Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Blogsync 8: This marking is killing me

Be assured that the title is not something I have said. It was, in fact, something a colleague said to me a few years ago. The teacher of a different subject turned to me and painfully said that the marking they were doing was killing them. They said to an English teacher that they had too much marking to do. I casually replied: ‘Yes, it might be.’

I never get into a debate about marking and who has the most to mark, as it always ends in bloodshed or death. For years, I have always stood back. There is always somebody worse off. I might have to read the termly equivalent of three ‘War and Peace’s a term, but the poor PE teacher has to spend most of their day in the rain outside. Yes, it might get warm in the summer, but rarely does it stop raining. The Drama teacher has to run after school sessions and the Science teacher has to prepare for an experiment. It is all relative, but just one day I’d love an English exam paper that was made up of simple right and wrong answers. Instead I get bucket loads of writing and I spend the time sifting for gold. Like those in the Gold Rush, there is a lot of effort and it rarely produces gold. Too many times it produces fool’s gold.

The problem I have with marking is time. The time it takes to mark it. The time left of my free time to do it. The time I have left over to call my life.  When I became an English teacher, I held a copy of the complete works of William Shakespeare and swore the following oath:

I, Chris, pledge my allegiance to all things related to literature. I swear to use well known quotes from books at any opportunity to show that I have read a lot. I promise to obsess over apostrophes and homophones used in Christmas cards.  I assure people that I will spend at least half of any free time I have marking or worrying about marking I have yet to do.
It is half-term for me and I am worrying about the marking I have yet to do. I have seen on twitter that people have spent days marking and I have just, well, done nothing. I know: I will write a blog about marking to avoid marking. I find that I have loads to do in the holidays, because there is very little time during the term to do it. I feel that we are constricted by an old framework. The PPA time, which is great, is based on an old model of teaching. A model that was very relaxed. It was based on a time when schools weren’t so data orientated.  Marking has changed over the years, but have the working practices of schools adapted to it as well? We are now expected to mark more often and more consistently over the term, yet there hasn’t been any extra time to support this. Look at NQTs and teachers in the first few years of teaching and you can see this. They are usually the last to leave the school; even then they don’t get everything done.  If established teachers even find the marking demands tough, then how will the younger members of staff find it?

So, what is my method of marking with impact? It is very ‘old school’ and I think it is very obvious, but I think it is occasionally neglected because we insist on doing something all the time.  I have tried some snazzy ways of spicing up marking, but I think there is no getting away from it: you have to read and write a comment on work. All the ‘verbal feedback’ stamps in the world do not replace the experience of reading and writing on work. It might emulate it a bit, but it doesn’t replace it. And it is a questionable substitute, in my opinion. Ofsted praised my marking at the last inspection we had and there was not one reference to verbal feedback in my books. I think it is a gimmick and a time saver, but not a strong tool, unless I am missing a key point.

Anyway, what is the method?

First you will need:
A table
A chair
A red (green if your school has gone P.C.) pen
A classroom full of students

 I did this last week and it works as a great way to show impact and to push students. Students were set the task of writing a description of a creepy room. They busily wrote for ten minutes. Then, I called students up to my desk one at a time, or, if they wanted to come me. I read the work and then scribbled some comment on their work. They then carried on writing or restarted the task. They could only write the work out in neat if they had passed my strict quality control procedures. Like a flowchart, they had to produce a certain quality before they could move on.

The instant nature of the feedback meant that students got a clear reaction immediately rather than three weeks later, when the teacher had final got around to marking things. It also meant that I could support students then and there and clarify things if they didn’t get it right. It was humorous too, as I said I felt sick if I saw work without full stops or a homophone error.  The student rushed away as they knew I wouldn’t even look at it without the basics of full stops and capital letters present.

Doing this last week meant that I marked every exercise book in the class and pushed and developed several students along the way. It also meant that I had one less thing in mark in the holidays. Furthermore, it has clear evidence of progress. There was a clear pattern of work, intervention and evidence of intervention in work. All this I did with a bottom set and the students improved several sub-levels because of the intervention. Students who normally forget full stops were now using them because the teacher almost vomited last.

Marking doesn’t have to be a disembodied or separate part of teaching. The lesson was great and the marking was at the heart of the learning taking place. This is something that we need to strongly work on. It looks like we are starting to get a bit smarter with how we mark. The recent comments about DIRT and MAD time embody this notion of putting the marking smack bang in the middle of the learning, not in the boot of my car waiting for me to mark it.

Thanks for reading,  


P.S. Verbal Feedback from my daughters

Lots of big words, but it would look better if it was pink.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Cohesion: AQA Unit 1 English Language Exam Question 2

As I have told my friends this week, I have achieved the leftie equivalent of achieving a Blue Peter badge. I was featured in an article on the Guardian website. For years I have read the paper and never once did I think I would be included in it in some form. But, as I read the article again for the fifteenth time I started to look at the webpage in more detail. It just so happens that I was thinking about blogging about the second question on the AQA Unit 1 English Language paper. The one about pictures and their use in an article or text. My blog about question one is here.

The thing I found funny was the fact that my name was under a picture of a stock photo of a random class. Anybody could easily assume it was me in the picture. I am sure some of my old school friends on Facebook will think I have changed. They will think I have ‘beefed-up’ or I have let myself go – after all, isn’t that one purpose of Facebook: to watch the rest of humanity age at a faster rate than you. Look at Tom; he has no hair. I even joked that I now have a teaching stunt double. Except: nobody is going to confuse the two of us together.  I have bigger muscles.

Anyway, I quite like the second question on the exam paper as it all about cohesion. Previous exam papers I have taught lead students to comment on the font or the type of paper used and this has caused me endless headaches as students search for a whiff of relevant meaning. For example: the writer has used a simple font because they wanted to make the text simple. It made writing about non-fiction so endlessly puerile. It was searching for something that wasn’t there. Often, writers present things in a way because the designer of the article presented it that way. Maybe, I should have taught students to write: ‘The writer didn’t have a choice about the style of font, but I am sure the designer of the article did’.  

The exam paper asks students the following question:

Explain how the headline and picture are effective and how they link to the text.

The problem with this question is the way that students automatically break a task down. They automatically assume that first you should write about the headline. Then you should write about the picture and finally you should write about how they all link to the text. 
For me, the whole question is about glue. What sticks everything together? What are the connections between the different aspects? Miss the glue and you miss the whole point of the question. Some people might call it glue: others call it cohesion. It was only while teaching A-Level that I came across this term for something that we tend to neglect in other aspects of school.  It is the cohesion between headline, picture and text that is important with this question.  Also, the cohesion between the reader, writer (designer-if you want to be picky) and the text needs to be explored.

Therefore our students need to comment on the:
·         Reader
·         Writer
·         Headline
·         Text
·         Picture

Sadly, the mark scheme for this question is a helpful as an ice cube tray in the desert. It should really read:

7- 8 marks – Fancy handwriting
5-6 marks -  Joined up handwriting
3-4 marks – Handwriting that has a circle or a love heart over the i’s.  

1-2 marks – Handwriting that doesn’t sit on the line

Mark schemes are aimed at examiners, and not teachers, but they could be written in a style that at least conveys some meaning. I laugh at the use of the word ‘perceptive’ in the one for this question as it has so many meanings, depending on the context. Perceptive can meaning anything, but what we need to know is what is perceptive in an examiner’s eyes.

What might we teach?

While teaching these, I would constantly refer to the reader, writer and text in discussions.

The Headline

·         Annotate a headline in isolation and identify the techniques used.

·         Explore the different possible word choices. What other words could they have used? Why did they not use ‘inventive’ or ‘forward-thinking’ instead of ‘creative’ in the Guardian article?

·         Question the purpose of the headline. What is it designed to do? Does it suggest the tone, perspective of the text?

·         Predict what the rest of the article might say. What would they include in the article?

·         Give students isolated quotes from the text and they have to identify how the two are linked. Do they support each other or do they contradict each other? Or, do they do something else?

·         Give students a selection of pictures and they have to justify which picture is the best one to go with the headline.

·         Before looking at the text, tell them the story and get them to create a headline. I did this once with Plebgate and produced some fantastic responses. The students have left now, but I think it would be great for them to re-evaluate those headline in light of recent developments.

·         Rewrite the headline for a different perspective or audience.

The Picture

·         Give students the picture and another one that is slightly similar. They discuss why one was picked over the other.

·         Get students to find an alternative picture that does the same job, or a picture that changes the perspective or angle of the article.

·         Think about symbols. Take a selection of pictures and ask students what they each one symbolises. Look at the picture from the article and comment on what it symbolises. Then, explore the text and think how it might symbolise something else in the text.

·         Get students to label the picture with quotes from the text. Limit the quotes to three or four words long so they are precise with their selections.

·         Get students to use drama to explore the reasons behind the choices here. See this blog about how I used this successfully.

·         Zoom in on one aspect and explore that one choice. Why have the teacher wear the colour blue? Why have a male teacher?

·         Ask the simple questions: What does the picture show us? What doesn’t it show us?

·         What would make this picture better?

·         Discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the picture.

The Text

·         Get students to storyboard the article. What picture would they use for each paragraph? Then, decide why this one picture was chosen above their choices.

·         Highlight the text according to bits that support or contradict the picture.

·         Pick a quote for a caption with the picture. Which quote is the best one?

·         Track the thread of the argument by highlighting the different points or reasons.


The Whole Thing

·         Summarise the whole text and work out what each section (text / picture /headline) contributes.

·         Draw arrows showing links between the different aspects. The picture shows the reality. The headline raises the question and the text reinforces the reality.  

·         Rejig the order of the headline, picture and text. What would the reader’s reaction be if the picture was at the end?

·         Work out the order the text will be read in and track a reader’s thoughts. At first I was…. Then I felt …. By the end, I was ….

Going back to the infamous picture in the Guardian article, there is a contradiction in the text. The article is about creative approaches to questioning, yet the picture provided doesn’t demonstrate a very ‘creative’ approach to questioning. The one boy sticking a sheet of paper up instead of a hand is only thing creative I can spot. But, it does contradict, in a way, the section that refers to picking students at random. That is the problem with pictures: they are only part of the story. The picture looks like the teacher is picking students according to who knows the answer.  Maybe the picture was chosen because there are three male teachers describing their ideas. Maybe the picture was chosen because it is a classroom. Maybe the picture was chosen because it shows the act of teaching and a very traditional mode of teaching which the article is offering alternatives.

What the exam seems to be looking for are developed explanations about cohesion with a dash of evaluation. For your really bright students, maybe they need to highlight the flaws, inconsistencies, track the structure and the reader’s reactions and explore alternative reasons behind the choices. What word do we get to describe all of this? Perceptive. If only examiners could be more perceptive when writing their mark schemes. Is there any wonder why we get a lot of papers remarked? Maybe if we had clearer mark schemes, then we would have less to quibble about. When you next mark something using a mark scheme, think about what picture should go with the scheme.

Thanks for reading  


Sunday, 20 October 2013

Questioning the questions

This is a blog about my talk for the TLT13, which took place yesterday at Southampton University. Before I even start I will apologise now if there are any typos or errors. In total, this weekend, I have spent eight hours driving. But, it was worth it, even if it has left me a bit frazzled, and with a brain that is barely functioning – my tweets are clear evidence of this.

Anyway, TLT13 was great. A hotpot of teaching goodness and a shot in the arm to any tabloid newspaper which thinks teachers are greedy-money-grabbing-parent-hating-time-wasting-cheats. Loads of teachers gave up their Saturday to look at ways to make teaching better. For all the comments about teachers who strike ruining the education, this day was an antidote or a big gesture of two fingers to the negative perception of teachers. The whole thing focused on being the ‘best’. Gove wants the best education system, but assumes teachers do not want that. He assumes that we are lazy and feckless. Case for the defence: evidence 1.2 – TLT13.

I would love to list all the teachers I met yesterday, but I am worried I would cause offence by missing someone out. It was great. I will just leave it at that. So, what did I talk about? Questions.

Questioning carries on a theme of a few of my blogs this year: Deep Reading. I am concerned that a lot of teaching reading dwells simply on skimming and scanning. Find and locate isn’t that high on the reading skills necessary for life. It is helpful, but it will not solve a case. It will not make you great in business. It is a building block. There is so much more to reading. In the past, the DfE has suggested that good readers paint pictures in their head when they read. Or, they might ask a question. Or they may even predict how things might end. I have always struggled with this notion of developing reading in lessons. Simply getting a student to draw a picture of a bit they have read does not, for me, show a high level of understanding or engagement with a text. It simply shows that they can decode a text. Yes, some things might be inferences, but does it really develop a student to be a better reader?

Teaching Year 12 and 13s English Literature has not involved me getting them to draw bits from ‘King Lear’ or Edward Bond’s ‘Saved’. No, it has involved things other than drawing. I have recently read some books on developing literacy in schools and they constantly refer to drawing (visualising), predicting, questioning and other methods to develop reading. Now, for less able students these are good strategies to use to develop their reading skills, but what about the more able students? Or, the average students? What do we do about developing their reading skills? Reading more and harder texts doesn’t always, in my opinion, develop the reader. The old days of ‘just get on with it’ isn’t something I am happy with. I like students to have independence and I do want them to have an idea of how they can become fluent readers, but as we are talking about reading it is very vague. As reading is an internalised process, we need to be explicit with reading and the processes relating to reading. And, I think questions are a huge part of this.

There are a few problems with my questioning in lessons. These are some of the problems:

       Tend to be loaded towards the end of the process

       Focused on clarifying understanding and not developing understanding / thoughts or feelings


       Clear direction (teacher-led)

       Limited in number so I can be precise

       Limiting the thought processes (recall not apply)

       Focused on students answering, rather than both answering and questioning

I think that I often leave the questioning at the end of the process, because I want to see what they have learnt and not how they are learning. The position of the question can help us understand how they are learning. At the start of the process, it shows us how much prior knowledge they have, or what their intuition is like. In the middle of the learning process, it shows us where on the spectrum of understanding they are. At the end of the process, it shows us what they have and haven’t got. That for me is where I think I need to develop my questioning. Where in the process should I ask a question so that I can develop the skills of a student? In other words: Death to Comprehension Tasks! Or, less of them. Or, just do one at the start and in the middle, as well as at the end.

One thing I have started doing is getting students to ask the questions themselves at the start of a text. Recently, I was teaching ‘Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ and I showed the class a film poster. The class had to think of questions. . Rather than get them to think of questions about the plot, I got them to think about the theme or the structure or even the message of the text from the cover of the film. That focused way of questioning helped me get some high level questions before they had even read the text.
Then, what questions should I ask? Well, I have been on so many CPD sessions and I have heard this too many times: closed questions are bad and open questions are good. Yes, let’s reduce the complexity of questioning to two types of questions. Yes let’s reduce the beauty of the English language to two categories. Questions are complex and we need to understand that. Here are some examples of different types of questions. You could categorise them into closed and open questions but I think you’d be a bit sad, as these questions do a lot more than give you a long or short answer.

       Why not…. ? Why doesn’t….? Why wouldn’t..?

                Questioning the alternatives

       Which is the best /least /most/ weakest….?

                Questioning that aids evaluation

       Did you not think that …..?

                Questioning that asks them to adopt a viewpoint

       If_________________, then why ________?

                Questioning the consequences

I wanted to help staff in my school to develop the reading skills of students, but also I wanted to develop questioning at the same time. Step forward ‘The Detectives’. Detectives are clever people and they read situations and people. It is my approach to developing reading through questions and using precise skills based questions. Each detective represents a different type of skills which has a set of questions to develop that skill.

Here’s an example using an extract from the Daily Mail website:
Sherlock Holmes: What can you infer about the writer’s opinion here?

Mother caught drinking LAGER at the school gates as she waits to pick up her children
By Steve Nolan

Perched on railing with a can of lager in one hand and a cigarette in the other, this mother is hardly setting a shining example to children filing out of a nearby primary school.

Here's what the detectives look like. I have includes some example questions and some sentence stems for answering.

Sherlock Holmes                                                                       Inferences / reading between the lines

What clues are there that ….?
How do ____ and ____ link together?
What is the connection between _____ and ______?

I can infer from this that …
This suggests that…
It seems that …
This evidence and that evidence show that …

Miss Marple                                                        relating to our own world/ experience/ knowledge

Where have you seen this before?
What other subject has this?
What skills in RE can you bring in to explain this?


This reminds me of …
We saw this when …
I notice that _____ has happened when ______


Poirot                                                                                          looking for the flaws, inconsistencies

Which bits don’t add up?
Where have they contradicted themselves?
What are the weaknesses in their argument?

They say this, but this bit doesn’t match up with that. 
I notice that they say this but later they say the opposite.
I don’t think they are completely certain because of ….

 Inspector Morse                                                                                        looking at the perspectives

What does the other person say?
How does this person’s view differ from the rest of the people?
Does everybody agree with this point?


One person said ____________ while the others said this …
From a different perspective, it can be seen that …


Inspector Clouseau                                            making a hypothesis and getting it wrong or right

What do you think will happened?
Why did they do that?
What will happen as a result of this?

I think that ___ will happen.
I predict that ______


Now, this is in its infancy and I am sure it will change and develop, but at the moment it is a framework for asking questions. It is also a framework that focuses on developing a skill rather than just test what the student knows. This is the beauty of questioning. The right question at the right time can teach a child something or develop a skill. Hopefully, people will be able to find a use for these somewhere. Some have used it to get the class in groups. A group of Miss Marples. Or, a group of Sherlock Holmes. Much better than a group that focus on closed questions.

If you can think of some other detectives with a different skills focus, I would love to hear from you.

I will carry the question blog on next week.
Thanks for reading,

P.S. Thanks to @englishlulu for the photos. Thanks also to @HFletcherWood for his technical support. Last thanks to David and Jenny for organising the whole event.  

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Vagueness: AQA English Language Unit 1 Exam

I am not going to apologise for the blog this week, but I am going to be very specific; I’m going to write about one question from English Language exam. The problem with books on teaching English is that they are so vague. In fact, they are vaguer than Mr Vague Vagueness from Vague Street in the county of Vagueshire in the United States of Vagueness on the planet Vague. When you are planning a lesson on a particular question or thing, you don’t want some guff (sorry – I haven’t used that word in a while, but I liked it in that sentence) about what non-fiction means to society. You also don’t want a ‘funny’ quote from Dickens about how non-fiction can topple governments. What you want is some ideas to spark the germ of an idea. Hopefully, this will inspire you and I may even go through the other questions at a later date.

If books about English teaching are vague, then mark schemes for English exams are even vaguer. Step forward question one on the reading and producing non-fiction texts.  

The Question:  What do we learn/understand  about  …..?  

What do students have to show evidence of in their answer?

·         Quotes  or evidence woven into ideas

·         Subtext or what is suggested or implied in the writing

·         Summarising of points rather than repeating points

·         Key points of the article

·         Understanding the article

Now that is one level of answering the question. These are the standard 'bread 'n' butter' for teaching non-fiction. Do all of those things and you are not guaranteed an 8 out of 8? No, you need perceptive comments and engagement.  How do you show engagement in a text? Look Mr Examiner, when they read this article, they did a little dance. Surely, that is lively engagement and not just engagement. 

Perceptive Engagement

This is where we need to be precise with teaching skills. These are some of the things I would expect to see. Warning: they do not make a student get an automatic 7 or 8. These are some of the qualities I have seen in my students’ work.   

·         Facts and opinions

·         Awareness of various perspectives

·         Following how an argument changes in a text

·         Exploring different sides of an argument presented

·         Contradictions and inconsistencies

·         Expressing our opinion to things

·         The reader’s reaction to the text

·         Explore the relevance of the article

·         Explore what needs further explanation


There are probably more things that I have forgotten about but most of the time these things form my arsenal for preparing students for this question.

What activities do I do for this perceptive engagement?

Thankfully, hate is free in this country and one newspaper publishes its articles without charging people and these make great articles for use with this question.

Facts and opinions

·         Highlight an article for head (fact) and heart (opinion) phrases.

·         Work out the ratio of fact to opinion and then explore the reliability of this article based on that ratio.

·         Pick out facts and opinions and get students to categorise them.

·         Find facts and opinions blended in sentences and identify the words that create the opinions.



·         Drama: get students to role play being the writer and the reader. The writer explains what they are trying to do. The reader explains how they felt.

·         Explore how different readers would react to the text. How do men or women react to the text differently?

·         Describe the supposed reader of the text. What kind of reader would read this text?

Following how an argument changes in a text / Exploring different sides of an argument presented

·         Number the different points or reasons in the text. Then, rank the effectiveness or significance of each one.

·         Cut up an article into the different sides.

Contradictions and inconsistencies

·         Take a paragraph and look for what doesn’t add up. What doesn’t make sense?

·         Get students to think of questions that need answering for you to be fully convinced by the text.

·         Take a pen and draw arrows linking different parts of the text. Look to see how ideas are threaded through a text. The more connections they make, the more likely they will see the contradictions. It says here and here that this is true but in the last paragraph they say the opposites.

·         Take a pen and draw arrows and look for opposite ideas.

·         Put this article on trial. Create a team for prosecution and a team for defence.  The writer is going to be charged for libel. The class defend or prosecute the article. 


Expressing our opinions to things / Reader’s reaction to a text

·         Annotate a text with emoticons (if trendy) or emotions (if traditional). Discuss how we / the reader felt when reading the whole article.

·         Explore how our feelings are different at the end of the first paragraph and at the end of the last paragraph.

·         Drama: get students to role-play being the reader and explain how they felt when reading the article. At first I was afraid, I was petrified- I kept thinking he….

·         Teach students to use adverbs or adjectives in the analysis - Shockingly, the writer shows us how English books can be quite vague. 


I did try finding a funny quote by Dickens about non-fiction, but it was a little vague.  If you need more inspiration for Unit 1 stuff check this great blog out.


Thanks for reading  


Saturday, 5 October 2013

Sexy Sprouts Turn Evil

Several months ago I shared my ideas about ‘Sexy Sprouts’. In a nutshell, it was about how we tend to focus on the purpose and neglect the effect, when getting students to write non-fiction. The approach changed a lot of how I teach things in the classroom and the results were great, in my opinion. This change in perspective meant I had interesting and engaging writing rather than a collection of loosely linked techniques, hoping to be effective.

Now, I thought that was it. Well, that was until I was faced with teaching a low set off Year 8s and a creative writing assessment. They had to write a horror story. The class is great but their writing tends to be a bit like this:

The scary monster with blood dripping down its face attacked the man. There was blood everywhere. The monster who was a zombie was hungry for flesh. Suddenly, its teeth ate at the flesh.  The man screamed.

I resisted the urge to use the font Chiller to add extra scary points, but this is typical of the sort of writing you see from students working at a level 3 or 4. It is scary, but the problem is that every sentence is trying to be scary. The typical lad will write every sentence like it is going to be in the film trailer. It is written to scare, but very little else.

This week, I tried to break this problem down and get students to produce something more effective. I want horror, but horror that truly scares and shocks people. Students often know the characteristics of the genre, yet it is their mixing of these ingredients where they fall down. Look at the example above. It does have all the ingredients, but they are not mixed well. Enter: Sexy Sprouts.

When teaching students about ‘Sexy Sprouts’ the whole idea was to teach students about effect and write with the effect in mind. Now, with creative writing this isn’t as straightforward as I had hoped it would be.  Writing a horror story is about making writing having a scary effect. Yet, writing is far more complex than that, and that complexity, was the downfall for students. They were making scary writing, but with every sentence designed to scare the general impact was lost. How do you teach students that not every sentence needs to be scary?

This is a hard thing for students to realise. I am forever moaning about modern films, but they do prefer to punctuate a narrative with action every five seconds. I watched an instalment of the famous ‘Transformer’ films and I had to stop it halfway through as I was developing a number of ailments, including seasickness. Is it any wonder that students write like a condensed version of an action film? Action tends to dominate narrative and our memory of a narrative. Small quiet character moments are lost in the memory fug, because two minutes of robots fighting robots was so cool.

To model some of these ideas, I used the fantastic animated film ‘The Sandman’. It features a boy travelling up a flight of stairs to go to bed. As a narrative it is great because it is so simple: the act of going to bed. Obviously, there is more to it. But, this became my starting point. The stairs became my framework for our narrative. It looked something like this:

Paragraph 1: Why are you there?  

Paragraph 2: The setting (the stairs)

Paragraph 3: Walking up the stairs

Paragraph 4: The door at the top

Paragraph 5: The door opens

Paragraph 6: The Monster

By simplifying the context and the format of the story, I was able to get them to concentrate on their writing, which often is the case with level 4s: nice ideas but not written effectively.  Then, we watched a clip from ‘Jaws’. It was the bit where the shark attacks the beach. An excellent example of tension building in a film. We explored what the director did and one student piped up and said that the director used ‘tricks’. That then became an epiphany for me. The scene was structured around several tricks played on the viewer.

We then returned to our stairs. We explored how we could trick our readers purposefully to change the mood of the extract. I called it our six steps of tension. This is what they came up with:

Step 1: Footsteps behind you.

Step 2: Feel something breathing in your neck.

Step 3: You see a big shadow moving at the top of the stairs.

Step 4: You hear footsteps ahead of you.  

Step 5: A cat appears at the top of the stair and it passes you.

Step 6: A door slams shut.

Strangely, this little process or these steps really helped students, as they produced some really clever ideas. I had students changing step 6 so that a figure appeared, a voice was heard, a hand grabbed or a painting smiled back. The staggering of tension helped these students to develop the writing. Before they would have mentioned bloody footsteps in the first step and then tried to outdo the last step in each subsequent one.  Getting them to understand that they can trick me, the reader, was key. Also, they were very creative with the ways to trick me. A friend appeared and the voice realises it is a painting or a doll.

The content was certainly there, but what about the writing? We always have a constant battle in English between the content and the style. On a good day both style and content work together, but all too often one works against the other. I then brought in ‘Sexy Sprouts’ to the writing. This time I had to be more precise with things. I couldn’t ask them to write one paragraph as comical and then another as scary. Instead, I made students write a paragraph using the step approach.

Sentence 1: Mystery

Sentence 2: Scare

Sentence 3: Terror

Sentence 4: Relax

Sentence 5: Shock

And, here’s one a student made earlier:

I started walking up the stairs and the more I went up the closer the strange sound came. I felt cold and the blood was running up to my brain. I opened the broken, oak door where the noise was coming from. It was a black and white cat jumping around wildly. Suddenly, I turned around to see my friend. ‘Hi,’ I said. He ran towards me screaming. Then, I realised it was a doll rocking forwards and not my friend. The darkness made it difficult to see.  A voice behind me said, ‘Your death will bring me so much pleasure’. I turned around…

The enjoyable thing was students got the difference between terror and scare.  In fact, so much that I had one student complaining that he had forget his relaxing sentence and putting two terror sentences in instead. Now, obviously, this is a very formulaic approach to writing and it is one I wouldn’t insist on using every day for every piece of work; but, for these students it worked. It worked better than me teaching lots of techniques. It worked better than me giving them some sentence stems. It worked better than all those things because it is something quite obvious and something that we, as writers, have internalised. This for them isn’t an internalised process. It isn’t even a process we explicitly teach to students. Nonetheless, it made their writing ten times better. Those other aspects I will go onto when they redraft their work, but the foundations now are solid.

As I have commented on before, we seem to spend endless time in lessons analysing extract after extract to see what a writer has done and what the reader is supposed to feel, yet we rarely say to students: ‘ I want you to start this writing with a romantic mood and then I want it to turn into something dark and finally end in a comic way.’ I always want students to vary the length of sentences, types of punctuation, starts of sentence and vocabulary, yet I never ask them to vary the feelings created.
Thanks for reading,