Toolkit #1 – 15 Engaging Starters

The following ideas for starting a lesson arrived in the DHSB Teaching pink post box this week. If you want to add any more please leave a comment:


‘Sketcha Pic’ – Students complete a timed sketch for 30 seconds to 1 minute from a photograph then they have to annotate the features or characteristics, a great way in any subject to generate ideas and thoughts at the start of a new topic or lesson.

‘Thunks’ – This originates from Ian Gilbert of Independent Thinking it basically is approaching a different way of asking a simple question for example using twitter as inspiration ask the question in just 140 characters sum up the theory of relativity.

‘Traffic Lights’ – Start the lesson with a focus on literacy in any subject by playing a key word game using the traffic lights in your school planner.

‘Praise’ – Start your lesson by drawing on the excellent achievements of the previous lesson, praising behaviour and attitudes etc to raise the expectations for this lesson whilst reviewing the prior learning and connecting it to the new lesson.

‘Word Wheel’ – Another great strategy to also help reinforce literacy, using the key words for the lesson in a word wheel and getting the students to discuss them or apply them.

‘Hang man’ – The gruesome yet effective way of ‘hooking’ students in to try to identify the title’ or learning objectives through play.

‘Taboo’ – A great engaging way to get students in small groups or as a whole class to guess the key words or the theme for the lesson.

‘In the News’ – Displaying a news article on the board or a series of articles displayed around the room related to the topic. Students complete a quiz or discuss them to explore the learning of the lesson.

‘Big Picture’ – Display some images on the board and students have to link them to their prior learning and also suggest how it links to their new learning. For example this could be more abstract that one image links to a series of answers that students have to explain step by step how they came to link the known topic.

‘Quotes’ – Writing words, examples or quotes on the board that link to the theme of the lesson. You could even use jokes or short video clips on a loop and students must identify the rationale behind it.

‘TED Ed’ – There are so many fantastic videos that you can use to start your lesson in an engaging and curious way. Check out this blog post for more detail.

‘Matching Task’ – Give students a hand out with some images and statements related to the learning objectives and they have to match them up then their peers check if they are correct.

‘Rally Robin’ – Getting students engaged in a dialogue about facts, knowledge and understanding from previous lessons which then links to the new knowledge of that lesson.

‘Mission Impossible’ – Hiding activities under chairs or tables and students have to find it then complete it before the music ends.

‘Circus Time’ – This has nothing to do with clowns or performing seals but basically you place several short activities around the classroom and each group moves round to complete the 7 or 8 1 minute starters including more practical elements.

Why ‘children’ and not ‘childs’?

Using TED-Ed Lesson animations to enhance Literacy


When planning Year 8 Literacy lessons earlier this year, I was looking for a ‘hook’ and a way to engage the students which was different: something bright, lively, humorous but ultimately, educational. Luckily, a careful search through TED Talks led to me finding their excellent TED-Ed Lessons and a whole wealth of material which the department has mined for gems to perk up those perplexing questions, such as ‘Who invented writing?’ – just one animation available that I’ve used by Matthew Winkler.

Our Year 8 Literacy curriculum begins with an investigation of the English language and its diverse origins, along with reminding students of key spelling strategies and encouraging them apply these across the curriculum when dealing with tricky words. The first animation I discovered was one I alluded to in the title above: ‘A brief history of plural word…s’ by John McWhorter. I shared this at the beginning of the lesson and it formed the perfect ‘hook’ for talking about language origin and change, but also raised questions we had never considered as a class before – why don’t we use childs as the plural, rather than children? Year 8 were entertained by the animation and particularly the idea of hordes of Vikings arriving and cleaning up the existing system of plural words.

With a lesson and a resource such as this, the students’ view of language suddenly changes: it’s no longer immutable. It can be influenced by invaders, by people deciding they want to standardise spellings by creating the first dictionary or influenced by technology and the modern world too. It’s empowering to realise that although the system is there, it’s one invented by humans! Understanding rules and conventions is necessary and powerful, but it’s also more fluid and curious than perhaps they first thought.

There are many fantastic resources available on TED-Ed Lessons, not just for English and Literature. This Friday Year 8 and I will be watching ‘Grammar’s great divide: The Oxford comma’ by TED-Ed, following one student’s tweet to me about it. Last week they were begging me to have a go at working out whether we should be using ‘who’ or ‘whom’. In the next room they are desperate to share ‘Juicy Words’. Friday afternoon Literacy: the best way to end the week, in my opinion!

Sima Davarian @SimaDavarian

KS3/4 English Coordinator

literacy by stealth!

As a Physics teacher I find myself regularly discussing with students why a good grasp of literacy is important.  With students telling me that ‘this isn’t an English lesson’ or my current favourite from my Sixth Form, ‘I am Physicist I cannot be expected to explain things with words, I should only use Maths’.  Instead of letting this frustrate me I always see this as the perfect opportunity to explain why having a good grasp of language is important, especially in a complicated science like Physics.  Having the ability to explain a complex idea by using the right terms not only helps to clarify the idea in ones own mind, but also allows the scientist to explain their theories to others. However, I won’t call it literacy.

In a world where it is considered to be common practice to ‘dumb down’ the language that is used to explain science it is no wonder the students find it hard to explain their ideas.  This also has a knock on effect on the performance in the examination, especially when students are writing answers that they tell you when going through a test ‘but you know what I mean’.

I first became interested in literacy in Science when I was informed of a tool called The Academic Word List.  This was collaborated by Avril Coxhead from the University of Wellington and was initially used to help prepare students for study at university.  The list consists of 570 word families that are selected because they appear across a great range of academic texts.  The words are helpfully ordered into 10 sub-lists, with the first list focussing on the most commonly found words.  Even though the list was created for university study it contains words that are relevant to students within school.  In terms of Science, list one contains words such as variables, assume, theory and estimate.  These are all words that are used regularly in science and are also used in many other subjects.  This is illustrated perfectly with the word ‘variable’.  In my subject we use variable to describe something that is changed in an experiment.  However, when looking up the definition on ‘variable’ can mean many different things.  As a noun it is defined as ‘something that may not always be the same’, or ‘something used in mathematics for an unknown value’, or ‘something used in computer programming languages that store data such as a number of words’.  However, variable can also be used as an adjective with three more definitions from this website.  When using an old fashioned Oxford dictionary there were 12 definitions.  No wonder students struggle to find the right words.


So how do we improve literacy? Firstly I think calling it literacy is the not the way forward.  It has to be a systemic part of teaching practice where the students are taught literacy essentially by stealth.  I am currently working on improving the specialist vocabulary of my year 7, 8 and 9 students by playing a keyword game at the start of most lessons.  It works by having all students using their traffic light cards at the back of their planner. At the start of the lesson students display their green cards so that I can see them.  I then ask one student to say out loud any key scientific word that they can think of.  Once they have said their word the student next to them must then say another scientific word beginning with the last letter of the previous word.  This then travels around the class with the last person standing being the student who is able to not repeat any of the words that have already been said and have not said the words ‘er’ or ‘um’.  Should they repeat or say the banned words then they have to turn over their traffic light cards to show a red card.  To make it more interesting words that start with the same letter as they end change the direction of the game. Initially this can take up to half an hour to get round the class, but the next lesson it can be completed in 10-15 minutes as a starter if the students are given a three second limit.  The great thing about this task is that the students love it and they ask to play the game as they walk into the lesson, not realising that they are being tricked into learning.  

Another tool I use is to always write up the keywords for the lesson and get the students to write them in their books.  This is extremely helpful when they are answering questions as I can suggest that they use the keywords to help improve their answers.  Once this is established I would also recommend the excellent work that the University of Nottingham has done on the Academic Word List.  Using the website the list can be downloaded. There is also an Academic Word list highlighter and gap maker.  This allows you to copy and paste any text, including exam papers, and analyse the language that is used.  This is a fantastic tool and is especially useful for helping students move from a B to an A at GCSE and students to improve on the C/D borderline.

For me having literacy as an embedded part of my practice is paramount to students achieving.  With some research bodies suggesting that modern teenagers now only have a vocabulary of 10000 words, compared to 25000 in the 1950s it is our duty to ensure the language students use allow them to achieve their ambitions.

Ross Spearing @rspear_1

Head of Astronomy and STEM Coordinator

lazy teaching helps learning


I think you can work too hard as a teacher, I don’t necessarily mean the hours spent marking and writing reports but actually within the classroom itself. Students need time to think, they need time to reflect, they need time to be challenged and to take a lead in their learning. Some times as a teacher under pressure from the usual sources such as the latest Ofsted, update and others things we can plan too much in a lesson, we can load each plan with activity after activity to ensure that there is a fast pace and lots of challenge. However I took a different step this week, I put my feet up (not literally as the picture shows, that reminds me I must clean my shoes) I took a step back and allowed my students to lead the review at the end of our lesson.

This didn’t give me any extra work to do, I just simply took the plunge, took a risk, I mentioned that it would happen to the class at the beginning and asked for volunteers of which there were several. Then during the lesson I spoke to a couple of the students for a few minutes on what my expectations were and also it was the opportunity to offer them some advice on how to lead it.

The review was excellent, the students asked the rest of the class to reflect on their own learning, then share it, they also went back to the lesson objectives and looked at how much progress they had made. The students really enjoyed this and reflecting on it myself it was just as effective if not more effective if I had done it. So as a teacher are there small tweaks like this that we can make within our lessons? Does this help students to take more responsibility for their own learning and of others? What do you think?

Coaching Conversations

In the last two lessons with one of my classes we have been building up peer assessment and coaching skills by giving the students more responsibility to feedback to others.

We discussed together at the beginning of the 1st lesson some ideas on how to give good feedback, the students were familiar with the basic ‘2 Stars and 1 Wish approach’ so we used this as the basis of our feedback. We added to this further by developing some agreed protocols when you have those conversations. For example such as the one receiving the feedback should listen and not interrupt the feedback; they should thank the person for the feedback and finally they should not disagree with the feedback yet they could ask clarifying questions etc.

We then talked through how to create more of a coaching conversation rather than a basic peer assessment feedback conversation. I demonstrated this to the class how we could facilitate this by using examples of questions and showing them how you can get quite a different answer to the question if you phrase it differently. We then came up with several questions together that we would use as a cue for those giving the feedback. They used the questions that you can see below to draw out the improvements:

Probing questions

We used this approach in two ways over the two lessons the first was for feedback after groups of students completed two minute presentations and the second for giving feedback on some written work in the lesson. So far the results have been excellent but the boys will need more practice just like any good coach out there.

Dan Roberts @danjjroberts

Deputy Headteacher

Expert communication and juicy words

photo 1

Further to James’ excellent opinion piece on literacy last week, I’d like to offer a few thoughts on the successes and challenges of our current drive for expert communication across subjects at DHSB.

I was delighted with the emphasis that James placed upon enthusiasm in teachers’ approaches to literacy issues. I’d like to extend that to our students: fuelling a sense of curiosity and interest in language must be the starting point for renewing a focus on communication. But how to achieve such lofty aims? If I use acronyms and hashtags in learning objectives, my literacy ambassadors reliably inform me I’ll swiftly switch my students off. Attempting to elucidate the nuances of the term ‘swag’ is just as likely to fail spectacularly (or should that be ‘epically’?).

In order to engender a buzz around language, I’m convinced that we need to enable access to ‘expert’ language, rather than presume that our students will reject that which fails to engage with their social rhetoric. Hence the arrival of our first ‘juicy words’ collection to the English department this year. In its current manifestation, this consists of a steadily growing collection of words, written on to one of our classroom windows. What is compelling about this collection of keywords is that it has been created solely by Year 8 students.

In order to engage my Literacy class with the important matter of using vocabulary that is ambitious and expressive, I suggested that each week our lesson should culminate in a sharing of ‘juicy’ words. These are the more nuanced adjectives (rambunctious, zealous), the potent verbs (discombobulate, bloviate) perhaps more esoteric nouns (qualm, euphoria)…

Two lessons in, and I had queues of students at the end of the lesson, refusing to go home until they’d told me about their juicy word. This was Friday period 5. Students began to stop me in the corridor to share lexical gold discovered in other lessons and terms brought in to class began to be debated as we made connections through common root words, prefixes or suffixes. Furthermore, of course, we had to determine what actually constituted a ‘juicy’ word; this remains a hotly debated topic.

This has been a joyously simple but productive strategy in engaging students with the diversity that language offers them. What works so well is the way that, rather than being apathetic or even disheartened by unfamiliar vocabulary, students are embracing it as a challenge – a potential for originality in the juicy words vote and therefore an opportunity to gain a space on the window pane. The interest that these simple blue scrawls have garnered in one classroom alone demonstrates that students do have a genuine interest in expanding their communication; the words form the basis for conversations and musings, for starters and plenaries (form a persuasive sentence using 1 juicy word, mime a juicy word etc.) but, most importantly, for empowering our students to take ownership of that which may have seemed esoteric beforehand.

photo 2 (1)

Juicy indeed.

Louise Everett-Lindsay

Teacher of English and Media Studies

Sharing Individual Assessment Data with Students


For a number of years now, colleagues in Enterprise have been trying to tackle this issue. We needed a quick and effective way to give students their overall marks, ratings on elements of their work and comments, but without taking too much lesson time and at the same time monitoring the progress of students at their workstations.

Initial Solution

The first solution involved a spreadsheet. To avoid other students seeing the marks and comments of others, each row was cut and then pasted into an individual spreadsheet which was then emailed to the particular student. It worked, but it was not time efficient!

Refined Solution #1

With DHSB moving across to Google and the wide range of possibilities that presented, I searched for solutions along the lines of using Gmail to mail merge these individual assessments. It was then I discovered the whole new world of Google Scripts and coding as well as the Google Script Gallery. Brilliant!

This link to Digital Inspiration’s page explains the concept:

The Google Developers’ tutorial can be found here:

The main problem with this solution was it involved accessing the actual coding and adjusting it to meet the design of the spreadsheet being used. Not a very good solution for busy colleagues.

Refined Solution #2

I researched some more and discovered a more effective solution, produced by

Romain Vialard ( )

The script “Yet Another Mail Merge” does not involve any tweaking of the actual code and is very efficient once the concept is understood, and the initial spreadsheets and draft emails are setup.

For my GCSE ICT work I have set up separate draft emails covering the 3 main sections of the practical work the students are doing. The feedback can be as brief as “Yes/No” in various columns or it can be extensive as many sentences of comment in one spreadsheet cell.

My current Year 11 set have said they like the feedback and how it is delivered. Clearly, once the data has been fed back, the reinforcement comes with those all-important teacher-student conversations.

The Swedish Connection

Having had this experience of Google Script, it meant that a few colleagues were able to understand fully the potential of Flubaroo when it was demonstrated to us by our visiting Swedish colleagues taking part in our Regio Project.

Please see Nick Berryman’s piece at

David Butcher @DHSBCreative

Assistant Headteacher