Saturday, 26 April 2014

The class reader is dead, Jim.

When people read this, I am sure that I will be crossed off a few Christmas card lists. I think the class reader, as we know it, is dead. It wasn’t a prolonged, melodramatic death, but a quick, did that really happen, death. Yes, ‘Holes’ has found its final hole. ‘Skellig’ has finally met his Doctor Death. ‘Private Peaceful’ has finally found true peace. Mr Tom has said good night for the last time.  Before I lament the passing of such an established ingredient of English teaching. I need to explain what I mean. A class reader is a novel. Generally, these novels are modern. It is a novel that is used in lessons to teach aspects of English, and, usually, the students will be assessed on their understanding of the text or how the novel is written.  I was taught this way with novels at secondary school. We would read the novel and the teacher would think of some related activities borne out the text. We'd write a letter as one of the characters. We’d write a missing chapter.  

So, why do I think the humble class reader is dead? One reason I think this is the case is primary schools. The changes in primary schools means that schools are trying to push students with their reading and analysis. So texts regularly used in secondary schools are finding their way into primary classrooms. Often, I have students inform me that they did a text in Year 6. Don’t get me wrong: I am not angry with this. It makes sense. A natural progression of improving reading would be to choose tougher texts. That’s why primary schools look to texts taught in secondary schools as they have a certain kind of kudos. It motivates students knowing that they are reading / studying a book that Year 8s study.

The class reader is usually chosen with a mixed set class in mind. The success of some of the novels is that they work for a wide range of groups. The novel might have complex issues for able students, yet the novel is written in an accessible style for less able students. It is seen as a win win situation. Furthermore, we aim for books that will appeal to both boys and girls. Add to that, we look for a book that is pacey and will hook non-readers. We are, simply, asking too much from these books. Complex, yet easy. Boy friendly and girl friendly. Interesting plot as well written prose. In fact, we ask a lot of class readers and I argue that books used in class struggle to cover all these bases. You might be reading this and say ‘poppycock’ to all this, because you have the perfect book. I happy to be proven wrong, but, in my opinion, I think with our obsession on boy/girl friendly texts, accessibility and engaging the non-readers has meant that they quality of reading material student has dipped. All reading is good. But, maybe, we have sacrificed something along the way in the search for engagement.

I have novels that I adore teaching such as ‘Of Mice and Men’, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and ‘Lord of the Flies’ to name a few; but when I think of the other books I have taught, and especially KS3, I haven’t really enjoyed them. Why? Because, simply the texts do not naturally incline themselves for analysis by inexperienced readers. They do some subtle things and clever things with language, but they are at such a level that only a teacher can spot these clever things.  The patterns are vague. They are tenuous. I teach ‘Great Expectations’ and it is interesting to see how students react differently to Dickens’ writing to other writers’ work. They spot patterns, techniques and subtle shifts in Dickens. Sadly, this doesn’t happen as freely with class readers. Students find things watered down. A theme that is woven without a whole chapter in a Dickens novel is spread across a whole novel in a class reader. It is hard for students to see the patterns as they have to make connections between sporadic moments in the texts. It relies on students knowing the text on such a high level that it is akin to being the teacher.

Also, the style of the class reader hinders analysis in secondary schools - now, don’t do throwing the ‘Holes’ description at me. They normally feature a paragraph of setting description, a line of description for each character and then the rest of the writing is made up of feelings of the character and dialogue the characters say. This makes it all fast and pacey, but it means the analysis you can do is short and spread out. There are no long extracts to unpick and question. It is all nice bitesize blocks of things to analysis. Recently, I picked up a class reader to prepare for a lesson and I had no idea what to do. I looked at the text for inspiration. I looked again and again… and again. I struggled to find some language point about the chapter. This mental block is something I rarely experience with a classic text. Each page inspires or has some juicy nugget to discuss and explore. A class reader tends to have nuggets but they are so far apart in the text, or subtle. What I really want to say is: Right, we will read the whole book and only analyse the ending. I am not bothered about the stuff before it, so we will just read it and talk about the ending.  

Then, there is the overall assessment. Writing an essay on a modern class reader is tricky. I find that a lot of the time I am leading them directly to the ideas, rather than the students coming up with the ideas. Take a theme based essay. A theme in a classic text tends to be integral to the plot and everything in the text. A theme in some of the modern class readers is like a fart. You can smell it but you can’t judge the source of the smell easily. So, I might spend looking at courage in a novel. However, I have to tell them in a way what ways the writer shows courage. I’d rather have them tell me.

The class reader for me is dead. It has ceased to be. It no longer is.  How am I passing this sad loss? Well, I am thinking that as part of the curriculum changes in our department that we are going to do something with those class readers. I don’t want whole units of work around a class reader. I want the class readers to be read without the analysis focus. I want the reading for enjoyment to be promoted. A lot of these class readers are good reads. They should, in my opinion, be read and not analysed within an inch of their lives with vacuous comments. Theses books I want to be devoured and enjoyed, and maybe questioned. I want the downtime in a week to reading a few chapters a week of the book without the fear of some work, without the fear of some assessment on the horizon and without the navel gazing analysis that has taken place in the past. Then, we can spend time working with complex and challenging. The best work I get from students is with ‘Great Expectations’ and not with ‘Abomination’ by Robert Swindell.  

Modern class readers should be enjoyed.

Classic texts should be devoured.    

We are gathered here today to pay our respects to our dearly beloved class reader. It has now passed over to the other side. Let us sing hymn number 233.  

My condolences,  


P.S. No novels were harmed in the making of this blog.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

The one with all the links to the Year 11 exam

As Year 11s only have a few weeks left, I thought I'd blog some links of some past posts about the AQA language exam. Hopefully, they might help somebody in the last few lessons before they say good bye and good luck to the students.

Question 1

Questioning skills- an approach I have used with Question 1 text:

Question 2

Analysing headlines and pictures, focusing on tone:

Cohesion between parts of a text (headline, picture and text):

Question 3

Exploring power in pictures and non-fiction texts:

Question 4

Focusing on effect when comparing texts:

Question 5/6

Exploring tone and modelling writing:

Preparing students for the exam

A list of activities for students to complete as revision:

Literature - Poetry

Looking at syllables:

Looking at repetition:

Saturday, 19 April 2014

When will ... when will .. when will I be subtle?

An interesting thing happened to me in a lesson: something that I didn’t really expect, or even anticipate in my planning. As I am in the last slog of preparing for the exams, I have been getting students to answer past papers. Every week I have completed the following lesson at least once. Each time I vary the question or task.  

Give students a question or reading materials and a question.

Students write for a set time, according to the exam specifications.

While students write, I write (type on the computer) my response to the question.

Then, at the end of the lesson, students read my response on the board (including errors) and compare it with their own piece of writing.

Students then write an explanation of how their work is better than mine. Then, they write an explanation of how mine is better.

Finally, I print off my response and photocopy it for the next lesson. The starter is now prepared for the next lesson: Find phrases that…..

Now, this has been my pattern for the last few weeks and I kid you not: the students are absolutely silent during the process. There is even some one-upmanship going on with students delighting in how their work is better than mine. As a process, it has been great. Students are practising; we are modelling work; and developing feedback. Furthermore, the better and worse aspect helps students to place themselves in relation to work, and see what they need to do. For me, ‘the better and worse’ approach is much better than a mark scheme. There is nothing worse than giving a student a mark scheme and getting them to work out where there in the grand scheme of things. There is nothing to relate to. Seeing another piece of work is so important to accessing success. I can judge my attractiveness (or ugliness) by comparing myself to others. If somebody gave me a mark scheme on attractiveness, I would struggle and think I am doing well. I have eyes, a nose and all the other stuff. Success is relative in English. It not always ‘feature led’. There is no success criteria check list. The top grades just do it better than the rest in the class. Their writing sings, while other writing moans.

I had this argument with another teacher in a training meeting. They said the mark scheme was sacrosanct. It was the teacher’s bible. They said it was so important for students to know and understand. And, I, surprisingly, disagreed with the student bit. How many times have I given a mark scheme to students and they have given a C grade piece of work an A? How many times have I seen students give an A grade piece of work a C grade? Numerous times, in fact. Generally, students have a gut feeling and usually they are right. When you add a mark scheme, you throw things out. You are reducing the complexity of the writing process and work. It is reduced to a meaningless list of statements. The subtlety is lost on students. It is lost on me too when you read some mark schemes. I have mentioned my frustration with marking criteria with the top bands. I teach students the skills to get better: I don’t teach them to complete a tick list of things. The exam boards hate it. How many examiner reports have I read that have denounced ‘PEE’ and ‘AFOREST’? As a starting point these things are fine.

Anyway, I digress. Back to the lesson. I produced the following response based on writing task question on the AQA Unit 1 exam. Students had to write a letter in response to a letter highlighting the need to increase the legal driving age.

Dear Editor,

I was casually reading your worthy and of high quality newspaper last Thursday, when I caught a letter by a pensioner: a pensioner who felt it necessary to express his or her view that the legal age for driving should be increased to 19. I personally felt disappointed that the voice of young people was not herd in this case. Again, on important issues the younger generations are being silenced by the majority of adults. The pensioner in question seemed to forget that he or she was once a young person.

The assumption that adults know best is one of the issues here. You might say that adults, especially pensioners, have been on our lovely green planet for decades and decades and, therefore, they know things that the young, na├»ve and feckless teenagers have got to learn. You might also say that have had more experience of things. You might also say that they have been to university and have been taught lots of clever things. But, then, why do I see adults driving with mobile phones? Why do I see pollution and rubbish on every street? Why are lots of adults in debt? These people themselves present themselves as being experts. They are hardly the best ones to lecture me on when I should or should drive. I respect the fact that the man writing the letter fought for his country. I respect the fact that man has worked hard and earned his retirement. I respect the fact that the man was a safe driver when he was younger. I respect a lot about this man, but he doesn’t respect me.

In the last twenty years walking on a path has become dangerous. Our friend will probably will cry that it is the result of the  ‘youth of today with their flash cars’. Sadly, this isn’t the case. A four wheeled vehicle with tartan seats and a basket is the cause of the danger: the motorised scooter. The electric equivalent of a sports car for pavements. One giant step for mankind one giant step for lazy people. Yes, there may be people that have a genuine need for having one of these machines, but, for me, the number of them on the streets is increasing. Let’s have a reduction of these machines. It is only fair. Let’s have safer roads and pavements. I would agree with increasing the age of driving, if we reduce the number of scooters on pavements. Let’s have safer roads and paths.

Furthermore, our letter writing friend doesn’t fully understand the full situation. He is probably one of the people that moan about the number of teenagers on the streets. But, what he doesn’t realise is that if he raised the age limit he would have more teenagers on the street. After all, the teenagers with cars drive away from his house. They visit cinemas, restaurants and theme parks. Stop them driving and you stop them from doing things. You leave them with no choice but to cause trouble on the streets.  

I do hope, dear editor, that you do print my letter, because your newspaper represents local people and their voice. I am a local person, but I am a local teenager. I do hope that you will share my letter and share my opinions and not silence me as the writer of the letter did last week.

Yours sincerely,


The interesting thing I discovered when I presented this piece of work to students was their response. They were surprised with the tone I had used for the letter. Their letters had been quite aggressive, direct and attacking whereas as mine had been flattering, comical and generally positive. They were genuinely surprised. They questioned the notion of ‘persuading’ and if mine was persuasive or not. But, over the course of the lesson, they understood that the tone of their writing is crucial to a text’s success. It is too predictable and obvious to be defensive and aggressive. They needed to be subtle in their approach. They understand this in spoken discourse, but they don’t apply this to their written work.

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you will have read about my approach to ‘Sexy Sprouts’ and my attempts to get students to write with the effect in mind. Here is an extension of this idea: Do we explicitly teach students to write with a tone? Or, do we assume that students know everything about tone?

We seem to spend ages analysing the tone of a piece of poetry. We work endlessly exploring how a writer creates a tone or mood in a poem, yet do we spend time in lessons crafting a melancholic tone of writing? Do we get students to write with a nostalgic tone of writing? Do we? I don’t and I think: we don’t.

We focus on the concrete aspects of writing. The nuts and bolts of writing. We work on using homophones correctly or how to use an apostrophe correctly. The abstract aspects of writing like tone, cohesion, effect, paragraphing (to an extent) and mood are neglected because they are abstract – they are subtle. They are fluffy and difficult to pin down. Progress in these elements are difficult to observe and track. Maybe, we need to include some of these in our teaching. Like using commas, we need a consistent approach to teaching these aspects. Maybe we need to be teaching students to use a particular tone from an early age. Ditch the list of techniques and get them to write with a tone in mind. As I have noticed with ‘Sexy Sprouts’, get them to think of the desired effect and students automatically use appropriate techniques.

To get the high grades, students need to be subtle with their writing. I am thinking we are too subtle in our teaching of tone. Maybe we need to be less subtle and more explicit.    

Right, I need to finish and work on my planning:

Lesson 1: Write three sentences with a flattering tone.

Lesson 2: Write two sentences with a depressing tone.

Lesson 3: Write four sentence with a sarcastic tone.

Thanks for reading my kind, illustrious readers,


Thursday, 10 April 2014

55 days to the English Exam

55 Days to the English Language Exam – Higher

I am in the last few days of term and I am flagging. I am waving, waving, waving. I need some help. My plan is to send students off for Easter with a list of tasks to do for the next 55 days before the exam. The idea, hopefully, is that they do an activity a day and then improve a little bit at a time. Now, I got to 55 higher exam points and then inspiration disappeared like a colleague when some tidying up needs doing. Therefore, I am asking for some help. Can you suggest some possible tasks for foundation students? It can be anything, but the idea is to develop a skill. After all, students struggle with revising for English as they do not understand that English is about skills. 

Either tweet me on @Xris32 or leave a message below. 

Many thanks 



55. Write a paragraph and in each new line use a different piece of punctuation.

54. Learn three famous quotes you could use in your writing.

53. Read a blog and copy out the informal expressions they use. 

52. Learn some different words you could use instead of usual colours (blue, green, yellow).

51. Write your own exam paper. Find the articles and create the writing tasks.

50. Create a poster of fifteen different headlines and analyse them.  

49. Find a famous speech and highlight all the interesting techniques the writer has used.

48. Find a piece of writing designed to shock, amuse or inform. Analyse what the writer did to make the reader feel that emotion.

47. Learn how to use a semicolon (;)

46. Write 2 sentences where you use the weather to persuade or describe an emotion.

45. Find a travel blog and list all the emotions you find

44. Find a song lyric which expresses feelings and explain what it means.

43. Learn how to use dashes instead of brackets and brackets instead of dashes.

42. Write a sentence beginning with an -ly word.

41. Make a poster of all the different connectives you can use in a sentence.

40. Write a paragraph and make each sentence have a different tone. 

39.  Read a famous letter and think about how it ends.

38. Learn what the difference is between a noun, verb, adjective, pronoun and adverb.

37. Learn 5 interesting adverbs.

36. Find a good article (speech or letter) and draw lines to show where the text connects to other aspects in the article.

35. Find out two other sound effects (techniques) that writers can use as well as alliteration.

34. Learn how to use a colon (:).

32. Find five better words to use instead of good, bad, happy and sad.

31. Find a poem and mark out how many syllables are in each word. What patterns do you notice?

30. Research the different types of rhetoric.

29. Pick five words you usually spell incorrectly and learn to spell them correctly.

28. Write in style of someone. Pick a famous person and try to write as they would.

27. Buy a newspaper and write for each picture the answer to this question: Why did the editor pick me?

26. Learn the spelling of the word committed.

25. Using the internet, find five letters and investigate how they start a letter in an interesting ways.

24. Research how ‘however’ and ‘therefore’ can be positioned in different places in a sentence.

23. Write a paragraph and repeat the opening /ending of sentences.

22. Read something from the Guardian online.

21. Learn 5 interesting adjectives.

20. Look out of the window on the bus home -how would you describe what you see?

19. Find an effective piece of writing and highlight all the commas. Look at what each comma does to the writing.

18. Find a magazine and a newspaper and see if you can spot a typo or a grammar mistake. You’ll be surprised.

17. Find a news article and find one flaw.

16. Learn the spelling of ‘embarrassed’

15. Find five interesting sentence structures you could use in your writing.

14. Find three magazine articles and look at how the articles end in an interesting way.

13. Rewrite a newspaper article as a teenage magazine article.

12. Find five lines from a song that could be quite effective in a piece of writing.

11. Write a paragraph where the opening word of each sentence is the same as the last word in the previous sentence.

10. Pick a book of the shelf and find five lines or phrases that you wish you had written.

9. Describe your favourite animal.

8. Find a famous speech and copy out some of the phrases the speaker uses to link or develop ideas.

7. Find three original words to start a sentence with.

6. Learn what a pun is and practise writing and inventing puns, and be ‘punny’. 

5. Experiment with using inverted commas to be sarcastic. That’s ‘cool’!

4. Pick a topic and try to think of 5 funny puns you could use if you were writing about it.

3. Find some form of really formal writing. Copy out all the phrases and words that makes it sound formal.

2. Spend five minutes and craft the best sentence in the world. Keep changing words until it is the greatest sentence.

1.  Pick a newspaper article and highlight all the facts and opinions.

55 Days to the English Language Exam – Foundation

55. Find a sentence you really like and try to adapt it for another piece of writing.

54. Learn the difference between their / there / they’re.

53. Find a magazine article and think about which words you would change if you were writing for a different audience (teenagers / adults).

52. Write a paragraph and make each sentence start with a different word.

51. Read a magazine article and circle all the informal /chatty bits.

50. Write a paragraph that is persuasive and uses AFOREST.

49. Learn that ‘a lot’ is two words.

48. Write a list of as many techniques you can think of.

47. Make a poster of adjectives. Find as many impressive ones as you can.

46. Write a paragraph and end each sentence with a different piece of punctuation - … ? !

45. Research on the internet how to use a comma correctly.

44. Take an article off the internet and try to make it better.

43. Find five headlines and circle the most effective words. Decide what makes them so effective.

42. Read a blog that reviews something and copy out all the best words in it.

41. Learn the spelling of tries / cries.  

40. Read a magazine article and highlight all the effective words you would like to use in your writing.

39. Find a charity letter and circle all the things that persuade you to donate money.

38.  Find a picture and describe it. Then, describe how it makes you feel.

37. Read a leaflet and make a headline for each new paragraph.

36. Write a sentence beginning with an -ly word.

35. Write a paragraph and use a different number of words in each sentence. The first sentence has three words. The next has seven and so on.

34. Describe your favourite animal.

33. Write 5 similes about a beach.

32. Find a leaflet and highlight all the words that persuade you and highlight all the words that describe things. 

31. Find out what the difference is between informing and explaining.

30. Create a list of words you usually spell incorrectly.

29. Google a location and invent a sight, a smell, a taste and sound you might experience there.   

28. Read a newspaper article and stop when you get to a piece of punctuation. Think about why the writer used that piece of punctuation at that point.

27. Find a paragraph and try to copy a sentence but change some of the words in it. Make sure it still makes sense.

26. Copy out a long sentence from a book and see how many sentences you can make from it.

25. Find a leaflet and analyse the use of pictures.

24. Research how to use brackets in your writing correctly.

23. Learn the difference between a noun and an adjective.

22. Learn that a new paragraph should be used for every new time, place, topic or person.

21. Find three original words to start a sentence with.

20. Find a magazine article and circle all the interesting things about how it is written.

19. Find five interesting sentence structures you could use in your writing.

18. Find a leaflet and analyse the use of colours.

17. Spend five minutes looking at one of your exercise books and correct as many mistakes you can find.

16. Find a paragraph and circle all the nouns. Then, think of an adjective you could use to describe the noun.

15. Find a news article and find 5 facts in it.

14. Write a paragraph and try to repeat words in it. Try repeating the start and opening of sentences for effect.

13. Learn when to use to or too in a sentence

12. Copy a paragraph from a newspaper and use your best handwriting.

11. Create a list of five sentence structures you would like to use in your writing.

10. Learn what a counterargument is.

9. Learn what the difference between weather and whether is.

8. Write one detailed paragraph. Try to write it so that it has 8 sentences in it.

7. Write a sentence and then add a comma and then the word ‘because’ to make it longer – and add a bit more to make sure it makes sense.

6. Research what a comma sandwich is.

5. Write fast for five minutes on any topic. Check what you have written and add any missing full stops.

4.  Research better words for – good, bad, excellent and amazing.

3. Make a list of connectives you can use in a sentence.

2. Make a list of different emotions a reader can feel when reading a text.

1.  Write a paragraph that doesn’t use the word ‘the’ or ‘this’ in it. 

Here are some suggestions from people on Twitter:

Get students to describe a picture (your choice) using key language to describe, persuade etc.

Learn spelling words to describe tone: authoritative, persuasive, opinionated etc

Tweet descriptions of (3?) images you see on bus shelter ads? Venn diagram comparing first two pics in free paper.

Learn when to use were/was; is/are; our/are; where/were; there/their; capital letters :-)

Visit  and explain how presentational devices are used.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

I've got the power - Question 2 and 3

I have just finished the school’s production of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and I am a little bit frazzled. It was a great experience, but it has left me tired and drained.  My batteries are running out. I clearly haven’t got the power. The energy also runs low when you are working hard to prepare students for the GCSE English exams.
In fact, looking at power in question 2 and question 3 is very important, I feel, to getting students to engage with a text. I thank a colleague for putting this idea into my head. If students look at the power situation in a picture, for example, they then understand the complex symbolism of a picture.
Are the people / objects in the picture looking superior or inferior? Or simply put: strong or weak?
Looking at this picture from the Daily Mail website today. You can see that the drug mules are looking weak. They have their head down and their hands behind their backs. They look weak. As readers, we feel superior. They did something bad and we feel that they are being punished. Furthermore, they look sorry for what they have done. We might feel a bit of sympathy for them, but that is because they are presented as weak. Or, we might also feel sorry for them because ‘the mean people’ in another country have been mean to these two women.  
Therefore, when looking at pictures, I think it is very helpful if students think of the power in the picture.
Does the reader feel superior? Do they feel better than the things in the picture?
Does the reader feel inferior? Do they feel helpless in comparison to the things in the picture?
If you look at recent exam papers, you can easily apply this. The teenager eating a burger with her eyes closed is ‘dripping’ with power.
1: The teenager holds the power as they are holding the burger.
2: The teenager has her eyes closed suggesting that she isn’t making choices based on sight.
3: The teenage years is when people start having more power in a family.  
4: The reader is helpless as they (presumably the parents) cannot control the child.
5: The reader is helpless as they probably know only one teenager and so cannot do anything about the other teenagers affected by this phenomenon.
6: The reader is helpless as the teenager doesn’t want to listen to them – their eyes are closed.
I have found that as soon as you introduce power, or even the words superior and inferior, students make more meaningful comments than before. When we explore symbolism of a picture, it is so difficult to pinpoint the exact intended symbolism of a picture. Looking for symbols of power highlights the relationship between the reader and the writer.
Make your reader feel superior and they feel righteous, angry, smug and happy.
Make your reader feel inferior and they feel worried, scared and sad.
This also applies, handily, to question 3. The question about what the writer thinks and feels in a piece of travel writing. Again, ascertaining where the writer, this time, feels superior or inferior helps students to understand what is really going on. Students can fire off emotions like a machine gun fires bullets, but it is the interpretation of these emotions that gets the marks. Add power and you start interpreting. The writer feels inferior because everyone is an expert and he isn’t. Therefore, he feels embarrassed and stupid.
In fact, tracking the power in the situation helps students understand the text better.  When does the writer feel inferior? When does the writer feel superior? When does the writer change from being inferior to being superior? [Now, don’t go asking those questions, as you read this blog.]  
Thanks for reading,
P.S. If like me you are struggling for articles to use for practice past papers, then the following might help.
Questions 1: BBC News webpage / Guardian webpage  
Question 2: Daily Mail webpage
Question 3: Travel blogs

I tell students to look at these daily for practising the skills needed for the paper.