Using 'what, how, why' to develop and support pupil responses

After a successful few weeks with using 'what, how, why' (and a lot of tweaking of resources), I thought I'd share some of my most successful activities and resources.


Firstly, I combined all of the different ways in which I use these phrases into a wall poster. This way it is visible and accessible and when teaching I can walk over and point to it. In addition, pupils can now come up to the wall whenever they feel they need extra support or clarification. Quite a few have even taken photos to help with homework! I will eventually add pupil work to this display so they can also see what it looks like as a finished product with examples.

Lesson activities

I also designed a few activities specifically around the use of ‘what, how, why’. I had a successful lesson with Y8s where they were brainstorming around ‘what, how, why’ in terms of the novel we were reading. We read a chapter, I posed a question and then the class got to work making notes. This could be done on A3 paper, however we used washable pens that can write on furniture…they loved it! Once the notes were finished, I asked pupils to walk around and read each different group’s work.

They then chose the one they liked and copied it into their book so they had all they needed for the analytical writing planned for next lesson. The great thing about this task was hearing the pupils ask each other questions as they brainstormed ideas: ‘but why did the author choose this word?’ ‘why was violent imagery used? What does it show?' They really focused on picking apart the novel and begun to question each other in order to make sure their notes were accurate. As a teacher, my input here was minimal but I felt that was ok as they were managing fine without me!

Guided worksheet

I created this sheet as a way of guiding pupils through the ‘what, how why’ process so they can easily see how a good response to a text is built up. I used this with y8 & y9 and it worked well but y7 needed a lot more guidance as most of these skills are completely new to them, so I adapted the sheet for them and added more skills. I won’t always use these and in future will offer them as options if a pupil is still struggling to develop their writing. Some pupils also didn’t want to write on them and instead preferred to have them on the table but do their work in their book. So in effect, they still used them as a guide but wanted the freedom of more space in their book.

Reference sheet

This sheet is a lot more detailed than the previous one mentioned and I use this with Y10 and 11 and am currently adapting it for KS5. This sheet reminds pupils of the ‘what, how why’ structure but gives them a variety of extra prompts in order to develop further as they write an extended piece of work. I ask pupils to glue this into their book so they can refer to it at any point in the lesson and also at home.

Embedding it into lesson activities

I use variations of ‘what, how why’ depending on the task and skill and try and embed this into lessons as much as possible so it becomes like second nature. My year 11s particularly liked the ‘imagery train’ we used to discuss poetry; they found that it really helped them to develop their responses on the effect of imagery and why it is used.

I also created an essay companion for y10 & 11 which, even though it mostly focused on how to use academic phrases, I also added a ‘what, how, why’ box that they said helped them remember how to develop ideas throughout the essay. I even add ‘what, how, why’ to starter activities and plenaries! I have found that the more often I link these to different activities, the more likely I am to hear pupils using them with each other or in their own work. And I had a lovely moment last week after a timed assessment last week where 4 y11 pupils had written ‘what, how, why’ in the margin as a reminder. It’s nice to know they listen!

I also use only parts of ‘what how why’, and sometimes focus more on one aspect if I think that’s the skill my class need to work on. Recently, I realised that after marking a batch of poetry essays that my Y11 class were struggling with ‘why’ a technique had been used. To support them with this, the next lesson we looked solely at the ‘why’.

As a marking strategy

I created a marking sticker that explicitly focuses on the ‘what, how, why’ skills. This not only reinforces the significance of using this method, but also makes it very clear how pupils are progressing with each task. I use highlighters in order to make marking that bit quicker and ask pupils to improve whichever section I have highlighted in the column on the right. This works well as a way to promote instant re-drafting and gives pupils the confidence to incorporate this skill into their next piece of work.

I hope some of these ideas have proven useful. Please visit this page for free downloads of all the documents I mention in this blog.

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