The Excel Academy

Teaching & Learning Blog

Pedagogy in History

Vocabulary in History – by Ben Tomasik

No teacher would disagree that a broad vocabulary is a desirable thing for our students to acquire.  All teachers would be considerably wealthier if students had to give us 20p for every time they dropped a ‘thingy’, or even a ‘y’know’ into their verbal responses. Equally, no history teacher would be upset if they never had to correct a student’s spelling of scourse/sorce/sauce (delete as applicable) again.  Although spelling could be considered a different animal to vocabulary, students are less likely to misspell words they have a truly good understanding of. I am not writing this short blog to pressure teachers into embarking on deep etymological discussions with their students, but rather to summarise some strategies discussed in an article I read recently into five simple suggestions to help develop the vocabulary of our students.   

  1. Don’t just give them a dictionary. Studies show that students struggle to comprehend new vocabulary unless it is placed into a familiar context. Try to use it in an everyday conversation example.  Making this example modern humorous and/or interesting will help students remember.
  1. Try to provide students with more than one context in order to develop versatility of vocabulary. For example, tangent is a word with mathematical meaning, but could also be exemplified in the context of ‘going off topic’.   
  1. Try to get students to interact or use new vocabulary right away. For example, I gave merits to my Y11 class who managed to correctly use the word ‘decadent’ in a history essay on the Golden Age of Weimar Germany.
  1. Reward students who in later lessons can give examples of where they have seen or used new vocab outside of school.
  1. Try to build opportunities for students to experience new vocabulary into lesson starters. Below is an example of a History ‘Thinking Hard’ starter activity that can be used as a interleaving/vocabulary starter.

Engagement in reading – by Laura Thomas

The publishing of the new Ofsted framework has placed reading at its heart stating that high quality teaching should include ‘a rigorous approach to the teaching of reading that develops learners’ confidence and enjoyment in reading’, but this should not come as a surprise. We know as teachers that reading ages often show a direct correlation with achievement and for GCSEs without tiered entry much of the vocabulary used in extracts and questions are pitched at a reading age of 16 years, despite the fact many students have reading ages significantly lower than this. This is certainly the case in History where students’ ability to read and understand interpretations and sources are hugely important skills. The Stoke Reads Campaign highlighted that students often read less as they grow older ‘46% of Key Stage 2 pupils read daily outside class, compared with 37% of Key Stage 3 pupils and 39% of Key Stage 4 pupils’. Engaged readers spend on average between 200% to 500% more time reading than those who are disengaged readers, if we know reading is vital to gaining knowledge and understating then we need to actively seek ways to engage readers. Here are some simple suggestions from ‘Classroom Conditions for Motivation and Engagement in Reading’ on how to engage students in reading within your own subject areas:

  • Choose a range of genres when looking for ways to incorporate more reading into the curriculum – we have ensured that within our new KS3 curriculum we have included a varied range of texts both fiction and non-fiction for reading comprehension including poetry, classic literature and historiography.


  • Avoid reductionism and increase time for reading in class – rather than giving students summary notes encourage them to read, select information, answer comprehension questions and then share their findings.
  • Collaboration during reading comprehension activities can encourage greater engagement – students should be asked to summarise what they have learnt from a chapter or article and share their opinions with one another, deepening their understanding of a text.
  • Share your own enjoyment for reading with students, suggest books or articles that might interest them or engage them, set up a department lending library. Maus, a graphic novel depicting the Nazis’ persecution of the Jews, has encouraged greater engagement from reluctant readers.

Low stakes testing – by Kate Walker.

Have you ever asked a question to a class and have 30 blank expressions looking back at you? You then choose the student to answer who’s looking down at the desk to be answered with ‘dunno miss/sir’, even though you’ve just heard them whisper the answer to the person sitting next to them! I know I have on many occasions. Maybe it’s lack of confidence, or maybe it’s because they don’t want their ‘friends’ to post their embarrassment of saying a wrong answer out loud all over social media in the next 5 seconds. Who can be sure? What I do know is that they need our help to overcome this ‘embarrassment’ of getting things wrong! Something we already do that is a great example of low stakes testing is knowledge organiser quizzes. The competitive element means they enjoy doing so more than most other forms of homework.

The article I read suggests using show my homework quizzes regularly, as well as using whiteboards or paper to repeat them in class.  It’s important with any low stakes testing method that they are used regularly so the students feel more and more comfortable using them and eventually you’ll be getting those answers you wanted in the first place! It’s all about confidence. Here are a few more reasons why low stakes testing is a valid method of testing students. They might just surprise you! (Even the quiet ones).

  • More engagement of subject content from students. (They feel like they can do it)
  • More subject specific literacy is used, definitions of key terminology and the spelling of this. (You’ve tested them on it repeatedly so feel more confident including it in their answers)
  • In the classrooms there is a buzz of excitement in anticipation of the next challenge. (They’ve got nothing to lose and might even win a few merits – and they know what to expect. It’s ‘safe’)


How can we be outstanding?

By A Steele 

Over the last few weeks, the Teaching & Learning team at the academy have been debating exactly what marks a lesson as not just good, but ‘outstanding’.

Not so long ago (within the last decade) Ofsted moved to no longer grading lessons – seeing this as a futile measure in a one-off picture. Many colleagues and schools welcomed this change. However, they have still been reporting on the grading for Teaching and Learning and so being able to identify outstanding practice is still important. This is not just a way for senior leaders to measure the quality of the staff, but also for teachers to continue to reflect on their practice and develop it. A colleague in English has recently written a blog for IRIS connect (the recording equipment that we use in lessons to allow us to reflect on our practice and share ideas) exploring the importance of reflecting on lessons – even as an experienced member of staff – and you can read more here.

Our teaching staff are all keen to deliver the best lessons to allow students to make as much progress as possible.

So what is it that constitutes an outstanding teacher? 

Our starting point here wasn’t the Ofsted criteria for an ‘outstanding’ grading in T&L, but, instead, a discussion with our senior leadership team who, between them, have experienced over a dozen Ofsted inspections, not to mention external reviews and have taken part in hundreds (if not thousands) of lesson observations.

First and foremost, the team commented that for a member of staff to show ‘outstanding’ practice, they had to have good relationships with students. More often than not, this meant an environment of respect that was often achieved through passionate subject teaching and then resulting in student enthusiasm for the subject. Colleagues commented that student voice often teaches us that, where students feel that staff ‘care’ about them as individuals, they work hard. When probed, this included talking to them about their weekends, saying hello to them in corridors and showing a human side to their characters by using anecdotes in their teaching.

The second and also final factor to showing outstanding practice was – quite simply – being consistently ‘good’ all the time. As much as this seems like an obvious get out, it really is – more often than not – the only other factor worth considering.

Of course, it is too simplistic. That sweeping statement includes all manner of other measurements:

  • It includes marking that is timely and explicitly tells students how to make progress which is then demonstrated by the student.
  • It includes lessons that are planned using regular formative assessment that allows teachers to intervene in a timely and effective manner.
  • It includes questioning that is so adept that it includes all students and scaffolds them to use higher thinking skills.
  • It includes teaching that promotes the best qualities of character and models pride and respect.

And none of this can be achieved without consistent mindset for learning practice.

In our academy we are very fortunate. Our mindset for learning system is robust and thorough. It both celebrates and promotes good behaviour and attitude, whilst providing a consistent process to dealing with poor behaviour. Through the application of this process across the school, by all members of staff (both teaching and non-teaching) we are able to teach good lessons and, as a result, much of the practice in the academy is good with lots of outstanding features.

So in our quest to be as ‘outstanding’ as possible, we will continue to reflect on our practice; we will continue to care about our students and we will continue to expect the best behaviour possible from them to ensure that not only our teaching and learning, but our whole school – staff and students – are outstanding.


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