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, naïve 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,



  1. Your plan sounds good, especially as its aim was to get your students achieve the desired result in writing letters. Students nowadays are more aggressive, and many of them don’t get why there is a need to change tones for every type of people they are communicating with. It will be a good study for them to learn how to write in different tones in letters. Tone is very important, as it could influence how the addressee would react or response to the communication. Overly aggressive tones, however, may result to aggressive response. This is why I really think that your plan is good and viable.

  2. Thanks for sharing this idea - I was interested to see that your approach is similar to what I've been trying this past month. As a private tutor of English, I agree with you that students often find it hard to benchmark their work against the formal criteria provided on the SQA website (I'm in Scotland). However, if I give them an essay that someone else has written and ask what that person has done well or badly, the response is far more fruitful and insightful. It really does work!


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