The Excel Academy

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’)


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