Evolution of Starters

Over the time I have taught, the role and types of starter activity have varied massively. When I first started teaching, a starter was a quick activity to get the lesson off to a speedy start, ensure that every pupil was “doing something” and allow the teacher to deal with any admin (forgotten books, registers etc). The best starters were differentiated or had challenge tasks (with added chillis. If you don’t know what I mean by chillis, you’re probably better for it). This post is charting the journey of where I started to where I am now. As I researched for this post, I stumbled across MFLClassroomMagic who has a list of principles we should consider when planning starter tasks. I wish I had this list in the early days.

The Early Years

Match ups, gap fills, anagrams, spot the errors and two way translations were the name of the game in these days.

The Pros:

  • Quick to produce.
  • Environmentally friendly (no paper needed).
  • Accessible for most learners.
  • Easy to differentiate

The Cons

  • Were these cognitively demanding enough.
  • Would these have been better after introduction of vocabulary.
  • Students had to recall single words not chunks.

The Paper Based Ones

I went through a phase of paper based starters. I got to a point where I was quite quick at condensing them on to a page of 4 to a page (without needing a class set of magnifying glasses. These involved simple puzzles, gap fills or occasional Tarsia puzzles. For those unfamiliar with Tarsia, a tarsia puzzle is a shape divided into smaller shapes with clues along the inside lines that match. If you match them perfectly, you will create the shape.

Example from Mrbartonmaths.com. Whilst not language-specific, you will see the principle.

The Pros:

  • Quick to produce is using websites such as Discovery Education Puzzlemaker
  • Every student has something in front of them with little excuse for not doing it.
  • Students do enjoy puzzles or working things out.
  • Fallen phrase, double puzzles and letter tiles were my go-to puzzles.  Never wordsearches.

The Cons

  • Were these cognitively demanding enough?
  • Have enough glue-sticks to glue in the tarsia puzzles. Avoid tarsia puzzles during pollen season.
  • Sometimes took too long for some students and you would find them completing it in the lesson when they were meant to be on other things.
  • Again single words more likely so lost opportunity for longer chunks of transferable language.

The Vocabulary Test

I went through a phase in one school of vocabulary test starters based on learning homeworks. All students had vocabulary booklets and were allocated a section each week. 5 were Tl to English and 5 were English to TL.

The Pros:

  • Students had the resources, they just had to learn the phrases.
  • Rewards the diligent.
  • Workload light in terms of administering the test.  Tests could be marked by partner.
  • Easy to differentiate to ability groups

The Cons

  • Working out what to do with those who don’t revise or process things slowly.
  • Regular repeated failure for students can be quite demoralising.
  • Harder to make work in mixed groups. 
  • Some kids with dyslexic tendencies admitted they did not enjoy this part of the lesson.

I moved schools in 2018 and learning resources cannot be shared outside of the Trust so examples of the following cannot be given, even on request, sorry. As the Steve Smith style starters and “return of the vocabulary test” are no longer departmental or trust current practice (at least as starters, some of the activities may inevitably feature at other points in a lesson), then I will share them. The final one titled “The Hybrid” (sounds like a sci-fi film) is still in development and refinement. It may make an appearance on this blog one day.

The Steve Smith Style starters

I would characterise the next phase of my evolution as the “Steve Smith style starter.” This is not because they are solely Steve Smith creations (although they may indeed be) but mainly because they (and variations thereof) all appear in this nifty list on his website! One starter task that I cannot locate the author of (wondered if it might have been Kayleigh Merrick via Twitter. If you are reading this and it is you, and you’re not Kayleigh, then please let me know and I will happily link to your blog/Twitter feed), was “Find 4”. This could have been 4 ways to start a sentence, 4 items of vocabulary on a particular theme, 4 connecting words. One would assume that with such an activity marks would be awarded for creativity and originality.

The Pros:

  • Start/End the sentences.  I always referred to it as “starts and ends.”  Students enjoyed the freedom with this activity to finish the sentence.  Your most creative students will enjoy finishing some of these, particularly anything that involves their classmates.  Sentences such as “at the weekend … is going to” or this weekend (insert past tense activity here) said The Prime Minister (or any celeb, other teacher etc)
  • Activities like “change one thing” work really well.  You can also colour some words so that half of the room change one thing and half of the room change another thing. 
  • Convert the sentence from present to future was always challenging but I found worked better if an infinitive was given in brackets 

The Cons

  • Keeping the creativity going with these is ever so slightly trickier.
  • Odd one out was a good activity and students would enjoy it but it helps to have some phrases so students can explain their decision in TL otherwise you risk going into English for too long.  Phrases such as the ones below, allow for a bit more TL use.
    • I think the odd one out is … because of the spelling / length /meaning / type of word
    • I’ll be honest, it was a guess

Return of the Vocabulary Test

Our school moved to silent starts of lessons for the first 10minutes for all subjects and all lessons. This meant we had to be creative in what we did with our first 10mins that did not involve talking. In that time, students would have 10 phrases to change from English to TL. They were tested on the same phrases for 3-4 lessons in a row so that they got better at them.

The Pros:

  • Allowed testing of chunks and single words chosen by the teacher.
  • A positive marking scheme of “2 points for perfect 1 for close” rewarded effort.
  • Questions could get progressively tougher.
  • Students repeatedly tested on the same chunks.
  • Worked well in remote learning.

The Cons

  • Bit repetitive.
  • Hard to stop students checking previous page in book for answers.
  • Always had to go through answers, some students would copy down during this and maybe not think enough during the test.

The Hybrid

Where we are now, is a place I’m quite happy about. It takes some of the better elements of all the above. It ticks most of the boxes on MFL Classroom Magic’s list. It is not perfect (few things in education are perfect) but the direction of travel seems right There are two tasks to complete in our first ten minutes, with the suggestion they apportion their time appropriately. Elaborating on this will have to wait for another day.

Final Words

Hopefully this post stirs you to thought. Maybe that thought is “I’m really glad my school does … and not what I have just read.” Sometimes it’s quite nice to be reminded we are doing the right thing. Maybe that thought is “I can’t believe Everydaymfl is not doing this awesome thing which we do, he absolutely should know about this awesome thing!” If that is your thought then please drop it straight in the comments.

However, that thought might be “I should really look at our department starters ahead of the new term.” If the ideas above have not hit the spot then I would whole-heartedly recommend this list from MFLClassroom Magic for 25+ more ideas (with added templates). If you’re stuck after that then ask your team, they might just have a brilliant idea.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s