Interleaving and spacing

Interleaving and spacing

Interleaving and spacing are concepts that I have been researching and implementing for the past couple of years in order to provide students with the best possible chance of retaining their learning.

We are now very much up and running with the new specification, as are many English departments. To our frustration, we are all very much aware that there is now much more content to learn, less time in exams to demonstrate understanding and students now only have that one opportunity to apply their knowledge. Gone too, are the glory days of coursework/controlled assessment. In those days, we would get the coursework done in year 10 and focus purely on exam in year 11. This meant that students only had to retain their exam knowledge for just over two terms. What a dream!

With the new linear model, many of us are starting our GCSE courses part way through year 9 and some of us at the beginning of year 9 in order to ensure all of the content is covered. This therefore means that we are expecting students to retain their understanding, in some cases, for three years before having to apply it in an exam.

Where my journey began?

For me, the difficulty of this became apparent after I’d received ‘star of the week’ for a lesson I was seen teaching. I was seen on a learning walk teaching the concepts of fate and predestination to very low ability year 10. As the door handle went, my heart sank and I instantly regretted selecting such a complex topic for the group. To my surprise the lesson went well and the lowest ability child was able to define the term and apply it to the text. The student therefore demonstrated clear progress. After celebrating receiving a bottle of prosecco with several selfies, it dawned on me that whilst that child evidenced progress in that snap shot of time, it was highly unlikely that they would recall it in two years’ time when faced with an exam situation. To be honest, I’d be over the moon if they remember who wrote the play, let alone how fate and predestination is relevant.

Something had to be done.


Block teaching.

Most of us will be completely familiar with the concept of teaching in blocks. It’s the way we’ve done it, for as long as I can remember. The sad fact is that the students learn only 50% of what we teach them. We can spend hours planning whizzy lessons with cherries on the top, but unless we can ensure students will retain the lesson content, then our efforts are futile.

What is interleaving?

Interleaving is where we mix the chunks of learning up.


Yes, to begin with, it does create a sense of unease but in a beneficial way. Block learning builds a sense of security. Interleaving builds a small sense of anxiety so you take more care over what you are learning and can build links with what you have already taught. Of course this must be done carefully. You wouldn’t for example teach Macbeth on Monday, Jekyll and Hyde on Tuesday, poetry on Wednesday etc. The narratives of the texts would be completely lost. What can be effective however is making the starter relevant to a topic previously taught. The homework may the be on another topic. I’ve provided some strategies below that I have found successful.

The Ebbinghaus forgetting curve

Hermann Ebbinghaus investigated the concept of retention and found that having learned a series of nonsensical syllables, after one month he could only recall 20%. Imagine how this might apply the students in your lessons. When you have finished teaching a topic: what percentage of the learning can they recall? Then imagine you teach this unit in year 9 and two years later, they sit the exam. How much have they retained now?


Spacing: Theory of disuse

When learning is spaced out, students have a greater chance of retaining a larger percentage of the content.

The key is not to simply re-teach content as this is dull not only for the students but for us too. It also can’t be as simple as just re-testing continually. The most effective spacing strategies will use old learning as a platform for further engagement.

Getting started

Interleaving must be planned carefully and strategies should be phased in so not to completely freak out the students.

In my department we began interleaving in a very simple way. Rather than all of spring 1’s content being on ‘Romeo and Juliet’ we have endeavoured to keep content fresh by ensuring that homework is based on a text previously studied for example. Starters may also be based on a previous topic.


Week Main topic Interleaved ‘Do it now’ starter Assessment Homework Interleaved content
1 Jekyll and Hyde 5 a day revision taken from all texts Language paper 1 An Inspector Calls Duality – in the poem ‘Extract from the prelude’ compared to Jekyll

Presentation of London in chapter 1 compared to the poem ‘London.’


Interleaving the content

One of the most beneficial things that we did as a department was to look at our entire curriculum from year 7 through to year 11. We started in year 11 and discussed the topics, themes and skills that came up in each and then made links back to previous years. E.g. Where else does duality come up in the schemes that we teach?

By doing this, we ensured that ‘duality’ for example is not a term that students stumble across in year 11 but is actually a term that they acquired much earlier in their school careers. This exemplifies the ideas of using old learning as a platform for deeper exploration. Rather than learning something new in year 11, students are revisiting old learning and using it as a platform for deeper exploration in relation to a different text.



By interleaving and spacing the curriculum model we are ensuring that students do not simply forget what they have learned but rather it flows through their school life. Neurone’s need to connect to ensure information is retained.

There is no one way to interleave and space and in fact there are many strategies that can be used to help interleave including the Leitner system, chanting, do it now starters and creating the thematic links.

The important thing is to reflect on how these concepts may be applied to our subjects in order to arm our students with the best possible weaponry for succeeding in their terminal examination.

A few strategies:

  1. Homework tasks assess understanding of previous topics
  2. Starters assess student understanding of previous topics. 200 word challenges, do it now starters and 5 a day starters are really useful for this.
  3. Map where themes crop up across texts. When you get to the role of women in Romeo and Juliet: draw on their understanding of this theme from when they studied Curley’s wife for example, or the duchess in Browning’s poem.
  4. The Leitner system has proved particularly beneficial and has been enjoyed by students. They each have a small folder with 6 sections. They have a set of cards that assess their understanding of a text studied. If they answer the question correctly: it moves back a section in the folder. If it is answered incorrectly it moves back to the front. Students follow a rota that dictates which sections should be revised. As the card moves further back it is being committed to long term memory.


Next steps

How can I adapt my LTP to include Interleaving and Spacing?

  • Map themes across texts, schemes, years and Key stages
  • Map what exam style practise you will do and when. Don’t forget to think about how this sits alongside your teaching of the course.
  • Map your homework/starters onto your calendar
  • Ensure this is a collaborative process within your department, otherwise they are less likely to adopt the method.
  • Determine the thematic links within the MTPs
  • Prioritize. It’s impossible to do everything well straight away




Exam results day. How to cope and what to do if you don’t get the results you hoped for.

Exam results day for GCSE and A level is just around the corner. It’s a stressful time for everybody: students, teachers and parents alike.


The day is filled with a wide range of emotions and quite frankly it is exhausting. So many happy tears but also so many tears of sadness not only from students but from those who have also been so invested.

As a teenager it is difficult to envisage yourself immersed in a career and choosing that career can also seem incredibly daunting given that it is a life choice that is going to last for a long time. The grades in the envelope are a stepping stone. They will help to determine the path you will follow. They are not a measure of how successful you will be in the grown up world.

Very few of us are lucky enough to know exactly what we want to do as an adult when we turn up to collect that all important envelope. It’s why we study so many different GCSE subjects. They give is a broad understanding of a wide range of topics. The ones we are good at or enjoy are the ones that we might pursue in the future. They are usually the subjects that we achieve the best in. You do not need to be amazing in all of them. You will not need high grades in all of your GCSE subjects.

I remember my career goals changing drastically. As a 6-year-old I wanted to be an Ice Cream man with my own van and everything. Later I wanted to be radio presenter but also knew that I’d be more than happy teaching. It was instilled in me as a child that I needed a backup plan, particularly because the chance of making it in radio and showbiz was so unlikely. In a similar way to those wanting to be professional footballers: I was always told ‘that’s great but what will you do if that doesn’t work out?’

Thankfully it did work out for a short time. Not as a result of my GCSE results though. I gained a position in the radio industry through determination and persistence. Eventually they had to offer me something in order to stop me bothering them. For each world or European football championship my Dad and I would paint the house (as shown below) which of course attracted media attention. Following each interview: I asked for a job. I started handing out leaflets and worked my way up to my own radio show on one of the country’s biggest radio stations. What I am trying to say is that your GCSE/A level results do not necessarily determine your success in life. Yes, you may need to rethink or carve out a new path, but those numbers in the envelope do not determine whether you succeed or fail in life. You are not expected to know, at age 16, the career you want to do for the rest of your life.


If you are one of the lucky ones who do know exactly the career that you want, then it is vitally important that you research the entry requirements and career path. If you want to be a doctor it is important that you know the expectations in terms of GCSE grades in particular subjects. Likewise, it is important to know what A level qualification you will be expected to have in order to get to university. On results day it will be these grades that should be the most important to you.

My back up plan was to be a teacher. Initially I wanted to be a primary school teacher. I knew that I would need grade Cs or higher in English, Maths and Science. This knowledge meant that actually my History and Food technology grades became less relevant to me. It turned out that I got a D in Science which put an obstacle in my path. There are however always options. It is never the end of the road. I could re-sit Science or I could re-think my path. I ended up as a secondary English teacher which is a career that I adore and whilst studying A level English I realised how passionate I was about the subject. Suddenly my D in science was less significant as I’d realised that being a secondary English teacher was for me. So I changed my path. I negotiated my way around the obstacle and still made a success of my life by studying English at University.

Teachers tell you throughout your studies that failure is not an option and that you only get one shot so make it count. And then after the exams people tell you not to worry because it’s just a piece of paper. (Which is basically what I am doing now, going against everything I have told my year 11s for the last 2 years.) The reality is that grades are important if they are essential to your education/career pathway.

Plan for results day

Results day is a stressful day. Fact. The best thing you can do is plan ahead.

  1. What time do you need to be in school? How are you going to get there? What time do you need to set your alarm? What will you have for breakfast? By thinking this through you will ease some of the stress and anxiety. Don’t just turn up unprepared.
  2. Consider all of the possible eventualities. What will you do if you get the grades you want? What about if you get higher grades than you thought? Does that change anything? What will you do if your grades are lower than expected? Have a plan. That way: whatever is lurking inside that envelope can be dealt with.
  3. Get plenty of rest ahead of the big day.
  4. Don’t go alone. You’ll want someone there to pat you on the back and congratulate you. Or you’ll want someone’s shoulder to cry on.

 Things to take with you

  1. Paper and pen
  2. The phone number of the colleges/sixth forms/Universities you have applied to. If you’re collecting A level results you may want the UCAS advice number too.
  3. Tissues. For obvious reasons.
  4. Your phone so that you can take that all important results day selfie.
  5. A friend or family member. (I didn’t do this but wish I had)

If you don’t get the results you hoped for

Remember that any disappointment is only temporary and that there’s always a way forward.

  1. Speak to teachers. There will be plenty of them there on the day and they will be experienced in helping you. You won’t be the first student to have missed out on the grade you wanted. They can talk through your options with you.
  2. Investigate the possibility of getting your paper remarked. There will probably be a fee for doing this but if you were only a few marks off it could be worth requesting this. There is however no guarantee that the mark will change.
  3. Phone the college/sixth form/university or UCAS advice line. Explain your situation. They may still accept you onto the course. They may just request that you resit a subject.
  4. Investigate the possibility of re-sitting the exam. Most colleges and sixth forms will insist on you re-sitting English and Maths if you didn’t get the grade they requested. The first round of re-sits are in November. You can do this through the establishment you are enrolling at or as an independent candidate at your current school or college. Speak to the exams officer or a teacher.
  5. Consider an alternative route. You might investigate apprenticeships or traineeships as an alternative to your original plan. These may still help you to get to where you want to be.

Child Line is an organisation that provides over the phone counselling should you feel like you need someone to talk to after receiving your exam results.


If you have collected A level results and are worried about your options, you can call the UCAS advice line and talk through your next steps. 0800 100 900

Maybe you did better than expected

If this is the case or you achieved exactly what you wanted than huge congratulations. It may be that you can now upgrade your college/sixth form or university choice. You may have discounted an option because their entry requirement seemed too ambitious. You may now be in a position where you can apply. Give them a call and share with them your good news.


Whatever is in the envelope just remember that you are awesome and will go onto do amazing things regardless.

Everything will be OK in the end. If it’s not OK, then it’s definitely not the end.