9: Building on pupils’ prior knowledge through formative assessment

Session Elements

  • action-planning
  • scripting

Learning Intentions for this session

You will learn that:
5.1 Pupils are likely to learn at different rates and to require different levels and types of support from teachers to succeed.
5.2 Seeking to understand pupils’ differences, including their different levels of prior knowledge and potential barriers to learning, is an essential part of teaching.
5.7 Pupils with special educational needs or disabilities are likely to require additional or adapted support; working closely with colleagues, families and pupils to understand barriers and identify effective strategies is essential.


In the last mentor session, your mentor focused in more detail on the practical implications of supporting all learners, including those with SEND. They assisted you in refining activities and approaches to be tried in the classroom.

In your self-directed study session, you will consider how establishing pupils’ prior knowledge is an essential part of teaching, that different pupils have differing levels of prior knowledge and that this affects the rate at which they learn. You might further apply your knowledge of how flexible grouping can impact upon pupil achievement. You consider again the adapted support that pupils with barriers to learning, including SEND, may need to progress in their learning.

You can apply insights from these exercises to examples from your own experience with pupils and to future lesson plans.

Research and Practice Summary

This reading will help you understand some of the theory behind this week’s topic. We will start by introducing some of the key concepts (these are in bold). You will also see some suggestions of how to put these concepts into practice. When using these concepts in your own practice, you will need to take account of your pupils’ characteristics, the context of your classroom and the nature of the material that you are teaching.

Teaching new vocabulary to a group with a wide range of needs – a Year 5 class

Miss Gascoigne has a Year 5 class consisting of pupils with a variety of learning needs. She is beginning a new topic – the Ancient Egyptians – which will require pupils to understand challenging vocabulary and employ it with accuracy in their own writing.

Which of the strategies in this summary could she use to plan for the needs of her class?

Pre-teaching is the process of teaching a new concept to selected pupils prior to a lesson on the subject. This might, for example, involve teaching new vocabulary or a new mathematical concept before the first lesson on a topic, so that pupils who may otherwise struggle are able to access and keep up with the learning. The approach works equally well for all pupils.

Further examples of pre-teaching include:

  • setting pre-reading as homework, so that pupils are more able to engage with the vocabulary and ideas in the lesson itself (this can be supported by parents/carers)
  • independent research into a topic (e.g. the works of a famous artist, designer or musician) as a stimulus for the following lesson

Do you think Miss Gascoigne is likely to want to pre-teach the vocabulary for the new topic?

As you have seen already, one of the most important aspects of teaching is the ability to establish an accurate understanding of the pupils’ prior knowledge within a given subject or domain. In this way, the teacher can start with where their pupils are and help them from there, rather than working backwards from a long-term learning goal. It is also understood that increased prior knowledge reduces working memory load. As children develop, they accrue more knowledge across a range of contexts, and this reduces the load on their working memory, allowing them to solve problems more rapidly.

To help you address the prior knowledge needs of your pupils, particularly as they learn at different rates, you should:

  • wherever possible, talk to colleagues who taught them before, or who teach them in other areas now, so you can benefit from their experience
  • carefully assess their prior knowledge when planning how much new information to introduce (you may have to adapt your teaching in lesson, as you realise that their prior knowledge is not secure)
  • provide explicit modelling and guidance, breaking problems down into steps (e.g., keywords and sentence starters for written work, simple teacher demonstration for practical tasks)
  • use worked examples with clear and minimal steps (including step-by-step visual guides)
  • identify likely misconceptions and plan to prevent them from occurring (if you are able to co-plan with colleagues, that will help here)
  • give them regular purposeful practice so they can consolidate learning in their long-term memory

Before beginning the topic, Miss Gascoigne does a word reading test to identify vocabulary that is familiar to pupils and to what extent they understand it. The list included: archaeology, pyramid, pharaoh, slavery, River Nile, and Nefertiti. Her aim is for pupils to be able to identify words and then be able to place them in context and remember them. This will reduce the load on their working memory as they learn new information. This small piece of pre-teaching allowed her to circumvent some of the misconceptions that may have become established.

Formative assessment (or assessment for learning) is used to directly inform the teaching and learning process (i.e. when evidence gathered on pupils is used to make adaptations to teaching and learning). Dylan Wiliam describes it in terms of how ‘teachers and learners use information about student achievement, to make adjustments to the student’s learning that improve their achievement.’

To support pupil learning through effective formative assessment, you could draw on five key strategies for embedding formative assessment, outlined by Dylan Wiliam:

  • clarifying, understanding and sharing learning intentions (e.g. by sharing clear success criteria for pupils at the outset of learning activities)
  • engineering effective classroom discussions, tasks and activities that elicit evidence of learning (e.g. by using questioning and other forms of gathering information on pupil learning regularly throughout and across lessons)
  • providing feedback that moves learners forward (e.g. by being explicit about what pupils should do next to improve their learning)
  • activating students as learning resources for one another (e.g. by explicitly teaching strategies, such as peer-assessment)
  • activating students as owners of their own learning (e.g. by explicitly teaching pupils strategies to monitor and regulate their own learning)

You will return to formative and other forms of assessment in Module 4.

Why is formative assessment so important to Miss Gascoigne as she teaches her pupils the vocabulary for the new topic?

Reframing questions is more than simply rewording them. If a pupil can’t answer a question, reframing it can allow them to approach it from a different angle. For example, rather than asking a pupil to ‘explain their reasoning’ for statement X, the teacher might ask them to provide reasons for and against believing statement X to be true. This may help the pupil realise they don’t always have to align themselves with one particular line of reasoning, and to view problems and topics more holistically. Reframing questions can also help the teacher diagnose barriers to learning and help pupils think problems through rather than simply giving up at the first sign of difficulty.

To help all your pupils make better progress, you can reframe questions to:

  • provide more support for those who need it by offering greater scaffolding (e.g. by narrowing down the options in an answer: ‘What were causes of the Great War?… Name me an important cause of the War… Was it important that the great powers had been building up their armies and navies before the War?’)
  • stretch those pupils who are ready for it (e.g. by politely challenging their reasoning: ‘Shamim, why do some people in the class disagree with your answer?… Shamim, try to change my mind about this…’)

Relationships between teachers and parents/carers are generally considered crucial to a child’s educational experience. Sometimes, we use other terms to mean similar things (e.g. parental involvement, engagement, participation). Attending a parents’ evening may be considered as ‘parental involvement’ with the school, whilst parents/carers regularly reading with their child would come under the heading of ‘parental engagement’ with learning. Building effective relationships with families can improve pupils’ motivation, behaviour and academic success; it can help teachers to better understand their pupils’ individual circumstances so that they can be effectively supported in school. Schools always need to nurture their relationships with families, but this is probably even more important for families of children with special educational needs or disabilities.

To help you to build effective relationships with parents, carers and families, you should:

  • speak to the pastoral teams in your school and get their advice
  • prepare well for parents’ evenings, making sure you know well what your pupils’ strengths are, what they need to do to improve and what families might be able to do to help
  • where you have concerns about how best to communicate with a family, ask a trusted colleague to help you to script some scenarios

Schools work with parents/carers in diverse ways depending upon the community in which they serve. The Education Endowment Foundation’s (2015) ‘Working with parents to support children’s learning’ is a very useful guidance report.

After the pre-lesson word reading test, Miss Gascoigne sent the test home with the pupils with a request that parents rehearse the words with their children.

By identifying the prior knowledge of her pupils, Miss Gascoigne was able to plan effectively for the range of needs in the classroom, using strategies to both support and challenge pupils learning at different rates. To ensure mastery of more complex vocabulary, she used a range of strategies:

  • she explained the meaning with child-friendly definitions
  • she provided examples of how the vocabulary is used
  • she asked the children to repeat the word at least 3 times
  • she planned activities to use the word correctly (verbal sentences, sentences on whiteboard, word searches, act out the word, close texts)
  • to support their long-term memory, the vocabulary was posted on a word wall, and the words were reviewed daily for a week or so

Before teaching the topic, Miss Gascoigne conducted a word reading test because she realised that, for many, lack of prior knowledge of the words would be a barrier to their learning on the topic. This test also doubled as a form of pre-teaching, which was an extra assistance for those who are learning at a different rate. Because she has built good relations with the parents of her pupils, she was confident of their support when she sent the word test home for them to rehearse with their children. The range of strategies that she then used in the lesson supported all the pupils to expand their working vocabularies.

Self-Study Activities

Review: 10 mins

Read the Research and Practice Summary on this week’s topic. As you read, reflect on:

  1. the practices that you are already doing well
  2. the practices you are doing some of the time but could do more of/more consistently
  3. the practices you don’t use in your teaching yet

Plan: 10 mins

Action planning

Think about a lesson that you are going to be teaching soon and have in mind 3 different pupils. These should be pupils who learn at different rates and normally require different levels and types of support to succeed. Quickly fill in this grid on the 3 pupils A, B and C.

Levels of support they need     
Barriers to learning       
Your prior contact with family     
Likely prior knowledge of topic     

Theory to Practice: 20 mins

1. Scripting

You are going to script certain parts of the lesson that you had in mind from the Plan section above. The scripts will help you understand and build upon the pupils’ prior knowledge.

You are going to use some of the strategies of Dylan Wiliam, as described in the Research and Practice Summary. You will remember, as you script, your 3 pupils A, B and C, and that:

  • 5.1 pupils are likely to learn at different rates and to require different levels and types of support from teachers to succeed
  • 5.2 seeking to understand pupils’ differences, including their different levels of prior knowledge and potential barriers to learning, is an essential part of teaching
  • 5.7 pupils with special educational needs or disabilities are likely to require additional or adapted support; working closely with colleagues, families and pupils to understand barriers and identify effective strategies is essential
Parts of the lessonIdeas for your script
Introducing learning intentionsWho can tell me what our learning intentions mean?
Asking and responding to questionsWould someone like to agree with C’s answer there, and give a reason?
Giving instructionsNow you have heard the instruction from me, tell your partner in your own words what it is I want you to do
Setting up peer- and self-assessmentWhat were the 3 best parts of the work? What one thing would make it better?

You are going to share your scripts with your mentor in your next meeting.

Next Steps: 5 mins

To prepare for your next mentor meeting, write in your Learning Log any questions you want to ask your mentor that relate to this session’s learning intentions.