Sunday, 26 November 2017

Speaking and Listening Assessments

I am going to put it out there: I was never a big fan of the old speaking and listening assessment. In fact, I hated it. I loathed it. I did it though, because the exam boards expected me to do it. I just detested it with my mind, body and soul. Why did I dislike it so much? Well, when you have seen twenty billion talks about football and forty billion presentations on horse-riding and/or fishing you question the point of life. I have hobbies, but I share them with likeminded people. And, that doesn’t mean my family or loved ones. I don’t thrust my hobbies on other people. I don’t react a scene from ‘A Clockwork Orange’ and pin people’s eyeballs open so they understand my joy of ‘Blake 7’ and various kitsch science-fiction from the 70s and 80s.

So, what have I done instead? I have suffered them. I have endured them, but I have smiled. I have listened to stamp collecting, ferret upkeep, trainspotting, flag signally, interpretative dance, tap dancing, knitting and many more. To keep me from nodding off, I have had to ask questions. So what are the dangers of knitting? Do you have to insure your feet for tap dancing? Can you get poisoned by licking too many stamps? The class always kindly attempt to join in and they ask harmless questions and often pointless questions. What made you start liking ferrets? Do your family dance? When did you start like dancing?    

Now, don’t think me mean and cruel; I am just realistic. I have yet to have the ‘Kes’ moment of poignant and profound meaning as a child holds up a mealworm and explains how you put it on a hook. When I write things like this, you always get someone informing me of how one child made the whole school tear up with their solo rendition of Celine Dion’s ‘My heart will go on’ at the end of a fifteen minute talk on how their rabbit means everything to them. The relationships we build with students are built through our daily interactions with students and not built and created in one moment. I could give a talk of how the use of CSO (blue screen) developed over the 1970s in Doctor Who, but you’d not get one iota of my personality from that talk or build a relationship with me.  You’d probably go: he knows quite a bit about special effects and Doctor Who.

This year, I am changing the speaking and listening talks and making it meaningful and relevant to the course. We are focusing on ideas and, in particular, idea related to the core texts studied. Take the following:

1: The duty a child has to live up to their parents’ expectations

2: The responsibility the rich have to support the poor

3: The role and responsibilities of parents in society

4: The gap between rich and poor in society

5: The changing role of women in society

6: How daughters are treated differently to sons

Each idea links to the set texts and that’s on purpose. We want to develop ideas and extend those ideas. We have forty different ideas and students are going to pick one and then prepare their talk around it. They will structure it around this format:

Engage with the audience – relate topic to them

A brief history of the idea

Explore key points

Relate to texts studied

Concluding point with further questions to consider

Questions from the audience and suggestions for connections to the text

Yes, we are removing the freedom to select ideas for themselves, but as my experience goes, that isn’t always a bad thing. We are instead getting them to focus on the ideas and developing their knowledge of an idea and extending and exploring it further. We might mirror Question 5 on Paper 2, but the key thing is picking the right points. English is about ideas. Reading other people’s ideas. Writing their own ideas down. A focus on ideas for Speaking and Listening assessments cannot be a bad thing.

This way the talks are meaningful for all involved. The student and audience develop a greater level of understanding of an idea. A student’s exploration of a how boys battle conflicting levels of responsibility to parents and friends will only help to develop an understanding of ‘Romeo and Juliet’.

A talk on Judo will just be a talk on Judo. A talk on the benefits of recycling will just be a talk on recycling. A talk on the changing role of women in society is revision for ‘Romeo and Juliet’, ‘A Christmas Carol’ and ‘An Inspector Calls’.  

Now, time for my talk on the reason why ‘Sapphire and Steel’ is the best series ITV has ever produced…

A hobby is a personal thing and when it is shared with non-likeminded people it becomes a form torture. 
Thanks for reading, 

Twinkl Resources

The people at Twinkl have given me a free account on their website and, in return, I said I’d review, occasionally, some of their resources.

This month’s finds are:  

AQA Paper 1 Practice Papers   

There are a growing number of papers here, and, given the lack of practice papers provided by the exam board, this helps with that. There are papers on ‘Jane Eyre’, ‘The Thirty-Nine Steps’ and several others. There are even mini-papers, which include questions to texts that most teachers will own. A few minutes with the photocopier and you have some practice papers.     

A Christmas Carol – In Context Information Cards

There are several packs for ‘A Christmas Carol’ and hidden amongst them are some really useful resources.  I quite like the ‘In Context Information Cards’ for presenting some key contextual facts relating to the time and I also thought a pack on Victorian Christmas would make a good starting point for developing understanding of the text.

Understanding Structure Display Pack

The structure question is one that most students struggle to grasp with and this little display is helpful. It visually represents three ways to present a story and shows how the three different ways affect the story telling and impact on the reader. Now, this resource is meant to be a display, but amongst the resources there is a suggested layout of the display. I’d use this as a task with students and get them to explore the impact of the different choices in the story.

60-Second Reads

As I teach a range of students, I think this ’60-Second Reads’ idea has quite a lot of merit for the classroom - especially for the lowest sets. The packs contain short texts and a series of quick questions. They make a great starter for these classes. There’s a range of texts and they are short enough and accessible enough to get students to engage in the lesson quickly. I like how the questions focus on different aspects of reading. Plus, there are some Christmas themes resources too.

All resources can be found here:

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Two simple words to counterpoint an idea

I think we can simply forget the simplicity of words when describing texts. We often go for the big, meaty ideas. We love a catch phrase or a nice slogan to wrap up an idea in writing. We often use sound bites or we peg words to ideas as we teach them. Look this idea here is an exploration of the sublime. And, this one is an example of the macabre. And, that one there is a cliché. We happily peg words to our ideas. However, ideas need to bash against different ideas and shouldn’t stand on their own like at dad watching his son playing football.  

Take the words ‘superior’ and ‘inferior’. A pair of words I love to use when exploring texts. It is important to have the other word when analysing a text.

Bob Cratchit feels inferior in this setting and that inferiority is symbolised in with the image of a single lump of ‘coal’.

Scrooge demonstrates his superiority in the manner he speaks to Scrooge.

Now, if you want to go further with developing an idea you can bring out the big guns – the adverbs. Physically. Spiritually. Mentally. Socially. Morally.

Then you can develop the idea to say that Scrooge is socially superior to Bob Cratchit. Through in some social context and you have a fairly reasonable idea.

 Scrooge reflects the power structure in Victorian London with his social superiority and Bob Cratchit’s inferiority is reflected in the single lump of coal.

We want to raise the level of understanding students have of texts, but a recent exploration of the concept of the British ‘stiff upper lip’ with students made me understand that a counterpoint is needed. To explore the repression of British society, I need students to see the opposite. The emotional frankness of Americans helps to show how the British culture represses particular emotions.

Students need ideas and we need to help them develop ideas. One word and one concept isn’t good enough. Schools constantly plod through one word at a time. We waft key terminology under the noses all the times, but conceptually we need counterpoints.

Take some of the following for example:

Socialist / Capitalist

Conditional love / Unconditional Love

Requited love / Unrequited love

Obligation / Option

Rational / Irrational

Committed / Uncommitted

Nostalgic / Expectant

Active / Passive

We over burden students with ideas and cram their little heads. We know the new GCSEs have big demands, but what if in our desire to cram their brains we neglect to refine and develop thoughts. A whole lesson on requited and unrequited love would help students understand love better, and possibly, relate to the idea in life. My own daughter likes to worry and an important step for her was understanding the difference between rational and irrational fears. Once she could separate the rational from the irrational fears she worried less

I am teaching ‘A Christmas Carol’ and I am thinking about what counterpoint words I might use and then, there staring at me with this little eyes are Ignorance and Want. The two are together. There isn’t one on their own. They are conceptually linked and closely linked together - under one cloak.  It would be interesting to know what words people would use to counterpoint concepts in ‘A Christmas Carol’.

Thanks for reading,


Sunday, 5 November 2017

Structuring a response to Question 2 and 3 in the AQA language exam

This is going to be an incredibly short blog. I am going through the preparations for the mock exam and one thing has transformed how students are writing about the text. Oh, and it introduces students to some Daft Punk - not a bad thing! 

SPOT it 

The students know that the first three get you a band 2 (ish); however they are needed to link to the explanation so that students can progress higher. 

SPOT it  - The writer uses the adjective...  
QUOTE it  - ...'dark'...
EFFECT it  - ... to create a sense of ....  a feeling of ..... an atmosphere .... a mood .... 
EXPLAIN it  - [explanation of how the reader feels and how it links to the meaning and plot]

Once we go through the SPOT / QUOTE / EFFECT we were able to get to the explaining: the key for doing well on this question. We were able to pin down the explanation - 

An explanation of a plot point in relationship to the mood - the character feels this because of X and Y 

An explanation of the reader's feelings and perspective towards the character - the reader sympathises / connects / scared for

An explanation of the readers feelings towards the text - the reader trusts the writer / the reader will expect X because this a thriller / the reader expects

An explanation of a change in effect - the reader at first feels Y but now they feel Z

An explanation of the writer's purpose - the writer wants the reader to be ... so that... 

Students had to write three decent sentences after the SPOT/QUOTE/EXPLAIN sentence and it produced some really interesting discussions. The explanation wasn't structured so much, because students needed the space to explain. 

Now to the tune of Daft Punk's 'Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger' ...... SPOT it, QUOTE it, EFFECT it, EXPLAIN it 

Thanks for reading, 

Sunday, 29 October 2017

A question of pace and differentiation

In all my time in teaching, there are words that are bounded about in meetings, discussions and lesson observations and those are ‘pace’ and ‘differentiation’. There is, however, much more to pace than a timer on a PowerPoint and there is more to differentiation than a selection of multi-coloured sheets all will varying levels of complexity. Personally, for me, the secret to the two is questioning.

Questioning makes a lesson pacey.

Questioning is a form of differentiation.

The problem with questioning is that we get so loaded with the types of question, we simply forget the function of a question in any given context. Yes, knowing a closed and open is helpful. So too is blooming ‘Bloom’s Taxonomy’ handy. Oh and you mustn’t forget your high-order questioning. But, understanding why you are using questions is vital.

A question can be used to check, remind, push, challenge and many more things. Take these following questions.  What is their function?
Jamie, what did we say last lesson was the way to approach this question?

Polly, what are we supposed to be doing now?

Zoe, why am I asking you a question now instead of Victoria?

Liz, how does this approach used by the writer link to ‘Great Expectation’ we studied in Year 8?

Jo, how much is Mr Curtis’ expecting from you?

Sarah-Jane, what is the mistake you need to keep avoiding?

Harry, do you think there would be a better approach to answering this question?

Leela, what have you done in RE that links to this aspect?

Romana, that answer’s fine for the class, but how would you rephrase that for the exam?

Adric, what’s a more formal way of saying ‘bloke’?

Tegan, what did I say was really important for you to remember?

We all know that ‘no hands up’ approach is favoured in some circumstances, because it stops some students from being passive in lessons. It is occasionally not helpful when you are exploring existing knowledge of a topic or for quick recall of knowledge. However, the teacher has an integral role in the classroom and that is to orchestrate the learning. The delivery of the task alone is not learning alone. You have to point your baton at the wind instruments. Tell the percussion instruments to quieten it down. Ultimately, the teacher is responsible for the learning and, like music, its flow in the classroom. So, what does each of those questions do? What is its function as side for improving learning, duh?

Jamie, what did we say last lesson was the way to approach this question?

Recalling knowledge from a previous lesson.

Polly, what are we supposed to be doing now?

Putting a student back on track or making a student start the task who usually takes time to get started.

Zoe, why am I asking you a question now instead of Victoria?

Modelling go behaviour and addressing students not following expectations

Liz, how does this approach used by the writer link to ‘Great Expectation’ we studied in Year 8?

Generating links across the subject and knowledge recall over time

Jo, how much is Mr Curtis’ expecting from you?

Reminding the class of expectations and reasserting a student isn’t or hasn’t been meeting my expectations

Sarah-Jane, what is the mistake you need to keep avoiding?

Ensuring the student doesn’t forget the changes she needs to do to her work

Harry, do you think there would be a better approach to answering this question?

Getting an able student to explore alternatives and developing their thoughts

Leela, what have you done in RE that links to this aspect?

Developing cross-curricular connections and extending their thinking   

Romana, that answer’s fine for the class, but how would you rephrase that for the exam?

Identifying mistakes and errors and promoting self-correction

Adric, what’s a more formal way of saying ‘bloke’?

Exploring language choices and promoting self-correction

Tegan, what did I say was really important for you to remember?

Recalling knowledge from a previous lesson and building in differentiation

Each question is a specific level of differentiation and identifies the level of needs and intervention the teacher needs to give.

There might be Nyssa who will need some support from the TA and Turlough will need me to support him with some of the writing, but the majority of the class are addressed in terms of differentiation and needs. Of course, some students might need more differentiation, but the lesson has been tailored to the students’ needs.

Whether you see the classroom as ‘whack-a-mole’ or ‘plate spinning’, you still have to address what each and every student is doing. You can’t look at thirty students books in a short space of time, but you can select a wide spread and address some of the things about the learning.

·         Questions about expectations

·         Questions about behaviour

·         Questions about knowledge on the topic or task

·         Questions about knowledge from previous lessons / topics  

·         Questions about knowledge in other subject areas

·         Questions about feedback given

·         Questions about recurring errors

Some of these questions might be rhetorical. We both know the answer. Some of them might need an answer, so they whole class or a specific groups of students need reminding. The questions form the narrative of the lesson. All too often, our focus of questions tends to focus on the content and learning – usually what we want them to learn. Rarely, do we look at the questions to develop how they learn.

Repeat these types of questions again and again and you’ll find that the classroom environment has momentum.

Question, question and question and leave no stone unturned. We assume far too much in the classroom. That’s why a teacher should be asking lots of small questions throughout a whole lesson. A teacher that doesn’t ask questions is assuming too much.

Thanks for reading,


Sunday, 22 October 2017

One painting per poem with my stiff upper lip

There’s been a long standing relationship between English lessons and art. We have used paintings to inspire writing, to explore ideas and to explore the meanings of text. This year, I have linked each poem we teach to a painting. A piece of art.

I cannot say how much I have been influenced by Jeremy Paxman’s ‘The Victorians’. An exploration of the Victorians told through art. A thoroughly interesting book.

The book drew my attention to the story behind these paintings.

The Charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaklava by William Simpson (1854)

 The Charge of the Light Brigade by Richard Caton-Woodville (1895)

Lord Cardigan Leading the Charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaklava  by Henry Payne  (1854)

The Roll Call by Elizabeth Thompson / Lady Butler (1874)

The Battle of Balaclava  by  Lady Butler (1876)

Now aside from the obvious history behind the events depicted behind the paintings, I was interested to hear how they were received. In particular, I was interested to hear how Lady Butler’s paintings were received. She explained: ‘I never painted for the glory of war, but to portray its pathos and heroism.’ Her painting the ‘Roll Call’ was very popular but also shocking at the time it was displayed. According to Jeremy Paxman, a guard was needed for the picture when displayed.  But for me, it makes a great counterpoint to the poem ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’. The painting is a stark contrast to the strength, might, courage and determination of the soldiers of the other pictures. But also it points to a shift in attitude. The ‘British stiff upper lip’ disappears in Elizabeth Thompson’s work. We see the real emotion behind the events rather than patriotic bravado.

The above collection of paintings made a great point of discussion in lessons on the poem ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’.  Then, I decided to use a painting per poem. I searched for a painting that I thought linked to the bigger issues in the poem.

(War Photographer, Exposure, Charge of the Light Brigade, Remains, Bayonet Charge)

The idea behind each picture was explored by the class and myself, after reading and studying all the poems.  

This picture links to ‘Exposure’ and the class came up with some of these ideas linked to the picture / poem.

*Purgatory – gap in the clouds links to Heaven

*Collectivism – shared experience of war – the onlooker is sharing the experience the soldiers have   

*Lack of depth – everything is united in war as the clouds, tree, people, landscape are all the same colour

The great thing I enjoyed was the ‘toing and froing’ between poem, idea and painting. The linking between the three aspects was a joy. Students making connections between painting and picture. After we discussed the ideas behind the painting, we explored the style of the painting. Was it realistic? Was it impressionistic? Was it abstract? Was it photorealistic? Was it an example of expressionism? Was it romanticised? How does the painter treat its subject? Are the colours warm or cold?

For students it was easier to comment on the style of a painting than a poem. However, starting with the painting first helped the students to comment on the style of a poem. A chose a photorealistic painting for ‘Remains’. Students then linked the photorealism to the fact that he poem is features very sparse description and brutal and direct expressions.    

I think art needs a stronger place in the English classroom and I think English teachers need to be trained up in art. My Henrik Ibsen books at university all had a painting by Edvard Much on the front cover. Both artists were expressing psychological themes. They complemented each other. Art and literature are never far away from each other, but maybe they have grown further apart recently. Great CPD for an English department would be time talking about.

Thanks for reading,


Sunday, 15 October 2017

Let’s get touchy feely about genre - AQA Paper 1

Recently, I have returned to teaching Paper 1 for the AQA, and, with each time I teach it, I try something different and attempt to get better. This year I am making a conscious effort to look at effect and developing that further in explanations.

A bit ago somebody, probably Mark Roberts, shared a paper ‘War of the Worlds’. This week I am using it with a class, but this time I am going to focus on genre, and, more importantly the effect of the genre. What are we meant to think when we read a science fiction story? What are we meant to feel when we read a science fiction story?
You might think that that isn’t important, because they are focusing on the story, but I’d disagree.

Here’s the type of introduction the paper would have:

An unnamed narrator has witnessed a meteor land in a field near his home. He is one of the first people to discover the meteor. 

When you read the extract, you’ll see that it is a piece of science fiction.
Those who have never seen a living Martian can scarcely imagine the strange horror of its appearance. The peculiar V-shaped mouth with its pointed upper lip, the absence of brow ridges, the absence of a chin beneath the wedgelike lower lip, the incessant quivering of this mouth, the Gorgon groups of tentacles, the tumultuous breathing of the lungs in a strange atmosphere, the evident heaviness and painfulness of movement due to the greater gravitational energy of the earth--above all, the extraordinary intensity of the immense eyes--were at once vital, intense, inhuman, crippled and monstrous. There was something fungoid in the oily brown skin, something in the clumsy deliberation of the tedious movements unspeakably nasty. Even at this first encounter, this first glimpse, I was overcome with disgust and dread.

But, I think students need some complex understanding of the emotional impact of the science fiction genre to fully comment on the effect of the piece.
The genre of course is science fiction, but the subgenre is invasion. So, what is a reader meant to feel and think when they read a science fiction invasion story?

What are we supposed to feel?
fear / dread  / anxiety / nervousness / confusion / unsettle / a lack of safety  / unpredictable / disgust / horror

What ideas are we supposed to think?
The fear of outsiders – xenophobia

Question our safety and security 
When a student understands the idea that invasion stories utilises a fear of outsiders, they understand then how the level of disgust is typical of a person in this situation.  Then, students have an idea of the primary effect of the text. This then allows us to explore the secondary effects of the text.

The adjective ‘tumultuous ‘creates a sense of inferiority and abnormality of the creature in the way that this creature breathes differently to him, highlighting how unalike they are. This in turn makes the reader feel helpless as the narrator is inferior and possibly weaker than this creature.

Once a student understands the effect of a genre they can build an understanding of how the genre affects the writer’s choices and how that is complexly linked to effect.

What is the reader’s connection to the story?
Helpless observer  

Which one is more important to the genre - character or setting?

What is the most important thing that the writer must describe?
Alien aspect

What are the story rules for a science fiction story?
·         Must involve a discovery
·         Should contain a clash between human and inhuman aspects
·         Science should feature at some point
·         Must be some sort of prophecy  

A complex understanding of the genre is needed to fully understand the effect of any text. It is not enough for a student to spot a genre. No two texts and alike and so students cannot link every extract they read to a generic story telling structure of introduction, complication, crisis and resolution. After all, introduction, complication, crisis and resolution is so… emotionless. The introduction of thriller is different to a horror. The emotions are different too.
Back to ‘War of the Worlds’. When we have a better understanding of the genre, we can then look at the structure of the extract. Oh, look at the next question: it is about the structure of a text. And with a science fiction invasion story, the emotional structure of the story usual goes fear, shock, disgust and happy – after the defeat of the said creature. Looking at the extract from ‘War of the World’ above, we can see that the extract covers the transformation from fear to shock. Students can then be asked about where this extract fits in the story and the rules of the story. What are the storytelling rules after this extract? What should the writer do?

Across the land, there are schools teaching a dystopian unit or a horror unit. They will probably talk about the stock features and elements of the genre, but will they talk about the emotional content of a genre? Will they talk about the emotional structure of a genre?
I think with Paper 1 it is important to know the genre and its effect on the emotions of the reader. Students need to know the overall effect as well as the specific effect created by literary devices. That’s why with each paper I am doing with Paper 1 I am spending 10 minutes exploring the genre and thinking about its effect on the reader. They need to be better at spotting the different genres and subgenres and how those impact on the reader.

Thanks for reading,

More links to writing about effect: 

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Daft drafting in the classroom

I think the concept of ‘drafting’ is possibly one of the most dangerous concepts in secondary schools. It is used with aplomb and glee abandon in the classroom. Today, we are going to draft a story. We are going to draft our assessments. Let’s draft our answers to this question.

We like to think drafting is a vital and integral part of the writing process, but time and time again drafting amounts to nothing much. Take the drafting process of coursework. I have read endless numbers of drafts and final versions. Every single one tends to carbon copy of the original one. In fact, drafting in some cases should be called human photocopying. The students just write up the previous version and change one or two things.

We have this romantic version of writing and drafting is right at the front of the writing process. Drafting does have its place in the world – I just don’t think it is necessarily in the classroom. You’d need a high level of sophistication and a good few months, or even years, to perfect a text. Writers draft over time and long periods of time. How long does it technically take to write a book? Hint – more than one hour’s lesson.

My main problem with drafting is that is focused on the end product. It is all about producing something and then thinking how it can be improved. The thoughts and thinking, we like to think, are post mortem. Once the text is written the student has a chance to think of improvements and ways forward. The issue for me is the thinking process. When would it help students to understand when they are doing things wrong? Is it so helpful to tell them after the car crash piece of work? Not really. We need to intervene some time before the crash.

Because writing is a process, it isn’t helpful to make changes to that process after the process has been completed. Take lesson observations. We give guidance and support to teachers after an observation, but at that point it is too late. The process has finished. It is gone. Wouldn’t it be better if we helped the teacher change course during the observation? Wouldn’t it be more beneficial if the teacher made the changes and saw (felt) how the changes improved things?

Driving lessons are another good example to prove this point. Did the instructor tell you where you went wrong at the end of the session? No. They did it during the process, so you’d learn and avoid making the mistake again. You were in the process of driving and it was relevant and pressing. At the end of the lesson, the process has finished.

The 200 Word Challenge has made me see the benefits of ‘course changing’ during the writing process. Every week, I speak to fifteen or so students about their writing. We discuss what they have done in previous lessons and their writing that lesson. I correct them in the process, when they need my input most. They need me to tell them they are doing it wrong. They need me to guide them.  I am in the moment with them. But, I am also doing something else. I am showing them how good writers work. They think in the middle of writing and change their course. They self-correct. They modify. They improve, during the writing. We seem to spend so much time getting students to plan, proofread and draft writing that we have missed the important part of writing – the thinking process, while they are writing.

My marking of books during the 200 Word Challenge session has had a bigger impact on work than 10 years of marking. Why? Well, I think it is because I am in the process. I am working with them side by side, but I am also thinking with them about improvements. I am modelling the correct behaviour. It is also a time where I can clarify things. What do you mean that my paragraphs are weakly constructed, sir? We assume that a written mark on work is understood and retained by the students.

Progress happens more often now than before because of the immediacy of the improvements. We want students to self-correct work, and, for this to be part of their writing process, they need to feel the benefits of the course correction. They need to see and feel the benefits of the changes. That is probably why drafting has failed for so long. They don’t feel and see the benefits immediately. When the instructor tells you that you need to go up a gear, you experience the benefits of the change. The distance between the process and the advice is paramount. If the advice isn’t immediate, they fail to see the benefits of a changes. I say ‘see’ but the word should be ‘feel. They need to feel a positive experience to enable them to adapt their behaviour.

So stop drafting this week. When students are writing, get them to sit next to you and give them feedback. See how giving students immediate feedback changes things for you and them. 

Thanks for reading,


Twinkl Resources

The people at Twinkl have given me a free account on their website and in return I said I’d review, occasionally, some of their resources.

Resources for lessons is a tricky subject for me, because where people want a full standalone lesson lovingly crafted by someone else, I want a task or resource to use in a lesson. If I wanted something done for me, I’d still be living with my parents and they’d write this blog for me. Therefore, I am going to pick several resources, which I think are useful for parts of a lesson.

Fronted Adverbial Word Mat

I am a big fan of using primary school approaches in the classroom. A simple, yet effective way of ensuring transition without the need for a big label. This resources is particularly useful with creative writing. My Year 8s are currently writing horror stories and they are guilty of writing pedestrian sentence openings. I am going to use this when drafting. I particularly like the fronted adverbials related to degree for developing some sophisticated expressions.

Paragraph Cohesion

Paragraphs are the bane of my life and I always like an extract where the use of paragraphs is explored. This resource uses an extract from ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and gets students to uses the appropriate conjunction or adverbial. Nice for 5 minute activity before you start looking at paragraph construction in more detail.  

An Inspector Calls Mini Exam Pack

I am always on the lookout for ways to support the department and I found this pack quite an easy hack. I have photocopied the pack and I am giving it to staff so that they can set them as homework. With the questions photocopied as a booklet, students can plan a question after each lesson and start the following lesson with sharing their plan.

Phase 2 Captions Handwriting Activity Sheet

Sometimes differentiating work can be hard. I have found this activity, along with others, on handwriting quite helpful when you have a student who struggles with writing and writing prose. This helps, with a TA, them to work on their control of their pen / pencil.

All resources can be found here:

Sunday, 24 September 2017

The Rules of Poetry

There was a moment this week when I was talking to a class about free verse and its benefits for poetry. During it, I had a thought. A thought about rules. How important it is to understand the rules of a particular poem? Whether a poem is free verse or not, there is still a set of rules guiding the writing. Not having rhyme is a rule. Not having a regular rhythm is a rule.

I have analysed ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ umpteen times and I thought I’d view it differently. I thought I’d view it from a set of rules. I started with a few rules and then things snowballed.


1.       Sound effects are repeated three times

2.       End each stanza with the ‘six hundred’

3.       Visual details are repeated twice

4.       All dialogue starts with ‘Forward, the Light Brigade’

5.       The last verb in first fours stanzas is ‘rode’

6.       Verbs are paired when action takes place

7.       Stanzas three and five repeat the same five lines at the start

8.       The first word in every line is stressed

9.       One word in the whole poem is three syllables long

10.   All words, apart from one,  in the poem are one or two syllables long

11.   Dactylic diameter used throughout

12.   The number of times the imperative ‘forward’ is used matches the number of times the imperative ‘honour’  is used at the end

13.   Exclamations are followed by questions at the start but this is inverted at the end of the poem

I could go on and on looking for rules. This, by no means, is an exhaustive list. But, when you have rules down on paper you can start exploring the meaning in greater detail. What is the significance of a rule? (Incidentally, you have some rules to help them create a poem.)

Rule 13 – Nobody questioned the orders until after the event. Therefore, the last stanza reflects that need to question first before action. The poem subtly wants a change in the structure of the military organisation.

Rule 9 – Battery is the one three syllable word in the whole poem drawing attention to the key difference between the light brigade and their enemy.

Rule 1 and 3 – Greater emphasis is placed on the sound effects rather than the visual aspects to give a level of distance and confusion. The events are heard more than they are seen. Reflects how the public experienced

Rule 12 – The poet replaces the officer giving orders at the end of the poem. His commands equal that of the officers in the event.

These aren’t definitive interpretations, but they present a starting point to enable a focused discussion of the poem. Tomorrow’s lesson with my Year 10 is about the Ted Hughes’ rules in ‘Bayonet Charge’.  

Thanks for reading,


Sunday, 17 September 2017

Analysis in GCSE Literature and GCSE Language is a chimera

Historically, as a school, we have done better in English Literature than English Language. Surprisingly, this year we saw the complete opposite. Now, I’d like to partly blame the dodgy ‘Romeo and Juliet’ question, but there is more to it than first meets the eye. When reading the examiner’s report, it seems that the analysis was the problem for many schools and ours. For me there seems to be such a difference in the level of analysis expected and, more importantly, the type of analysis. Whereas analysis was fairly consistent before, this time it is quite different.

GCSE English Language
Paper 1

Question 2 – How does the writer use language to…  
Highly technical
Emphasis on terminology
Emphasis on effect
Closely analysing the extract on a word or sentence level

Question 3 – How is the opening structured?
Content driven
Low emphasis on terminology
Emphasis on effect
Whole text analysis  

Question 4 -  How far do you agree with the statement?
Content driven
Emphasis on terminology
Emphasis on effect
Whole text analysis

Of course, different papers and different questions have a different emphasis. However, what alarms me the most is how the types of analysis is constantly morphing on just one paper. Use terminology for this question. Don’t use it for this one. Refer to the content in the question here. Don’t mention it there. So, when you are trying to develop analysing skills, it doesn’t help when the exam paper isn’t consistent with a view of analysis. Analysis just doesn’t mean the same thing in all the questions.
Look at the GCSE Literature exam and you see a completely different view. The examiner’s report is repeatedly that the students’ analysis was too narrow and detrimental when the students analysed things on a technical level and identified the word class of quotes. According to the examiner’s report, the extract doesn’t need to be analysed in fine detail. In fact, it seems that the extract hinders students, reading between the lines of the report. Now, here’s what I am at odds at: on one GCSE paper the examiners want students to be technical and zoom in, and one paper doesn’t want students to be technical and zoom in. I am at odds with this, because we, well most of us, teach both GCSEs to sets at the same time and in the past there has been a bit of consistency. We could feel reassured when teaching one GCSE we were subtly supporting the other. At the moment, I am starting to feeling I am working with two different churches and two different belief systems.

I am having to teach students to analyse things differently and actively teach them to approach it differently. We are going Protestant for Literature and Catholic for Language.
So, what is my approach for Literature? Well, this is the one we are trying for this year. It is a structure for planning a response to a question. I present it as an inverted triangle. The point at the bottom being the extract.

Read the question – ignore the extract
1:  Big ideas – inferences / inference words / abstract concepts
2: Shakespeare teaches us ….
3: Elizabethans felt….
4: Whole play – start/middle/end
5: Scene
6: Extract – language

I should imagine thousands of students in the summer started their planning with the extract and there lies the problem. We you start with an extract first you are automatically limiting the level of thought. You are looking for the answers in the text and that, honestly, where the problem lies. The answers are not in the extract. Evidence is in the extract, but not the answers. In fact, I am getting students to ignore the extract. In lessons, I am hiding the extract until the end of the planning.

Let’s take this question:
Starting with this exchange, explain how you think Shakespeare presents the way young men view love.

1:Big ideas – life-changing / romanticised / perfection / unreal / beyond the physical realm
2: Shakespeare teaches us how young men see love as a spiritual experience which transforms them and dominates their life.  
3: Elizabethans were deeply religious and viewed their spiritual life as more important than their physical life.
4: Start – Romeo meets Juliet for the first time and refers to her as saintly and worshiping her
   Middle – The wedding is a spiritual uniting of souls
   End -   Romeo kills himself so his soul can be united with Juliet

As the play develops, we move from the physical world to the spiritual world.
5: Scene: In this extract from Act 1 Scene 1, Romeo explains his love for Rosaline to Benvolio.
We see how not all men behave in the same way. Benvolio questions this behaviour. Romeo is consists in his view of love. Similar approach with Juliet. Benvolio a foil for Romeo.

6 : Extract: Language
Well, in that hit you miss: she'll not be hit
With Cupid's arrow; she hath Dian's wit;
And, in strong proof of chastity well arm'd,
From love's weak childish bow she lives unharm'd.
She will not stay the siege of loving terms,
Nor bide the encounter of assailing eyes,
Nor ope her lap to saint-seducing gold:
O, she is rich in beauty, only poor,
That when she dies with beauty dies her store.

·         Repetition of the idea that she isn’t attainable

·         Reference to ‘saint’

·         Linked to gods – beyond the mortal realm

Note: This is a structure for planning a response and not a structure for writing a paragraph, so do not get any crazy ideas like this could be a structure for a paragraph. That idea is hideous.

And, so far, so good. The key thing is hiding the extract. For years, we have started with the extract, but in the church of GCSE English Literature, you need to save it for the end, when thinking and planning. I know Vygotsky wouldn’t like it, but going from the concrete to the abstract hinders students with analysis, because they struggle to shift to abstract thinking when they have something concrete before them. Students see the extract as having the answers. Therefore, they’ll obsess over the extract. In fact, the extract is the least important thing.

Analysis means something different in every question.
Imagine if we expected a different method to solve algebra in every question on the Maths exam paper.

Let’s have a bit of consistency.

Thanks for reading,


Sunday, 10 September 2017

When did we start narrowing education?

With all this conversation on curriculums and the newfound scrutiny on schools’ curriculums, I am thinking about the content of the lessons in our school.  Is the curriculum good enough? Good enough for what? Students? Jobs? University?  The two words commonly linked to curriculum are ‘broad’ and ‘narrow’.

What if the whole education system is responsible for this narrowing of content? Not nasty exams.

It is interesting to know that an old ‘university’ education was as broad as they come. The Latin word ‘universitas’ means ‘whole’.  Although there was some focus on a specialism or topic area to become a specialist, the content was a range of subjects including religion, astronomy, theology, medicine and much more. It truly was a universal education. Now, look to today. Can we really consider our education to be truly universal?

The narrowing of our education system is everywhere. Take the following:

1: Year 6 students are assessed on writing, reading, Mathematics and spelling, punctuation and grammar.

2: Year 9 students take options for Year 10 – reducing the number of subject areas.

3: Year 12 students reduce subjects to three or four areas of focus.

4: University students reduced the subjects to one or two subjects.

5: Post graduate students then focus on one subject and narrow it down to one aspect of that subject.

Is that a universal education? Is that making broad minds? You see: we have a system that explicitly and implicitly narrows our knowledge. Yes, you may learn lots of stuff, but it is narrowed knowledge. Knowledge good for one purpose only.

We know that the narrowing of our curriculums have been partly influenced by results and league tables. Look at how English and Maths are reported with everything, so the curriculum is narrowed a lot of the time because of them. Stop mentioning ‘including English and Maths’ and you will not have whole schools moving heaven and earth to improve English and Maths. They might even try to improve everything, including English and Maths.

Ahh, Xris, well that’s where you are wrong: we have introduced the Ebacc. Yes, the Ebacc does in part combat this narrowing, but you still have subjects not included in the Ebacc. And, don’t get me started on the Progress 8 buckets.

At every step, there is explicit or implicit narrowing of the education system. But, there is also social narrowing too. Parents are great, but some actively help support narrowing of the curriculum. Take some of these comments:

Why should my child study French?

He's never been good at Maths; he’s always been better at English and literacy.  

One comment might be generated by some misguided xenophobia. The other one is probably more prevalent in schools: the acceptance that you can’t be good in every subject. And, this is the biggest lie. Students are fed a lie that is culturally acceptable to be stronger in one area (Maths, English, Science) because the greatness in that one subject is great enough to smother the weaknesses out of existence. He’s useless at Maths, but he is fantastic in English. Shucks, he just has a brain for English. He’s a bit like me – I am no good at Maths too.

Our culture has created this problem for us. We see endless images of people who are good at one thing. Success has become the fruit of one niche area. We see people successful as being really good in specific area. A footballer is good in football. A business man / woman is good in business. A singer is good at singing. Success is presented through the specialism in an area. Young people are seeing the repeated message again and again: you only need to be good at one thing to be successful. When you see that, it is easy to see how students narrow their own educations. They select the subjects that they are good at and focus on them. They neglect the subjects they are not successful in. After all, you only need to be good at one thing to be successful in life.

Year 10 and Year 11 are the years where schools spend most of their time try to stop students narrowing their focus and get them to broaden their focus and concentrate on other subjects. Some schools might go: ‘To hell with it, let’s focus on English and Maths.’ Others might go: ‘Get the buckets filled.’ I think it is so hard to stop this ‘self-narrowing’ of curriculum by students because they have had the following messages and points:

SATs told them they only need to worry about English and Maths.

Parents told them they had problems with Maths too.

Teachers told them they had to do a subject because the Government wants students to do the Ebacc.   

Colleges told them they only need four Cs and a 4 in English.

The Government told them they need a 4 in English and Maths or they will need to resit it again.

So is it any wonder a Year 11 student narrows their revision and focuses on one or two subject. Almost everything is telling them to narrow down their studies. When subjects are viewed as being more important than others, then it is understandable why students select what and what not to focus on.   

We need to work on making every subject equal in the eyes of parents, students and teachers. A student will start to see every subject as important when we treat it as equally important. Maybe we need to go back to the old days and build up this idea of universal education. However, this is hard to do when the whole system is built and designed to narrow things. Even Maths and English have been narrowed down. That narrowing is symbolised in the names of the subjects. There are so many disciplines in English that the word ‘English’ does not do enough to reflect the subject effectively or truly.

I love the concept of the Renaissance man (or woman). The idea of being good in several areas. Or, at least trying to be. We should be forcing students to be polymaths. I’d like to think I am one, because the opposite of a polymath, according to an online dictionary is a goof, an ignoramus, a nitwit or a clot.

In our attempts to improve things, we have erroneously made them good at something rather than everything.

Rather than teach students about grit and resilience, let’s teach them the importance of excelling in all things, rather than one. Let’s focus on the whole rather than the parts.

Thanks for reading,