Critical Thinking, Literacy

Critical Thinking for All

Hannah Evans – Assistant Headteacher


It is far from surprising that, when asked,  teachers who are working on a collaborative KS5 transition project here at Sarah Bonnell revealed that their main reason for signing up was to enhance the way in which their students think critically.  They want them to engage in independent thought and establish lines of argument. Isn’t that what we all want from our students? A sense of personal response, of real engagement in and evaluation of the things that they are learning about? It’s what John Hattie calls “deep learning”: when students can ‘think critically and develop a deep understanding’ in their lessons. This is an area of pedagogy I am really interested in and, as a teacher of mixed ability classes, I am even more interested in the ways in which I can engage all students, regardless of their starting points, in this type of learning.  Here are a few strategies that have worked for me because they really do foster insight and enquiry for all.


What would Simone say?

Whichever author, monarch, sociologist or scientist students are learning about, share a current news story with them and ask them to consider what the figure would think.  For example, what would Elizabeth Ist think of Brexit? What would Dickens think of the rise in food bank usage? How would Simone de Beauvoir respond to the ‘Me Too’ movement? What would Genghis Khan think about increasing diversity in the UK?  The idea is to get students to negotiate the ideologies of key thinkers so that they can be confident in applying them in their critical essays.


Harkness Discussions

I learned about this strategy from one of our maths Lead Practitioners; she told me about the Harkness Method which encourages students to take control of their own discussions by setting challenging questions about a text or topic.  John Hattie’s research found that classroom discussion was ranked the seventh most effective strategy out of 150 strategies to enhance learning, so it seems essential that we consider the ways in which discussion can be harnessed to generate critical and evaluative thinking. The diagram below details the way in which the process can be set up and facilitated. For me, the most interesting part of it is the fact that when students set the questions for the discussion, they give them a challenge rating, thus ensuring that they are constantly evaluating the sophistication of their own ideas and questions.  


Empowering language

Giving students the right language so that they can sound critical in their approach is really empowering for students who may not have an existing flair for using an evaluative style. I like to challenge my students to use one new critical technique in their essays each time to encourage them to reflect on the way they write, not just what they are writing about. Students enjoy building up their repertoire of sophisticated methods and I will often ask students to share their ‘showcase sentences’– sentences that really demonstrates sharp and clear expression of thought.


Model high expectations of critical thought

Sharing great critical writing with your students is, I think, the best way to enhance their critical thinking and style.  Some of my favourites are Caitlin Moran, Elizabeth Day, Barack Obama, Virginia Woolf and Gary Younge. These great journalists and orators will save you hours of model writing time and inspire students to see that having a critical viewpoint really does matter in the real world.

Collaboration, Literacy, Professional development, Writing

I do it…we do it…so you can do it: the importance of collaboration across the curriculum

ADD56B9E-DD3C-400A-A064-C34118F2D469Natalie Jim-Lead Practitioner

As I read the fifth piece of coursework my heart continues to sink. Although the words on the page are definitely recognisable as being part of the English language, they seem  to be randomly placed on the page, with no actual sense being communicated. The constant question keeps circulating around my brain: “how can they write so fluently and attain such high grades in English, but be unable to transfer these same literacy skills when studying other subjects?”

It became such a source of frustration that I knew something had to done.

As teachers in secondary school, we understand that collaboration with other curriculum areas is a fantastic way to improve attainment across the school community, but we may not forge these links as often as we should. I speak very generally, but curriculum planning, the sharing of practice and finding the time to observe other colleagues can be challenging. Is it any wonder that students can’t connect the skills required in numerous subjects when we often don’t utilise opportunities to make those connections?

As a teacher of drama, I have had to shift my mindset regarding the teaching of writing and literacy skills in response to the new GCSE exam specification. Interestingly, a student’s ability to write about drama is awarded higher marks than their ability to demonstrate practical skills. There is also a further focus on preparing students to confidently sit a 2 hour written paper worth 40%.

After marking a batch of  mock exam papers,  it was with a sinking feeling that I noticed a gap in what they were achieving in English compared to drama. What was frustrating was that the skills needed to answer questions in the written paper were very similar. Taking action, I turned to a Lead Practitioner from the English Curriculum Area to support me in my quest to join the dots.

The first step was to break down the similar aspects of the English literature exam paper and the specimen drama paper. It was apparent that analysis and evaluation were the overlapping skills. So the questions can students: identify language used by a writer; infer meaning and evaluate the effect on the reader were similar to what I was considering as a drama teacher. So, for example, drama students should be able to identify theatrical skills used by a performer, infer meaning and importantly discuss the effect on the audience.

I looked at a writing frame grid being used in English and adapted it for a drama question. In addition, the LP visited and team taught a drama lesson that was introducing the grid and demonstrated the most effective way of modelling – “I do, we do, you do.” When using top band models as a teaching tool, I had often not spent enough time on the joint construction of a response with the class. Instead I would jump from showing them a model and breaking it down and analysing it, to then giving them the task of trying to create a response for themselves. What seemed to be the missing piece of the jigsaw was actually working on a new model together and then giving them the independence to try.

It is still a work in progress, but looking at students’ subsequent attempts at similar questions, I am hopeful.  I would recommend using the expertise of those around us to problem solve and support highly.

Group work, Literacy, Oracy

‘Let’s talk’- the role of Socratic talk in challenging students

Yamina Bibi- Lead Practitioner

Follow her on Twitter: @msybibi

A colleague of mine once told me that a ladder can be used as an analogy to explain differentiation. All of our students need to reach the top of the learning ladder but how many steps they require will differ according to individual needs. Some students might be able to skip a few steps to reach the top, while others may need a few extra steps to enable them to do so.

Stretching and challenging all the young people in our classrooms to reach the top of the ladder can be the key to their success. As Tom Sherrington states in his blog Teaching to the Top: Attitudes and Strategies for delivering real challenge:

‘The secret to doing this well is to think about it in three areas of teaching practice:

  • Attitudes:  The belief and mindsets teachers need to have themselves and inculcate in their students. This influences everything else.
  • Routines/Habits:  The things you do all the time, in every lesson.
  • Extra Challenges: Things you build into an overall scheme of work and use occasionally.’

As a teacher, this means that planning and embedding challenge doesn’t have to include many versions of the same worksheet (this is something I have been guilty of in the past).

In fact, that’s why I find Socratic Seminars an effective way of implementing the principles of ‘teaching to the top’; the differentiation is planned meticulously prior to the lesson without the need for three different coloured worksheets.

What is a Socratic seminar?

A Socratic seminar is a specific style of dialogic teaching (see Robin Alexander’s ‘Towards Dialogic Teaching’) I learned from my wonderful NQT mentor, Teresa Dunseith.

It encourages students to: think deeply about a topic; contribute effectively to discussions; listen attentively to other students’ ideas; justify and challenge rather than accept the first answer and ensures all students are involved. Although some may argue that this strategy is only effective in subjects such as English and Humanities, I strongly disagree.

I have observed a Socratic seminar taking place in a Science lesson, where students debated the use of stem cells. I have also observed students discussing and working out a Maths problem while other students observed and then discussed the methods used.

As a strategy, it’s adaptable and it’s the teacher’s decision how they use it in their classroom. For example, in some lessons the Socratic discussion is used as part of the ‘Do Now’ activity to hook learners, while in other lessons, it is part of the main activity to enable students to demonstrate their knowledge and skills.

So how does one plan and deliver a Socratic seminar?

Below are instructions and ideas on how you can plan and deliver a Socratic seminar in your classroom. I have also provided examples of resources I share with students in the lesson; if you would like copies of any of the resources, please do let me know using the comment box below or tweet me @msybibi. 

whole class socratic

mini socratic

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I hope that you will try the Socratic seminar and that it will enable your students to be stretched and challenged and reach the top of the learning ladder.

EAL, Literacy

Develop thinking. Develop writing. Develop both through reading.

Robina Begum-EAL coordinator

What enters your mind when planning for EAL learners? For me as an EAL teacher and a mainstream subject teacher, whole-class teaching is at the forefront of my mind where all learners can benefit from EAL teaching strategies. I see all students as being in the process of language development but the needs they have are distinguished by each student’s stage of development.

Thinking in such a way, negates many of the concerns we may have about meeting the needs of EAL learners when teaching whole-class; the underlying premise being that we are thinking about language anyway and ensuring it is an integral part of our teaching. Supporting EAL learners involves doing what we do already, with some adaptations to recognise where they are on the continuum. It should also help to stress the equality of all learners regardless of how advanced their English skills are.

‘Although EAL teaching has its own distinctive pedagogy, it aims to teach English using the mainstream curriculum as the context. This involves developing specific resources which make the language of the curriculum accessible through, for example: increased use of visuals, scaffolding and modelling, while keeping the cognitive challenge and interest level high.’ (

EAL strategies can benefit learners of all abilities and I consider them as excellent literacy strategies which we can all use in our classrooms.

Active Reading

Simply reading and re-reading texts isn’t an effective way to understand and learn. Actively and critically engaging with the content can save students time.

Active reading means reading something with a determination to understand and evaluate it for its relevance to your needs. They allow readers of all abilities to benefit from lessons that practise the use of comprehension strategies proven to be habits of good readers.

A teacher making these strategies visible, strengthens the students’ independent reading habits and enables them to check the mastery of usage.

Using a newspaper

My favourite active reading strategy involves using a newspaper which is an excellent vehicle to teach literacy in subject areas. It is the perfect textbook because it is written at a level that many adolescents can read, some with ease, and successfully learn about content while practicing the chosen literacy skill.

The newspaper teaches students about themselves and their community, state, country and world. It teaches them to navigate text to find information and helps them learn about current events or their favourite sports. The newspaper is an authentic text because it directly affects students and the way they view themselves and the world around them. What better way to teach content?

Steps for using a newspaper as an active reading strategy

Active reading tasks may include the following:

  • PMI grid (Plus, Minus, Interesting)
  • Concept map
  • Diamond ranking
  • Fortune line
  • Mapping
  • Mysteries
  • Graphic organiser
  • Sorting and classifying
  • Opinion lines/corner
  • Inference grid
  • Text marking
  • Venn diagram
  1. Choose a newspaper article related to your lesson.
  2. Identify several major concepts related to the article that students are expected to learn.
  3. Develop four to six clearly written statements relating to the article.
  4. Statements should challenge students’ preconceptions and include some true/false assertions. (Note: Avoid generalisations and abstract statements.)
  5. Develop statements so that information can be identified in the text to support and/or oppose each one.
  6. Write statements on a support guide/template.
  7. Distribute the support guide/template. Students respond to each statement before reading and defend their answers in small-group or whole class discussions. They should be writing in the “pre-reading” column on the support guide/template.
  8. Discuss their responses.
  9. Remind students that the support guide/template helps them set a purpose.
  10. Read the selected article. Ask students to show you “evidence” in the text (i.e.where they found the answers). Students should highlight the information.
  11. Revisit the support guide/template and answer questions in the “post-reading” column.
  12. Engage students in summarising, discussing and expressing how the reading selection reinforced or challenged prior knowledge.

How will it help EAL learners?

This activity will enable them to:

• Distinguish between fact and opinion

• Predict what will occur in the selected reading.

• Complete the support guide before and after reading.

• Discuss misconceptions or answers on the support guide/template

• Articulate reasons why questions were answered the way they were.

Such activities help increase content knowledge and reading comprehension. The task aims to prepare readers for the text and things to look out for while reading. Some of the tasks will provoke deep discussion, opening lines of communication and inviting EAL students and those with special educational needs, into the conversation by helping them to participate successfully in conversations directly connected to their prior knowledge.

I hope you try out this strategy and that it stimulates your students’ engagement using texts!

Collaboration, Group work, Literacy, Oracy

Five Ways to use Collaborative Learning in the Classroom

Nick Bentley-Lead Practitioner 

Follow him on Twitter: @MrBentleyTweets

“What the child can do in cooperation today, he can do alone tomorrow.”  Vygotsky (1986)

I remember the first time I used collaborative learning in my English classroom; during my PGCE year I separated my class into groups to create short role-plays to summarise the five acts of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It all seemed to be going swimmingly until the Act 5 group took to the stage, and inexplicably turned the joyful comedy of the wedding scene into a violent, gruesome bloodbath. I was rather worried about what my subject mentor would think when he spoke to me afterwards. Thankfully, he was pleased with the creativity and comedy that they were able to unpack in a rather different way within the lesson! It supported us to explore the genre of comedy in a fresh way, and I remain very pleased that it happened.

Although I am not entirely sure if this is the kind of learning he had in mind, if we put to one side his gendered use of language, Vygotsky (1986: 188) has outlined a really interesting point about the benefits of collaborative approaches to education. So, I would like to use this post to share five ways of using collaborative learning in the classroom which, though some teachers may be aware of, will hopefully be meaningful for others.

Process Drama

Despite the unexpected twist I experienced during the Midsummer lesson, drama can be a valuable way of encouraging learners to collaborate. Whilst many drama practitioners advocate teaching the subject by focusing on the creation of polished pieces of theatre, Bolton (1986: 22) has instead outlined how drama can be used as a learning medium emphasising “interaction with the objective world at a feeling/thinking level,” naming it ‘Process Drama’. Process Drama allows students to work in groups to explore topics from across the curriculum through drama. Examples of this might include learners creating still images to represent key words and tricky concepts, role-play to act as scientists, mathematicians or journalists and performances to explore poetry, foreign language material and historical texts.

Structured Conversations

Radhakrishna and Ewing (2015:85) have suggested that think-pair-share conversations might “keep students prepared [and] to get more involved in class discussion and participation.” A helpful way of facilitating this increased participation can be structured conversations, which ensure that all students within a class care able to share their points of view, or approaches to completing a task, without one dominating.  It can involve sentence starters, time-limited conversations, or even a “speed dating” approach; ensuring that the interactions learners have with each other are clearly structured, can be a wonderful way to improve the quality of their conversations.

Roles and Responsibilities

A common concern with group work is that students might be passive in their learning, and allow others to do all of the work without making any contributions. Allocating roles and responsibilities to each student within a group can be a helpful way of avoiding this potential pitfall of cooperation in classrooms. Roles and responsibilities can have all kinds of different names – directors, leaders, champions, or even mini-madams to name but a few – but it really can support effective differentiation in the classroom, by ensuring that the learners are each given areas of focus which meet their particular capabilities, interests and needs.

New Groups

In line with Vygotsky’s theory of a Zone of Proximal Development, wherein effective cooperation can mean learners are stretched to reach new understandings, Wells (2000: 58) argues that “dialogue [serves as] a form of collaborative meaning-making in which both individual and collective understandings are enhanced.” So, swapping groups during the lesson can be a helpful way of students sharing and presenting different levels of challenging information to their peers, alternating between differentiated and mixed attainment groups, and developing learners’ social and communication skills across the lesson.


Helpful for developing a positive buzz or atmosphere around the classroom, offering learners the opportunity to participate in a carousel is a fun way to embed collaborative learning. Students work in groups to complete a task at different stations in the room, before swapping to another station, rotating around the whole classroom until all students have worked on all activities. I like to play carousel music to signal to the students that it is time to move around the room, although I appreciate that not everyone would enjoy this approach!

These various forms of collaborative learning can facilitate effective differentiation, social learning and improved communication skills. As Vygotsky suggests, however, an integral point is that by working together, they can stretch their skills into new areas of achievement. Undeterred by my students’ rewriting of Midsummer as a grisly tragedy, I have thoroughly enjoyed embedding collaborative learning in my lessons. Whilst I am sure that many will be familiar with some of the approaches I have described, I hope that some of these strategies can be helpful, interesting and enjoyable for practitioners helping their students learn new skills and synthesise new knowledge.



Bolton, G. (1986). Selected Writings on drama in education.  Essex: Longman Group Limited

Radhakrishna, R. and Ewing, J. (2012) “TPS (Think Pair Share) as an Active Learning Strategy”. NACTA Journal 

Vygotsky, L. (1986). Thought and Language. London: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Wells, G. (2000). Dialogic inquiry in Education: building on the legacy of Vygotsky. In C.D. Lee and P. Smagorinsky (eds) Vygotskian perspectives on literacy research. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Literacy, Writing

Writing in the fast lane. 

 Yamina Bibi- Lead Practitioner 

Follow her on Twitter:@msybibi

 Re-inventing writing across the curriculum. 

Writing is art.
It enables us to process, explore and express our thoughts by putting pen to paper. With a strengthened focus in the new GCSE curriculum on students’ literacy and written work,  it could be said that consistency and  collaboration between departments is key to supporting our students to develop and flourish.

Therefore, we have a challenge for you. 

 A 200 word challenge to be exact.

It will take 25 minutes and we promise that it is creative, innovative and will excite even the most reluctant of writers.

Only 200 words?

The task was introduced, created and developed by @Xris32 in his blog with the aim of encouraging students to write independently and creatively while reducing workload. A different challenge task is set every Friday across KS3 English lessons with differing success criteria and key words.

How does it work?

Creative control lies with the teacher.

Before the lesson:

  • You select a topic that your students can engage with and invest in.
  • You create a success criteria that stretches and challenges your learners. The criteria can be based on key subject terminology, challenging vocabulary, historical issues or any key other area identified by you and your learners.

During the lesson:

  • Students write for 25 minutes responding to the task, while you circulate, read and give them feedback in the lesson.
  • Students share their responses and discuss their literary choices, and literacy.

Still need persuading?

Read what Melanie Corbin in 9H has to say about the 200 word challenge:

The 200 word challenge is an opportunity for self-expression through a limited number of words. We are pushed to give 100% in everything we do through our writing. This task literally forces us to double this by giving us multiple briefs and techniques that we must include. Although we are only allowed to write 200 words, it does not restrict us. Instead, it allows our mind to carve, develop and flourish around a given boundary. It would be great to implement this in practical subjects too to evoke the creative juices because the 200 word challenge is just that: challenging. 

You can also have a look at some examples of challenge tasks and student responses. 


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Examples of the challenges you could adopt or adapt from the wonderful @heymrshallahan.



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Challenge accepted?

So, why not create, adopt or adapt your own 200 word challenge? If you do, we would love to hear from you. Please share your ideas using the ‘comment’ function below.

Thank you.