How to start a lesson

Starters are, as the name suggests, meant to start off your lesson and engage students in some sort of learning related activity the moment they shuffle though your classroom door. I’ve seen (and been responsible for) countless starter activities either projected (or written in the old days) on the board or scattered over desks. This ensures the keen beans who arrive early don’t have to lose precious learning time while they wait for the cool cohort who will cut it is fine as you allow ’em to.

Back in 2002 I moved to a new school and was given as a welcome present 101 Red Hot English Starters. It’s packed with fun activities aimed at KS3 students covering a wide range of word, sentence and text level objectives. In the introduction it says, “The starters in this book have been tried and tested with a variety of classes, of differing abilities, so they certainly do work.” And so, being keen to get on board with the new-fangled ‘3 part lesson’, I made extensive use of it. But although as a new teacher in a school mired deep in Special Measures it felt like a boon, what did ‘work’ actually mean? For me it meant one more activity to keep kids in their seats for as long as possible. Some of the starters didn’t ‘work’ because my students didn’t like them, so those were rarely repeated. Others became staples I could wheel out whenever I couldn’t think of anything better. Some of them could even be spun out into entire lessons if the kids seemed content enough.

Here’s a bit of a taste:

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There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the intention behind most of these starters (although ‘chronic phonics’ makes me cringe a bit now.) The objectives are sound and the aims reasonable; these were all things my students ought to have known. The trouble was, using them as activities to occupy truculent teens tended to mean that very little was ever remembered. That is to say, students would remember doing the starter but not the content it was designed to teach. Covering this stuff ad hoc, in the first 10 minutes or so of a lesson is, I know now, not the best way to get students to learn stuff.

The starters presented in the Red Hot series (there were various other books for different subjects) were at least tied to the National Curriculum and contained some useful content. These fell out of fashion as time went on and it became received wisdom that starters ought not to be stand alone activities but rather ‘tasters’ for the lesson that was to come. The purpose was always presented as a way to ‘hook’ students into a lesson and to engage their interest. As such, the more exciting and dramatic the starter, the better.

Whilst I’m all in favour of students being engaging in the rich and fascinating content of their lessons, exciting them at the beginning might just backfire. Dan Willingham is critical of what he calls ‘attention grabbers’ in his book, Why Don’t Students Like School? Consider the example of a teacher who wore a toga to class on the first day she began a unit on ancient Rome. Willingham says, “I am sure that got her students’ attention. I am also sure it continued to get their attention – that is, to distract them – once the teacher was ready for them to think about something else.” While you can, of course, grab students’ attention with something relevant and meaningful, is the start of the lesson really the best time to do this?

Willingham again:

In my experience, the transition from one subject to another (or for older students, from one classroom and teacher to another) is enough to buy at least a few minutes of attention from students. It’s usually the middle of the lesson that needs a little drama to draw students back from whatever reverie they might be in. (p. 81)

Better perhaps for them to leave pumped and primed for tomorrow’s lesson. At the start of a lesson what we should aim for is calm, order and routine. My advice would be to start lessons by recapping what students should have learned in previous lessons. Many of the activities which are often recommended as good ways to end lessons could be more usefully moved to the start. Instead of exit tickets, better to provide entrance tickets. one of the best routines to put in place at the start of lessons is to get students used to being asked multiple choice questions. Because students are merely recording the number of the answer they think is correct, there are very quick to administer and provide students with very clear feedback on what they can and can’t independently recall.

Over time, as behaviour in my classes improved, I stopped using Red Hot Starters. When I left the school 5 years later I found my dog-eared copy in the bottom of my desk drawer and decided not to take it with me.

5 Responses to How to start a lesson

  1. James A. Maxwell says:

    I like the idea of an ‘entrance ticket’ based on recap. I increasingly struggle with the notion of plenaries at the end of lessons, as they can easily become superficial and ineffective if not thought through carefully. A colleague recently told me about a lesson she observed. It was basically a revision lesson before an AS module, and therefore no new learning was taking place. However, in the last five minutes of the lesson the teacher asked them to complete a post-it identifying what they had learned in the lesson. I blame a top-down SLT approach for that – emphasising the ‘style’ of what they perceive a lesson should look like over deep substance and an awareness of how deep learning comes about. I even know one school in Northern Ireland which moved to a two-week timetable on the premise that it will allow more time for plenaries. I’m sure plenaries can be very effective if used properly, but I think we may have lost our way somewhat. Others may disagree.

    Of course, the use of recap particularly at the start of lessons ties in with cognitive science theories on the interplay between environment, long-term memory and working memory – something which Peps McCrea describes as pre-review in his chapter on expediting elaboration.

  2. I strongly agree with beginning a lesson with a recap of the previous one. I have found it makes a big difference to how much children remember, especially those who struggle to learn. I am talking about children aged 4 to 6 years old.

  3. Interesting to recall that in Englemann’s very successful Direct Instruction lessons from Project Follow Through, 80% of each lesson went over previous content with 20% for new material. These were aimed at primary aged children, maybe the balance could change with older students.

  4. ZebaC says:

    At the school where I currently work, unless we have a double lesson, I find our lessons are too short for starters. If I’m looking at the start of a topic or text, it’s all about establishing contexts of production and reception, working out what knowledge the students have, whether they can apply it and what I need to make sure they know and understand, then, depending on how long we have to study the topic/text, recap, reflection and feedback on the work they’ve produced in relation to the topic. In forty minutes, there is little time for anything but focus on the topic at hand.

  5. The school I’ve just left insisted that KS3 lessons have a starter that allows students to start figuring something out to do with the lesson you’re about to teach them to ensure that “progress” was being shown all the time. Recapping prior learning was a waste of time in SLT’s eyes. Quite difficult to achieve in maths, and difficult for the kids who often used the ridiculousness of what they were being asked to do as an excuse to do nothing. I quickly switched back to using starters as recaps, just shoved it in the desired format and no-one noticed! I despair.

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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