Be my village

Teacher friends, I need a reality check.   They say it takes a village to raise a child.  My problem is I don’t have a village and two hours a week won’t raise a child.  So, I’m asking for your help.


I have a small group of students (yr 10) who are sitting the core IGCSE (0522) this summer.  We have nearly completed the c/w assignments and will be doing the S&L tasks between now and Christmas.  It is the exam prep I want to talk about.

This group of kids is very weak.  Many didn’t get Level 4 at the end of year 9.  Many are SEN and most cannot read a sentence of text without some support.  My bold, and perhaps deeply misguided comment to my HoD at the end of term was, “after the S&L I am going to teach them to read and then do the exam prep”.

I have these students for two hours a week (they also have two hours a week with another English teacher, covering the Edexcel Lit course).  One hour is in an ICT suite.  They have 2 hours with an HLTA called support, which is used to do homework and develop on ideas covered in my lessons.  We have just bought Accelerated Reader, so this a possibility.  We also have an HLTA, who is a phonics specialist, and could work with our weakest reader, who’s reading age is below 5.

All of these interventions are ongoing, patchy and as far as I am concerned have shown no progress.  Most of the students in this group, don’t get any literacy support beyond the occasional TA in lesson.

Towards the end of last term, I received an email from their Maths teacher pointing out that some of the students were unable to read the worded maths questions, and therefore were likely to fail.

So, 2 hours a week.  11 kids.  iGCSE reading exam in May 2014.  For anyone of you, who haven’t seen these exams, you can be lucky but the reading tends be pretty technical, always on something my students will have no knowledge and complex vocabulary heavy.

Where do I go from here?

My old self would say, just do as many past exam papers as humanly possible.  Teach the students a really structured approach to each question.  Hold out that the writing task will get them the marks that they need.

My new self wants more.  I want these students to be able to read.  I want them to leave school being able to read a newspaper, a manual, a book!

Here is where I need your help…

Do I go for it?

If yes, how?  I don’t have much experience at teaching kids to read (beyond my kids).  Do I use Accelerated Reader? Or something else?
Do I demand that they read every day somehow, somewhere?  I can’t possibly do this myself, can I?

Do I go for some of it?

Like perhaps using real texts to improve their reading but also to cover some of the exam stuff.

Do I go for results?

Take the exam prep approach and hope that by doing this, their reading improves.  Knowing that my results are going to sketchy anyway but this is the best option to get them closer to the C in the exam.

What do I do?

Over to you, my village.


Iceberg thinking

I first heard about iceberg thinking by the power of twitter.  From the comfort of my room in SE London, I was semi-following #TMNorthWest hosted by @CaldiesT&L (do follow them if you don’t already). The staff at Caldies shared their essay skills work on deep or iceberg thinking and it struck a chord with me.  The idea was to explicitly teach the process of deeper thinking, beginning with the obvious and then moving to the less obvious and more complex or sophisticated ideas.

iceberg thinking

Caldies essay structure is on TES resources here

When I see an idea that I like, I become a bit obsessed.  Things tend to click with me and I can see myself using an idea in almost every lesson.  And this is exactly what happened, Caldies had articulated a process that I have been trying to put into words during the first couple of weeks of term.   My KS4 classes became iceberged out.  But their essay writing improved.  Finally they were coming up with ideas of their own, which were logical and showed that illusive ‘perceptivity’.

Over the last 10 days I have uploading my KS5 stretch and challenge cards (see here stretch and challenge and risk) that I am using with my year 12s as we study Henry James and now On Chesil Beach and Streetcar.   The iceberg essay structure doesn’t quite work, as it stands, for my year 12s.  So some tinkering is needed.  In the meantime, I wanted to use the idea of iceberg thinking to stretch their deeper analysis skills.  Below is my take at Caldies style iceberg thinking, broken down into deep analysis tasks.

iceberg q

Download the word document version here: Iceberg thinking.

There are only 16 tasks, partly because I have so many stretch and challenge tasks already and partly because I got to the point where my brain fried.  So, if you do use them, please let me know.  If you adapt or add more, please do let me know, so I can borrow your ideas too.

Skills transition 2 (KS4 to KS5)

In my post earlier this week I shared a number of stretch and challenge activities for helping students navigate the transition from KS4 to KS5.  These are a work in progress, but I mentioned a new set I am working on currently, also a work in progress, but here they are as they stand.

Teaching risk taking

Something that sets A grade year 12/13 students apart from others, is their ability and willingness to be bold (or risky) in their interpretation of the text.  I have really struggled to teach this skill.  Students are willing to taken certain risks, but not often true risks.

In Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, the narrator describes the children she is employed to educate as “princes of the blood”.  Our conversation on this quote, went something like this:

Mrs E: She describes them as “princes of the blood” what could she be suggesting?

Student A: Royalty, doesn’t “the blood” suggest the royal family.

princes of the blood

Mrs E: Excellent what else, what about the word “princes”?

Student B: Princes is a masculine word, she is describing Flora and Miles using a masculine word.  Does this mean anything?

Mrs E: Errr… you tell me.

The gender term debate went on for some time.  Finally.

Mrs E: Does the phrase “princes of the blood” suggest anything else?  Forget the text, think literature as a whole.


Nervous student C: “blood” suggests violence, so if they are princes of the blood, then they are princes of violence.

Mrs E: Yay, what else?

Even more nervous student D: vampires…are princes of the blood, it’s a gothic novel, so it could be a vampire reference.

Mrs E: Wow, that’s fabulous.  Now we are beginning to be bold and take risks.  What else?

Student A: If they are princes, who is the king or queen? It suggests they are not in charge.

Student D: Who are they heir to?

Mrs E: Keep going.

Student C: If they are the heirs of Quint and Jessel, they were born out violence and also passion.

Mrs E: And…

Student D: Maybe they aren’t vampires, but they are monsters, they are like vampires as they suck the life blood from the governess.

This was probably the most risky conversation we have ever had whilst studying Henry James.  And I didn’t have to lead them to water.  I didn’t spoon feed the possibility or even hint at the interpretations.

This got me thinking, how can I teach independent risk taking skills.  I am slightly obsessed with my stretch and challenge activity cards at the moment and so here are a few “risk” activity cards, in an attempt to develop risky independence.  Download them here: Risk activity cards. I will add more as I go along.

Risk cards

A post on iceberg thinking cards to follow.

13 minutes of fame (or vocabulary acquisition)

I have been thinking about words and vocabulary acquisition over the last half term.  For those of you who have read my blog before, you might remember my Words on Wednesday initiative.  Whilst I still love this activity, I have found recently it has been somewhat lacking.  It seems students need a more repetitive exposure to language, rather than my spatter-gun approach of introducing new words every week.  Where I want them to embed vocabulary forever, I need to commit to more than just one attempt at introducing it.

There is a great deal of research out there on the required ‘number of encounters’ with a word before it is truly acquired.  Saragi, Nation & Meister, 1978 (Vocabulary learning and reading, System 6) found that words presented to learners fewer than six times were learned by half their subjects, while words presented six or more times were learned by 93%, suggesting a threshold of six encounters; whereas Herman, Anderson, Pearson, & Nagy, 1987 (Learning word meanings from context during normal reading in American Educational Research Journal  24) estimates this number as 20 times.

The contexts of these research studies were wide and too varied for me to draw specific conclusions that would apply in my South Croydon bubble.  But I am confident at least in this – with language that I need embedded in my students’ minds, one encounter or even two is not enough.

So, after half term, as my year 12s and I begin the annual pilgrimage that is the On Chesil Beach / Streetcar comparative essay, I would like for them to acquire fully the following language – and this is just the week 1 list.


Hour1 – Introduce the vocabulary (word encounter #1)

The visual word wall:

Students match up the terms, definitions and images for our word wall.

visual word wall

Hour 1 – Vocabulary frames (word encounter #2)

Students then select the 4 words they are least familiar with and make vocabulary frames for them.  See here for more info on how to use vocabulary frames –


Hour 1 – Thesis statements (word encounter #3)

At the end of our first hour, and discussion on the opening of On Chesil Beach, students work together to write a series to thesis statements using our ‘not-yet-acuquired-but-getting-there’ vocabulary.  Some of last year’s statements are available as examples:

  • The role McEwan forces the reader into is both voyeuristic and unsavoury.
  • The intimate surroundings of the inn are at once satirical and quintessentially British.
  • The subjectivity of Edward’s and Florence’s narrative ramblings are neither revelatory nor pleasurable.
  • Consciousness and the subjective revelation of personal consciousness versus relational consciousness anchor McEwan’s text.

You can see, that after 3 encounters, my students are getting there.  Their outcomes are somewhat clunky, but in all honesty, they hate the first few lessons on the text as they haven’t yet found the humour in the text and it is still too awkward for them.

Hour 2 – Vocabulary spat (word encounter #4)

Our first 3 encounters with the vocabulary are quite full on, so the next couple are more relaxed.  First up is splat.  Hour 2 tends to be on a different day, so we play a quick game of splat so remember the words and definitions.  As I also tend to be in a different room, this means students can’t rely on the word wall to help them.


The words are on the whiteboard, two students have their weapon of choice – normally a ruler or some rolled up newspaper.  When I read the definition, they have to splat the correct word. Splat!

Hour 2 – lino (word encounter #5)

I don’t use masses of technology in my lessons, mostly because it’s not available.  Sometimes a post-it is as high tech as I can get.  It was a great joy to discover that I can now have online fun with post-its.  Lino allows you to create free online post-it note boards, it’s great for short quick homeworks.  And as I have to get through the book and not just focus on vocabulary, lino is one of my quick fire homeworks for Hour 2 vocab acquisition.


lino 2

Hour 3 – Question ball (word encounter #6 – threshold 1)

As we are comparing On Chesil Beach with A Streetcar Named Desire, hour 3 is usually spent reading Streetcar.  This allows us the opportunity to apply our almost acquired language to a different text and a new set of ideas.

I have a question ball – similar to the one below, with question words written in sharpie on it.  Students chuck the ball around the room and as they catch it, they frame a question using both the relevant question word and a word from our new list.

Question ball

Examples from last year were:

  • Is Williams’ representation of marriage in 1950s America quintessential?
  • Which text presents the most unsavoury and voyeuristic journey for the reader?
  • How does Williams’ portray his revelations about human consciousness?

You get the idea.

We have reached the lower threshold of 6 encounters and it feels like I have done nothing but vocabulary work.  The texts we are studying have become an aside.

By reducing the number of words I introduce, I have the potential for seeing them overused.  I made this mistake with the word ‘misogyny’ last year.  I nearly didn’t survive.

So we take a break from our vocabulary until the very end of the lesson, when I force myself beyond the threshold of 6 and we have our final encounter, before I start all over again next week.

Hour 3 – Snow storm (word encounter #7)

snow storm

Students are asked to write a comparative thesis statement using one or more of our new words, however they have to leave the word out.  Do you get what I mean?  For example, the thesis statement “For both McEwan and Williams the revelation of human consciousness is unsavoury and extreme.”  would look like this – For both McEwan and Williams the ____________of human _________________ is ______________and extreme.

These are written on bits of paper, scrunched up and in true year 7, I mean year 12, style chucked around the room.

We then pick one up and complete the missing words.  Discussion and disagreement follow.

What have I learnt from this?

Firstly, that language acquisition, especially scholastic or academic language, is time consuming but necessary.  One or two words big words thrown into an essay, does not an A grade make.  Yet, my students are clever and articulate.  They cannot be blamed for the lack.

What I need to think about now is how I tackle this ‘time consuming but necessary’ skill in a busy week.  I need the balance between pushing for the scholastic language my students’ ideas are worthy of, without losing those ideas in the midst of teaching vocabulary.

I refuse to give up, even though it’s a tough nut to crack.

I am always on the hunt for new word acquisition activities that suit KS5, if you know of any, please let me know.

Knowing me, knowing you, aha, it’s the best I can do #TLT13

Among other new ventures this year, I have started an MA in Education.  It is definitely the “done thing” at my school.  So much so, that the lecturer comes to us on a Monday evening and I don’t even have to exit the school gates to experience academia.

As part of the introductory work, we have to write a pen portrait of ourselves including a biography and information on our professional context.  I have written 100s of pen portraits over the years.  The city loves them.  Schools love them.  On the whole I find them rather dry.


In the midst of writing my pen portrait today, I have been thinking on David Doherty’s closing comments at #TLT13 yesterday.   In 30 years time, will my students look back at my English lessons and know the seas roared for them?  I was lucky, the seas did roar for me at school.  In one classroom, with one teacher.  Now it’s my turn.

roar more

Here is how the seas roared for me:

My earliest memories of education are not school-based.  In fact, I have very few recollections of my education beyond the moments of chaos and trouble and the resulting discipline and tears.  My mother was the true educator of my formative years, a single middle-class mum in the 1970s, she was an oddity.  Her strong political opinions saw me understanding more about the miners’ strike, the poll tax and nuclear disarmament than Barbie or Cindy.  In contrast, my private education, with straw bonnet and crisp white socks, resulted in the summation “Louisa will not succeed in academic endeavour” at the end of Year 5.  I am probably the only student in history, who was forced to “drop” Latin at the age of 7.   Added to this, a physical debilitating kind of blindness meant that I was unable to read for most of my primary education. eye test

My earliest memories of reading are not of stories, or books or even of being read to.  My personal reading history begins in the out-patients unit of Reading Hospital (the irony has not escaped me).  I was 4 years old and attending numerous appointments with The Eye Surgeon. Reading line upon line of letters – H, M, B, Z, F, G, L, P.  I hated it, the repetition, the bright lights flashing into my eyes, having to guess, and the pervading sense that something was wrong.  Sometime later I underwent the first of several operations that would result in my right eye being patched from the age of 5 to 7 years.  The Eye Patch is another enduring memory of my first attempts at reading.  My more functional eye was covered in an attempt to force my lesser functioning eye to work, the world to me during those years was fuzzy and uneven. It was wonky and it didn’t seem to work properly.  Nothing seemed to make sense, least of all letters, words, sentence or books.

tipping point

I suspect the end of primary was the tipping point.

My elder (and more clever) brother was off at a deliciously selective private-ish secondary school and my mother was left with the choice of the local C of E comprehensive or a failing technical college for my secondary school.  She placed her trust in the pastoral heavy comprehensive and is it there I meet Victoria Wood (not the comedienne).  Victoria Wood was my English teacher from year 7 through to Lower Sixth.  I wept the day she announced she was moving to New Zealand, it is one of very few days from my school life that I can remember with clarity.

This teacher taught me to read, to love stories and to immerse myself in the narrative world.  I have no idea what the popular pedagogy in the early 80s was, but it felt as if she would present a text or an idea and allow us to go wherever we could with it.  And we did.  Her mode of assessment seemed to be a glance over the rim of her glasses and a raised eyebrow.  A nod of the head, when earned, signaled something extraordinary had just taken place.

Mrs Wood was why, after falling ill for much of my upper sixth year, I choose to study Literature at a “lesser” university rather than retake, hoping for higher grades.  Her comments, via letter, from New Zealand were:

“an idea is an idea, whether it stems from an ivory tower or from the gutter, if it brings light in the darkness, it is always a gem”.


University was, perhaps unsurprisingly, less about academics and more about experience.   Through blind luck, I was given the opportunity to work for a world-famous film director, an opera company, be a nanny, a book editor.  I had academic articles and creative writing published.  I met my husband and decided it would have to take something pretty special to make me ever leave London.

The jump from university to an office job at one of the big 4 accounting firms was another stroke of blind luck, I was made redundant at the age of 22, when the technology bubble burst, and fell literally into a job where my boss seemed to value my talent for smoothing creases and juggling tricky customers, above my lack of technical accounting skills.  I become indispensable or so they say. I used this to my advantage (who wouldn’t) and cheekily took off for foreign parts (China) and trained to be a TEFl teacher.

In amongst the busy-ness of city life, came three daughters, and a need to regain some perspective.  As if by magic that came in technicolor in October 2008 when Lehman Brothers went under and triggered the “banking crisis”.  Although many of us ordinary types find it hard to pinpoint how the banking crisis did impact us, after all prices keep rising, pay rises keep falling, the impact I felt was monumental.  My small and beloved team in city were some of those blamed in the papers and in Parliament for being the root cause.  Remember those articles about pay consultants who push bonuses higher and forced bankers to be more risky?  Well, that was us.  The spotlight turned in our direction and we froze.  I think I stayed frozen.  Finally, it was over several glasses of wine, with my boss, after giving evidence to the treasury select committee when she asked me “What are you doing with your life, Louisa? You can do something better than this.”

My half-hearted reply was, “I always wanted to be an English teacher.”

Another tipping point reached.

So, as I write my pen portrait, I can’t help but think about my students and imagine them in 30 years – would their pen portrait say that school made them feel alive, feel like anything was possible.  Did they know that the stars were within their reach?

Yesterday, I attended Teaching and Learning Takeover 2013 in Southampton, David Doherty talked about making the seas roar in our classrooms.  That’s what Mrs Wood did for me, the tide changed.  I changed.  Now it’s my turn.

roar 2

roar 1

Skills transition (KS4 to KS5)

I really enjoyed the #Engchatuk discussion this week on KS4 to KS5 transition.  It feels like I spend more and more of my time thinking about KS5 and how I can improve my teaching, as well as developing strategies that we use in KS5 and can push back to the lower school.

Students have found my exam text particularly challenging.  I am in the third year of teaching it and it doesn’t seem to get any easier.  As I don’t have too much choice, I plod on.  Each year trying new ways to help students engage, to work independently and write eloquently.  If I’m honest, each year my results are a little disappointing (not horrific, but not amazing).

This, is the year.  I can feel it in my bones.  I think we have cracked the nut.  I can see the wood and the trees.  The pen is mighty than the sword etc, et al.  Something is different.  I don’t know what.  Perhaps our projects lower down the school are having an impact and therefore students arriving in year 12 are more independent, more knowledgeable and better equipped.  Perhaps this cohort are inexplicably drawn to Henry James and his craftiness.  Perhaps, just perhaps, I am seeing the payoff of three years of tinkering with skills transitions activities.

In case it is the tinkering that has helped, here is my journey to date:

Year 1 – obsession with Blooms

I was an NQT, terrified of having to teach KS5, let alone James’ The Turn of the Screw.  My solution was to ensure that students were able to access the text through the medium of Blooms Taxonomy.  Now the wisdom and sensibleness of this maybe questioned but for me it provided a reliable structure to ensure that we didn’t just talk about the story and the characters and for the students, it allowed them to develop a logical way to make sense of their thinking.

During this year, I created a set of Blooms activity cards and depending of my evaluation (or their own evaluation) of their strengths and needs, a student would pick a card from say the “comprehension” pile and carry out this task independently.  Below is an example of from the “knowledge” activities collection.


These cards and activities worked pretty well for a while, but it became apparent that I needed more and I needed to be more creative about the tasks I asked students to do.

Out came the “creative” activities cards.


Year 2 – Knee jerk obsession with assessment objectives

My tactic to cope with my results was to re-focus on the assessment objectives, and who can blame me?  The mantra became – “what is your AO4 Band 6 version of that?”  Sad, but true.  So, trigger new additions to my activity cards. The AOs.  Below is AO2.


Don’t forget students still have my lovely set of Blooms cards, so now the somewhat overwhelming option of 10 different colours to choose from.

But as the year drew on, I realised I was doing my students somewhat of a disservice.  So we ditched the cards and got whacky with string, and post its and youtube videos.  Most of my T&L activities are tried and tested on my amazing year 12s.

I wasn’t going to be kept prisoner by a bunch of AOs and some laminated cards.

Year 3 – Worth Taking a Risk

So, where now?  Less formulaic?  More?  Where is the balance?

Since making my AO cards, I have developed another obsession.  This time it’s with trees.


Each time we read Henry James, I have to ask myself this question – are we looking at a close up or the big picture?  The inherent ambiguities of the text mean almost any contrasting comparative works (fantasy or reality, truth or lies, beauty or beast).

So, of course, I started thinking about big picture and close up activities.  Although I don’t use the cards every lesson, students still enjoy the choice, the independence, the ability to achieve.  Below are some of my new, big picture tasks:

big picture

One of my year 12 classes has a saying – “the sky is not the limit”.  We were discussing what a lesson should be and one of my more conceptual students stated “a lesson should a journey beyond reality and dreams, beyond even the stars”.  I know, it doesn’t sound like a 16 year old from Croydon does it?

So, in the same way that we created our 50 things homework project, we are now creating our own sets of activity cards under the headings:

  • Risk taking
  • The sky is not the limit
  • Iceberg thinking (thanks to Caldies English for this)
  • The journey
  • Innovate then debate

I have added to this list a set on scholastic / academic language collection and use.  Students want this but don’t know how.  So I will endeavour to find some ways to develop this as well.

Part one of activity cards is now available on my free downloads page, more to follow soon – I am adding the scholastic language tasks at this very moment.

Any ideas on activities for our new cards, please let me know.

25 ideas for increasing student talk…

As requested on this week’s #ukengchat, here is my toolkit #1 for increasing student talk in all subjects.

25 ideas

Here is the powerpoint that outlines each idea, if any of them are unclear let me know and I will explain more.

25 ideas for increasing student talk in lessons

More to follow on other student talk activities.

Prizes (imaginary prizes) for the person who spots the deliberate mistake…