking through WWW/EBI.

We attempted to use a Google form for group feedback following one of the progress tests. Each question from the test had a Mote recording explaining what worked well overall as a class and what needed to be worked on. Learners were then asked to set a target for each question where they achieved less than 50%. Due to the length of the feedback the recordings lasted for about 15 minutes and many learners struggled to retain the information.
We loved using the QR codes and these became easier to use and embed for feedback following a number of meetings with the developers. In the ESOL classes, QR codes were displayed on the class whiteboard under each individual learner and they were able to scan and listen within the lesson.

We went on to use the QR codes for other tasks as well as providing feedback. Most recently, we developed Top Tips for English GCSE revision and these were added as QR codes and posted around the College and on the Google classroom.

Professional Development

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

  • 4. Be creative and innovative in selecting and adapting strategies to help learners to learn.

    Our project gave learners different opportunities to engage with the feedback provided and understand how they could make changes to improve their writing. Strategies were put in place as a form of target setting. As a result of giving feedback for three progress assessments, learners were able to identify their target areas and undertake differentiated revision activities to enable them to succeed.

  • 9. Apply theoretical understanding of effective practice in teaching, learning and assessment drawing on research and other evidence.

    We are always trying to improve our process for teaching, assessment and feedback.
    As Kay (2021) states:

    “Less is more…if teachers want learners to take notice of feedback, it needs to be short, specific and clear.”

    “Keep it focused…on the task and let learners know specifically what they can do to develop their work.”

    We wanted to ensure that we were providing this using the audio Mote feedback. As part of the feedback process we gave specific actions to enable the learners to improve.

  • 18. Apply appropriate and fair methods of assessment and provide constructive and timely feedback to support progression and achievement.

    We have learned that all learners react to feedback dependent on their individual learning preferences. For those learners who have difficulty reading, it was a huge advantage for them to listen to audio recording. For the ESOL learners it was a fantastic tool where they were able to hear the audio to improve their English skills, transcribe into their own language to improve their vocabulary and then listen over and over to support their progression.


Appendix 2: Learner Case Studies

Appendix 3: Project Resources and Reflections


Kay, J., (2021). Improving English and maths in further Education: A Practical guide. 1st ed. London: Open International Publishing LTD.

13a. Blackburn College

Using digital readers to engage and build confidence in reading

Blackburn College

This project wanted to investigate how Microsoft Immersive Reader (IR) could be used to build reading confidence and help learners access more difficult texts. We began by exploring possibilities for classroom use and then moved on to explore its use with the help of Additional Learning Support (ALS) staff.

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


At Blackburn College many learners who begin study programmes have not yet achieved

Using MS Immersive Reader to support students with reading

the required grade 9 – 4 in English language and must resit their GCSE English. In 2021-22 learners retaking English numbered 620 and of those learners 22% were identified as having additional learning support needs. Key to helping our learners obtain this qualification and move on to successful further study is the building of confidence in reading and improved comprehension skills.
Many of our learners are reluctant readers, easily put off by the length of texts and the sheer amount of new vocabulary that some GCSE as well as vocational reading requires. To aid with this, we spend a lot of time helping learners to break texts up, explore context to help understanding, and demonstrate how it isn’t necessary to understand every word. However, we felt that by exploring the use of IR with its built-in dictionary, translator and chunking function we might also make the task of reading more interesting.

Following the written text as it is read aloud can aid comprehension, as well as helping with the pronunciation of unknown words, the spelling of words which they recognise or use in speech and in doing so build fluency. Alongside these functions the tool also allows learners to customise their reading experience by speeding up or slowing it down, limiting the amount of text seen at one time, changing letter size and font, as well as background colour.
We felt these features not only stimulate engagement with the text but encourage learners to reflect on the strategies that work best for them and to take responsibility for these when reading.

Immerse Reader in use

Ultimately, our aim was to get learners reading, to encourage them to read more extensively to build up their confidence, and to support them to manage the more challenging 19th century texts in their GCSE as well as to prepare them for the different text types on their vocational programmes. Several empirical studies have shown that extensive reading, i.e. reading large quantities of varied text types purely for reading fluency rather than to complete a task, has positive effects on language acquisition and understanding (Mart, 2015) and is an effective way to enhance language proficiency (Maley, 2005). Although there has not been a great deal of research into the use of IR, one American study reported that teachers had found that the tool did facilitate access to a wider range of materials which in turn, ‘helped teachers find content aligned with their learners’ interests, at comprehension levels that were challenging and previously inaccessible.’ (McKnight, 2018, p.6).

Other Contextual Information

Blackburn College is a large General Further Education College (FE) and Higher Education (HE) provider based in the Northwest of England. The two biggest departments that meet with the most learners across college are Additional Learning Support (ALS) and English and Maths. Both departments we felt were uniquely positioned to explore the use of the tool and would be in the ideal position to share what was learned across the college.

For the purposes of this project, we worked with four English GCSE resit classes; two classes of 14 learners, with grade 3 teacher assessed grades (TAG) and two classes of 12 learners who had achieved a grade 2 TAG. Across these classes, 14 learners had been identified as having additional learning support needs. All classes were working on the Pearson Edexcel 2.0 lift curriculum with the target of moving up by a minimum of one grade and were from a variety of vocational backgrounds including Hairdressing, Motor Vehicle, Construction, Business, Art, Childcare and Health and Social Care. We then worked with 11 Additional Learning Support Assistants (ALSAs) who supported learners across the college.


The research was a mixed method, learner and teacher focused plan that investigated how training, awareness and use of IR in the classrooms could impact on the learner learning experience both in the English classroom and, as the research progressed, across the wider college as learners transferred their usage of IR to vocational lessons. The intention was to evaluate how easily IR could be introduced in classrooms, how user friendly and portable it was and if it encouraged learners to read with more confidence.

  • Setting up the project
  • Initial strategy
  • Revised strategy
  • Evaluating impact
  • Sharing and next steps
  • • Initial assessment of what the tool could do, what learners would need to access it (Appendix 3).
    •Created a project description to explain to staff and learners what we were aiming to do.
    •Identified how the tool could be used in different ways, both in and out of lessons.
    •Set up a Padlet to collate materials at the end of the project.
  • •Principal researchers implemented the integration of IR activities into English classes.
    •Verbal feedback from staff and learners on how easy the tool was to use as a classroom
    learning tool/ learners’ reactions/any impact on reading confidence and comprehension.
    •Analysis of findings led to a new approach which then focused on individual learners and
    widening participation into other departments supported by ALSAs.
  • •Training in the use of IR for English teachers and Additional Learning Support Assistants
    (ALSAs) to facilitate the roll out of the trial (Appendix 3e).
    •MS Teams page set up to support roll out and provide technical support (Appendix 3f).
    •English teachers and ALSAs asked to identify which learners might be interested in or benefit
    from using this technology.
    •Referrals identified and researchers attended learners’ English classes to help them adapt and
    include IR technology through use of their mobile phones during regular classroom time.
  • •We collected feedback from group tasks on flipchart paper (reading task and evaluation of the
    IR too)
    •We spoke with the individual learners we worked with and collected verbal feedback.
    •2 case studies were identified ( Appendix 2).
    •We collected feedback from ALSA sthrough Microsoft Forms and a Padlet (Appendix 3g and
  • •Continue to work with the ALSAs to reflect on IRs usefulness in different learning situations and
    how the tool responds to their learners’ specific needs.
    •Share findings with quality leads and amplify English reading skills through cross college
    •Expand and reinforce the use of the tool by training up personal tutors and appointing IR
    champions to support the sustainablity of the approach.
    •Review impact of IR on individual learner’s confidence and reading comprehension.

Outcomes and Impact

Teaching, Learning and Assessment

We began to explore the IR tool as part of whole class activities encouraging learners to experiment with the tool and tell us whether they thought that it helped them to understand the texts more easily. They were shown a short video explaining how to use the tool and we highlighted functions which we thought might interest them and be of use in practising for their GCSE English exam, e.g. identifying word class which is now a requirement on the language question on both GCSE English papers.

Feedback from learners on first being introduced to the tool was mixed. In some sessions learners said that they found listening to the software through headphones difficult and it limited their participation in the wider classroom. Similarly, some found the voice “really irritating”, and asked if it could be changed, while another noted that the reading aloud of text line numbers and punctuation was also annoying and interrupted the flow of the text.

“It is quite good but the line numbers are really irritating, can you take them out before the next lesson?”

We were pleased to find that learners were interested and quite happy to tell us whether they found the tool useful. In one class learners were asked to use IR to read a 19th century non-fiction text, a text type which had proved extremely challenging in a previous class. Learners were introduced to IR and shown how to access it through Microsoft Teams but they also had paper copies in their GCSE booklets. They were asked to work in groups to identify the main themes and ideas from the text and record their answers on flipchart paper (Appendix 3d). The tutor noted that the learners approached the reading with more enthusiasm and were far more animated in the group task than they had been in the previous session. They completed the task more swiftly and were keen to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of using the tool:

“It was really useful to know about this. It would have helped during lockdown when we working from home”.

Reflecting on how the session went and on the feedback from learners, tutors said that they were surprised to find out that learners who struggled more with reading found the tool distracting and “too simple” while stronger readers recognised that reading and listening aided their understanding as it was “helpfull (sic) to understand the situation”. Tutors thought that having a paper copy might have been more of a distraction which resulted in some less confident readers not really following the electronic version or engaging with the different functions. We now feel a more scaffolded approach which allows these learners to explore the functions in stages might make the process less confusing. We did find out however, that 3 learners from the class have gone on to use it in their vocational classes.

Other tutors have reflected on the difficulty of preparing resources for using the IR, e.g. having to extract line numbers, uploading texts to Teams, preparing learners to use the resource.

To address some of these barriers, we adapted our research strategy to implement the use of IR for use with individuals in lessons. Training in the use of the tool for both English teachers and ALSAs was then provided.

The feedback we have received from ALSAs who have been using IR with their learners has been very useful. The vast majority have found the tool easy to use, having had the training, and said that learners have been engaged. The different functions of the tool have been used in far more targeted ways by the ALSAs. Here are some of the comments fed back so far:

Working with one second language learner:

“I showed him how to translate task instructions using it to aid understanding”.

With another learner who needs to be more independent in his learning the ALSA said:

“I used it to help increase font size and also to block out text helping to chunk the reading”.

Another ALSA working with a learner with Autism reported:

“Helping a learner with their IT work, they were using Word and struggled with recalling information. So I typed the information within Immersive Reader and they used it that way. We would talk about what it was that they wanted to write about and then they could put it into their own words on the computer”.

We will be continuing to monitor how useful the IR is with our case study learners and are planning to continue this research until the end of the next term, when we are likely to have more specific data.

Professional Development

The project has provided us with a wonderful opportunity to build positive and collaborative relationships with colleagues who support our learners both in English classes and across the whole provision. We approached the manager of the ALS team and they were keen to accept training and explore the use of the Immersive Reader with us and have since suggested collaboration on other pilot projects. Reciprocal relationships are being developed on this to work more closely for the benefit of learners.

The training was well received. The 2nd group of ALSAs told us that they were really looking forward to their session as following the first session they said that there had been a real ‘buzz around the office’ with colleagues saying that the training was ‘really good’ and ‘CPD worth doing’. One of the ALSAs said:

“The immersive reader training was very insightful. It proves to be a useful tool for everyday use because it is simple to use. The additional tools such as translating, pace of reader and adjustable font size makes it even more helpful.”

All in all, the ALSAs were keen to explore the use of the tool as there were so many functions that could be of use to learners with specific learning difficulties and second language learners:

“I used immersive reader to translate a document for a student as English wasn’t their first language. A very useful tool.”

And another staff member said:
“It works well with Visually Impaired students as it allows them to highlight only relevant text.”

This project also provided the opportunity and impetus to explore research into the latest digital reading technology and build on the practices that had been forced through due to online learning in the COVID-19 lockdowns. This project also provided the opportunity and impetus to explore research into the latest digital reading technology and build on the practices that had been forced through due to online learning in the COVID-19 lockdowns.

Although many teachers could appreciate the possible uses of the tool within their classes, especially to inspire and motivate learners, who tend to switch off when tackling archaic text types, we took their feedback regarding time constraints on board. In the summer we will be preparing off the shelf whole class sessions to help engage learners with 19th century texts as well as more scaffolded introductory sessions.

Organisational Development

The project has allowed us to work in collaboration with colleagues who support learners across all of our provision as well as vocational staff. The further involvement of the ALSAs has the potential to carry the use of digital reading technologies across all areas of the college. Its integration into classes could not only be a very useful aid for those with learning difficulties but also help reluctant readers access high level and varied content, ‘creating equity through access to learning materials.’ (McKnight, 2018, p.17). We believe the tool would be useful in theory lessons across the curriculum to support learners in Hairdressing, Plumbing, Motor Vehicle, Catering, to name but a few, to facilitate their understanding and interpretation of subject specific terminology to match their practical skills.

Learning from this project

The project has afforded the opportunity for English and Learning Support staff to work together more closely and provided us both with more time to reflect on how we can best support our learners and ensure that they get the most out of their classes. We will be collating further feedback on the impact of the tool from ALSAs later in the year and look forward to working together on other projects, inspired by this work, which are now in the pipeline.

The project has taught us that technology in classrooms can only be used productively once fully researched and with full support and training of those both using and facilitating access to the tools. At the beginning of the project, the use of IR proved problematic as there are several conditions that needed to be met for the software to be used effectively. Additional research and training were undertaken to prepare smart boards and computers to avoid problems when rolled out for use with other staff and learners.

Reactions from learners have also highlighted the significance of training at the right time of year. For example, Learner MP struggled to engage with a new tool midway through his programme and Learner FS seemed reluctant to engage in something that not everyone was using. Scaffolded sessions in which all learners are encouraged to explore the usefulness of the tool and share their experiences with each other should not only encourage confident use of the tool but reduce any sense of embarrassment in class.

We have taken feedback on board from teachers regarding the time implications of using the tool and we believe that by developing ready-to-go materials for English teachers to use in the summer we can encourage them to explore the use of the tool more thoroughly in whole class contexts. We also believe that a more scaffolded approach in which teachers and ALSAs gradually introduce the functions of the tool would encourage less confident readers to reassess its usefulness.

We have also learned that whilst it can enhance both access to learning and the learner experience, even free technology has cost implications. Not only the necessary hardware requirements and other software packages that are licensed and chargeable, but it needs to be run online to be most effective. Although this is covered in college, asking learners to use it outside of lessons will have an impact on more economically disadvantaged learners who do not have unrestricted access to the internet or have limited data allowances.

We have learned that no matter how exciting and shiny some digital tools may appear or how high your expectations are, both learner and facilitator have to find them engaging and worthwhile and the only way to really do this is to keep asking what’s working and responding to their feedback. Rather than be daunted by initial criticisms, we took comments on board, adjusted training, and adapted our approach to make sure the full use of the tool will be evaluated for its usefulness.


Appendix 2: Learner Case Studies

Appendix 3: Project Resources


Maley, A. (2005). Review of extensive reading activities for the second language classroom. ELT Journal, 59(4), pp.354-355.

Mart, C.T. (2015). Combining extensive and intensive reading to reinforce language learning. Journal of Educational and Instructional Studies in the World, 5(4), pp.85-90.

McKnight, K. (2018). Levelling the Playing Field with Microsoft Learning Tools. [online]. Available at: (Accessed: 23/03/2022).

9c. Buckinghamshire College Group

Can ESOL pedagogy be applied to GCSE and Functional Skills delivery to develop responsive teaching and learning?

Buckinghamshire College Group

This project aimed to utilise ESOL teaching methodologies, learning techniques and strategies to develop and enhance Functional Skills and GCSE English delivery to Study Programme and Apprenticeship students.

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


The original remit of the project aimed to develop effectiveness of delivery of Functional Skills English to Apprentices who had English as a second language and develop Functional Skills delivery to ESOL students. However, at our first meeting, we discussed how teachers with a CELTA qualification or ESOL background tended to approach teaching from a student centred, learning by task, or discovery standpoint, whereas GCSE English teachers expressed that they sometimes felt constrained by the GCSE syllabus and compelled to deliver exam style content. Therefore, we hoped that exploring ESOL pedagogy would enable more active and discovery-led learning to meet individual needs.

Other Contextual Information

ESOL teachers developed and delivered the sessions then Functional Skills teachers attended the sessions and reflected on the approaches then both the ESOL teachers and FS/GCSE teachers adapted their classroom practice

Our action research was part of The Education and Training Foundation’s OTLA 8 Programme and involved the English and ESOL departments within our FE college. Our project was a planned collaboration between two departments to share teaching methodologies and expertise. The project had a layered approach in terms of the ‘students’ within the plan, act, observe and reflect model of research. Firstly, the project team comprised of the manager and two ESOL teachers who developed an in-house training programme. Secondly, this was delivered to six Functional Skills/GCSE teachers, who reflected on their learning in these sessions. Thirdly, the ESOL teachers and the Functional Skills/GCSE teachers adapted their practice based on their reflections on sessions to trial new approaches with their students, meaning twenty groups of students were involved in the research.


Our project focused on the development of an in-house training course based on the key pedagogical teaching and learning principles of ESOL delivery. We developed a structure for our course, which originally focused on nine key aspects of language teaching:

  • Foreign language lesson
  • Lesson planning
  • ESOL lesson formats, (please see The British Council website for further information e.g., Presentation, Production and Practice (PPP), discovery approach, Test, Teach, Test (TTT)).
  • Grammar and vocabulary lessons
  • Clarifying and checking meaning
  • Classroom interaction patterns
  • Elicitation
  • Feedback
  • Effective reinforcement for motivation.

Through collaborative discussion and reflection, we refined and combined key techniques to develop our final course structure of five key sessions (see Appendix 3 for further details):

  • Project launch/Foreign Language lesson
  • Planning/lesson format and context setting
  • Teaching grammar
  • Teaching vocabulary
  • Elicitation, feedback, and motivational techniques.

Originally, we planned for our delivery to be over ten weeks with a week of implementation and reflection between each session. We had also planned for all sessions to be face to face although this changed as the project evolved and some sessions were delivered via zoom.

Teacher reflection was a key factor in our research model and was incorporated into taught sessions and implementation weeks. We decided not to be prescriptive on the method of reflection that teachers should take and as a result we had greater participation in reflection.

Outcomes and Impact

To an extent we met our objectives but not necessarily in the way that we had identified at the beginning of the project. As an organisation we had clearly identified what we wanted to develop, how we planned to do it and the impact we expected as a result. However, the very nature of action research meant it was not as straightforward as this and we ended up learning even more than we expected, as much from what did not work as well as from what did.

Teaching, Learning and Assessment

Teachers engaged with the language lesson (Appendix 4) and enjoyed it much more than we could have thought possible when planning the sessions. They all identified feelings of uneasiness, vulnerability, being engaged but uncomfortable, feeling confused but also interested during the twenty-minute language lesson. Teachers fed back that they valued this insight as some had forgotten what it could be like for students when learning. They all said they would consider this when planning. In terms of strategies used to engage and understand the language lesson, teachers stated asking questions/valuing repetition, mentally repeating sentences and teacher body language and gestures. They all reflected on the importance of these, and that the activity served as a reminder when planning to think about the smaller things and how these support students. In terms of changes to teaching the following was identified: activities to support repetition for students; strategies to support student perseverance as well as valuing and praising student perseverance; scaffolding activities; greater use of sentence starters; increasing feedback and positive reinforcement within lessons; linking first language to English for vocabulary; sentence structure and adding more images to help students visualise what they are reading.

Organisational Development

Organisationally, we had identified what we felt could support key improvements and wanted to support teachers to explore this aspect. As a management team, we wanted teachers to lead the project but, for various reasons outside of our control, the lead role kept coming back to managers. As an organisation, we felt that this may hinder exploration and engagement with the project, but that was not the case. The project provided managers with a clearer understanding of the internal battle some teachers have in terms of their ideas on how teaching and learning should be, and that changing or developing teaching from teacher centred to student centred is not always straightforward. Understanding this and supporting teachers to unpick this aspect is important to them being able to reflect on and implement changes. This was one of the key learning aspects of the project and has influenced next steps.

Learning from this project

The concept of delivering a course to teachers to enable exploration and implementation into lessons was overall an effective concept. However, the approach for the course was not as effective as we had first planned. Timing of the project and staffing shortages due to Covid-19 impacted our original plan of a ten-week delivery. We planned to deliver the whole course face to face. However, because we wanted all staff to participate across all sites, some sessions ended up being delivered online. The language lesson was delivered face to face whereas the sessions on lesson format and grammar were remote online sessions Therefore, we need to consider whether the language session went well because it was face to face or a more neutral lesson that all teachers could engage with. We realised that in order for teachers to fully embrace an approach they had to experience the modelling of it. Remote delivery at times hindered TTT or discovery model and made it feel more PPP, thus reinforcing the delivery we were trying to move away from.

We also realised that changing approaches to delivery is not always straightforward and teachers need time to unpick their views of the way they think teaching and learning should happen as well as have more time to reflect and implement methods. We had an expectation the teachers in the group would embrace, implement, and develop teaching learning and assessment activities at the same rate as a result of the course, which was unrealistic. Some teachers thrived within the sessions; they had ‘lightbulb moments’, were open to implementing and trialling new approaches and were not put off if they did not work first time. However other teachers struggled to see how the concepts could be applied and needed more scaffolding of activities to identify changes. Some teachers also had reservations around the timing of the course with exams looming and struggled with balancing experimentation with supporting students to cover what was needed for exams.

Moving forward, we plan to complement these structured language sessions with a lesson study approach (EEF 2020 and see also Appendix 6). Encouraging further collaboration through the joint planning, delivery, and observation. Our next steps are to revisit the sessions and use the Lesson Study model within the summer term as we can then link this to adapting schemes of work.

Professional Development

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

  • 2. Evaluate and challenge your practice, values and beliefs.

    We had always planned to facilitate a collaboration and sharing of expertise between ESOL, and GCSE/FS teachers and the action research project provided dedicated time to explore key language pedagogy. The project enabled teachers from different departments and with differing lengths of service and experience to build positive relationships with peers, have professional discussions and explore key ideas and approaches to improve teaching and learning. This aspect we felt was a key success of the project and something we plan to continue to support teachers to do (see Appendix 5 for further details).

  • 4. Be creative and innovative in selecting and adapting strategies to help learners to learn.

    For the teacher who delivered the Korean language lesson, the experience of delivering to peers enabled them to reflect on the reading aspect of GCSE delivery and the value of pre-teaching vocabulary for ESOL or EHCP students. The teacher decided to implement a Quizizz task initially midway through a session, but this was not so effective as students were then distracted by their phones. The teacher tried it again but as a starter prior to the reading task and this worked well. The lesson was much smoother, and they felt it added more diversity to the classroom and teaching environment. Students enjoyed the classes and liked being able to use their phones to do the quiz, and one student said they liked competing against the class. Others valued finding a definition or an image to help visualise the word.

  • 9. Apply theoretical understanding of effective practice in teaching, learning and assessment drawing on research and other evidence.

    Some teachers initially had reservations about the concept and felt their experiences as an ESOL and/or GCSE English teacher highlighted pedagogical challenges. Some teachers also felt that they needed to consider and evaluate their view that a teacher had a responsibility to teach. Therefore, they felt that in their own reflection and implementation they needed to bridge the divide between responsive teaching, learning and assessment and their current practices in the post-16 GCSE delivery and explore how to balance the two to optimise students’ learning.

    Following the language session, these teachers applied more pair work and small group activities into lessons. Following implementation, teachers could see the benefits with activities less teacher-centred and more student focused. These changes to delivery allowed more time to check the students’ work. This in turn seemed to increase the students’ levels of self-confidence as they had already received one to one feedback prior to whole class feedback (see Appendix 5 for further details).


Appendix 2: Learner Case Studies

Appendix 3: Language Course Structure

Appendix 4: Language Lesson

Appendix 5: Teacher Reflections

Appendix 6: The Lesson Study Model

Research Poster

This project also produced a poster for display at the NATECLA National Conference 2022. You can view the poster below and access a PDF copy via the curated exhibition Wakelet.


The British Council (no date). ‘Guided Discovery’. Available at: [accessed 8.6.22].

The British Council (no date). ‘PPP’. Available at: [accessed 8.6.22].

The British Council (no date). ‘Teach, Teach, Test’. Available at: [accessed 8.6.22].

The Department for Education and Skills (2005). ‘Department for Education and Skills
Departmental Report 2005’. Available at: [Accessed 23.3.22].

The Education Endowment Foundation (2022). ‘Lesson Study’. Available at: [Accessed 23.3.22].

The Teacher Development Trust. 2022. ‘What is Lesson Study?’ Available at: [Accessed 23.3.22].

7c. Reaseheath College

Developing High Level Vocabulary

Reaseheath College

The project intended to extend learners’ vocabulary enabling them to achieve in both English and their main subject area. Learners were introduced to high-value vocabulary with a range of strategies being used to aid their understanding and confidence in using the new vocabulary. English and vocational teachers worked together to reinforce and embed learning.

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


Our project extends our previous research from OTLA 7 (ETF, 2021), which found we underestimated how ‘word poor’ our learners were; conversely, learners overestimate their knowledge of words and meanings. This issue continues to exist as in English lessons learners are introduced to often indecipherable vocabulary frequently leading to disengagement and inappropriate behaviour. We worked with learners to improve and enrich their vocabularies, enabling them to achieve a grade 4 in GCSE English Language. Our further aim was to ensure learners recognise the value of good English skills in supporting them to achieve in their subject specialism. To enable this, we worked with vocational lecturers encouraging them to embed vocabulary-based activities into their lessons.

Other Contextual Information

Our action research was part of the Education and Training Foundation’s OTLA 8 Programme. Our college is situated in Nantwich, Cheshire East. Some learners originate from relatively disadvantaged areas and lack access to books, learning materials and technologies. Our Case Studies were specifically selected from a Foundation group; however, we also worked with other groups of learners, from Animal Management and Mathematics, in which there is a variety of academic abilities.

The Foundation group includes a wide variety of capabilities, with a significant proportion of learners hindered by barriers to learning. Since our objective was to encourage active use of new vocabulary, rather than receiving it passively, we were curious about what impact our research project would have on the group in which there is an explicit dichotomy.


We conducted our research cyclically, reflecting on the impact of activities and gaining feedback from team members and learners (see Appendix 4 and Appendix 6). This enabled us to evaluate the impact of our work and make any amendments necessary.
We created ‘initial assessments’ (Appendix 5.1) to establish which words learners knew. Maths and Vocational staff (Animal Management) were involved in distributing the ‘Words of the Week’, so learners could understand language is applicable across all spectra of learning, not just English.

  • Activity 1 (Two Tasks): Word Search and Synonyms: In Task 1, learners were given a word search, in which there were twenty words: ten high-register, low-frequency words; and ten synonyms for each of the high-register words. For Task 2, learners were asked to match the words (see Appendix 5.2).
  • Activity 2: (Three Tasks): Learners were asked to rate how confident they felt using each of the ten words in a sentence. Next, they wrote down what they thought was the correct definition of the words, integrating each of the ten words into a sentence, so we could evaluate if they were being used correctly.
one of the oracy posters developed for the project

An example of one of our posters, developed after speaking with learners.

Afterwards, we integrated each of the keywords into our lessons as starter tasks. PowerPoint slides were specifically designed to suit the course areas we shared the keywords with; we wanted to ensure each of the keywords was relatable to the course areas and address any potential resistance or hesitancy to the teaching and learning of each key word.

As a result of learner interviews (Appendix 4), our approach altered slightly as we decided to focus more on oracy. We discovered some learners preferred to read out their work to see whether they used keywords correctly rather than writing them down. Some learners preferred to hear the new keywords spoken in context rather than seeing them in sentences on a PowerPoint presentation. We, therefore, produced an audio recording for each word in which it was spoken aloud, followed by its definition with an example of its use in a sentence (Appendix 5.3). Learners could then scan the QR code and listen to it at their leisure.

Below is an extract from one of our learner interviews, evidencing how we were able to adapt our approaches in response to learner need as the project progressed:

Learner A: “I think it would be nice if we could read out our work at the end of a lesson.
Interviewer: “So, do you think it’s a better idea then to hear the keywords spoken instead of writing them?”
Learner A: “Yeah, pretty much.”
Interviewer: “And – why is that?”
Learner A: “It’s just easier to see if we have used it right in our work.”

Learners were also given bookmarks with the keywords. (Appendix 5.4, for example).

Outcomes and Impact

Teaching, Learning and Assessment

One significant impact is learners’ autonomous reaction to the words of the week. Originally, a significant proportion of learners indicated their attitude towards vocabulary development by expressions of boredom, lethargy and disinterest; however, as we introduced the final few words, learners displayed no negative reaction, beginning to integrate some of the words into their work more frequently than others (Appendix 3). What was a very positive thing to see was that some learners even used a small variety of keywords in answers to their mock exam papers. (See, in the example below, how a learner attempted to use curious and immense in the correct context).

photo of learners work (and teacher markings) where they are experimening with new vocabulary

After interviewing learners again towards the end of the project, it was interesting to note the impact that the oracy posters had.

Interviewer: “So, we spoke about the bookmarks last time, and one of you mentioned how it would be more effective to listen to the keywords instead of writing them down from off the board. Have you both found this to be the case?”
Learner B: “Not particularly. I sometimes feel if you tried to scan the QR code in a lesson and it took ages to load, you might get distracted by your phone.”
Interviewer: “Ok, that’s interesting. What about you, [Learner A]?
Learner A: “Yeah, because talking will obviously mean you can use the word more, so there’s more chance you will use it right.”
Interviewer: “So, do you mean more chance of using it in the correct context?”
Learner A: “Yeah, so you’ll understand it more.”

Additionally, we have seen a positive change in vocational and maths staff’s attitudes. Some members of staff were initially a little reluctant to integrate these words into their lessons, either because they thought English was not a priority, failed to recognise the relevance of English in their lessons, or lacked the confidence to introduce literacy activities. However, after becoming involved in the project and realising the value of supporting vocabulary development their attitude has changed to a more welcoming one.

One thing we were significantly pleased with was the progress demonstrated in our Case Studies learners’ “initial assessment” activities when completed the second time around. (Appendix 2). At the beginning of the project Learner A firmly believed they had no confidence in using 40% of the keywords and complete confidence in using 60% of the keywords. However, some of the definitions of the keywords were quite vague, and some were incorrect, for example, the words curious and defiant despite the learner saying they had full confidence in using the words. In the “initial assessment” completed by Learner A at the end of the project, there was a clear, significant difference in the learner’s confidence rating in comparison with the first time around: the learner felt 100% confidence in their ability to use the keywords in a sentence. As one can also see, all words had their definitions filled in by Learner A, and the meanings were far more accurate than the first time Learner A attempted the assessment.

In the “initial assessment” completed by Learner B they had 40% high confidence in using the keywords, 50% a little confidence and 10% minor confidence. Some of the definitions written were a little vague, such as the one for “majestic”; however, the majority of what is written is relatively accurate. In the “initial assessment” completed by Learner B at the end of the project, the difference between their confidence in using each keyword in a sentence is quite substantial. The learner now feels very confident using 70% of the keywords, mostly confident using 20% of the keywords and moderately confident using 10% of the keywords. Notice how some definitions the learner had written had become more accurate and precise. “Majestic” has a far more crystalline definition than the one thought of for the “Initial Assessment” at the beginning of the project.

Organisational Development

As stated earlier in the report, in addition to the maths department, with whom we were already in close contact, we linked with Animal Management, the biggest vocational area on campus. Our collaborative relationship is evident through their willing participation in the project, distributing the keywords (or Words of the Week) to their learners, and the Cross College English meetings the English team delivered for them. Organisational development has also arisen throughout the English department with learning that Animal Management have a Word of the Week activity, too; however, the learners’ interaction with it is different: it is predicated on them finding the definition of the word before putting it into a sentence and using it in their theoretical work for that session. (See evidence below from Animal Management SoW).

Extract from animal management scheme of work

Learning from this project

vocabulary bookmark entitled 'word up' with a list of words and the Reaseheath College logo at the bottom

Our vocabulary bookmark

What went well:

  • Learners thought that the bookmark has been incredibly useful.
  • The oracy posters were used later in the project’s timeline, and learners found them a very effective tool to quickly access the keywords. In addition, the novelty of the keyword posters also made a positive, even comedic, impact as it piqued learners’ curiosity: “Wait, is that [name anonymised] from English? That’s actually a really good idea having those as sound recordings!”
  • It is evident learners started to use the keywords in their work without prompting from the project bookmark. In the Case Studies examples the learners used a few of the keywords from the bookmark in the correct context: extraordinary, curious and vulnerable.
  • Other examples of how learners, outside of the Case Studies, also integrated some of the OTLA keywords into their own writings are shown in Appendix 6.
  • As demonstrated by the Animal Management department other curriculum areas started introducing Words of the Week into their Schemes of Work, too – something these practitioners spoke openly about in one of the CPD sessions hosted by the English team as part of our college’s “Cross College CPD”.

Even better if:

  • In future, ensuring there is consistency throughout the department: all lecturers using the same Words of the Week, even in maths and vocational areas.
  • Lecturers endeavouring to use each word of the week verbally, so learners can hear, on numerous occasions, the keywords in context which would aid them to transfer new words into “active” vocabulary instead of “passive”.
  • Officially document moments of Learner Voice more precisely, so the evolution of the project can be far smoother and tailored to the most recent feelings of the learners.
  • Ensuring that a far greater volume of learners are actively listening to the recordings from the QR codes and, perhaps, officially formalising a sophisticated method of recording participation data which we can use to inform us of the most effective way to deliver new “high-register, low-frequency” vocabulary to future years’ learners.

Professional Development

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

  • 2. Evaluate and challenge your practice, values and beliefs.

    The project has certainly reinforced the need for us to reflect and meditate on our preconceptions about learners’ levels of vocabulary despite their age, and the necessity of constantly exposing learners to new vocabulary because a wide vocabulary is so important when it comes to attaining marks indicative of Grade 4 or above in GCSE examinations. It has certainly thrown into sharp relief how learners engage with new vocabulary, too, in addition to how effective oracy can be when it comes to rendering new, high-register, low-frequency vocabulary as ‘active’ as opposed to ‘passive’.

  • 13. Motivate and inspire learners to promote achievement and develop their skills to enable progression.

    In addition to developing the vocabulary of our learners, which will certainly contribute to their progression in question 5 on Paper 1, we have changed some of our learners’ perspectives on the importance of English and language itself. Learners feel a sense of empowerment and satisfaction from the utilisation of the keywords we have delivered to them throughout the course of the project. For example, one Learner said the following:

    Using these keywords feels cool as it makes me sound intelligent.

  • 15. Promote the benefits of technology and support learners in its use.

    Since working closely with colleagues from Animal Management, we have learned a significant amount about how their course is constructed, what areas of study the learners undertake at the three levels, what is evaluated when learners compose their responses and how Animal Management also integrate their own Words of the Week in lessons, too.

7a. Capel Manor College

Target setting to improve learning

Capel Manor College

This project highlighted the importance of keeping a focus on the student. Engagement and independent learning are increased through the personalisation of work and an interest in each learner as an individual. A constant focus on target setting can show students where they need to improve and allow them to stretch and challenge themselves but it is not the only effective method of increasing either engagement or achievement.

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


As is the case with many further education (FE) colleges and GCSE retake students, our students frequently have negative attitudes towards English and maths, are demotivated when studying these subjects again and often make little progress (Belgutay, 2019; Higton et al, 2017). Students’ attendance at English sessions is generally poor with them reluctant to take responsibility for their work and achievements. They frequently rely on teachers or support assistant to complete tasks and are generally passive. By working with students to set meaningful learning targets, our project aimed to increase independent learning, supporting and encouraging students to grow in confidence, recognise their strengths and areas for development, and work towards success.

Other Contextual Information

Our action research was part of the Education and Training Foundation’s OTLA 8 programme taking place within the English department of our FE, land-based college. We initially worked with three GCSE groups to explore the effectiveness of student-led target setting activities in promoting engagement and active learning. Additionally, spreading ideas and approaches out into all the English GCSE classes. Our GCSE classes take place both face-to-face and online via Microsoft Teams and using other online tools such as Nearpod. We mainly worked with two mixed level groups online and one Level 1 group which was face-to-face with occasional online sessions.


We followed an action research approach (McNiff, 2017). After initial project team meetings, we used ‘getting to know you’ activities with students so we could link their interests to the lessons to help improve engagement. We built up to target setting slowly, gradually introducing more independent learning tasks.

  • Every English lesson of the year began with a ‘getting to know you’ activity (Appendix 3.1), which encouraged students to provide teachers with information they may need to know and show the group things they were interested in. This was done on a class notebook page for online classes so the teacher could always look back access information.
  • The team attended a training event with Jo Miles which specifically addressed the aims of the project. This brought the whole team together to focus on ideas for improving the project and putting them into place. There was a major focus on growth mindset (Dweck, 2016) and ways of motivating and engaging students.
  • The team visited another college to share teaching ideas and discuss project aims.
  • A Nearpod introduction was used to give students an idea of what the project was about and gauge their initial levels of confidence and views on independent learning. This was done with groups from three different teachers in GCSE English classes.
  • With support, students were encouraged to review the GCSE mark scheme and identify areas they could improve (Appendix 3.2) and further set their own targets using a list of common targets (Appendix 3.3). These targets were regularly reviewed after Mark book assessments, with the team and students analysing whether targets had been met and agreeing on the next steps.
  • We then decided to focus on students who gained a high grade 3 in the November retakes and prepare personalised learning plans for them highlighting the areas where they could pick up extra marks.

Outcomes and Impact

Teaching, Learning and Assessment

The project enabled the team to gain useful insights into learning processes and strategies for engaging and motivating students. Through meeting regularly and reflecting on activities undertaken, one of the main things we have learned is the best way to increase engagement and independent learning is through individualised work and creating lessons and materials that reflect the interests of the student and are relevant to their lives. Although time-consuming, this pays dividends in the long run as students begin to engage more fully and take pleasure in their learning. Involving students in the learning process, encouraging and supporting them in setting meaningful targets, enables them to progress in both English and their main subject specialism. Regularly agreeing and reviewing learning targets enabled the development of a more positive ‘growth mindset’ (Dweck, 2016). Furthermore, whilst getting constant feedback from the students allows them to feel appreciated and involved, they are more likely to attend and participate when they see their feedback is being taken on board and actioned, as evidenced in the Case Studies (Appendix 2)

Project team members gained new insights into their practice and strengthened their relationship with students by involving them as partners in the learning process. Rather than seeing students as passive receivers of information, they began to see them as individuals who, with support and encouragement, could become more active and purposeful. As one learner commented:

Having regular 1:1 tutorials meant he felt appreciated, and he was improving because he knew the teacher ‘cared about him passing’ (Case Study 2)

Through attending CPD sessions we were introduced to and then were able to integrate new approaches into our teaching practice.

Organisational Development

One of the main organisational changes to take place is the shift from teaching Functional Skills English and GCSE English to only focusing on GCSE. The college visit and listening to feedback from students highlighted the need for us to focus on progress rather than achievement. Next academic year, all students will do GCSE courses apart from a small group of Foundation Learning students who will take an entry level course in English which is linked to the GCSE course. This change will allow multiple GCSE classes to take place at once so that each group can be focussed on one grade level, studying a scheme of work which aims to progress students to the next grade. Students consider GCSE to be a valid qualification which they need to achieve compared to Functional Skills which was often considered unimportant. Looking at students’ targets with them and highlighting the progress they had made, whether this was in terms of grades or understanding, motivated them and allowed them to see their strengths and areas for development. For example:

A student explained he knew exactly what he needed to do to get the extra marks and he completed extra practice questions at home to make the improvements necessary (Case Study 2).

We will also be focussing on the students’ progress by implementing a ‘Maths and English star of the week’ award which will be given to one student every week who has done particularly well. They will receive an award indicating exactly why they have won and whoever has the most at the end of the term will receive a gift card. This allows all students to be rewarded, shows their progress and motivates them to progress in their maths and English lessons. Petty (2016) concluded that competitions or challenges often produce strong motivation in classes of students. So far, the majority of students have responded very positively to this idea and it has led to an increase in productivity and engagement. However, one student commented that the idea is ‘childish’ and didn’t think it was a good idea.

Learning from this project

What went well

Getting to know more about the students and their interests was very successful in increasing engagement. Teachers were able to link lessons to things that the students enjoyed as well as vocationally linking them. Students reported back they felt appreciated and more likely to attend when they knew their teacher was interested in them as a person. Constantly asking for student feedback on topics, activities and new ideas was very beneficial in finding out how they feel and what motivates them, especially from students who are often quiet and do not participate.

We were able to do a whole team training event with Jo Miles which specifically addressed the aims of the project. This was an excellent way to bring the whole team together, focusing on ideas for improving the project and putting them in place. Additionally, visiting a highly successful college was also extremely productive in improving practice, providing the opportunity to share ideas, discuss what we had done and identify where further improvements could be made.

The independent learning plans created from the November GCSE resit exams were extremely helpful in showing the students where they had done particularly well and where they could pick up additional marks to achieve a grade 4. Students were able to set their targets and create individualised revision plans. (See Appendix 4)

Even better if

Unfortunately, some problems with the admin of the classes at the start of term meant that the project was delayed in getting fully started and some students missed out on the ‘getting to know you’ activity or did it with one teacher and then moved to another group. It would have been more effective if students were in the correct place from the start so that they could form a positive relationship with their teacher and the rest of their class.

Furthermore, if more staff members had been involved, the project would have been even better. At the start, we used multiple groups but this had to be cut down. Often teachers deliver the same things in different ways and we can always learn from each other so having all the English teachers involved would have been more beneficial.

Professional Development

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

  • 1. Reflect on what works best in your teaching and learning to meet the diverse needs of learners.

    The project encouraged team members to constantly reflect on teaching practices and how they work for different students. Some activities worked well with some students but not so successfully with others. We learned a lot about adapting teaching practices to meet different individual and group needs. We extended the range of approaches used, gaining the confidence to use them to support students.

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

    Involving the students in the research allowed them to feel valued and appreciated and confirmed that their teachers were interested in them and cared about their progress. This built very positive relationships meaning the students felt comfortable in giving honest feedback. Colleagues working closely together on the project also improved relationships and resource sharing See Case Studies, Appendix 2).

  • 17. Enable learners to share responsibility for their own learning and assessment, setting goals that stretch and challenge.

    This was the main focus of our project enabling us to come together and work on strategies to gradually increase the amount of responsibility taken by students for their learning. We gained insight into key reasons for students not wanting to stretch and challenge themselves or even engage in the lessons at all, and to work out ways to reduce these barriers. For example, students often stated that previous teachers didn’t seem to know who they were and were, therefore demotivated, but through 1:1 tutorials they built effective links with their current teachers and began to take more responsibility for their own learning. (See Appendix 2).


Appendix 2: Learner Case Studies

Appendix 3: Learners’ work

Appendix 4: Examples of students’ work and targets

Appendix 4: Examples of students’ work and targets


Belgutay, J. (2019) GCSE resits: 2 in 3 students ‘make no progress’, available, date accessed 05.04.2021

Dweck, C. (2016). What having a “growth mindset” actually means. Harvard Business Review, 13, pp.213-22

Higton, J., Archer, R., Dalby, D., Robinson, S., Birkin, G., Stutz, A., Smith, R., & Duckworth, V. (2017) Effective practice in the delivery and teaching of English and Mathematics to 16–18-year-olds, London: DfE

McNiff, J. (2017). You and Your Action Research Project, London:

Routledge. Petty, G. (2016). Teaching today: A practical guide. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

8a. Chesterfield College

Student-led strategies to motivate and engage lower-level GCSE English students.

Chesterfield College

This project aims to create strategies to motivate and engage lower-level English students. Through a process of ‘testing’ different practices and resources, we are learning that there are several factors that contribute to motivation and engagement. These include giving students autonomy on how activities are carried out, who leads the participation, and who takes responsibility for the completion of the activities.

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


We are exploring learning approaches to engage lower attaining English GCSE students, who are disenchanted with the education system and have no prior attainment. As a department, we primarily teach students who have had a negative experience in the school educational system. This has been detrimental to their attitudes towards English and education in general.

We want to identify if giving students more responsibility and control during tasks and activities will have a direct correlation to higher motivation and engagement rates. We hope to be able to enhance and improve our curriculum based on the evidence we collect, leading to increased attendance, enjoyment, and achievement of English for hard-to-reach students at a crucial stage in their educational journey.

Other Contextual Information

Our action research is part of the ETF’s OTLA 8 Programme. Our research team is Alison Stenton, Pati White, Faye Deabill, Kay Hutton and Josephine Turner. The student groups are made up of 15 students in group 1 (6 female and 9 male) and 14 students in group 2 (5 female and 9 male). All students are aged from 16-19.

Group 1 are working at a higher level than group 2 but both groups have students that are benefitting from the use of these strategies. Two students have Education and Health Care plans (EHCPs), six have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), six have Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and others have conditions ranging from Tourette’s, severe anxiety disorders, Irlen syndrome, heart conditions, brain conditions, epilepsy and oppositional defiant disorder (ODD). We also have students with dyslexia and dyscalculia.


The composition of the course we chose to base our research on is vital to the approaches we took. Kickstart comprises of NEETS (not in education, employment or training) and students who, for either health or personal reasons, have missed a substantial chunk of secondary education. To engage consistently with this diverse group of lower-level ability students is a huge task in any given year; coming out of a pandemic added to the monumental challenge.

We decided, early in the project, to adopt a student-led approach to as many tasks and activities as possible; with transparency to students of our goals and intended outcomes. We have the luxury of 6 hours of English and 3 hours of unaccredited time in Employability classes a week to make sure the GCSE curriculum was being followed as well as our ideas implemented.

Student-led activities trialled included:

  • Board game instructions – students teaching other students how to play.
  • College Fayre – creation and organisation of activities lead by the Kickstart student ambassadors.
  • Citizen of the Month Awards – to reward active participation and volunteers to lead activities.
  • Spelling tests – students sharing the spellings in need of correction from marked work and students ‘running’ the spelling tests.
  • Starter activities – students using the whiteboard and playing ‘teacher’.
  • Student Ambassadors – students who volunteer to lead activities and were successful were made student ambassadors.
  • Student-led structure of the lessons – they chose which part of the lesson we do first and the running order.
  • Group work – students chose their own groups and were responsible for inclusivity and completion of tasks.
  • Nominating a leader to take responsibility and feedback of findings to class.

Outcomes and Impact

Teaching, Learning and Assessment

Some of the outcomes and impacts relating to the influence of our project on teaching, learning and assessment are listed below. For further details, including a range of images that illustrate this work in action, please see appendices 3a – 3h.

  • Board game instructions – Students were allowed to change the rules of well-known games and even made up a Boccia tournament with completely new rules. Engagement in this activity was 100%.
  • College Fayre – Creation and organisation of activities lead by the Kickstart student ambassadors will be rewarded with £100 worth of board games chosen by the students: increasing self-esteem and feelings of praise and reward.
  • Citizen of the Month Awards – Including ‘Most Helpful’ and ‘Most Kind’ we found increased offers to lead activities. Students were proud to be named Citizen- based on our ASPIRE principles*. Attendance awards are also given out.

* The College introduced a programme called ‘Aspire’, designed to complement and enhance learning. All students take part in the Aspire programme and the aim is to give students every opportunity to develop their talents and enrich their academic journey, through support and encouragement.

  • Spelling tests – Students using their own marking to make class spelling tests increased literacy skills immediately.
  • Starter activities – Students ‘playing teacher’ leads to other students wanting to be the next ‘teacher.’ Grades in the next formative assessment improved as students wanted to impress each other!
  • Student Ambassadors – Students who volunteered to lead activities were made student ambassadors. This really upped the importance and reverence attached to volunteering to lead. We now have 5 ambassadors who have been invited to Open Evenings and other college events with special lanyards and T-shirts and pin badges. We now have another 4 students desperately wanting to be ambassadors!
  • Student led structure of lessons – Led to increased interest in upcoming themes, extracts, and topics. Students even chose which extracts they prefer to use in their mock exams. Raising retention and attendance for the mock exam weeks!
  • Group work – Students choosing their own groups had an incredibly positive impact as they are usually against any form of group work but being allowed to work in a group of their own choosing (with their friends mainly) helped improve participation and engagement.
  • Nominating a leader to take responsibility and feedback findings to the class. The relief of having one person allocated to speak was received well as it takes the pressure away from students who did not want to address the whole class.

The most impressive impact is that after our director saw our research work, she decided to implement all these activities into our Grade 1,2 and 3 GCSE English Schemes of Work for 2022-2023!

Organisational Development

Changes and improvements in our practice were shared by keeping the wider English team updated in team meetings. We will be incorporating student-led activities into maths, employability and tutorials on Kickstart from now on. We had identified that most students on Kickstart have a 10 to 15 minute maximum concentration span. This increased immediately when students took ownership of activities. This also increased when we conducted a series of shorter activities, or where students could rotate the room spending 15 minutes at each activity station (board games and story development).

Activities were designed to meet the neuro-divergent nature of our students. For instance, ASD students appreciated knowing the week before what activities were student-led, so they could feel prepared to step out of their comfort zone. ADHD students enjoyed the fact that there were opportunities to switch activities more often than in traditional English classes and that they could lead at times. Shy students preferred to be involved behind the scenes, preparing activities and setting up equipment etc. At no point were students with dyslexia disadvantaged in any way. Anxious students could buddy up in pairs and remain with a student they were comfortable with. Feedback across the board was one of motivation and enjoyment above more traditional task methods.

Learning from this project

Prominent educational researcher Robert Marzano stated that ‘positive relationships between teachers and students are among the most commonly cited variables associated with effective instruction’ (Resilient Educator, 2020). The building of positive, honest, relationships are key in motivating our lower-level students. Our research has found that the use of games and spelling tests during lessons has increased engagement. Encouraging students to physically write on the board, during starter activities and spelling tests has proven successful in increasing punctuality and attendance. Seeing the students interested and excited to participate has certainly proved the research worthwhile. Marzano agrees that increasing participation ‘in … simulation and games will help ensure everyone in the classroom is learning’ (ibid). When students are enjoying what they are doing engagement increases, concentration levels improve, and they no longer see the lesson as a chore.

Our evaluation and adaptation of lesson plans and structure has had a positive impact. These concepts are outlined further through the student case studies. Promoting autonomy within the classroom has further assisted teaching, learning and assessment.

Research shows that student-led learning can be more effective than other approaches led by teachers. Student-led learning gives students permission to make mistakes and try again in a safe and comfortable environment. Student-led learning encourages students to think for themselves, rather than simply following teachers’ instructions. Our research findings therefore correlate strongly with Marzano’s theory, that ‘student-led learning makes students partners in their own education, which translates to higher levels of cooperation and interest’ (ibid).

Professional Development

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

  • 1. Reflect on what works best in your teaching and learning to meet the diverse needs of students.

    Due to the nature of the Kickstart course, our students come from various backgrounds and have various SEND needs. Many of them had difficult experiences during their past time in education. Each lesson was followed by a reflection time, where we decided if the new strategy was successful and how it helped the students. This reflection time allowed us to narrow down which strategies were working well and also informed our monthly project progress reports.

  • 2. Evaluate and challenge your practice, values, and beliefs.

    Our project provided time and space for us to come together as a teaching team to challenge our assumptions about how students deconstruct and build words. By engaging in research activity that asked for students’ perspectives, we were able to appreciate that through understanding students’ existing spelling strategies, and building on these, greater progress was made than when we started from a position of students as spelling novices.

  • 10. Evaluate your practice with others and assess its impact on learning.

    We hold regular meetings to discuss our observations and share our experiences. English GCSE and FS teachers have tried several of the student-led activities. Across the board engagement improved. Students in the more kinaesthetic vocational courses really appreciated a level of physical activity and control. Alison tried some student-led tasks with her adult GCSE students. Strangely, she said ‘they did not respond with enthusiasm but preferred me to lead all activities.’

  • 13. Motivate and inspire students to promote achievement and develop their skills to enable progression.

    There are a lot of barriers to learning in FE; having to retake maths and English means we deal with students who feel like ‘failures’ from day one. We wanted to show students that English can be fun by involving the elements of responsibility, inclusivity, competition and giving them more ownership over their learning.


Appendix 2: Learner Case Studies

Appendix 3: Student-led activities and work


Resilient Educator, (2020). Overview of Marzano’s Model of Teaching Effectiveness. Available at: [Accessed: 16.05.2022].

ELT Teacher’s Corner (2016). 12 Ways to Motivate your Students. Available at: [Accessed: 26.04.2022].

Shady Oak Primary School (2021). Benefits of Student-Led Learning. Available at: [Accessed: 26.04.2022].

6b: College of West Anglia

Developing reading in 16-18 year olds

College of West Anglia

This project focused on a small cohort of technology learners and explored their reading ability as well as their attitudes towards reading, with the aim of having a positive influence on both. We aimed to bridge the gap between vocational areas and the English department to normalise reading. We trialled a range of strategies and found that ‘Echo reading’ (Didau, 2021) and the use of an anthology of texts in GCSE English lessons, in particular, had a positive influence on learners’ reading habits.

One of the additional benefits of the project was the use of learner voice – an in-depth insight we had not anticipated.

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


In FE we face the problem of demoralised learners who have come to us with their guards up and their hatred for reading abundantly clear! The aim of this project was to make reading more accessible to learners and to take away some of the fear they have brought with them from school.

The project was influenced by the work of Vivienne Smith (2010) and her interpretative framework. She discusses the idea that learners can revisit texts and ask different questions of it each time as their understanding would be different based on their social and emotional experiences. We aimed to expand on this idea.

It was hoped that as a bare minimum we could improve the relationship between learners and texts and hopefully see an improvement in not only achievement, but enjoyment and engagement.

Other Contextual Information

Our project took place in an FE College, and we focused on two small groups of technology learners studying for GCSE resits – this was around 25-30 learners in total.

Two teachers from the English department were involved in the research along with six technology teachers from across the vocational area. The aim was to keep the project small and manageable so the impact could be monitored more accurately before moving to a wider cohort sample if successful.


We really hit the ground running and started with our biggest changes first. We were eager to have some aspects in place ready for a September start so steps 1-3 below were completed in the summer administration days, with the rest completed during the academic year alongside teaching. We did find it a struggle to persevere in the final months due to staffing issues in our department, so it was a relief we had made so much progress prior to this.

  1. used the results of the learner voice surveys from the academic year 20-21 to gather information around what themes learners enjoy reading about (Appendix 3)
  2. adapted the GCSE Scheme of Learning to incorporate learners’ preferred themes and decided to change these around every six weeks. Themes which relate to real life were selected.
  3. created an anthology of set texts – three texts per theme so all exam skills in that rotation could be covered alongside the allocated theme. (Appendix 4)
  4. trialled reading strategies in class to get learners reading aloud (conducted in the first two weeks of teaching).
  5. purchased L’ Explore Analytics software to explore further reading ability and performed practice assessments with six learners to gain qualified examiner status
  6. met with the technology department to share our research ideas and recruited volunteers to record readings of texts from the anthology
  7. English teachers visited plumbing, carpentry and motor vehicle departments to see learners in their own environments and to see what reading materials were accessible in workshops.
  8. liaised with LRC and sourced a selection of books to use in lessons.
  9. filmed technology teachers reading assessments to normalise reading. We plan to upload the videos to our online learning platform so learners have access.
  10. had conversations with staff in the LRC which resulted in the purchase of books for the anthology texts. These were made available to learners. Posters were created and advertised to learners. (Appendix 5)
  11. populated notice boards outside Motor Vehicle and Plumbing workshops to entice learners to read.
  12. continued to gather learner voice – with the final one at the beginning of May
before and after noticeboard outside motor vehicle (after has lots more posters and relevant articles)

Before and after notice board outside Motor Vehicle

Outcomes and Impact

Teaching, Learning and Assessment

five GCSE learners reading aloud together at the front of the class

A photo showing five GCSE English learners reading aloud together at the front of the class.

The introduction of the anthology has had the most impact at this stage. Learners report they appreciate the reduced number of texts they are faced with and having the opportunity to re-visit texts has allowed greater discussions within the classrooms. Learners have been able to connect their memories and prior knowledge to the texts (Willingham T, 2017). By reducing the number of texts, learners have more time to apply the exam skills to the extracts rather than spending time each lesson trying to comprehend fresh material. Assessment results have improved, as shown in the learner case studies, further evidencing that changes to the approach of teaching are resulting in progress within the classroom.

The themed lessons have had a mixed impact. ‘War and Conflict’ was the learners’ top choice in the last academic year and has so far been the most engaged with theme with this cohort. (Appendix 6).

Trying different strategies to get learners reading aloud has been a positive change to the teaching and learning; learners are becoming more comfortable with reading in front of their peers and holding relevant discussions about the texts. As studies show increased learner discussions and active participation facilitate learning (Kenney & Banerjee, 2011), this is a real strength of the project.

Final learner voice, completed in May 2022, compared to learner voice gathered in February 2021, showed positive overall outcomes with regards to learner enjoyment and understanding of lessons. (Appendix 7).

Gathering learner voice throughout the project became a more impactful tool than anticipated. We were able to identify learners who were not enjoying English, who did not find the work was explained well or did not get on with their teacher. The project lead, who is also the Programme Manager for the English department, withdrew this information and was able to contact the relevant learners, showing a) they are listened to and b) we are willing to help. This allowed opportunity for classes to be changed and additional support to be offered outside of the classroom; a benefit which was unanticipated at the start of the project.

Organisational Development

Visit to the LRC. Higlighting in particular one of our anthology books: 'The Hate U Give'The project has allowed us to build relationships with the technology department (professional standard 20), which, in turn, has demonstrated to learners that English is not a separate entity to their vocational area. This has appeared like a sign of solidarity between us and our technology colleagues and has helped to build collaborative relationships with the learners (professional standard 6). Forming these relationships has engaged and motivated learners within our sessions and may have been a contributing factor in why they feel comfortable reading in our classes.

The videos recorded of the technology teachers are yet to be used properly, and so the impact of this is still to be seen, but we hope that in time they will inspire and motivate learners to read.

We worked with the LRC, something we have not done before, to promote our anthology to learners. We were able to explore what books were already available to learners and acquired several boxes of ‘quick-reads’ to have in our classrooms to support and encourage reading at the start of sessions.

Learning from this project

As a result of hard work and careful planning, we were able to get the anthology out in time for commencement of teaching in September 2021. This was a real strength of the project as it enabled all GCSE learners the chance to focus their attention on the academic skill they needed for the exam, rather than battling to comprehend new material each session and then apply a tricky skill like evaluation, all in the space of ninety minutes.

This was not without its challenges, however. The impact of disrupted learning due to the pandemic on our learners has been profound, not just academically but with behaviour issues we have not faced before. The first theme the learners were reading about was Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI). Reflecting on this, we still believe this is an important topic and the texts chosen worked well, in particular ‘The Hate U Give’. In the next academic year, however, we will push this theme later in the year once learners have matured and fully understand the appropriate way to behave in the FE environment. Unfortunately, some opinions detracted from the lessons and assessing comprehension of the texts became challenging due to lively discussions which would often go off on tangents.

Trialling reading strategies such as ‘Echo reading’ (Didau, 2021) was surprisingly effective. The idea that the teacher reads a small section (a sentence or two) and a reader then repeats this aloud – effectively echoing the teacher – initially sounded a little primary school. However, learners participated and acknowledged why this could be an effective strategy and were able to demonstrate comprehension of the text after reading, so this was a success.

This strategy was particularly influential to us as practitioners as we had to stop and consider the potential cognitive overload of our learners. Reading along with the teacher initially seems like a straightforward task until you stop to consider the effect this can actually have on a learner’s understanding of texts.

feedback from the learners on the projectMoving forward, we have learned to attempt new strategies – even if there is a fear they will not work. With echo reading, we continued to trial this for a while longer; however we slipped back into the routine of learners reading sections out loud rather than echoing the teacher. This is still a success with regards to comprehension, as learners have now developed the confidence to read aloud in class and it is rare for them to refuse.

The L’ Explore Analytics software certainly opened our eyes to the challenges our learners have with reading. Visibly seeing their eyes darting around the screen as they tried to read was a real insight into what their processing was like, and the learners were quite fascinated when we were able to show them a picture of their eye movements. (Appendix 8). It was also interesting to watch learners read the extracts almost fluently yet fail to answer the comprehension questions immediately afterwards; evidence that learners can read words but there is a difference between decoding and comprehending the meaning of those words.
Unfortunately, due to staffing issues within the department, we did not have the capacity to explore this software further this year. We can see huge potential with the system, and the learners really engaged with the experimental phase of the training, so it will be interesting to explore this further in the next academic year.

Reading time (10-15 minutes) was introduced at the start of lessons in place of the current 5-a-day question starter activity. Learners were presented with the ‘quick-reads’ that we acquired from the LRC. Tutor observations were recorded, and learners gave feedback on post-it notes.

All learners chose a book and started reading. Some learners freely discussed details about the book they had read with the class or read out the synopsis. Some commented that they liked the quiet; however, others struggled to remain focused to read and got distracted talking to peers or looking at their phone. Two motor vehicle learners who were not engaged said they would read if there were books or magazines about cars with more pictures in.

There were some real positives that came out of the activity. The task opened discussion about reading with one technology learner sharing that their parent had helped them to set a schedule for reading at home, but he didn’t stick to it. In addition, five learners asked to take the book they had started to read home to continue reading. Others asked if we would do the activity again and asked if they could bring in their own books to do so and this did happen. Another learner mentioned that they thought their book had started well and we discussed how they could use something similar in their own writing.

Out of the twenty-five learners who gave feedback on the task, nine said that they would not like to do the task again with comments such as: [the task was] ‘boring’, ‘did not like reading’ or ‘prefer the 5-a-day activity’. Ten learners were positive about the task, largely saying they would like to do it again and a couple saying that they liked the slower/more relaxed start to lessons.

Feedback was received from the LRC about books that were borrowed from the anthology. The results show that, as shown in learner voice feedback, the war and conflict and EDI topics were the most popular. (Appendix 5).

Professional Development

We have selected three of the ETF’s Professional Standards (for teachers and trainers working in Further Education and Post-16 learning) to illustrate how our project has impacted on our approaches to professional development. Please note, this report refers to the 2014-2022 standards.

  • 4. Be creative and innovative in selecting and adapting strategies to help learners to learn.

    The project allowed us the time to explore different strategies to help learners to learn. The L’ Explore software showed us the struggle some learners have following even the shortest of texts and being able to retain the information long enough to answer straight forward comprehension questions afterwards. The difference between reading aloud and silently informed our selection of reading strategies to use in the class: E.g. Echo reading.

  • 9. Apply theoretical understanding of effective practice in teaching, learning and assessment drawing on research and other evidence

    We conducted a vast amount of research into reading comprehension in young people. We explored social and economic influences, SEN impact and behavioural impacts. All of this alongside reading strategies and theories relating to cognitive overload, meant we were able to adapt our teaching to take these factors into consideration.

  • 14. Plan and deliver effective learning programmes for diverse groups or individuals in a safe and inclusive environment

    The creation of the anthology was to reduce the cognitive load for learners whilst highlighting important issues which need to be addressed in society. The focus on EDI has been profound and, although received in different ways, has allowed learners to express and celebrate their diversity.

    Lessons were planned to allow and encourage discussions around topics such as equality, relationships and gender roles, and learners demonstrated their understanding and were able to educate one another if views and beliefs were expressed in ways which lacked sensitivity.


Appendix 2: Learner Case Studies

Appendix 3: Learner Voice

Appendix 4: Our anthology of texts

Appendix 5: Project posters

Appendix 6: Analysis of the anthology themes, based on learner voice surveys

Appendix 7: Comparison of learner voice survey results in 2021 and 2022

Appendix 8: L’Explore Analytics software


2021, from Learning Spy:

Kenney, J. L., & Banerjee, P. (2011). “Would Someone Say Something, Please?” Increasing Student Participation in College Classrooms. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 22(4), 57-81.

Smith, V. (2010). Comprehension as a Social Act. In K. Hall, Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Learning to Read. (pp. 63-73). Routledge.

Willingham T, D. (2017). The Reading Mind: A Cogntive Approach to Understanding How the Mind Reads. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated.

6c: Suffolks New College

Developing reading for pleasure

Suffolk New College

This project sought to address the negative feelings that some of our students have about reading. We wanted to nurture a love of reading and ‘reading for pleasure’ throughout our college by introducing a student book club. We found that the book club inspired a love of reading as well as improving students’ confidence and establishing new friendships.

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


Many studies cite big reductions in the amount of time that young people spend reading, and ‘daily reading levels have fallen for young people aged 16 to 18’ (National Literacy Trust, 2020). At Suffolk New College we can see that most of our students are still not reading for pleasure, which results in them having a limited vocabulary that inevitably holds them back from achieving higher grades in English. There is a growing body of evidence that illustrates the importance of reading for pleasure for both educational purposes as well as personal development (Clark and Rumbold, 2006).

Other Contextual Information

Our action research was part of the Education and Training Foundation’s OTLA 8 Programme and took place within our FE college. Ten students joined the book club during the course of the project. They came from different vocational areas and had varying levels of English. Two were studying Functional Skills, seven were resitting GCSE English and one had completed GCSE English in November.
For the purpose of this project the definition of ‘reading for pleasure’ has been defined by the National Literacy Trust as:

Reading that we do of our own free will, anticipating the satisfaction that we will get from the act of reading. It also refers to reading that having begun at someone else’s request we continue because we are interested in it.
– Clark and Rumbold, National Literacy Trust, 2006

When this report discusses a ‘reading culture’ it is an ‘environment where reading is championed, valued, respected, and encouraged’ (Hawthorne, 2001).

Approachphoto of a book

We promoted the book club to all students at the college from the start of the new academic year. We made a PowerPoint presentation and sent it to the vocational teachers at the college, who then shared this with students as part of the college induction week. The PowerPoint included a contact email address and students were asked to send an email if they were interested in joining. We ensured that it was advertised to all students in induction week, regardless of their level of English. We wanted to nurture that love of reading they may already have had to promote a shift to a whole college reading culture.

Our first meeting was in the college library. We used A3 paper and post-it notes to gather information about the students’ reading habits and preferences and why they wanted to join the book club (see Appendix 2b). We also asked them where they would like to meet and how they would like to keep in touch between meetings.

At the students’ request, we set up a Google chat and Google classroom for everyone in the book club to keep in touch between meetings. We also used the poll function within Google chat to ask students’ views about book choices and meeting times (see appendices 2c and d).

We met once a month during the college lunch hour in a free classroom (as the students wanted somewhere quieter than the library). The meetings provided a friendly, inclusive space (complete with biscuits!) where students could discuss specific questions relating to the book, and then choose the next one to read. This provided an opportunity for students to voice their opinions in relation to the issues and topics that feature in the books. We used dialogic teaching to address social injustice and to empower our students (see Appendix 2f).
Questions that were very open and encouraged discussion worked well; they often focused on the characters’ morals or how the students would react if they were placed in similar situations. Sometimes the questions would be more challenging for example: “How does the need to endlessly move and consume create inequality?” (based on the Mortal Engines novel).

Before the first meeting, we had chosen four books that we knew were accessible, explored open themes and were available on Kindle and as PDF and audiobook versions to ensure accessibility. The project leader chose the first book (Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo) as students were quite shy at the start. We purchased enough copies of the books to ensure that everyone had their own.

We continually took on board students’ views on the running of the club and the literature we would read. Their ideas were captured on Google chat as well as being recorded in the monthly meetings. This allowed all participants to feel involved throughout the project.
Students were encouraged to tell their friends about the book club and, as a result, the number of students attending increased from five to ten as the word spread.
Between October and March, the students in the book club had read four different books (see Appendix 2e).

Outcomes and Impact

Teaching, Learning and Assessment

Promoted from the start of year, the opportunity to attend a book club provided a more accessible approach to the teaching of reading, which can often be seen as an intimidating aspect of English. A dialogic teaching structure was needed, to ensure that the conversation was focused on the books we read. Questions taken from sites (see Appendix 2f), allowed teachers to create a more question and answer- based discussion with the students. Once the students had seen this modelled, teachers were able to ask one student each month to lead the questions themselves. This had a positive impact as this ensured that the meetings were less like a teacher-led lesson and more like a relaxed conversation between like-minded peers.

The teachers’ promotion of the book club gave students access to good quality, contemporary books. Some of the students worked collaboratively after having read the book and were able to offer suggestions to their teacher and fellow students on the text in question. Students offered suggestions about what books to read next, these were based on books they had heard of or were keen to read themselves.

While we envisaged that the students would complete more peer learning outside of the classroom as a result of the book club, this was not easily assessed and social interactions were the main interactions that continued, with students sharing what they were reading outside of the book club (see Appendix 2h).

We wanted the sharing of best practice to extend to other partner institutions to help promote reading for all students. The project lead has already liaised with one other college about running their own book club. We discussed with them what had worked well and, in return, they gave us some ideas on how we could improve this group even further and link it more to the curriculum in the future.

Attendance was monitored and feedback from the students gathered. Over the course of the action research project, there was a steady increase in attendance to 10 participants in total. To understand why and what it was that they enjoyed about the book club we asked students in Google Chat ‘Are you enjoying book club and if so, why?’ Here are a couple of the students’ responses:

Yes, I am enjoying it because it is a chance to make friends and talk about something I am interested in, I like reading. The book discussions are also fun, especially discussing the characters and the storylines. Also a chance to find new authors and books I may like.

– Book Club Student

I’m enjoying book club because we have some good discussions about the books we read and how well the characters in the books are presented.

– Book Club Student

Organisational Development

Our project was inclusive because we made sure the book club was available to all students at the college and we promoted it widely. There was also a strong focus on student voice throughout, as we actively sought their views at every stage, from when and how to meet to which books to read.

The project encouraged collaboration between the English department and staff from other areas of the college as the English teachers spoke to vocational teachers to ask them to promote the book club in their lessons.

The project promoted and celebrated different voices, perspectives and insights through the books we read and the discussions that followed at our weekly meetings. One student said that these meetings were:

A great place to talk about [how] I kind of picture the events in the book because of [my] autism, I picture it in my head like a movie, only quite blurry and fuzzy and a lot of the time I can only really imagine silhouettes of characters and images rather than actual detailed characters and objects. That said, if a character is actually described really well and sounds similar to a character from another story of media that I like, like an anime character, video game character, etc. then I tend to picture the described character as the character it reminds me of throughout the whole book. It was nice to hear that I’m not the only person who imagines things like this when we read.

Learning from this project

One aspect of the project that worked well was the use of Google Chat, which enabled us to monitor attendance, gauge how far along in the book they were and allowed all participants a chance to voice their opinions on the book. As time went on, we noticed that students gained confidence and engaged in discussions with less prompting than they did at the start. After a few months, some were confident enough to lead the questioning themselves.

We decided to work collaboratively with the students to select books, which worked well as it ensured the books covered a range of different genres. However, it did mean that the book lengths varied and some were simply too long for the students to read in a month.
If we were to begin this project again, it would be interesting to see if this book club had an effect on the students’ ability to analyse language on paper, as well as verbally. Ideally, we could have created an assessment at the beginning of the project and then at the end to compare results.

The project leader noticed that, as the book club went on and better relationships were formed, students were more willing to express individual opinions, even when those differed from the opinions of others in the group. This demonstrates the importance of getting relationships right within a classroom setting, to allow students to build their confidence in responding to questions honestly.

Initially, we had planned to work collaboratively with the library services at the college to carry out the promotion of the reading for pleasure book club and linking these to aspects of the classroom teaching. We hoped to work together with the County Council Local Libraries to widen participation, access to books and other community services. Unfortunately, this was not viable; instead, we had to order books in and the participants found our library to be too crowded for our purposes. The County Council Library did not have enough copies ready and so we decided to pay for books. This didn’t always work well as some months we waited a while for the books to arrive. Ideally, we would like to secure some funding from the college every year for this going forward. However, preferably, we would love to continue to work with the County Council with the eventual aim of being able to secure books from the County Library.

One of the main issues that we faced was the organising of the club around the students’ timetables. Students from different courses around the college have different timetables and some weren’t always able to attend. Ideally, in the future, we would love the college to be able to run three or four different book club groups in order to accommodate the timetable needs of as many different students as possible. In the future, it would be more beneficial to ensure we have one base room for the monthly meetings as this project has seen us use empty classrooms, which has not been ideal. Ideally, we would like to secure one classroom that can be used for the college book club going forward. We would love to be able to have one consistent classroom that could be used to host the meetings of different book clubs on different days.

Professional Development

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

  • 1. Reflect on what works best in your teaching and learning to meet the diverse needs of learners.

    Our project provided us with the opportunity to offer a range of different text types to suit the students’ needs. We ensured that all books were available as audiobooks or PDFs if they had Irlens syndrome and needed a colour that suited their needs.

  • 3. Inspire, motivate and raise aspirations of learners through your enthusiasm and knowledge

    Participants reported that they were more inclined to read outside of the classroom because of this group. The dialogic questioning used in the meetings inspired and motivated students to discuss themes, characters and vocabulary.

  • + Encourage pupils to take a responsible and conscientious attitude to their own work and study.

    Participants were encouraged to keep track of the reading they were doing in the form of a tracker and to write reviews of the books they had finished. Making notes in their books too.


Appendix 2: Learner Case StudiesAppendix

2a: Student responses to ‘Are you enjoying book club and why?’

Appendix 2b:Students’ responses to ‘Why did you want to join book club’?

Appendix 2c: Students’ responses to ‘what genres would you like to read/do you enjoy reading currently?’

Appendix 2d: An example of how Polly Bot was created and used in Google Chat to involve students.

Appendix 2e: A photo of some of the books different books the students read between October and March.

Appendix 2F: Questions used to guide discussion on Mortal Engines

Appendix 2g. An example of a student using Google Chat to refer a friend to the club

Appendix 2h. An example of a student using Google Chat


Clark, C., and Teravainen-Goff, A. (2020). ‘Children and young people’s reading in 2019. Findings from our annual literacy survey.’ National Literacy Trust: London.
Clark, C., and Rumbold, K. (2006). ‘Reading for pleasure: a research overview’. National Literacy Trust: London.

Hawthorne, H. (2021). High Speed Training. ‘How to promote a reading culture in schools’. Available at: [accessed 30.3.22].

Scholastic (2018) Mortal Engines. Available at: [Accessed 13.10.21]

University of Cambridge (2022). What is Dialogic Teaching? Available at:,%2C%20not%20just%20teacher%2Dpresentation. [accessed 13.5.22].

5b. Leicester College

Improving writing through teaching
grammar and style within the context of
authentic texts

Leicester College

This project aimed to move away from the traditional pattern of teaching writing. It focused on supporting learners to use studied texts as a starting point for discussing their writing choices. Learning was scaffolded to evaluate and develop specific parts of learners’ writing. There was progress in the phrasing and structure of learners’ writing, as well as improvement in their confidence in these skills.

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


Our thinking was informed by Myhill’s research (Making Meaning with Grammar: A repertoire of possibilities, 2011) with a focus on using selected grammatical structures from authentic texts to improve writing, rather than traditional discreet grammatical teaching. We considered that this would allow learners to see reading and writing as inextricably linked and encourage them to begin to see themselves as writers, making some of those same choices in their own writing, thus leading to improvements in writing quality.

Other Contextual Information

Our action research was part of the Education and Training Foundation’s OTLA 8 Programme. Leicester College is a large multi-cultural inner city FE college, with several campuses. Most of the project focused on one campus where courses are mostly vocational and four learners, from the construction department, were approached to participate as part of a steering group. Also included were three adult learners from the online GCSE; these learners had elected to complete the qualification. Two others from a different campus were asked in January, as numbers were reduced after the November exam results. As the course materials had been rewritten to allow Myhill’s principles to be embedded and used for the whole cohort, views of staff from all three campuses were considered.

It became apparent that we need to acknowledge that this cohort is not the traditional grade 3 standard. The data reflects what we believed. We had entered 496 learners for the November exam: 8% achieved only grade 1 and 10% achieved a grade 2. These lower-level learners found it very difficult to articulate and discuss their grammatical choices, making the teachers’ job even harder than usual.


Our research was based on the promising results from Myhill’s research with schools. Although her participants were younger and had more lessons per week, we felt that we could apply some of the principles in the two hours a week that we had with our learners. We chose to apply the principles that we considered would have the greatest impact. Debra Myhill supported us throughout the research and herself advised that discussion was the most critical principle, particularly as the age group was different to those in her own research. She was available via email for us if we needed clarification or help and, before the project started, we were able to have a conversation with her over video call about the research.

Stage 1
The research began with some adult learners who were on the online GCSE course. These were very motivated and articulate. Our rationale was that the 16-18s were all being prepared to sit the November exam and we needed to focus on covering the whole syllabus in six weeks. These learners formed part of our stage 2 approach.

Authentic texts used for reading sessions served as a basis for learners’ writing. They were encouraged to be more imaginative in their choices and used these texts to mimic textual structures, particular phrases found in certain textual formats, and sentence construction. In addition, they were helped to examine choices that writers had made from authentic texts used in the lessons and to discuss why these choices may have been made, using principle three of Myhill’s research: ‘Build in high-quality discussion about grammar and its effects’.

This led on to the practical application of that learning in the writing part of each session. For example:

  • writing a section from a different viewpoint or in a different tense
  • using creative imitation, for instance to mimic a textual structure and sentence construction
  • improving and rewriting sections of writing after discussion and targeted feedback.

Stage 2
After the November exam, we had the opportunity to review how directed study was working. Learners who were making the expected progress and completing independent directed study to a good standard, remained on this timetable. However, learners who were not making progress, or not completing directed study on a regular basis, were placed in a supervised directed study session. These provided further opportunity for discussion with learners and for them to experiment with texts and target specific areas of their writing.

In December 2021, the Skills for Life team were contacted with resources and help given, to enable them to join with us to apply and look at the impact of some of these principles. They did not participate directly in the research but did begin to apply many of our suggestions in their teaching.

The rest was continued as above, although some participants were able to complete in January 2022, as they had passed the November exam and were no longer on the qualification.

Outcomes and Impact

Teaching, Learning and Assessment

We achieved all our objectives and we feel that we have a framework that will be even more successful next academic year, once we are back in the classroom for two sessions each week, as that would give us more chance for discussion and explanation.

Every learner found it helpful to ‘borrow’ from authentic texts and to play around with grammatical structures in their own writing and again these learners reported that they felt less ‘overwhelmed’ by the writing process and more able than before to write something with a hint of style. Within class, all were able to discuss their choices and improve paragraphs to a much higher standard. All students were then able to apply this to longer pieces of writing, although the standard was not always maintained. However, their writing generally improved; it was no longer fossilised.

Results in writing tasks proved more creative from an early point in the year than usual, because of the mimicking of writing styles. Many learners have performed better in Paper 1 writing assessments in exam conditions than we have seen in recent years. In every case, learners have improved their writing in class and in mock exams, but some improved significantly. The minimum improvement from the diagnostic writing at the start of the year for those in the steering group (who sat the mock exam), was a 12% increase [+3], with the highest increase being 32.5% [+13]. Although those figures reflected all steering group members across two sites and including the adults, they were mirrored when we split the results between the two sites. More details on individual improvements, and examples of learner writing and comments from them, are included in the appendices.

Pleasingly, Freeman’s Park Campus learners had performed well with all taking the final assessment and achieving the above, (see Appendix 2). Exam pressure seemed to reduce the standard compared to what they had been able to complete in less pressured settings; we must remember that this cohort of 16-18s have been severely impacted by the pandemic and sat very few exams as a result. However, they were able to apply some of what they had learned, with one in particular improving radically.

Abbey Park Campus included the adult online learners who were undertaking distance learning. However, one 16-18 learner chose to leave the mock assessment due to anxiety and did not complete it, and the adult learners involved had started at a far higher level, but there was still a 22.5% to 25% increase from their diagnostic writing, (see Appendix 2).

Impact on Staff

Three teachers have been fully involved in this research with each having learners who had agreed to be part of the steering group. However, the whole team has been teaching in this way throughout the year, as the resources that were written before teaching began were written with these principles embedded. All staff attended an East Midlands Regional Network event with Debra Myhill as the guest speaker, on Strategies to Improve Learner Writing. They also watched further podcasts and read a precis of her research for delivering teaching in this way, prior to the start of teaching and before the research. Professor Debra Myhill herself has been keen to support us in our research and has given advice on how to apply the principles to this young adult cohort.

Staff who are active participants have responded that they have felt more involved, supported and valued than usual. One felt that:

‘the framework of the project has allowed everybody to feel ‘equal’ ‘.

They feel that this is the beginning of something that is effective, and they are pleased that we plan to continue this approach in the next academic year. More detailed responses are included in Appendix 3.

We were able to broadcast our research at a national level as a member of our team also works part time for Edexcel and was asked to present our research at Edexcel’s national webinar to 65 delegates, which was well received.

Staff have attended training on developing writing delivered by the ETF. One recently elected to do more training on Development Day. The Project Lead attended Investigating Grammar – Supporting Your Learners to Understand How Texts Work and Developing Grammar for Reading and Writing. This was disseminated to the full team, who had been unable to attend.

Overall, staff felt that this method has applied better to imaginative writing (than transactional), given our time constraints of one lesson a week this year; it has certainly been easier to teach and monitor the impact. However, in terms of results in mocks, we have seen a strong increase in scores for Paper 2 (transactional writing); perhaps the modelling of phrases and textual format fed into increased results there. Going forward, we can look again at how we can better embed it into transactional writing resources also, with the re-introduction of two lessons a week next academic year along with the removal of directed study, there will be more time for discussion and detailed feedback.

Impact on students

Typical responses from 16-18 steering group members are:

  • So many of the forced resit students have taken the GCSE 3-5 times (if they have been entered for November exams) and have lost hope in their abilities. However, being approached to be part of a steering group and having regular discussions about their work and grammatical choices has meant that all learner participants have reacted well to this attention and seem to be beginning to believe that they can improve.
  • Staff observed that, with these ‘stepping stones’ to their ultimate goal, learners have begun to see the link between reading and writing, which has helped them to begin to see themselves as writers; their writing has improved. They also feel that learners initially joined the research to help us, but have discovered the benefit and are now totally committed to this process.
  • Students fed back that authentic texts give them a structure and a framework as a starting point. They have clearer options and the development and rewriting of one or two paragraphs, rather than the whole, has meant that it is not so ‘overwhelming’.
  • The adult learners involved responded well, although they naturally took part in less ‘discussion’. This was via online chat initially. To facilitate this, we recently created an online group tutorial session for discussions and support. This has proved so effective that this will be included in next year’s programme for this course.

Organisational Development

A range of learners was considered. From the Online GCSE our adults range from 19-50. This was offered to all, but only some females agreed to join. With our mainstream 16-18s, Freemen’s Park Campus learners were asked, both male and female but only males responded. Learners were selected because we felt that they would be honest and were attending classes regularly.

We have positive and collaborative relationships with the three other parts of our college who teach GCSE English Language, but, whilst they were keen to learn from us and were sent detailed information on our research and given access to Myhill’s research, they did not want to play an active part, becoming indirect participants. Firstly, the GCSE team within the Skills for Life Department have been applying some of the suggestions for improving writing and have also been developing reading using suggestions which we shared with them from the Project Lead’s time as an Edexcel examiner.

Secondly, in the ESOL Department, the GCSE teacher, has been applying the discussion principle, however much of her teaching of grammar must be discreet, given the needs of their learners. Time has been set aside to collaborate with these departments to share our findings.

Finally, throughout the year I have had positive and constructive conversations with my counterpart in Functional Skills. She has also applied the idea of using authentic texts as a basis for her learners, but again, was not an active participant.

Learning from this project

We discovered that, as a team, we were naturally reflective practitioners, it was embedded in our practice, but this was an opportunity to reflect weekly on the application of broader principles.

What went well

  • Using the same text for both the reading and writing lessons proved helpful in providing a good example that could be mimicked or borrowed from, in terms of words, structure and rhetorical devices.
  • Learners felt valued and involved in the process and were better able to articulate their thoughts.
  • Learners began to believe that they could write.
  • Learners felt less overwhelmed by the writing tasks and the blank page. They were given a starting place that felt achievable.
  • Learners began to see themselves as writers and to think about their writing choices and to experiment with writing in different ways and styles. It gave them a framework.
  • Students gained in confidence and their ability to use style in the writing improved. It also had the added benefit of them spotting more devices and style, in the reading texts from established writers that we used, thus increasing their scores in the reading section.

Even better if

  • Our understanding of the research and how it would be applied, has developed throughout the year. As we wrote all the study guides in June and July 2021, our ideas have changed. Going forward we will be more explicit about which grammatical structures we choose to concentrate on making it clearer in next year’s resources.
  • The time frame was short and we had to write the materials before we had fully grasped the principles. Not all staff who were involved in writing the course materials had fully grasped the ideas so a small amount of material was ‘misguided’ leading to plagiarism, rather than a base from which to mimic grammatical structures.
  • It would have been better to have begun this across all cohorts at the start of the year. However, we had entered everyone for the November exam so could only start with the adult online GCSE learners, which limited its scope. Next year, we are not entering students en masse and so will be able to be more playful with texts from the onset.
  • The project had to start before we could choose our learners with any insight, so sometimes our choices were, in hindsight, not the best.

Professional Development

By its nature, our research applied a theoretical understanding of effective practice in teaching, learning and assessment, as we drew upon Myhill’s research and sought to apply some principles of it, albeit differently, to our context. We have chosen to focus on three professional standards. Using the ETF’s Professional Standards for teachers and trainers. Please note, this report refers to the 2014-2022 standards.

  • 1. Reflect on what works best in your teaching and learning to meet the diverse needs of learners.

    Engaging in this research has enabled us to focus on the particular needs of learners on one campus, whilst applying it to two other groups of learners, who are more academic. We have been able to judge whether our research has made a difference to writing that, for many, had appeared ‘fossilised’.

    Using existing research by Myhill’s team which was conducted on a younger cohort with more regular English lessons, we have been able to apply some of the principles and measure their impact on students. It has meant that learners were able to have a dialogue with teachers on how they learn and what has helped them.

    The steering group’s responses and regular feedback ‘in the moment’, enabled us to build upon the research and apply it more specifically to the learners in our college.
    We have been better able to appreciate learners’ reactions to the chosen texts and to the way that these have been applied.

    We have already begun to make changes to the way that we teach and amend resources, in view of these.

  • 2. Evaluate and challenge your practice, values and beliefs.

    As reflective practitioners, we review, improve and rewrite our resources every year to continue to meet the diverse needs of our learners. Our evaluative process is always rigorous; we try to make changes to value cultural diversity, to motivate and connect with our learners, who have often lost interest and hope. However, this research gave us the time to evaluate throughout the year in a meaningful way and to gather students’ views too.

    It was helpful to challenge our own views of what would work. We are keen to act on the recommendations of the steering group and embed this research further. Staff fed back that they feel better teachers now that they have the choice to explore, put into practice and then properly reflect on individual professional practice. We also feel that this has helped us to be more collaborative and has prepared us for the trial of changing to a new specification of the GCSE at this campus.

  • 3. Inspire, motivate and raise aspirations of learners through your enthusiasm and knowledge.

    Staff observed that, because we taught generally demotivated resit students, in some cases we had reduced our expectations of our students’ capabilities and therefore reduced the challenge too much. However, this research has re-envisioned and re-enthused staff, as well as students.

    It also provided the chance to break the traditional pattern of teaching writing; much of this was a challenge for our teachers. We are beginning to gently push learners more and expect more of them. This research has created a space for 1:1 time with individual learners and this discussion of writing choices has been critical to the improvements seen in students’ writing.
    Being involved in the steering group with a view to making changes, has proved motivating for learners. Some of these have begun to acknowledge that they are improving and have shared that the writing process is now feeling less ‘overwhelming’ as they can ‘borrow’ some style from the texts that they consider in class. This increased enthusiasm and recognition that that the teachers are undertaking research has begun to make a positive difference to learners’ attitudes.


This project was carried out (and report written) by Caroline Weedon (Project Lead) and Michelle Bilby (Project Deputy) alongside their project team: Maria Leah, Rehana Pirmahomed and Beth Kemp.

With thanks to their mentor Dianne Robinson and Research Group Lead Claire Callow, for their support.


Appendix 2: Learner Case Studies

Appendix 3: Staff responses on the impact of the research on them


Myhill, D. et al, (2011), mETAphor Issue 2, ‘Making Meaning with Grammar: A repertoire of possibilities’, University of Exeter [Accessed April 2021] [Accessed April 2021]
[Accessed 4 November 2021]

5a. Hull College

Developing Resilience through Prose

Hull College

This project aimed to consciously develop student resilience through the presentation and writing of prose in the GCSE English curriculum. We specifically focused on resilience as a curriculum theme and measured the impact of this on the learners.

Would developing the concept of resilience in the curriculum promote resilient thinking?

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


Hull is a deprived city and our students often struggle with the problems that emerge from this, including lower than national average academic educational achievement, behavioural problems and, as a result, low attendance. Learners’ experience of English can often be negative, as they either see themselves as failures or they don’t see the relevance of the core English skills. Much of the work of the English team, therefore, focuses on student well-being and confidence building. Alongside this, we work to develop key English skills to enable students to maximise their opportunities in their careers and, more broadly, in their lives. English presents a unique opportunity to explore ideas of resilience within the curriculum. We aimed to use the presentation and production of prose as a method for learners to consciously think about resilience as a route to challenging themselves, focusing on a group of ‘Special Educational Needs and Disabilities’ (SEND) /Employability learners. We took as an initial starting point The Sheffield College’s OTLA 7 project on building resilience through the development of mindsets. Though our approach differed, we were inspired by their use of the language of resilience. We were also inspired by the project-based learning approach developed by Ron Berger in which learners are encouraged to produce beautiful meaningful work.

Other Contextual Information

Our action research was part of the Education and Training Foundation’s OTLA 8 Programme. Our research focused on six core groups of learners, shared by three staff members. The learners were all based in our Employability/SEND department. Many learners are identified as high-needs, with 20% having Education and Health Care Plans (EHCPs). A disproportionately large number of the learners had left school prior to exams owing to behavioural issues. Their low-grade profile reflects learning loss through the pandemic. Initial assessments revealed almost all the learners were working at entry level for English.


The project started with the presentation of texts which told a story of a character struggling against difficulty. This included the writing of Beryl Bainbridge, survivor on the Titanic, the story of Lewis Daynes and the murder of Breck Bednar, in addition to extracts from a range of fiction texts. This then prompted discussions about resilience before the regular analytical work took place.

When students undertook creative writing, it was as a story of resilience; the characters they created were dealing with conflict and had to choose how to act in the face of difficulty. Learners developed ideas from prompts before working collaboratively to develop their narratives.

English skills trackerInterestingly, in the collaboration process learners were almost always increasing the conflict faced by the protagonists and, crucially, actively generating ideas together on how the characters would deal with the challenge. For example, one learner’s story – ‘Late for the Exam’ – began with his character missing a bus. By the end of the development phase, the character also had to deal with rude bus drivers, losing money, sitting next to an unruly toddler and dropping his phone at the entrance to college. Each of these challenges had a corresponding character reaction followed by an active discussion regarding coping strategies which the character might use to deal with the conflict. Perhaps most encouragingly (and unexpectedly), learners ‘allowed’ the character to get angry and react badly to situations but ensured that this was followed by an apology or moment of regret and contrition. This was an entirely learner-led discussion and we, as a staff team, were impressed by the learners’ sympathetic understanding of negative feelings as being a temporary, but entirely human event.

Creative writing was structured through our WEST method (Words, Emotions, Structure and Techniques). A prompt word would be presented (for example, ‘Danger’). Learners generated personal connotations from this based on their own experiences. A story structure was then drafted before specific prose techniques were purposefully added for effect. This framework was designed to encourage emotional literacy and language sophistication in the work of the learners.

A selection of our research group of learners engaged with the First Story project, which aimed to develop emotional literacy through poetry and prose, reinforcing many of the themes developed in class.

English skills trackerWe observed that learners were struggling to readjust to the classroom setting and, following such a long period of disruption to their learning routines, were missing fundamental English skills. We rebuilt our delivery to focus on incremental skills development, creating a skills-tracker which was referenced in every lesson (see below and Appendix 3). This allowed us to track progress and focus on the incremental steps to develop their skills further. Alongside this we were mindful of the language used and ensured we remained positive and forward thinking.

Feedback was collected from students and staff on the project at two different points, with a focus on written testimony.

The culmination of the project was the creation of a book of creative writing by the learners on the theme of resilience. This was produced entirely by the learners in our core group and included a launch event to which parents/carers and other college staff were invited.

Outcomes and Impact

Teaching, Learning and Assessment

The teachers involved in the project were all highly skilled, experienced practitioners and were proficient in developing learners’ confidence in English. They reported that the specific focus on resilience as a theme in the curriculum positively impacted their practice as skilled practitioners, they allowed the project to take unexpected turns. For example, one teacher’s use of the ‘cut up’ technique of creative writing (see Appendix 3.D) enabled a disengaged learner to communicate his feelings through assembly of language, rather than the anxieties that can come with language generation.

The group of staff engaged in the project were a close team and had been successfully working together to develop resources and curriculum for many years. Through their involvement in the project, this collaboration has expanded to include conversations on how the resilience of the learners can be developed in the class, and discussions around feelings complement the academic discussion whilst also supporting the learners as people.
Covid-related staff absence had a significant impact on the project during the winter months. The wider discussions which occurred on the theme of resilience and the focus on emotional literacy in the classroom helped both staff and students through a difficult period of disruption to learning. Agency staff also reported that learners were understanding, respectful and showed genuine empathy for the welfare of their teachers.

The development of an explicitly skill-focused curriculum has been transformative. Staff found that it enabled them to provide specific feedback, more effective formative assessment and links to vocational areas leading to increased learner confidence.

Perhaps most surprising has been the opportunity to discuss the emotional journey with learners. We assumed at the start of the project that we would simply focus on the idea of resilience and measure our attempts to develop this. In reality, the project became about emotional literacy, through creative prose – an approach which enabled learners to explore their feelings indirectly through a fictional creation. This was simply done by asking them how they felt about their writing and the characters they had created (see Appendix 2 for case studies), something we had never done before, but which provided rich opportunities for discussion and relationship development.

As previously mentioned, staff-student relationships were significantly developed as a consequence of the project. Providing feedback and having class discussions based not just on the technical elements of the written prose, but the emotional motivations of the characters and authors created a space in the classroom for emotional literacy to grow. When coupled with discussions of ‘difficulty’ in the context of the conflict characters faced this provided a valuable opportunity for learners to talk about issues they may be facing in the second or third person. The abstraction of story writing gave them a degree of cover to send their own feelings into that world and receive supportive responses from their peers (see Appendix 2.A for a case study example).

We discovered that learners have an intuitive understanding of allegory. When, as part of the research, we collected feedback from the learners, many pointed out that the most fantastical story events – for example, an attack on a school by an invading army – were developed from an honest emotional nucleus of the learner (in this case the anxieties brought on by encountering a bully again). This late-stage discovery points to a fascinating future approach to developing emotionally authentic stories which enables learners to explore their feelings.

Organisational Development

  • The writing will be collected into an anthology and will be produced in collaboration with art students in the college. This will then be shared with all learners and will form a reference for next year’s learners.
  • The ‘Skills Builder’ will become our main learner assessment/diagnostic tool, and learning undertaken in college (whether in English lessons or other curriculum areas) will be used to record progress whilst encouraging learners to draw links between their vocational course and English.
  • The focus on emotional literacy/resilience for one term will continue. However, we are integrating other ‘lenses’ into our scheme of work in an effort to develop learners as people. This may include a term in which the ‘lens’ or theme around learning is, for example, self-esteem or aspiration.
  • We will develop the idea of emotional feedback/discussion in all areas of the curriculum. This will be expanded further into the SEND area and our Functional Skills delivery. A future development project is to create a process/language for this which effectively steers learners through the emotional contexts of the lesson content.

Learning from this project

Alongside other measures we have seen a steady increase in learner predicted achievement (for our research groups, learners predicted ‘At Risk’ reduced by 30% in the period of November – February). Though it is difficult to separate our research from other initiatives our qualitative feedback has demonstrated that learners are more confident in talking about the things they find difficult emotionally.

We discovered through our research that:

  • Learners are innately creative and empathetic. Their narrative choices – however simple – seem to be drawn from their own emotional experiences. Recognising this when developing prose had the dual effect of improving their writing and developing their resilience.
  • All teachers should be discussing emotions when using both fictional and non-fictional texts in lessons. Discussions which tie motivations of characters/people to their actions provide learners with an opportunity to reflect on the impact of positive and negative feelings in their own lives. This approach could be developed with its own framework, structure or language, providing a real opportunity for practitioners to make an impact on the inner lives of their learners.
  • Resilience isn’t an easily defined concept. The concept of ‘recovery’ or ‘toughness’ as part of resilience invites unhelpful expectations on how people are expected to react to difficult situations. We experienced learners using phrases such as “I’m not resilient enough”, as if measuring themselves against an undefined standard. It quickly became clear to us that a better approach is to focus on the emotional journeys people are on, the choices they can make and how these can be explored. The more useful term is emotional literacy. Emotional literacy is defined as “recognising emotions, managing our own emotions, recognising emotions in others and developing strategies to cope and deal with these emotions.” (Waterhouse, 2019, p. 10).
  • Emotional literacy can be developed in much the same way as literacy can. By exposure to examples (stories in which characters are dealing with difficulties and the feelings that come from this) and then discussion of those examples (how are the characters dealing with these feelings? Is this helpful?) learners are encouraged to reflect on their own feelings. The opportunity to then create prose in which these feelings can be successfully managed empowers the learner to create their own frameworks for coping with difficulty.

Professional Development

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

  • 1. Reflect on what works best in your teaching and learning to meet the needs of your learners.

    Our project gave staff an opportunity to pause in their practice and look at the curriculum they were presenting in a different way. The theme of resilience offered another take on how they delivered curriculum, and was an opportunity to rethink their approach to teaching.

  • 13. Motivate and inspire learners to promote achievement and develop their skills to enable progression.

    Both the focus on skills in the classroom and the promotion of emotional reflection in writing developed the motivation of learners, with tangible results in the standard of their written work. Furthermore, the positive impact on staff-student relationships as a consequence of the project inspired learners and challenged their attitudes to English.

  • 17. Enable learners to share responsibility for their own learning and assessment, setting goals that stretch and challenge.

    Learners were challenged to write in a way and to a higher standard than before. They worked co-operatively and independently and saw their work published – something they never had considered possible.


Appendix 2: Learner Case Studies

Appendix 3: Supporting Documents


Berger, R. (2003) An Ethic of Excellence: Building a Culture of Craftsmanship with Students. New York: Heinemann.
Duckworth, A. (2017) Grit: Why passion and resilience are the secrets to success, London: Vermillion
OTLA 7 (2020) Sheffield College: Resilience, available on
Education and Training Foundation (2014) Professional Standards for Teachers and Trainers in Education and Training, available on: ETF_Professional_Standards_Digital_FINAL.pdf ( [accessed: 11.11.2020]
Waterhouse, A. (2019) Emotional Literacy: Supporting Emotional Health and Wellbeing in School. Abingdon: Routledge

4c: Preston College

Freewriting: a Key to Unlocking Our GCSE English Resit Learners

Preston College

This project explored breaking down barriers to writing and empowering learners to explore and trust their own thoughts and ideas. By responding to prompts, learners soon produced creative stories with relative ease, and some were able to write stories that meet the requirement for GCSE grade 5 and above.

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


Too often, learners studying English arrive with a fixed mindset of failure; ‘I failed before, so I’m just not good at it’. This mindset shifts focus to confidence and resilience-building, curtailing already limited time to practise and improve reading and writing.
Typically, the creative writing component of the GCSE course is met with much resistance. Creative Writing is often perceived as ‘foreign ground’ or an ‘unnatural component’. Learners seem to perceive it as one step too far. Most are reluctant to put pen to paper and those who do get caught up in self-doubt, self-editing, and fear of being judged.
This project sought to ‘unlock’ behaviours associated with a fixed mindset. We aimed to convert learners to a growth mindset where they can:

  • think of themselves as writers
  • develop the positive habit of writing creatively for their own interest and enjoyment
  • meet the GCSE English Language criteria by writing a clear, descriptive, creative story that demonstrates a good standard of skills.

Our inspiration was Peter Elbow’s ‘Writing Without Teachers’ (1973). Chapter 2 starts, ‘Most people’s relationship to the process of writing is one of helplessness.’ That’s where we were. (See Appendix 3: Project Lead’s inspiration and reflection).

Other Contextual Information

Our action research was part of the Education and Training Foundation’s OTLA 8 Programme. Four teachers participated from the English Department at Preston College, a general further education college in Lancashire. We worked primarily with L1, 2 and 3 GCSE English learners, but included a non-accredited SEND group and, later, an accredited Functional Skills English SEND group.

Our mission at Preston College is, ‘making our learners the most employable, now and in the future.’ As English skills play an important role in our learners’ employability, it is taught as a core subject, essential for employment and higher education. Teaching staff are well-equipped to contend with ‘resit’ culture and the college’s core values create a strong foundation as we aspire not only to teach English, but to build our learners’ confidence and resilience along the way.


Initially, learners were given an A5 notebook with a creative handwritten depiction of the narrative story arc and one of two quotes on the cover: ‘You can make anything by writing’ by C.S. Lewis and ‘Writing is the best way to talk without being interrupted’ by Jules Renard.

Learners also had access to ‘fancy’ coloured gel pens for their freewriting. Every writing session began with a set prompt, chosen by the teacher. Learners were instructed to write without stopping for ten minutes. The following parameters were given: no worrying about spelling, punctuation, and grammar; no talking; no questions; no editing; just writing until the timer stops.

Teachers aimed to complete the freewriting exercises with learners and make observations of their reactions to the exercises. We recorded whether they wrote intermittently, continuously, or not at all. We recorded whether they engaged in any resistant behaviour or low-level disruption, such as talking, asking questions or use of mobile phones, and physical behaviours like getting out of their seats or fidgeting. Learners were told that notebooks would be anonymised, and that self and peer review activities would take place later in the process.

As the project evolved, we found that we could not make adequate observations and complete the freewriting exercises. Writing continuously and in silence did not meet the needs of our learners and seemed to increase resistance, so we opened up to a variety of methods. Some parts were done in silence, some with discussion. We collected learner feedback and responded to concerns about how we were approaching the freewriting. We opened up to questioning and increased the time and frequency of the freewriting, got rid of the timer, and linked the freewriting to session content, images, or let learners choose from a list of their own prompts. Some groups engaged in sharing their writing when comfort levels allowed, and some opted to share verbally and through discussion. Some preferred not to share.

When we began the narrative writing aspect of our research as a department, the freewriting book became ‘the notebook’ where learners did their freewriting, starters, and creative writing. The freewriting was then integrated seamlessly into both reading and writing lessons, rather than perceived as a ‘stand-alone’ starter. Freewriting could be initiated at any point in the lesson, alongside other activities designed to improve learners’ creative writing.

Outcomes and Impact

Teaching, Learning and Assessment

Both teacher and learner participants recognised that, for the majority, practising freewriting before assessment had a positive impact on assessment performance. Improvement was noted across quality of content, spelling, punctuation, grammar, and word count for some learners. Learners articulated this improvement as a change in confidence, a way to get organised, calm down and prepare, adopting freewriting as a class ‘ritual’. The teacher participants also agreed that the freewriting has resulted in most learners engaging with and enjoying writing, and most responding to it with interest. Teacher participants reported positive outcomes of gaining opportunities for reflective practice, collaboration and collecting learner feedback as well as increased confidence in teaching story writing. The most inspiring outcome unfolding is that our learners want to write good, creative stories, full of surprises and palpable tension and description. In short, they now know that they are writers, and they have goals and aspirations.

The research team have observed the following early outcomes for learners:

  • Most learners no longer resist the practice of freewriting
  • Most learners have written at least one creative short story early on
  • Some GCSE learners have written outstanding stories, which would achieve high grade (5 and above) for GCSE English Language.

GCSE learners reported positive outcomes, including:

It’s helped:

  • me become creative with story writing
  • me to plan and organise my writing
  • to clear my mind
  • make my writing clearer.


  • working as a team to gather ideas was helpful
  • I liked to put the plan in my freewriting book
  • it gave time to think about the question
  • I like that we could write about anything
  • it released the mind of prior stress so, with the real question, I can improve on my writing.

SEND learners also reported positive outcomes, including:

  • increased confidence and willingness to share their writing with peers, family and friends
  • increased writing. Learners are now writing 2 – 3 pages
  • learners are asking questions around how to improve, without being prompted.

Organisational Development

This action research project has opened a collaborative space in our department. Teacher participants have enjoyed a monthly lunch meeting where we can share progress and challenges and brainstorm ways to approach shared objectives in future. We do not currently have any other meetings or spaces for this. We have established a collaborative community of practice, not only about teaching creative writing, but teaching the GCSE English and Functional Skills curriculum as a whole.

This community has enabled all participants to remain open and honest about our teaching as we share good practice and learn from each other’s strengths and weaknesses. This was particularly beneficial in terms of how learners were provided with prompts, how they gave feedback and how we recognised their writing. Resources were shared, tried, and amended. Lessons learned were disseminated and used to inform next steps.

Future plans include extending the project cross-college as online CPD training will be rolled out by the project team to help meet the OFSTED target of embedding English across Vocational areas. Both the Quality and research teams agree that this initiative will also foster good practice in terms of inter-department collaboration and support.

Learning from this project

See also Appendix 5: Uncomfortable Lessons

Regularly ask learners for feedback to ensure we are meeting their needs

Teachers need to remind themselves to collect feedback regularly to evaluate and challenge practice and meet learner needs. The information collected here has been invaluable. It is crucial that we ‘tap into source’ and remain mindful of learner views and experience. We are now questioning other aspects of the course and how collecting learner feedback could improve teaching and learning.

Respond to feedback in a clear, open and honest manner

The real catalyst for change was what we did with feedback. Ensuring that learners understand the purpose of freewriting, and reassuring them of how to go about it, was a step forward and a way to gain trust. Making explicit use of learner feedback in the classroom was a turning point as it acknowledged and valued their contributions to the process.

It is worth shifting the focus from curriculum to skills building

The teaching and learning year is usually based on a set curriculum. In July, as teachers we already know ‘what we should be working on’ on any given date. The curriculum has prescribed what we do in the classroom day to day. In this post Covid-19 year, we have been forced to pause, take stock, and listen to learners. (See also Appendix 6: Shifting the Focus from Curriculum to Skills Building Post Covid-19).

The most significant finding from learner feedback was that they wanted more time. Freewriting was another way to achieve the ultimate goal: creating literate, competent writers. There was a lot to gain by breaking away from the comfort of routine and, ultimately, nothing to lose.

Assessment is not the only way to measure progress and learning

According to a report that compares school standards in 22 countries, ‘English children are tested longer, harder and younger than anywhere else in the world’ (Woolcock 2008). Our research confirmed that over-assessment seems to do our learners more harm than good.

I [the project lead] observed some learners thrive in their freewriting, persuasive, and story writing only to perform poorly at formal assessment. I observed learners growing from the joy they were experiencing in their own writing and absolutely seizing up when presented with a timed assessment of the same type of task. Our research outcomes have led us to recommend that teachers find innovative ways to reduce assessment and approach their teaching with an attitude that the proof is in the process. The pudding will come.

Trust in teacher professionalism and establish time for a community of practice to meet regularly

This project has enabled us to be proactive about meeting our needs: sharing good practice and lessons learned, confidence building and feeling supported by a community. Action research is already a part of teaching and perhaps we should behave as such. (See also Appendix 7: Creating Space).

As teachers of writing, our job initially is to help learners find and value their voice

I learned that if our learners don’t recognise and value their own voices enough to write, progress is not possible. Much as we are teaching our learners to write, we are teaching them how to organise and trust their thoughts and feelings. English teachers need this to be recognised and we need the space to achieve this with confidence. This means less formal assessment and prescription around how to deliver competent readers and writers. The action research process forced me to create that space and do what I felt was right, given the circumstances. (See also Appendix 8: Teacher Reflections).

Professional Development

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

See also Appendix 4: Professional Standard 3 Inspiring, motivating and raising aspirations of learners.

  • 1. Reflect on what works best in your teaching and learning to meet the diverse needs of learners

    Our project has created an opportunity for teachers to examine our methods and how our learners respond to these. Whilst we are keen on learner reflection, we had forgotten the importance of teacher reflection. Teachers kept a journal to record what was and was not working in our classrooms. We brought the journal to our monthly meetings to collect lessons learned and ideas for next steps. Because of the nature of the challenge, it was very important that we met learner needs. After all, they could just not write, something we observed early on. It was vital that we examined what we were doing, asked learners what they needed and responded appropriately. Had we not engaged in this consistent reflection, we could not have moved forward and would not have achieved our current positive outcomes.

  • 2. Evaluate and challenge your practice, values and beliefs.

    We created a space where the team could reconnect with this professional standard. The project dictated that we experiment, get feedback and, more importantly, reflect on feedback to evaluate and revise our practice, values and beliefs. We had been following a rigid curriculum where learners were prescribed story prompts and tasked with writing and revising (usually) the same story throughout the unit. The project enabled the learners and teachers to try new prompts and new topics every session. We observed how learners were responding, thought about what we were doing and changed how we were delivering the prompts and what they were.

  • 13. Motivate and inspire learners to promote achievement and develop their skills to enable progression.

    In the interim stages of the project, my [the project lead’s] learners and I transformed our writing sessions into ‘workshops.’ We were ‘vibing’ – connecting, making references to pop culture, science fiction, social media, discussing possibilities for their writing and acknowledging what went well, what could be better, what outcomes they wanted when the story was over, etc. It seemed a love for stories and writing was infectious after all.
    Learners wanted to write better stories. They wanted to get the dialogue, spelling, punctuation, and grammar right. They are accepting responsibility and feeling accountable for their own stories.


Appendix 1: The Project Team

Appendix 2: Learner Case Studies

Appendix 3: Project Lead’s inspiration and reflection

Appendix 4: Professional standard 3: Inspiring, motivating and raising aspirations of learners

Appendix 5: Learning from this project (Uncomfortable Lessons)

Appendix 6: Shifting the focus from Curriculum to Skills Building Post-Covid

Appendix 7: Creating Space

Appendix 8: Teacher Reflections

Appendix 9: Learner Feedback Video


Asraf, M. (2018). ‘Using Focused Freewriting to Stimulate Ideas and Foster Critical Thinking During Prewriting’, TESOL International Journal, vol 13, no 4, Pages 67-81. Available at: (Accessed: 15 February 2022).

Elbow, P. (1973). ‘Writing Without Teachers’. 25th Edition. New York: Oxford University Press.

Woolcock, N. (2008). ‘English children are most tested in the world’, The Times (London), 8 February 2008, Page 31. Available at: (Accessed: 16 February 2022).