Structure Strips – stripping literacy to the basics

Structure strips are probably the most helpful literacy tool I have seen in a long time. Created by primary maestro, Stephen Lockyer, who can be found on Twitter at @mrlockyer, and championed by Caroline Spalding, @MrsSpalding on Twitter, structure strips are a tool which can help focus students on how to structure their writing and what to include in each paragraph. Although first used in primary education, they can easily be translated and used in the secondary classroom.

Structure strips are like bookmark strips of paper which are stuck in the margin of a page in a student’s exercise book. The strips are divided up into clear areas – each area represents a paragraph within the piece of writing or essay the student has been set. Each area contains information and guidance on what to include in that particular paragraph and the size of the area roughly represents how much the students need to write in that section. So, for example, the introduction section would be typically smaller than a section on a factor in the main body of an essay. With the structure strip stuck down in the margin, students write the essay using it as a guide on what to write and how to write it. An example of a piece of GCSE writing using a structure strip can be seen below.


Information which can be included in a structure strip can include –

  • Helpful sentence starters.
  • Connectives.
  • A checklist of what to include in the paragraph.
  • What the sentences need to focus on.
  • Hints on what factors should be considered.
  • Reminder about including a judgement and what words to use.

The beauty of structure strips is that they can easily be tailored and differentiated for the particular type of writing the task focuses upon as well as for the students you are teaching. For example, giving less able students more guidance and detailed information compared with a more able student.

Key tips for using structure strips in the secondary classroom based on my experience are –

  • Use them for only a short period of time. Once students are used to structure strips for a particular kind of question, I have found that they need them much less and often. An extension of this exercise is once students are familiar with structure strips ask them to create their own for a given exam question and swap them with others.
  • Structure strips are great with peer assessment as students have already been provided with the assessment criteria within the structure strip which they can apply to another classmates’ writing. My example in the photograph contains peer assessed writing. I have found using peer assessment allows opportunities for a much deeper understanding about structure and content with regard for the particular kind of writing you want your students to create.
  • Like most new teaching techniques, start off in small steps. I first used structure strips with my GCSE class when tackling a new style narrative question worth few marks. This allowed students to get used to a new teaching resource with a straightforward piece of writing. They quickly got the hang of how to use a structure strip, so then you can progress and use them for more complex pieces of writing with greater ease and without having to explain in any depth on how to use them.
  • When creating your own structure strips, use the mark scheme or criteria to inform each section.
  • When copying structure strips, copy them on different coloured paper. This helps them stand out when they are stuck into students’ exercise books.

An example of structure strips can be found here to download and for you to adjust – Structure strips – narrative 4 markers

100 Ideas for Secondary School Teachers – Outstanding History Lessons by Emily Thomas – a review 

The latest book in the 100 Ideas series from Bloomsbury Publishing is on Outstanding History Lessons by Emily Thomas. In effect, this is a rewrite of the Julia Murphy title published by Continuum Press in 2004. However, this is a substantial improvement on the previous titile as this is a more thorough and detailed coverage of relevant history teaching techniques and gives many links (including from this blog) to further thinking and resources.

The book is logically structured, covering such areas as the role of evidence, teaching big concepts, revision, learning key information and setting creative tasks. Such a structure makes locating information and ideas simply and with ease. The material draws heavily on the work of cutting edge teachers, such as those found on Twitter, as well as Emily’s colleagues and people who she works closely with. Consequently, there are many great teachers referenced here which provides the reader an excellent list of people to research and draw further ideas from. Tweachers, further reading and blogs used to write the book are all listed and provides a superb reference point for further research.


The book is a mix of tried and tested Ideas which would be particularly useful to NQTs and trainee teachers, ideas which are developed and given a different twist as well as original ideas which can be applied to not only history topics but many other subjects as well. Particularly shining highlights include Idea 5 – Causal Equations, Idea 23 – The Selfie Portrait and Idea 9 – The Significance Tournament. All these ideas, I will adapt and try out in my lessons in the next few weeks.

This is a bumper time for History teachers in terms for subject specific teaching and learning books with Russel Tarr’s excellent A History Teacher’s Toolkit: Practical Classroom Strategies. Emily Thomas has produced an excellent title that compliments Tarr’s book and can add new ideas as well as revitalise more established ones to any history teacher’s armoury. Highly recommended!

Creating independent learners poster

The teaching and learning focus for this term at school is developing independent learning in lessons. Having been asked to take a leading role in this CPD for all staff, I began by summarising some tips and pointers for teachers in this Keynote presentation. Keynote is a great app and was highlighted recently by @ICTEvangelist and @87History on Twitter as an excellent presentation tool. This poster is to be presented in all classrooms at school as the first stage of developing awareness of developing independent learning. I hope it is of use to others.

Reverse Scrabble

I first saw Scrabble being applied in lessons by Amjad Ali and his original post can be found here  – https://www.trythisteaching.com/2013/07/scrabble-tiles/ – since then, many others have used the idea with variations with great success. Indeed, when I used it in an interview lesson, the students gave it a round of applause they liked it so much.

A variation of this idea I have used recently, is to give the students the Scrabble value of a ‘mystery’ word which is linked to the lesson. Using the Scrabble score card, students have to work out the ‘mystery’ word – it could, of course, be more than one word.

An easy to apply extension is to challenge the students to set each other mystery words and exchanging the value of their mystery words to work out.

Plenary – a touch of Scrabble Version two

Summary pyramids

A fantastic and easy to implement activity, summary pyramids helps students to summarise their learning and reduce their notes to the key salient points. Initially, I came across this idea from a slide promoted by @cyahistory, which can be seen below. However, after a little research the original idea is from Carmel Bones (@bones_carmel) who shared this idea at the SHP conference in the summer of 2016. Carmel deserves every credit for this superb idea, which has had a very positive impact upon my students.


The activity focuses around a pyramid with four or five layers of empty squares. Each layer has a question and students have to complete each layer by writing a single word in each block or rectangle in the layer that relates to the question. Students have to start at the top and work their way down with each question or task becoming increasingly demanding. In writing the questions it is helpful to use the Blooms taxonomy to make the tasks gradually more demanding and, therefore, building in an element of differentiation and stretch and challenge to the activity.

Below are examples of the worksheets and completed activities which show how students can complete the activity. Links to blank worksheets which can be adapted for any subject can be found at the bottom of the post.


The activity can be used in a number fo ways –

  • A plenary activity summarising the learning of the lesson.
  • A homework task which can check learning.
  • A revision task to open a revision sesssion to check knowledge and stimulate an initial discussion.
  • An essay planning task where each layer either represents a paragraph or separate sections of a paragraph, such as opening signposting sentence.

Alternatively, rather than giving students to a blank summary pyramids to complete such as the one in the photograph, students could be given a complete pyramid and they have to create the questions which relate to the words in each layer, therefore, reversing the activity and encouraging the students to discover links and formaulate their own questions  using the Blooms taxonomy framework.

A superb activity which can be used for any subject and huge thanks to Carmel for sharing this idea.

summary-pyramid-ussr-in-eastern-europe

summary-pyramid-hastings

A History Teaching Toolbox by Russel Tarr – a review

Alongside Twitter, the trend of books by teachers for teachers outlining many practical ideas, strategies and perspectives is the most significant development in CPD in the last ten years or so. Despite this, there remains surprisingly few practical books for specifically history teachers. However, Russel Tarr admirably fills this gap with his independently published book released in September 2016. For a long time, Russel has shared his ideas and creative thinking on his website http://www.activehistory.co.uk which quite rightly has been the go to place for history teachers looking for inspiration and new ideas. As a result, Russel is well-known on Twitter for his generosity for sharing ideas and resources and as soon as his book was released it was an immediate purchase for me. 


Without doubt this is a detailed and thorough book. The book is structured around key themes in history teaching –

  • Imparting knowledge
  • Debate and discussion
  • Applying knowledge
  • Comparing, constraining and linking
  • Judgements and interpretations
  • Group work
  • Tests and revision
  • Displays
  • Essay skills
  • Other ideas

In each section, there are a number of ideas which can be easily added to any history teachers’ toolkit and can improve the work of any practitioner. Each strategy is explained in detail in which the reader is taken step by step through the idea with examples of how it can be applied in the classroom with illustrations of student outcomes. However, the book isn’t so detailed that it is perscriptive and straitjacketed. Instead, the ideas provoke food for thought and stimulate creative thinking about how the ideas can fit into your own toolkit.

Without doubt this is an important book for history teachers. There has been a real need for such a book specifically for history teachers and Russel is the ideal person to write a book to fill this gap. This book is jam-packed full of great, simple to implement ideas which would enhance any lesson.  Just a cursory read or flick through will make you stop and think when you catch a great idea. If you are a history teacher, whether a NQT or, like me, a bit of an old lag then this book is an essential purchase. I cannot recommend the book highly enough!