Hitting rock bottom

Rock bottom 1

I wonder if you have students at your school who had no hope of getting a C grade?

The ones whose FFTs are Es or Fs. The ones whose FFTs are Cs and Ds but nothing that happened in Years 7 – 11 gave any indication of how that could be. The ones who have complex (or even simple) needs and find learning tough. The ones who are never in school. The one who set the fire alarms off. The ones who SLT are always talking to in the corridors and on the playground.

As much as I love results day – and I do. And as much as I loved watching the faces of my top set when they saw their double A*s; it was the faces of the bottom set kids that I found myself seeking out. Knowing that they would be reading a list of Es, Fs and maybe Us.

You see, as well as teaching top set this year, I also taught bottom set. Two hours a week, Wednesday and Friday last lesson. With a group of 12 kids doing an English Only qualification. You might remember me talking about them in this post.

On Thursday, I watched those few who turned up to collect their results realise that they didn’t get what they wanted. For some of them it wasn’t even close. These are the kids where teachers will say “Well, he got 17 marks (out of 90) and I didn’t think he would do that!” or “An F grade is accurate.”

Whilst these maybe true, I wonder what it is like at the age of 16 to know that something has gone so badly wrong with your life already – that you need to start again, at the local College.

Rock bottom 2

It’s these kids and days like last Thursday that force me to have a cold, hard look at what I did wrong. (I know it’s not all my responsibility – despite what my PRP measure might say).
I feel like I say it every year – we can’t have another year like that.

So here’s my plan:

  1. The early bird catches the worm Our KS3 curriculum is pretty tight, very heavily weighted towards literature and knowledge. Whilst I love this – I have to ask myself whether a different provision might be needed for kids who have some of the fundamentals missing. You see, these kids need to read and be forced to read a lot. So at least half of their lessons will now include reading practice (phonics, reading aloud, guided reading strategies and all sorts of comprehension stuff). It’s time to look again at my Trust Me You can Read project
  2. Test them early, diagnose early, sort it early Running side by side with the above I think I know need a more effective way to test and diagnose reading age and reading skills. I know Katie Ashford at Michaela has blogged about this – although I don’t know this programme yet – I want to. I need data on these kids every term, every half term.
  3. Get my team on board My team are amazing, but by in large they are literature trained. We are lucky that 3 of us have all also taught TEFL. But until I started learning about phonics two years ago, none of us really knew how to teach a child to read. When a kid joins in Year 7, no matter what might have happened before – if I can’t teach them to read, then too much of secondary education is already lost.
  4. Get whole staff on board It’s interesting when you talk about phonics in a secondary school, the only people who know what you are talking about are parents. And most don’t like phonics. This year I will deliver whole staff training on phonics, reading and spelling strategies for all subjects. If we get these kids using the same approaches to reading key terms in Maths and Science as they do to reading a novel, then we have a hope of getting somewhere.
  5. Get parents (and their kids) on board Parent information evenings are great – however, I would like to see more parent workshops, where parents come in with their kids and work together on some of the kinds of tasks that they do in lessons. Providing parents with a little bit of information and lots of hassle-free opportunities to support their son or daughter in reading is better than saying “they need to read more” at parents’ evening.

I can’t say now whether this will have a big impact. I won’t stick my head in the sand anymore. It is a 5 year plan – starting at year 7, so we will just have to wait and see.

And because we all love a motivational poster:

rock bottom 3

Thank you for reading






Espresso Yourself

We heart school1

The first few hours or days back at school in September are hectic. While most schools encourage a full pelt return to hard learning – the sheer amount of admin that needs to be sorted means this isn’t always possible.

We are busy: sorting out seating plans, handing out new books, sorting out target sheets and stickers, homework schedules, SEN and TA resources.

Sometimes we just need a little bit of time.

For my new older classes – I like to gain 10 minutes or so with a few easy ‘get to know you’ activities.  But so I can muddle through the register and seating plan – I need this time to be quiet and calm.

Here’s one that I use for with my new Year 9 and Year 10 classes.

Espresso yourself blog

If you would like to use this – please help yourself: Espresso yourself


Teaching restraint in descriptive writing

What does good descriptive writing look like?

L6 writing

This was written by one of my year 7 students last week. It reads:
Bottles lay on the ground, infront of an unused bin. A small dark melancholy cat sat on the cold stone ground looking around for any sign of food. There was an eerie silence. Drops of water flushed out…

It continues in a similar vein for several paragraphs.

This is the picture the student was describing:

descriptive image

Most students arrive in Year 7 with the understanding that good writing is technique heavy.  The overuse of adjectives and adverbs has replaced writing that demonstrates subtlety or sub-text.

When we being writing, we begin with simple sentences: The boy ran.
We develop these to add visual imagery – The boy ran quickly.
Later we add more precise adverbs – The boy ran sluggishly.
Modifying adjectives and verbs: The overweight boy staggered painfully.
We introduce different openers: Late again, the overweight boy staggered painfully onwards.

Vocabulary work adds:  The corpulent man-child blunders unseeingly onwards into the grimly lit darkening streets.

When I ask my pupils what good descriptive writing looks like – this is what they seem to think I want.

The curse of “show and don’t tell” has meant that pupils as writers are spoon-feeding their readers on a whole new level.  Don’t show and don’t tell is perhaps a better maxim.  (A side note on this – when we teach students techniques like ‘show and don’t tell’ remember they internalise language and I end up marking GCSE exam papers that read “The writer’s use of show and don’t tell suggests…) As I said, don’t show and don’t tell is sometimes better.

It is disheartening to have to unlearn these skills but pupils must.  Laborious descriptions that are laden with adjectives, adverbs and literary techniques (CRASH! BOOM!) are not good writing. Nor will they ever be.

On becoming writers who read

The literature that we study at school is only worthy of study if we have to study it.  The reader’s interaction with the language of text – gleaning meaning where it is hidden is what we do when we analyse.  It’s not easy to write an essay paragraph using the quote “He slammed the fork down angrily” as there is nothing to infer.  The writer has set it out for us.

Pupils arriving in Year 7 though have been taught that when writing themselves, they must create such a vivid image for the reader than we have no work to do.  Their writing is filled with subjective emotional language, but by placing this into the text, they have robbed the reader of their own reaction.

Writing as detectives

I am teaching a scheme of work studying Mystery and next week we are due to start reading Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue.

In order to get into the mystery swing of things – this week I wanted pupils to pare back their writing, by writing description as detectives.

The lesson began with this extract from The Road by Cormac McCarthy (at this point I would like to thank Dr G for championing McCarthy endlessly – and finding me this extract):

descriptive writing 2

As detectives, pupils identified all the nouns and then explained what exactly was being described.  I then asked them to remove all the grammatical words to force their focus on to the nouns and noun phrases.  Finally we identified the adjectives.

By focussing on the nouns – students were more able to understand the ‘mystery’ in this extract. It almost sounds counter intuitive but this literal description allows for detailed inference – “the sagging hands”.

Students had to explain this forensic, scientific approach to writing, that did not use any emotional, subjective language. They described McCarthy’s landscape as realistic or ‘true’ as the students named it.

This image then required a detective’s eye to describe.  We started with nouns – precise and detailed.

descriptive writing 3

A few we listed were:
– a man, wearing a overcoat and hat
– a shuttered door
– four windows with six panes
– a building with high eves

Next I asked pupils to describe these nouns in the most scientific way possible and I asked why the sentence below is not forensic.

The shadowy, mysterious path went up to the crumbly, ancient building.

It was this part of the lesson that resulted in the most discussion and debate among students.

“You can’t use ‘eerie’ since when would a detective say it was ‘eerie’?”
“Gloomy is out – right Miss?”
“How can I say the building is old without exaggerating, it’s not ancient.”

By giving students the vocabulary ‘subjective’ and ’emotional’ they were able to critique their own ideas. Often writing down and then removing words that were weak.

The final 15 minutes of the lesson was spent writing just 10 sentences of scientific description.  Here are some of their attempts:

“Walking towards the light, a man alone digs his hands into the pockets of a long overcoat.”

“Stretching away to the left, the uneven cobbles absorb the black and grey of night.”

“Four, six paned windows reflect the streetlight exaggerating the darkness beyond”

“Darkness to the left and to the right. Light cuts threw the centre”

On the face of it this ability to show restraint in writing allows students to write in a manner that is more ‘true’.

Subjectively, I think this writing is closer to ‘good writing’ than writing that is created via a checklist of word types, sentence types and techniques.  It would certainly uphold more analytical scrutiny.

Thanks for reading


Article of the Week #3

Body image pic


Here is this week’s gathering of non-fiction articles and questions.

Body Image is the topic: with one article on criticism of the Obama girls’ fashion sense and the second extract an NHS fact sheet on body image.

As ever I have included new GCSE style short and long answer questions, a comparison question and two transactional writing tasks.

Download here: Body Image – Obama girls and body image

Have a great week.


When Kids Can’t Read

This is my long overdue review of Kylene Beers’ When Kids Can’t Read What Teachers Can Do

kylene beers


The first thing to note is that even for an Edu tome, Beers’ 2009 book is pretty expensive.  Adding in shipping from the US, I paid around £27.00 for it, this post outlines to what extent it was worth it.

Why this book?

This year my school have picked up teaching The Giver in Year 8 (my recent post about this is here), this text is popular in the US and many of the ideas for teaching it seemed to reference some reading strategies I had never heard of – “Think Aloud”, “Say Something”.  I was curious.

With much focus on the new KS3 curriculum and the challenge of a new GCSE, perhaps a new set of strategies might be in order.  I am horrifyingly aware that our students now need to confident and independent readers.

Was it worth it?

I am going to say upfront – that this book is without doubt the most challenging and inspiring I have read in the last six years.  It is practical, academically rigorous and wholly focussed on students and their success.

Beers’ book does exactly what it says on the tin. It is a guide for teachers of secondary school age students, outlining the numerous problems with teenagers’ reading and how they can be tackled.

beers 3


Her thinking seems to have stemmed from genuine experiences in her own practice and that of colleagues.  Tackling students who were unable to read the words on the page, then unable to read with any fluency or comprehension and then tackling issues of vocabulary and spelling, before tackling helping students respond to texts.

Below is one example of her ability to articulate clearly the issues in her classroom.

Beers 1 Beers 2

There are many moments of dialogue in this book, dialogue recorded between herself and students or herself and other teachers.  While they do ring somewhat of ‘the American self-help’ book genre, they also serve the purpose of practical analogies for me to frame reference my classroom experience.

I began to realise that the problems I experience stem from issues so different from one another, that a one-off lesson in comprehension just wouldn’t cut it.

The mantra:

Anyone who’s been around education for a while now knows the mantra “making the implicit explicit” *nod to @LearningSpy*.  Beers’ worldview is no different. She just increases the number of things we need to make explicit.  Her challenge is that so many of our behaviours as confident readers are subconscious, that we must as teachers explicitly and intentionally teach them and then model them constantly.  I have written briefly about this before.

Not only does Beers’ tackle the decoding of words (including some very interesting discussion of the impact of Synthetic Phonics on students who were reaching Middle & High School at the time) and word recognition skills, she also has chapters on:

  • Creating Independent Readers
  • Assessing the needs of Dependent Readers – how to work out where to start
  • Explicit instruction of comprehension
  • Learning to make an inference
  • Frontloading meaning – pre-reading strategies. This one caused me some problems – is it possible to develop pre-reading strategies for the new “unseen” elements of GCSE? I am beginning to see some light on this. More on it in a later blog.
  • Constructing meaning – during reading strategies
  • Extending meaning – after reading strategies
  • Vocabulary – how to figure out what words mean (some fabulous stuff on prefix and suffixes here)
  • Fluency and automaticity
  • Word recognition
  • Spelling – moving from word lists to how words work
  • Building the confidence to respond (to texts, in class, in writing)
  • Finding the right book

All of the above with practical lessons outlining each element of knowledge needed and how to teach, demonstrate and build confidence in each skill.

Beers’ literally (yes, literally) steps into the classroom with each new strategy and explores how lessons using it were or were not successful.  Where learning needed to be paused and retaught or approached differently.

Each chapter ends with an imaginary Q&A session – Beers’ foreseeing my British scepticism anticipates our problems with turning her thinking into classroom practice.

The just under 100 pages of appendices include templates and lesson plans, spelling lists, book lists for a variety of levels. The book itself is 370 odd pages long – and textbook sized.  This is no mean guide.


When Kids Can’t Read is definitely a practical guide (along the lines of How to be a brilliant English teacher) – it is jammed packed full of ideas and moments of realisation.  But it is not vacuous in its academic rigour – Beers’ clearly knows her stuff.  She references most of the major research into reading in the US during 90s and early 2000s, as mentioned above her knowledge of policy and policy making of reading in the US seems to go beyond that of someone mildly interested.  She has a big picture view but never seems to take her eye off individual students.

Beers’, although she has left the classroom, no doubt left her heart there.

Should you buy it?

As I stated at the outset – I love this book. It is expensive but worth it. Cheeky aside – many of Beers’ strategies are so widely used in the US that they can be found online with a simple search.  Don’t be fooled though. The strategies are fantastic, but it is Beers’ clear explanation of the issues behind the strategies that are revelatory. Without that exposition, you really aren’t doing anything more that making your powerpoint look different.

For English departments where students are entering Year 7 on a Level 5/6 but showing poor fluency, comprehension or understanding of written texts, then I think this book might be right up your street.  For departments where you are now carrying the burden of teaching students to read, this is a mature guide to dealing with this issue and teenagers.

Our English departments tend to be littered with Literature graduates, we are confident readers. We are not always confident with grammar, spelling and vocabulary – this text can help. We are also not always confident with articulating a process that is so natural to us – this text can help.

It will explain to you what you do automatically and how you can help your students do that too.

By embedding some of these strategies into my teaching, I am already beginning to see students more confident in their own opinions and ideas.

They are no longer grappling with a text and then listening carefully for my ideas or the ideas of the 3 or 4 confident readers in the room.

They are beginning to form their own inferences, viewpoints and connections.

Below are some examples of how I am beginning to try out Beers’ vocabulary, spelling and comprehension strategies.

beers 5 beers 4










beers 6

beers 7

Thanks for reading.


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.

Because the sun is at the beginning of the world…

Earlier this week I was marking a piece of imaginative writing by a year 7 student.  The sentence that sparked my thinking was “…and that was when Chris started to rob”.   As a class we had a long conversation about the words “rob” and “steal” the nuances of word use and why perhaps “…and that was when Chris started to steal” might be a better word choice for that sentence.

steal rob















This reminded me of some conversations I had with students about words and word use.  It was during one of my PGCE placements and I was looking at teaching idioms and figurative language to EAL students, within the auspices of War Poetry and Romeo and Juliet.  I wrote up the conversations in great detail at the time because I loved them so much.  Below are some of my favourites:

Asking questions about words:

The extract below  shows a typical example of a classroom exchange on how definition and meaning creation are often implicitly linked and need to be made explicit (it also shows some of my very early mistakes in questioning as a beginner teacher!):

Teacher LE:    Queen Mab is described as no bigger than a stone of someone’s finger (.) What do you think that means?//

Pupil J:                                                            //What is (.) agate (.) stone?//

Pupil ZS:                                                                                             //The stone is (.) big (.) on the finger.//

Teacher LE:    If a stone is (.) sitting on the end of my finger (.) do you think it is big (.) or  small?

Pupil MI:          [Small]

Pupil J:            [Big]

Pupil N:           [Small]

Teacher LE:    //So Queen Mab is described as small enough to sit (.) on the end of a finger  (.) what sort of creation is she?//

Pupil J:                        // Small//

Pupil MH:        //Is she an (.) insect?//

Pupil N:                       //A germ.//

Teacher LE:    So you’re not far off (.) If she is that (.) small (.) where  can she go?

Pupil MH:        //Everywhere//

Playing with words:

In her discussion of the benefits of multilingualism, Ophelia Garcia states “It is as if bilingualism provides x-ray vision, allowing the children to conceptualise underlying structures and to incorporate them into one functioning communicative system.” (Garcia, 2009, p95)

This examples below are taken from a lesson where pupils used language from Wilfred Owen’s ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ to create their own poetry.  Pupils had at this point not read the poem and were free to create interesting word combinations using a list of words taken from the poem.

Pupil MI:          Anger stuttering in my brain

Pupil MS:        My (.) brain (.) mind full (.) of stuttering anger

Pupil J:            Innocent (.) candles (.) shine (.) wailing goodbyes.

Pupil N:           Rapid hands draw silent stuttering (.) prayers

Pupil F:            Monstrous (.) eyes (.) glimmer from (.) demented minds

Pupil ZS:         Silent (.) tenderness (.) who call (.) now (.) for death.

Pupil N representing contribution made by non-participant pupils, reveals a relatively standard (although very poetic) response to the task.  The combination of rapid with hands and silent with stuttering and prayers do not create for the reader atypical images.  By comparison, although the combination of innocent with candles and wailing with goodbyes are again relatively standard, the overall image created by Pupil J (“innocent candles shine wailing goodbyes”) is much more vivid.  Pupil ZS’s contribution of “silent tenderness who call now for death” again produces a much deeper response from the reader; there are several possible inferences and interpretations.  The idea is more playful, although the image itself is anything but.

Written homework by Pupil MI revealed a continuation of this idea:

These guns shout sad words

Shells likes voices of hopeless.

Language is not fixed, it is fluid; additions and subtractions, manipulations and inventions are commonplace.  The contributions made by multilingual pupils in the above lesson enhanced and increased the learning of all in the classroom.  Their ability to play with words, to not see meaning as entirely fixed, allowed monolingual pupils the opportunity see the process by which deeper layers of meaning are created.

Finding your own interpretation:

Pupils discussing metaphors in two different texts were markedly more confident and creative at suggesting meanings after they had themselves written metaphors using the text.  The below is inspired by Romeo’s metaphor ‘Juliet is the sun’.

Teacher LE:        Lets (.) lets hear (.) some of your metaphors

Pupil N:                Juliet (.) is a (.) rose//

Pupil MI:                                          // Juliet is a (.) riped (.) ripe (.) apple tree

…returning to the text:

Teacher LE:        So (.) that means Juliet is?//

Pupil MI:                                              //That (.) Juliet is (.) like the sun for him (.) Romeo (.) because the sun is (.) at the (.) beginning of the world//

Teacher LE:        //at the beginning?//

Pupil MI:                                             //I mean (.) in the middle of the (.) the earth goes around it (.) it is important (.) we cannot live without it//

The above exchange shows, participant pupils writing metaphors based on “Juliet is the sun”.  Following this task, pupils then move on to discuss possible meanings for Romeo’s metaphor.  After some thought, Pupil MI explains that Juliet is the centre of Romeo’s world and he cannot live without her.  As a result of this comment, pupils then continued to suggest a wide variety of other meanings for the metaphor, thus exploring deeper layers of meaning.

In comparison, the exchange below shows pupils’ discussion of metaphorical language in ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ (Appendix Five).  At this stage, pupils had not explored the text beyond standard comprehension tasks.

Pupil MS:        What is froth (.)

Teacher LE:    It’s like foam (.) when a dog has rabies it’s mouth (.)

Pupil ZS:         The lungs have foam? [Like] poison?

Teacher LE:                                       [Yes] (.) Could it suggest (.) anything (.) else

Pupil MI:          They have (.) disease//

Pupil F:                                            //Like (.) rabies

Pupil MI:          He (.) isn’t (.) Wilfred Owen (.) means only (.) that

The above exchange reveals pupils struggling to find meaning beyond that which is provided by the teacher.   Pupil MI eventually concluding that “Wilfred Owen means only that”, this pupil is unable to conceive of any meaning beyond that which has been provided.  The approach which invites pupils to clarify meaning and yet not explore it or use language creatively resulted in the pupils stagnating in their ability to find deeper layers of meaning from the text.  Unlike the prior occasion, pupils here were not given the opportunity to use the language of text creatively and as a result, were limited in their ability to create meaning from the text.


Helping hands

Super simple strategy today, this one is a structured approach to exam questions for students who need extra support.

structured support

The idea originated from a Primary colleague (who attended the epic #TMLiteracy), Paul and his colleagues use hand templates to provide students with feedback and easy to action targets.  Students were able to self assess using them as well, as the hands could either work as a memory cue for success criteria or a review template.  I have used the template in a number of ways over the last few months (see the end of this post for ideas).

However, the most practical seems to have been for students working towards the iGCSE Core paper this summer.  Here’s an example of what students were given to memorise.

Written on the palm of the hand and each finger:

Reading Section – 1 hour

1) Highlight the key words in the question (students are drilled that this includes the line reference).

2) Read the passage.

3) Answer all the questions.

4) Do the 1 and 2 mark questions quickly.

5) If you can’t answer a question move onto the next one.

It’s a ridiculously easy set of instructions isn’t it? But for this particular group of students, they needed the memory cues to keep them working, otherwise if a question stumped them, they would just stop.  In the mocks, I would stand at the front of room and point of my little finger, then my students would mouth their way through the instructions and remember that “if you can’t answer a question move onto the next one”.  A light came on, the pen started moving again.

I want to thank @Kris_Boulton at this point, for his very useful session at #PedagooLondon on memorisation, which has prompted me to rethink the importance of recall for English.

The purpose is not to teach students a structure for answering questions, but to support them with the process of answering.

It takes a lot to be exam ready; content and skills are all very well, but if the process of working through a paper is a challenge, then we start on the back foot.

More ideas for the hand template:

1. Target setting – stapled into the front of classwork books, each time a target is met and a new one set.  I have used it for “5 steps to Level 5”.

2. Success criteria – teacher sets 3 of the criteria, students sets the last 2 individually.

3. 5 things I know – this week it was 5 things I know about Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

4. 5 sentence structures – a permanent prompt for the best writing structures. The more, more, more sentence etc.

Lot’s of possibilities…

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.