Teacher, ‘Try Me’ No.4: 3 Tips for Using a Visualiser in the English classroom

Having your own exercise book is a great way to keep all of your worked examples together (saw this from somebody @team_english1 — sorry I don’t know who, but thanks so much for sharing, whoever you are!)

I’ve seen quite a few questions on Twitter recently about how visualisers can be used effectively in the English classroom and thought it would be good to share a couple of approaches I’ve found useful. I remember getting hold of my first visualiser at The Education Show in Birmingham around 7 years ago. I used it so much at the start and then, for some reason, I just stopped using it. It felt awkward getting the tech to work, getting the thing to actually stand up on its own and, in spite of my best efforts, on a few occasions inevitably led to the dreaded ‘dead time’ during a lesson.

Earlier this year, I decided to upgrade mine- the model I had wasn’t that stable which made things a bit difficult if navigating a student’s exercise book ‘live’. I recently upgraded to this model, the Vue HD Pro, which has a much more stable base and is much easier to work with. It is more expensive, but is well worth the cash.


In the book ‘Making Good Progress?’, Daisy Christodoulou discusses why teachers need to work hard at closing the ‘knowing-doing gap’. In other words, a student may know exactly what they need to do (for a particular task/ activity/ skill) but actually knowing how to do those things is entirely different. Whilst a student may know that they need to use a ‘sophisticated range of vocabulary’ are they always clear on what that is? How it looks? How you spot it? How you’ll know when you’ve achieved it?

As teachers, we have clear mental representations (again, something that’s covered in ‘Making Good Progress’) about the end product. We know what we’re looking for and how to spot it, but how do we accurately build that mental representation in our students? How will the end product be visible for them?

The transfer of knowledge and skills between us (the teacher) and them (the learner) needs to be a ‘gradual shift of responsibility’, as is highlighted by some of the work of soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky. It has been translated into various forms over the years- unsurprisingly used as a model for teaching leaders, but can be found in a simplified, more student-friendly form, here.

My colleague and friend @sophielester is currently working on a guest blog for this website on how Vygotsky’s model of the gradual shift of responsibility can be adapted within and across a series of lessons, using an art lesson as an example. Watch this space for that! She’s been doing some really interesting work in art on how this works.

In short, students need to be clear about the thinking process behind a successful piece of work, so the process of thinking needs to be modelled. Here are some possible approaches that could be used with your visualiser.

Idea 1: Expert at work!

  1. ‘I do, you watch’. Explain to students that you are going to have a go at the set task (let’s imagine you have posed a question/ planned towards an exam question/ challenging activity). Explain that you are going to let your brain do the talking. Explain that they are watching you and you will be asking them what they’ve gleaned from hearing your brain talk within the next few minutes.
  2. Then, talk through your thinking- it may sound something like this: ‘ So, I’m going to attack this question on Macbeth. I’ve noticed that I’ve got an extract to work with and that the question is asking me to look at_____________ hmmm… How might I plan for that? Well, if I do this… then… whereas if I do approach it this way then _________________ Yes, ok, I think that’s what I’ll do’… I’ve got to be careful here not to… I’m thinking…’ (I think you get the idea!).
  3. During this time, get students to fill in something like a quick ‘Tips and Traps’ chart, which gleans the most important bits of what you’ve said. It’s a good idea to jot down on a post-it what you know will be the main misconceptions/ mistakes that they could make and make sure you mention these as you work through the task. This is a good way to get that in early!
  4. Next, you may wish to feedback Tips/Traps and to get students to explore why you did what you did and you have a ready made success criteria for the task (with a worked example).
  5. Following this, you could repeat this activity but this time asking students to guide you on what should be done and when in order to reinforce their understanding of the processes required.

It’s a great idea to get a spare exercise book and keep all of your worked examples in one place. It’s useful then for you to keep year after year and will help you to develop and improve schemes of learning. Not only that, it becomes a useful aid to show students again what was done/ learnt when you modelled the process for them.

Idea 2: Live marking and joint annotation of texts

Whenever students are near to finishing a task, I usually ask, ‘ Right, who wants some feedback?’. It’s taken a while to build a culture where ‘we’re all in this together’, but there’s usually three or four students who volunteer now. Once the first is done (and they recognise that everybody is in training mode!) there’s usually many more hands. They recognise that it’s a useful process.

  1. Play the role of an examiner/ publisher/ critic- talking about where the work would be rewarded and where it may require developments. Once issues have been noted, it stands to reason that others may have done the same in their work, so firstly model how to rectify it and get the students to spot it and do the same in their own work.
  2. You could open your own surgery (I always think it’s useful to have a stethoscope in the prop box!) and ask students to come with work and issues and prescribe advice. This could be done whilst others are working quietly on their own work but the conversation is clear to hear and their work is displayed for all students to see.

Likewise, modelling how to annotate a poem/ extract/ text (or even a question) is good for students to see and be a part of, too.

Idea 3: Use it to praise/ as a ‘Polaroid Moment’

I think this one speaks for itself, but showing something particularly effective and highlighting it for the group helps students to have a clearer understanding of what success looks like. Again, if somebody needs help on one aspect, you could say, ‘ I’ve noticed that ________ has tackled that in an interesting way… do you mind if we share?’ A quick photo is always worthwhile to keep as an exemplar or to help develop long term teaching plans.

For me, using a visualiser has really helped my students to gain a much clearer idea of the process required when developing a skill. By seeing it being worked in ‘real time’, students can better understand what it is you are trying to get them to master.

I’d love to talk with any other colleagues who have been experimenting with visualisers in the classroom. Time to go and convince your HOD that this is a worthwhile capitation spend!

Have fun!

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