Sunday, 28 October 2018

The dust has settled on AQA Paper 1

Now that the dust has settled on the new format for English Language GCSE, I felt it was time to share some things that have worked and helped me in teaching Paper 1. We always run the danger of exam fatigue with repeated exam practice. It is so easy to find papers and walk students through the papers, yet we possibly need to vary things. Yes, the texts might be different, but the questions are the same and that could lead to some predictable, monotonous teaching. We need familiarity with the papers, but we don’t need it to be endless repetition of the same thing. That’s why the following approaches refer to various texts and examples, because we can’t do them for every text, but they give a sense of variety when looking at the exam paper.

[1] The front of the booklet

‘The Tiredness of Rosabel’ by Katherine                Mansfield – 1908

We exploring the title of poems, yet I can guarantee that a large majority of students skipped by the word ‘tiredness’ when hunting for the exam questions. In fact, that ‘tiredness’ is a huge theme of the extract. Miss that and you could easily miss a valuable part of the story.

We spend a good ten minutes exploring the front of the booklet. What could Rosabel be tired of? What could cause ‘tiredness’ in 1908? Who is Rosabel? What do we think the issues facing a woman in 1908?

If you are lucky, the story might be part of an anthology and that gives us an extra title to source meaning from. An example even gives the genre of the text. An important aspect to know, if you are exploring the text and its meaning.

[2] Genre

I’ll be honest: genre is something we need to work on with students. There seems to be a lack of variety of genres in films and television today. We tend to get patterns of similar genres and very little variety. This is, in part, a result of consumer influence. A popular film influences the making of another. Students aren’t getting the variety they might once get.

Recently, we looked at ‘Glass, Bricks and Dust’ by Claire Dean. Before we looked at the story, we explored the fantasy and fairy tale genre. A great opportunity to show a trailer for ‘Labyrinth’ and explore the ideas and answer some of these questions:

What is the reader’s connection to the story?

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

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

What are the story rules for a fairy tale story?

It helps to have a good understanding of the genre before looking at a story. They see how important it is when a parent disappears. They see the significance of a man appearing.

A trailer for films helps students to get the understanding of genre. Therefore, I try to match a trailer to a story extract, so students can identify the features, but, more importantly, identify how a reader is supposed to react to the text.  


I can see people’s hackles rise already. Hear me out on this one. I am not a big fan of acronyms and in fact I hate them, yet I have used this one for the skills when looking at Question 2 and 3. I don’t use it to write paragraphs. That’s tosh. I use it to help students remember the skills they must use.

Spot it  - a choice made by the writer

Quote it  - a quotation

Effect it – I know, dodgy! How the reader feels  - a sense of …. Mood …. Atmosphere … a feeling of

Explain it  - explanation for the mood and commenting on the subtext – they feel this because…  

Link it – a connection to the rest of story or extract

Symbolise it – what’s the bigger picture here?

We use it to get students to remember that they have to demonstrate other skills when exploring the text. We stress that the SPOT / QUOTE / EFFECT are the basics. The non-negotiables. However, they get few marks for them unless they EXPLAIN / LINK / SYMBOLISE things. Plus, I teach students how they can start with any of them, but there’s no need to follow them in the particular order. In fact, I actively encourage them to start with ‘effect it’ or ‘symbolise it’ as it enables high-level thinking sooner in the writing.

Q2 Example

Spot it  - The writer uses the verb

Quote it   -  ‘oozing’

Effect it   - to create a sense of anger and frustration.

Explain it  - She is fed-up with her life and she wants something different and to escape from the world she is in.

Link it  - The attractive woman in the shop highlights how bad her life is.

Symbolise it – This symbolises the difference between the different classes.

Q3 Example

Spot it  - The writer changes the focus from the bus to the girl with red hair

Quote it   -  ‘eyes the colour of that green ribbon shot with gold they had got from Paris last week ‘

Effect it   - to create a sense of contrast and envy, suggesting to us the sadness Rosabel feels with her life. 

Explain it  - The girl represented what Rosabel wishes she had.

Link it  - The writer focuses on the woman to make us empathise with her situation. We see how she lives and then see how others more fortunate live.

Symbolise it – The drab, unpleasant bus represents her life and girl is the one attractive and pleasant part of her day. 


For us, it has become a planning structure. So when we give students a paragraph, we get students to write S Q E E L S in the margin and get them to think of something to say about the paragraph.

[4] The Subtext

A lot of students really struggle with the subtext of a story. They are obsessed with the obvious features of the story and don’t really address the heart of the story. You could spot a million similes, but unless you know the subtext of the story, you’ll not understand why one of those similes have been used. Therefore, we have been working on jumpstarting the thinking about the subtext.

We give students a list of statements exploring the subtext. Some true and some false. All on one PowerPoint.  Students then have to support these ideas with reference to the text.

Alex fears he is losing control of his life.

Alex is inventing things to worry about.

Alex is trying to avoid the reality of how bad things are.

Alex is struggling to control his life.

Alex has lost all hope.

Alex is fed-up of pretending everything is going to be ok.

Alex just wants to live a normal life.

Alex is fed-up of acting like the adult.

Alex feels he is shouldering the responsibility of a lot of the problems.

Alex has accepted she is going to die.

Alex is insecure and his mother’s illness has brought this to the surface.

Then, we think about anything missing from the list. Is it about something else?

I have really enjoyed this bit, because it moves the analysis to meaning and not choices. We, of course, talk about the choices, but only after exploring the subtext. What has the writer used to show us that Alex is struggling to control his life? A simile of a boat in a storm.

[5] Objects, places and people

Unless we get a really strange extract, the story will always contain objects, places and people. I have seen people offer so many different ways to address the structure question and a lot of them focus on drawing eyes, glasses or random symbols.

I feel it is better to ask students to spot the people, settings and objects in the text. They are the tent poles for the story. Then, they can explore the reason for that object, setting and person at that point in story. This also helps to develop the symbolism of aspects in the text.

This is an example I used with Rosabel this week and it generated the following ideas.

·         Start and end features a purchase of an object with different attitudes  

·         Juxtaposition of violets and egg highlights desires and needs

·         Egg symbolises the frugal and plain nature of her life  

·         Bus and carriage highlight the difference in class and how effortless things are for the rich

·         The red-haired woman contrasts with Rosabel’s brown hair and lifestyle – an impossible aspect to change

·         Jewellers represent a better life and a better job for her – the selling of hats isn’t glamourous – a functional job

·         The woman in the grey mackintosh coat represents the normal customer and making the red-haired woman unique

·         Colour is important in the story. Violets add colour to her life. The red-haired woman doesn’t need colour, as it is colourful enough, so she needs a black hat.  

Plus, when you look at the story you’ll see that the story follows the structure of objects, setting and people, which goes to show that the emphasis from the start is on materialism. The order will change depending on the extract. The more I think about the extract, the more I think the violets are the single, most important structural device in the story. They suggest her attitude towards life. She’d rather look at something pretty than eat a nice meal.

[6] Style

Looking at the style of writing is incredibly important when looking at the story and students needs to pick up in the change of style and explore it. Yes, the objects, people and settings change, but sometimes the writer changes the style to match that.

I get students to see if they can spot where the writing changes. If they can’t, then I offer them this. Then, usually they get the gist of the point. They then explore why the bus is described in such detail and why the conversation with the woman with red hair is featured in the story.

[7] Explain the answers

All too often we are starting with a blank slate with students. It takes time to get to an idea and we are constantly getting them to start from zero. I like giving students the possible answers to questions and get them to explain them verbally to the class. Explain to my why the writer used the word ‘lashing’ to create a violent atmosphere.

Question 2- How does the writer use language to…?

Words / Phrases

       Lashing – violence / dominant force attacking / pain

       Adrift -  helplessness / unconnected / distant / disorientated

       Adrift in a boat – caught in the centre / affected by things greatly

       Pushed –  hesitancy / fear of danger / nervousness

       Bulk – solid / security / strength / consistent / power 

       Spilling in furious waves – anger / hatred / destruction / power / lack of skill / unpredictable 

       Roaring – danger / uncontrollable / monstrous / animalistic

       Pounding – fear / danger / uncontrollable /

       Tangled – confusion / inescapable

In doing this, we help students to develop the language for talking about effect.

[8] The summary sentence

A boy has been struggling to fit in at his new school. His parents have moved from the city to a small country village on the Welsh coast.

The summary sentence of the extract holds lot of choices by the writer and some scope for inferences and empathy.

How would a boy find starting in a new school different to a girl?

What would a person moving from the city to the countryside find difficult?

These things need to be modelled to the students. A reliance on jumping in means that students fail to understand key aspects of the writing.

[9] A paragraph is enough

The boy resumed paddling.  He kicked only every third or fourth stroke; kicking was more exertion than steady paddling.  But the occasional kicks sent new signals to the fish.  The time it needed to lock on them, only an instant, for it was almost directly below the boy.  The fish rose.  Nearly vertical, it saw the commotion on the surface.  There was no conviction that what thrashed above was food, but food was not a concept of significance.  The fish was impelled to attack: if what it swallowed was digestible that was food; if not, it would later be regurgitated.  The mouth opened, and with a final sweep of the sickle tail, the fish struck.

Jaws by Peter Benchley

One paragraph is enough. There isn’t a real need to work through pages of prose. This paragraph has something to say on language, structure, subtext, effect, and even Question 4. Our Year 11s are preparing for their mocks and we’ve been giving them, as a starter, a paragraph and getting them to comment on language, structure and evaluate it.

[10] Finding stuff

Finding inferences can help students build up their understanding and resilience with texts.  We need to work on helping students make those inferences independently and some form of scaffolding is needed.

Rosabel would rather spend her money on pretty things than essential items she needs:

Rosabel cares about her appearance:

Rosabel finds the customers funny sometimes:

There isn’t a need to go through repeated paper after paper. We can be a little bit more creative with how we teach the papers and help students work through it.

Thanks for reading,


Saturday, 13 October 2018

Taking Tennyson and Owen to the pub for a pint

This week I have been working with Year 10 and helping them start writing poetry comparisons. As a class, we created the following opening comparison paragraph.

Both ‘Exposure’ and ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ show us that the reality of war is death. Both show us that death is inevitable and a part of the life of war. However, ‘COLB’ celebrates death and glorifies the sacrifice the soldiers gave in dying and ‘Exposure’ shows us that death is a process that should be pitied and thought about. As Owen fought in the war and protested about war, it shows a personal and bitter point of view challenging the mentality of Tennyson is his poem. 

Tennyson doesn’t shy away from death in his poem. His constant reference to the ‘noble 600’ and how they are left as ‘not the 600’ is a constant reminder of death. He doesn’t want the death to be forgotten and ‘fade’ away, which is why he constantly refers to the ‘600’ and uses endless repetition. Tennyson doesn’t want them to be forgotten. Although he repeats ‘the death’, he does hide the actual violence and uses onomatopoeias and alliteration to give the sense of chaos surrounding the situation. It is as if the action is so hard to define, as it is here. It is hard to separate one from the other. The reality of war for Tennyson is confusion, chaos and death.  In contrast, Owen’s ‘Exposure’ refers to explicitly death at the end of the poem. However, the whole poem echoes the dying process: a cold, slow, long process of war. A common thought is that war is about action and whilst ‘COLB’ shows us that with ‘cannons to the right’ and ‘sabres’, ‘Exposure’ challenges this idea and gives us the idea that war is about ‘waiting’ for death. The use of long sentences and repetition of ‘nothing’ gives us the sense that not much happens and that soldiers are waiting for death and they’d rather it happened quickly. The wait is a metaphoric death.  ‘Exposure’ is the process before the ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’. It shows us why the soldiers rush into the ‘Jaws of Hell’ because they have had to wait for ages for nothing. They’d rather do something than wait, even if it means dying. They want to be ‘exposed’ to the danger and rather not wait for it.  

Along the way, I noticed that I didn’t use the words ‘poet’ or ‘writer’ in the writing and it got me thinking.  Instead, the emphasis was actually on the writer’s surname.

Tennyson doesn’t shy away from death in his poem.

Tennyson doesn’t want them to be forgotten.

The reality of war for Tennyson is confusion, chaos and death.

For years, I have been correcting the students who use a poet’s first name. Unless you have shared a pint (an impossibility) with Tennyson, it isn’t polite to use their first name. But, interestingly I haven’t really given the choice between writer and surname much thought. Yet, the above example made me see things differently and think of things differently. 

In the example above, I have mentioned Tennyson as numerous times and I haven’t equally given Owen the same coverage. What could I say if I looked Owen? 

Tennyson doesn’t shy away from death in his poem.

Owen challenges the glory of dying for one’s country.  

Tennyson doesn’t want them to be forgotten.

Owen thinks they are forgotten and the trapped between life and death.

The reality of war for Tennyson is confusion, chaos and death.

The reality of war for Owen is endless waiting and emptiness. 

The problem with using ‘writer’ and ‘poet’ is one of emotional detachment. Being academic in writing is not about being emotionless. Put things down to a faceless, emotionless and genderless noun (the poet) makes everything perfunctory. Tennyson was a living, thinking person made of wobbly flesh and bones. He thought, felt and probably drank tea.

One of the things I am noticing with the new literature is the importance in language precision. Long gone are the days of including X, Y and X and you’ll pass the GCSE. Students need to be able to express things fluently and precise. You can’t rely on bolt on statements or sentence openings. That’s why I think a shift in the subject of the sentences makes a shift in understanding and perspective. It’s more personal.

Owen wanted …

Owen thought …

Owen felt …

Getting students to explore the intent is quite hard, but an emphasis on the surname can help students to do this. We are exploring his (or her, depending on the poem) personal perspective on the idea. How he sees things? 

We can then include emotions and add to the student’s understanding of the intent further.

Owen felt bitter.

Owen felt frustrated.

Owen felt detached.

In fact, I’d be bold enough and say we are that blooming obsessed with the reader and their feelings so much that we neglect the poet and their feelings. We are obsessed with how we feel and forget that the poem has been writing with emotion. 
Then, we can add something specific about what the writer is doing: 


Shying away









Owen is uncovering the reality of war.

Owen is dehumanising soldiers.

Owen is alienating the reader.  

Then, we can just add some adverbs to suggest how Owen is feeling.

Owen is quietly uncovering the reality of war.

Owen is subtly dehumanising soldiers.

Owen is controversially alienating the reader.  


The best students don’t plonk ‘writer’, ‘alliteration’ and ‘mood’ in a sentence and magically create great responses. We need to craft how poetry is written about. We need to teach poetry analysis just as much as we do other skills. It will help too with all forms of analysis. 

So when I sat down for a pint with Tennyson and Owen a conversation started. Tennyson angrily mocked and ridiculed the atmosphere of the pub. For he hated, gastropubs. Owen, on the other hand, respectfully disagreed and boasted that it was one of his favourites.

We need work hard on getting students to think of writers as real people with feelings and thoughts. A01 is one that some students struggle with when writing about poetry. That’s because they are obsessed with the language. The starting point should be the writer’s ideas. Their thoughts. Their feelings. Their perspective. I am seriously considering getting rid of the 'writer’. Not in a hitman sort of way. Just the word. 

Thanks for reading,


Sunday, 7 October 2018

The woman who fell to earth, and school

Today marks a big and exciting chapter in the world of Doctor Who. This evening we will see the new Doctor in action. We’ve had clips and snippets, but nothing significant to understand how the new Doctor has been interpreted. Oh and the new Doctor is female.

There’s been a significant discussion over the introduction of a female Doctor. In fact, some it has been purely misogynistic.  The audience didn’t batter a metaphorical eyelid when a villain (Cyberwoman and The Master / Missy) becomes female, yet when you change the hero to a woman, the world stops and spouts tirades of abuse.

An actor who previously played the Doctor raised the point that changing the gender meant that boys were losing a role model and hero. In a world full of musclebound heroes, the loss of a hero that wasn’t ‘typically male’ was an issue to be raised.  

As a father to daughters, I have been really interested in role models for girls. I’d be bold to say that there aren’t many that are clearly defined, visible and obvious to little girls.  If I could have introduced my daughter to Buffy at 5 I would have done. There’s a glut of heroes for boys in a variety of shades and forms, yet for the girls there’s very little. They even put them in groups to help the boys. Hermione Granger, however, has become my daughters’ hero and role model over time.

A big part of the problem is the idea of identification and placing ourselves in the fiction. For decades, the companion has been the audience’s way into the story. They represented the audience. They think and feel like the audience. They’d react as most human beings would do in a crazy situation. If I am honest, my heroes were the companions. I didn’t want to be the Doctor; I wanted to be like the companions – well, not all of them (The 80s). I wanted to live an exciting life and be transported away from the drizzling rain of a coastal town. I wanted to blow Daleks up with explosives. I wanted to explore new worlds. I wanted to save things. I wanted to help others. The hero wasn’t the Doctor. The hero was Ace, Sarah Jane Smith, Jo Grant, Tegan and Romana at different times. Strong, funny people.

One problem with role models and heroes is the gender issue. How often do we site the opposite gender as being a role model? We are obsessed with ‘like for like’ when exploring role models. Boys need male teachers for role models. Girls need female teachers for role models. Why don’t we talk about how women can be role models for boys? Why don’t we talk about how men can be role models for girls? The most influential person in my teaching career was a woman. Yep, not a man. A woman. A head of department who still inspires me to this day. She didn’t save the world and fight aliens, but she was a fantastic leader. What made her a fantastic head of department and leader?

[1] She worked hard and her hard work motivated us to work hard too.

I’ve worked for various managers in business and the one the stands out the most is the manager who felt it was his given right to not work so hard because he had got to the top. The office around him was full of resentment and bitterness, because others were working hard so he could relax and take his time.

[2] She was the calm waters in a difficult storm.

Every problem was met calmly and gently. We’d discuss and talk about it and then explore the solutions. We were never brushed off or given platitudes.  Her calm approach matched how we learnt to deal with things. She set the standard.

[3] Tiny details mattered

She’d ensure that no person was missed out and that everybody had a say. She’d also remember tiny bits of detail about our lives. We were felt we were listened to.

[4] Organisation

She taught me how important organisation is in a department. She had things planned meticulously and well in advanced of events and topics. ‘Be prepared’ was an unwritten rule for her. Plus, she had the neatest office I have ever found in education.

[5] Healthy distance

She was friendly but not a friend. She’d join in conversations, but kept a healthy distance at the same time.

[6] Make and don’t break people

A simple compliment goes a long way. I recall how she praised how I dealt with a student in a class. A little comment like that went a long way. In fact, it made me repeat what I did with other students.  

[7] Laughter

But, I think the biggest thing she taught me was how to control my emotions. I am not an emotional person, but we are surrounded by emotions in schools. Staff. Students. Parents. It’s easy to get caught up with things and be affected by others. She taught me how to deal with things. In any difficult situation, I always think: ‘What would L do in this situation?’ And, for me it has worked. Even this week I asked myself the same question in a meeting.

My role model in education and my professional career was a ‘custard tart eating’ woman.

Tonight, I will watch the new Doctor with my daughters and they might idolise the new Doctor or maybe worship Bradley Walsh’s character. 

One thing I want them to do is think about how everybody can be a hero. 

See beyond gender. 

Be inspired by the person.

Thanks for reading,