Thursday, 27 October 2016

That essay is missing something.... a metaphor?!?

I am in that phase of getting students to develop their essay writings skills in preparation for the mock exams. It is a fraught and arduous task sometimes, but, occasionally, you get students who make you see things in a different light. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not one of those teachers who Instagram every insightful thing a student a student writes independent of what the teacher taught them in the classroom. However, a student wrote a line and it got me thinking. Thinking about how we get students to write academically. And better.  

So, what was this nugget of gold? Simply it was this line:

The Inspector attacks the foundations of the Birling family.

Honestly, it isn’t going to win awards for insight, but what it does is develop understanding. On a simple level, the Inspector does attack the Birling family. However, the use of ‘foundations’ makes us see that the Inspector is attacking the principles and values that are hidden inside / beneath the family. The principles they have grown up with. The principles that were passed on to them by the rest of the family. The principles they grew up with, like every other family in society. ‘Attack the foundations’ becomes a nice metaphor to describe the actual purpose of the Inspector. He doesn’t want to openly attack the people. He wants, instead, to attack what has made them the people they are. The foundations.

Although the metaphor is probably a bit predictable, it made me think that maybe it would help students if we got them to develop interpretations through metaphors. Is there space for metaphors in academic essays? I think we can agree there’s no room for similes or personification at the moment. But, metaphors could be a way to extend the use of interpretations and, especially, developed interpretations. We want creativity and originality with interpretations, but that’s hard without some level of shortcut to abstract thinking. We might do this by using shortcuts like vocabulary, but surely metaphors are an instant way to get students to think abstractly. All too often vocabulary leads us down the path of dictionary corner. Yes, a student has learnt what the word ‘socialism’, but do they understand its relevance to the play, society and context for using it.

Let’s take the original metaphor and rework it for a lesson. What happens if we explore the choice of verbs?

The Inspector destroys the foundations of the Birling family.

The Inspector attacks the foundations of the Birling family. 

The Inspector picks away at the foundations of the Birling family.

The Inspector blows up the foundations of the Birling family. 

‘Destroys’ and ‘blows up’ suggests a sense of maliciousness and evil intent which against Priestley’s purpose behind the play. ‘Picks away’ suggests things are slow and slight. ‘Attacks’ is certainly less aggressive and it is possibly neutral. A better word might even be ‘challenges’. However, ‘attacks’ is probably better because Priestley wants to reduce the foundations of the Birling so they are level with the Smiths, or Joneses

A colleague picked up a great little starter from a school. A teacher shows a slide of objects and students have to explain how the object is a metaphor for an aspect for a part of the text. It is a great idea, but not helpful when getting student to use metaphors. Sheila is a paperclip; she keeps things together but she can easily change shape. Eric is a vase; he holds a lots of liquid and every so often something splashes out. Mr Birling is a clock; he follows the same routine and is focused on one thing only. I could go on. If a student writes one of these in an essay, they’d be intellectually jarring. From this quote we can see that Mrs Birling is cherry on a tree. Therefore, it would probably help to talk about the suitability of metaphors to use. Metaphors relating to buildings tend to work. Household objects and things in the kitchen rarely work. Or, provide a few to start with.

Eric is a ticking time bomb.

The Inspector is a cat amongst the pigeons.

Sheila is a lighthouse in the storm.

Sheila is the crack in the wall.

I am toying to see what students make of the following ones:
Smashing through the glass ceiling
A bomb waiting to explode
A mirror
A painting
A lighthouse
A steam train
A wrecking ball
A torch
A magnifying glass
A microscope
The great thing about using a metaphor in non-fiction is you automatically feel the need to explain the metaphor after its use. All too often, I have seen students with great ideas in essays, but their lack of description hinders their ideas. A metaphor creates an interpretation and then, because the student feels uncomfortable with the extract, they explain what they mean. In a way, we combat this assumption students have that we know what they are talking about.    

Sheila is the crack in the wall because she sees the potential of treating people fairly. She sees what is on the other side. The rest of the characters are fixed and immovable. However, she can see beyond this fixed attitude. A crack getting bigger over time will cause a wall to fall down. Sheila is the start of this wall falling down. The events of the play shows the crack forming and starting and possibly later, after the play, the cracks will get bigger.

The great thing about this use of metaphor is that you have to develop and extend the metaphor in the explanation. A student will have to talk about the crack, the bricks, the other side of the wall and the change in the crack to make themselves clear. In fact, the metaphor crosses the whole play and relates to the structure. At the start Sheila is part of the wall. Then, she becomes a crack. By the end of the play, she is an even bigger crack. A crack not quite big enough to break the wall, but in time with a bit of help she might get better. Add a few quotes and we are having a reasoned and developed interpretation.   

What are the pitfalls of teaching students to use metaphors in essays?

Overuse – they could use them all the time and it distract the thinking.

The metaphors are not suitable or appropriate – jarring for the reader (Eric is a bike without the stabilisers).

They use them as a shorthand for explanations and don’t explain their meaning.

They see it as an excuse to be silly.

Ideas are the bread and butter of an essay. Without ideas, we are stuck. I think using metaphors is an approach to develop thinking and extend explanations.  All this will be a lesson I share with my Year 11 class next week. I will probably follow it up with using personification and similes in essays:

Sheila is like a crying jelly trifle.

Thanks for reading,


Sunday, 23 October 2016

A Year of Reading Dangerously, Slowly, Carefully, Accurately

This is part of my TLT talk:

Over the last decade, I have promoted reading in several ways. I have organised book talks, Readathons, themed days, competitions, quizzes, posters, activities and many things to make students read more. And the galling thing is it only made the students who read... read more. They did not help students who didn’t read for pleasure. They were all about PR - to raise the opinion of reading. And, any literacy coordinator worth their weight in gold should see that. Activities like ‘Drop Everything And Read’ are only going to be a PR activity and never really address the reading problem. They are the sequins on a Strictly Come Dancing costume. They distract the audience form the real problem. The dancing. The reading.

For a year, I looked at reading across my school. The main priority I had was KS3. I wanted to study and assess the reading taking place across three year groups. I wanted to disprove, in terms of reading, KS3 was not the ‘Wasted Years’, which according to Ofsted it is. So, for a year, I assessed the reading ages of all KS3 students and compared those ages with their reading age on entry. I then assessed the amount of reading taking place by the students individually. I went ‘full-on’ researcher mode. I collated the data and I dug deep behind the data and came up with some interesting points. The students were assessed using the GL Assessments ‘Group Reading Test’ and I am critical enough to suggest that it isn’t perfect, but it was a starting point for me. The test provided me with data and specific data relating to reading age, inferences and information retrieval. It was a robust system for me to comparing students across a variety of year groups.


Point 1:  The boys performed better in the reading test than girls.

Like everybody in the universe, we are exploring how to narrow the gap in progress between boys and girls. So, it was inevitable that I was going to look at this issue. I discovered that the students with the highest reading ages in Year 9 are boys. In fact, the top 20 students in reading across Year 9 were all boys. This contrasts differently with our Year 9 attainment. The top twenty students in English are female, highlighting a massive difference.

Logic would tell us that a student’s reading age would be reflected in their attainment in English. There may be some other factors in play such as the attainment being based on reading and writing skills, but overall it suggested one thing to me: the reading assessments in English and the reading test assess different things. Often, in English we assess students on reading through critical essays of a text and it is based on their written response to a title or question. Now, before people start thinking I am toying with the idea that I would change an assessment system to favour boys, I am not. Instead, I am thinking about why is there a difference between the two. What is it that holds boys back? It can’t just be the task. Could it be the way the boys articulate their ideas? Boys simplify rather than develop their thinking. They go for the easiest route or explanation rather than sift through the layers of meaning.  When the thinking is limited to multiple-choice answers, this level of simplification is done already for the boys. Therefore, the multiple-choice answers actually hinders the girls, for they could probably see multiple possibilities.

The issue could also be that the multiple-choice quiz made an abstract experience (reading a text) a concrete one. The test was based on the principle that one answer out of the possible four was right and the rest were wrong. This makes things quite concrete and our assessments in English lack that concrete quality. There isn’t one clear answer. Now, if I could help students, ideally boys, move from concrete to thinking to abstract thinking, then I’d be seeing greater levels of progress. This isn’t going to be a simple case of getting students to make interpretations based on abstract thoughts. It is more likely to be getting students to see two or three possible right answers to a question and evaluating the effectiveness of each one.

 Point 2: Often students with the highest reading age failed to score marks for retrieving information.  

This was one of the most enlightening points for me. There are a lot of assumptions made about very able students. We assume they can do a lot of basic things and they do them well because the rest of their work is sophisticated. However, when analysing the different year groups, I spotted one worrying aspect, which will impact on all areas of the curriculum: the brightest students failed to score marks when retrieving information from a text. Perhaps, this is the result of very able students overanalysing the task and thinking that something more complex is needed. Or, it could be that bright students, often girls, are conditioned to interpret and infer information from the text that they cannot simply search and find. In our testing, students with a reading age of 15 years or above lost a possible 5 to 8 marks for failing to find information. Therefore, I think we need to work on the relatively easy task of finding information in a text for able students, which goes against the grain.  

Point 3:  Girls scored higher on inference questions than boys.

The good thing about the reading test used is that I am able to identify where students performed well in an area. Looking across the year groups, 13 of the top 30 Year 9 students scoring highly in inference questions were boys. Based on the tests, we can see that girls tend to be better at reading inferences. However, these thirteen boys are very interesting. In fact, as I have taught the majority of them, there is a lot I know about these boys. They are not the boys you would pick out in a line for being the best students in the year group. In fact, these students are in the middle of the sets for English. They are the boys with a sense of humour. They are the boys with often terrible presentation of work. They are the boys who you have to push to complete their work. They are also the boys that we want to improve in terms of progress because they are underperforming. Yet, here they are achieving a skill that the best readers do well. It shows me that boys’ reading isn’t the problem. It is something else.

Now, the findings and these points led me to these following points. Boys and girls generally read differently. Boys’ reading is often precise and technical. Girls’ reading tends to lack the technical precision, but they are often more astute with their reading. Boys when reading are better at finding the information whereas girls are better for finding the meaning. Ideally, we want students to be strong at both aspects – information gathering and implied meaning. I feel that whole novels are important for developing this understanding of implied meaning. A lot of boys in our school make three or more years progress in reading age and I think this is a result of reading whole novels. It is important that students read non-fiction text to develop their ability to process information.  

I now have a picture for my school based on this data. I have an idea of each year group’s reading ability and the weaknesses. Based on this information, I have an idea where to put my efforts. The students who need inference support. The students who need to work on information retrieval. The data is a diagnostic tool. It is now up to me to work on this information and retest to see if there has been progress.

What improves reading in students? Reading. Nothing fancy – just reading. Reading harder, tougher books. Students reading out aloud. Students reading in silence. Students reading for prolonged times. What is the biggest thing for improving reading in school? Making sure there is good quality reading taking place, is the answer. The process of reading is a largely mystical one. We often attach emotion to the reading process, but it is a process. If we attach emotion to the process, we cause problems. We make it about the experience rather than the process. We want to improve the process. The experience is a personal thing and it is something that varies from student to student. By us forcing our view, based on our experiences, of reading on students we are clouding the waters. We are making students see the process and the experience as one and the same thing.

We have three meals a day. We eat. Some meals we enjoy. Some we dislike.  I enjoy Dominos’ pizzas. I could eat pizzas all day. I love the experience of eating pizzas. I hate breakfast because I don’t eat pizza then. Yet, I know I eat to keep me alive. I understand the process is more important than the experience. If I focused more on the experience, I’d only ever eat pizza. Forget the process and obsess over experience and you will have a student who reads when they want to. I am reading all the time. I am using the process all the time. If that process is repeated and continued all the time, I will get better at that one process. A focus on the process is more important than a focus on the experience.

Our approach in our school is focused on the process. We get students to read in tutor times. We get them to read in cover lessons. We get them to read in lessons. We get them to use the process again and again. We get them to log their reading. We get them to write down how many books they read. And, next term I am emailing parents of children who haven’t read a whole book in term 1 independently. It will not be a stern letter, but a nice letter explaining the importance of reading. We need to look at the process and look at improving the process, but first we have to look at the physical process of reading.

We expect our students to sit several exams in Year 11. Exams where they have to concentrate on one topic for longer than an hour. What will help build a student’s concentration over time? Reading. We need to build and train students to concentrate. Reading is concentrating for a given time. Pick a class, I dare you. Ask them to read in silence for twenty minutes. Watch the students. See who pretends to read. See who reads intently. You can see the students who will underperform in the future exams. And, we are not talking about students who cannot read. This is why we need to work on developing and improving the process and that will only happen when the process is repeated continuously.

I am a dad and I have watched the progress of reading in my daughters. I read with them daily. It isn’t rocket science. If you repeat the process daily, they get better. My daughters are much better reading this year compared to last year as a result of constantly reading. In secondary schools, there are students who need our support reading, but the majority don’t. They just need a context for the reading process to happen. Sadly, in this day and age they don’t have the environment for reading at home, so that’s why reading in school is important and vital. Schools need to look at where reading happens in school. Build the process into the school routines and the experience of reading will develop.  

Thanks for reading,


Sunday, 16 October 2016

Structure is all about three words

Again, I am spending time again on thinking about teaching and preparing students for Question 3 on the new AQA English exam paper. In fact, I think I have spent so much time on it that I have forgotten to pay bills, respond to emails and feed my own children. They are looking a bit feral at the moment. All this for one question. And, it is only worth eight marks.

This week, with a group of Year 9s I looked at Stevie Smith’s ‘Come on, come back’. We have been looking at dystopian fiction and I thought I’d look at the poem through the GCSE exam question prism. Did I mention poem are great examples for Paper 1 practice? Anyway, we worked through the questions. Find five things that show this a dystopian world. How does the writer use language for effect in this section? How is the text structured?

I have worked with students across KS3 and KS4 to get used to sketching three key images from a text, when looking at structure. I am, very simplistically, getting students to see the text in terms of start, middle and end. Draw the beginning, the middle and the end. In fact, my mantra is always, when looking at the structure, start, middle and end. What is at the start? What is in the middle? What is at the end?

Yes, it is simplistic, but it helps students to see three separate entities. It also helps students to structure their responses. Point one: beginning. Point two: middle. Point three: end. When students have that clear view of the text, then we can add additional questions?

When is the setting introduced? When is the character introduced? Where is the atmosphere created?  

These are all important questions when looking at the structure of the text. Why reveal the character at the start, middle or end?

A character introduced in the start might suggest the story is focused on this one character.

A character introduced in the opening might show that the story is focused on feelings / emotions and the journey this character experiences.  

A character introduced at the end of an extract might be because the writer wants to build up to the character.

They are choices. Why did the writer put that character there? I recently used an extract from ‘Great Gatsby’ and it was interesting for the choices about character. The start and the middle were all focused on Gatsby. The end of the extract referred to the narrator and what was happening to them. This structural choice reflected the narrator’s obsession with Gatsby. Three quarters of the text was dedicated to this one character. Then, when you explore the structure further, you see that the character of Gatsby is introduced, but only through his house and the activity in the house. Seeing the extract from a character perspective, helps us see the way the text is structured. A reliance on feature spotting undermines the overall structure of a text.  

If we look at ‘Come on, come back’, the structure is interesting. The start – a girl is introduced. The middle – the girl drowns. The end – a sentinel calls out to her. We see that the focus is on the character from the start. She introduced to us at the start. Yet, the character is killed off in the middle. It is like ‘Game of Thrones’. Storytelling tends to have death at the end or start of writing, because it tends to be strong way to start and end things. Nothing is more finite. Yet, the writer (poet) has the character introduced at the start and killed in the middle. That means her death has some significance. The aftermath of her death has some meaning so the writer has continued the story after her death. It could be to be poignant. Here is a lonely girl and at the end she isn’t alone, but it is too late. Or, it could be about desire escape the events of the conflict and that her only way to escape is death. The sentinel at the end is a reminder she cannot escape.

Looking at the poem you see that the setting is continually referred to throughout, but, in my personal opinion, it is more noticeable at the point of drowning, which could show us how the landscaping is consuming her. We could even say there is a sense of repetition with the start. The water consumes her as did the world she escaped from.

Of course, you can start throwing in terminology and refer to the third person perspective, which add to the sense of distance and emotional detachment of the character. We are emotionless as too is the ‘girl’. This detachment is a repeated motif in the poem.  All this started with the three words ‘start, middle and end’. However, we took this a bit further. We tried to summarise the poem’s structure with three words. One for the start. One for the middle. One for the ending.

This is what we came up with:

Lost – escape – fail

Scenery – feelings – death

Death – feelings – death

Before – death – after

Inside – outside – inside

Story – feeling – death

Past – present – past

Darkness – light – darkness

Loneliness – escape – company

Information – emotive     

The great thing is that with each suggestion students had to justify their idea with reference to the text. We also looked at the connections between the words used for the opening – lost, scenery, death, inside, past, darkness, loneliness. Students were able to confidently talk about structure and meaning at the same time.  

Regular readers of the blog will note similarities with my ideas about ‘inference words’ and that is on purpose. If a student can sum up a section of a text, they will be able to effectively comment on the structure of the text. You can’t teach structure without focusing solely on specific texts. No two texts are ever going to be alike. Teaching students to spot common things and techniques is dangerous. That’s why I like this approach of empowering students to comment on the structural choices themselves. See the text as three separate components. Then, summarise the different components and then look at how they are connected together.  You can then refer to other technique, but always have the disclaimer attached to a method or technique: not every writer uses this approach. In fact, only a few do.

I have found these three words so helpful when exploring structure. A starting point to engage with the thinking.

All this for eight marks on the exam paper.

 Thanks for reading,


Sunday, 2 October 2016

How I teach 'An Inspector Calls'

For years, I have been teaching J.B. Priestley’s ‘An Inspector Calls and, for once, I thought I’d share how I go about teaching it. This isn’t a scheme of work or a massive opus. This is simply just a collection of things I do with the play. Nothing fancy. No frills. All about the learning.

The Rules of Edwardian Society

I always start with these statements to help students learn something of the attitudes of the time. I often keep testing these again and again. Throughout the reading of the play, we revisit the simple PowerPoint list and make references to it. What rule is being explored at this point in the story?

       A poor person has no manners / class / sophistication / education.

       A poor person cannot ever become wealthy / rich.

       The poor and the rich should never mix – friendships / relationships / work.

       A poor person should be grateful for all that the rich help to provide them.

       The rich didn’t want to see or hear the poor; they just needed them to do a job.

       The rich employed the poor.

       A rich person could sack or punish a poor employee without consequences.

The Message

At the start of the play, I introduce one of the play’s messages:

The play is about the relationship between the poor and the rich.

I tell students that if there is one thing I want them to understand and remember is this message. This then becomes a mantra when reading, but then after reading it I then ask the question: Is the play just about the relationship between the poor and rich? Often, this generates many responses.  

The Servant’s Entrance Downstairs

I love a metaphor. One metaphor I like to use with ‘An Inspector Calls’ is the way a person enters a house in Edwardian times. Often students think that there were parts of society where rich and poor met, like doorways. The servant’s entrance is a very strong image. To extend student’s understand with clips of Downton Abbey and/or Upstairs Downstairs. Both highlight the system of two worlds in society.

Another metaphor I like to use for this play is the ‘poverty cliff’. Eva Smith is on the poverty cliff. Each encounter with the Birlings pushes her closer to the edge. A nice metaphor to explore when studying the play.

Titanic Microcosm  

As part of the learning, I make students watch the three hour long film. Joke. I don’t. No, I think students need to know some interesting ideas about the Titanic.

·         It was seen as indestructible.

·         It was expensive.

·         It was seen as symbol of prosperity, strength and wealth.  

Then, you have the iceberg and the sad sinking of that ship.   

·         The sinking could have been prevented.

·         Both rich and poor died as a result.

·         The rich were more likely to survive as they were nearest to the life rafts.

The Titanic is a microcosm of Edwardian society. An event, an iceberg or war, tore a hole in that society.  

Tracking how characters / language changes over the play

I am a big fan of this approach. I do it to death with the play. I like taking sentences or quote out of the play and look at the changes between each one. Take the following examples from the play.


       Yes, go on, Mummy. You must drink our health.

       It’s the only time I’ve ever done anything like that, and I’ll never, never do it again to anybody.

       Why – you fool – he knows. (Gerald)

       Just what I was going to ask!

From the above example, a class came to the idea that Sheila matures over the course of Act 1 and Act 2. She starts of childish and frivolous and becomes hard, cynical and incredibly sarcastic. The choice of ‘mummy’ and ‘fool’ helps us to see that change. As a result of this finding, we, as a class, explored why Sheila stops being emotional. We came to the idea that she is saturated with emotions so she become dismissive to things in the play. Simply put: she can’t cope with any more emotional torment.

The beauty of this approach is that I am constantly looking at quotes and revising quotes. I do this as I am going along and I do it at the end of the play. It is great to explore how the language changes from act to act.
Mr Birling

Act 1

‘….perhaps we may look forward to the time when Crofts and Birlings are no longer competing but are working together…’ 

Act 2

‘I must say, Sybil, that when this comes out in the inquest, it isn’t going to do us much good. The Press might take it up.’

Act 3

‘Now look at the pair of them – the famous younger generation who know it all. And they can’t even take a joke-’

To help students along with the analysis, I get them to:

·         Pick out the most effective word.

·         Look for changes in tone / mood.

·         Look for evidence of the following: polite /rude,  direct /indirect,  positive/negative, emotionless/ emotional, fluent/stilted, serious/joking

Who is on stage?

Without the support of a stage version of the play, I find this document helpful with tracking entrances and exits. Students colour in when a character is on stage. Then, you can see how the play is structured around the characters being on or off stage.


I find with plays students and teachers forget that the most important things are characters and relationships. It is far better if a student explores the development of the characters and how their relationships change than track the plot. The plot you can cover in three sentences. For that reason I break each act down to five section and as we read a section we jot down what a character is thinking and feeling. For each act, we have a separate A3 sheet and students constantly make notes about the characters and their relationships.

I enjoy working through the play this way as it helps make students see the subtle changes in mood and tone between pages of dialogue. Plus, it saves me loads of planning and work.

Human emotion

Every person is a handbag full of emotions. However, when students explore drama they reduce the complexity of emotions to one simple emotion.  A character is angry. A character is ashamed. I find it helps to get students to see emotions as complex and contradictory. At any given moment, a character is feeling X, Y and Z.  Sheila feels angry, pleased and jealous at this moment in the story.

Like / Dislike

A student’s opinion is very important when studying a play. They are, in effect, the audience. Frank, what do you think of the opening? It’s a bit boring, sir. Yes, why do you think the audience is supposed to be bored at this point? To make us hope that something interesting will happen, next.

These simple questions are important, because they all relate to the audience and their reaction. Of course, the ‘why’ is key here.

Who do you like the most here?

Who do you dislike the most here?

Is this moment interesting for an audience?

I am sorry there isn’t a single ‘Top Trump’ card activity or ‘Tension graph’ in sight. #gimmickfreeteaching

Thanks for reading,