Developing my year 9s’ ability to write (more) like historians – part 2

In my last post I described how I had taught my year 9 classes about the causes of World War One and how I had used the teaching and learning cycle to help scaffold their ability to write a paragraph explaining one of the long term causes. In this post I will show some examples of their work and then describe how we tackled the short term cause, the assassination of Franz Ferdinand.


The paragraph the pupils were asked to write was on alliances (the ‘a’ in the MAIN causes) and here are some examples, with commentary:




These two examples show that pupils were comfortable reproducing the definition of the factor as well as describing the formation of the two alliances, making sure they including the name of each, their members and the year in which they were formed. These details to be included had been discussed just before they wrote the paragraphs.


What is also clear is that the final phases, in which pupils had to explain how the presence of two rival alliances had created tension, are underdeveloped. This was a common theme throughout the answers. This indicates that we did not discuss enough how and why alliances created tension and thus I was replying on pupils to work this part out largely for themselves. The lack of discussion was partly due to time constraints and party due to a reticence on my part to ‘give them the answer’ – something I need to get over, frankly. Reading the information relating to this, discussing it and asking well-chosen questions about it would enable pupils to gain insights into the causation at work, which they would then be able to demonstrate understanding of more effectively in their paragraphs. The most common piece of feedback I gave (as can been seen on one of the examples above) was ‘what could have happened if one nation from each alliance had had a disagreement?’.


The final paragraph of the overall assessment – Why did World War One start in 1914?


After completing the alliances paragraph, receiving feedback from me and having the opportunity to address some of the questions I posed, we then turned our attention to the spark for the war – the assassination of Franz Ferdinand.


This end product we were working towards was a paragraph explaining the short term cause – how an assassination had led to a continent-wide war. To begin with we looked at a map of Europe in 1914 that showed the position of Bosnia within the Austro-Hungarian Empire with Serbia next door. We then watched this excellent clip of Dan Snow describing the events of the assassination and I focused pupils’ attention by asking them to look for answers to the following questions:

  • What happened?
  • Who was killed?
  • Where did this happen?
  • When did this happen?
  • Who was the killer?
  • Why was this killing carried out?

We then established these details with the aim of using them in our paragraph, which would have the following structure:




Pupils then completed the first phase using the details, with me insisting they be as detailed as possible, for example including Franz Ferdinand’s title and position rather than just his name.


Next lesson we moved on to completing the paragraph and started with a recap of the assassination as well as an introduction to the consequent chain of events: We then placed the chain of declarations of war into chronological order with the pupils reading the order of events in the textbook and sticking cards describing and illustrating the events into their book in the correct order.


At this point we had established the outline of the second phase of the paragraph:




We discussed the events of the second phase, trying to pick out how they linked together and I explained the agreement Britain had with Belgium to protect its neutrality. We then had to show in writing how this chain of events had progressed and why. We added the dates and then I modelled how I would link the first two or three events, explaining my choices (deconstruction). I then invited suggestions from the class for the next couple and we agreed what to write (joint construction) before pupils completed the links themselves on a planning sheet (independent construction):


We then had a brief discussion about what we felt was the key reason that an assassination in an obscure corner of Europe led to a war between the continent’s greatest powers before pupils completed the paragraph independently using all the preparation we had done.


Here is one outcome:




What’s clear from this piece of work is that the pupil has a clear idea of the order of events, but is inconsistent in providing the links between them. He has also identified what he believes to have been the key factor in the escalation of events – the alliance system – but has not explained why he believes this with any authority. Once again, much more discussion is needed to develop pupils’ thinking and understanding in this phase before they write the final product.


My next blog will describe my year 8 lessons on the break with Rome. Having looked at my year 7 books we have not covered enough ground to justify a blog – my year 7 classes are split and so I only see them once per fortnight.

Developing my year 9s’ ability to write like historians (as well as retain key knowledge)

This is the first of four posts I hope to write this half term, each one describing my history lessons with my KS3 groups this half term. This post and the next one will be about year 9, with years 8 and 7 to follow. My purpose in doing so is simply to share what I have been doing in the hope that it is useful to other history teachers, as well as inviting feedback that may help me to do things more effectively.

In writing these posts I was inspired by Katie Ashford’s recent blog “Beyond the ‘show sentence’” ( in which she explained how she has developed her pupils’ ability to write analytically in English. I hope readers will see similarities in my approach in terms of the focus on modelling being used initially in order to move pupils to independence in writing.

With year 9 I have three lessons per fortnight with a set 2 and a set 3 (we have two parallel bands in each year group with three sets in each band). We have been exploring the causes of the First World War and my ultimate aims were twofold: firstly, to enable my pupils to explain how and why tension had developed between the great powers in Europe by 1914 and then to explain how an assassination in an obscure corner of Europe led to a continent-wide (and ultimately world) war.

I had 7 or 8 lessons with each class and I largely followed the teaching and learning cycle outlined in one of my first posts, although the phases often overlapped:

  • Building the field – ensuring the pupils have the knowledge they need.
  • Modelling and deconstruction – showing pupils how to corral this knowledge into good historical writing, breaking down the structures of an explanatory paragraph.
  • Joint construction – giving pupils an opportunity to join me in constructing an explanatory paragraph, guiding them to apply what I modelled to them.
  • Independent construction – allowing pupils to write independently, to see how much they had learnt.


Building the field
I started with the absolute basics: the dates of the War, the combatants and the main developments (Russia’s surrender, USA’s entry), establishing these with the pupils and setting a short quiz as an ongoing homework, with which we then started each lesson until pupils were regularly getting full marks:

World War One basic facts
1. When did the Great War begin and end? (2)
2. What were the names of the two alliances that fought each other? (2)
3. Which countries were in each alliance? (6)
Triple Entente       Triple Alliance
Great Britain       Germany
France                   Austria-Hungary
Russia                    Italy

4. Which Empire fought against Britain? (1)
The Ottoman Empire (modern day Turkey)
5. Which country ‘changed sides’ during the war, and in which year? (2)
Italy, 1915
6. Which country surrendered in defeat in 1917? (1)
7. Which country entered the war in 1917? (1)

I also explained that they may see the War referred to as World War One, the First World War or the Great War and explained the origin of the latter term, pointing out that the first two names didn’t exist until there was a second world war!

We then established the long term causes of the War as the MAIN causes: Militarism, alliances, Imperialism and Nationalism. This is a relatively simplistic way of looking at the origins of the War, but one which I felt my pupils could handle and would be able to understand well. I used the familiar analogy of Europe being like a barrel filling up with gunpowder, ready for a spark that would ignite an explosion.

We read about the MAIN causes in our textbook and then defined them using a structure I have written about before, the four-stage definition devised by a brilliant ex-colleague of mine Helen Handford:




This gives very structured definitions (and can be used across the curriculum by the way!) and helps pupils to move towards using more academic language in preparation for writing. Following the teaching and learning cycle in miniature, I modelled the first definition, talking pupils through the way I constructed it. We then defined Imperialism and Militarism together, with me guiding pupils to agreed definitions. Finally, pupils used the structure to define alliances for themselves. They were largely successful in producing a definition similar to the one I had in mind: ‘Alliances are groups of countries that agree to fight together in a war.’

Modelling & deconstruction
I set the first assessment question of the year as: Why did World War One start in 1914? (taken from our scheme of work). Instead of simply allowing pupils to tackle the question immediately, I decided to use the teaching and learning cycle to scaffold their ability to explain the causes. This meant that pupils would end up with a full answer to this question encompassing an explanation of the long term MAIN causes and an explanation of how an assassination led to war. However, they would only have written the final two paragraphs independently.
As we progressed through these phases of the cycle we returned to the textbook to re-read and discuss sections relating to each MAIN cause as and when we needed to, supplementing this by looking at several maps, including one of Europe showing the two alliances and a map showing the scramble for Africa.

I modelled the first paragraph for pupils showing them the structure I wanted them to follow on the board:


As I modelled and pupils copied, I called pupils’ attention to the phases of the paragraph and the purpose each served, as well as certain structural features that I asked them to focus on within each phase, such as ‘one factor…’, the use of dates and phrases like ‘this led to…’ that indicate causation/explanation.

Joint construction
Having set up the next two paragraphs in the explanatory phase, we then jointly constructed the next two paragraphs, ending up with the following:

Imperialism, which is a desire to gain and expand an empire, was another factor that caused tension to build up in Europe by 1914.

From the late 19th century onwards the great powers of Europe competed with one another to grow their empires, which led to the ‘scramble for Africa’, in which Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Belgium all took control of large parts of the African continent between 1880 and 1900.

This created tension because these countries began to see each other as rivals, and threats to their overseas empires, thus making war more likely.



The third factor that enabled tensions between European nations to rise before the Great War was militarism, which is when countries massively increase their armed forces very quickly.

In the early years of the 20th century the European powers began to expand their armed forces, spending more and more each year on weapons and other military equipment. In 1906 Britain launched a new advanced type of battleship called the ‘Dreadnought’, which led to a naval arms race with Germany. Other countries built up their armies and by 1914 Germany, France and Russia each had an army of over one million men.

This meant tension built because as each country increased its armed forces, all the other nations felt threatened. Also, the temptation to use the weapons and forces that had been expensively built up was very great.

As we were jointly constructing I asked questions such as:


  • How do we decide the order of the factors? (Answer: use the explanatory phase of the first paragraph for the order)
  • Having used ‘One factor which…’ in the first paragraph, how should we introduce these next factors?
  • Which dates are important for the middle phase?


As well as more specific ones like:

  • Which countries were involved in the ‘scramble for Africa’?
  • What was the name of Britain’s new type of battleship?


Independent construction
Pupils were then given 20 minutes to think about, draft if they wanted to, then complete in neat their own paragraph explaining how alliances led to tension. This is the version that I wrote:

Alliances are groups of countries that agree to fight together in a war, and it was these agreements that represent the fourth source of tension in Europe from the late 19th century onwards.

By 1914 Europe was divided into two rival alliances. In 1881 Germany, Italy and Austria-Hungary signed the Triple Alliance and in 1907 Britain, France and Russia signed the Triple Entente.

The result of this was tension between the two rival camps as they became suspicious of each other. A disagreement between two nations could result in a wider war, as each country joined in to defend their allies.


As this blog is already over long and I’ve left the kids’ books in school(!), I will use my second post to show some of the pupils’ responses later in the week when I’ve retrieved their books. But, overall, pupils were able to follow the three-phase structure and had understood the purpose of each phase. The quality of the content of each phase and the extent to which they had described the formation of the alliances and how this led to tension was more variable.