More than a bowl of spag (my Goldsmiths presentation)

Yesterday, I spent the afternoon with PGCE students at Goldsmiths University, talking about literacy and working with students who struggle to access reading and writing.

Here is what we discussed.

If you are interested in the texts we used and the activities we shared, here they are:

The strategies handout – Handout – strategies

The poem – Auschwitz by Elizabeth Wise

The non-fiction text Auschwitz info


Killing the question, becoming more

I am free

When I first read about Kill the Question on @rlj1981’s blog ( the idea got me pretty excited.

I am vampiric when it comes to borrowing other people’s ideas and I loved that Rachel’s idea was so easily adaptable to the English classroom.

Below is what worked and what didn’t work as I tried to figure out how I could use this activity with my students.

Kill the question

Working up to it:

Rachel described this activity as a starter, for me it became a whole lesson and later as you will see a 2 hour workshop.  The idea is to ask students to look at a concept (or an essay question) from every conceivable angle.

Our year 12 students return after their exams and we normally start teaching year 13 material.  This year we were given a free reign and I decided to do some year 13 Literature prep by looking at philosophy and some of the great philosophers who have shaped the way we think.  Prior to this lesson, students had worked in groups to research and present on a specific philosopher or a period of history that saw some great advances in philosophical thinking.

The activity:

The activity itself is based on CSI and the idea is that students gather evidence to “kill” or in some cases “resurrect” the question.

You can see from the above, we “killed” to ideas – the only truth is knowing you know nothing, and freedom is a redundant idea.

Students were then allocated cards of a specific colour, and in their philosopher groups they had to gather evidence from their works (I would like to spare a moment for a quick thank you to Squashed Philosophers at this point).

Once students had gathered evidence, this was placed around the idea and we debated from the stand point of each philosopher, what they might say to “kill” or indeed “resurrect” this idea.

Kill the question 2

It was then that I realised I wanted to try this activity lower down the school.

As S&L debate this could be very useful – think of the connections that students could make – links to themes, character and setting, links to context, links to other texts and writers.

kill the question - lord of the flies

With my year 9 students, studying Lord of the Flies and Battle Royale, we took the bold step of using chalk on the carpet in my classroom.  Note – it did come off eventually, but only I after I scrubbed it…

The idea we killed this time was Malcolm X’s quote: Nobody can give you freedom; nobody can give you equality or justice.  If you are a man, you take it.

To begin I allowed students to write their “first response” to this idea on the carpet in chalk (another learning point for me here – don’t even bother trying to discourage year 9 boys from making your dead body anatomically correct – you are wasting your breath).   I was pleased and surprised that I got a full range of responses, not just what they thought I wanted to hear, but what they really thought.

After this, I put students into small groups and gave them each a non-fiction text that in some way added evidence to the idea.  I had an in-depth article about the science of the murder gene, another on nature vs nurture, one on dictators and the world history of overthrowing a government.  Students worked together reading this texts, using my summarising annotation scheme and then chose evidence to support or oppose Malcolm X’s idea.   Their evidence was placed on different colour cards and placed around the body.  We began to discuss it.

Finally, I have each student some green cards, I asked them to find evidence from either of the texts we were studying (most chose Lord of the Flies) or from the contextual evidence we had gathered about Golding and Takami.

Again, we then together looked at each piece of evidence.  As a class we weighed it against our own thinking, what we felt to be true and we created a collection we were happy with.

This collection could have been used to write an excellent essay – if that had been the plan, which it should have been, looking back on it in hindsight.

Next year then.

What came next?  The workshop

Kill the content  kill the question

For the first time this year, we ran a year 12 literacy day.  A colleague and I were asked to do a session on “talk for writing”.  Our kill the question activity, became Kill the content, kill the question.

We had about 40 students from the whole spectrum of subject areas and so needed something that would grab the attention of everyone.

The idea we went for was “religion and racial inequality are still the greatest flaws in our society”.   We knew everyone would have an opinion, we knew the ‘slightly’ slanted perspective of the question would insight fierce opposition and strong support.

year 12 literacy 2

As a warm-up each student was given a different statement which they had to respond to in writing at the start of the session.  We then placed students in groups and introduced the idea we wanted them to “kill” or “keep”.

Each group was given a whole bunch of different colour cards, which we had labelled in advance for them and they were sent off to research as much evidence as possible, from as wide a spectrum as possible to support, oppose or just explore the idea.

year 12 literacy

We expected each group to provide evidence from:

  • Their own personal experience, or their gut feeling
  • Historical evidence
  • Contemporary culture and current affairs (we quoted Black Skinheads at this point and discussed how music and art could be used as evidence)
  • Literacy and artistic
  • Political
  • Philosophical
  • Scientific
  • Psychological

We challenged them to come up with evidence from ‘their subjects’ that could contribute.

Once all the evidence was in, we then re-allocated one evidence collection to each group.  They summarised it and wrote that summary in one of the big thought bubbles on our chalk floor.  Together we read and digested everything.

Things that surprised me (and perhaps shouldn’t have) – the kids found it hard to come up with literary evidence (even the ones doing literature) and ended up citing Of Mice and Men.   Contemporary cultural evidence and current affairs evidence was very obvious – they cited the Woolwich murder and 9/11 but weren’t able to reference anything from the Middle East.  They couldn’t find any scientific evidence.  They didn’t bother looking for any artistic evidence – when I asked why, they couldn’t see what kind of art might deal with race or religion.  We discussed music but they couldn’t apply it.  I mentioned graffiti – they laughed.

The above makes it sound like this wasn’t a very successful workshop, but it was.  The debate, a standing debate – which I am a big fan off, once we got going covered a lot of ground.  Far more than we had evidence for.  Students did use the evidence they had gathered.   Most students contributed to the debate, they were about 5 who led it and were polarised in their own thinking enough to make it interesting.

Did the workshop or debate change their thinking on racial inequality or religion?  No.  It wasn’t meant it.

Did the workshop and debate help them see that in many ways everything is connected (don’t worry I’m not about to break into The Circle of Life)? Yes.

Becoming more

This workshop got me thinking.

For my year 12 students, I was left feeling that in those last few weeks before the summer I wanted to challenge them to broaden their horizons a little.  To become more than a Croydon teenager.

I stumbled across this resource on TES – and I fell in love.  This became my year 12s homework task each week until the holidays.  We made a list of 50 things and each week they would choose one (so did I) and come with some kind of evidence (generally photographic) before the following week.

50 things

The most popular by far was learning to cook a roast dinner, but students also learnt to iron, do the washing, do the supermarket shop.  They visited farms and museums.  One, who was afraid of hills, learnt to run down a hill.   We learnt to say “thank you” in 10 languages and to say “no”, particularly important when your Saturday job boss asks you to do extra hours the week before your exams.  I learnt to play the guitar and they wrote a song about Stanley and Blanche  – I would share it but it is inappropriate.  We googled the space elevator and asked our parents why we were given our names.

For those few weeks, we became more.

spaceelevatornicechicken guitar

No one jumps a twenty foot chasm in two ten foot jumps

No one jumps

I would love to fill your classroom tip top and full to brimming with all my literacy resources.  But I don’t think I should.  It’s not fair on you, it would suggest you don’t have anything better to do than laminate.

So, here are my top 10 literacy resources every classroom should have (yes, I have put them in order of importance – to me, that is):

1. Reading strategies

No matter what subject you teach, students will always need to read in your lessons.   Whether it is a worded question or a set of instructions, if your students are unable to decode and process the words in front of them, then you will end up spoon feeding them and they won’t make progress.

Here are 18 “Reading your pen” strategies, that I hope you can use in any subject.  This is the extended version of the annotation strategy in my previous post on summarising.

Just another way that you can support students’ reading in your lessons.

reading with your pen

Download the word version here.

2.  Connectives

Connectives are the glue that stick great ideas together.

Why do I want you to have connectives in your room?

Connectives are a brilliant way to extend students thinking and contributions without having to think up a whole new question.  I have about 15 connectives stuck up near the front of my room.  If a student doesn’t give me a full enough answer – I just go over and point to (occasionally whack) “for example” or “furthermore” or “because”.

The step then to integrating these into student writing is easy.  I can pull them off the wall, chuck a few at each group and away they go.

pritt stick

Want some?  Of course you do.  These lovely connective glue sticks (get it?) are from the days of TeachersTV, remember them.  Download them here.

3.  Analytical writing style guide (this one is a work in progress for me too)STYLE-Guide1

Ok, I get that there are subjects where the need for analytical writing is limited.  However, in general I find that most subjects do at some point require students to write a formal essay.

I am also aware that many of us will use structures, such as PQE, PEAL or SPEED, for these essays.

What I would like to see in our classrooms is more advice on academic writing style.

Perhaps we can champion the highest marking essays by putting them on the wall or creating a fab publication like this one

Most universities have an academic writing style guide – we should too.  When I say style, I don’t mean how to embed quotes or references.  I mean “how do I take my idea and turn into something that sounds clever and sophisticated”.

This is a huge stumbling block for many students.  So, this autumn I will be writing a style guide for academic writing in English.

You have one?  Please, please share it.

4.   Key words in context

I need to confess to a level of hypocrisy on this one.  I have lots of key words up on my walls – especially my favourite classical rhetoric techniques and my Words on Wednesday.  However, not all of them are displayed in the context of a sentence.

Why is this important?

keywordsStudents struggle with new vocabulary, they will listen and understand it in the lesson in which it is taught but the following week it might not be so clear cut for them.  With key words, if we don’t teach how it appears and can be used in a sentence, we can fall into the trap of setting students up to make grammatical mistakes.  Take the word “foreshadowing” for example.  A literary technique loved by authors and teachers alike.

I will teach the term in context “The foreshadowing in Chapter 3 ultimately suggests…”.  When we come to use the term later, this is what I generally get “Mercutio’s use of foreshadowing allows him to …” or “The dog’s foreshadowing shows…”

Students understand the term but don’t pick up the nuance that it is a technique the writer uses not the fictional character/animal.

From now on, all key words – in the context of a sentence.

5.   Books


Lots of classrooms have reading books in them.  If yours is a tutor room and you do reading as one of your tutor time activities, then you will probably have a collection of books you have gathered to support the less organised members of your tutor group.

I would like to see some fiction or non-fiction (but not textbooks) books that relate to your subject.  Not long ago I visited a school where every subject area had a box of books in their classrooms titled “what a historian would read” or “what a sportsman would read”.
I love this idea – it helps the kids who are interested in your subject easily identify something they can read, it also helps kids realise that your subject is about books too and it gives you the easiest “early finisher” task every (flick through this and find me something you didn’t know before).

If you can’t get the physical books – perhaps create a little kindle like display or print some of the book covers for the wall.

I do have a list of fiction books for each subject area – but it is on the server at school, which is down for its much needed summer nap.  I will upload it as soon as I can.

6.   Visual stimulus

It is very easy to think that literacy is all about texts – reading and writing them.  But for many of us, our ability to understand, analyse, critique and evaluate concepts starts as much from visual stimulation as it does writing or oracy.

Please, please, please cover the walls in your classroom with pictures that relate to your subject.  I don’t just mean diagrams or posters that relate to subject matter.

I mean pictures / images that challenge concepts in your subject area, that show sneak peeks into ideas and that represent the minutiae and the big picture.

Why does this help literacy?

Students who have weak literacy skills (unless SEN) often do not have weak cognitive skills.  They can’t perhaps articulate an idea with the level of sophistication you might like, but they can process the idea.  I often use images to give these students an opportunity to share ideas and make connections without having to be 100% rooted in words.  I will select a picture (see below) and ask a student to make connections between the picture and the text or character or theme and then they have something to share that does not necessarily demand that they have gotten to grips with every word on the page.

Here are examples from my classroom.  As you can see they are not directly related to my subject area.  But I have used them teach everything from Chaucer to Boy in the Striped PJs.

wall photos

7.  Questions


I am not going to preach to you about the importance of questioning.

What I will say is this.  Teaching students to think questions and ask their own, is as important as getting them to answer ours.

Having a few generic questions available – out on desks or around the room – will enable students with low literacy skills to develop higher order thinking without always being prompted by us.

Download here.

8.  Accountable talk 

I’m not sure when we all started talking about Accountable Talk, but whether we use the buzz word or not, the skills defined are essential and like the questions and connectives above, allow students an opportunity to practise out loud their analytical ideas before having to put it on paper.  This verbal rehearsal is essential for students who struggle with the brain-to-paper jump and for those with low literacy, accountable talk prompts can help them shape their talk into something more complex, without having to remember words like “valid” or “evidence” or “alternative”.

accountable talk

I have these displayed on a washing line around my room (along with the questions), again they are easy to take down and use as part of lessons.

Download here.

9.  Mini whiteboards

Again, I am not going to harp on at you about the value of mini whiteboards in the classroom.  If you have a set available, please do use them.

Just a few benefits for students who struggle with literacy are:

  • It’s less daunting that an A4 lined page
  • If a student makes a mistake, they can make it disappear.  Have you noticed how your students with low literacy also have the scruffiest books?
  • They can facilitate shared and collaborative writing – which can take the pressure off having to be in charge of all the words.

10. Yellow highlighters / Green pens

Lots of primary schools use green pen marking.  In secondary it’s harder.  I feel like we have less time.  Even as an English teacher, I generally don’t have more than 2 lessons to spare for one piece of written (unless it’s coursework).  But I have been converted.

Giving students an opportunity to correct and improve their own work is invaluable.  Highlighting where they have met the success criteria builds confidence and correct with the green pen weeds out the lazy ones, who can’t be bothered with spelling Shakespeare correctly and gives students an opportunity to see how they can move from good to great.

See my SPAG toolkit post for more on green pen marking and glow and grow marking.


There you have it.

Some notable exceptions include dictionaries and literacy mats.  I don’t have a problem with either of these and have both in my classroom.  But feel other subjects I feel that useless we are prepared to invest in subject specific dictionaries then the pocket ones are a waste of time (iphone apps are better).  Literacy mats are a funny one – I have seen them used very successfully, I have also seen people spend months and months working on them, as if they were the answer to all problems, only to put them in the cupboard for most of the year.

No two persons are the same

No two persons

No two persons are the same

I have been having conversations in recent times about developing more creative, independent and evaluative responses to texts.  I find my older students generally only want to regurgitate my ideas, or those found on Bitesize and Sparknotes.  When I ask students to get personal or to be reflective they don’t seem to know what I mean.  So this year for my KS3 classes I am going to ensure I build this into each unit.  If you follow me on twitter, you will have seen me harping on about The Creativity Core – an American approach to text response and creative writing that requires independent thought and input.  Do check out Daniel’s ideas –

I did this (below) yesterday as a practise run for some year 9 lessons on memoir and autobiography writing.  Instead of simply creating a plan or a brainstorm of my ideas.  I was challenged to present my ideas in a way that also represented me.  The whole process becomes more personal and more independent.  I suspect after a little practise with students, I won’t be handed a single piece of work that this is the same.

Memoir #1

Once we have gotten used to this approach for ourselves, we can apply it to Plaith’s Daddy and Eminem’s Cleanin out my closet.

No two persons ever read the same book

In the middle of the night this idea and my early summer hols book art crafting kind of melted into one.  You see, I have a bunch of texts in my classroom that are beyond tatty and have pages missing.  I can’t use them for studying in lessons anymore.  As I was thinking, I remembered stumbling across this (  Eureka moment.   Perhaps I can use these battered old books for something a little more clever than just my innocent attempts at classroom art.


Our KS4 students do work experience in the September of year 11 (don’t ask me about the logic) so my class will be back in school for 3 lessons before they go off to the world of work for two weeks.   I don’t have time to start a new unit with them so I’ll go back over our two exam texts and do some revision.  Usually this would mean cuing up some exam prep.

Here is what I am going to do this year.




Each student will have a page from one of these tatty texts and their challenge will be to use the words on the page to show some of ideas and themes in novel.

Once we have done this, we will create a biographical text – like my own example above – for the ideas shown.  If I really want to, I can then use this to build some essay writing skills.

It’s so simple.  How is this any different from teaching students to find an quote in an exam extract?  Well, it’s not, but it does involve wax crayons.

No two persons

If you would like to be involved in our shared google document of “Creative Responses to Texts” please find me on twitter and let me know.

Make it Monday – Well done cards

I’m a little bored of our inhouse well done postcards.  So today I made these.

Well done cards

If you don’t know the verbalicious reference – then please do check out my all time favourite youtube video – the verb rap.

Download your own copy of the well done cards here.

How we read

Stumbling around the internet a while ago I found a series of images that seem to sum up entirely what I have been struggling to explain in the classroom.  Different layers of meaning. These paintings are dreamy and ethereal and that always appeals to me, but for my classroom they are also very practical.

how we read5how we read4

how we read3

how we read2

How we read1

Download a copy here 

Visual learning

Today I spent an hour clearing out my year 12 resources box.  I only have one year left of teaching The Turn of the Screw, On Chesil Beach and A Streetcar Named Desire – I’m not happy the specs are changing.  These 3 texts have grown on me.

During my tidying, I realised just how much of a visual learner I am.  As the texts we study are not popular A level texts I find myself making a lot of resources.  It seems my approach has been pretty visual.  For someone who got a D at GCSE Art, I’m pretty pleased with some of these.












Now that I look at it, many of the activities I have done in response to texts this year do  seem to have a visual theme.

Colour coded quote gathering:

Quote gathering



Different layers of meaning:

Different layers of meaning 2


Visual essay writing:

Colour coded essay


Make it Monday (err…Wednesday)

The holidays are here, which means the return of Make It Monday.  As all you teachery types know, we lose track of the days once the hols start, so you’ll forgive me if this week’s Make It arrives on a Wednesday.

We have a lot of books in our house, enough to open a shop I’m sure.  Not all of them are worth reading.  So this summer, I intend to put some of this paper to better use.

Here is this week’s project:

You will need: one unsuspecting novel (as you can see no great works of literature were harmed in this project), a black pen, a pencil and some tippex.




Take out a few pages, I like books where the pages are somewhat weathered.


Next, draw round your outline (that bit is up to you) in pencil and then carefully go over your pencil line in tippex.



Repeat for as many letters (or whatevers) you need.

Finally, add definition by going around the inside of the white tippex line with a black fine liner.



Not a bad turnout for all of 15 mins work.  Now all I need is frames and I have some new classroom art.