Dispelling the Challenges of Writing

Spelling is important, for every student at every level, because it is one of the foundations of writing, and better writers have better educational and social outcomes. Writing in itself is extremely demanding because writers have to combine and coordinate three different processes simultaneously: transcribing, text generation and executive function (you can read more detail about this here). Accordingly, the more automatic we can make any of these processes, the more we can concentrate on the other processes, and the easier writing becomes. In a nutshell, the less we have to focus on the ‘how to write’ the more we can focus on the ‘what to write’.

Spelling, a key transcription skill, constitutes a crucial part of the ‘how to write’ element of writing, yet it is often regarded as an inferior cousin to the more intellectually glamourous strands of idea generation and sentence crafting. However, explicitly teaching spellings so that these become automatic is likely to be a worthwhile focus that deserves its own moment in the spotlight

As with most areas of educational research, there is no easy path when it comes to teaching spellings. At the moment, there is a limited evidence base, especially for teaching the spelling of individual words. What we do have available are suggestions from the evidence about what might be happening when spellings go awry:

  • Phonological Gaps

These are students who have gaps in their letter-sound knowledge leading to errors such as catergory instead of category. Here, it is useful to remember that it is not the word that a student cannot spell but a particular sound (or sounds) in the word.

  • Orthographical Gaps

In this case, students may have gaps in their knowledge of common letter combinations or word-specific spellings. Consequently, these students make phonologically plausible mistakes but invent spellings, for example erly instead of early.

  • Morphological Gaps

Here, students have a lack of awareness of morphemes, or word parts, so they may make mistakes such as desappear instead of disappear

Practical Spelling Strategies for the Classroom

1. Keep it contextual

Select spellings that are related to the current content being taught and encourage the active use and checking of these spellings in students’ writing. This will also allow for plenty of practice, which is critical to spelling success.

Alternatively, as a department curate a list of commonly used but misspelt words and have these as a centralised focus. This could be done on a termly or yearly basis.

Once you have an identified list of spellings, the following strategies 2 – 4 below may be useful

2. Phonological Gaps

For phonological gaps, identify the common phonemes, especially digraphs such as th, with which students tend to struggle and explicitly teach these spellings. Do this through plenty of practise with lots of example words that use the phoneme, plus exceptions.

3. Orthographical Gaps

For orthographical gaps, encourage recognition of the whole word, for example by writing he word then asking the student to:

a) write the word over the top

b) write the word again

c) write the word again

d) then write the word with your eyes closed.

Another approach could be the ‘look-say-cover-write-check’ method alongside using exaggerated pronunciation, for example choc-O-late.

4. Morphological Gaps

Morphological gaps can be tackled through the explicit teaching of prefixes, suffixes and roots. For example, direct teaching that aer is the Grek root for air may help with the spelling of aeroplane.

Finally, in the absence of better evidence, it might be beneficial to teach strategies that good spellers appear to use. These may include using analogy, or in other words, asking students to think about the spelling of similar words such as fall and call; explicit teaching of the ‘tricky’ parts of words such as miniature ; and a visual approach where the word is written in several ways and the student decides which spelling looks right, for example seal, seel and sele.

Fran Haynes

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Weekly Round-Up: 26th June 2022

Blog of the Week

Retrieval Practice: Recalling the End GoalSarah Cottingham

There’s been lots of discussion around retrieval practice recently. In this blog, Sarah urges us to remember what we are doing it for.


The Importance of Connections and Role Models in EducationFahim Rahman

Fahim reflects on some of the wider responsibilities of being a teacher.

Research School Blog

Evidence ChampionsDeb Friis

Deb shares some reflections following some training she has been leading for a cohort of ‘Evidence Champions’ in Kent.

Deep Dive Days 2022-23: Booking Open!

Next year the Durrington Research School will be offering a range of one-day workshops on EEF guidance reports and evidence reviews.  You can now book your place.

Other Useful Links

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The Importance of Connections and Role Models in Education

I have long debated writing this blog as it felt like it was a topic that feels somewhat out of place within an educational context. Thinking about our role as teachers, does not necessarily manifest in the classroom in the same way as a blog on metacognition, or feedback may. It also may not be as apparent a factor when evaluating performance of students, nor something that we find ourselves willing to critique ourselves on. But, as I find myself re-reading thank you cards from my year 11s, it made me think about how my role as their teacher has impacted on their education.

The Oxford Dictionary defines a role model as “a person looked to by others as an example to be imitated”. Our role as teachers aims to serve this purpose; we are the adults with subject knowledge that we impart to our students to enable them to gain cultural capital and pass their exams.

Modelling has been shown to be highly effective in how our students learn, whether that’s through use of various methods such as “I, we, you” modelling or modelling behaviours through metacognition.

However, despite our use of modelling for an academic purpose, it can be understated how much our behaviour as an adult figure in our students’ lives can impact how they see the world. Our students are constantly observing our behaviour, not only in how we teach or understand a concept, but through the way we interact with each other, the way we hold ourselves, our practices, and mannerisms.  For many of our students, besides parental figures, we are the adults that they see most regularly, as a result we are also responsible for the behaviours they pick up. With greater use of social media and technology, students are finding more behaviours to emulate from sources online. As Bozeman says: “One key characteristic is that this generation (Generation Z) does not know or remember a time before social media, and as a result, they tend to live their lives “online.”  This has profound implications for everything from their relationships to how they learn through virtual reality training and problem-solving.”

“We must acknowledge . . . that the most important, indeed the only, thing we have to offer our students is ourselves. Everything else they can read in a book.” D C Tosteson

It is my belief that simple things can help nurture valuable relationships with our students and help us become the role models we believe them to be. In a blog post by Dr. Robyn J.A. Silverman she outlines some of these as 7 characteristics of a positive role model.  Here are a few that I feel are particularly important to me:

Transparency and the truth: Often students do not have the foresight to understand why certain rules and actions have been put in place. We tell students that they have to wear certain pieces of uniform, but do we understand why beyond “that’s what the school rules are”.  Do they not deserve to understand a uniform is an important part of the workplace? That their uniform serves as an equaliser? That often the consequences of poor presentation are serious within employment? Or that a piece of work while it may not be what they need to learn for later in life will teach them skills or give them the foundational knowledge they need to succeed. We as adults would not be satisfied if a doctor prescribed us a medication without explaining why we are required to take it. Students deserve a similar level of respect, they are not cattle being processed, but a garden being tended to.

Be yourself: My students fully understand that I am not cool. Nor do I have any real desire to be. My taste in sunglasses or Cardigans often give students ammunition to comment on my fashion sense. I often teach using stories from my life and anecdotes that give a window into my world.  It normalises the idea that I don’t need approval from others (an especially important message for teenagers to learn given the rise of social media). It has enabled students to see that I am more than an authority figure that I exist beyond my classroom, and I often find students with similar interests, that I can use to engage with their world.

Apologise: There is a simple power in humility, and nothing more so than the ability to apologise. Apologies are wonderful ways of showing vulnerability and understanding, especially to students who may not have heard an adult apologise to them. Normalise making mistakes but even more valuably normalise the ability to understand opportunities to grow and develop, by showing students that you made a mistake and plan on rectifying it. It also gives student an importance lesson in forgiveness and compassion.

Show respect: It is my belief that respect is earned but one must be respectful to be worthy of respect. We tell students that they have to respect each other and teachers, but often we can forget to show them the respect. Teaching is a partnership between student and teacher, the best student in the world cannot hope to achieve their best with a subpar teacher, and similarly the best teacher in the world will struggle to teach a demotivated student. How are we to teach students to value respect if they have not been shown it themselves?

Acknowledge your own growth and vulnerabilities: One of the biggest struggles my students face with their mental health is the isolation they often feel from it. Students never seem to understand that their problems are not as rare as they think, nor are they the only people who have ever felt the way they do. I have always tried to not shy away from difficult conversations about these. In a recent assembly I did, I talked about my own personal experiences with grief and bereavement, but also in with culture, religion and identity. The catharsis it provided for me helped me to see my own insecurities, but also showed students that I am growing as a person too.  This adult, almost double their age, has not got it figured out, so neither should they, despite pressures and expectations, they are still children. We celebrate diversity through celebrating the individual journeys that everyone has undergone through life. Rises and falls. By showing students your own vulnerabilities, we can give them the inspiration and strength to face their own. Giving them opportunity to see adults, who they fathom as impenetrable bastions of stability, we can provide them the opportunity to find adults they can identify with, adults that understand them as a person, who will have had similar struggles, while also potentially knowing the small advices and stories to help them through their problems.

For especially our disadvantaged students they need to understand that there are adults that are there to help them succeed and want to see them become the best versions of themselves. While we should avoid painting them all disadvantaged (or any students) with the same brush, there is a very real possibility that there are students within our care that have not had adults to give them the support and undeniable faith that they deserve. For one of my students this support came in the form of just having a room to do homework in, as their home is especially crowded with no real space to do work quietly. I wasn’t even required for help, they just wanted a quiet space. Or understanding a student’s dietary requirements so that when you buy emergency breakfasts for those students who skipped breakfast panicking before their exams, you are there for them. Students with low self-efficacy require us to help nurture it within them. During my own schooling I would have been given many of the titles that students with barriers to their learning may have. Pupil Premium, free school meals, and have English as an additional language, and yet I can attempt to be a role model for those who may not have the best starts already.

The caveat to this is that there must still be clear boundaries between ourselves and the students, that the best gift we can give them is opportunity, success, and unequivocal faith in their own ability to succeed. Even our most difficult students feel a connection towards us and often it is the only connection they have. As Rita Pierson in her excellent TEDed talk says “Every child deserves a champion.” I admit I have my own room to grow and develop as a person, an educator, and blog writer. But I hope the high expectations I carry for my students will serve them well as they transition to the next phases of their lives. Though many of them do not have the desire to pursue Physics, at least I can hope I have prepared them for the rest of their lives.

Fahim Rahman

Science Teacher & Research School Associate

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Weekly Round-Up: 19th June 2022

Blog of the Week

What Makes Great Teaching?  Beyond a List of StrategiesNick Hart

In this great blog Nick summarises Mary Kennedy’s work where she identifies five challenges all teachers face – and what to do about them.

You can find the ‘Blog of the Week’ archive here.


Deep Dive Days – by Shaun Allison

Find out about these one day workshops, led by Durrington Research school, that will focus in on specific EEF guidance reports and evidence reviews.

Research School Blog

Evaluating Your Pupil Premium StrategyMarc Rowland

Marc explores how we can we best evaluate whether our actions are making a difference for disadvantaged pupils.

Reviewing the University of Bristol’s ‘Characteristics of Effective Teaching’ – Part 1 – by Ben Crockett

The first in a series of blogs reviewing the key points from the recently released ‘Characteristics of Effective Teaching’ report.

Other Useful Links

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Weekly Round-Up: 12th June 2022

Blog of the week

Know Before They Go Adam Robbins

Adam discusses the importance of checking students understand what we have taught them – and how he does it.


Thinking About ChallengeFahim Rahman

Fahim reflects on how he has tried to ensure that ‘challenge’ is threaded through his lessons.

Research School Blog

Moving Forwards, Making a Difference: A Summary –  Zofia Reeves

This is a great summary of the EEF’s new evidence review, looking at how we move on from the pandemic.

Other Useful Links

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Thinking About Challenge

As one of Durrington’s 6 principles, challenge is a concept that has been regularly embedded into us teachers as an important part of planning effective lessons. But what does challenge really look like? How can challenge be applied to all students, not just the high attaining ones? How can we ensure we tackle the right amount of challenge to ensure students are not lost in the woods without guidance? Our students have a right to a curriculum that challenges them as much as it inspires them. To struggle is a privilege (much to their disagreement) that will bring them closer to being more confident, metacognitive learners with greater self-efficacy. 

Real challenge is often a balancing game. We want our lessons to be accessible, and therefore pitched at a level that is appropriate for our learners. However, in doing so, we can often ill prepare them for the level of higher thinking required for the exams.  Students need to be able to transfer the knowledge and skills they learn to all kinds of situations and scenarios to be assisted through their zones of proximal development, as proposed by Vygotsky. As the more “knowledgeable others” Vygotsky suggested that we need to provide opportunities for students to practice equipped with scaffolds, in a way that allows them to explore, and, in doing so enable them to become more skilled at tackling problems that will allow them to develop their higher cognitive functions.

Recently with my classes I have been trying to focus on providing sufficient challenge to them to prepare them for their GCSEs. Many of my classes are top set, and as idyllic as the notion of teaching top set classes can be there remains a pressure to ensure that students are achieving their potential and taking as many measures as I can to prevent them underperforming. Outlined are a few strategies that could ensure appropriate challenge

Explaining the value of challenge: Students with low self-efficacy may see challenge as a threat and therefore may either shut off completely or struggle to start if the goal wasn’t in sight. Initially, I endeavoured to show my students that they are being given the most difficult questions because I believe in their ability to do them and to see that the mountain ahead is obtainable if the first few steps are taken. I took the time to constantly remind my students that what they are being asked to do is difficult and that difficulty breeds resilience and to remind them that by seeing the difficult stuff as a challenge the reward and satisfaction of completion is magnified. I found that this improved intrinsic motivation and made them more appreciative of their own efforts. I often ask them to reflect on their own journey to reinforce this, by asking how they feel their attitudes to science has developed since their mocks, or the start of year 11 or even since year 10.

Often when teaching multiple year 11 classes I sometimes can get mixed up in what I have said to who and what. This led to me accidentally not having this conversation with one of my classes which invertedly provided an accidental control group for this variable. The class I didn’t explicitly tell this to felt their confidence had dropped because they had perceived a sudden inability to do physics. They had attributed their perceived struggle to be an indication of their poor performance and as a result, believed they could not do it. Once I had realised my error, they felt reassured and when coupled with some low stakes questioning, to build their confidence, realised that they had not been underperforming, but rather that challenge has stepped up.

Expectations: When compiling my lessons, my PowerPoints often include exam practice. Not only does it reduce the exam anxiety, but it also enables students to be able to see the language, the structure and success criteria regarding answering questions. Prior to this challenging venture I would base my selection on what my students could answer. My rationale would be that it would show the students that they can answer exam questions and their knowledge does translate to the exam setting. Once I had started to provide students questions that required knowledge and skills that built on what I had taught them, it showed me that I was underestimating their capabilities. It also meant that students could see that I had high expectations of them, and often higher than they had of themselves. In showing them that I believed they could do the more difficult questions enabled them to use that faith to motivate themselves. Tom Sherrington in his blog on the power of expectations quotes Dr Bill Rogers “You establish what you establish” and later himself says “show that you really believe that excellence is possible from everyone”

Normalise Errors: Often students will have an all or nothing mentality when it comes to their marks. They struggle to understand that 3/6 doesn’t need to be perceived as missing out on 50%, but rather they have achieved half, and they only must achieve a little bit more. I have found myself guilty of trying to ensure students get 100% and can invertedly undermine the individual struggle that the student went through to achieve what they did and in doing so missing out on an opportunity to build their confidence. In readdressing my focus, it has also given me the ability to invite metacognitive questioning in my students and enabling them to evaluate their progress and build them up further for the next step. “Why do you think you didn’t necessarily make the next set of marks?”, “What do you think your successes were?”, “Why do you think I marked this 3/6?”

Everyone one can be challenged: Though most of this blog has referred to challenging the higher attaining students, all students should be able to be challenged sufficiently and without compromise to other students. I have a mixed ability class as well and often the level of challenge must be sculpted to the individual’s needs. In this class a few students have difficulty in rearranging equations, so when providing practice questions to my students, I ensure that some of those practice questions involve calculations that require rearrangements. While this does rely on knowing students’ individual strengths and weaknesses, it has made it easier to better define individual success criteria. Gone are the days of “Some, Most, All” learning objectives and instead scaffolding down to ensure all students reach the same end point.

By challenging students, not only do we enable students to be better prepared for academic success, but we also prepare them for challenges they may face outside of their school setting. Resilience and perseverance are key qualities for individuals to develop, and ones they may be unaware of the challenges they may face in their world outside of high school. When they give me their usual line of “when will I ever need to know this?” my usual reply is to tell them they may not. One may never need to know specific heat capacity ever again, or understand Newton’s laws of motion, but isn’t the idea of being able to learn something as abstract and complicated as that uplifting? Don’t you feel powerful knowing something as difficult as physics you have learnt and comprehended? And if not, I have at least provided you options, which is more valuable than anything. It is my sincere hope and intention that in training and exposing them to struggles and pushing them, I have enabled them to face challenges head on.

Fahim Rahman is a Science Teacher at Durrington High School.  He is also a Research School Associate for Durrington Research School

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Weekly Round-Up: 5th June 2022


Durrington’s Executive Headteacher Sue Marooney was awarded an MBE in the 2022 Queen’s birthday honours list, for services to education.  Read more about it here.

Blog of the Week

Set the Bar High!Paul Kirschner & Mirjam Neelen

There’s a trend to lower the bar in education. Differentiation plays a role in that. How about setting the bar high instead? Paul and Mirjam discuss this in this great blog.


Five Tips to Support Student’s WritingFran Haynes

Fran explores how teachers of all subjects can support students with their writing.

Research School Blog

2022-23 Deep Dive DaysShaun Allison

Next year we are offering some one day workshops on the EEF guidance reports and evidence reviews.  Find out more here.

Other Useful Links

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Deep Dive Days

In 2022-23 the Durrington Research School team are planning to offer a new form of training.  Up until now our central offer has included two hour online twilights or three day training programmes.  Whilst these definitely serve a purpose, leaders have fed back to us that a one-day offer would be useful.  Twilights sometimes don’t give enough time to really explore the evidence around a particular topic and three day programmes, whilst really important, are a significant time commitment.

With this in mind, next year we are going to offer one day deep dives.  These will either be based on one of the EEF guidance reports or an EEF evidence review.  They will go deeper than a twilight, but not be as time intensive as a three day programme.  Each day will be face to face and follow a similar format:

  • What are the challenges faced by schools around this topic?
  • What does the research evidence suggest is most likely to address these challenges?
  • How can the research evidence be mobilised in schools by teachers and leaders?

These days would be most useful for school leaders who are looking to address one of these areas as a part of their school improvement plan next year.

Time: 10.30-3.30

Venue: Durrington High School, The Boulevard, Worthing, West Sussex BN13 1JX

Dates: TBC, later this term.

Cost:  £150 for one delegate; £250 for two delegates from the same school

We will be offering a ‘Deep Dive Day’ for each of the following topics:

  • Metacognition
  • Literacy – secondary
  • Literacy – primary
  • Feedback
  • Behaviour
  • Cognitive Science
  • Implementation
  • Professional development
  • Pupil Premium
  • SEND
  • Teaching Assistants
  • Parental engagement

You will leave each day with a copy of the guidance report or evidence review, a strong understanding of the research evidence and some ideas about how to use this to bring about improvement in that area, in your school.

We are expecting these days to be very popular.  If you are interested in attending one or more these sessions, please register your interest using this form:


This is not a firm commitment.  It just means that we will contact you once the dates are released, so that you can then have priority for booking a place.

If you would like any further details, please do not hesitate to email us – research@durring.com 

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Weekly Round-Up: 22nd May 2022

Blog of the week

Closing the Writing Gap – New ResourcesAlex Quigley

In this short blog Alex explains the new, free resources to go alongside his new book on teaching writing.


Five Tips to Support Students’ WritingFran Haynes

A really useful blog aimed at teachers of all subjects, who are looking to support students with writing.

Research School Blog

Implementation 2.0Chris Runeckles

How the release of the EEF’s Effective Professional Development guidance report led to an update of our implementation plan.

Other Useful Links

  • The EEF published two new resources last week:
    • Impact of Covid-19 on Learning: A Review of the Evidence  
    • Moving Forwards, Making a Difference: A Planning Guide for Schools 

Read more about them and download them here.

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Five Tips to Support Students’ Writing

It is probable that we have all experienced the frustration of having students who can engage confidently and accurately in class discussion but then falter dramatically when it comes to writing anything down. Although the reason for this contrast might feel like a complete mystery, there are some possibilities that help to shed a light on what might be going on.

Getting students to move from oral explanation of their ideas to written pieces can be tricky. Writing is challenging because it requires students to combine three processes and coordinate them all at once, and if this is not taught carefully the cognitive demands can be overwhelming.  Firstly, students must deal with the mechanics of writing, or in other words transcription skills such as handwriting, typing and spelling. Secondly, students have to generate a text by gathering ideas and information and then shaping these into words, sentences and structured pieces. Finally, students must also make great use of their executive function in order to plan, edit and revise their writing, all whilst staying motivated and on task. This is no small feat!

The key thing to remember here is that writing is a process, not a single event. Consequently, breaking down the steps of that process, including retracing some steps when needed, is the most likely way to get students’ words flowing on the page. Here are five strategies to try in your classroom that can support the journey.

1. Intervene early with poor handwriting or typing

Writing is physical as well as intellectual, and fluent handwriting or typing is essential in avoiding cognitive overload. If handwriting or typing is effortful then students are less able to concentrate on what they are writing about. Teachers can help by monitoring students’ letter formation and pen grip to ensure it leads to greater fluency (cursive handwriting) or perhaps providing touch-typing courses where appropriate.

2. Spelling

As with handwriting and typing, spelling is a key transcription skill. The greater automaticity a student has with spelling, the more capacity they have to focus on other areas of the writing process. There is no evidence to support a specific method for teaching spelling, but what evidence there is suggests that teaching spelling works best when the new words are related to the current content being taught and students practise these spellings on multiple occasions. A mixed-method approach that incorporates phonological (sounds in words), orthographical (word recognition) and morphological (word parts) approaches is also likely to work best.

3. Teach writing as a process, not a single event

Writing comprises very specific steps:

  • planning
  • drafting
  • revising
  • editing, and
  • publishing.

Each step requires explicit modelling, scaffolding and plenty of practice. Students will learn the steps at different rates and some steps may well need to be repeated for individuals. Each step will also need to be taught within the disciplinary context of the writing: students will have to plan how to write a science report using a different model to how they plan a history essay, so teacher subject knowledge is key. Finally, having a specific audience in mind can help keep students motivated at all stages of this writing journey, especially if the writing is published at the end. Easy ways to ‘publish’ students’ writing include sending it home to parents/guardians, displays and class anthologies.

4. Combine reading with writing

Part of text generation involves prewriting activities that supports students’ development of the knowledge they need to write a text, including the background knowledge, vocabulary and the features and conventions of different genres. One way to achieve the latter is to combine reading and writing. As students read an authentic disciplinary text, they can use annotations to explore its key features, for example underlining the types of evidence being used in a science report. Likewise, students can create checklists, for example whilst reading a geography text they can write a list of the cause and effect phrases they encounter to use later in their own writing.

5. Release responsibility gradually

Lastly, as with all pedagogy, it is crucial to get the balance right between explicit modelling of the writing steps and asking students to work independently so that you can assess and give feedback. The EEF advocates a seven-step strategy to support this process, which should be repeated with each step identified in point 3 above:

  1. Activate prior knowledge
  2. Explicit strategy instruction.
  3. Modelling of learned strategy.
  4. Memorisation of strategy.
  5. Guided practice.
  6. Independent practice.
  7. Structured reflection.

This blog is based on the EEF guidance reports on literacy, which can be found here for further reading.

Fran Haynes

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