Sunday, 30 December 2012

Is texting really the death of the English language?

As an English teacher, I often hear the often repeated battle cries of people shouting that ‘texting’ is stopping students from writing ‘proper’ English. Today, I want to challenge this ‘Daily Mail’ notion of vilifying something purely for column space in a newspaper.  I think there is something far deeper that is causing this supposed ‘rot’ of language use.  That is if it is rot at all.

I have taught English for about eight years now. I use the word ‘about’ because I don’t want to remember my NQT year, so I have blotted it out of my memory and, therefore, I struggle to pinpoint when I actually started teaching. Anyway, during those eight years I have spotted a few examples of students using some text language, but those are very, very rare. I am not being casually blind to these mistakes or even blasé. No. I rarely see them. I haven’t had to circle a whole essay because the student omitted vowels so they could cram more into their essay. I haven’t corrected a story that had every ‘to’ as the number 2 to speed up the pace and create more tension. I haven’t had to scribble out emoticons in a story as the student wanted to make it clear what the narrator was feeling. Nor, have I had a student write a whole paragraph in capitals because his message was so important it needed to be SHOUTED.  I just haven’t. Once or twice, maybe. But, it isn’t as big a problem as say homophones or comma usage. Those are all over the ‘plaice’ (I know, place – just couldn’t resist it).

Recently, I gave some teachers a questionnaire about what they felt were some of the big issues affecting our students’ writing. Several came back with the issue of text language. Now, when reading those comments, I could have just buried my head in the sand and waited for the next big issue with technology to arrive. In several years, I fear English teachers may have to deal with smeared ink over essays as students forget they are writing on paper and not on an iPad. Then I will be moaning about how students cannot start a new paragraph without smudging a line’s worth of writing, because that is how you move things on an iPad. Back to texting, it seems that for some people it is a big issue, or they perceive it to be a big issue. But what is the real issue?

I tweet. I text. I email.  I use technology in many different forms to write, yet I don’t blur the different rules between them.  However, that is where I think the problem lies with texting, and language relating to technology. Adults understand the subtle rules and differences between the mediums, but students don’t. That is why it is always embarrassing when a grandparent gets hold of a mobile phone. They feel t nd 2 abbr. evry word. It is almost as if they know the rules and conform to them too much. Students play fast and free with rules, whereas adult stick to them rigidly. Ask a student if they abbreviate much in texting and they’ll respond with a negative – that was so 2011.

Over years of writing, adults learn that there are different rules according to the medium you are writing for. We apply them consciously and/ or subconsciously. We know the impression we want to make on the reader. We know the effect we want to create. We know the social etiquette of language.

What I think, and I am throwing it out there to be commented on, is that texting has affected the way students use register: one of the main rules of writing. Am I speaking (writing) in the same language as the reader?  I feel the problem that needs addressing is that of formality. Every text a student writes down outside of school tries to emulate natural speech.  They flaunt grammar rules. They play around with language. They don’t follow many rules, or they make their own rules up. On one hand that it is the beauty of our language. On the other hand it means that as English teachers, and teachers, have to work harder to assert what the written rules of English are. English teachers have always stressed the importance of reading good quality texts at home, but I am thinking that the writing they do at home is having a far bigger impact on their writing in class. 

The differences between speech and writing have blurred considerably over the years. Look at the classroom, you can see students writing like they speak. They write the first thing that comes to mind. They blurt things out rather than craft something effective and meaningful. We live in the instant information generation. Surely, that is going to have an impact on how we all use information. It doesn’t matter the form information takes, as long as it is there quick and fast like my broadband connection. Furthermore, they allow mistakes in their writing, because in speech you allow mistakes. They chat and talk to a reader. Plus, they even spell ‘a lot’ incorrectly, which isn’t surprising as when we use it in speech we often combine the two words together. You sound quite odd if you emphasise the two different words separately.  There are so many things students do in their writing that the list is endless, for me. Therefore, I think we need to teach more explicitly the differences between writing and speech.

Writing is ….

·         planned and not spontaneous

·         formal

·         redrafted

·         grammatically correct

·         using punctuation

·         checked and proofread

·         a long process and takes time

·         following a set of established rules

·         crafting and refining thoughts and ideas 

The way some students write is like speech. It is about instant communication, and not clear, coherent, well-thought expression of a single idea. I taught A-level language for several years and I know how hard and difficult it is to define, but I think that the shift at the moment is too close to spoken language rather than written language. They even have a unit now at GCSE to cover it. Texting isn't the root of the problem, but the use of formality is. Students are adopting an informal register for everything they write, as  governed by the mediums that write for.

In English, we have often taught aspects of formality, but I think it is something that needs to be addressed all the time in schools. This simple question should be at the heart of all writing in school:

How formal does the writing need to be?

That can be rephrased in so many different ways. What style of writing would be best here? What impression do I want to create here? How will I make my writing appeal to this particular reader? I could go on and on, but I feel that this question would be a good one to approach in all classrooms. It is about the choice that writers make. Teaching students about writing is all about teaching students the choices they could make and not cramming them with loads of words and chucking a few sentence starters at them. It is about how we write and how to make the right choices. A lot of the time in school, it is not that the students cannot write that causes problems. It is all down to the choices they made. Why didn’t you use paragraphs? Sir, you never told me to. 

Why does your writing need to be really formal in this Science report?

What can you do with your writing to make your ideas about the existence of a divine being sound credible?

Back to my original point, the rot is something more complex than text language. It is language itself. It is how formal or informal a students’ writing is. It is about how and why they use language. It is what language is to them. For us, it is a way of expressing things, and for them is just communication between the ad breaks. Therefore, we need to do more to assert what the rules of writing are.

Once, I had an interesting conversation with a friend of a friend, which made me laugh. They described how they had to stop reading at home when they had a major ‘writing project’ to do. This person felt that their reading influenced the writing.  They worried about writing like Barbara Cartland when writing a report, or like Terry Pratchett when typing up a proposal. I found the whole idea strange, but in writing this blog I am reminded of it. If the dominant writing a home is informal, then that is going to have major impact at school. Hence, we have to assert and model more the rules of formal writing. Wouldn’t this also develop the use of grammar within schools? Just reinforcing the ideas that this is a piece of work should be  formal, would be a start.

Oh, and to the person in the corner of the room, who is moaning that teenagers don’t write enough these days. Absolute codswallop. I think they write more today than I did in the 90s. They write in so many different ways. I never wrote a message to a friend in the middle of ‘Superted’ or tweeted in the middle of ‘Tripods’. They do. They are constantly writing, but it is how they are writing that is the problem, for they have learnt to write in informal, slang ridden register that neglects punctuation and the good, old rules of grammar.

In conclusion, texting is a problem. It is a far greater problem than I think most people think. But it isn't a problem in the way that it is affecting spelling and grammar. The problem is that texting is making our students write like they speak. It is making them use an informal register as their default writing style, when the rest of the world dictates that it should be formal. Then again, I quite like the idea of essays reduced to the length of a text. 250 characters to explain a point sound fun and there may even be a lesson there,

Word up, brothers and sisters! Thanks for reading and thanks to @Gwenelope for help.


P.S. Feel free to use this for work on the Spoken Language unit.


Sunday, 23 December 2012

The Lion, Grammar and a Science Cupboard

I am well and truly knackered. I’m pooped. I’m exhausted. I’m tired. I’m drained. I feel like a lion - ready to bite someone's head off. The last few weeks have been very busy, and I still haven’t reached Christmas yet. Anyway, I am still soldiering on with the blog. Why? Well, it has become a bit of habit now.  Throughout a week, I often think of ideas to inspire me to write and that fuels the fire. Plus, if I don’t keep up the habit, I’ll stop completely.

This week I am being greedy and I am writing about two small things this week.  The first is a little bit of grammar and the second is about an idea relating to my ‘Literacy Across the Curriculum’ role.

A couple of weeks back I went a bit mad about grammar. This week I thought I write another little bit inspired by a book I read this week. I have never read any Rose Tremain books before, but I picked up ‘Trespass’ from the local Oxfam book shop and I was pleasantly surprised. It was an effortless read and thoroughly enjoyable. However, as I was read it, I came across several sentences that I like the construction of.  As a Christmas treat, I thought I’d share them here and will add more as I read lots of books, hopefully, over the festive period.

[1] The road unspooled on and on, rising, falling, rising, turning, falling.

The sprouts cooked on and on, twisting, turning, changing, rising, surfacing.

[2] It was all right to be alone, alone in the darkness, alone in her own mind.  

I felt full, full of food, full of bad television, full of incessant chat.

[3] Every day, Kitty felt smaller, more ugly, more useless.

Each hour, I felt fatter, less thin, less attractive.

[4] Melodie looks away, up, sideways, far away at the jumping light, at the invisible wind.

I look outside, down, away, beneath, near the dazzling presents under the table.

In my previous blogs on grammar, I have talked about my preference for teaching explicit sentence structures to allow students to form varied and interesting sentences in their writing. I am planning to use these sentences and many more as little starters, plenaries or tasks, where students respond to a task using one of these structures.

I often tell students to lift sentence structures from the reading material in the GCSE exams. Of course, they need to change them and make them their own, but it makes their writing much more varied and interesting.


The Science of Explaining Things 
As co-ordinator of ‘Literacy Across the Curriculum’, things have been very busy. I haven’t had any period of transition at all. This is because there wasn’t anyone in the role before me. Well, there had been, but that was long before me. Therefore, there hasn’t been much in the way of cross-curricular literacy that is explicit. I have a blank slate to work with. A fresh start. A new beginning. In other words:  a whole lot of work to do. I know a visit from Ofsted is imminent, so I have to prepare for that. But, I cannot rush things. I need to have a clear plan, strategy and direction. And not a quick-fix sticky plaster that covers the wound, rather than heal the problem.

I gave a small presentation this week to several heads of departments of my ‘vision’. They were very supportive and positive about the direction I want to take the school in. In it I raised a big issue, which I think is at the heart of this new drive on literacy: grammar. You look at the new tests for Year 6s at primary school and you can see it spelt out clearly. The sample material highlighted that ‘old-school’ grammar teaching is where the direction for teaching is going. Furthermore, I found a mark scheme for the tests and the proportion of marks given to vocabulary and grammar was surprising. Bye bye WOW words!

My vision in the school is about changing the way students use writing. At the moment, like most schools, our students have the ‘Nike attitude’ to writing. Just do it. Sadly, that attitude doesn’t make for great writers and writing. The exam system hasn’t helped either. The content driven nature of courses has meant that writing has been squeezed out. Just do it. My challenge is break this view of writing. Straightaway, we have started focusing on proofreading,  getting students, at all levels, to revisit their writing and check it. Next term, we will be working on planning, so that we can extend the writing process and get students to see that writing is crafting a piece of work and not a race.

In my role, I am also advising departments how they can improve their literacy and that is where I want to focus on now.  A few departments have raised concerns over students’ inability to explain things in the exams effectively. The students are able to describe something, but when trying to explain something they default to describing things again.  Most English teachers agree that you have to careful with terminology. Some students soak terms up and throw them back at you in any piece of writing they produce.  They might be explaining how tension is built in the opening of a chapter, yet they will direct you to some pathetic fallacy and fail to explain how it even works. They just know the technique sounds good. They think it makes their writing sound clever and that it will impress the teacher enough to give them a Level 7. I have had lessons where I have taught students a technique and then had weeks of that technique being highlighted in everything covered in the lesson. What has the writer done here? Pathetic fallacy. What is the best bit of the novel? Pathetic fallacy. What is the character’s weakness? Pathetic fallacy.  What would you like to know about this novel? Pathetic fallacy.

Just because in RE you can write and spell the word agnostic, it doesn’t mean you understand it or you can explain it to an examiner.

If teachers focus on the words, then students get hung up on using the words. Teach students what a subordinate clause is and they can spot one but then struggle to explain how writers use them – it’s bloody hard to do. That is why I am going to suggest to departments that they hold back subject specific terminology and focus on the ideas behind the words. Explain what respiration is without using complex terminology. Maybe ban them from even using some words.   If they explain things in simplistic terms and in Standard English, then they have a better chance of explaining things effectively, rather than cram every term under the sun. At a later stage, teachers can add the terminology. Imagine them writing for different audiences.

[1] Write an explanation of how photosynthesis works to a Year 2 student.

[2] Write an explanation of how photosynthesis woks to a university student.

The first task would mean they simplify the writing, but also the terminology too. This would highlight that a student has understood the concept. Then, rewriting it as the second task would help step up the writing.  Then, the teacher can insist they use those complex terms.

Along the way, we can then help them with grammar. Well, if you are explaining something, you need to be giving reasons. Say what happens, but also say why it happens. Use words like ‘as’, ‘so’ or ‘because’ to develop from a simple description to an explanation.

Overall, I feel that we need to be more explicit with how we teach writing in other subject areas. Put the terminology in the Science cupboard and bring them out at a later date. Start with the end point and work back. We want our students to do this, so we have to get them to do X, Y and Z so they are writing like that A* student.  

So long WOW words and subject specific terminology, and hello grammar.

Merry Christmas and thanks for reading,  

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Ofsted - An Inspector's Smalls

My school is awaiting an imminent Ofsted inspection. They have been spotted in the local vicinity and rumours are afoot of when they are going to visit. The problem is with all this Ofsted talk is it gets in the way and spoils teachers, teaching, and, learning. Ironically, the whole purpose of Ofsted is to monitor and improve standards, yet I think it has a far damning effect than improving standards. Like Father Christmas, Ofsted has a list and they are ticking off who has been naughty and who has been nice. Some good child, I mean teacher, will have a lovely reward of ‘Outstanding’ present this year, but another naughty teacher will have to ‘improve’ for next Christmas. Which list you are on plays on everyone’s mind?
I am sitting, pacing, walking about the classroom, worrying about the imminent arrival. Will we be on the naughty list? Or, will we be on the nice list?

"Some lesson activities occupy students and keep them busy, but are not well designed to develop their understanding."
I have no doubts about my school being an excellent school. I don’t think I would have stayed here so long, if it wasn’t. However, Ofsted monitor schools based on a snapshot on teaching and masses and oodles of data that most people would struggle to understand. Ofsted don’t judge the ‘heart and soul of a school’. My daughters’ school had an Ofsted visit and it received a judgement of ‘requires improvement’, yet I would argue that I could not find another school that has been so accommodating to my daughters and Mya’s cerebral palsy. My daughters enjoy learning, reading and they feel safe and secure. Plus, the staff are so ‘on the ball’, helpful and supportive that I cannot write this effectively down in words. This week, for example, the school secretary visited a local child minder to help some students walk to school as the usual school path was treacherous because of a large amount of ice. Now, this sort of thing isn’t picked up by this group of inspectors. They don’t see the time and effort invested in the small tiny things that aren’t always measurable, that aren’t always visible, and that aren’t always seen by most people.

"Make learning even better by giving students time in lessons to read and respond to the comments that teachers write on their work."

Sadly, this primary school came out as requiring improvement. One of the things the team picked up was the fact that some of the work wasn’t ‘neat’. I’m sorry but real learning isn’t neat, isn’t always quantifiable and isn’t always visible or known. It just happens. Evidence and accountability are words used in business and that are best suited to business, not education. How can a person be held accountable when a teenager is being grumpy and having an off day? Now, I do feel teachers should be held accountable in part for some of the learning, but we have to factor in the student into any conversation. We are dealing with human beings. Not simple statistics.

"Some students find learning tasks too difficult, and some find them too easy."
 I think one of the main problems with Ofsted is the cloak and dagger approach to inspections. What are they looking for? What do they like to see in lessons? What do they hate to see? The reports are transparent, but I don’t always think that educational ideologies they are based on are clear. I feel, sadly, that the teaching profession is a rudderless ship on a strange and bizarre course. Every so often you have a customs check for contraband that changes on a weekly basis. Where is the drive to improve teaching? Where are the people steering education? No wonder Gove is streering the ship all over the place, when there hasn’t been much of a consistent approach beforehand. He knows that education needs some steering. Unfortunately, he has the wrong map. Fortunately, some teachers have got hold of the rudder and are directing things – and I include Twitter friends and fellow bloggers.

"Students in many lessons are seen working with great enthusiasm and at an excellent pace because of the well-structured opportunities to ‘find out’ for themselves."


Some may argue that Ofsted are quite clear about what they are assessing as they provide a framework for grading. However, I beg to differ. Take the recent GCSE fiasco, for example. The grading criteria wasn’t changed and kept the same throughout the whole fiasco; it was just the boundaries that changed. We, teachers, don’t know what the boundaries are. Are there too many Cs? Are there too many good schools? Looking at the recent Ofsted reports printed on line, there are a large number that are coming out as being ‘requires improvement’. There seems, in my opinion, to be very few goods and outstanding schools. Some days I have struggled to find one. Are we looking at a repeat of the summer, but with Ofsted reports? Are people acting tough on schools with the onus on showing that they are committed to raising standards?

What I’d like to see is Ofsted leading the way, showing by example what they expect to see. I am like most in the profession: I work hard and I am happy to improve and change, provided I am guided. Ofsted will rate my teaching, yet they haven’t in my whole time in my teaching career emailed me, contacted me or advised me in any form or manner how I should teach. They have printed reports and they have written a few papers. Where is the guidance for me to attain an ‘outstanding grading’ in my teaching? I could buy books. Schools could pay an inspector to visit. But, where is the ‘top-down’ guidance of what makes an outstanding teacher? Where are the examples? Where are the demonstrations? Where are the resources? Where are the ideas? Show us the way and I think a lot would follow. Spell out the solutions rather than leaving teachers and staff scrambling for the ideas and the solutions. Instead we have whispers of what they were looking for at another school.

The quotes throughout this blog are taken from various reports from Ofsted. I am hoping they may give us an insight into what they are currently looking for. The recent reports are where I am currently looking for guidance on what is best for 'Literacy Across the Curriculum'. I have my ideas established and I am just checking to see if they are supported by Ofsted.  I don't teach for Ofsted; I teach for the students, but the problem is they get in the way. If I felt they were supporting me and the profession, I would relax. But, sadly, I am not always sure who or what they are supporting.  Do they have a political agenda? Do they have a remit to follow? Again, another area where transparency is needed. 

Tell you what - let’s have a system for monitoring politicians. Let’s keep them on their toes. What fun to be had? I am sorry, Mr Gove, but you have no sense of engagement with you audience. You seem to be pitching your ideas to much older students. Much older. In fact, those born in the 1850s. Also, you don’t seem to be differentiating that much for others in your constituency.

Sorry, Mr Gove, you ‘require improvement’.
Thanks for reading,
P.S. The views held here are my own and do not reflect those hold by any establishment I might know, work in, or visited for a nice sandwich.  
For those that have read my blog before,  you'll know that Gwen and I work together on our blogs. I thought I'd ask her views on Ofsted, given that 'An Inspector Call[ed]' recently:
Over the years, I have given the ‘Ofsted’ inspectors the name of ‘The Deatheaters’. The use of a nickname is to render absurd the foreboding presence of an inspection and give some humour to the paranoia and panic that surrounds us when an inspection is imminent.
At my school, we have known we are due for an inspection this academic year throughout most of the previous one. However, it was always far enough away to blank out, and get on with the job at hand. As our two previous inspections were deemed ‘Satisfactory’  and the more recent inspection showing some elements of ‘Good’ within the school, we knew we HAD to get a 'Good' or the dreaded 'Special Measures' could be a consequence.
We began September with a newly appointed head teacher and an immense sense of pressure due to the aforementioned NEED to get a ‘Good’ combined with the consequences of the GCSE English fiasco, where blame was aimed squarely at the classroom teacher. It is easy enough to play the rules of the game, as long as you know what the rules are. Goal posts shifted seismically, pupils suffered and so did our results, making us look like we are ‘failing’ our pupils. As a consequence, I began in September in a high state of anxiety, to the extent I have needed medication to help me control it and the over bearing pressure, I know, has made me a less effective practitioner in the classroom. Ay, there’s the rub.
We had ‘the call’ last week,Tuesday PM. I very nearly had a panic attack. My pulse quickened; I felt queasy. I sweated. I nearly cried. I was already exhausted and running on fumes. That evening I planned my lessons as best I could, arrived at work at 7am to get super prepped and got ready, mentally, as best I could.
Period 1, Year 7 the Deputy and the English inspector walk in. My pulse quickens, but I can ‘act’ fine. The lesson I had planned was similar to what they normally do, as we have been told time and time again the Deatheaters are looking for ‘typicality’, but a few tweaks were made so it was more Ofsted friendly, or so I thought. In fact, I ‘require improvement’ as it turns out. When you have a stranger in your classroom for twenty minutes, knowing that they can pass judgement on you and your professionalism, how, just HOW can you perform well? I couldn’t. I contained my disappointment until the end of the day Friday before sobbing in the car for a good ten minutes. I then drove home in a haze of exhaustion.
As my now, much more astute and friendly HoF put it: our results our low, therefore we can’t POSSIBLY have ‘Outstanding’ teachers in our department. The data says so. I am teaching ‘The Crucible’ to my Year 13 this year, and being on the thick end of this data led Ofsted inspection system, to us it felt very much like a witch hunt. How is this method going to improve standards in education? How will it improve teaching and learning? I am stumped.
What has made us, as a staff, more angry is the lack of action by the previous head teacher, who sat on his egotistical laurels, while he drifted towards retirement. Having spent a term with our new Head, we know we have a great captain to steer our ship, but will Ofsted recognise it? Will the subsequent processes be fair enough to let us avoid the fatal iceberg? Can we cope with the oppressive pressure that this inspection will generate? Will it make us better? We have roughly 7 – 9 months before our next inspection. We shall see.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Why use two words when one will just do? Pushing a Level 6 and 7 student's writing

This week I am going to cheat a bit and use something I have already prepared for a meeting with a primary head teacher.  It has been, for me, a week of meeting after meeting, endless mock marking and a wedding – oh, and the Christmas staff party! Hardly surprising that I am more tired than a dozy grandfather who falls asleep through conversations and snores regularly through most television programmes.

I have always had a problem with some aspects of teaching writing. Namely, purple prose. Or, flowery prose, as I like to call it. You could, for example, have a crap garden, but you insist it is still a  ‘nice garden’ by using loads of flowers in plant pots. The pots look nice, but the garden is still crap. The same, I feel, happens with writing. Put X, Y, Z and another X, Y and Z into your short story - there, you have a wonderful piece of writing. Umm, no you don’t. You might have some features of good writing, but there rest is incoherent and it is a little over the top.

Recently, I have taught David Almond’s ‘Skellig’ and I casually asked the class about level of the writing that Almond had produced. The class simply replied that it was a low Level 5 (sorry, Almond). There, I think, lies the problem. Their understanding of writing was based on writing that is crammed with every technique under the sun. Furthermore, there was no hope that it would get a Level 6, as Almond hadn’t even used a semicolon on the pages were studying.
Good writing is not about using every tool in the box. It’s about using the right tool for the job. One of my favourite writers is Susan Hill. She is a fantastic and her writing is deceptively simple as each sentence is precise and the writing is so concise. Techniques aren’t wasted and the language is carefully crafted and selected for the maximum effect. On the other hand, there are writers like Alan Hollinghurst who have pages and pages of detailed and evocative writing. Now, I like Hill, and I like Hollinghurst, but which one is best? There is only one way to find out: fight!

But, I do think this contrast lies at the heart of English teaching.  Flowery or sparse? As teachers, we have to be aware of this. Chucking everything in the melting pot doesn’t make the best kind of writing. Maybe, we should spend more and more time on looking at selecting the best techniques for the job, rather than introducing new and obscure techniques for the sake of teaching something new.  I have sat there planning, scratching my head, trying to think of something new, when I should have been focusing on what they knew and developing that further. That is where Level 6s are going. They can do stuff and do it well. Now, they need to work on doing it exceptionally well by being subtle and discreet.

Most Level 5 writers are always asking, ‘What can I add to make this better?’, so maybe, we should explicitly teach Level 6s the following questions:

  • What can be removed which doesn’t affect the overall effect of the writing?
  • Are there any techniques that have the same effect as each other in a paragraph?
  • Have you made sure that a technique is only used once in the writing?
  • Do you need to show or tell in this paragraph?
  • Are we writing for clarity? Or are you writing for detail?

The following is a list is cribbed from my talk with a primary school. It was aimed at helping teachers build some ways into their teaching, which help students achieve or secure a Level 6/7. At this level we are dealing with the subtleties of language, so it is quite hard to separate things down to a single aspect, but I have tried.  

  • Humour  - satire, parody, irony
Teach students about the different types of humour, or show them examples, so that they can use bits of them in their own writing. These kinds of writing involve students being playful and creative with language.

  • Structure – cohesion / cohesive devices across a text
Look at how the whole text is structured. Is there cohesion between parts of the texts? Are there ideas that are linked between paragraphs?

  • Flair /Style  
Students at Levels 6 and 7 are starting to develop a particular voice in their writing. It is quite hard to teach this explicitly, but getting students to emulate another writer’s style may help them with their own choices. For example, write in the style of Phillip Pullman or J.K. Rowling.

  • Original sentence construction – over reliance of the same structures
Students can lack flair if their sentences are repetitive. Get them to use a particular sentence construction only once in their writing, unless it is to create a particular effect. Or, get them to steal some sentences (change a few words, of course) from a writer and adapt them to their own writing.

  • Sophisticated level of use of punctuation
The ‘Punctuation Pyramids’ are great, but some Level 6s and 7s need guidance to use colons and semicolons effectively. Usually, a colon can introduce an idea, but it can also be used to create tension. Show them how it can be used to create tension.

  • Variety
 A piece of writing that varies pace, tone, detail, punctuation usage or perspective throughout will achieve a higher level. A Level 5 will tend to keep their tone constant throughout the piece of writing.

  • Being concise and precise
Good writing isn’t always the most detailed and descriptive writing. Students need to explore their choice of words. Why use that word? Sometimes, a simple word is much more effective than a polysyllabic word.

  • Looking at natural speech
I have noticed that Level 6s and 7s often demonstrate writing that naturally emulates natural speech in the use of pauses, emphasis, tone and other aspects. If we explored these explicitly in writing more, students may pick these up. However, it is knowing when to follow the rules of speech and when to ignore the rules of writing that is really the skill here.

Most English teachers will agree with me when I say that you cannot teach a writer to be an outstanding writer. It is something writers learn to be, by themselves. Most writers will read, read and read to pick up ideas, skills and techniques. Part of becoming a Level 6 or Level 7 is absorbing some of the subtle complexities of language through the reading of good writing. They copy, mirror or adapt these and use them in their own work. This isn’t always something that you can directly teach. They just do it.

Thanks for reading,






Sunday, 2 December 2012

Great Expectations or Bitter Disappointments

I got a new title this week to add to my current list of dad, husband, teacher, blogger, hopeful optimist and second in department.  Now I can call myself the ‘Co-ordinator of Literacy Across the Curriculum’. Already I have had a few people pass me in the corridor and joke with me that I am going to have my work cut out helping them with their spelling.  I will share with you later my ups and downs as I settle into the role.

Anyway, I am standing on a large precipice: will I live up to expectations? Or, will I be an utter disappointment? It is quite relevant that I am teaching ‘Great Expectations’ to Year 8 at the moment. I am that nervous Pip worrying about whether I will grow up to be a fine gentleman or remain as a blacksmith for the rest of my life. Rather than dwell on me, I thought I’d share a few things I do when teaching a novel written by Charles Dickens. 

This is quite surprising, but I have met a number of English teachers that have never read Dickens. They have never opened a book by him, or even watched an adaptation. Now, this is understandable from a teacher’s point of view. When have we got the time to commit to a large novel like ‘Our Mutual Friend’? I’m tired. I’ve had enough so if I am going to read, I am going to read something fun or ‘light’.  I know I might have a ‘diet-Dickens’ like ‘Harry Potter and the  ….’ or a modern novel as they are much more sprightly. But, I feel that reading Dickens has added so much to my teaching and my understanding of Literature that I often bring Dickens to the equation when teaching. ‘How would Dickens do this?’ is often my mantra. I have used him in my teaching ‘Of Mice and Men’ and with Shakespeare. As a writer, he was, and is, such a stark contrast to many writers today that he makes a great point of comparison. Plus, I’d like some students to write a bit like him too.

However, at this point I must add that I haven’t read every one of his novels, but I have read a fair few of them. To be honest, I got interested in him because of the modern novel. I got fed up of open-ended endings that most modern novels prefer. Rather than tie up the ending of a story with a big bow and a little gift card, the modern novel tends to have an empty space. It all ends up a bit flat.  On numerous occasions, I have invested hours or days reading a novel expecting a massive climax and then being disappointed to have a huge and undeniable anti-climax. It is like starting a novel off with a murder mystery and then by the end of it not revealing who committed the murder and featuring an extract from an ancestor’s diary, because it is 'so' clever. Dare I say it  -  McEwan prefers to do this as do quite a few modern writers. Don't get me wrong - I thing they are great writers, but annoying in terms of storytelling. In frustration I visited ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ and I bloody loved it. So much that it has become a regular present I give to people. Every chapter has a lesson on language and writing skills. Oh, and it is really short.       

Right, back to the teaching stuff!

Uriah Heep  
I have set the homework of finding ten facts about a writer, subject or novel many times. The work you get back is usually of very little merit. Oh, you have managed to copy and paste ten random bits of information. Well done! I got bored of this a couple of years ago and experimented. I had heard whispers of other departments using something called ‘Barter Markets’. Simply, students are around the room and they have to barter to get relevant information about topics. I will give you a reason why workhouses were common in the Victorian times, if you give me a law that was introduced relating to poverty.  To me, this sounded like a fun and an interesting way of sharing knowledge. Sadly, I couldn’t see how I could get it in English.  I couldn’t see students bartering their similes or opening sentences, so I put it back in the draw to be used at a later date. That is until I revisited this homework again.   

Students are given the same homework: find ten ‘interesting’ facts about Dickens. The inverted commas are intentional, as my ‘interesting’ might vary from theirs. At the start of the lesson, students, on their own, score each fact they have collected out of ten. They will now have a score out of one hundred. Then I challenge them to improve that score by bartering their good facts with other students. They are to replace low scoring facts with high scoring ones. However, they must always have ten facts. Now sadly, in this day and age, students don’t know how to haggle or barter – what is the world coming to? – so I have to teach them and off they go. It makes for some funny conversations as they cheat, lie, haggle and barter for the facts that are close to a ten in our interest scale. If a student forgets to do the homework, they are given a blank piece of paper and they have to find some way to get ten facts. These naughty students often look bemused but I can guarantee that they get a few facts through stealth and cunning trickery.
Finally, students add up their new facts and work out their new score. No class yet has achieved the ultimate one hundred marks, but it has been close a few times. Then, as a class, we share the ten out of ten facts and write them on the board. With these facts we try to relate these facts of his life to the novel being studied. I have had some interesting suggestions. Some suggestions are accurate and others are not so accurate.  One student suggested Charles Dickens’ near death in a train crash made him focus about death and things dying in his novels.  Overall, the whole experience turned that dull homework into an exploration into the influences behind the author’s ideas.

Mr Sowerberry
I was on a Teachology course recently and one of the items was on grammar. My eyes lit up at that particular talk and one thing inspired me. It was so good that I used in a Year 8 lesson the following week.  

My students were given a picture of Miss Havisham.  They then had a period of twenty minutes where they wrote different phrases about her. I directed them as what the phrase had in it – adverb, preposition, etc. Each phrase was different. Then students wrote out their best one and left it on their desk.

The next phase used ‘Musical Chairs’. I played a bit of music and students sat down at a desk when it stopped. When they had sat down, they had to write a feeling they had when they read that phrase. They would circle the word that gave them that feeling. The music would play again and they would repeat the process for about three or four times.  Next students would highlight things that were hinted at in the phrase. Again, they would write something down and link it to a particular word or phrase. This was repeated again three or four times.

Finally, students had a piece of a paper with their original phrase, several feelings and several inferences. The students then turned that into a paragraph explaining how the line works. The results were impressive. Each student described the language in such an analytical way that there was no need for my sheet of banned phrases like ‘it stands out’ or ‘it makes the reader want to read on’. One student explained how he used ‘lonely’ twice in a line to emphasise how lonely she was. Another student sheepishly apologised for writing it in the third person and referring to himself as ‘the writer’. Praise was heaped on this lad’s shoulders.   

Bradley Headstone
This is a quick one but several years I made a sheet, and, for the life of me, I can’t find an electronic copy of it anywhere. Otherwise, I would put it on here to share with you. The sheet just gave students a list of possible reasons as to why a technique is used. A few years ago, I hit breaking point as the level of analysis I wanted to see did not match what I actually saw in lessons. I felt the need to step it up, so I made a sheet which gave three possible reasons as to why a technique is used by a writer. Here’s an example:


Repetition is used …

to make something seem worse than it really is - exaggerate
to show that there is a lot of something
to draw our attention to a particular piece of information


So that the reader thinks  / feels ….

I repeated this for several techniques and gave it to students when analysing a text. It meant that I gave students the language to analyse a text, rather than me wait and wait until someone came up with an idea. Students were able to say why the technique was used and then I could help them build and extend their analysis. Oh, and it meant I didn’t have pupils saying that things ‘stand out’ all the time.  

Miss Havisham
Today, I am marking my mocks in my dusty and cobweb filled study. The clock is broken and I have nothing on my feet. My white t-shirt is pale and old. I sit still and look at the crumbs of a half-eaten cake. My heart is broken. Some haven’t listened to my advice, when preparing them for this exam. I sit here frozen in time.  Do I become Miss Havisham? A bitter, pessimistic, sad figure of torment who wants others to share her fate. Or, do I become Magwitch? An optimistic and grateful figure who only wants the best for Pip. Bitter Disappointments or Great Expectations?

Magwitch it is then.

Thanks for reading and thanks to Cruickshanks for the images,



P.S. I haven't marked the mock papers yet, so that last bit is all in my head. Putting things off, as usual. If you can’t be bothered to read ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, then check out the description of a barrel breaking on a street.