Varying Drill Questions: 10 Strategies for Mixing Up 5-a-day Starters

I’m a convert. I love retrieval practice, I love repetition in learning, I love low stakes quizzing. Most of all, I love the happy faces in front of me when students start a lesson getting 5/5 – there is no better way to start a lesson than with a 5-a-day. The wonderful Rebecca Foster has written about this here – but I reckon most of edutwitter (/the world) have read about this idea.

I have been doing this regular starter quizzing for some time with KS4, where it can support interleaving of exam content, alongside knowledge of the texts and understanding of how language works. This year we made it consistent across Key Stage 3 to provide routine and higher expectations of knowledge retention from year 7 through to year 13. The gains I have seen in the younger years have been phenomenal.

Alongside knowledge organisers and self-quizzing homeworks (also explained by Rebecca Foster here) our KS3 has become more rigorous and purposeful, and we are expecting a certain level of retention from the three years which have commonly been known as “the wasted years”. My vision is that students will arrive to us at KS4 with a solid foundation of the English language and how literature works – a key player in this, in my eyes, is the 5-a-day starter.

I was lucky enough to visit Rebecca towards the end of the last academic year, where she went through her interleaved curriculum for KS3 along with lessons where 5-a-days would start every single lesson across the entire English department. I worried about them being limiting – thinking, naively, that they were just simply forcing students to recall knowledge and weren’t really allowing them to complete varied styles of questions. It’s not even Christmas and I now realise my stupidity. A typical 5-a-day for me at KS3 would look like this:

1 Typical

This asks students to recall basic definitions, dates, advanced vocabulary, and looks back to the learning they did last year. I always set a final question that has a closed answer and an extended response, so that students are not sat waiting if it’s a staggered start to the lesson. It also prevents that frustrating moment with a starter when one student shouts out gleefully “I’m finished” and another student in the class then asks “what’s the date?”.

So, for my love of these wonderful quiz-based, recall-filled, easy to measure starters, I thought I’d pop together a quick blog post where I could explain 10 different styles of questions/ elements of English teaching that I focus on.


1: Building Vocabulary

2 Building Vocab

We now have ambitious vocabulary lists for our KS3 groups, where we spend a whole term learning to understand, adapt and use 10 words taken from a high level piece of literature linked to the unit that term. For the starters I will try and add in a vocabulary related question (once they have been taught the words and spent some time working on them for homework!) each day, with sometimes having a whole starter related to building that vocabulary.

There are lots of ways I will do this, the one above being a simple example, but often just with simple questions like to provide a definition, or provide the word itself. I will sometimes vary it by asking students to use two contradicting words in the same sentence, for example bewildered and captivated. 

Although I do a lot of this with KS3, I also use it regularly when tackling a text with KS4, as below…

2: Write a sentence using…

6 Using the word

Whilst at KS3 the vocabulary building questions are often focused on developing their more complex vocabulary use, at KS4 I tend to focus on tackling the language that is at the heart of the text itself, or to understanding key concepts or the context of the text. For example, after studying ‘War Photographer’, the following 5-a-day asked students to use dispel and intone in various ways. For question 4 above, students wrote comments about Scrooge’s avaricious attitude, but others wrote about the historical context of the novella. We shared these and unpicked them.

Interestingly, when we were first reading about Scrooge in his ‘counting-house’ I dropped in the word avaricious. My class love a new word, so I explained the definition, various forms, used it in a few sentences. One student mumbled “yeah, I’m never going to remember that”… “we’ll see” I replied. It was the first question on the next starter- I checked his work. He remembered. 3 days later, it came up again and I intentionally walked over to him “yeah, I get it, I know the answer…” so obviously spaced practice comes in to it at GCSE, especially with building vocabulary. I try to repeat in the same lesson, next lesson, 3 lessons later, a week later… give them just enough time to almost forget before I repeat it.

3. Going back to basics

3 Word Classes

We complete a baseline assessment with year 7 when they arrive, which includes some basic grammar MCQs. Most students know their word classes. So why do they come to us at Year 10 not knowing their basic grammar terminology? It bugs the hell out of me. Yes, I appreciate that AQA have said they don’t need to know these in order to get the marks for subject terminology. Great. Maybe I’m teaching them more than for the exam? Perhaps I want them to know and understand the intricacies of the English language. Perhaps when I analyse a text, I want students to identify the use of present participle verbs and their effect, or to identify the use of abstract nouns, or perhaps I just want them to know the language of language  – the basics before they learn the simile and the metaphor.

Rant over. Our first knowledge organiser for year 7 up until Christmas is essentially the basics of language – word classes, clause types, sentence types, text language (audience, reader, poet, playwright) and text types. The first KO section students self-quiz on is the word classes section, and as a minimum I expect all my classes at KS3 to easily identify these. I will vary these questions, and often just do one at a time. The slide above shows a test after that section of self-quizzing was due, with variations on forcing recall of this basic terminology. Number 2 often gets the best results. I have often varied it and included vocabulary list words too (use 2 verbs, 1 adjective, 3 nouns, and at least one word from the vocabulary list) – it’s surprising how quickly they do this, and how desperately they want to read them out.

4: Filling in the gaps

4 fill in gaps

Oh, I do love a good fill in the gaps style task. I’m not so keen on the ones where students choose a word from a list and match them into the box – this often, I find, leads to them just finding the word that fits into the sentence rather than understanding the content. I prefer to do it with a quotation in the early stages of quotation learning. So the 5-a-day above would be a week or so after studying ‘Exposure’, but having read TCOTLB the lesson before. They are remembering 4 words from ‘Exposure’ but only 1 from TCOTLB, one that’s repeated 6 times throughout the poem, so hopefully it’s a pretty easy one.

I find, strangely, that these starters, once you unpick them, are extremely strategically selected, even if in reality they don’t feel like it at the time. So, the next lesson I might ignore the quotation from ‘Exposure’ and then maybe have more gaps for the COTLB quotation. Then, leave them both for a bit, and switch to newer quotations with only one gap. Eventually, students are being exposed to the quotations in multiple ways, and that repetition is (hopefully) taking these little nuggets of knowledge from their short term to their long term memory. Then eventually you can use simply…

5: Images to aid recall

5 images

I was  a bit worried about losing my beloved images when doing 5-a-day starters on the board. I don’t understand why (maybe I thought pictures wouldn’t fit?)… I still use them, as above. It’s a nice way to mix up the starter, getting students to associate the idea with an image, instead of just recalling information. And it obviously also supports their dual coding of the quotation.

I also encourage students to use similar images on their flashcards, which I try and encourage to be relatively simple and linked to the images used in lessons, to support the regular retrieval of similar knowledge.

6: Who said it?

7 who said it

Time for a confession… with year 11, I do more than 5 a day. I found that after regular quizzing in year 10 they were in such a routine that I was starting the register and the one who had arrived first was finished. I’ve made it 8-10 instead, but ensured that the answers are kept short and closed so that marking takes seconds and there is no debate over what is right or wrong.

The above quiz seems simple, but really it’s testing their knowledge of the quotations as well as the characters. It creates some interesting discussions, especially when students get them wrong. For example, for Q3, it would make sense to put that as Mr or Mrs Birling – why? Because it holds a capitalist edge, and they are the symbols of capitalism in the play. I found that students were often getting the poetry ones wrong, which is why I started doing…

7: Name that poem

8 name the poem

Sometimes, when you start to compare and contrast poems, they become less distinct and separate than they might have done when they were first taught. For that reason, I now try to include drill questions of the nature above, so that students are forced to think where each quotation is from. It’s also a nice way to re-expose them to the quotations if it’s been a while since looking at the poetry.

It’s interesting where the confusions often occur – for example, often with ‘Bayonet Charge’ and ‘Exposure’ – these can then be unpicked. Okay, why might we have got these two confused? Because they’re both about the soldiers in war, miss. Okay, how can we make sure we know which poem it’s from? Well, that one uses “us” because Owen is one of the soldiers, he went to war, but the other one uses “he”… really, in these discussions over misconceptions, you’re spending some time comparing and contrasting, without asking too explicitly – students are learning how to separate the poems but also how and why they might overlap.

8: Developing comparisons (and planning)

9 comparing

Another way of delving into comparison is to explicitly ask. Without naming one poem, I will ask students which poems they might pick to compare a potential topic (Q5). This is my extended question, so I will tell students that I expect a plan here. The 5 a day starter only takes 5-10 minutes (max) – but a plan should take no more than 5 minutes. The answers to questions 1-3 are one word – maybe a sentence for Q4, so the reality is a plan is reasonable for Q5.

The discussion over this can be as long as it needs to be. There is a danger of course where you can start asking students to explain their responses to this more extended response. I will often say something like “an obvious comparison might be this… because… but then an interesting one could be this… because” and just provide them with a different angle on the question, so that the poems are being constantly linked in varied and interesting ways.

9: All answers start with the same letter

10 one single letter

I enjoy varying drill questions like this for three reasons. Firstly, it speeds the students up in identifying the answers of the easier questions. Secondly, it gives them a nice prompt for the harder questions, where they are able to hazard an educated guess for a new piece of information. Finally, it makes me mix the questions up, and get me thinking about what I haven’t asked them in a while, ensuring that they are getting a varied diet of questions. A similar style to this is…

10. All answers have a common thread

All answers same class

The more basic way I have done this in the past is by picking a theme, and centring all questions around that theme. But in reality, whilst this creates a focus for the questions, it doesn’t help students with the answers, or contribute to other parts of their knowledge. I have therefore created a series of quizzes where all the answers fit into one word class.

This can work on two levels – if a student is confident what a noun is, they are aided in finding the responses by this knowledge. If they’re not, they have to use a question they’re confident on the answer for to figure more about the word class. Then, when we go through a list of answers, we can briefly recap the definition/function of that word class.


Hopefully there has been something useful in there! Thanks, again, to Rebecca Foster, for allowing me to visit her lovely school, and for her great ideas.

Below are some links for loads of free interleaved quizzes for Y11, shared last year. I taught Macbeth, R&J, ACCarol, J+Hyde and An Inspector Calls, so there’s a fair old mix there!

8 random quizzes

8 quizzes by theme

8 quizzes with same letter answers

8 quizzes with word class answers



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