More non-fiction high jinx

Morning all, happy Sunday or maybe you just need commiserations and a large glass of wine.  I’ll happily provide that as well – see you in the pub in a bit.

Lots of us are tackling the Language bit of the new GCSE full on this year. I have managed to avoid it for nearly a year. But we are back to school tomorrow and what is it they say procrastination is the thief of…

Anyho – these texts are for Edexcel Language Paper 2 exams. You will recognise some of the articles from old iGCSE text. But here they are with some lovely new questions.

The Edexcel spec does have a few variances from AQA – so by all means mock up your own questions for AQA.

We are using these with year 9.  Year 10 and Year 11 ones to follow in a separate post.

Body Image – Obama girls and body image

Gender – Emma W

Marathon de Sables texts


Primary Proms – two information texts

South Africa texts

Have a great week

Lou x



Love Analysis: Essay writing research – phase 1

Essays written in English lessons are flabby.


Like a 50 year old man sitting down to watch the rugby, we have sort out comfort and ease.  A cosy chair – the ‘easy’ chair – in just the right place, the remote within reach (perhaps in one of those attractive over the arm tidy things). The ‘easy’ chair of the English classroom is the PEE architecture used to firstly meet the assessment criteria and secondly meet the assessment criteria in nice ‘easy’ steps.

I have said (numerously) since I first blogged on this research project last April, I have a number of problems with English essays.  I have summarised their main crimes below (and to serve as a context for what follows):

  • Often they start and finish as a gap-fill exercise.
  • They require little articulation of individual thought.
  • They lack cohesion and genuine argument (used here in its true sense).
  • They lack interest – as a piece of writing created they are often the least interesting to read.
  • They don’t often demonstrate knowledge or understanding.
  • They serve little purpose to the writer.

Whilst my hyperbole doesn’t do us all justice. It’s amazing how marking 300+ exam papers makes it seem true. (Intuition and anecdote are not fact klaxon).

Undertaking classroom research

I am apprehensive about calling this project ‘research’.  It’s been 20 years since I did my degree and even then serious study wasn’t my focus.  I worked two jobs and got married. Added to this, research has become a bit of thing in the Edu-sphere and dare I say it, there is an inner circle of those deemed wise or thoughtful enough to comment and then everyone else.  I am definitely the everyone else.

But the question keeps nagging me, and it has followed me from my old school – through a term and a half of supply – and onto my new school.

If I don’t teach Year 7 “the English essay” with PEE and sentence stems and all that gubbins. If I do something else, could it improve their writing?  Don’t worry I’m not about to burst into a rousing chorus of “be the change you wish to see in the world”.

I’m more of a Tolstoy girl anyway.


Expected and unexpected outcomes:

You probably think from my writing above that I want PEE to fail.  Actually that’s not entirely true.  I want essays that don’t mean anything to fail. I want essays where paragraphs with no tangible links to fail (how many times have I read paragraph A on George is father-like and paragraph B on George has had enough of Lennie – with no link, no link!).  I want gap-fill to fail.

joke 2

I am not predetermining the results. I hope I am not.

I also know that it isn’t going to be the data that I produce with just 64 students that matters, or that makes a difference.  In many ways it’s the fact that I am focused on it that will make a difference.  I want to teach PEE really well. So that the class that learns PEE end up writing genius essays AND I want to find an approach that isn’t PEE.  I want the students who won’t learn PEE to write something utterly staggering too.

Maybe we can all be winners.

So what I am doing?


I have two year 7 classes, I see each one once a week and they are equivalents sets from each half of the year.  These two hours will be my research hours.  One class will be my test group (no PEE) and one my control group (PEE).  Both classes have equal numbers of boys and girls in. Although one class has a slightly greater number of students with higher levels. Both classes have students in who were ranked as being in the top 5% of the country in their KS2 SATs.

Among other admin tasks we are writing to parents to explain the project and asking permission to use work generated as part of the write up.  Once I get beyond Phase 1, each lesson with both classes will be filmed.

The text I am using for study in this project is the very short story Ruthless by William De Mille.  The text of which is widely available on the internet.

Phase 1: Love Analysis

The first 4 – 5 lessons of the project are the same for both classes.  I have titled this phase “Love Analysis”.  In order to give both classes enough opportunity to read, discuss and analyse prior to writing – we will spend four lessons unpicking this short story, the characters and literary techniques.

At this point there is no discussion of an essay question or analytical writing.  Any written responses produced in lesson are exploratory, recounts or creative.

I have shared the 5 lessons plans for this phase here Essay writing research SOW – Phase 1. There is nothing over-exciting so please don’t expect too much.  These are lesson designed for year 7 to experience analysis for what may be the first time.

sow 1


Phase 2:

It is the next phase that is causing me to lose sleep.  Once both classes have read and explored the different ideas and concepts in Ruthless we need to get on and write some analysis.

At first I wanted a thematic question – on injustice. After following the advice of several wise ones – thanks EMC and Fran N – I agreed this was perhaps too much.

So the essay question that both classes will tackle is “How does William De Mille present the character Judson Webb in Ruthless?” Bog standard. Potential for boredom. Potential for greatness.

Now these two classes will diverge.

Here I will teach one class PEE – the most unstructured, structured PEE approach I think I can get away with.  Students will have the broad strokes but I don’t want them to fail, so they won’t have a PEE sentence stem gap fill experience.

The other class will get something completely different. Spot the deliberate vagueness.  Despite this being less than a month away I am still kind of stuck on this one.  I don’t want to give them any structure at all. After all TEEPE is just PEE by another name.  But I also don’t want them to fail, so I need to do something.

In collaboration with my amazing colleagues I am slowly working it out.  I have a draft structure of these lessons worked out and if you fancy having a looksee let me know.

Things I don’t know:

  • Which class should do which? Names in a hat I suppose.
  • What a good essay that doesn’t use PEE looks like.
  • Whether I am reinventing a square wheel.
  • If this has any value at all.

Thank you for reading, if you have any advice or ideas please get in contact via the comments or twitter.

Have a great weekend.


 joke 1



Why reading must come before analysis

Why reading must come before analysis OR why the essay writing project may never happen…

If you are interested in reading my previous posts on the essay writing project they can be found here.


Rewind and start from the beginning

I have hit a stumbling block in my quest for a better approach to teaching essay writing. A major one. Actually it’s not a stumbling block, it’s a person.  Me, mostly me and how and what I teach.

I have realised (yes – belatedly) that if I am going to teach students to write better essays, then they must first have more and greater things to say about the texts we are studying. If scraping by with a basic PEE response isn’t going to cut it anymore, then we need to find some truly interesting things to say about texts.

So before I begin to tackle teaching essay writing, I need to look again at how I teach reading. Specifically reading, comprehension, understanding and inference.

Up until recently, I had worked on the assumption that if students could read the words on the page and knew what those words meant, then this would automatically result in comprehension and understanding.  For example if you read:

Wow, it’s pretty cold today.

Almost all of you will have understood that I mean it’s pretty cold today. That’s how it works right?

But for struggling readers there is no guarantee that they would find this meaning first time. Not only do struggling readers often find single-syllable or multi-syllable words hard to decode, they often read haltingly – one word at a time – which means they do not (or perhaps can’t) hold in their conscious minds the meaning that is created over a series of words.

Now I could ask a student several times to re-read the text above and they would, no doubt, find the meaning soon enough.

But what happens when we encounter longer, less simple texts?

In her book What Teachers Can Do When Kids Can’t Read, Kylene Beers includes one such example.

Beers 1

Beers 2

You can see here that as Mike struggles to sound out some of the more challenging words in the text, he loses his ability to create accurate meaning from it.  He loses confidence and then gives up.

We all have moments like this, we read a short text then pose the question “Ok, who can summarise that for me?” and young Mike shrinks back looking slightly ill.  But the odds are not in his favour and I call on him anyway and he looks down, chooses one word at random or begins to read the first sentence aloud.  Before too long, hands are waving desperate for the opportunity to share the correct answer.  Once this is given, Mike no longer needs to create meaning from the text for himself. Someone else has done it.

The more I think about these moments, the more I realise that this is where my focus should be.  I am keeping my fingers crossed that the number of dreaded PEEs kids will have to churn out for the new GCSE will be slightly less.

But the chances of them having to read something like The Gift of the Magi and understand it, well that’s something they are going to have to be able to do.  There won’t be anyone that Mike can rely on the help him understand the unseen texts in the exam hall. He’s on his own from step 1.  Now that I think about, why haven’t I tackled this step to begin with?

So it’s back to step 1 I am going.  And thinking about how I can intentionally and explicitly teaching struggling or less confident readers to do what seemingly comes naturally to confident readers.

Beers’ book tackles this issue head-on providing a collection of strategies that help student create meaning on their own.  Her aim being that if students learn and use these strategies, turn them into skills, then there isn’t any text that they can’t grapple with.

Her first challenge is to articulate intentionally what we do as readers every time we read.  Beers calls it Think Aloud.

Think Aloud

The think-aloud strategy helps readers think about how they make meaning. Think-alouds help struggling readers learn to think about their reading and to monitor what they do and do not understand. As students read, they pause occasionally to think aloud about connections they are making, images they are creating, problems with understanding that they are encountering, and ways they see of fixing up those problems.

This is what my Think Aloud for the first sentence of Jekyll & Hyde looks like.  Here’s the text:

Mr. Utterson the lawyer was a man of a rugged countenance that was never lighted by a smile; cold, scanty and embarrassed in discourse; backward in sentiment; lean, long, dusty, dreary and yet somehow lovable.

Here is a transcript of my Think Aloud:


Wow. Confident readers do a lot of work as we read.  We:

  • figure out what’s confusing us
  • pause and re-read
  • ask questions and clarify
  • think about what words mean
  • summarise or rewrite using our words
  • build pictures and visualise ideas and action
  • make connections to our own knowledge and to the world we live in
  • make connections between words and phrases
  • link what we have just read with what went before it
  • use what we are reading now to help inform what we will be reading next

Think Alouds are just one way that we can help students become confident, independent readers.  If my students were able to “think” the above, then imagine how they could use their thoughts to write an epic PEE.

You can find a short run down of Think Alouds here.

I’ll be sharing my progress with using Think Alouds and other strategies, as well as hopefully seeing some impact on essay writing!

Thanks for reading.

Not another PEE

A couple of months ago, I met with Barbara Bleheim and Andrew MacCullum of the English & Media Centre to discuss essay writing.  As with many such meetings, I left with more questions than answers.

The key one, for me, being “what is the purpose of essay writing in school?” followed closely by “what is an essay?”

I think if we are going to be at all successful in teaching students to write good essays, then we need to answer these questions.  It is no longer good enough in my mind, to answer with “to pass their GCSEs” as there is no balance between the quality of writing and the content of the writing.

joke 2

My meeting at the English & Media Centre rightly challenged my use of confused language.  I have used “argument” writing alongside “critical” and “analytical” writing.  Each has its own meaning and in many ways different criteria, structure and thought process. This is something I have had to force myself to tackle, in my thinking, in my talk and in my classroom.

Andrew MacCullum reminded me of something that English teachers are intuitively aware of, yet don’t always act on – that essay writing is the form of writing that students are least confident in.  It is an expert form, requiring expert thought, understanding, processing and then expert articulation in order to succeed (and I caveat here – stating that I am reading literature that explores why students are bad at essay writing, not literature that studies whether students believe they are bad at essay writing).

Essentially students take a text that they don’t know too much about, listen carefully for what the teacher says about the text add in some thoughts from fellow students, then regurgitate this into a written form that doesn’t always marry itself to the thoughts produced. And all this, for an audience who helped them work out what to write in the first place.


Have you ever moderated coursework and come across exactly the same phrase in every essay?  Mine was “poverty led to feelings of powerlessness” about Of Mice and Men. Almost every student included it; I don’t particularly remember saying it, what knowledge or understanding have my students demonstrated in this process?

Another problem is that essays are the remit of dry academic halls.  No one reads essays for pleasure, or least, not at the age of 12 or 14.  Academic prose is obscure and unknown to students, yet we expect them to be able to write it well without much thought to the process of writing.  The dreaded PEE and even the most generic sentence stems are the only aids provided for the thought-to-paper process.   We dedicate entire schemes of work to creative writing, yet academic writing is by-product of other often content heavy schemes.  We would never dream of studying just one poem for a month in order to use it to improve essay writing.  It is unheard of.  But perhaps it shouldn’t be.

When we ask students to write persuasive or informative or descriptive texts we give them exemplars, at particular times of the year my classroom is awash with Obama’s speeches or that one Elizabeth I gave, or indeed the fabulous Kenneth Brannagh as he is about to invade Iraq.

Do we use exemplar essays? No.

We use model essays.  Either ones provided by the exam board, one written by ourselves (perhaps during lesson time) or ones written by other students.  By in large, none of these will show good academic writing.   Those of us that teach A Level are surprised when students struggle to navigate their way through a critical essay, we after all are saturated by them day in and day out.

With this in mind, I asked the question – what is the purpose of essay writing? Here are some of the responses:

  • To show understanding of the text, character, idea
  • To answer an exam question
  • To demonstrate an ability to think in depth
  • To offer different interpretations of a text
  • To discuss
  • To analyse
  • To write analysis in a logical, coherent and cohesive manner
  • To explore language, form and structure
  • To evaluate
  • To discuss how writer impact their readers
  • To explore how literature reflects society or history
  • To compare and contrast

It’s a pretty big ask.  You can see why when our students walk into the exam room and are faced with 8 mark, 10 mark, 25 mark questions we, the teachers, have felt the need to reduce this to the easiest possible strategy.

Over my next few blog posts I will be exploring essay writing and how we can do it better.  Next up: What is an essay?

Thanks for reading.

joke 1

Crowdsourced research – the proposal

An update post on the current status of our “Team English Crowdsourced Research” project, here is the outline proposal that I am working with so far.  I am delighted to be meeting with the English and Media Centre this week to discuss further.  So watch this space…

Research project proposal – How can we best teach essay writing (in KS3)?


Teaching oversimplified essay writing structures (such as PQE, PEA, PEEL) at KS3 inhibits cogent and sophisticated written expression and limits opportunities for the creation of individual, detailed and powerful arguments in KS4 and KS5.


The acquisition of academic written language is now increasingly a focus of the English classroom.  Students’ ability to express, in a cogent manner, their analysis and interpretation of literary texts remains the primary mode of assessment, both internally within school and through public examination.Yet, essay writing remains an area of low confidence for students right the way through to A Level.  Additionally, with a time-pressured curriculum, teachers often rely on essay writing as taught at KS3, to underpin analytical writing at KS4.  Students arriving into Year 7 have little experience of essay writing, having only been exposed to the formulaic devices of genre, audience and purpose within the remit of original writing.  This habitual approach to tick-box writing is carried onto KS3 analytical writing, as teachers strive for the easiest possible approach to essay writing, in addition to mastering the new skills of close analysis, contextual links and understanding the writer’s intention.

It is no surprise then that in order to provide students with the greatest opportunity for success, within what is often perceived to be a flawed assessment system, teachers have devised numerous strategies for scaffolding analytical writing.  The true purpose of ‘scaffolding’ is to provide support and structure for initial learning and demonstration of understanding, yet there comes a time, when metaphorically the scaffolding needs to be removed.  In practice it seems, however, that an over-reliance by teachers on these structures has resulted in analytical writing becoming a gap-fill exercise, rather than a well argued discussion of a literary text.

The proliferation of essay writing structures (such as PEE, PQE, PEAL), particularly as used by students sitting public examinations, has resulted in criticism by examination boards.

There are two main issues at stake:

  1. The structure of analytical writing itself, and then
  2. The skill of expressing in writing analytical thought and discussion.

It is the purpose, of this present study,to explore both of these issues.  To challenge the use of overly simplified essay structures as “a way in” to analytical writing, to explore how analytical writing should be structured and to explore approaches to written expression itself.


In order to investigate fully the implications of teaching essay writing and its impact across students’ progression through school, it would be necessary to undertake a specific large scale case study of pupils, together with extensive field research.

Although empirical data collection maybe possible with the results of participation such data is not the purpose of this study.

The aim of this study is to be wide-ranging including participants from a number of UK secondary schools.  Currently, the expectation of participants is:

  • They teach English in UK secondary school
  • They will have two KS3 classes available from September 2014
  • They will be prepared to provide data, evidence and analysis at some point before January 2015.
  • They have been granted permission to collect data by their schools.
  • They will be prepared to use at least eight lessons with each class to participate in this research.

Participants will gather evidence and data through observation and assessment using the following methods:

Class 1: PEE/PQE – the control group

Participants will deliver a series of structured lessons based on a named literary text, students will use their own in-house essay structure to write an analytical response.  These responses will then be gathered and compared against responses gathered from the test group.

The rationale of the control group is to allow validation of the success and usefulness of simplified essay structures.

Class 2: the test group

Participants will deliver a series of structured lessons based on a named literary text, as part of these lessons students will be untaught their own in-house essay structure and will explore approaches to writing sophisticating and cogent analysis.

These responses will then be gathered and compared against responses gathered from the control group.

Interested in joining in?

Please add your details here.

Previous posts:

Crowdsourced research are you game?


Crowdsourced research – next steps

My recent post on the possibility of taking part in some crowdsourced research on essay writing garnered more interest than I was prepared for.  Here is a first stab at next steps. Thank goodness it’s the holidays.

Here is where we are:

  • The proposal still stands.
  • The English and Media Centre (@EngMediaCentre) have offered to discuss.  I would like to explore their participation further, as EMC always seem ahead of the game nationally and have a wealth of resources and knowledge that it would be foolish to ignore.
  • Over 20 teachers / schools have already expressed an interest in participating.  Thank you! That’s over 1000 students, who may possibly be part of this study, which would be absolutely amazing.
    Interested teachers are listed here – please add yourself if you aren’t there or fill in the details if I have already added you.  I am very happy for participants to stay anonymous.
  • A number of others have offered support in terms of sourcing literature, providing insight and thought, which I am very grateful for.



Where now:

  • I am in the midst of writing a project proposal which I will share with EMC and here over the next few days.  Any volunteers, who would like to sense check and proofread, would be gratefully appreciated.
  • In order for this study to be rigorous, we will need to agree a quite structured approach to how we deliver the classroom elements of the research.  If anyone (whether able to participate or not) feels like getting involved in helping to plan this bit, then let me know.
  • Part of this will be the content of the lessons themselves.  I am thinking of a poem – that we would all teach.  Anyone want to nominate something?  It would need to be a typically unpopular choice for KS3. Keats maybe?
  • Initial thoughts on timings are looking like gathering all the evidence in September or October 14, so we can analyse shortly after.  However we may be able to move more quickly depending on the scale we attempt to tackle.
  • If anyone would like to offer to be a hub coordinator for schools in their area, that would be amazing.
  • TeachMeet Essay Writing for the summer anyone? (she half jokes)

Here are where all the relevant documents can be found for now:

Original post

Interested participants – – googledoc (thanks to @Joe__Kirby for being a tireless champion of crowdsourcing and shared docs).

Thank you to everyone for their support and interest in this.

you rock


Crowdsourced research – are you game?

Team English – are you interested in how to teach essay writing? Yes? This idea might just be up your street then.

I am taking a bold step in sharing publicly something that I am not yet 100% clear on or certain of.  This is because I am looking for help, volunteers and criticism, when I say criticism, I don’t mean mauling.

The Project: How can we best teach essay writing (in KS3)?

The thesis (as it stands): Teaching oversimplified essay writing structures (such as PQE, PEA) at KS3 inhibits cogent and sophisticated written expression and limits opportunities for the creation of individual, detailed and powerful arguments in KS4 and KS5.

The background: Essay writing comes easily to me, more so than creative writing or even close analysis.  Yet the vast majority of students I teach have the opposite experience. They are brilliant at sharing different ideas and interpretations during class discussion but when I ask them to write it down, they freeze.  It used to be the classic teenage boy problem “It sounds stupid when I write it down, Miss!”.  Now everyone seems to suffer from this malady.  So to help students, we created essay structures like PQE, PEE, PEA, PEAL etc – I could go on.  Below is a bog standard example of the essay sentence stems taught to year 10s and 11s across the country when preparing for the language questions on Of Mice and Men.

In Section 1, the character of Lennie is presented as…
This is shown in “…”
The adjective “…” suggests
This is important because..
Steinbeck here is highlighting…
The reader understands that…

Animal farm

I am not criticising sentence stems, in fact, I have and am still using them.  But I am beginning to wonder if I am shooting myself in the foot.  Firstly, exam boards are now becoming very wary of overly structured answers (both in coursework and exam responses) – citing that essay writing has become a glorified gap-fill exercise.  Secondly, as I spend more and more time teaching sixth form students, I find I am unteaching everything students have learnt about essays in KS3 and KS4.  So this year, for the first time, I have started teaching my year 10s essay writing as I would in year 12, the creation of a detailed and sophisticated argument, rather than prodding predictably through the assessment criteria set by the exam board.  My next post will be a detailed look at how I did this.  The results were positive in my opinion.  But I don’t want to be one of these people that says, this works for me, you should try it.

Given the changes the English curriculum is about to undergo, perhaps now is the time for us to look again at how can we best teach essay writing?

The Time frame: Hopefully we will sort all the unanswered questions this summer and be ready to kick off with our new classes in September.  Again this will be dependent on participants and their timetables.  This may turn into a long term project for me, tracking students through KS3 and KS4, but it doesn’t have to be that way for everyone.  I think a commitment for the Autumn term is as much as I can ask for at the moment.

The Literature: Currently a gaping black hole – I am working on it.  All suggestions welcome.

The Methodology: Well, this is up for debate as too, depending on how many of us are prepared to take part and how many classes we can viably include.  We will need to discuss and agree our methods so that we can ensure our results are valid and rigorous.   Otherwise this entire research project would be pointless. Just to give you an idea, here is what I have been considering initially:  I currently have two year 7 classes, they are broadly the same ability and broadly similar in terms of cultural and social makeup, as well as SEN, FSM etc.  Both classes are due to study some Literary Heritage texts during the summer term.  With one class, I will teach the structured PEE approach to essay writing as used as standard by my colleagues.  With the second class, I will teach essay writing as I teach my year 12s, introducing argument creation rather than standard sentence stems.  At the end of term, I will anonymous the assessment task and ask another teacher to judge the quality of essay writing.

Here is the rub, I mean the presence of an argument (that Lennie is child-like is not, in my opinion, an argument, it is an observation and something almost anyone who reads Of Mice and Men can glean), the sophistication of written expression, the understanding of the writer’s intention and connection of the historical or social context (and here I am meaning this into the argument, not just paying lip-service to it).

As I said, until we (I genuinely hope there is a ‘we’) will need to get into this in more detail, the outcomes / methods / approaches lack clarity.

The requirements: You will need 2 KS3 classes you can test this on, I don’t think they have to be year 7 – although I can see why this might be preferable.  You would need to be prepared to agree a set criteria for teaching each style of essay writing and assessing not only students demonstration, but also your own delivery.

I am asking a question – how can we best teach essay writing?

I am hoping together we can find the answer.

Ok, that’s it for now.  Thoughts?

A postcard from the 90s #PedagooLondon

Very overdue summary of the activity I shared at #PedagooLondon earlier this month.


A while ago I joked to a colleague that my year 11s knowledge of Animal Farm was just about enough to fill a stamp. Whilst I hope my hyperbolic tendencies are proven unfounded, this conversation also reminded me of a good friend from my university days.  Pete was (and is) an artist.  He delighted in being quirky and gauche, his best expression of this was the teeny-tiny notes left under my door, which needed a magnifying glass to be read.

DSC_0064 (1)



This activity was inspired by Pete and his tiny writing ways.

The Postcard Essay

The idea is simple.  Instead of writing an essay in their books, students write it on a postcard.


This activity started as a blatant gimmick to persuade exam prep exhausted students to write just one more paragraph on a Friday p5.  It’s only a postcard, I encouraged positively, won’t take you 5 mins to fill it with a lovely, lovely essay on Of Mice and Men.

postcard 1


Just the activity of writing on something small was different enough to engage my weary students.

Then we started to play around with them. Student A would send Student B a postcard essay, which they would improve and send back.  I even have a postcard postbox in my classroom now.  With multiple exam classes, across different ability groups, Class A can send Class B postcard essays, commenting, improving, celebrating and then sending them back.

postcard 2

postcard 3 postcard 4


Any postcard will do, of course.

Here are the ones I use.