Sunday, 24 November 2019

What have the Maths Department ever done for English?

This week, I had the pleasure of covering a Maths lesson period 5 on Friday.

With my pile of mocking marking under my arm, I arrived to find the cover work on the desk. Hoping for an hour’s worth of marking, I instructed students to complete the work from the sheets provided. Then, I took it upon myself to have a go at the task. I was hooked. As a result of this, I nabbed a visualiser from another classroom and started to teach the lesson on increasing and decreasing numbers with percentages.  Not one single mock question was marked. Instead, I challenged the class to beat me in answering the questions and used the visualiser to feedback the answers. 

I don’t deny it, but I am envious of Maths. They had one sheet and it covered a whole lesson and it contained numerous examples of practice and numerous chances to spot errors and clarify misunderstandings. I am slightly envious of how easy and systematic it was. I am a big, big, big fan of systems and having an approach that is used consistently in subjects. If you have some aspects of English lessons systematic, it gives you a whole big space of room in lessons to be creativity and unsystematic. Have a system for spellings, vocabulary, knowledge learning and you can have a whole lesson spent being creative with ideas or stories.

Personally, I think being systematic in English lessons is like swear word. Any desire to be systematic is beaten down with a poet’s silk cravat or an author’s frilly bonnet. It usually takes about four seconds maximum for the opposition to refer to Gradgrind and start quoting him to you. Then, tears form in their misty eyes as they start emoting and thinking of the poor ‘ickle children, bless their hearts, who don’t have any enjoyment in their lives. That one lesson where the teacher lets them have boiled sweet to describe something will be the lesson that will transform their lives far more, in their misty tearful eyes, than any systematic approach to learning. The big bad meany teacher is stealing all the funny wunny from the, bless their hearts, poor ‘ickle children.’ 

Students love Maths. They love it for many reasons and I can see why as I go through Friday’s cover lesson. Mainly, it is the systematic approach to work.

Task  1: Increase the number by 10%.

Students had 15 numbers and they had to increase the number by 10%.  

The students first had to work out what ten percent of the figure was and then added it.

This was mirrored in the next two tasks.

Task 2: Decrease the number by 10%

Task 3: Increase the number by 5%, 15% or 20%.

As a teacher, I timed them and we feedback the answers after the allocated time.

From an English position, I found the whole process really interesting, because I was doing it with the students. It was interesting because I was watching the development of a system. After fifteen goes the students had trained themselves with an approach to solving the problem. Usually, when we get students to do something like this in English we usually get them to do a maximum of ten. I’d say we rarely go for more than ten because it seems like too much. Here I could see why it is so important that a student does a large number of attempts otherwise how do you embed it. I have hundreds of texts books for English and none of them make students go beyond five or ten questions on one subject. You see – it is ingrained in our thinking. The ‘ickle child, bless their hearts, can’t cope in English with ten of those pesky questions. Make it five, God bless them.

By number fifteen you have the pattern formed in your head. By number fourteen, I knew what to do and I was securing my knowledge of the system for getting the answer. Task 2 was interesting because it is a slight change in the system. Instead of increasing we are decreasing. Interestingly, students made a mistake. They continued to increase instead of decrease. Once they discovered this mistake they could easily rectify it. However, it showed that students made assumptions based on the pattern for Task 1. Then, they repeated the process fifteen times again, allowing them to build up the knowledge of how to decrease a number by ten percent. Both tasks were working on the same system but working on slight variations.

The final task added an extra layer of complexity by changing the percentage number which meant a further calculation. Therefore, they were repeating the same calculation from Task 1, but this time they had another step to do before they reached the answer.  

So, what is the relevance to English? I think we are missing out something huge in terms of teaching and it fits in with Direct Instruction in English. We don’t get students to practise enough in lessons. We, in my opinion, place too much emphasis on the explanation rather than the development of systems. Take commas. We’ll bring out the comma lesson occasionally to address a problem. The lesson will feature lots of explanation and a bit of practice. Then, with the next piece of writing we do with them we question our ability to teach as it seems the class have forgotten that lesson you did on commas that involved a boiled sweet. Simply we don’t do practice like Maths and that is our downfall. We view practice as boring. Boring for the students as they are doing the same thing again and again - bless their poor ‘ickle hearts. Boring for the teacher because they have got to mark the work. 

Practice isn’t a dirty word when it comes to creative writing but it is a filthy word when you place it anywhere near grammar and construction of sentences. People yawn when they refer to a SPAG lesson. It has been ingrained in our brains that it is devoid of fun, interest and excitement. We often apologise for the lesson, yet these lessons could be some of the biggest deal breakers for students. Look, you can have a boiled sweet if you do this work in the grammar lesson.

The Period 5 cover lesson on a Friday has made me review how I use practice in lessons and specifically from a grammar position. Therefore, I have created a resource, which will need a bit more polish, to help build this practice element in lessons. For fun, I have based it on commas and decided that students need to work on commas. They need to work on where to place commas in a sentence. The structure of the resource models the Maths one. You set the system up and students have to repeat the system fifteen times. Each task slightly modifies the original system. However, repeated practice is key. I have attached the resource here for people to see here.

Rather than spent time explaining, I am going to get students to do the task and then correct if they have it wrong. After all, these students will have had numerous explanations of how to use a comma. This is about learning through practice rather than through explanations. We want it to be an automatic process and this takes practice – something we don’t give enough time to, because it stifles creativity. Are we really developing the system? Are we committing a system to memory? 

We’ve all seen videos of the Mathematical gifted children who can do a billion sums a minute. Wouldn’t it be nice if we had something similar in English? A child who can quickly add a comma. I think we can, but first we need a massive overhaul of how we practise things in lessons. MFL and Maths are experts on this and I think English teachers need to visit their lessons to see what we can steal from them. And, umm, maybe save us some time with planning and marking. 

Thanks for reading,


Sunday, 10 November 2019

Being word friendly or porous

We all know the importance of vocabulary. We all know that ‘tier 2’ words are a sticking point for students. We all know that students will struggle to read some texts without a good level of vocabulary.  The problem is the method in which we use to teach that vocabulary to ensure it is of benefit and not just simply a case of cramming them full of impressive vocabulary. Or ‘WOW words’.

I feel that as teachers we need to be more porous to words. By that, I mean we should be prepared to make the words an important part of the lesson, planning and discussion. How many times in lessons do we ask students for the meaning of a word? How many times in a lesson do we stop a lesson for a discussion on the use of one word? How many times do we stop a conversation with a student and we question them on their choice of words?

What does lanced mean?

Why did the writer use silently instead of stealthily?

Why did you use the word ‘it’ to describe the Tom?

There’s lots out there about vocabulary and people are trying to find their own little way or system for imparting vocabulary. However, there’s so many words and so little time. Being porous to words is the key. If a teacher is porous to words, then the students will be. Students don’t need endless lists of words that they might never ever face or use in their own reading, writing and speech. They need to be a sponge with vocabulary, meaning that they must have the ability to suck up a word and store it.

This blog is about the ‘sucking up’ part of vocabulary. I am going to talk about a lesson which, for me, is about being porous and sucking up words. I am going to simply explain what I did and why I did it.

Part 1:

The class have been working on ‘Of Mice and Men’. At the start of the lesson, I gave students an extract from the text and gave them a few minutes to think about the words in read and what do they mean. Then I selected students to tell me what a word meant.

Extract 1
Lennie begged, "Le's do it now. Le's get that place now."

"Sure, right now. I gotta. We gotta."

And George raised the gun and steadied it, and he brought the muzzle of it close to the back of Lennie's head. The hand shook violently, but his face set and his hand steadied. He pulled the trigger. The crash of the shot rolled up the hills and rolled down again. Lennie jarred, and then settled slowly forward to the sand, and he lay without quivering.

George shivered and looked at the gun, and then he threw it from him, back up on the bank, near the pile of old ashes.

The brush seemed filled with cries and with the sound of running feet. Slim's voice shouted. "George. Where you at, George?“

Students are unprepared to give meanings to words. Historically, I’d say we have generally shied away from using students to generate the meanings of words or providing definitions. We’ve provided glossaries and given our personal meanings of words, linking to our first holiday as a child and the obscure etymology of the word that will only be of use to a person watching ‘University Challenge’ episode 4 in 1982. 

This task was interesting because without preparation students are pretty bad at giving definitions.

What does the word ‘begging’ mean, Sue? 

Umm. It means begging. You know. Like you are begging for something.

Often or not, the students repeated the word in their explanation and showed me how difficult students actually find defining words. This carried on with the rest of the words. It got to the point where some students we quite frustrated that they used hand actions to enable the meaning rather than repeat the word steadied. Clearly, there’s room for some work there on explanation and clarification.

Part 2

I then gave students another extract. This time I asked them to do two things. Think of a synonym to use instead of the word. Think of a definition for the word here. Each pair had a particular word.

I read aloud the extract twice. The first time when I got to a focus word they said a synonym. The second time they said their definition.

Extract 2

The deep green pool of the Salinas River was still in the late afternoon. Already the sun had left the valley to 

go climbing up the slopes of the Gabilan Mountains, and the hilltops were rosy in the sun. But by the pool 

among the mottled sycamores, a pleasant shade had fallen.

A water snake glided smoothly up the pool, twisting its periscope head from side to side; and it swam the 

length of the pool and came to the legs of a motionless heron that stood in the shallows. A silent head and 

beak lanced down and plucked it out by the head, and the beak swallowed the little snake while its tail waved

A far rush of wind sounded and a gust drove through the tops of the trees like a wave. The sycamore leaves 

turned up their silver sides, the brown, dry leaves on the ground scudded a few feet. And row on row of tiny 

wind waves flowed up the pool's green surface.

As quickly as it had come, the wind died, and the clearing was quiet again. The heron stood in the shallows, 

motionless and waiting.

Another little water snake swam up the pool, turning its periscope head from side to side.

Suddenly Lennie appeared out of the brush, and he came as silently as a creeping bear moves.

This for me built up their confidence around the use of language. It adds some problem solving element. They heard me push to develop the definitions in Part 1, so they knew they had to avoid repeating the word in their definition. 

Personally, I’d say students are far more comfortable with providing a synonym rather than defining words. Verbally, we don’t define words in our everyday conversation but we do use synonyms. What was the person like? Small, petit, tiny. We do this naturally because we sort through our brain for the right word for the context. X doesn’t fit so I will use Y. Y is not quite right so I will use Z. We scroll through words.

Part 3

For the final part of the lesson, we narrowed the focus on one particular line from the extract. This part was about connections. We connected the words to different aspects. We recapped the word’s meaning and possible synonyms. Then, I used a PowerPoint to show words to build connections.

A silent head and beak lanced down and plucked it out by the head, and the beak swallowed the little snake while its tail waved frantically.   

Slide 1 – Connections

Reminds me of


Links to


Makes me think of


Slide 2 – Purpose






Draws attention to

Slide 3 – Effect

Think that

Feel that

Understand that

Imagine that

This started students on thinking of the words’ connection to the text and the rest of the text. We were connecting it to the reader’s thoughts, the writer’s intention and structure. It made for an interesting discussion on the symbolic identity of the heron and snake. The heron was possibly George, Lennie or even Curley’s wife. There was talk of the ‘lanced’ reflecting what George does to Lennie and the pain and violence associated with the word. We also talked about ‘lancing’ a boil and how that could be what George does.

For me, once they had the concrete aspect of meaning secure it made the students far more confident when talking about the connections with the rest of the text. This staggered approach helped a lot of my students build up understanding.

Overall, the whole experience for me has highlighted how we make assumptions about words and their meanings. We assume students know certain words and assume that they can articulate a word’s meaning. In English, we often ask students to comment on the language used by the writer. That often entails looking for patterns or easily recognisable techniques. We miss a large part of the understanding when doing that. I talk a lot in lessons about ‘false confidence’. Complex words provide students with a false confidence in the subject. Because they can use complex words they feel that have mastered things. We know that English is vast and complex as a subject that the subtle, nuanced meanings could be hidden behind one word.  Every word is important. Take the use of the word ‘it’ instead of ‘murder’ when Macbeth comments on killing King Duncan. Students need to be sponges for words and we have got to make active processes in lessons that allows this. They have to be part of the definition learning and clarifying. We have to keep going back and keep asking for the meaning of words. Something we have lost over time. Yes, we might do it here or there, but do we regularly ask students to give meanings to words?

Do students have false confidence around vocabulary because we have made too many assumptions about them? I bet when looking at the extracts above people thought some of the words were easy. I bet people were thinking that some of the words are not challenging students. I bet people were thinking that the words would never develop a student’s vocabulary.

Look at a glossary provided for texts. It is interesting. There’s an assumption that the reader knows some words and an assumption that the reader doesn’t know some other words. Should we so easily make that distinction in the classroom?

Maybe, we should be stating that any and every word is game in the classroom. That’ why the simple definition of a word is paramount. Asking students to verbally define words in the classroom is the starting point for making a word porous environment. The choice of words is important. Students need to be exposed to all levels of word. Timothy, define the word ‘exposed’. Martha, explain to me what the word ‘porous’ means.  

Thanks for reading,