Secondary Secondary English

Improving student engagement in your lessons.

A strategy for engaging all students in the questions that you ask and developing the depth of their responses.

We are really trying to push ‘engagement’ in our school. This can be an elusive quest at the best of times but I can guarantee you that the following method will ensure that all your students actively get involved in answering questions and developing their responses. Hopefully the dreaded ‘I don’t know’ answer will be a thing of the past!

Before I begin, I have to thank my English Coach, Jane, for the idea for this, which I have adapted. She has supplied me with lots of great but simple techniques for boosting student engagement in the classroom.

  1. Give each student a mini-whiteboard and pen.
  2. Write your question on the board, e.g. ‘Who is the best brother in Private Peaceful?’
  3. Each student writes their answer on their whiteboard.
  4. Students then number themselves in groups of four.
  5. Students stand up and share their answers with their group.
  6. Students then have to agree, as a group, on their answer to the question. They are only allowed to sit down once they have agreed.
  7. Once all the students are sitting down, select a student to feedback, using their ‘numbers’, e.g., ‘I would like student number four from the back group to feedback.’
  8. After the three students feed back, I then pass it on to another student and ask them who they agree with most and why.
  9. At this point, you can either ask the students to answer the question individually or you can start the process again by asking them to write down the evidence they would use to support their answer on their whiteboards and then continue steps 1-8.
  10. Students all write their own individual answer to the question.

A number of factors make this process successful. To begin with, using the whiteboards means that all students in the class feel prepared for the discussion. They act as an extension of the ‘Think’ part of ‘Think, Pair, Share’ allowing all students to try out their ideas first. It also means that you can check who has actually been ‘thinking’ and who hasn’t.

A second successful factor is getting the students to number themselves prior to the discussion. This means they realise from the off that any student will be fair game when it is time to feedback. I find this a lot easier than trying to keep hold of 30 lollysticks for each class!

Another effective ingredient is making the students stand up to take part in the discussion. This adds focus, makes it a more kinaesthetic experience for them and the incentive for the more awkward of the class is ‘the quicker you get on with it, the quicker you get to sit back down.’

Finally, using the ‘three students then fourth student evaluates’ method for feedback, helps to encourage a ‘No opt out’ climate in the classroom.  As a result students have to listen to each other more carefully and it helps them to develop their responses by focussing on the ‘why’ and not just the ‘what’.

This is not revolutionary; it is instead an amalgamation of many good bits of advice I have been given over the years. But it does work. And who can argue with an entire class of 30 teenagers engaged in thinking, discussing, listening and writing, all in the same lesson?



Naomi Hursthouse has been teaching in West Sussex for ten years. She has worked as an Advanced Skills Teacher, a Gifted and Talented Coordinator, AQA examiner and is currently the Head of English at Ormiston Six Villages Academy.


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