The Three Series: Three evidence-based ways to start your class

This is part of The Three Series.

Every teacher has their way of opening a class. I can remember all the way back to my CertTESOL (initial teaching qualification) when the trainers gave us a list of openers and closers. I’ve found myself going back to this list again and again, but as I’ve become more experienced, I’ve doubted some of the validity of some of the suggestions. With this in mind, I’ve decided to put together a very short list of three ‘classroom starting ideas’ that have research behind them.

1 – Use success criteria

“When a student is aware of what it means to be successful before undertaking the task, this awareness leads to more goal-directed behaviours. Students who can articulate or are taught these success criteria are more likely to be strategic in their choice of learning strategies, more likely to enjoy the thrill of success in learning, and more likely to reinvest in attaining even more success criteria.”

Hattie & Donoghue, 2016, p.2

One of the first things we should be doing in pretty much every class (in my opinion) is providing learners with a very clear idea of what they will be doing in the class, and how they can achieve success. As Hattie and Donaghue (2016) write in their amazing article Learning strategies: a synthesis and conceptual model, the provision of success criteria helps learners choose the correct learning strategies to use when engaging in the learning task. Crichton and McDaid (2016) write that success criteria fall under the Assessment for Learning (AfL) umbrella, and within their research showed that learners were able to identify the rationale for their use, and how they connected to their learning. They did mention, however, that teachers often have a lack of understanding of what success criteria are, and how they should be implemented.

So, with that thought in mind, how might success criteria look, and how should we implement them? Within the literature, there are few recurring themes. Firstly, success criteria should be clear and concise, and should go further than informing learners about the what of the lesson – they need to know “how the teacher is going to judge their performance, or how the teacher [will know] when or whether students have been successful” (Hattie & Donoghue, 2016, p.2). Secondly, success criteria should be seen as “an investment in developing pupils’ greater understanding in their learning” (Crichton & McDaid, 2016, p.199), and where possible they should be discussed and, ideally, negotiated with learners. Lastly, success criteria should be linked to learning intentions, which are in effect “a statement, created by the teacher, that describes clearly what the teacher wants the students to know, understand, and be able to do as a result of learning and teaching activities” (NCAA, nd., p.5).

So, let’s think about a writing lesson in which we are focusing on developing an introduction which includes a clear thesis statement. My learning intention/lesson aim might be something like:

  • Students will be better able to write an introduction for the B2 First exam
  • Students will be better able to identify and write an appropriate thesis statement through an analysis of the exam task

My success criteria for the lesson might then be:

  • Today, we will have achieved success by:
    • Correctly identifying the information from the exam task that is relevant for the essay and essay introduction
    • Paraphrasing the appropriate information within the essay introduction
    • Including a clear thesis statement within our introduction that informs the reader of what will be covered
    • Signalling a thesis statement using an appropriate expression

2 – Consolidate previous learning

Every teacher knows that we need to recycle previous language and content – it’s one of the first things we all learn. However, often this consolidation of learning is removed from classes because of time issues; that is, we often prioritise the learning activities and therefore don’t include a consolidation stage within the lesson. This is a real shame, as the research shows quite strongly that consolidation of learning is extremely important.

“If learners encounter unknown words ten times in context, sizeable learning gains may occur. However, to develop full knowledge of a word more than ten repetitions may be needed.”

Webb, 2007, p.46

Let’s think about vocabulary first. I think most of us would agree that we don’t acquire a piece of vocabulary after only one encounter, and I am sure that many of us have felt a sense of frustration when one of our learners can’t remember the word that we taught them a week ago. There is, though, a very good reason for this. In effect, we need multiple exposures to items for them to be acquired. For example, Webb’s (2007) study found that learners are able to increase their knowledge of “orthography, association, grammatical functions, syntax, and meaning and form” (Webb, 2007, p.46) through repeated exposure to lexical items in various contexts. Furthermore, Webb (2007) wrote that significant gains can be made if the number of exposures is ten – although more are likely to be needed for develop greater knowledge of the item.

“But I think the research indicates that the opposite is true: that learning most words to receptive mastery is relatively easy; it is enhancing that knowledge to productive mastery which is the real challenge.”

Schmitt, 2019, p.264

Furthermore, Schmitt (2019) notes that research shows that learners acquire vocabulary to a receptive level first, and then work their way from receptive mastery to productive mastery. What he emphasises, however, is that the gap between no knowledge of a word to receptive mastery and the gap between receptive mastery and productive mastery are actually quite different – the difference being that there is far greater amount of work needed to move from receptive mastery to productive mastery. So, how can we help learners take their knowledge of certain pieces of vocabulary further – helping them move along this cline of vocabulary ‘mastery’? Consolidation of learning and retrieval practice that allows for “repeated exposures”, whilst at same time “enhancing knowledge of different aspects of word knowledge” (Schmitt, 2019, p.265) is a great place to start.

But what about other aspects of language learning? Something like, let’s say, test-taking strategies? In many exam classes, learners are expected to complete exam tasks (which makes sense!), although we know that strategy instruction can greatly increase learners chances at approaching and completing the exam tasks more successfully (Cohen, 2006). Often we teach strategies when we get learners to do the tasks, which is fine. However, we also know that people forget things, and it might be appropriate for us to introduce Ebbinghaus’ (1885) Forgetting Curve here.

Taken from Mind Tools, n.d.

Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve, as you can see from the diagram above, is a model that represents how retention of information can be strengthened, and highlights why so much of what is ‘taught’ is forgotten. In effect, one exposure to content, in this case test-taking strategies, is like to leave minimal impact on the learner, and as such we should look to include moments for learners to engage with these strategies again, aiding in their ability to recall the strategies during exams – when they need them!

3 – Develop group cohesiveness

“Supporting students’ emotions in language learning classrooms can help students to cope with feelings inherent to language learning experiences and to the development of a positive attitude towards themselves as language learners”.

Mendez, 2011, p.44

When we think about teaching and learning, we often think of the skills or mechanics involved. We rarely think about the emotional, or affective, variables that come into play. Richards (2020) writes that emotions are an integral part of learning (for both learners and teachers!), and talks about how the ‘affective turn’ within linguistics has meant that much more research has been conducted in this area. What the research suggests is that teachers should aim to create an “emotionally-supportive classroom climate” (Richards, 2020, p.10). One of the components of such an environment is that of group cohesiveness; that is, the “the closeness of the group and the feeling of ‘us’ among the members” (Mercer & Dörnyei, 2020, p.76).

One way that this can be done is through team-building activities. Some examples of team-building activities that you might find appropriate for your context include:

  • Line up: The class has to line up according to a certain characteristic (e.g., youngest to oldest).
  • Trust walk: A classic that I’m sure we’re all familiar with. Basically, teams a created, and each team has a certain ‘route’ through the language teaching organisation to complete. One of the learners is blindfolded, and then others need to guide them to their destination.
  • Jigsaw race: Split the class into small teams. Provide each team with a puzzle. Teams then have to complete the puzzle a quickly as possible. This can be made more fun, or language-focused, by have only one member in the team with their eyes open – but they cannot touch the pieces! The learner with their eyes open needs to guide the others.

Another way in which group cohesiveness can be developed is through the creation of group legends (Mercer & Dörnyei, 2020). In effect, learners can create a class flag, logo, etc. and then at the start of every class, these objects can be added to with comments, pictures, memes (anything really!).

Some of these may take longer than others, and of course one needs to make informed decisions about which to implement. The important thing at the end of the day, though, is to ensure that we are actively promoting an emotionally-supportive classroom environment.

Final notes

There are of course many ways to start a class – we’ve all got a full list tucked away in our brains, diaries, etc. What I’ve put together here, though, a few other ideas you might like to consider. This being said, what would you add to the list? Can you think of why you would add it? Do let me know!

Lastly, this is the first in “The Three Series” – I do hope you’ve found the information useful. I’ll aim to get more of these out in the future 🙂


Crichton, H. & McDaid, A. (2016). Learning intentions and success criteria: learners’ and teachers’ views. THE CURRICULUM JOURNAL, 27/2, p.190-203.

Cohen, A.D. (2006). The Coming Age of Research on Test-Taking Strategies. Language Assessment Quarterly, 3(4), p.307-331.

Ebbinghaus, H. (1885). ‘Memory: A contribution to experimental psychology,’ New York: Dover.

Hattie, J.A.C. & Donoghue, G.M. (2016). Learning strategies: a synthesis and conceptual model. npj Science of Learning, p.1-13.

Méndez, M.G. (2011) The motivational properties of emotions in foreign language learning. Colombian Applied Linguistics Journal, 13(2): 43–59.

Mercer, S. & Dörnyei, Z. (2020). Engaging Language Learners in Contemporary Classrooms. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

NCAA (nd.). Focus on Learning: Learning Intentions & Success CriteriaWorkshop 1. access online:

Richards, J.C. (2020). Exploring Emotions in Language Teaching. RELC Journal, 53(1), p.225-239.

Schmitt, N. (2019). Understanding vocabulary acquisition, instruction, an assessment: A research agenda. Language Teaching, 52, p.261-274.

Webb, S. (2007). The Effects of Repetition on Vocabulary Knowledge. Applied Linguistics, 28/1, p.45-65.


  1. awolloshin says:

    Very informative post. I really think the success criteria is a fantastic tool both for planning and ensuring the activities you choose lead to the “desired” learning outcome. Maybe I missed this but would you consider talking trough these criteria in some adapted form with sts at the start of the lesson? Also, presumably this only works from a certain level up.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you 🙂

      So, yes, talking these through with learners at the start (sorry if I didn’t make that clear within the post). In my opinion, these should really be on the board or somewhere that allows learners to see them throughout the class.

      In terms of certain levels, I’m not so sure. For example, one of my teachers teaches YLs, around 5 – 8 years old. Their levels are quite low (naturally), but she still writes the success criteria on the board, and then explains it in the learners’ L1. At the end of the class, she then draws a ‘target’ on the board, and learners vote on how successful they were by pointing to where on the target they feel they ‘hit’ (e.g., a bullseye would be full achievement).


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