Sunday, 25 February 2018

I couldn’t think of anything worse than a poem written by an English teacher

I am extremely grateful to one specific English teacher. If my memory is right, it was one lesson in Year 10. The lesson involved looking at the ‘Plain English Campaign’. Now, you could imagine that something like this is particularly dry, but for it wasn’t. For others, it might have been painful and torture. For me, it has stuck with me forever. And, it is a website ( I go back to regularly.

The ‘Plain English Campaign’ is something that has influenced my writing and my teaching. The purpose of the campaign is to make the meaning clear and focus on clarity in reading and writing materials. This might be at odds with what we do in English. We read dense texts and we ask students to write complex texts. And, be sure, I am not suggesting a simplification of some of the texts. Can you imagine it?

Original version

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way--in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.  

Plain English Version

It was an interesting time.

I love the richness of Dickens, but I also love the sparseness of Patricia Highsmith. We do, however, have an issue with one version being the preferred style of writing in schools. Highsmith it isn’t. Writing, worryingly, has become about adding rather than removing aspects. Concise and clear writing is inflated by purple prose.

This week, I was writing with a group of Year 7s and we were trying to recreate the style of Roald Dahl’s ‘Tales from the Unexpected’. They had structured a story based on ‘The Landlady’, ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’, ‘Hitchhiker’ and ‘Man from the South’. I asked them to write two sentences. One to introduce the setting. One to introduce a character.  And they struggled to imitate his style.  They are a top set group, yet they couldn’t hold their writing back. Their sentences were crammed to the brim with adjectives, exaggeration and bombastic language.

Look at the way Dahl introduces the setting in ‘The Man from the South’.

It was a fine garden with lawns and beds of azaleas and tall coconut palms, and the wind was blowing strongly through the tops of the palm trees making the leaves hiss and crackle as though they were on fire.

 I could see the clusters of big brown nuts handing down underneath the leaves.

There will be a teacher out there thinking of targets to improve it. Couldn’t you think of another adverb instead of ‘strongly’? You could put a bit of personification in that second sentence. Personally, I think it is fine and dandy. I’d be glad if a student wrote like that. I am fed up of reading cluttered sentences with three similes and four examples of personification in one paragraph. It is sparse, but interesting. That first sentence is brilliantly constructed moving deftly from physical landscape to atmosphere to sound and to a hint of danger. The meaning is clear. There is clarity.

Look at the way Dahl describes a character.

Just then I noticed a small, oldish man walking briskly around the edge of the pool.

He was immaculately dressed in a white suit and he walked very quickly with little bouncing strides, pushing himself high up onto his toes with each step.

He had on a large creamy Panama hat, and he came bouncing along the side of the pool, looking at the people and the chairs.

Quickly, with a few steps, we have a sketched out character. Yes, there is very little backstory, but it isn’t necessary. Dickens was writing to make money. The more he wrote, the more money he could make. Modern storytelling does have the same constraints. Quantity does not always link to money.

One or two adjectives are so much more interesting than ten and a simile. Looking at the words ‘oldish’ , ‘small’ and ‘briskly’ have so much to them. Also, look at the combination of ‘immaculately’ and ‘white’ in the second line.  That tells us so much about this one character. They must spend a lot of time on their appearance. I wore white jeans in the 1990s and it was a fulltime job keeping them white.

If we look at the new English Language GCSEs and Paper 1, you see this sparse type of prose. Prose where the emphasis is shorthand character sketching. One or two adjectives and verbs sketch out for us the characters thoughts, feelings and backstory. In a way, I’d be even bold enough to suggest that the extract for Paper 1 is the model for what students should be writing in the writing section.  Detailed. Complex. Simple and sparse writing.

We do have an issue in English relating to style. Whose style is the prominent one we should be promoting?

Why do I fear poetry written by English teachers? Well, simple because the overblown writing we often promote in lessons.

 Thanks for reading,


Sunday, 4 February 2018

Which came first: the technique or the idea?

Developing interpretations of a text can be quite challenging at times. My years of teaching and studying make interpreting a texts an automatic process for me, yet for students it isn’t an obvious thing. For this year, I am making a conscious effort to develop the discussion of ideas (AO1) in the literature texts.

Our students are really good at the A02 (language choices) but without the A01 discussion their answers are weak. Of course, we want a seamless blend of idea, choices and context, and the good students marry all these three elements up together in a little package of an essay. The problem comes with the way that students analyse a text.

They search for something concrete.

Something quick.

Something visible.

That’s why students spot things like alliteration and similes. They are easy to identify. I have endless students who can spot alliteration from thirty paces away from the text, yet they can’t explain them or their impact. The student then tries for four sentences to explain its use. During that time, they might chuck in ‘suggest’ or ‘shows’ to try to extend the idea. Sadly, they often default to simplistic emotions or link the alliteration to a plot element. It is hard. That’s why a lot of students spend most of their time waffling on and the rest of the time spotting language features. The relationship between ideas and the writer’s choices is a difficult one. And, one that we, as teachers, don’t help with that much.  

Our emphasis focuses too much on the choices and not enough on the ideas. Take a text book and you’ll see what I mean. The majority of questions focus on technique or choice spotting. Why did the writer use X? What is the impact of the simile in the last line? Find three examples of repetition.

When we ask, ‘What is interesting about this poem?’, we are asking them to spot choices. I’d argue that students are really good at spotting things. In fact, if there is one thing a student is exceptionally good at in English is spotting things. The thing might not be a high level choice, but any student can spot something. Only a few students will be able to spot the change between passive and active tense.

We are repeating the process again and again in English. We are reinforcing a cognitive process. One that I think isn’t helpful and could be damaging. Why? Well, it gives students a false understanding of a text. They think by spotting X, D and Y, they have understood the text and the writer’s intent. It gives students a false understanding of the subject too. Naturally, we like to simplify things, but when the most common process in English is spotting choices and a student can spot things, they see they have achieved mastery in the subject.  That’s why we need to create ‘idea heavy’ curriculums. I applaud schools where they have used complex texts with students, but the emphasis has been on reliving a teacher’s degree and digging out the books they have had on their bookcase since their first taste of Aftershock. We need idea heavy texts. Yes, they should have some linguistic complexity, but they should introduce ideas and complex ideas.  

With my current Year 10, I have placed a greater level of emphasis. We look at the ideas first, then, quite a while later, we look at the techniques and choices the writer uses. That’s why ‘present’ has been the most important word of any of the literature questions. It doesn’t mean techniques. It means ideas to me. What ideas is the writer showing us?  

 How does Dickens present death in the extract?

The room was very dark, too dark to be observed with any accuracy, though Scrooge glanced round it in obedience to a secret impulse, anxious to know what kind of room it was. A pale light, rising in the outer air, fell straight upon the bed; and on it, plundered and bereft, unwatched, unwept, uncared for, was the body of this man.

Scrooge glanced towards the Phantom. Its steady hand was pointed to the head. The cover was so carelessly adjusted that the slightest raising of it, the motion of a finger upon Scrooge's part, would have disclosed the face. He thought of it, felt how easy it would be to do, and longed to do it; but had no more power to withdraw the veil than to dismiss the spectre at his side.

Oh cold, cold, rigid, dreadful Death, set up thine altar here, and dress it with such terrors as thou hast at thy command: for this is thy dominion. But of the loved, revered, and honoured head, thou canst not turn one hair to thy dread purposes, or make one feature odious. It is not that the hand is heavy and will fall down when released; it is not that the heart and pulse are still; but that the hand was open, generous, and true; the heart brave, warm, and tender; and the pulse a man's. Strike, Shadow, strike. And see his good deeds springing from the wound, to sow the world with life immortal.

No voice pronounced these words in Scrooge's ears, and yet he heard them when he looked upon the bed. He thought, if this man could be raised up now, what would be his foremost thoughts. Avarice, hard-dealing, griping cares. They have brought him to a rich end, truly.

He lay, in the dark empty house, with not a man, a woman, or a child, to say that he was kind to me in this or that, and for the memory of one kind word I will be kind to him. A cat was tearing at the door, and there was a sound of gnawing rats beneath the hearth-stone. What they wanted in the room of death, and why they were so restless and disturbed, Scrooge did not dare to think.

`Spirit.' he said,' this is a fearful place. In leaving it, I shall not leave its lesson, trust me. Let us go.'

Still the Ghost pointed with an unmoved finger to the head.

`I understand you,' Scrooge returned,' and I would do it, if I could. But I have not the power, Spirit. I have not the power.'

Again it seemed to look upon him.

`If there is any person in the town, who feels emotion caused by this man's death,' said Scrooge quite agonised, `show that person to me, Spirit, I beseech you.'

The Phantom spread its dark robe before him for a moment, like a wing; and withdrawing it, revealed a room by daylight, where a mother and her children were.

The wording of the exam doesn’t help. It would be so much better if the questions were written like this:

Based on the extract, what is the writer teaching us about death?

How does he teach us this?

The first question is important and often neglected. That’s why I have placed more focus on the ‘present’ part of the question this year. Here’s what some of my students said in response to the question.

Dickens presents death as

       Easily ignored

       Mystery nobody knows about

       Benefits the worst people whilst hurting the nicest

       Part of life

       Unstoppable force

       Hurtful but everyday thing


       When you are truly alone


       Miserable and lonely

       Lonely because of your actions

       Ends the happiness of Christmas

We then spent ages writing sentences featuring ‘Dickens presents death as…’

Dickens presents death as a hurtful but everyday thing.

Dickens presents death as an obsessive, dark feeling that you instantly feel drawn to.

Dickens presents death as lonely experience that is the consequence of your actions.

Dickens presents death as an emotionless and hated force that cannot be reasoned with.

Dickens presents death as harsh and inevitable.

Dickens presents death as binding.

Dickens presents death as a dark, cold and mysterious thing that no-one really knows about.

Dickens presents death as a time when you are truly alone, even if you have a family.

Dickens presents death as secretive and mysterious.

I have got into the habit of typing up ideas now rather than good paragraphs. Apart from modelling a good example, a paragraph has limited use in terms of developing an idea. Give students a list of ideas gives them possible options for another question or seeds for new ideas. We spent time looking at the ideas presented and thinking if we agreed with the comment or not. If so, where is the evidence in the book?

We also spent time looking at the writing of the sentences. Looking at how adjectives and abstract nouns add to the interpretation of the text. Furthermore, we looked at listing and how a simple conjunction could add to or develop the idea. It X but Y. We see Z yet Y is really happening.

We then after a few lessons built those sentences up. Here's one example: 

Dickens presents death as fragile and invisible. The writer’s use of repetition of the adjective ‘little’ and the name Tiny Tim highlight how weak and fragile people are, and how when they die they break the family and break people. The loud, noisy family become ‘silent’. Dickens uses sound as a metaphor of life and happiness. The louder you are the more alive you are. Cratchit is also metaphorically broken and possibly cannot be mended after Tiny Tim’s death. Victorians would have developed a realistic view of life after the death of a loved one, so possibly Dickens uses the Cratchits to show us a key part of growing up in Victorian London, understanding that death is around every corner. The fact that Dickens doesn’t show any specific deaths is important. It isn’t about the physical death that is important, but the emotional and mental breakdown.

Which came first: the technique or the idea? The idea. So that’s what we should be focusing on. If we want students to have ideas, we have to cram their lessons with ideas. We need to get them writing their own ideas and get them to share and discuss ideas. I’d rather have an idea rich lesson than a technique rich lesson.

Thanks for reading,


Twinkl Resources

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

This month’s finds are:  

10 AQA Unseen Poetry Practice Exam Questions

I love a poem and I especially love finding some old ones I have yet to discover. This selection contains some interesting themed combinations. A great resource for revision. Personally, I am going to use them as a series of homework for students as we get closer to the final exams.

‘Down the Rabbit Hole’ Proofreading Sheets

There are quite a few of these on the website. Accuracy will always been a focus for lessons and this is a nice little starter activity. Spot the errors and discuss as a class.

Colon, Semicolon or Dash?

I liked this little activity because it deals with punctuation in a different way. It gives students a sentence which could feature a colon, a semicolon or a dash in it. Students have to decide which piece of punctuation to use, and then they have to explain their choice. I thought the structure of this resource was particularly good as it linked choice and reason together.  


All resources can be found here: