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  • Writer's pictureclairevharley

Recording New Content Without Copying

Copying off the board is not a useful way to spend time in lessons. Worse than that, for many pupils it means that they struggle. By asking pupils to copy from the board whilst we are going through an explanation, we are asking them to do too many things all at once without any clear explanation of how they are supposed to do this properly. Am I listening to you? Am I copying it down and then listening? Are you going to ask me questions about this? What do I do if I don’t understand the words that you are asking me to copy?

As teachers we have most likely built up a strong enough mental model that we are capable of listening and writing at the same time. If I were to go to a CPD conference for example, I would have enough information about the topics being discussed that I would be able to grasp the key concepts while simultaneously being able to record these accurately and maybe even tweet about it while I’m at it. For children, this is simply not the case and to assume as much is dangerous.

As a history teacher with 10 years’ experience, I understand the difficulties of having to share complex ideas with pupils. In addition to this, the history specification is so vast that with my year 10 and 11 pupils I have no choice but to explain these concepts very quickly and move on to ensure that I teach the entire specification. My preferred style of teaching is using a visualiser rather than PowerPoints. I’ve not got anything against them, but the reasons I like working with an exercise book and visualiser are as follows:

  1. I can look back over previous lessons and revisit model answers with the turn of a page.

  2. Whether or not I plan my lessons is not dependent on if my laptop is charged or if I have a table on a train. I can quickly and efficiently plan my lesson with my notebook.

  3. I can model exactly how I want my pupils to present their work. As I ask my class to turn from the back of their books where they have written the answers to our retrieval quiz at the start of the lesson to the front, so do I. We write the date and title together, and this clear means of participation means that my lessons run much more smoothly than they ever have done with other resources.

  4. I can adapt and change my lessons based on what my pupils are ‘getting’ or not in the lesson. I’m not stuck on the train tracks of a PowerPoint, but instead can confidently use my subject expertise to change my lessons based on the formative assessment that I’m doing as I go.

With all this in mind, one the dangers of using a notebook when planning lessons is that pupils end up just copying what I’m doing. Sometimes this is fine, I always model how to write the date and title with my class and find this particularly useful with younger year groups as they have lesson questions about how to do this, slowing us down. However, when it comes to more complex ideas, I’ve crafted a system carefully structuring how I explain a new concept and how my pupils record this in their books. I believe the method I’m using supports their cognitive load and ensures a focus on tier two vocabulary in my lessons.

It’s fairly simplistic and in writing this, I was worried it was a little bit derivative, but I've found developing this process very helpful in my own practice, so decided to share it!

I’m now going to quickly summarise the process that I take when writing in books. Whilst reading this, please do consider that all of this is happening in a rather short space of time. I use the same structure every single lesson and by the time my pupils are sitting their GCSEs, they have a clear understanding of how they are going to construct sentences and can confidently use subject specific terminology in the answers.

(If you’re not a historian, just for context Elizabeth I created the religious settlement in 1559. This was called the ‘middle way’ because it was seen as a compromise between the two extremes of Catholic and Protestant which were the two main denominations of Christianity at the time. Particularly strict Protestants known as puritans were unhappy with the changes that Elizabeth had made as part of the religious settlement and Catholics on the other end of the spectrum, were not please either.)

Stage 1: Retrieval

Before my explanation, I’m sure that my retrieval practice questions at the beginning of the lesson linked to key fact you’d need to understand the religious settlement, puritan beliefs, and catholic beliefs. My first question links to the puritan view that the Pope (the head of the Catholic Church) was the Antichrist to remind pupils of the polarised views the two groups had.

Stage 2: Explanation and Checking for Understanding

As part of my teacher explanation, I will link this prior knowledge to the reactions to the religious settlement. I explain why Catholics and Protestants disagree with their religious settlement which takes no longer than 4/5 minutes. I then pause, check for understanding using mini whiteboards or cold calling and then either I or a pupil will summarise the core content I’ve just taught.

Stage 3: Structuring Notes in Books

Once we’ve understood the key information about the opposition to the religious settlement, it’s time to record this in our books. Begin by writing the start of a sentence in my book using the visualiser. I read this aloud as I write. For this first sentence, ask a pupil you're unsure if they’ve ‘got it’ to finish the sentence verbally and then all pupils write their summary.

This is usually simplistic, but… good. I want all the answers to look the same as they should all say that ‘Puritains did not think that Elizabeth’s religious settlement did enough to move away from the practices of the Catholic church.’ Here, I’ve only used one sentence, but for most I will use two or three.

Stage 4: Extending Our Understanding

Pupils then independently read through the revision guide which acts as a short summary of the information I’ve just discussed. I go for the revision guide as opposed to the textbook for this as it’s a shorter, more succinct summary of the explanation I’ve just given.

The next level of independence is achieved by telling them to complete the next three sentences by themselves, using the key words we’ve introduced in the explanation and by reading the revision guide. Again, I really want to emphasise that it doesn’t take that long and that I intentionally script or plan my explanations to make sure that they are carefully considered and snappy.

Pupils then to turn their attention to the board, where using the visualiser, I will start writing the sentences that will summarise the key information we have just learnt. I will then explain that I want the class to finish the sentences using important key words. I will list the words that I would like them to use, see the example below:

Depending on what the class needs next, you can seek feedback, and then move on or if needed go through some aspects of the explanation again, improving on answers together using a pupils’ book as an example.

Stage 5: Independent Work

In this lesson, pupils then completed the same process again, but this time for Catholics. I’ve been building up their knowledge of the influence of the Catholic nobility in the north for a while, so was confident that they could do this without as much input from me, so we went straight to the revision guides whilst I wrote the sentences on the board for them. This then gives me time to move around the room, talk one-to-one with pupils and live mark.

After this process is completed, pupils have a clear and accurate recording of the information shared with them. We can then use this to practice exam questions or debate the wider issues of the topic. This structure flows nicely into a 4 marker, or it can be the ‘explain’ section in a longer essay.

Adaptations: Scaffolding

The example I’ve just used is from my Year 11 class who are amazing and are one of the most hard-working classes I’ve ever had the joy of teaching. They are with me on this. This is not a challenge in terms of their comprehension of what I’m asking them to do or their attitude to learning and so it is easy. For some of my other classes, this is not the case!

To support those who are either less confident, or less willing to engage with this process, there is room for adaptation. For example, below you can see a lesson with my Year 9 pupils who are a little less enthusiastic about extended writing and are struggling with the tricky topic of the causes of the First World War. Here I have the words they must use and the words they could use which I then support through verbal questioning. I also make grammatical errors for them to correct. The next step is to then circulate and make sure that they are all focused and answer questions/live mark. Some one-to-one prompting or questioning usually gets some of these ‘could use’ words in nearly all answers. This can be followed with going through a couple of pupils answers with the visualiser to make sure they’ve ‘got it’ and can see as many good examples as possible.

Adaptations: Challenge

If a class is ready for an extended piece of writing using the content we’ve covered over the past few lessons, this process can be adapted to cover their entire piece of extended writing. I’d give them the structure of the essay and the paragraph headings, along with the worlds I’d like them to try and use in each paragraph. This gives them the opportunity to complete an essay for the first time with my help.


Since I’ve started using this technique, I’ve noticed that:

  • My lessons flow more smoothly. We all know what to expect with regards to the structure of my lessons

  • Pupils who are less confident with writing are less likely to as for help immediately after I’ve finished my explanation and said, ‘off you go’. I take this to mean that they have a clearer understanding of what they need to do.

  • Pupils are producing better answers as they are using subject specific vocabulary.

  • I’ve created a heavily scaffolded system that I can then start to take away before their exams, given them the tools they need to write independently.


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