Sunday, 27 September 2015

Deconstructing writing - settings

For me, one of the things that has changed the way I teach writing is the ‘deconstruction’ approach used by Alan Peat. I suppose it is quite a masculine thing, pulling things apart and putting back together. Right, let’s open the bonnet and see how things tick. My childhood was full of obsessive detail. I could tell you all the different manufacturers for monsters, locations for episodes and technical wizardry associated with each episode of Doctor Who. I would read endless articles about how an episode was made. I still do it to this day. I know how one of the sets used in Saturday’s episode was reused in another episode, but with the angle of the roof changed. Like a watchmaker, I like knowing how things tick. Pull it apart and see how each cog links and connects to another. I promise: I never did this to any of my pets.  

If you are unfamiliar with Alan Peat’s stuff, do have a look at it. The approach simply breaks down writing into a number of set structures. From the stuff I have seen, it includes sentences and frameworks. Writing is translated, for students, into concrete structures for them to use and adapt. It is very helpful in getting students to vary the content and style of writing. His approach follows the lift up the bonnet and take it apart approach. Boys, especially, in my experience find it useful as it involves learning knowledge and lists, yet developing skills at the same time.

With the new GCSEs being quite open-ended, I feel that there is some potential in this idea of deconstructing writing. At the moment, I foresee departments chucking endless extracts at students, hoping that there will be some understanding of how writers create a setting. Look at how the writer describes the setting here. How does it compare with the setting in this extract? By osmosis we expect students to pick up on the subtle differences. Here is where the problem lies: to understand how writers use settings, you need to have read lots of settings. Our most able students can do it, because they have read lots of books, but the rest struggle and will struggle, unless they read more. The more I teach the new GCSE, the more I feel that reading is the key to success. The exam is designed to make competent readers succeed. I don’t think it is easy to teach the exam. Look at the complex structure question, the effect question and the critical opinion question. These three aspects aren’t things you can teach. It is something that is learnt over time.

Worryingly, I have seen departments ramp up the reading material so student are to read difficult in lessons. But, all importantly, the amount of reading has probably decreased. Yes, give students harder texts, but also keep the class readers going. Wouldn’t it be good if there was a challenge to read as many books with a class as you can? Yes, I will teach the curriculum, but I will also, when there is some down time, look at reading several novels during the year. Not because I have to. But, because I need them to. I worry departments are getting rid of books, because they are not to be perceived to be ‘high-brow’ enough or they lack challenge.  The collective reading of a book is so important to English lessons and if we are not careful it will disappear and we will have death by extracts.

Sorry, I have digressed. Back to the deconstructing writing bit. This week, I am helping Year 8s write settings for a horror story and so far in the drafting things have not been so good. Their writing is clichéd written, and, like most students, the focus is on the plot and not on the setting. They will list endless items in a setting, but none of it hangs together. It is all a bit flat. Therefore, I have decided to deconstruct a setting for them. Look at the nuts and bolts of it.

We have already looked at structuring a setting and looked at these approaches:

  • Left to right
  • Right to left
  • Up and down
  • Down and up
  • Start in the centre and zoom out
  • Start with a panoramic view and zoom in
  • Diagonally
  • In layers
  • Follow an object or thing
  • The most noticeable items first
  • Things that are closest first

What is in their setting is up to them, but I want them to think about how they present their setting. Therefore, I have created these aspects for them to play around with and experiment.

Describe a sound and then reveal what is causing the sound.

Describe something being normal and then spot something about it that isn’t normal.

Describe something that isn’t there and is just imagined by the narrator.

Describe the feeling of the place. Don’t describe anything, but just the feeling. It feels like a day … It feels like when a …  

Describe an object but make it sound like something else. Then, reveal what it is.

Describe the movement of an object or part of the object. Give a list of verbs describing the action.

Something is blocking your view of something. Describe the object blocking the view and describe the tiny glimpse of the other object you want to see.

Describe how an object’s appearance changes the closer you get to it.

Describe the lack of something in the room. There isn’t a --- or --- or ---

Describe the texture of an object before revealing it.

Describe a nice object and then an unpleasant object.

Describe a change in the room.

Describe the main source of light and how it touches things in the room.

Describe a moment of silence.

Describe an object and then comment on how it links / reflects the owner of the room.

Describe a change in temperature and the narrator’s exploration of the source of the change.

Describe the light and how it falls. Then describe it on an object.

Describe an object through colours. Then, reveal what it is.

Describe three objectives with the same phrase.

Describe an object as if it was a person.  

Describe how an object links, or not links, to another item next to it.

Describe how an object reminds the narrator of something that happened to them.

Describe how an object reminds the narrator of a similar object in their past.  

I am going to give students these on a sheet of paper and they are going to decide how they are going to describe the setting using these. They are going use these to plan and construct their setting. They might even come up with their own. There’s more than one way to skin a cat – honestly, I haven’t ‘deconstructed’ any of my pets.

Writers make a choice when writing and without the experience of reading many texts it is hard for students to comment on the choices without having an inclination of the other twenty possible. This way, hopefully, students will see the choices they make as writers and this, in time, will pay when they see what other writers have done.

Thanks for reading,


Sunday, 20 September 2015

The Colour Rusty Purple and the Monochrome World

I am always amazed at how little students use colour in their writing. Something so simple, yet often absent in work. I have similes thrown at me with buckets and personification dribbled over work, but not one simple adjective is used to describe the colour of an object.

Recently, to prepare students for the new GCSE writing task, I asked students to describe a setting. They had to describe it in the style of CSI; they had to suggest what actually happened through their description of objects. Thankfully, I instructed them that they could only use one drop of blood. Every piece of description came back mentioning the red blood and no other colour. It must be a monochrome world my student live in. Either that, or they have new form of colour-blindness.  

I usually spend a whole lesson on colour with students, because there is an important need to. The following is just a simple overview of the kind of lesson I do.

Part 1:

What is the difference between these different kinds of the colour white?

Egg white

Paper white

Dirty white

Yellowy white

Faded white

Smudged white

Students have to explain the difference between these whites and, if possible, use something in the room to demonstrate its existence. Cue lots of pointing to walls, socks and light fittings.

Part 2:

Create new versions of these colours by simply adding a word before the adjective.








Once we have got past the bogey green and wee yellow we get some interesting efforts.  My recent favourites include shadow black, misty grey and feint blue.

Part 3:

Select the best three colours to describe a positive place.

Select the best three colours to describe a negative place.

This gets students to see how the colours have an impact on how the place is seen and how the reader feels when they read the text.

Part 4:

We then visit a Dulux website or paint charts stolen from a DIY store. We look at the names and select the best ones and build a bit of a colour chart.

clear cove blue

marine mist blue

Turkish tile blue

Sometimes, student spot that the names could be used for similes. Some of the names are great. There’s one blue that is called ‘Tears of joy’. Not a great name for a colour, but a good name for a comparison.

Part 5:

Students are given a picture and they have to describe it to a partner and explain / describe the colours. Note: the partner cannot see the picture.

Part 6:

Finally the students describe the setting in their books. Their version has to be different and unique. Plus, they must create a particular mood. It is also at this point that I mention the possible problems with using colours in their writing, such as describing every colour imaginable so that that the read is dazzled with a rainbow. Or, people forget the reader needs to think about the colour, so they list hundreds of colours. The following rules tend to apply:

[1] Keep the colours limited to three or four in your description. However, you can repeat one colour several times, but you must use a different phrase /name to describe it.

[2] Don’t list colours.

[3] Give the reader time to think about one colour before you introduce another. Leave a sentence between colours, if possible.

The results are very interesting and they are often refreshing. The use of colour adds a nice quality to their writing.       

For example:

The sun-baked brick orange sky casts shadows on the ground. A little man waits. His nails dig the rusty brown earth and amongst the crumbs of kidney bean soil he searches for life. A frosty green shoot is discovered.

Thanks for reading,


Sunday, 13 September 2015

Novel settings as poetry

This week I have been working on teaching students how writers structure a setting in a novel. At the same time, I have been also teaching how Steinbeck uses setting in ‘Of Mice and Men’. And, in the interest of making my workload lighter, I discovered a nice, easy approach.

A few years ago, people started making blacked-out poetry. A nice simple idea whereby students remove large chunks of a text and boil it down to what, the student thinks, are the most important words.  

This time around I decided to work backwards and I must say I am pleased with the result. I produced setting poems for the different places in ‘Of Mice and Men’. I selected the key parts of a setting and binned the rest. The result was a messy bit of poetry. Nonetheless, it did fit together.

Students analysed the setting as a poem. This made for some interesting comments about the writer’s choice of words. The bunkhouse provoked questions about the use of paint and the size of the windows. But, importantly, it helped students to spot patterns in the text and explore the structure of the descriptions (again, a link to the new GCSEs) in relation to the text’s meaning.

I suppose in terms of the new exams we need to help train student to search for links, connection and ideas across a text, yet they are often dealing with large blocks of text in the exam. This approach of boiling the text down and analysing it will be an approach I will be using with Year 10s so they can build their confidence at looking at larger texts. All too often, the questioning we use in lessons is directing students to particular idea in the text. This approach allows students to be precise yet also concentrate on the whole text at the same time. The poems kept the structure and order of things as well as the language choices.  

After student had analysed a setting poem they compared it with others. They discussed the use of windows in the novel – something I have never given a second thought to. One student suggested the window represented freedom or, interestingly, intelligence. Another, student explored the use of the word shed for Crook’s setting. A shed being something where you store machines or tools. Others spotted the use of cleanliness in Old Suzy’s Place and how this contrasted with the other settings. One student thought the use of the word ‘clean’ was actually sarcasm.    

I suppose the beauty of this approach is it declutters the text for student. Sometimes, it is too hard to find points of interest when they are so many things and points in a text. This helps narrow the little grey cells and see the wood for the tree. Plus, I am comparing texts and analysing ‘poems’ all at the same time.

Thanks for reading,


Here are some examples:


long, rectangular building



small, square windows,

eight bunks

showing their burlap ticking

shelves were loaded

Western magazines

a big square table littered with playing cards

flies shot like rushing stars

Crook’s Bunk

a little shed

square four-paned window

leather-working tools

a range of medicine bottles

both for himself and for the horses

scattered about the floor were a number of personal possessions

several pairs of shoes

a big alarm clock

a single-barreled shotgun.

a mauled copy of the California civil code for 1905

battered magazines

a few dirty books on a special shelf over his bunk

a proud, aloof man

sound of moving horses, of feet stirring, of teeth champing on hay, of the rattle

of halter chains

threw a meagre yellow light

The Barn

 the great barn

piled high with new hay

hay came down like a mountain slope to the other end of the barn

the feeding racks were visible

between the slats the heads of horses could be seen

Sunday afternoon

resting horses nibbled the remaining wisps of


afternoon sun sliced in through the cracks of the

barn walls

bright lines on the hay

buzz of flies

outside came the clang of horseshoes on the playing peg

shouts of men, playing, encouraging, jeering

quiet and humming

lazy and warm

Old Susy’s Place

old Susy’s place

a nice place

a laugh

always crackin’ jokes

never talks dirty

get a shot for two bits

nice chairs

Susy don’t give a damn

ain’t rushin’ guys through and kickin’ ‘em

a hell of a lot of fun

crackin’ jokes all the time

My girls is clean

no water in my whisky

clean and she got nice chairs

no goo-goos

The Dream Farm

An’ live off the fatta the lan

the garden

the rabbits

in the cages

the rain in the winter

the stove

how thick the

cream is on the milk like you can hardly cut it

a big vegetable patch

up a fire in the stove and set around it an’ listen to the

rain comin’ down on the roof

a little house an’ a room to ourself

Little fat iron stove

We’d belong there

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Let's talk about effect

This is a continuation of my blog on structure. I have an unhealthy obsession with the structure question on the AQA exam paper at the moment; I can’t think of anything else. Worryingly, I feel, at the moment, I could write several blogs on it.   

It was interesting to note that the recent GCSE exams highlighted another issue. It seems that our students’ ability to comment on the effect of a text is problematic. They struggle to do it with questions two and four of the current specification. Question four is particularly an issue for most students because it is pure unadulterated effect-fest. There is no time for meanings and multiple meanings. It is all effect, effect and effect. Students have to explain how the words are affecting the reader and, boy, do they struggle with it. Very few of our students, and other students nationally, struggle to get even close to high marks. I have yet to see a student even scrape full marks on this question.   Lots of bright students are stumped by it. And, it seems, reading the latest AQA examiner’s report, a lot of teacher could be too – I include myself in that category too.  

I think effect is an issue for us English teachers as it is strangely complex. We are talking about how the reader is affected by a technique or word. What is a typical reader’s reaction? What does it make them feel? What does it make them think?  How does the reader’s feelings or thoughts change as a result of this?

Effect and meaning are sometimes woven together in sophisticated textual analysis, but the average student struggles to do this blending of the two. They tend to instead favour meaning. In fact, a lot of what I have seen over the last few years has pushed for multiple meanings. It could mean the character is evil. Or, it could mean that he is insecure. The focus of meaning tends to focus on story and a student’s understanding of meaning. Students can spend ages on ‘Of Mice and Men’ and explore the subtle nuances of the colour red or Candy’s dog, but ask them to talk about the effect of these devices and they fudge it up. How many times have we see the following phrase ‘the writer uses X to make it stand out’? Too many, in my opinion.  The meaning is easy in comparison with commenting on the effect of a text. It is all about recalling the story and unpicking clues and following trails.

But, the problem with effect stems deeper. Ask students to write a film review and all too often it is dire. Ask them to describe the plot and comment on the meaning behind choices, they are great. Ask them to review the best and worst bits of a film it is dire. You’d think that the Facebook and Twitter generation wouldn’t have a problem with expressing their opinion on a film. They do. It could all stem from lovely Bloom’s taxonomy. Describing meaning is so much easier than evaluating things. They are on opposite ends of the taxonomy. However, an opinion or a feeling are natural parts of human experience, yet students struggle to articulate this in their writing.

Effect in non-fiction is probably easier for students to comment on. Why did the writer use a picture of a tiny kitten on this charity letter? Easy: to make us feel sorry for the animal and part with our hard-earned cash. Non-fiction often has its intent worn on its sleeve. It is trying to persuade me.

Effect in fiction is harder because its intent is usually hidden. Fiction writers trick, tease and lie to readers. Plus, with fiction we have longer texts with lots of connections across numerous pages. The effect of a device isn’t immediate, transparent and blindingly obvious. It is like chess. The steps the writer makes at the start payoff in the end, but you can’t see how they will impact at that initial moment.  Of course, the more students read, the more they will understand the effects of devices.

All these ideas made me think about how I teach effect in lessons. I usually pick out an aspect of a novel and ask students to comment on the effect of that particular device. What is the effect of a third person perspective in ‘The Lord of the Flies’? To be honest, my references to effect are limited and taught in isolation. It is usually when I feel it is necessary, or relevant. What if I changed the way I referred to the effect of a text? What if I did something dramatic?

The following shows an approach I am going to trial with my new Year 8 English class. They are working on horror writing and we will be studying some great extracts along the way. At the start of the unit, I usually get them to identify the differences between the horror and ghost genre. Then, they will list some of the generic features of a text. I will then introduce this document:

Talking about the effect: Horror Stories

Content Choices

Effect / Reason for the writer’s choice
A handful of characters
Get to know the characters well
Start to like the characters so you are shocked when bad things happen to them
So you can follow a lot of action
Young, naïve characters
We can identify more with young, naïve characters as we have all been young once
They are more likely to make mistakes
They often think they are stronger than they actually are
Set at night
The characters can’t see what is out there so they are more likely to not notice danger
We expect bad things to happen at night
The monster / creature is hidden 
An isolated location
There is no chance of escape
The problem cannot be easily fixed and people cannot be saved quickly
There is a greater chance of the monster and the other characters meeting 
A hidden monster
A hidden threat is more scary than a visible one because of the reader’s imagination
The characters cannot see what it is so they become more scared as a result
Raises the tension as the monster could attack at any moment and could surprise the reader and the characters
Violence limited to one or two events
This makes them more shocking, dramatic and unpredictable
More realistic for the reader are violence is rare, but shocking in life 
Often use a legend or piece of historical knowledge in the story
This makes the events believable and add a touch of credibility
Makes the story more epic and wider reaching
Adds a backstory and a sense of mystery 
Setting is described in more detail than the characters and the action
So the reader feels as if they are there and they can identify with what the characters are feeling and thinking
Helps to create the atmosphere and suggest something bad is going to happen

Structural Choices 

Effect / Reason for the writer’s choice
Characters are happy at the start of the story
Makes the reader predict how this will change and when it will change
Sudden scares
Shows the reader that the story is unpredictable
Events are often repeated three times
To prepare the reader for what is going to happen
To build tension and awareness of what is inevitably going to happen
Things get worse and worse
Makes the reader start to predict how things will get worse
Monster revealed at the end of the story
Keeps the mystery ongoing and the reader reading until the mystery is revealed
Makes the danger hard to predict and define
Red herrings used
Makes the reader think they know what is really going on
To hide the real mystery in the story
To frustrate the reader so that they want to find the answer
Characters are separated from each other
Allows for more drama as more chances for the characters to meet the monster
Means that the characters are more vulnerable and so reader fears something is more likely to happen
Increases the level of unpredictability
Poses lots of questions at the start
Keeps the mystery ongoing and the reader reading until the mystery is revealed
Hooks the reader from the start
Slowly answers once question at a time
Makes the reader identify with the characters
The reader learns things as the characters do

Writing Choices

Effect / Reason for the writer’s choice
Short sentences
Speeds up the rate a reader reads the story
On its own it can have a shock value
Highlights an important piece of information
Long sentences
Slows the rate at which the reader reads the story
Allows the writer to build up a description
Allows the writer to create a sudden shock
Stops the reader’s flow of though
Shows when the writer / narrator can’t describe events for some reason
Uses pronoun ‘it’ to describe creature
Hides the identity of the monster so the reader isn’t clear as to what it is
Creates tension as the reader imagines what it could be
Senses used in description
Helps the reader to identify with events in the story
Only describes parts of the monster
Hides the identity of the monster so the reader isn’t clear as to what it is
Helps to focus the reader’s attention on the monster’s actions
Creates tension as the reader imagines what it could be
Dialogue limited to a few lines every so often
Allows for the pace of the action to be quicker
Makes the relationships between characters secondary to the action
One sentence paragraphs
Highlights an important piece of information
Verbs are listed in a sentence
Increases the pace of the action
Shows the reader the importance of the action
Third person perspective
Makes the reader feel that no character is safe
Allows the reader to see all aspects of the story
Allows the reader to see things that other characters can’t see – increases chances of dramatic irony
Present tense
Helps create a sense of immediacy
Allows the reader to position themselves in the story as it is happening now
Action is not described in great detail
Makes the action seem fast and quick – increases the pace
The reader shares the confusion that the characters experience in the story
Violence is implied
Allows the reader to imagine what actually happened
Often far more shocking for a reader than a description

It isn’t perfect by any means, but it does show you how I am working on effect. I may get them to match up some of the effects to the techniques, but mainly I want students to have a framework for discussion. This allows them to see what the effect of an aspect is. Plus, it provides them with a bank of phrases for analysis. And, it could even be something to test students on. Obviously, I would have a disclaimer that these only apply for horror stories.

Students struggle to make the comments about effect, but if I am explicit with the effects of one genre it should, in theory, be easier for them to understand the effects of another text / genre.

If students are talking about effect and structure at KS3, then they will be confident readers by the time they get to GCSE. However, I think at the moment students do not have the language or the background reading to be able to make the leap from meaning to effect. That’s why we will always have reductive statements when talking about effect.

We need to get students to think about effect and write about the effect of a device effectively. The structure question on the new AQA English Language paper has got an element of this effect aspect and I think we need more work at KS3 to address the structure and the effect issue.

Thanks for reading,