A Minor Role – UA Fanthorpe

I love that we are getting some fresh blood through on the new GCSE and A Level syllabuses.  Well fresh-ish.  If you are teaching the Edexcel A level specification that you will have had to decide whether to go for their collection of modern poems from Poems of the Decade (Forward Press).

I love this collection.

UA Fanthorpe is one of my favourite poets – so if you are doing Edexcel – here are my lesson resources on A Minor Role.

A Minor Role lesson – LGE A Minor Role – hwk questions

A Minor Role lesson – LGE

Hope you can find them useful.



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.


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.

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

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 – http://www.thecreativitycore.com/

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 (http://www.logolalia.com/alteredbooks/).  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.

The silent lesson

I’ve had a few questions (via twitter) about the practicality of the silent lesson (mentioned in my last student talk post).  So I thought I would share an example of a ‘normal’ English lesson where I didn’t speak.

This was part of a year 9 unit on war poetry and we were studying an exert (below) from Elizabeth Wise’s poem Auschwitz.

From the poem Auschwitz by Elizabeth Wise

What big heavy doors!

Strange, lingering odour,

Faint but still here…strong disinfectant

‘Stand round the shower point’

Wait for the water.  Don’t think about the crowd.

They don’t notice your degradation.

They can’t see your shaved head from all the rest!

My God!…They’re locking those bloody great doors!

Why?…It can’t be!

No, the water will come in a minute.

Don’t cry, just be patient,

It will be over very soon.

There’s a noise – up there.

He’s lifting the grate.

All eyes watching, wondering.

No sound.

What are those pellets?…Dry disinfectant.


Gas! Gas! Gas! Panic!

The screams, the clutching,

Pulling, scrambling.

The total terror of realisation.

Timeless minutes climbing and scrambling.

Families forgotten.Self preservation.

Flesh on flesh – clutching and tearing.

Gas, screams, death…silence.

As you will see from the powerpoint, I did all the usual English type activities – a pre-reading activity, some technique analysis and a PQE response.  In a normal lesson, this whole thing could have been quite dry.  The choice of poem was an important one, students know about Auschwitz, this section of the poem is dramatic and heart wrenching but there also some questions like how did she survive? Was Elizabeth Wise actually there?  The poem itself is one that students enjoy talking about and that was the key.

You will see from the powerpoint Teacher silent lesson example I was typing questions or prompts onto the board as I went.   I also had an LSA in the room, although we had agreed in advance that she would provide no support beyond her normal written intervention for specific students.

Why not have a go?