Strategies for reaching hard-to-reach students – Victoria Littler

Barriers to reaching these students:

As well as disengagement and a lack of motivation, there never seems to be enough time to teach our hardest to reach pupils: one of the reasons for this is that our low ability students do not seem to be able to retain information in the same way that others do…

This article aims to provide some strategies which will:

  • Ease the retention of material (through repetition of information)
  • Ensure that we make it as difficult as possible for low attainers to ‘hide’ in class
  • Get students to self-regulate, self-test and become more motivated to learn

Dan Willingham suggests that: “If you want students to remember information then it should be over-taught by 20%”. One strategy I use to do this is to get students to answer the register with a piece of learnt knowledge, rather than “yes Miss”.

It takes no extra time or effort to do and ensures no one can hide! E.g. Give me an example of a verb, a simile, an imperative, something we learnt last lesson.

Another way that you can start the lesson is using a simple recap. Though it might seem obvious, this strategy is effective for a number of reasons. According to The Benefits of Testing, looking back over what was learnt previously “causes students to learn more from the next learning episode” because accountability is felt. Moreover, lower ability students will feel more motivated about today’s lesson if it begins with something which they can easily grasp or remember.

It is also suggested, in The Benefits of Testing that:“Teachers may also use multiple modalities to convey an idea; for example, using an image while talking, taking care to ensure that the two types of information complement each other to enhance learning.”

Another way that students can be encouraged to repeat material is by using Kagan activities like ‘Flash Cards’. This is how it works: Students are split into pairs. One student is given the role of teacher and one student. First the ‘teacher’ asks all of the questions on the flashcards and gives the answers to the ‘pupil’

Flash card

The ‘teacher’ then quizzes the student who must answer from memory. The role is then reversed – the new ‘teacher’ quizzes the new ‘pupil’ using the hints where necessary.

The model helps students to practice what they’ve learnt in a non-threatening, low stakes way.

Creating a crossword is another way to get pupils to practice what they know. Yes, this does take a bit of work. However, I made this and have used it with almost every group I teach…


It’s fun and aids retention because: “To learn pupils must transfer information from working memory to long-term memory because understanding can be impeded if students are confronted with too much information at once.” (The Science of Learning)

You can make your own crossword here:

Finally, a great strategy which has already been alluded to: testing. Here are some of the reasons it’s beneficial to test students:

Benefit 1 The testing effect: retrieval aids later retention

Benefit 2 Testing identifies gaps in knowledge

Benefit 3 Testing causes students to learn more from the next learning episode (accountability)

Benefit 4 Testing produces better organization of knowledge

Benefit 5 Testing improves transfer of knowledge to new contexts

Benefit 6 Testing can facilitate retrieval of information that was not tested

Benefit 7 Testing improves metacognitive monitoring

Benefit 8 Testing prevents interference from prior material when learning new material

Benefit 9 Testing provides feedback to instructors

Benefit 10 Frequent testing encourages students to study

Additionally, beliefs about intelligence are important predictors of student behaviour in school: students are more motivated if they believe that intelligence and ability can be improved through hard work. If we can show students that they are improving on what they did last time then they will be more motivated to learn.

Self-testing can be particularly effective because it not only informs the student about how much they actually know, but also tells them if they are over or underestimating their cognitive abilities. The Sutton Trust says: “Teaching children strategies to motivate themselves and plan and monitor their own learning can be a high-impact approach to raising the attainment of disadvantaged children”

Here’s two ways of approaching it:

Self test 1


Self test 2Remember: students’ will perform skills best just after a topic has been covered; it is important to test frequently and after a number of lessons, days, weeks and even months have passed to ensure that material has been stored in long-term memory.



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