Friday, 26 July 2013

Comprehending Reading Comprehension Tasks

My previous blogs on reading have caused some arguments about the nature of reading. I have had, primarily, English teachers arguing that you can never divorce enjoyment from reading. I have even had people supporting me by explaining how some children used functional reading first, and then succeeded to progress onto reading for pleasure later. I love reading for pleasure and enjoyment, but it isn’t always the sole purpose for reading and I feel that we mask some purposes by this need, and desire, for enjoyment. Do we read a train timetable for enjoyment? Do we read television guides mainly for enjoyment? Do we read the Yellow Pages for enjoyment? Nah, we read them to get information. That's what reading is mainly about.

Our relationship with reading texts is amazing really, when you think about it. Recently, I gave an assembly on reading and I used the characters of Biff, Chip and Kipper and explored how they have a lasting legacy. Pah, who needs the Olympics when you have ‘Biff and Chip’ books? I just have to mention them to a Year 7 and 8 class and they go all misty eyed and emotional. Show them ‘The Hungry Caterpillar’ and they blub and demand to have their childhood back. There is something magical about books and how we feel about them. They create a legacy for readers. They change the emotional state of people. They take people back in time. They do so much. I even have my own books that do that. I read ‘Meg and Mog’ books to my daughters and I unlock, as I read, the memories I had as a young child of reading this book. I am, of course, mainly talking about fiction books. They hold the magical key that takes reader on an emotional journey.

What about the other texts that got me here today? What about the non-fiction texts of my past? Well, to be honest, I can’t remember them. I can vaguely remember the French Tricolor textbook or the David Waugh Geography books, but that is because I have this bizarre brain that remembers odd bits of information and dumps the most important stuff, like my age. I can’t remember the textbooks I used in Science, RE, Welsh (yes, I was taught Welsh at school), Maths, and even English. I don’t have this lasting legacy with these texts. I don’t even have a lasting legacy with York Notes books, which I should, as they got me out of trouble when doing essays as a teenager.  I remember that I did have a lot of time spent working from a textbook, but I cannot for the life of me recall what they were called.

When I think about literacy across the curriculum and reading, I feel that we need to concentrate on functional reading more and emotional reading less. I am not talking from an English perspective here, but from a teacher perspective.

1) What will they read?

2) How will they read it?

3) How will they react to the reading?

4) How do I know they have read it?

I think that these four questions are the basic reading questions teachers must ask themselves when looking at reading in their classroom. Note: question 3 refers to the emotional aspect and it is just there for tokenism – no, not really. It is there because it might be an issue but it isn’t a major factor in every lesson. You might want to hook students into a particular topic, so you create a sense of mystery, or you might want them to be engaged, so you think of an emotion aspect or reaction that will work to engage them; however, you don’t necessarily use that as a driving force behind the learning. There are often many other questions that take priority over this one question. I think English teachers do think with this question first: I am going to book X because they will love it.

 What they will read?
This will generally relate to the content of the lesson. It could be a text book, a source, an extract or an article. 

It will probably best to identify the function of this reading. This will give the reading purpose, or direction. By relating it to knowledge, this allows students to see the ‘what’s in it for me’ aspect of reading. It could be one of the functions below.

What am I reading for? 

  • Finding information
  • Learning something new
  • Revising my knowledge
  • Developing my knowledge
  • Learning something different about it
  • Exploring how others see it

 Another thing to think about is the level of the writing here. Is the reading material suitable for the whole class? Do you want complex language and writing to stretch students? Or, do you want simple and clear writing to get the concept across quickly to make the learning fast? This is a difficult set of questions, and one that is the heart of education today. Do we simplify to allow for quick learning and progress? Or, do we make things complex to enable high levels of engagement and possibly slower rates of progress? Honestly, we need both sets of approaches, building to the complex.

There are lots of things on websites to test the reading age of a text, but I think people should be wary of this, as I think the reading age of a text is meaningless, unless you know the reading ages of all your students in your class that term. How can you possibly work out the suitability of text using this unless you have a clear picture of your audience?  Reading ages change depending on the test being used. One reading test I came across said that Charles Dickens’ ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ has the reading age of a thirteen year old. An interesting notion. Some schools use this approach for texts and it might be helpful to find out if a text is too easy or too hard, but it doesn’t really help to be precise for your audience.

So, what can you use to work out the complexity and suitability of a text? Personally, I use Ros Wilson’s ‘Punctuation Pyramid’ as a rough guide. Type it into Google and you can get it very easily. It links in with the NC levels (which will soon disappear) and it helps you to guide the reading to the writing skill of a student. You know that if it has colons, semicolons and brackets, then the text is more suitable for a level 5+. It is a rough guide, but it also shows you the quality of writing expected for a 5+ student. It isn’t without its faults, I know.

Look at the sentence length. The longer the sentence, the more challenging the text. This links to the Punctuation Pyramid as they need semicolons and colons to make the sentences long in the first place.

Look at the choice of words. How complex are they? Do they use any academic language? Or, how formal is the writing? A big clue to the complexity can be the level of formality.

Look at the layout and look at amount of images compared to the amount of text. More text than pictures usually equates to more challenging texts. Some textbooks claim to be suitable for a particular reading age, but that, I think, can be misleading. A textbook could have a reading age of a sixteen year old, but it does depend on the criteria used to judge this. Did they ask one sixteen year old if they could read it? Or, did they base it on words? Sentence length? Who knows? 

In a nutshell, judge the suitability of a text on:

·         Punctuation;

·         Length of sentence;

·         Complexity of words;

·         Formality;

·         Ratio of pictures to text.
How will they read it?
This is the million dollar question. How do you get a class of students to read it? I tend to use a variety of techniques and I rotate them depending on my mood. The classroom is fraught with so many problems and issues when it comes to reading something in class. Do you read it out? Do you get them to read it in silence? Do you get them to read it out? If you just focus on one aspect, you neglect some important things. Always read something out, as a teacher, and the student doesn’t practise reading independently. Always get the students to read in silence and you fail to support them in the intonation and expression of words. Always get students to read bits out and you could stop students building the confidence to read independently. When I was at school, I remember some students talking about dreading when a certain student read, as it slowed the pace of things considerably. At the time, I thought: ‘Phew, I am glad it is not me’. Today, I am worried about that happening again.

To overcome this, I get less secure readers to read, but they read less than others, or they have some advanced warning of what they are going to read. Thankfully, I feel that students are genuinely supportive when it comes to reading. Often, you’ll have a student whispering to another how to pronounce a word.

I personally think that reading on a one-to-one basis is the most productive and effective way. My experience in English is eye-opening. Imagine how it could help in History, Science or Geography. Any confusion or misunderstanding can be cleared up at the point of reading; unlike the current situation at the moment: a student waits, if they are brave enough, for a quiet point to ask a question to clarify understanding.

 My five ways to read are:

·         Teacher reads it while the students follow

·         Students take it in turn to read it

·         Students work in small groups or pairs and read it to each other

·         Students read in silence

·         Student reads to teacher on a one-to-one basis.
How do I know they have read it?
This is where I think things get complicated. How do you know if a student has read the text? Good question. You ask them questions. But, do all the questions test the full ‘jigsaw’ of knowledge? Or, do they just test small bits of it? I am going to argue that a lot of our comprehension is based on superficial reading.

Look at text books and they are full of very simple, low-level questioning? Students have only got to find a locate information to get the answer. I have seen ample worksheets in my short teaching career and they all tend to focus on the superficial skills. Don’t get me wrong: skimming and scanning are important skills, when reading, but are they the skills that need to be tested again and again to enable high-level thinking? It amounts, a lot of the time, to copying out large chunks of information. The jigsaw piece is very small. The pieces may be from different parts of the jigsaw, but there is no or little linking, failing to think of the wider picture.

Where is Tom?

What did he do at the end?

What time did he leave?

Gosh, I have been guilty of this kind of questioning. It is easy to do and the students respond well, because it is easy. There’s nothing wrong in the occasional find and locate question, but there tends to be a lot of them; so much that the high-level questions tend to be at the end of a set of questions and students fail to do these far more challenging questions because of all the other low-level questions blocking the way. But, what do we do instead? Ah, well, I am still thinking about that one. I have a skill for spotting problems and failing to suggest easy answers or solutions. What we should be doing is raising the questioning to a higher level? We need to move from superficial reading (skimming and scanning) and move towards deep reading.

In English, we have had for years a few strategies that teachers use to promote some high-level reading. These include:

·         Questioning;

·         Predicting;

·         Visualising;

·         Inferring;

·         Empathising.

They have been doing the rounds for years and have even been used by the Government in their resources. The problem I have with these is that these aren’t necessarily going to help a Science teacher with the reading of lengthy article: draw a picture of the writer of this article.  Think about how he would feel. What do you think his wife looks like? What question would you ask him, if you were trapped on a desert island? They are meaningless in some contexts. They are great when studying a novel, but with other types of reading I think they can be pointless. So, what can we do?

I think we need to look at the tasks set and how we use the reading in particular lessons. If you look at GCSE English, I think you have a stronger framework to base our understanding of reading skills on. For those that are unfamiliar with AQA English Language GCSE, here’s a quick rundown of the exam:

Question 1:  A question looking at explaining the gist of a text.

Question 2:  A question based on exploring the reasons behind a writer’s choices.

Question 3:  A question that makes students think about the subtext of a line or word.

Question 4:  A question making connections between two things.

I have just summarised and simplified the reading section of the exam, but I think it gives people an idea of some of the ‘high-level’ skills that students are expected to demonstrate at GCSE.
1: Summarising (What are….?)

2: Reasoning / Evaluating (Which is the strongest…? Which is the weakest…? Which is the most effective…?)

3: Exploring (digging deeper or reading between the lines) (What does it mean when it says….? What is the writer’s opinion of ….?)

4: Comparing (How does this relate to …? What connects …?)

Added to this there may be these reading skills used:

·         Identifying flaws, contradictions or weaknesses in ideas

·         Identifying different levels of perspective / tone

·         Identify bias 

·         Separate facts from opinions

If I was a teacher in a subject other than English, I would use these as a basis for my questioning. Rather than focus on the previous strategies to promote high-level reading, I’d use these things. I might make my comprehension questions look something like this:

1.       What are the three main ideas for euthanasia?

2.       Based on what you have just read, which side is the most convincing? Explain how you came to this judgement.

3.       What other arguments could be given in addition to some of the arguments here against euthanasia?

4.       From you studies so far, what connections are there between Christian attitudes towards euthanasia and other things you have studied about Christian beliefs?

5.       Do you think the writer supports euthanasia? What evidence have you got to support this idea?

6.        What flaws are there in the arguments presented?

Please don’t start to think that these are real questions. These are just ideas of some possible questions. I think that questioning is where we can best develop and improve the level of reading. We don’t know what goes on in the mind during the reading process, but if we can assess the by-product of reading better, we might stand a better chance of improving their reading skills. I feel that the questioning here would get them to show more of their understanding of a text. They generally avoid copying bits out of a text and they have to concentrate on thinking more, which is, after all, what deep reading is all about.  

I am giving some INSET to staff about reading next term and a lot of the ideas here are experiments. I am looking at some new ways of addressing reading. They are not ‘tried and tested’, but they are me working through things.  I haven’t finished my exploration of reading tasks and questioning; I will hope to blog some more in the next month.  



Tuesday, 23 July 2013

The Reading Jigsaw and the Purpose of Reading in Lessons

I have done it; I went against my better judgement. For weeks, I have been agonising over whether I should buy a Kindle or not. I love the smell and feel of a paperback, but I have been frustrated with the lack of access of some paperback books and how some books are now only available as ebooks. Or, waiting for a paperback to be published a year after the hardback. So, I took the plunge and bought one. Subsequently, I spent five hours playing around with it until I got bored and went back to my trusty paperback.

If I am honest, I bought a Kindle for a particular function: I purchased one so I didn’t have to cart loads of books on holiday. It will also store my classics so I can dip in when I need to check something, or prepare for teaching a story, poem or novel. The purchasing of a Kindle has made me think about how I read. What do I read for pleasure? What do I need for school? What do I want to waste time with? What do I want to read when I have a few spare minutes? My reasoning for buying the Kindle (other ebook readers are available, you know) is that it must have a better function than the bookcase I have at the moment. For a start, it holds up to a hundred books. Also, it allows me to purchase other books instantaneously. Furthermore, it allows me to browse things quickly and between texts effortlessly. I no longer have to cart a huge box of books, with the mere hope that I will find a few minutes where I could read one.

At the moment, I am concerned with the function of reading. I said in my previous blog that I am concerned with the way that reading is viewed in schools. The emphasis tends to be on the emotional enjoyment of texts and we, often, neglect the function of reading. Why do we read? What is the purpose? We usually stress the importance of writing clearly and accurately in lessons, as it will help a student get a job; but do we really stress how vital it is that students can decode a word or follow a large text from beginning to end? Do we say to students that if they get a word wrong they could cost a business money? Or even cost a life? Do we? We don’t say these things, if we are honest, because the writing is visible and the writing is fairly concrete. We can comment on writing and accuracy because they are quite clear. Reading is a totally different matter.

We make students plan their writing by thinking about the audience and the purpose of a text. We guide them to craft and structure a text and we take them through a series of logical steps to achieve the desired product. We support students so much with their writing that it could be said we give them too much support. What do we do for reading? We… ummm….errrr….ummm…make them read on their own or out loud in a class. We might mention a strategy like skimming and scanning, but, really, what do we do for reading?

When I think of what teachers do for writing and I think about reading, I am shocked. We don’t do enough. We model, scaffold, demonstrate, revise, redraft writing, and with reading, we just do it. It is as if we expect them to read competently in Year 7 so that we can focus on the writing. After all, isn’t that what the exam really assesses? Obviously, the two are closely linked, but I do think we neglect one and favour the other. Why? Because it is easier. We should model, scaffold, demonstrate, revise and redraft reading. The principles should be applied to both processes.
The demands of a new curriculum and new exams should be an opportunity to address this balance. Now, some have seen this as an opportunity to add more academic tomes to the curriculum. However, like most things, I feel that an emphasis on highly academic texts makes the bright brighter and the less able more alienated. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the benefit of teaching less able students novels written by Charles Dickens, but harder doesn’t, in my opinion, always mean that you will get progress. It can get the switch off factor.  Yes, challenge students, but the teacher should balance the teaching so that the student is challenged and supported when they need to be. It is a fine line. I sit on the fence for this one. The sign, for me, of a good teacher is knowing what text to use, at the right time, with the right group and with the right activities. It is about making the right choices with all those different variables. That’s why I am not completely against texts that are harder and more challenging, or against using some of the populist books that people use like ‘Of Mice and Men’.  

Reading is like a jigsaw puzzle. The things we see in lessons give us an idea of the student’s understanding of a text. It is fragmented, broken and sketchy. The job for us, as teachers, is to pull those bits of the jigsaw together and work out what the reading strengths and weaknesses of a student are. This year, I have spent hours reading with students on a one to one basis and it has really opened my eyes to what students can and can’t do. Standing at the front of the class and marking a student’s work has masked what a student can really do. You only get a true picture of a students reading through talking and questioning them on a one to one basis.  During tasks in lessons, the questions I have set haven’t elicited the answers that show what the student can do, or show effective reading skills. The questions haven’t helped me to judge the reading skills. In fact, the questions are based on the APP assessment focuses and they are worthless when it comes to understanding the reading. Surprisingly they don’t even match up well with some of the reading skills tested at GCSE, such as distinguishing facts and opinion, following an argument or comparing effects in a text.  At least GCSEs move away from feature spotting, which is what the APP focuses lead to.

I think, in my school, we will look at demystifying reading. It is a process and a skill, and I think we should remove emotion and enjoyment out of it. I will still promote reading, but I will look at the process in lessons. How we use it? How we assess it? How we plan for it? Already, we have a writing mat in each classroom that helps with the idea of demystifying reading.  On the mat it has three sections: 
What am I reading for?
What reading skill should I use?
What if I am stuck?
Under the first title is this:

What am I reading for? 
  •  Finding information
  • Learning something new
  • Revising my knowledge
  • Developing my knowledge
  • Learning something different about it
  • Exploring how others see it

This is a guide to the purpose of reading a particular text. You’ll note that the focus is all about learning and knowledge. If the teacher makes this explicit, then the purpose of the reading in the lesson has a strong sense of meaning for the students. They know what they are doing and why they are doing something. If they see the value of a process, the student is more likely to treat it differently. The dreaded comprehension task is often dragged out in lessons, but if staff, hopefully, use these purposes when explaining a task or in brackets next to the question, then the students will be  guided more with the reading process. Give students more direction in the lesson by saying why they are reading something.
At the moment, this is all in the development stage. It is there in the classroom with the writing mats, but next year we will make this reading purpose explicit in our teaching. The end result, hopefully,  will be students that are more confident at approaching texts in lessons who develop their confidence at reading for a purpose and avoid skimming the text to find the answers – isn’t that what most of us did when at school. Students still do it now, but maybe this might help them. Making the reading have purpose is paramount to improving reading. Reading is complex and it doesn't just happen. We need to be careful as teachers to not over assume what a student can do or can't do and use reading effectively in lessons to direct and help them improve their skills.
As I said before, we should model, scaffold, demonstrate, revise and redraft reading. By looking at the purpose of reading, we are helping to model to students how to read. Read with the purpose in mind.

The next blog will focus on task setting for reading.

Thanks for reading,


 P.S. I pray to the god of paperbacks tonight and ask for forgiveness.


Saturday, 20 July 2013

The emotional reading elephant in the room

I recently attended a conference on reading, which was both helpful and frustrating at the same time. Since writing this blog, I have had a few comments about me being practical and I am quite happy to have this label. This conference had a few practical ideas too (which were really good) and a few woolly ideas as well. Surprising for me, I had a disagreement with one of the delegates. It wasn’t a rolled-sleeves-and-fists-ready bout of arguing, but a mental sparing, and I disagreed with one lady and she disagreed with me.

At the end of the conference, there was a question and answer session to the speakers. The speakers were made up of an author and several experts on reading. I raised the question that I have several times in this blog: Does the panel feel, as I do, that a lot of the reading that students do now is superficial reading? I did, however, expand further to talk about technology and how that has changed how we read texts. The panel were left a bit stunned. They agreed with me and then one person piped up in the audience and said: “We have to give them ownership. It is all about ownership.” Obviously, this person was in the wrong room, and, furthermore, they are clearly a person that excels in the woolly approach to reading. My question had nothing really to do with ownership and the person had misunderstood the question, or that they were definitely in the wrong room.

Then the conference was finished and the delegates started to leave. One woman came to me as I was packing away. “I just have to say I think you are wrong,” said the woman. In response, I expanded on my original point and then waited for her and she just repeated her point again, without any expanding or developing it. She clearly liked to win arguments and have the last word. She felt, in her opinion, that the reading done now is not superficial; and that the best way to win an argument is to repeat a point until the listener realises that the speaker has difficulty listening to things.  She waltzed off with a smile. Nice lady, but she didn’t listen, or really challenge me.  Then, the lead spokesman of the conference came up to me: “I agree with you; it is a problem.”

There is a big, fat, huge elephant in the room when we talk about reading. I think there are a lot of practical people out there and there are also a lot of book-hugging people who spout lots of benign statements, which feature abstract nouns with gay abandon.  For them reading is about making lots of profound statements. Reading is about ownership. Reading is like a blanket of comfort. Don’t get me wrong, I love books, but I am also aware of the functionality of them. I am in both camps, but I have often met people who enthuse about books so much that I often question what are they really getting people to do: read a book or join a cult. In reality, it is the emotional reasoning that we often see people resort to with reading. This book will make you cry. This book will make you laugh. This book will show you how hard it is to be a welsh troll living through poverty in Swansea with an addiction to sherbet dip-dabs, who discovers that his father is really an elf.  Dickens wrote in 'Oliver Twist' that books make the world wiser. Yes, they do develop our emotional literacy and they make us feel something, but they also serve other logical purposes. Maybe we have to stop the selling books on emotion and focus on the other benefits. After all, if I was a teenage boy and you kept spouting how a book made you cry and blub, I’d think you were an idiot. What average teenage boy is going to be inspired by book that makes you cry? We are focusing too often on the emotional aspects of reading and not the functional benefits, or the other benefits. They do make you clever.

Right, that elephant in the room: I forgot it like most people do. It is that we are not a hundred per cent confident about the reading process. Writing is relatively easy compared to reading, as you see the process happening before your eyes. You see the letters form words, and the words form sentences. Yet, with reading we don’t see much. We see the page move, but we don’t know what is happening inside. Everything we see and do about reading is about the by-product of the process. It is about what the child understands. It is about what the child knows. What we see of reading is the student verbally decoding words, but there is a lot of stuff that goes on in the head that we don’t know anything about. Like a pensieve, most of our assessments of reading are picking bits out of this soup of reading in the brain.

Reading with my daughter has shown me this problem with reading. Again, I was reading a ‘Biff and Chip’ book. My daughters were reading the words, blending the sounds together. At the end of the book we were reading, there were a series of questions. It was comprehension for 5 year olds. I asked the questions and they knew the answer. But, what surprised me the most, was that they spent a lot of time blending and I thought that they hadn’t fully understood the story. Yet, they had. The by-product of the process, reading it aloud, gave me a false perspective of what they understood. There wasn’t a clear relationship between the two. I thought that the time taking to blend some tricky words would stifle the flow of thoughts, but it was there under the surface going on. We don’t know what is going on in the mind. It is quite ironic that I am teaching ‘The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ which focuses on the inner workings of the mind. They didn’t know much about it then, and we still don’t know much about it now.

I think the assessments that we use are fundamentally flawed as there is so much potential for things to slip through the net, or for a child to miss the point. As an English teacher, I mark reading assessments, but I am marking the by-product of the reading process. I don’t know any more about their reading, than they do. I know the ‘reading’ skills they can and can’t do, but I don’t really know about that reading process in their brain. The problem is that we have reduced the reading process in English to a simple list. When you look at the list, it isn’t really a reflection on the reading process. It features things like find a quote. Or, comment on the structure of a text. Now, these are automatic things I do as an English teacher, but when I am reading, they are not things that are going on in my brain. As I read a thriller, I am not finding a quote about the character’s sadness and I am not thinking about the way the paragraphs are structured. Well, what am I thinking? I am thinking about who did it and will they get them in time.

We certainly need something to assess reading, but do we have the right things in place? Yes, we have some things in place and they haven’t harmed anybody in the past. In fact, clever students show their clever reading through answering comprehension questions on a text. However, do the things, we have in place, work to develop and improve reading and reading fluency? Or, do they just show us the by-products of the process?

My focus, in school, for the next year is developing ‘Deep Reading’ and this blog is one of series I will write over the next few weeks, exploring the nature of reading in secondary schools.
Thanks for reading,

P.S. I am happy to be challenged and even change my thoughts.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Literacy for newbies

This is like one of those cheap midseason American TV shows where they cobble clips from old shows to make a new episode on a tiny budget.  Thankfully, they don't do this often, now, but if you are like me, you have seen enough bad TV programmes to see this a few times in the last decade. Anyway, this is a compilation of all my 'Literacy across the curriculum' blogs. I have been writing for over a year now and I think I can allow myself a 'cheap' blog of rehashed bits of old blogs. I wanted to have an entry that would be good for all new coordinators (the hyphen depends on personal preference) of literacy. If that is you, congratulations - it is a great role and it can be incredibly rewarding. This week has been a very good week for me as we had a literacy day and the student were left buzzing from it.
The following are a set of key questions and a link to the relevant blog that deals with the question in more detail. I have also included a small extract as a taster.

What is you vision for literacy in your school? What are the main problems?

But, what I have done is design a Literacy strategy with my school and my students in mind. My strategy isn’t a blanket approach of 'one size fits all'. My strategy is one that I think is the best for us.  Time will tell if it works. Like a child, I have the teething, weaning and inoculating stages to go through.

How are you going to make sure people follow your vision?

Sadly, with Literacy you don’t see quick results. It isn’t something that is going to change results over night, but the culture of Literacy will be the one that improves results. The culture of improvement. The culture of writing. The culture of reading. The culture of wanting to be better. That is where Literacy comes in. Students want to improve. There are very few that I have come across that don’t want to. They often mask it with poor behaviour or a negative attitude. Everyone everywhere wants to be a little bit better – even me. Literacy is where students can make those improvements. If they improve their reading and writing overall, it will benefit every subject, and not just English.

What's the students' writing like?

With my ‘subjective’ glasses, I have always concentrated on the finer details or grammar, construction, accuracy and techniques.  But I think parents have it right. They are the outsiders on the writing process, like a possible employer.  However, an employer will not pick you up after a night out, and they will certainly not give you a hug if you have had a bad day.  What are the initial things that an outsider will judge a piece of writing? Spelling and hand writing. When an outsider has formed opinions about spelling and handwriting, they will then focus on the grammar. Therefore, first impressions do matter.

What's the students' reading like?

We need to work harder to avoid superficial reading in lessons. I could adopt David Didau’s idea of ‘Slow Writing’ at this stage and consider that we adopt ‘Slow Reading’; however, I think ‘Deep Reading’ is far more suitable.  Most of the students I read with ( and I have done this with a large number of Year 7s this term as well) read quickly and that is generally fine for most, because they get the overall gist and understand the key parts of the text and then that helps them when they read for questioning. However, some students don’t get the initial gist of a text because of these stumbling blocks.

This is how I approached the main problems with reading in the classroom.

What resources have you got?
I think I can safely say that we are in the Google era. Everything possible in existence is accessible through a search engine, it seems. How many times do we say or hear ‘just Google it’? Knowledge is now like entertainment. It is instantaneous. It has to be quick or people will switch off. The same applies with learning in lessons. It has to be quick, fast and done in seconds. Everything seems to be done by focusing on the clocks. The moving finger of Ofsted and leaders points to pace and making lessons have pace, but I will always argue that fast learning can be superficial learning.

This is how I explored the library and its role in the school's approach to literacy.

Have you got the parents involved?

This is how I got parents involved in the new focus on literacy.

This came out of the discussions with parents.

Have you prepared for Ofsted?

Luckily, I got another meeting. All that training in the mirror had helped. You do really have to fight. Not in an aggressive knives and guns way, but a words and arguments way. I had my meeting, which was very brief. This was mainly because it was towards the end of the inspection on the second day. They had, in my opinion, at that stage had most of their evidence. This is where I think inspections are making their opinions on Literacy. It is through triangulating things. They look at the teaching, the exercise books and the students, and from all these they then form an opinion. What the schools says is only one part of this triangle. This happens towards the end, so prepare your argument for the end of the inspection.



Saturday, 13 July 2013

Sweating with style

There are two things in life I don’t understand. One: why schools don’t have air-conditioning? Two: why is it that English males insist on taking their t-shirts/shirts off if there is a mere glow of sunshine? The first thing is obvious: it is about cost. Timothy must eat healthily. Timothy must exercise lots. Timothy must have personalised learning. Timothy must have lots of support. What – give Timothy a comfortable environment to work in? No. No. No.  Mothers and fathers work in cool, air-conditioned offices, while their children work in the equivalent of a foundry. I took one class to read outside this week, as the heat rocketed and melted the crayons in the boxes in my classroom. Thankfully, my school is great and I work with people who understand these things; yet, I have worked in places where you have to K.B.O., or leave. It is all about cost at the end of the day, but I have sweated and sweated so much this week that I think students have wondered that the sweat patches on my shirt are a design made by shirt maker.  And, I didn’t resort to the second thing and take off my shirt, which I cannot fathom why people do. You could have the largest beer gut in the world, but there seems to be something coded in the English DNA that as soon as the clouds part, men take their shirts off and parade as if sunny Nottinghamshire is the hot Caribbean.
As I was perspiring my way through a lesson, I had a flashback to an incident that happened several years ago. It was one of those things that happened and left me stunned:

I was in a classroom made up of one hundred breezeblocks and a postage stamp of a window. The class were all sat in rows, melting as the July heat exuded from the walls. We had been working through some poetry and I was sat on a desk, reciting some lines of worthy verse. As the students were visibly wilting before my eyes, I left the door open, so that if any particles of air were floating in the corridor they might try to pop into our room, and reduce the temperature. The students were passive, but I understood, given the circumstances. Then, one student raised their head up like a sunflower in a row of withered weeds. The student’s eyes widened. My head turned and then it hit me. Water exploded across my back. Stunned, shocked and cooled, I froze in panic. I saw that a stranger was in the doorway, but I also saw that he had another water bomb. Like the Sixty Million Dollar Man, everything went slow-motion at this point. I moved to apprehend the water throwing yob, but he had released the educational grenade. My body flew through the air. If I was lucky, I would stop the bomb in time, sacrificing my dignity so that the students could be protected.

I failed.

The bomb circled over and over in the air as it made its way into the heart of the room. It flew over my head and carried on its destructive path. Did it hit the lad who was always making fun of me in lessons? Did it hit the student who never did as I told him to? Did it hit the student who thought he was the toughest in the class? No. It hit the sweetest student in the world. The student that had never seen a water bomb in her life. Nor even bought one. It exploded over the student who had worked so hard for me over the year. Her lovely workbook was a soggy pile of mush and her face was almost as shocked as mine.

Then, one clever lad shouts out to me, the soaked teacher, and the drowned student: “I bet it’s pee.” He was trying to goad me. He knew that the teacher had been humiliated in style and he wanted to add salt to the wounds. To which, I smelt my sodden shirt, and said: “Well, it is nice smelling pee, if it is pee’.    
The assailant ran off and my head teacher promised that it would never happen again. But, on a hot, scorching week like this one, I wish I had a water bomb chucked at me, just for a few seconds of coolness.  Anyway, I want to talk about style this week. My response to a comment about a water bomb being filled with wee lacked the style of James Bond. I don’t have the witty comments to throw back at people. I usually think of something clever to say a week later.

This week I have done something about style with Year 10s. Style is always an interesting thing. It is that next stage in analysis after the spotting of things. It is the looking for patterns in writing. In the past, I have always adopted the draconian approach of telling students what makes a writer’s style interesting. I have tried to get them to see style, but it always seems as if style is like a big chasm. They can spot interesting things, but a very, very, very large rope is needed, if they are to get across the Grand Canyon of thought and talk about the style.

I have also done interesting things, like comparing extracts between books, and playing spot the difference. I have even talked about clothes and how clothing and writing links to style. We wear roughly the same kinds of clothes, yet the clothes we wear are different colours, textures, sizes and styles; this is like writing. A writer dresses their writing according to their preference.  But, it is very hard to equate this to writing. Or, for students to get this notion independently. In reality, we are talking about patterns and spotting them. However, my years of reading and teaching means that I am attuned to this way of thinking. Your average student in the class is barely getting the plot and the characters, yet the teacher is expecting them to now approach the story like a ‘magic-eye’ picture. Like a magic-eye picture, you need to see the whole thing to get it, and often in English, we don’t always have the time to see the whole picture. I can spot Dickens’ style of writing, because my view of the picture is large. The students that come to our classrooms only see one corner of a picture. They don’t see the whole picture, but we expect them to.

This week I tried something that partly addresses this question about style. I don’t think for a second I have solved it, but in a sweltering classroom, I felt some students grasped the subtly of a writer’s style. At the moment with my Year 10s, I am teaching ‘The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ by R. L. Stevenson and I am loving it. We are close to the end of the story now and I decided that I wanted to explore the style of the writing a bit more. We had already analysed a few extracts and made several pages of notes. Therefore, I wanted to talk about style, but what I didn’t want to do is tell the students what were the features of Stevenson’s writing style; I wanted them to find it out for themselves.  

I started by revealing this slide one line at a time. I told the students that one column described Steinbeck’s style of writing in ‘Of Mice and Men’ and the other column described Susan Hill’s writing style in ‘The Woman in Black’. They had to guess which is which. I made it harder for them by having quite a few similar.

After revealing the real answer to the enigma, the students then discussed if there were other things I could add to the lists.

BINGO! Finally, we played style bingo. I produced an A3 sheet of possible features of a writer’s style. It was double sided and included techniques, plot ideas, themes, imagery and other things. Hidden amongst them were some stylistic features of Stevenson’s writing. I then gave the class a blank bingo grid to fill in with some of the features. What was great was that to get a chance of winning they had to use the prior knowledge and some prediction at the same time.

Then, we read a chapter and as we were reading they ticked off the features as the spotted them in the writing, but instead of a tick they had to write the page number and a brief quote. For me, this worked as it meant that students were reading with a purpose, but they could also see that these elements of style are woven in the text and not just in the bits that I have printed out for them; the writer dresses their writing all the time and not when it suits them.  

One student on their grid wrote the following:

·         Exaggeration

·         Use of size

·         Dialogue

·         Use of setting

·         Contrasts

·         Lists

·         Personification

·         Slow pace

·         Violent descriptions

·         Use of the weather

I have talked about technique vomiting in the past (if you are not sure what I mean, then read this blog) and this, I feel, took this idea of spotting things to another level. To be honest, I still need to refine how I use this in the lesson, as I could have reinforced the writer’s style  more, and I will do this next week. However, it did step things up a bit. The students were deciding what the patterns were and they were looking for them, which I think is some clever stuff.  They will also be able to link the use of one writing choice with another made by the writer somewhere else in the text – that for me is much better, as it shows that the student has an understanding of the text as a whole thing, rather than isolated extracts and feature spotting.  


Talking of style, I am off to invent the armpitless long sleeved shirt. I think it will catch on. Yes, I know, what you are thinking – why doesn’t he wear a short sleeved shirt? Well, I am sorry but ties and short sleeved shirts do not mix; it’s just not my style. Tell you what: let’s make that three things I don’t understand about the world.  

1)      Schools that are not air-conditioned

2)      English men taking their shirts off

3)      Short sleeved shirts with a tie

Thanks for reading,


Saturday, 6 July 2013

Bringing Sexy Back – Sexy Sprouts 2

For those that missed my previous blog on sprouts, check it out here. This is a continuation of that blog, but it is also a reflection on my new approach to teaching persuasive writing, which I have named ‘Sexy Sprouts’.

Before I talk about the developments with my 'writing to persuade' project, I want to digress. I am a fairly young man, but I have accepted that I am getting older. Part of the ageing process, for me, has been not keeping up to date with the latest songs. I dip in and out, but I have accepted that I will never really be that cool teacher who listens to the cool songs and bands; hey, that’s life - you have to accept it. I do, however, know that some singers like Nicki Minaj have songs that would make the cast of a ‘Carry on’ film blush.  Recently, I heard a song used, accidentally, in school and I didn’t have the heart to explain the real meaning of some of the lyrics afterwards to the member of staff involved. I told said member of staff: "Never allow a Nicki Minaj song to be played in school."  Anyway, one of my daughters came home from school singing some rap song about shooting some caps… No, only joking! No, they both started singing this strange song. The only bit we could work out was the following line: “I’m slugsy and I know it.” We were both bemused. They couldn’t tell us where it was from or give us anymore of the lyrics; my daughters have clearly inherited my inability to recall any lyrics from a song, unless it is part of the chorus. In our naivety, we thought it was a simple thing about slugs, or we thought it might be strange twin thing. If the BrontÑ‘s can invent their own language, then maybe my daughters can. Maybe, I was seeing the start of a career in literature. It turns out that they were singing; “I’m sexy and I know it.” Thankfully, they don’t know the word ‘sexy’ and so they decide to use their own equivalent, slugsy.  There followed a fun game by my wife and I replacing every song with the word sexy in it with the word ‘slugsy’. I’m too slugsy for my body. Let’s talk about slugsy. Slugsy healing.

Where did this all begin? Sexy sprouts. Well, when I wrote the first blog, I was just sounding out my ideas. I thought if I articulated it in the blog, then it might make sense. And, it did to some people. This week, the students have been writing up their persuasive leaflets and, wow, what a difference it has made to their writing. There has, in my opinion, been a big difference between the writing they are doing now and the sorts of writing I have seen in the past. If I am being honest, I think I can describe old persuasive writing in Year 8 as being beige with a few techniques here and there. Some pieces of work stood out from the rest; others did not. What I notice now is that the writing is crafted, whereas before it was average writing with a few showy things added to it. To be honest, I think that is a lot of English teachers’ approach to things. We try to craft. We try to guide. However, we end up with an average piece of work with few gems in it. The A grade students tend to be the students that craft texts naturally. The other grades always try to emulate the A grades, but the missing ingredient is the thought behind the shaping and moulding of ideas. Gosh, I am guilty of this too. Come on, John, squeeze a semi-colon in and the Examiner might think you are a B or an A. It has always been about what you can add and not really about what you can do with the writing. Effective writing is effective because it affects the reader. A rhetorical question is meaningless unless its effect is considered.

For me, the teaching of English is now about teaching the effect and the writing in tandem together. If I am writing, I am thinking about the effect created. If I am reading, I am thinking about the cause of the effect. This is how I am focusing on things now. I am actively working on building and strengthening those connections. Currently, I am teaching ‘The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ and I have asked students to write a description of the famous transformation. We are exploring the use of horror and shock in their writing. I have explicitly asked them to shock the reader. We will later explore the devices they have used and relate to Stevenson. Hopefully, by doing this, students see the novella as a writer and realise why he didn’t make the choices he made. It may even open the discussion of horror and how horrific you can be with a Victorian audience. Reading and writing are complexly linked, but for years, I had tended to keep them at arm’s length. I focused on them separately and now I am looking at clever ways to combine them, so that one area informs the other.

So what did my Scheme of Work on persuasive writing look like? Simple, really - I followed this structure.

2:Sexy / Desirable


5: Interest
I am just going to give you a quick overview to give you an idea of how things went. But, I need to make clear that I binned a lot of my resources that I had always used previously. Below is a rough outline. I have also included some examples by students for you to get an idea of the writing produced in the lessons.

Step 1 – Disgust
Pure evil. The worst vegetable in the world. A soggy, watery parcel of smelly green goo. It is as if the worst of every meal is scooped into one place and boiled down into one small little ball. Eating them is like eating sick that has been left out overnight and has little bits of peas floating around in it.

Before I started the whole unit, I gave students a series of persuasive texts to categorise. Without telling them the groups, students tried to group the texts. Eventually, we arrived at the effect of the texts. The boys preferred to talk about techniques, while the girls spotted the emotion dimension to the texts. Then, I introduced the text above and asked students to identify how the writing made the reader feel disgust. Their response was brilliant. Lots of ‘the writer uses … to make us feel this’.

Step 2 – Sexy / Desirable
Brussel sprouts handpicked by Scottish farmers. All washed in fresh, crystal clear bottled water. All the way from the waterfalls in the Scottish Isles. Feel the sensation as you bite slowly into the crispy, crunchy leaves of this round succulent wonder of the earth. These sprouts will lighten up any occasion. Be sure to indulge yourself on these green parcels of delight and joy.

As the students had a strong grasp of writing to create disgust in the reader, I asked them to turn it into the opposite. Make disgusting seem sexy. The writing they produced was effective and it was effective, naturally, as the students had the awareness already. I have always spent time teaching students about using certain techniques, when they used them automatically here. Why did I bother all those years with teaching techniques, when a lot of this comes naturally to students?
We looked at their examples and spotted the ways they used language for effect. Furthermore, we look at the lovely M&S food adverts and explored how they used language for effect. And, for a bit of speaking and listening, they had a go at narrating their own chocolate adverts. Cue lots of Year 8s speaking slowly and trying to speak in a deep voice.

Step 3 – Sympathy
How would you feel if you were walked past in the supermarket every day, with no one even thinking about buying you? Well, this is how Barbara and her family feel. They grew up dreaming of the open air, but when they finally got there, they were ripped and torn from their homes and were shoved in a tight, uncomfortable plastic box and stacked on shelves where nobody looks. Forgotten and unloved, Barbara waits.

A lot of my approach with writing for effect has revolved around the students writing a paragraph first and then looking at the features. This, for effect, works particularly well, as I ended up with thirty examples quickly and I could spot and share with the class the really effective examples. It made it easier to see what was and what wasn’t effective. Students were able to compare and identify what they had to do better. If I focused on teaching techniques, then students would be comparing a technique, which doesn’t make for great evaluations. Comparing one technique with another one leads to simple comments like: "I need to make my metaphors better." That isn’t too helpful.

After we had identified some of the approaches a writer could use to create sympathy, we then looked at a whole text. In this case, we looked at a charity letter from the RSPCA and we explored the different ways sympathy was created in the text. Additionally, we looked at how the sympathy changed over the text. It allowed us to explore questions like: Why doesn’t the writer write in a sympathetic all the time?

Step 4 – Shock
At 6 months old, they are ripped from the safety of their family and thrown into boiling water. Their skin melts and their leaves burn away from their body. Slowly, they suffer in pain as they die in the skin-blistering water. It takes 2 minutes for a sprout to die in boiling water. If they are lucky, they are chopped or mashed beforehand. The majority are not so lucky and they face this agonising death. 

I am glad that I looked at this after sympathy as some students told me it was the same thing. Thankfully, one or two students were able to make a convincing case why they are not the same thing. To support this, we looked at some anti-smoking posters. All designed to shock. This created a great exploration into how you can make shocking writing. It was harder for them than they originally thought it would be. We had the blunt and emotionless efforts and then we had the explicit and violent efforts; all with the emphasis on sprouts.

In fact, a lovely moment happened after this lesson: a student returned from an assembly about poverty to tell me, with a lot enthusiasm,  when the speaker was using sympathy and when he was using shock in his talk. The penny had well and truly dropped for one lad.   

Step 5 – Interest
Now, these sprouts are limited edition. One of a kind. They come in several shades of green. Select the best one for your meal. A light green for a light, healthy meal and a dark shade of green for a decadent, rich meal. They are so versatile.  From cooking to eating, there’s so much you can do with these limited edition sprouts, which have been genetically engineered to be even tastier than the average sprout. But, stocks are limited, so if you want to experience something new, experience something different, experience something original, then pick up a bag now. Only £5 for a bag this special treat for a love one, a friend, or even to treat yourself. 

I know what you are thinking: he is really scraping the barrel now. But, I think it is a genuine effect that we should teach. Most of the effects here are quite concrete and you can provide lots of examples, but I feel that writing to interest a reader is still quite a tricky thing to do. This is where I switched on QVC - The channel of constant excitement and interest in the smallest of things. After 5 minutes of watching the channel, which you can stream live to your classroom, we had the general sales patter down to a fine art. We then tried selling the most random of things in the classroom. One student tried selling a single glove. Another tried selling a broken umbrella. I felt left out so one student and I tried to sell another student to our imaginary audience. Only his best friend wanted to buy him in the end.  

The End
Finally, I told the students to plan their own charity leaflet. This time I told them that they had to include a paragraph of each of the different effects. They could do it in any order, but they must have one paragraph that makes the reader feel the following:

2:Sexy / Desirable



5: Interest

During the writing and planning, I heard lots of interesting conversations. However, they were ‘writer-like’ conversations.

·         I am going to start with sympathy first.

·         I have mixed two effects together, because I think it is more effective.

·         I am going to start and end with shock.

·         I will use some facts to make it shocking.

·         What name would you give a kind snake?

·         I am going to use a before and after thing so I can be more effective with my shock writing.

·         I think I will make the people attacking the animals my disgust paragraph.

When I think of the writing before, the students were always concerned with remembering to use a technique. In my experiments, I have found this emphasis on effect really meaningful, as it is the glue that ties things up in writing. Yes, they are persuading, but now there is a greater sense of cohesion between what they are saying and how are they saying things. All the comments made were comments that show students shaping and moulding a text to be effective and detailed.  I hear the bells of A grade students ringing. This is what I should be doing more often in lessons.

Where next? I think I might try this approach with story writing and see if students can write to different effects. See, creative writing suffers with the same thing: the blanket approach to effect. Stories are either scary or dramatic. How can I change the moods in a text? Next step: helping students to change the mood in their creative writing.

I would like to thank that Year 8 class. They have been brilliant. They ran with this idea and they helped fuelled my passion for this idea and they helped me see it through.

Thanks for reading,

P.S. The title of this blog should now be called 'Bringing Slugsy Back'.