Sunday, 13 January 2019

Giving us a choice in reading assessments and stopping our fixation with essay writing and essay preparation

When the new English GCSEs were introduced, the exam boards were selling their courses on the basis of KS3 materials. These KS3 materials were simply watered down GCSE papers. The longer I teach the GCSEs, the more I see that watered down GCSE questions is not the way to do things best. I have enough of marking exam papers and adding Years 7, 8 and 9 into the mix means that I am just a walking and talking exam marking machine – with teeth and hair. The GCSEs are the end point, but they are not the starting and middle point too. Years of answering the structure question will not make students better at answering them. It will make them understand the format well, but not necessarily the knowledge and skills to answer it effectively.
Last year, we tried to strategies to address reading and the assessing of reading. I wanted to explore how we could assess reading without defaulting to GCSE questions. A large problem with teaching and assessing reading is that it is all largely based on written literary analysis. Students are taught to write a literary response to a text from Year 7. How does the writer use language to make the monster sound scary in the extract? Students have to make a point and then explain it in detail. This is repeated again and again. And, we judge a student’s reading based on this. We see if they understand the text and we see if they can explain how the writer used language. All too often, these paragraphs are a retention of knowledge and the clever bits the teacher told them in class. If we honest, there is a level of narcissism when marking these essay style bits of writing, because we like it if the student remembers something we said or told them. Let’s give them a higher mark.
The added problem to this literary analysis is how we prepare students for writing a response. Students are often so heavily supported to write the essay so that sometimes the assessment amounts to filling in the gaps assessment. The problem I have is separating the student’s understanding from the teacher’s support. Rather than seeing what the student can and can’t do, we see what they can recall. If we are honest, how useful to our teaching is student’s response to an essay title that we have been preparing them for from the start of the unit? Essay based assessments do help us to spot issues with the use of quotations, idea forming and explanations, but do they effectively helps us to understand how students read independently and respond to a text?  
Therefore, we’ve changed our approach to some reading assessments to help us get a better picture. At the start of KS3 and KS4, we complete a reading age test to identify their reading skills. Last year, we started changing the assessment of reading skill as we approach literary texts. We started using multiple choice questioning. Here’s an example of one we used with our Year 7s this year.

Heroes and Villains Assessment 2018 – Dracula
Just as I had come to this conclusion I heard a heavy step approaching behind the great door, and saw through the chinks the gleam of a coming light. Then there was the sound of rattling chains and the clanking of massive bolts drawn back. A key was turned with the loud grating noise of long disuse, and the great door swung back.

Within stood a tall old man, clean shaven save for a long white moustache, and clad in black from head to foot, without a single speck of colour about him anywhere. He held in his hand an antique silver lamp, in which the flame burned without a chimney or globe of any kind, throwing long quivering shadows as it flickered in the draught of the open door. The old man motioned me in with his right hand with a courtly gesture, saying in excellent English, but with a strange intonation.

"Welcome to my house! Enter freely and of your own free will!" He made no motion of stepping to meet me, but stood like a statue, as though his gesture of welcome had fixed him into stone. The instant, however, that I had stepped over the threshold, he moved impulsively forward, and holding out his hand grasped mine with a strength which made me wince, an effect which was not lessened by the fact that it seemed cold as ice, more like the hand of a dead than a living man. Again he said:

"Welcome to my house! Enter freely. Go safely, and leave something of the happiness you bring!" The strength of the handshake was so much akin to that which I had noticed in the driver, whose face I had not seen, that for a moment I doubted if it were not the same person to whom I was speaking. So to make sure, I said interrogatively, "Count Dracula?"

He bowed in a courtly way as he replied, "I am Dracula, and I bid you welcome, Mr. Harker, to my house. Come in, the night air is chill, and you must need to eat and rest." As he was speaking, he put the lamp on a bracket on the wall, and stepping out, took my luggage. He had carried it in before I could forestall him. I protested, but he insisted.

"Nay, sir, you are my guest. It is late, and my people are not available. Let me see to your comfort myself." He insisted on carrying my traps along the passage, and then up a great winding stair, and along another great passage, on whose stone floor our steps rang heavily. At the end of this he threw open a heavy door, and I rejoiced to see within a well-lit room in which a table was spread for supper, and on whose mighty hearth a great fire of logs, freshly replenished, flamed and flared.

The Count halted, putting down my bags, closed the door, and crossing the room, opened another door, which led into a small octagonal room lit by a single lamp, and seemingly without a window of any sort. Passing through this, he opened another door, and motioned me to enter. It was a welcome sight. For here was a great bedroom well lighted and warmed with another log fire, also added to but lately, for the top logs were fresh, which sent a hollow roar up the wide chimney. The Count himself left my luggage inside and withdrew, saying, before he closed the door.

"You will need, after your journey, to refresh yourself by making your toilet. I trust you will find all you wish. When you are ready, come into the other room, where you will find your supper prepared."

The light and warmth and the Count's courteous welcome seemed to have dissipated all my doubts and fears. Having then reached my normal state, I discovered that I was half famished with hunger. So making a hasty toilet, I went into the other room.

I found supper already laid out. My host, who stood on one side of the great fireplace, leaning against the stonework, made a graceful wave of his hand to the table, and said,

"I pray you, be seated and sup how you please. You will I trust, excuse me that I do not join you, but I have dined already, and I do not sup."

Extract from Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’  

1.        Whose perspective is the story told from?

ð         A: Count Dracula

ð         B: Mr Harker  

ð         C: The Driver 

ð         D: A Servant

2.        What is the narrator’s attitude towards Count Dracula?

ð         A: Scared 

ð         B: Curious   

ð         C: Nervous   

ð         D: Excited  

3.        By the end of the extract, the narrator is…

ð         A: Relaxed and calm

ð         B: Worried and scared  

ð         C: A bit nervous

ð         D: Angry and fed-up 

4.        What group of words best describes Count Dracula in this extract?

ð         A: worried, anxious, scared

ð         B: rude, abrupt, demanding 

ð         C: mysterious, cautious, distant

ð         D: friendly, welcoming, helpful

5.        Why do you think Count Dracula speaks so kindly to the narrator?  

ð         A: To fool him into thinking he is safe

ð         B: To hypnotise him

ð         C: To show how evil he is

ð         D: To show how he is better than the narrator

6.        How does the writer create the atmosphere in the opening paragraph?

ð         A: Sound effects

ð         B: Light effects 

ð         C: A list

ð         D: A metaphor 

7.        To make Count Dracula seem like a villain the writer has mainly used… 

ð         A: Physical description

ð         B: Dialogue 

ð         C: Exaggeration 

ð         D: Sound effects 

8.        ‘…his hand grasped mine with a strength which made me wince… it seemed cold as ice, more like the hand of a dead than a living man.’ 

What technique is used here?

ð         A: Metaphor

ð         B: Simile

ð         C: Personification

ð         D: Exaggeration 

9.        To make Count Dracula seem less like a villain, the writer has made the character…

ð         A: attractive  

ð         B: tell a joke 

ð         C: Kind and old 

ð         D: look weak

10.     In paragraph 6, the writer repeats the word ‘great’ to …

ð         A: show the size of the place

ð         B: show us there’s lots of holes in the room

ð         C: show us how dark the place is 

ð         D: show us how small things are

11.     Why does Count Dracula use lots of exclamations?

ð         A: To show he is in shock

ð         B: To show that he is shouting

ð         C: To show how pleased he is

ð         D: To show how he thinks the narrator doesn’t understand him

12.     Which two things are the biggest causes of tension in the extract?

ð         A: Vampires and a castle

ð         B: Darkness and only two characters

ð         C: Lots of silence and strange noises 

ð         D: Dracula wants to kill him / monster lurking 

13.     Who in this scene has the most power?

ð         A: Neither characters 

ð         B: Both

ð         C: Narrator

ð         D: Count Dracula

14.     There are lots of references to light in this extract. The light is a symbol. What is it a symbol of?

ð         A: Safety 

ð         B: God 

ð         C: Healing 

ð         D: Ghosts

15.     The writer works hard to convince us that Dracula is a person to be liked and respected. How does the writer do that?

ð         A: Makes him a ‘Count’

ð         B: Makes him come from another country  

ð         C: Makes him intelligent 

ð         D: Makes him tall

16.     ‘At the end of this he threw open a heavy door, and I rejoiced’

What does this suggest to us?

ð         A: He is angry with the narrator

ð         B: He is quite weak   

ð        C: He isn’t careful with his property

ð         D: He has incredible strength

17.   ‘The old man motioned me in with his right hand with a courtly gesture, saying in excellent English, but with a strange intonation.
What does the bit in bold suggest to us?

ð         A: He has a strange voice

ð         B: He speaks very quietly   

ð         C: He puts the emphasis on the wrong sounds in words  

ð         D: The narrator cannot hear him properly 

18.     Dracula is an example of the Gothic horror genre. What two features of the genre are evident here?   Pick two things.

ð         A: A woman being terrorised 

ð         B: A dark place  

ð         C: A human with strange powers 

ð         D: A dungeon

19.     What does the word ‘dissipated mean in the following line?

‘The light and warmth and the Count's courteous welcome seemed to have dissipated all my doubts and fears.’

ð         A: Improved

ð         B: Increase   

ð         C: Reduce  

ð         D: Change  


20. You are going to complete this section in your green assessment books.  Write a page in response to this question.

Bram Stoker doesn’t present Count Dracula as a typical villain. Explain why you think the writer presented him in the way he did.

In your response, you need to:

·         Use quotations from the extract to prove your points.

·         Pick out words or techniques used by the writer.

·         Explain what the writer is suggesting to the reader.

·         Explain what the reader feels. 

Our idea was to separate reading assessments into two parts. The students prior to this had not read the extract. Instead they had read several extracts from Dickens’s novels related to villains.

Part 1 focuses on understanding and what a student has and hasn’t picked up when reading the text. It uses a range of questions exploring inferences, techniques, perspective, word meanings and genre. From that, we can spot key bits that students haven’t got. But, interestingly, there are questions that relate to the GCSE exam without me being all showy.

For example:

Q1 – structure: Paper 1 Question 3

The student is identifying the perspective of the extract.

Q4 – summary: Paper 2 Question 2

The student is summarising the character.

Across the multiple choice part I can diagnose issues with a student. They can do X,Y and Z. However, they can’t do A, B and C, which is a far better diagnostic tool for reading skills. It isn’t perfect and I will admit it, but it is a starting point.

Part 2 is ‘ye olde essay writing’ but we have reduced it to a page and just a page. If a student can’t say it in a page, then they’ll never say it in fifteen. It’s here where we do a combination of GCSE questions – Q4 and Q2. They have a question in which they have to explain a point. The first part will hopefully support them with their ideas and help them to write a meaningful paragraph or two.

Oh, and this has reduced our marking considerably. Instead of us having four pages of essay for each student to mark, we now have students mark the multiple choice questions and we mark one single page. Before we’d read four pages to give a grade and then say ‘you need to use quotations’ which was ineffective as they’d forget to use quotations next time. Now, we can diagnose issues with reading, perspective for example, and explore how they write about texts quickly and effectively. It has also meant that we are not spending ages writing the one essay. We are working hard on preparation with more texts and not the same one text. It’s allowed for us to be more exploratory with texts. We have tried it with Shakespeare and Dickens novels. They are given an extract they haven’t studied in the multiple choice section and then the page essay is simply relating the text.

From a curriculum leader’s perspective, we are generating two marks and we report back on them. One for reading and one for writing about reading. It allows us to separate parts of reading. The student’s reading and the student’s ability to communicate their ideas about reading. There’s a lot of students who struggle to communicate their ideas about reading, but actually understand the texts. This way we are able to reward students for a bit that has been largely hidden by writing.

I admit there are elements to work on and we are still working on how to word the questions effectively, but for us it has been a significant change. Oh, and we haven’t ditched essays completely. We just use other forms to assess reading rather than rely on essays all the time.

Thanks for reading,


Sunday, 16 December 2018

Mock marking: we have a problem.

When you place the GCSE papers next to each other, you cannot help but notice that students have to write pages and pages of answers for the English GCSE papers. Occasionally, I have heard many subjects talk about how the 6 mark question is tricky because students have to write a lengthy paragraph. At times, for English, it feels like an endurance test rather than a test of knowledge and skill. The papers equate to several essays. GCSE English Language equates to four essays in one hour and forty five minutes a paper. Literature has two essays on one paper and three on the other paper.

But the exams are not only an endurance test for students,  they are also an endurance test for teachers. I’d love to say things are nice and fair in the world of mocking marking, but I can’t. Things are far from fair. English teachers would kill for a quick one word answer question or a table to mark. The only ‘joy’ teachers get is the four mark question and that is a short lived joy, when you have four essays to mark after that question. As a curriculum leader, I will often present leaders and governors with a copy of the exam paper, because I have to clarify what the paper covers and expects. All too often, the common thought about English is ‘write an essay about a story and write a pretty story’. It is gruelling. Gruelling to do. Gruelling to mark. You can see the penny drop on their faces as I turn page after page before leadership teams.  And, then students have to…. and then they have to … and then next they have to… and finally they… You can see that look on disbelief on their faces as they equate the amount of writing a students does with the pain and anguish it takes them to send one simple email to staff.

Yes, I might not have to clean the sinks after a lesson, go out in the cold, rain and snow or even have to explain the complexities of sexual intercourse to young giggling people, but I have to read lots and lots of work and that is considerably time consuming. I’d love to say that the opportunity to read a book in a lesson or watch a DVD version of the set text balances things out. It doesn’t and I think leadership teams need to look at what their English departments do in their schools, because there is a big problem with the marking of English mocks in schools. Many schools are getting teachers to mark four English papers in one exam period. That’s the equivalent of teachers marking thirteen essays per student in a class. Oh, don’t forget to mark KS3 books every fortnight and write some reports.  

I am a big fan of the new style of GCSEs – yes, there is one fan- but I think that they have caused a pressure point in schools. The knock-on effect of binning coursework in English has created a focal point of marking. If you are married to an English teacher, don’t expect to see them in the annual mock months of November and December. There are weeks of marking, in some cases.

The government and exam boards are not helping with the process as the emphasis has always been on students taking the exams in Year 11 and not Year 10, which compounds the problem. The majority of Year 10 is teaching and Year 11 becomes the preparation for the skills. Ultimately, the problem is that English teachers teach two GCSE courses and not one, like most subjects. Oh, and they are double weighted so they are really, really important to the whole school. We are marking double the amount of mock papers.

We need to address the inequality somehow. We are compelled to teach two GCSEs moral and educationally, but we need to shout about how the system needs to support English teachers. Honestly, I would have left my NQT year if I was faced with level of marking I have now for the GCSE papers. It is unsustainable and we need to acknowledge this.

I am in a lucky position that I am supported by the leaders in my school. They understand the marking situation and so we’ll have one paper marked before Christmas and one after. This sadly isn’t the case everywhere and we need to shout out about it. We need to be talking to leaders and teams and see what they can do to help. A shrug of the shoulder is not enough. A ‘well that is how it is’ smile is not enough. We need support and actions. We need schools to acknowledge the level of work involved and support teachers with the workload.

A long, long time ago English departments were given time off the timetable to moderate coursework folders. I want English departments to have that day off timetable again to mark exam papers. This then would start to address the imbalance. Teachers shouldn’t have to work Saturday and Sunday to mark mock papers in time. That’s what is happening. And, I think some teachers are thinking this is normal.   

Workload is a paramount issue in schools and a thorn in the teacher retention’s side. I feel that we need to speak up about it. We have a situation here that is damaging.

I want leaders to engage with English departments and see what you can do to help. Yes, you may want the results, but you’ll not get them when the team is burnt out by the exam marking. The papers might be marked, but the teaching will be mediocre because the teachers are tired and exhausted.  What would your teaching be like if you had to mark thirty sets of thirteen essays in-between lessons?

Thanks for reading,