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Challenge – the underpinning principle!

The underpinning principle of effective teaching is challenge!

Students rise or fall according to the level of expectation that we set for them, from the curriculum design, the culture and ethos we established in our classroom and the strategies we employed to ensure they meet these aspirational targets. We should not shy away from embracing struggle but provide scaffolding if necessary.

Each student brings with them varying degrees of knowledge, cultural experiences, and preconceptions. We need to ensure all students are challenged in their language learning. We, ourselves will be challenged to adopt the most effective teaching approaches and strategies as well.

Provision of challenge is a complex affair, it is long term, and it should be overreaching everything, it should run through everything, culture, strategies, routines, academic register, the language we use to communicate expectation to our students…

Challenge is defined as the provision of work which causes students to think deeply and engage in healthy struggle in a manner that allows them, overtime, to learn effectively and affords our students opportunities to develop the procedural knowledge of grammar, vocabulary, discuss rules of the language and develop automaticity as well as manipulate the language quickly and fluently.

In order to anchor high challenge, setting single and aspirational objectives whilst providing scaffolding so all students have opportunity to reach them is pivotal.

Example of single and aspirational objective

The objective as set above allows students to be exposed to the language in context, offers more sophisticated structures, the focus on justification draws attention to a particular function of language and aligns with the GCSE specification. 

Language learning is functional and cumulative and it is highly likely that students have already encountered justified opinions in a different context, so they are building on their prior knowledge, thus modifying and extending their schemas in LTM, i.e. in German – using extended sentences (weil + WO) – all students are expected to listen/speak/read and write in TL effectively without limitations!

Strong and ambitious curriculum provides anchoring for challenge; dipping into GCSE work in year 7, 8 or 9, taking the expected knowledge base, concepts, skills … and teaching just beyond that as well as exposing students at an early stage to the most challenging concept of assessment guidelines will challenge students in their learning. It can be also very motivating for students, knowing that they are undertaking work which is above their expected level. 

However a caveat is needed. We must be careful to build in the rationale behind it: 

‘I believe in you! I believe in your potential to aspire and achieve high! If we use our prior knowledge and skills that we have already acquired, if we demonstrate resilience and perseverance, there is a strong chance we succeed, your success and self-efficacy are important to me!’ 

The need for our students to experience success is crucial. In order to ensure optimal learning outcomes, students need to obtain high success rate.(B. Rosenshine, Principles of instruction)

So, what does high challenge teaching look like in my classroom?

An example of  a high-level, high-challenge reading activity may look like this:


This activity points students’ attention to core vocabulary of places in town, but it also emphasises linguistic function (opinions and justification, comparisons) and encourages them to use their linguistic knowledge and skills. 

  • Retrieval Practice – Why? – boosts students’ learning and strengthens their memory, makes forgetting less likely to occur. Click here to see examples.

  • Spacing it out – Why?- the benefits of effective spacing in SLA – SLA is reliant on the cumulative build up of knowledge and dependent on our students making connections between new content and prior learning. This is significant. 

  • Importance of environment – Why? – to allow our students to marvel at the excellence around them – What is it they aspire to? What does excellence look like?                          Showing the best work from the most successful students to demonstrate the high expectations we have of them. To show them what they are aiming for. To challenge them to draft/re-draft/edit/annotate/improve their own work. Click here to see examples.

  • Questioning – Why? – to elicit the process – the why and how not just the what?                                             

Why do we ask questions? 

  1. To retrieve information from memory to strengthen it.

  2. To test the understanding of a concept – grammatical structure, language function…

  3. To develop and deepen the understanding of a concept.

  4. To provide opportunities for output.

  5. To highlight links to prior learning.

  6. To foster similarities and differences between L1 and L2.  

  7. To give opportunities to respond to unprepared situations in L2.

  8. To give opportunities to practise – pronunciation, structures, skills and function.                                     

More on questioning here.

While there are specific teaching strategies and techniques that we can employ to ensure that challenge is appropriate for all students at a given time, the concept itself is much more to do with our teaching approaches. We know our students, we know their strengths and weaknesses, we know where we need to push and where we need to adapt our teaching to support them all!

Too often, I see posts from colleagues asking for specific activities that provide/demonstrate challenge! However, I don’t think it is that simple, each class, school and context is different and like scaffolding, challenge comes from knowing our students and from a curriculum design that demonstrates progression which in return provides challenge

Ofsted refers to a curriculum that provides ‘ambition’ for all. I, personally, don’t know how I would define this ‘ambition’ or what this ‘ambition’ should look like… It is too abstract a concept; each one of us, each context might see ambition differently…

What I do know however, is whether my students are working and thinking hard and whether they are or are not making progress. This doesn’t mean they are all perfect students and they are all on an upward trajectory. It is still a battle, but I still enjoy fighting it and welcome every little or bigger victory that comes with it.


James A Maxwell: Making every MFL lesson count (2019)

Shaun Allison & Andy Tharby: Making every lesson count (2017)



Inspiring! Thank you



Excellent post. I always remind my students that ‘no challenge, no learning’!

Silvia Bastow
Silvia Bastow

Thank you.

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