skip to Main Content

GCSE results – helping ‘disadvantaged needy’ students in the future

Some schools have seen their GCSE English and English Literature results decline sharply this year, apparently as a result of the end of modular exams and the separation of Speaking and Listening which in the past helped many students compensate for weakness in writing. In the TES on 29th August Brian Lightman of ASCL talks of “hundreds of schools being affected” and Sir John Rowling, chair of PiXL, describes “a devastating impact … often in disadvantaged areas, coastal communities, estate-type schools. There are serious beliefs in many people that it is grossly unfair and disproportionately impacting on the hopes of disadvantaged, needy kids”.

Unfortunately things are unlikely to be any easier next year and will be worse when current Year 9 faces the new GCSE specifications in 2017. These will require students to respond to unseen 19th, 20th and 21st century texts which will be more demanding than at present.  They will need to be able to deduce and infer meaning confidently, form opinions swiftly and write them up fluently.

With great respect to Sir John Rowling, PiXL’s approach of focussing on exam technique won’t help much with this. Teaching will need to encourage students to develop higher-order thinking skills when reading texts. Fortunately most can achieve this, especially if they start in Key Stage 3.

Evidence of this is coming in from London schools in our trial (see The London Trial page), but also from elsewhere.

The Hampshire experience

Six schools in Hampshire provided two teachers each. They were trained in July 2013 and taught LTE lessons fortnightly to Year 8 and Year 9 classes throughout 2013/14, attending half-termly joint support sessions led by Leah Crawford, Hampshire Inspector/Adviser, and myself.

All of the departments involved set students for English at KS3. As the teachers’ timetables turned out, at least half of the classes were lower ability with a significant number of students on free school meals (FSM). The students were assessed at the beginning and end of the year for Reading and Writing and took two different APP tasks in response to an unseen text in timed conditions with a shared mark scheme in September 2013 and June 2014.

All the students made better progress than expected with the FSM students making greater progress than others, for example:

Year 8 TA Reading – 3+ sublevels progress : All students 28% FSM 38%
Year 8 APP Reading – 2+ sublevels progress : All students 61% FSM 90%
Year 8 TA Writing – 2+ sublevels progress : All students 65% FSM 100%
Year 9 TA Reading – 4+ sublevels progress : All students 15% FSM 28%
Year 9 APP Reading – 3+ sublevels progress : All students 42% FSM 50%
Year 9 TA Writing – 3+ sublevels progress : All students 38% FSM 44%
  4+ sublevels progress : All students 15% FSM 28%

Average sub-level gain


One group in Year 8 and two in Year 9 stood out as particularly low attaining classes at the start of the year. Significantly, the average gain across these groups was greater than for the students as a whole (above).

One school (see table below) was able to present data from a parallel ability group who had experienced the same curriculum but not the LTE intervention. These were both Year 9 low attaining groups, in which the students were working largely at L4a/5c at the start of the year. The comparative data, presented in terms of the average sublevel gain for these groups is particularly compelling.


These outcomes were achieved in one year with students Sir John Rowling has described as “disadvantaged and needy”. Let’s Think in English (LTE) is designed to be used for at least two years and raises attainment by similar amounts each year.

What the teachers said

The teachers were asked to rate the following questions on a scale of 1-5 – (5 being strongly agree.) The following chart represents average scores.

Comment responses were received for the following questions:

What have the students said about the lessons?

  • Enjoyable, develops thinking and reasoning and is interesting.
  • They have encouraged them to listen more to each other. They have improved their confidence with analysing texts.
  • Helped them feel more confident in talking about difficult texts. Made their brains hurt.
  • They enjoy sharing opinions, and using other students’ ideas to help them formulate their own.

Did you notice a difference in the way your students responded to LTE compared to their usual English lessons?

  • On the whole – more positively. The odd few have seen it as an easy lesson as they did not have to write.
  • Over time, they started to engage more with other people’s ideas.
  • They are enthusiastic, boys in particular like the discussion and ‘no writing’ ethos.

Has LTE changed your mainstream teaching?

  • Improved questioning and more time made for group discussion as well as wait time after posing a question.
  • The variety of texts the students are exposed to has increased their confidence as well as experience.
  • The need to limit evaluative teacher feedback is difficult at first but essential in weaning students off the teacher as ‘sage.’

If there is a particular student for whom LTE lessons seemed to make a difference, please give details

  • One in particular who would stay behind to further discuss the story/poem and would refer to it again at the beginning of the next lesson 🙂
  • Two of the more reticent students in the class gradually began to contribute more to all lessons, not just LTE sessions.
  • One FSM student’s writing improved dramatically over the last term of ‘Let’s Think’ – evidenced in bridging work done after ‘Night at a Cottage’.

If you had to summarise the benefits of using LTE, what would you include?

  • Promotes independent reasoning and learning with stimulating texts and structured questioning. Develops students’ confidence with unseen texts and equips them for the rigours of the new GCSE programme.
  • Students are now able to learn more independently; students now engage more with each other’s ideas and rely less on the teacher for affirmation.
  • Students having the confidence to tackle challenging texts during the LTE lessons but then applying this confidence and skills used in these lessons to texts explored in ‘normal’ English lessons
  • Improves students’ confidence in approaching new texts.


Leah Crawford, English Inspector/Adviser for Hampshire Children’s Services, writes: “There are three clear threads through these responses that seem helpful in explaining the reason for accelerated progress.

  1. Improved engagement: This seems to be linked to the quality of stimulus provided by the texts, structured group talk tasks and the deferral of written response until higher order thinking through talk is emerging. (emphasis added)
  2. Increased confidence: Initially the confidence is seen in willingness to contribute to group and class discussion, then over time to tackle unseen texts and eventually independent written tasks. This is likely to be testament to both the repeated structure of LTE sessions, within which students begin to feel safe and familiar and to teachers’ effective facilitation of talk. The removal of affirmation or evaluation in teachers’ responses, which teachers at first found difficult, does seem to have had the effect over time of increasing student confidence as they turn to each other and themselves in developing a critical sense.
  3. Increased quality of learning through talk: At first this emerges as an improved ability to listen and responding to each other, which leads to increased time frames to think through talk, leading to an insistence on the use of evidence and the emergence of multiple interpretations and perspectives.”

Many thanks to Leah Crawford and her colleagues for helping to show that LTE raises the attainment of ALL students.

Pearson joins forces with Let’s Think in English

We are delighted to be working with Pearson to develop Let’s Think in English (LTE) lessons for Key Stage 4. This new programme is designed to support teachers to develop students’ ability to respond to texts with higher-order reasoning skills, a requirement in the new GCSE English Language and English Literature specifications.

We will be working with Pearson to create an extensive bank of new LTE lessons focusing on Key Stage 4 , to be made available next year. They are designed to raise students’ reasoning skills in relation to all aspects of the new specifications – 19th, 20th and 21st century fiction and non-fiction including literary non-fiction, Shakespeare, poetry since 1789 and British fiction and drama since 1914.

Pearson are committed to evidence-based research projects like LTE, to help teachers and students, and are already working with the University of Exeter to help schools embed the Grammar for Writing approach.
Some of the Let’s Think in English lessons will be made available free to schools and colleges that use Pearson’s GCSE English qualifications, and others will be available for purchase. There will also be a programme of CPD training and support meetings, with further lessons available, for schools that wish to undertake LTE on a whole-department basis.

Let’s Think in English works best if used fortnightly over two or more years, starting in Key Stage 3, and Pearson will also be publishing our KS3 lessons. There will be a discount for schools which use the lessons in both key stages!

We’re looking forward to a productive and exciting partnership.