Barriers to learning: What we say, think and do...

Written by: Lauran Hampshire-Dell | Published:
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If we are to break down barriers to learning – real and perceived – then we must consider carefully what we think, say and do when working with our students. Lauran Hampshire-Dell advises

Education creates its own tropes and among the most common must be: “Oh I can’t do (insert subject here); I was never any good at it.”

There are around 10 million students in education in the UK and I would be willing to bet that most, if not all, have either heard or said this same sentence at some point during their relatively short lifetimes.

There are a number of reasons behind this problem, which in my experience is especially prevalent in our low ability learners. Maybe being in the bottom set for four years has created a predetermined sense of failure; perhaps low predicted grades have been interpreted by the student as meaning that they are not expected to succeed; maybe students (like me) have decided that because mum says she was not good at maths, they will not be either.

Our classrooms are the space where we can break-down those negative expectations and rebuild students into confident young people; ones who, even if they do not take A levels or go to university to study our subjects, are equipped to take on new challenges.

So, how do we get them there? I think our strategy can be neatly summarised by what we think, say and do...

What we think

Mindset matters. Breaking down student barriers starts with us. We have all had a moment where, upon receiving the timetable for the upcoming year, we have looked ahead to period 5 on Friday and had a little feeling of dread. It is important to manage our own emotions, as a poor relationship with a class can affect your planning, teaching and marking.

This can be most difficult in the long winter months: you are drowning in mock marking, you cannot remember the last time you saw daylight, and the temptation to put on a film or let that tricky class do busy-work-disguised-as-group-work is very strong.

This is when it is most important to keep those standards high: students need to see that every lesson matters and that regardless of their reputation, you are not going to stop pushing them.

Dealing with failure

Thinking is also a barrier that students themselves need to overcome. We have all sat through CPD on Professor Carol Dweck’s growth mindset theory and, whatever you think about it, you cannot deny that some students shy away from even trying because they are simply so fearful of failure.

We need to slowly adjust their mindsets so that they come to believe it is better to try and fail than not to try at all. Self-confidence is often the last thing to develop in students and that makes how we communicate with them all the more important…

Also from Lauran Hampshire-Dell: Classroom ideas: Write less, talk more (SecEd, March 2020):

What we say

Watch your vocabulary. Imagine that you are going to be recorded teaching for a week. Would your vocabulary towards students be mainly positive or negative? Students take on a lot more than we think, and our vocabulary can be a real driving force in the classroom.

I have three mottos that I share with students (I have stolen them from inspirational Instagram pages but they keep me going when I’m exhausted).

Students have laughed at them, used them to tease each other about poor effort, and eye-rolled me while parroting them back – but they help me to create an atmosphere in which I constantly enforce that effort is king. Ready for them?

  • Don’t be average when you can be excellent.
  • You didn’t wake up today to be mediocre.
  • Perfection is the enemy of progress.

It is important to remember that some social groups do not credit getting good grades as being “lit” and stories of terrorised teachers are more legendary than that time they smashed their end of year assessments. We need to break that status quo.

It can be frustrating when a whole batch of work comes in below your expectations, but think about how you will communicate this both verbally and in their books.

Sweat the small stuff

Speaking of progress, does your classroom celebrate the small things? Not just the grade 7s come assessment time, but the real minute successes? I am talking about going from an average of 5 marks to 6 marks on a 12-marker; someone using a thesaurus for their writing without your prompting; successful completion of a timed writing activity for the first time; or even getting a grade 3 in a mock when last year they got a grade 1?

For our lower ability students, praise does a few things: it cuts low-level disruption; it promotes the use of correct, independent strategies; and it supports growth and interaction with the expectations of your subject.

Praise can be difficult for lower ability students to take on: they are less used to it and there is every chance that the negative voice in their head is much louder than yours saying “well done”. It takes a lot of work to change mindsets, and sincere, individualised praise can really help.

Making mini-academics

Our low ability students can sometimes have trouble expressing their thoughts and ideas, particularly in a more academic manner. The good news is that we can help them with that quite easily:

  • Get rid of fillers: When students say “like”, “um”, or “you know”, just pause them and ask them to restart (you might have to repeat their opening words back and it may take a few goes).
  • Academic vocabulary: Give students a short list of words they need to use in their explanations (for example, Macbeth is villainous over Macbeth is bad). The correct usage of subject terminology will build their confidence and over time and these words will sink into their writing too.
  • Introduce discourse markers in speech: Give students stems to start with when speaking. Think along the lines of “in defence of”, “in contrast to”, “opposingly” and “comparatively”. This will help students to be more specific and introduce lines of argument.

What we do...

On top of working on what we think and say, we need to think carefully about what we do with our lower ability students. They deserve the best, most structured lessons, with the most intentional planning to help them progress. It is easy to say, but what does this look like?

  • Avoid assumptions: ...about what they can and cannot do and what they should be able to do. Avoid gaps in knowledge or skills by planning as much interleaved content as possible. With time so tight in our curriculums, there is not a whole lot of space to reteach concepts, so you are going to need...
  • Repetitive, intentional practice: Think low-stakes quizzing, spaced practice, and timed short exam-style questions. All of these can help when creating long-term memory and improving recall (two key exam skills). From first-hand experience, I can say that constant low-stakes testing has changed student outcomes significantly.
  • Practise what you preach: The next time you set a timed practice, do it with your students where they can see it. Hand-write it, stick to the timings and ask them for feedback. It is a stark reminder of how difficult these exams can be under such intense time pressure, and the explicit modelling of your approach to exam questions is really powerful. Inviting students into the process creates an atmosphere where everyone is striving for progress – even you.
  • Keep testing the basics: Keep retesting those basic ideas. Going back to basics will solidify students’ foundational knowledge, allowing you to stretch them with trickier concepts while knowing their base understanding is secure.

Finally, don’t play “guess what’s in the teacher’s mind”. I have had a lot of conversations in my time trying to get to the bottom of why students have produced continuously sub-par work even though you have used a super WAGOLL and given them a great print out. Chat to students, and you will find that quite often they are trying to mimic what they have seen.

This is totally avoidable: give them the vocabulary, the sentence stems, the method, the ideas – whatever they need. Use them as a scaffold and over time, you will see that they do not need them anymore. Being explicit is vital for our lower ability learners; often a dislike of a subject is masking a lack of understanding. Taking time every lesson to make the abstract concrete will change students’ attitudes and outcomes.


Working with our lower-ability students should not be a chore: if anything, it is the biggest gift in your timetable. We have the opportunity to change their outcomes and get them to a grade that they never thought they could achieve – and when it comes down to it, is not that why we became teachers in the first place?

  • Lauran Hampshire-Dell has been a teacher of English for five years and a literacy coordinator for the last two.


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