Three Ways to Step Up the Challenge at KS3 (NACE Blog)

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3 ways to step up the challenge in Key Stage Three English

Shortly before the half term break, I asked a number of Year 13 students if they could remember the moment that solidified their decision to study English at A level. The responses were interesting: some of them said it was a particular teacher whose passion for their subject had inspired a love of literature; some said it was one particular lesson that had given them that all-important lightbulb moment. One student recollected an individual lesson that she recalled quite vividly:

“It was Year 9 Shakespeare, Miss- we were debating who decides literary value”.

This was the response that interested me most. I asked what she valued about that experience and she said that it felt like she had really been forced to think for herself- that she felt unsure at first, but soon found the confidence and the words to argue her point of view on a topic she hadn’t really given much thought to in the past.

This conversation was another reminder for me about the importance of the Key Stage Three diet. It reminded me that Key Stage Three is indeed what some on EduTwitter are deeming ‘The Wonder Years’ and that key decisions and attitudes towards subjects are decided during these crucial years. It is, therefore, pivotal that the Key Stage Three diet is a balanced one- providing a rich and diverse set of experiences that share a love for learning and a love for literature.

Here are three strategies that support challenge at Key Stage Three

  1. Picture your end product first…

Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool have both conducted extensive research on what defines success and what makes the world’s most successful people achieve extraordinary things. In their book, ‘ Peak’ the authors discuss something called the ‘virtuous circle’, where ‘ honing the skill improves mental representation, and mental representation helps hone the skill’ (1). This really got me thinking- what sort of mental representations do teachers have of their students? Are we always clear about where we want our students to ‘be’ at certain times in their school career, beyond reaching centrally-determined target grades? Do we always hold a clear vision of what ‘success’ looks like for that individual learner/ group of learners?

This year, my department have spent quite a lot of time defining a vision for our Key Stage Three ‘end product’. We sat as a team in March to list some of the attributes we wanted for our learners- it was an opportunity to vent about the things they ‘couldn’t do’ and the skills they appeared to lack when it came to the start of GCSE. This discussion was about much more than examination criteria or working towards certain assessment objectives- our ideas about ‘progress’ needed to delve much deeper than that. We wanted to be clear on what sort of learning attributes we wanted our students to have crafted and honed and we used this information to identify what sort of learning opportunities we would execute habitually to ensure success.

After some discussion, here is what we decided.

‘We want to cultivate students who:

  • Have a critical eye, so that they do not blindly accept things;
  • They will openly welcome feedback, criticism and differing views and interpretations and not feel threatened by these;
  • They will be skilled in planning, showing evidence of deep thinking;
  • They will take risks, knowing that the learning they will experience is more valuable than the fear of failure;
  • They will actively listen to and reason with the ideas and expertise of others;
  • They will construct meaningful arguments, supporting their ideas with confidence and conviction.’

This activity gave us clarity in terms of what we wanted to achieve at Key Stage Three and we were able to action these recommendations when designing a new programme of study for the three years. It was well-needed time and I thoroughly recommend taking the time as a department to define the characteristics you value in your department, for both your teachers and for your learners.

2) Encourage oracy and debate

I have always been an advocate for the ‘if you can say it, you can write it’ mantra, but in English this is crucial. It’s important to create an environment where talk is both celebrated and expected and there are several ways to encourage this in lessons and schemes of learning. Some of the best thinking that happens in English occurs when learners have had the opportunity to work with an idea, noticing its flaws/pitfalls and appreciating its various facets. Only then will they be able to show a profound depth of understanding. Here are some ways in which oracy can be promoted in the Key Stage Three classroom:

  • Make thinking visible in your lessons (2) ( in the words of Dylan Wiliam, play ‘basketball’, not ‘ping pong’ (3)). There’s real power in passing an idea around the room, this avoids the learners needing to seek your approval of an answer and models thinking ‘live’ in the lesson.
  • Model high-level talk: explicitly teach vocabulary and make its various contexts clear. This can be achieved through ‘word of the week’ displays or simply taking some time to discuss vocabulary choices in certain texts.
  • Don’t accept mediocre verbal responses- keep expectations high. Give students time to formulate a strong verbal response. This may include a ‘think, pair, share’ visible thinking routine, or developing purposeful ‘think time’ after a question has been posed.

3) Make time to brush up…

One of the most exciting challenges to teaching more able students is the knowledge that you have to be several steps ahead in terms of your own knowledge and understanding- I have always enjoyed the intellectual thrill of this. Encouraging students to engage in high-level academic thinking is another way to ensure students recognise the wider relevance of their programmes of study and it also models high level academic thinking and reasoning.

  • Find academic works/ essays that provide alternative views of your topic and work with these as extracts. These could then be useful sources for further investigation and debate. Students then approach their set texts through a different lens (recently, I experimented with an essay on madness and insantity in Victorian England, and we used this to help gather information for a debate on Dickens’ presentation of Miss Havisham).
  • Make time in department meetings to discuss new learning. Could members of the department take the lead on a certain aspect and be tasked to share some of this with the rest of the department during team meetings? An expert on C19th literature perhaps? or an expert on Shakespearean tragedies?
  • Encourage students to engage independently with materials available- there are some excellent resources on The British Library with scans of original sources, which are invaluable. Last year we introduced an extension activity called ‘ Universally Challenged’, where students were tasked to research a related topic and to produce a small resource/ elevator pitch for other students in the group. The activity aims to broaden students’ literary understanding and to be able to make more pertinent links between what they are studying and the contexts within which other texts were produced.


Ritchhart R, Church M, Morrison K. Making thinking visible: how to promote engagement, understanding, and independence for all learners. San Francisco, United States: Jossey-Bass; 2011.

Black, P & Wiliam, D 1998, Inside the Black Box: Raising standards through classroom assessment, School of Education, King’s College, London, United Kingdom.

Ericsson, A., & Pool, R. (2016). Peak: Secrets from the new science of expertise. Boston, MA, : Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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