Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Slow Writing - Literacy Across the Curriculum Part 1

A New Hope IV: Slow Writing / Deep Reading / Thoughtful Talking

I have done my first INSET session this week and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t scared. In fact, I was very scared. So scared that I would make a complete fool of myself. It didn’t help that I had man-flu at the same time. Thankfully, the response to the session was very positive and the talk created a lot of discussion.  Some of it I will share on here at a later stage . One of the problems with ‘Literacy Across the Curriculum’ is that there is no one model to work from. There are so many ideas.  Many methods. Many approaches. And, as I have discovered, many books on the matter. Now, I could have read a lot of these books, but I haven’t. Not because I am smug and think I know better, but because I didn’t know which path to go down. After some thought, procrastination, and more thought, I came up with the following:

Slow Writing

Deep Reading

Thoughtful Talking

Some of these ideas are adapted from other people's ideas. Others are some of my own. But, what I have done is design a Literacy strategy with my school and my students in mind. My strategy isn’t a blanket approach of 'one size fits all'. My strategy is one that I think is the best for us.  Time will tell if it works. Like a child, I have the teething, weaning and inoculating stages to go through. I think I will try to ignore the embarrassing ‘toilet-training’ stage.  However, I will keep people abreast of things as they happen. I haven’t mentioned things on here before, because I didn’t think it fair to teachers if I share things with the rest of the world, before I explain it to them.  Anyway, here goes …

I have designed a three year plan for improving Literacy. If we are going to do something, we want to do it well. Prior to me taking on the responsibility of Literacy, there hadn’t been a person directing or leading it for several years. Therefore, I knew I had quite a bit of work to do, so I decided that I would focus on one aspect each year. I wouldn’t neglect the other aspects, but I would have a main drive on a particular strand. This year, I decide it would be writing. As an English teacher, I could easily identify areas to work on and offer some possible suggestions.

With writing in mind, I then thought about what our main priorities could be. What are the problems with writing? Why are students not producing effective writing? Then, I thought of the bigger picture: the culture of writing. This is what I noticed about the writing habits of  our students:

In the past (when I was in school)
       Most of the writing done in school.
       Reading mostly done at school.
       Didn’t usually write at home unless you had homework or a pen pal - sadly, I never had one.
       Read if bored and the weather was bad and nothing on TV.

       Some writing done at school.
       Some reading at school.
       Students writing at different times of the day on Twitter, Facebook and mobile phone.
       Students are constantly looking at phone throughout the day.

I noticed that the students write more and read more in a day than I ever did when I was their age. Yet, the types of reading and writing they do are in small bursts. Students write more, and read more often, but only short texts. If you look at the exam system, you can see that shortening of texts in the types of questions set. With that in mind, I looked at what the students write and that, not surprising to most English teachers, highlighted the high amount of features of spoken texts.

       Spontaneous / unplanned
       Mistakes acceptable
       Grammar not important
       Spelling doesn’t matter
       Short and quick
       Just do it attitude

       Mistakes are not allowed
       Grammar is important
       Spelling does matter
       Long and in detail
       Take your time   

The list of features for speech can read like a tick list for some students’ work. The clear problem is social media. This dominates the material students read and write. Students write for 5 hours a day at school and the rest of the time their writing is dominated by language used in an informal context. We know that people are influenced by their environment. If students are surrounded by language that is informal and spontaneous, it stands to reason that their writing is going to reflect this. Their writing behaviour could easily be characterised by the phrase ‘Just do it’. They just do it. No thought. No planning. No consideration.

That’s where Slow Writing comes in. The lovely David Didau mentioned on his blog the idea of ‘Slow Writing’ and this sowed the seed. I needed to change the students’ attitude from ‘Just do it’ to ‘Take your time’. Skill is about choices. The most skilled artist makes all the right choices that the worst artist gets wrong. The skilled footballer almost has a second sight with the choices that he or she makes. Great writers make lots of little choices. They make the right choices. This whole idea became the philosophy behind my drive for the year. As teachers, we would make the choices that writers make explicit. The teaching of Literacy would concentrate on the choices that students make. We will talk about what choices they can make. We will be explicit about the options they have. We will develop the habits of thinking about the choices. No more ‘Just do it’.


I identified several key areas - a bit like the 'Marginal Gains' idea that people are using.  As we prepare lessons now, we can focus on one of the aspects concerned with writing. With the focus on certain choices, this means that the Literacy focus isn’t a ‘crowbar’ approach. Students make choices every lesson and we are just helping them to make the right choices. We will focus on building these choices into our lessons and our planning. We are going to keep things short, simple and intelligent. We have even built this into the planning of writing. Before students write, they have a planning sheet to make them think about what choices are they going to make.  
Right, where do I begin? Simple: the date. Goodbye - 30/01/13. Hello - Wednesday 30th January 2013. They now start in a formal and organised way. No rushing things now. It is all slow. Real slow. Mellow even.
Thanks for reading and apologies if there are any typos - I am tired and still suffering from 'man-flu'. Check out this blog for more of the 'New Hope'.   Furthermore, I carry on this blog in part 2 here.
P.S. There are other aspects of my 'vision' for Literacy in our school. However, this is my main drive at the moment. I will share some of the other ideas at a later date.

Saturday, 26 January 2013

The Talking Eggs – Dialogue

To use single inverted commas or not to use single inverted commas – that is the question?

The bananas were feeling a little fruity.
If there is one thing I hate about writers, it is dialogue. It drives me mad. Too many times have I read something and then gone back to the beginning to unpick who said what. Step forward: ‘The Lord of the Flies’. That book alone has caused me endless frustration, trying to work out who said what. I have always resorted to the students in the end: do you think it is Jack saying that? What do you think? “I don’t know, sir,” mutters a student. In the end, we decide it is Piggy after analysing the rhythm and lexis of the two word utterance. Mr Golding, couldn’t you just help us out with a few ‘said Jack’s or ‘said Ralph’s. I know you are showing the breakdown of rules by throwing the rules of speech out of the window, but remember the reader wants to know what is going on.

Speech in writing is a difficult art and it is one that I think popular writers can do well and less popular writers struggle with. Teaching students to use dialogue effectively is one of the hardest things I teach in English, because for most of the time most people do it badly. I have read umpteen stories of students using the following formula for story writing: 5% narrative; 85% dialogue; 10% sound effects. Like most things in English, do it sparingly and do it once, just to show the teacher or the examiner that you can demonstrate that particular skill.  The real ratio should be:  for every page of writing there should only be four lines of dialogue. Now, I know this is prescriptive, but it saves me from reading what are, basically, scripts.  I love a good bit of dialogue with the moving shifts and changes of mood, but I think it isn't always easy to create in the classroom.

The following are just some things I do when teaching dialogue:

The Introduction
I have included for you the sheet I often start with. Feel free to use it. Copy it on to Word and use the ‘Find and Replace’ function to replace the names with students in your class. I find that when I start with this they are engaged quite quickly. It has the novelty of having their names in it.


“I hate the word said,” bellowed Mr Curtis across the classroom.

You are going to have a go at varying how you describe speech in a piece of creative writing.
“It’s English again,” _________ Piggy.
“What?” _________ Ralph.
“I said: it’s English again,” _________ Piggy.
“Yeah,” _________ Ralph.
“What do you think we will be doing?” _________ Piggy.
“More poetry,” _________ Ralph.
“Wouldn’t it be good if we had some drama?” _________ Piggy.
“Yeah, that would be brilliant,” _________ Ralph.
“I’d love to see Katie acting,” _________  Piggy.                                                                                                                   
“What have we got next?” _________ Ralph.
“Science!” _________ Piggy.
“Oh no. I wish we had double English rather than Science,” _________ Ralph.
“Quick, he’s looking this way,” _________ Piggy.
“What are we supposed to be doing?” _________ Ralph.

What other words could I use instead of said?


What are the rules of writing speech?

Reducing a conversation
I love this simple, but effective idea. I have used it several times when looking at ‘Spoken Language’, as it is helpful when looking at the rules of speech. Anyway, I give students a conversation like the one below on a sheet of A3. They have to reduce it to 5 lines of dialogue by scribbling out the rest of the lines. After doing this they tend to avoid pages and pages of phatic talk and focus on plot driven dialogue.

 “Hello,” said Tom.
“Hello,” replied Jane.
“How are you?”
“I am fine, thanks. And you?”
“What have you been up to?”
“Nothing much. You?”
“Been to the shops.”
“Really, what shops?”
“Just Tescos.”
“Did you buy anything nice?”
“Not much. Have you heard the news?”
“The news.”
“No. What news?”
“There’s been a robbery.”
“Never. I can’t believe it.”
“There was glass everywhere. It was terrible. Really scary.” 
“Oh, the poor people. How will they cope?”
“Look there’s Jenny.”
“Do you think she’s seen us?”
“What are you up to today?”
“Some shopping.”
“Again that is the third time this week.”
“What can I say?”
“You and your expensive tastes.”
“Right, when shall we see each other again.”
“Next Tuesday?”
“Nah, I am staying in a posh spa then.”
“No, having my hair cut then.”
“Saturday sounds good.”

I know that it will not win any awards for writing, but it does help students to identify what is the important piece of dialogue. Sometimes, students get trapped in the social niceties of a conversation and they neglect the actual purpose of the dialogue: to move the plot on.


Implying rather than saying
I am sorry, but I don’t hide the fact that I am a massive ‘Doctor Who’. It is my escapism from a world of comma splices, homophones and rushed writing. The fantastic Russell T. Davies once said that the best dialogue was dialogue that didn’t state the obvious. He described that he learnt on one show that two people admitting love was best insinuated, rather than declared.  Therefore, I have adapted this idea to a lesson.
Students are given a scenario and they have to write a specific conversation without using specific words. Below is an example of the sheets I have produced for them. At the start, I get them to decide what words are too obvious for a conversation. These they write down in a box and can’t use at all in their writing.

Writing effective dialogue

To write effective dialogue in a story, you need to imply or suggest things. Most speech in television dramas is complex and subtle.


Confessing a murder.


Words you cannot use:

 murder , death , body, done it, killed



"I've got something to say," he mumbled.
"What? Stop joking around," she said.
"I... this is hard to say, but it was me."
"I don't know what you mean."
"He was just walked into the house and... yeah. That was it."
"You don't mean that you?"
"Yes, I mean that."
"But, you were with Tim in the pub. You told me."

Question / Answer / Response
This harks back to my A-level language days. Good old Grice and his maxims. He’s got some good maxims. One of the few chaps I know with maxims. Anyway, this is something that I came up with when teaching students to write scripts. At the time, they were coming up with some unconvincing dialogue. It was flat and there was very little variation. That’s when I remembered the question / answer / response pattern of conversation.  Next lesson, we had a little starter based on it:

Imagine there are two people walking through some woods. They are having a conversation. Each time they speak, they answer with a question, an answer to the question or a response to the answer.

As a class, we created this conversation. Each student took it in turns to say one line of conversation. However, they followed the question, answer and response pattern. After a while they picked up the rhythm of the speech pattern, and we had some interesting and, occasionally, effective  conversations.  
Student 1: Are we we lost?
Student 2:  I dunno.
Student 3:  I think we are.
Student 4:  Did you hear that?
Student 5:  No.


Eggs. Eggs. Eggs.

“Eggbert said it was a hot tub!” screamed Eggie.
"I think I am going to be sick; I can see his insides." 
"I think Eggbert has cracked," moaned Egggene.
I am not working for Edwina Currie, honestly. Looking for inspiration for a lesson, I found a picture of some eggs with eyes on. That became one of my favourite pieces of homework with Year 7. Each student had to take two photographs of some eggs (feel free to change the item); the pictures, however, must have told a story. What followed were pictures of eggs winning medals, dying, getting married and many other creative things. It was ‘such fun’ as Miranda’s mother would say. The students loved it and it got them enthused, even if a few eggs were wasted in the cause.

When we had printed all the pictures out, each student wrote 6 lines of dialogue for their pictures. It created more fun as they tried to fit puns in the dialogue and the names. It was eggciting stuff.

And finally…
As far as I know, the single and double inverted comma thing is a question of style. Personally, I prefer the double inverted commas, as they help to distinguish speech from quotes and titles. To finish off, I think I will share one of those strange conversations that I always find myself in.

“He was an English teacher, you know. Yeah. Married this woman, who was fairly young. Twenty something, I think. Anyway, he was having an affair,” whispered one of the mature members of the department.
“Really?” gasped an NQT round the table in the staffroom.
“Well, he got fed up with his wife. I don’t know why. But, and this is a big one, he decided that he wanted to marry the woman he was having an affair with. He then killed the wife and kept her body in the freezer.”
I walk in and sit down at the table with the staff aghast at the macabre tale being spun.
“Yeah, I worked with him while this was going on. You couldn’t tell what was really happening. No hints. All the time he was working, he had his wife in the freezer. Arrested him, they did. In for life. Seemed such a nice chap really. Quiet and friendly – bit like Chris here.”
The rest of the staff stopped eating and looked at me. Eyes protruded from sockets. Mouths opened. Silence.

Thanks for reading and thanks to Gwen for proofreading,

P.S. I will blog later this week with some of my ideas about ‘Literacy across the curriculum’.


Sunday, 20 January 2013

Les Misérables - Blog Sync 1

Blog Sync 1: The Universal Panacea: The number one shift in UK education I wish to see in my lifetime

Outlawing politicians? Criminalising being a politician? Extraditing politicians? Money? Time? The list is endless. But for me, I want something created.

At the moment, the teaching profession is like a choir. Everyone is concerned with making music, or as we like to call it, education.  Yet, some are singing intune. Some are singing out of tune. Some are singing the wrong version. Some are singing the old version. Some are singing a song that they made themself. Some are contemplating giving up singing. In truth, there’s a lot of singing, but it isn’t harmonious. That is the beauty of teaching. That is the problem with teaching.  The problem is: when you have a song being sung all over the place, it is ripe for someone to come in with the hope of conducting it.  Step forward, Mr Gove. He has come forward with a baton and is making / forcing us to sing to a song that was sung a long time ago. We, as a profession, let this happen. Our lack of consistency allowed this opportunity for someone to step forward and take the reins. Before people go all angry and think I am implying that all teachers are teaching badly – I am not. Far from it. I think the fact that we haven’t got a consistent direction or focus that is the cause of our problems.  

We all know the ideologies of the current Government are based on monetary value and wealth. My grandmother worked for British Rail for several years; something I was and am very proud of. My mother works for the NHS and I work for the education system. It all makes me proud that we serve our society. We are about improving things and serving our community.  Sadly, British Rail was privatised to make the Government more money. Now, we have a pretty awful state of affairs with the train system, and it looks set to get worse.

Now the ideologies of the Conservatives do not sit naturally with education. Education, at heart, is about improving the individual.  However, with the Conservatives, education has become about value for money. We see this in performance related pay. We see this in regional pay brackets. We see this in the disbanding of the PGCE programme – I know I have been a critic of this, but I did not want it destroyed.  The focus at the moment is on money. The focus isn’t on improving the individual. In the rhetoric used by them, they refer to standards and improving standards, but in reality it is about getting staff cheap. The recession was the best thing for the Conservatives as it gave a reason for all cuts. We have to do it or we will be in an even worse situation. We have to reduce the benefits given to disabled people or we will be in an even worse situation. The intelligent question is: where are they not making cuts?

That might seem like a big digression, but here is my point: we need a think tank. We need an organisation that is focused on improving education. An organisation that advises staff of how to teach things in the best possible way. An organisation that isn’t politically biased. An organisation that is full of contrasting people that challenge, argue and agree on the best song sheet for us to follow. An independent organisation that is not worried about scoring political votes, securing financial backing from large companies and pleasing old established members of  an organisation.  Basically, I want an organisation that conducts the teaching profession’s singing, making Mr Gove’s battle for the baton difficult and possibly impossible. 

My think tank would be the ones who made the major changes and proposals for teaching moving teaching on. They would be responsible for:

·         Examinations

·         Subjects

·         Subject content

·         Curriculums

·         National strategies

·         Spreading best practice

·         Improving learning across the country

·         Supporting underperforming schools

The Think Tank (now in capitals as I am starting to believe it could be real) would be the buffer that stops all the unnecessary rubbish that politicians force on schools. Oh dear, the newspapers have highlighted a bad thing. I know – let’s force it on to the teachers. They must teach our students how to hold mobile phones correctly. The Think Tank would be the advanced guard. They would stop the crazy ideas that the latest politician has. They would be our defence. Furthermore, it would give schools more of a direction and save people endlessly going to courses searching for the missing nugget that is going to solve all their problems.  Schools spend loads of money on the latest text books, endorsed by an exam board, or a couple a hundred of pounds on a one day course that may or may not be useful. The Think Tank would have the ideas and the right direction. They wouldn’t be proscriptive as to the way you teach, but they would be the ‘go to guys /girls’ as to how to improve teaching.  

I know that I have my head in the clouds, but a guy has got to dream, hasn’t he? Who would staff this? Teachers and head teachers. I am privileged to share time and conversations with some brilliant teachers and head teachers and through Twitter I have met more. The recent GCSE fiasco has been a call to arms for some and the formation of the ‘Heads’ Round Table’ is the seed for this idea.  We need people who have the experience of the classroom mixed with the knowledge of the big picture. Some perfect examples would be Geoff Barton, Zoe Elder, Phil Beadle, David Didau and Lisa Jane Ashes and many more. Often we have too many people who have no experience of teaching telling us what to do. I have been taught something; therefore, I am an expert of teaching. Sadly, this isn’t really true. I have been a patient of a hospital, but I would not have the knowledge or the understanding to offer advice to doctors on how to operate or cure an illness. In fact, I have eaten lasagna several times, but I don’t think I am an expert on cooking them or telling people how to cook them.    

Now, my Think Tank would be full of intelligent people who teach. They would know that you need several ways to crack a nut and they wouldn’t be proscriptive as to how things are taught. They would lead the way in ideas, methodology, and resources. You often hear how other countries have an education that is far superior to our own. Yes, they probably do, because it is organised better. Some of my colleagues have more organised classrooms than me because they have a system to organise things. They don’t have a mug with a collection of pens that students leave behind. They have pristine drawers where things are organised and placed in their right place. The pens know their jobs and their place and what to do. Maybe, people could stop all this talk of comparison with other countries, if we had this structure. Yes, it looks greener, but that could be because it looks more organised.

Furthermore, the Think Tank would put a halt to this constant changing of education.  Every year there is a major change in the education system. An average child will see several changes in their life of education, yet we never really see the benefits or problems of those changes because something else eclipses it. Before we could see the benefits of the new English exam system, it has been scraped and changed to a terminal exam system. That too, in several years, will be scraped and replaced by something altogether different.  The Think Tank would oversee the changes made and analyse the success of them based on data and results. Things wouldn’t be changed on a whim or a passing idea. Things would be changed based on knowledge, experience and based on discussion.  

I know I am talking about something that is never going to happen and is quite impossible.  In fact, we have something in place that could be our ‘Think Tank’: Ofsted. Ofsted is at the centre of teaching these days. They should, and rarely do, advise teachers what to do. Their current agenda is: you are not doing that right. Maybe, politicians should relinquish their hold on education and give it over to Ofsted.  As if politicians are going to release their hold on the education system? It gives them their content for their speeches. What would they have left to talk about? Taxes!  We all know that a politician will always try to include the words ‘education’, ‘raise’ and ‘standards’ if they want to get votes, because people ‘think’ it is not as good as it was in their day. However, it is good; it just needs a little reshaping.  
Now, all together folks… sing!

Do you hear the people sing? Singing the song of angry men…

Thanks for reading and check out more blogs like this at Blogsync.


 P.S. These thoughts are all my own and, as far as I know, nobody else shares these views.

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Adventures in story-telling : Creative Writing

At the moment, I am preparing my Year 11s for some creative writing. Surprisingly, I am pretty bad at making stories.  I am not that bad, I think, at telling them, but it is the creating and making them that I struggle with. I read, devour, absorb, digest (thankfully, I don’t defecate them – painful, but could be profitable) books and stories, yet I struggle to invent my own stories. This sadly affected my teaching of creative writing. “How do I begin?” says a student. I would often think to myself, “Yeah, how do you begin to write a story?” My colleagues, at the time, would often waltz into the staffroom and squeal with delight at how their class had written some wonderful, poignant, effective stories from his or her ‘crazy idea’.  I would stare back and start looking for my T.A. to help me as I was ‘well stuck’.

Now a few years later and my house is menagerie of storytelling. As I have a young family, stories are my life. I read a bedtime story each night. I watch as my daughters act out imagery stories to each other. I tell stories in the day to entertain them.  I put on puppet shows with finger puppets and they copy – I am a drama student at heart.  We even have stories that form parts of routine.  I even get my daughters to quote from stories. They sometimes quote Oscar Wilde or Charles Dickens during the day. A handbag! Please, sir, can I have some more? Start them young, I say.

Now, the girls are starting to read. I am enjoying things even more as they love listening to me read a book without pictures. At the moment the current favourite is ‘The Enchanted Wood’ – why that hasn’t been made into a film is a complete surprise to me. By having children, I was able to find my ‘storytelling’ gene. I saw how they created stories, how they found inspiration and how they had fun with it all.  Anyway, I had the opportunity to test out some creative writing things with some Year 9s last year, and boy did I experiment. I taught a different group every two weeks and during that time I experimented, trialled and practised a number of different things. This blog is just simply me telling you some of the things I did. Warning: some work with some classes and some don’t.

Post-its on a fridge
A student recommended this idea to me. They had read a book that was about a conversation taking place through notes on a fridge.

I gave groups of students six green post-its  and six yellow post-its. On them, they had to tell a story through notes on a fridge. Each post-it was a different note. Each colour represented a different person. They then stuck their notes to a ‘fridge’ or a sheet of A3 paper. It created some interesting stories about a kidnapped child and a divorce. Later we played around with the order of notes to make the narrative even more effective. Very easy and simple way of generating a story and exploring the way dual narratives work.

Plus, it is a great starter or inspiration for another lesson. The finished stories have been laminated and I have been used to springboard other stories.    

This is inspired by a book I read once. At the start of the book, the writer wrote a list of supposedly unrelated characters. The rest of the novel saw how these totally opposite characters linked together.

Martin Davies, retired teacher, 67, Spain

Gethin Williams, student, 18, Bangor

Mavis Grant, company director, 42, Australia

There’s a story there, but you have to dig deep and think about it. I find this helps to avoid the simplistic story telling that favours action over character development. How do these characters link together? Usually, it will be through some kind of relationship or acquaintance. Do they know each other? Or, is there a person that links them all together?

Random objects from a bag
This started out as one of those ‘quick I haven’t got a starter’ things, but it became quite successful. I emptied a cupboard of random items and placed them in the middle of a desk. The students around the desk took it in turns to tell a story about an object. The rule was they had to hold the object as they told the story. When they finished, another person told a different story about that same object. If the item was exhausted of storytelling potential, then they picked another item.

At first, students were quite hesitant to tell stories, but after a time they got it and then I struggled to get them to stop. The students were free to pick the genre of the story, but it made for an excellent way in to start a story.

Photo album
Google is great. I searched for some pictures and then copied them onto a sheet of A3 paper to make a photo album. I made sure that the pictures were a mixture of family portraits and holiday snaps. I even found some old black and white photographs to add a bit of a hidden past.

Finally, I gave the students the photo album sheet and I asked them the following questions:

*What’s this family’s story?

*Who is who in this family?

*What is the secret in the family?

Every group in the class had the same set of photographs, yet every group produced a different story behind the photos. At points it did sound like an episode of Emmerdale, but it did make for some great discussion and some even better storytelling. 
Check out for some copyright free pictures
Using a poem – Identification by Roger McGough
I love poetry that shocks the reader. Roger McGough is a particular favourite of mine because he has written some very powerful poetry that is shocking and effective. An English teacher introduced me to the ‘Jogger’s Song’ when I was a student and it left me cold. His poem ‘Identification’ has intrigued some of my classes for quite a while now. I think it is brilliant poem that has this slowly unfolding realisation and denial of the death of a loved one. Furthermore, it creates a mystery, and, there lies a story. Now, I know that the story is based on a real event and how a teenage boy was killed by a car bomb.  Students, however, have so many different theories as to what happens, and they become incredibly motivated when describing the lead up to this sad and tragic conclusion. I tell them they are to write the story and the ending of their poem will be the poem.

At the end of all this, I reveal the true story behind the poem and it stuns the class into silence.

20 line story
Love. Pain. Fear. Jealousy. Disappointment. The average day of a teacher – only joking! These are titles I have given students to write about an emotion or a feeling. The students have to write the story in twenty lines. It makes for a very simple story, but it keeps things focused and clear. The writing becomes quite effective as the student has to be concise with their writing.  It is a staple that most teachers use, but it is quite effective.

Describing one moment in a story and not a story
I have read so many stories written by students over the years and they all tend to have the same problem. They are too focused on plot. I have had students try to condense the complete ‘The Lord of the Rings’ saga into two sides of A4 lined paper which is devoid of any description or atmosphere. Most students are driven by the storytelling of films, which is fine, occasionally. However, the length of the story telling in a film amounts to the length of a novel in writing terms. Therefore, it is no wonder that students try to cram stories full of battles, explosions and expensive car chases in the first paragraph. 

I started this by showing the Deathstar explosion. I wrote the sentence ‘The Deathstar exploded.’ on the board.  As a class, we discussed how that single sentence doesn’t convey the events on screen. Then we did the old thing of ‘showing’ and not ‘telling’. Then, we turned this single event into a whole story.  We had our structure to a story and the students were limited in a way as to what to describe, but it meant the writing was focused on the event rather than the whole plot. It made them more reflective on their writing choices, rather than the need to tell a massive story that is the ‘bestest bestest story in the world’ which had lots of ‘and then’ and ‘suddenly’ in it.

Moonlight / Perspectives 
This is borrowed from a friend. He did a creative writing course and he explained this idea to me, and it worked – so I ‘borrowed it’. On the whiteboard, you show a picture of the moon at night. Make sure it is a full moon.  Discuss with students the different kinds of narrator you could have to see the moon or be affected by it. Cue the usual werewolf. Then, we explored it further and ended up with a lover, a child, a scientist, a religious person, etc. Finally, they wrote a paragraph describing how a narrator felt in the presence of the moon. There were some fantastic efforts. Again, the beauty of this technique was that the storytelling is about feelings and how a character reacts and not on the plot.

Also, I got the students to write another paragraph, but this time they had to use a contrasting narrator. One example I had was two sides of a relationship. The girlfriend was excited that the boyfriend was going to propose, as he was quite nervous and kept checking something was in his pocket. However, the boyfriend wanted to kill the girlfriend. Both were looking at the moon and feeling different things. I even had one student describing the moon from an atheist scientist’s view and from a religious person’s perspective.  

Collective story – putting bits together
I really enjoyed reading ‘The Slap’ a few years ago and that book is inspired me with a way of writing a story. For this, I got groups to describe an event through a variety of perspectives.  Each person told the event from their perspective. The writing was kept short so students only wrote about three quarters of a sheet of lined A4 paper. The results were glued together to make a continuous story. Students loved reading the final story and, yeah, sometimes the results were clunky but there are some bits of great storytelling going on nonetheless. If the group are clear about the event and the key characters, then you have a fairly consistent story.  

Science Stories – The What If
I went to a fantastic event organised by our dwindling LEA, which was about promoting reading. During the event, there was an author who explained how she was inspired to write a story. Simply, it was from a science report in the news. She suggested that teachers could get a collection of news stories about scientific discoveries.  One example she gave was about a pill that prevented wrinkles. Then, the story was based around that one idea. What if wrinkles were cured? What if wrinkles denoted class? The rich had no wrinkles and the poor were wrinkly. What if the moment you stopped taking the pills the wrinkles immediately came back? Very simple way of generating some story inspiration.  

Behind every book I read there is a lesson somewhere. The more I read, the more ideas I have. Phillip Pullman decried once that English teachers need more time to read. I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment of this.  Sadly, the marking load and the increased emphasis on evidence gathering have meant that the time spent on thinking and creating good ideas is often lost. The time spent reading and just thinking and is also lost.  I really have to force myself to read sometimes. I love reading, but being a teacher sometimes takes me away from reading. I’d love to spend a whole Sunday afternoon reading a book. Instead, I am planning for the week ahead.  I am marking work. I am filling in things I should have had time to do during the week. What would make me an even better teacher of English is the time to read more. I’d love to read more teenage fiction, so that I can recommend more books to students. My love of reading stories is there, but the fire isn’t always burning the brightest it can, because there isn’t enough time to put more logs on the fire. If I am careful, the fire might just die.  How can I be the source of inspiration to students if my inspiration wanes? Gove famously said that students should be reading more than 50 books a year.  How many teachers and especially English teachers come close to that amount?

 And that does not include books like ‘Of Mice and Men’, because you read it to a class.

Thanks for reading,



Sunday, 13 January 2013

Marking Feedback Sheets - Resource

Thanks to Jenn's  brilliant blog I have dusted these marking feedback sheets off and included the full resources for people to use. Below is the text from the help sheets I give to students. I mark their work and then stick one of these in books and they simply rewrite a paragraph.  There are sheets for reading and writing. I haven't stuck to the APP levels as I wanted to use these for KS3 and KS4. 

Check out  for more details of how I use them.

Improving Writing: Sentences                                       Name:


To get higher marks, you need to:

·         Vary how you start your sentences

·         Vary the length of your sentences

·         Use a variety of sentence structures


Rewrite a paragraph in your writing and try to improve the sentences.


·         Make sure they all start with a different word.

·         Use a question or command in your sentences.

·         Make one of your sentences short (1-4 words long).

·         Try to start some of your sentences with a verb (running), an adverb (slowly), an abstract noun (fear) or a preposition (under).

·         Or try to use some of these sentence structures:

_____________ , ____________, _____________________.

___________, ______________________________.

_________? ________________________________.



Improving Writing: Punctuation                            Name:


To get higher marks, you need to:

·         Use all punctuation marks correctly.

·         Use a variety of punctuation at least once ( - : ; ,. ?...! “) 

·         Use some complicated punctuation accurately (:;-)



Rewrite a paragraph in your writing and try to improve the punctuation.


·         Read the paragraph again and check that no full stops are missing.

·         Check that commas have been use correctly. Would it make sense as a sentence on its own? Sometimes we put two sentences together with a comma, when a full stop is just as good.

·         Add a bracket, question mark or exclamation mark to your writing. You don’t need all of them. 

·         Find two sentences that are closely linked together and join them together with a semicolon, instead of a full stop.

·         A colon (:) introduces a new item.  For example- It was a day I always hated: Monday. Try to use one colon in your writing.



Improving Writing: Paragraphs                            Name:


To get higher marks, you need to:

·         Vary the length of your paragraphs

·         Link paragraphs together

·         Structure paragraphs effectively

·         Use paragraphs correctly


Rewrite two paragraphs in your writing and try to improve them.


·         Look at your paragraphs again and check that you have used a new paragraph for each new topic or idea. TIP TOP – a new paragraph for each new TIME, PLACE, TOPIC or PERSON.

·         Have you linked your paragraphs together? Sometime you might do it clearly – then, after that, secondly. Look at using connectives to link ideas together.

·         Does your paragraph have a clear structure? Does the opening sentence introduce the ideas in the paragraph (topic sentence)? Do the following sentences develop the ideas in greater detail?

·         Have you varied the length of your paragraphs?

·         Try to write down a one sentence paragraph – just one on its own can be very effective.



Improving Writing: Interesting Content                        Name:


To get higher marks, you need to:

·         Avoid clichés or the most obvious things

·         Think of an original and interesting way to perspective

·         Show off your knowledge of other subjects and ideas

·         Show off your vocabulary



Rewrite a paragraph in your writing and try to make it interesting.


·         Are your ideas original? Do you think someone else in the room will have written something similar? What could you do to make your stand out and seem different?  

·         Get rid of clichés. Talk about things nobody else will. Everybody moans about school dinners in school, so talk about the library instead.

·          Use an interesting perspective. Show it from someone else’s, or an object’s. You could even tell it with a particular slant or genre – science fiction, horror or adventure.

·         Think about hooking people in to your writing with the opening sentence.

·         Put in a fact or an interesting piece of information that very few people know.

·         Think about adding some interesting adjectives (dull, monotonous, decrepit) or adverbs (solemnly, earnestly, begrudgingly) to lift your writing up.

·         Use some figurative language in your paragraph (alliteration, simile, metaphor, personification, hyperbole). Remember do not over use it or it will not be as effective as it could be.



Improving Writing: Presentation                          Name:


To get higher marks, you need to:

·         Make your handwriting neat and readable

·         Make your work look like the text you are writing

·         Make it look interesting for a reader



Copy out a section of your writing and make it more presentable.


·         Slow down when you write so that you don’t make too many mistakes and you can form your letters clearly.

·         Try not to join letters together in your words. This might make your writing easier to read.

·         Does your text look like the text you are supposed to be writing? Do you need columns? Pictures? Headings? Sub-headings?

·         Could you make it look more interesting on the page for a reader?

Improving Writing: Use PEE                                          Name:


To get higher marks, you need to:

·         Start all paragraphs with a topic sentence

·         Use a quote to support your ideas

·         Explain how your quote supports your point



Rewrite a paragraph in your writing and try to improve the use of PEE.



·         Start your paragraph with the phrase – ‘The writer uses…’

·         Find a quotation to support your idea

·         Make sure your quote follows the topic sentence.

·         Use the following phrase to introduce your quote – ‘An example of this when … says…’

·         Use quote around the speech

·         Make sure you have 3 to 5 sentences explaining your point.



Improving Writing: Evidence                                      Name:


To get higher marks, you need to:

·         Use words from the book

·         Link your quotes to what you have said

·         Use lots of short and appropriate quotes



Rewrite a paragraph in your writing and try to improve the evidence.


·         Always use speech marks (“”) to show you have used a quote.

·         Try to use one words quotes too – they are “very clever” if you can link them in to your sentence.

·         Use a sentence like one of the following to introduce your quote:

§  An example of this is when ----- says …

§  We see this when …

§  ----- says…

§  The writer uses words like “ ….” and “…”

·         If you have difficulty finding a quote, think of a line and write it in your own words.

·         Make sure your quote isn’t floating on its own. It must be part of a sentence.


Improving Writing: Explanations                          Name:


To get higher marks, you need to:

·         Write detailed explanations

·         Give clear reasons as to why the writer has used things

·         Link to other aspect in the play, novel or poem


Rewrite one paragraph in your writing and try to improve it.


·         Make sure you use one of the following words in your explanations – because, so , as

·         Give a reason – why did the writer include this quote?

·         Think about the effect on the reader / audience

·         Talk about the quote. How does it prove your point?

·         Aim to write about 3 to 4 sentences proving your idea.

·         Link your quote to other aspects of the novel. Think about language, themes, context and structure.

·         Don’t repeat your topic sentence. Add something new.

·         Remember to conclude your point somehow.



Improving Writing: Deeper Meaning                    Name:


To get higher marks, you need to:

·         Read between the lines

·         Talk about things that are not obvious without knowing the story very well  

·         Think of an original and intelligent point

·         Show off your knowledge of areas to do with the book

·         Make links with other things


Rewrite a paragraph in your writing and try to make it show your ability to look at the deeper meaning.

·         Look at the language or techniques used in the quote. Can you use them to support your ideas?

·         Don’t talk about the story.

·         Link your ideas to how the reader or audience should feel. What about the reader’s opinion if this is a tragedy or not?

·         Show the Examiner that you know the story well by referring to the history of the story, themes or some other part of the story.

·         Make a connection between the points you have here with a different point in the book.

·         Look for SYMBOLS

·         Explain how your point links in with the message of the play/novel/poem.

·         Give reasons to your ideas. The following sentence will help you – ‘The writer uses … to …’

·         Use the deeper meaning explanation words – implies, symbolises, suggest, highlights, shows, demonstrates



Improving Writing: Presentation                          Name:


To get higher marks, you need to:

·         Make your handwriting neat and readable

·         Make your work look like the text you are writing

·         Make it look interesting for a reader



Copy out a section of your writing and make it more presentable.


·         Slow down when you write so that you don’t make too many mistakes and you can form your letters clearly.

·         Try not to join letters together in your words. This might make your writing easier to read.

·         Does your text look like the text you are supposed to be writing? Do you need columns? Pictures? Headings? Sub-headings?

·         Could you make it look more interesting on the page for a reader?