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Unlocking success: Supporting students with the lowest prior attainment in their GCSE exam

Achieving success in GCSE exams is a challenging journey for all students, but those with the lowest prior attainment often face unique obstacles in the modern language classroom. Recognising and addressing these challenges is crucial for creating an inclusive and supportive learning environment. In this blog post, I will look at potential barriers to learning and some effective strategies to help students overcome them.

Potential Barriers to Learning:

  • Low Reading Age and Low Literacy in English (L1): Students with a low reading age in English may struggle to comprehend written material in the target language. This barrier can significantly hinder their progress in the classroom. To address this, we can incorporate strategies such as making use of sentence builders, simplified texts, parallel texts, visual aids, and multimedia resources to make the content more accessible.

  • Poor Oracy Skills: Effective communication is essential in language learning, and students with poor oracy skills often struggle to express themselves, this consequently affects also their communication in the target language. Classroom activities that promote oral communication, such as register routines, weather routines, choral drills, group talk, role-plays, and presentations, can help build confidence and improve verbal expression. These would be scaffolded via oral scaffolds, please see practical examples in this section of my blog: Speaking

Example of oral scaffold (G. Conti)

  • Prior Perceived "Failure" in Languages and Low Self- Efficacy: Students who have experienced perceived failure in previous language learning endeavours may harbour negative attitudes towards language learning. Creating a positive and supportive classroom culture is essential to change these perceptions. Recognising and celebrating small achievements can boost students' confidence, self-efficacy and motivation.

  • Languages Not Valued: Some students may come from backgrounds where languages are not highly valued. In these cases, it is essential to highlight the practical benefits and cultural enrichment that language learning can bring. Connecting language skills to real-world applications and showcasing success stories can help our students recognise the value of languages. Taking part in projects, email exchanges, trips, exchanges (even if virtual) can be invaluable. We can take advantage of online platforms such as jamboard, padlet, wakelet, flip... etc. to collaborate with schools from other countries.

  • Additional Needs: Students with additional educational needs, such as learning disabilities or language-related challenges, require tailored support. Individualised education plans, students' passports, extra support sessions, and collaboration with SEND professionals can ensure that these students receive the specific assistance they need to succeed.

Key principles and classroom application:

In understanding and addressing the challenges faced by students with the lowest prior attainment in the modern language classroom, we can draw upon relevant educational research, research into SLA and key principles that inform effective teaching strategies.

Here are examples of a few essential theories that underpin successful language instruction:

  • Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD): Vygotsky's ZPD emphasises the importance of scaffolding, where teachers provide targeted support to help students accomplish tasks just beyond their current level of competence. For language learners with low prior attainment, scaffolding can take the form of guided practice, peer collaboration, and structured language activities to bridge the gap between what students can do independently and what they can achieve with assistance. For more information and practical examples, please see this post: Scaffolding or differentiation

Example of structured RP task

  • Krashen's Input Hypothesis: According to Krashen's Input Hypothesis, language acquisition occurs when learners are exposed to "comprehensible input" slightly above their current proficiency level. For students with low prior attainment, we - teachers should carefully select materials that are challenging yet accessible, at least 95% comprehensible input (ideally 98%) is recommended. Incorporating multimedia resources, visual aids, and real-life examples can enhance comprehension and engagement. For more information and practical examples, please see these series of posts by G. Conti:

  • Self-Determination Theory (SDT): SDT posits that individuals are motivated when their basic psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness are satisfied. For students with low prior attainment, fostering a sense of autonomy by allowing them to make choices in their learning, providing tasks that match their competence level, and creating a supportive and inclusive learning community can enhance motivation and engagement. For more information and practical examples, please see this post: This one is on motivation or blog by L. Printer: The motivated classroom

  • Sound - spelling theory: In language teaching, the sound-spelling theory plays a crucial role in helping learners connect the spoken and written components of a language. This theory, also known as phonics, focuses on the relationship between sounds and their spellings correspondences in a language. Incorporating sound-spelling principles into language instruction can significantly enhance learners' ability to decode, pronounce, and spell words accurately. More on Phonics and examples of practical activities, see this post: Phonics.

  • Cognitive - load theory: offers a valuable framework for language teachers seeking to optimise instructional practices in the classroom. By understanding the different types of cognitive load and applying principles that reduce extraneous load while promoting germane load, we can create an environment that supports effective language learning and enhances students' overall proficiency in a target language. More information on CLT, in this post: CLT.

Memory model

Model from Oliver Lovell’s Sweller’s CLT in action book

Understanding Sound-Spelling Theory:

  1. Phonetic Awareness: Sound-spelling theory emphasises development of phonetic awareness, which involves recognising and manipulating the sounds of a language. This awareness is foundational for language learners as it enables them to associate spoken sounds with written symbols.

  2. Sound-Spelling Correspondence (SSC) or Grapheme-Phoneme Correspondence: A fundamental aspect of sound-spelling theory is teaching the correspondence between graphemes (written symbols/spelling) and phonemes (spoken sounds). For example, in English, understanding that the letter "c" can represent the /k/ sound in "calm" and the /s/ sound in "centre" is crucial for accurate decoding.

Application in Modern Language Teaching:

  1. Building Basic Literacy Skills: Sound-spelling theory is especially valuable in the early stages of language learning when learners are acquiring basic literacy skills. By explicitly teaching the relationship between sounds and letters, we can lay a strong foundation for reading and spelling proficiency.

  2. Improving Pronunciation: Integrating sound-spelling principles helps learners develop accurate pronunciation. When students understand how letters or combinations of letters represent specific sounds, they can pronounce words more authentically and with greater confidence.

  3. Enhancing Spelling Proficiency: Sound-spelling theory aids in improving spelling skills by providing a systematic approach to understanding the rules and patterns governing the language. Learners can apply these principles to spell words correctly and with greater independence.

  4. Facilitating Vocabulary Expansion: Sound-spelling instruction contributes to vocabulary expansion. As our students become adept at decoding unfamiliar words based on their sound-spelling patterns, they can independently explore and learn new vocabulary.

Practical Strategies for Implementation:

  1. Phonics Activities: Starting with the easiest phonemes and ensuring students can write / spell them, segmenting them into components, recycling them and adding more complex sounds ( Ruth Miskin: Read Write Inc. website). Annotating SBs or parallel texts à la Barry Smith can prove to be one of the effective strategies to start with. We can incorporate phonics activities that involve matching sounds to corresponding written symbols. These activities can range from simple word-picture matching exercises to more complex tasks like decoding sentences.

  2. Word Families and Patterns: We can focus on word families and recurring sound patterns within the language. Teaching learners about common prefixes, suffixes, and root words can help them recognize and decode a broader range of vocabulary.

  3. Interactive Learning Tools: We can utilise interactive learning tools, including online games, audio-visual resources, and educational apps, to reinforce sound-spelling connections. These tools make the learning process engaging and enjoyable for our students.

  4. Multisensory Approaches: It is also important to implement multisensory approaches that engage multiple senses in the learning process. Activities involving listening, speaking, and writing can reinforce sound-spelling connections more effectively.

Examples of some activities:

  • choral repetition - drills

  • I say/you say

  • say it loud

  • say it in a silly voice

  • whisper it

  • tell it to your friend

  • I say a word/students finish it

  • I start a sentence/student finishes it

  • reading aloud

  • normal dictation

  • delayed dictation

  • gapped dictation

  • simple translation

  • minimal pairs

  • faulty echo

  • listening pyramids

In conclusion, supporting students with the lowest prior attainment in the modern language classroom is a multifaceted challenge that requires a holistic and individualised approach. By addressing potential barriers and implementing effective strategies, we can empower these students to not only overcome obstacles but also thrive in their GCSE language exams. Creating an inclusive and positive learning environment is the key to unlocking the potential of every student, regardless of their starting point.


L. Printer: Blog


Jan 14

Thank you so much. Some very useful strategies.

Replying to

Thank you. Pleased, you found it useful.

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