Education philosophy

Steps to Success: a motivational tool for students

I use Steps to Success to motivate and track student achievement in a variety of areas. If you can measure it, you can track it using Steps to Success! Here, I’ll use the example of teaching vocabulary about food to intermediate students who are able to write in English. For students at the pre-writing stage see see ‘adapting Steps to Success for non-writers’ at the bottom of the page. This post first appeared as a guest post on Teaching Village.

You will need:

A Steps to Success ladder


A badge for each student

name labels thumb

A teacher record sheet

record sheet thumb

You’ll also need something to time the tests with, and to make a sound when time is up.

Using Steps to Success

  • Introduce the content that you want to track. For example, during this unit I want students to increase their vocabulary of food items.

  • Timed pre-test #1.

    As soon as students have some knowledge of the content, give the students a timed pre-test. To reduce potential student anxiety, you can call it a game or a practice test. Tell the students the theme, and make sure that they understand the theme. (For the food unit, I want students to learn the names of foodstuffs, but I’ll also accept food-related words like ‘kitchen’ ‘fork’ and ‘eat’.) Make sure students know in advance what you will and will not accept. Decide in advance whether you will accept misspelled words. Explain the test procedure to the students. Start a timer. Depending on the ages of the students, set the timer for 3 or 5 minutes. The students have that time to list as many words within the theme as they can. When time is up, make a sound to alert the students. They should put down their pens immediately. With young and competitive students, this can take some practice to get right. Collect the students’ tests, and count up how many words each student listed. Record the scores and keep them to yourself. Share some of the words from the lists, particularly if some students have listed unusual words that others have not thought of. To help the students to remember the words, write them on the board, match them to pictures, make sure each student understands the meaning of the words, and use the words as often as possible in your discussions and teaching. Congratulate the students on completing the first part of the activity, and place each of their badges on the first rung of the ladder.

  • Timed test #2.

    After you have taught some more content and the students have had a chance to learn some more vocabulary words, repeat the test. The object is for the students to list more words than they did last time. It doesn’t matter if they list some of the same words as last time, but the object is to increase the number of words they can list. After the test, count the scores. If students have written one more word than last time, they can move their badge one rung up the ladder. If they have written two words more, they move up two rungs, etc. If students get a worse score, or their score is the same, they stay on the same rung.

  • Repeat and watch your students’ progress!

    As long as the students are still improving, they can still move up the ladder. You could reward the student who moves up the ladder the quickest, or the student who gets to the top of the ladder first, or you can just use the ladder as a motivational tool with no final goal.

Woohoo! Everyone's a winner! Photo by  Lighttruth

Woohoo! Everyone’s a winner! Photo by Lighttruth

I found that this activity worked well in mixed-level classes, as each student competes against themselves. It pushes the brightest students to work harder and supports the weakest students by making sure that they are not singled out by consistently getting low scores in a test. It also allows weaker and stronger students to compete against each other.

Note: In my class I had some very smart and particularly competitive students. These students quickly worked out that if they deliberately did badly in the pre-test, it was easier for them to improve their scores in the later tests and so climb the ladder faster. Sneaky! I combatted this by recording the score that the students got on the very first pre-test (when they didn’t know what was coming) and ensured that they always got around that number for subsequent pre-tests. It is also harder for students to cheat if you change elements of the test each time, such as the length of time of the test, the type of words you request, etc. I also found that the higher the potential reward, the more the students were likely to cheat. If the only reward is feeling proud of their achievements, students are less likely to cheat.

I’ve used the Steps to Success model to motivate my students in various areas:

  • Vocabulary: ‘how many animals can you name?’ ‘list things you would find in your kitchen’ ‘list adjectives you could use to describe people’
  • Spelling patterns – ‘how many words can you list that contain ‘igh’?
  • Math skills – I gave students sheets of addition, subtraction, multiplication or division problems, to see how many they could complete in 3 minutes.
  • Parts of speech/grammar – ‘how many verbs/adjectives/adverbs can you list?’
  • Creative thinking: ‘how many ways can you finish this sentence: The tiger escaped from the zoo and….’

Adapting Steps to Success for non-writers

Collaborative whole-class speaking activity.
Instead of giving students individual badges, make one large badge to represent the whole class. During the test, students shout out words while you frantically write them on the board. When you do your first test, there should be some good lengthy pauses before the timer runs out. This will ensure room to improve. This method can be a little boisterous, but it’s super fun – as long as you can write fast enough!

Small group speaking activity.
As above, but with small groups. This takes a bit more organization, as you will test one group at a time. This option works well if you have a mixed-level class of non-writers, as you can team the students up with those of similar language level. Have each team choose a team name, and a team badge.

Individual speaking/reading activity.
This can work if you have a very small class, or you really want to get some specific information about your students. I’ve used this method to track my kindergarten students’ progress in letter recognition (how many letter cards can they recognize in 1 minute?), sight word recognition, vocabulary, counting, etc. The main thing is to track the students’ scores and show their rate of improvement on the Steps to Success ladder.

Do you have more ideas? Have you used Steps to Success in your classroom? Leave a comment!


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