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



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 2 (KS4 to KS5)

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

Teaching risk taking

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

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

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

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

princes of the blood

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

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

Mrs E: Errr… you tell me.

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

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


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

Mrs E: Yay, what else?

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

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

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

Student D: Who are they heir to?

Mrs E: Keep going.

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

Mrs E: And…

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

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

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

Risk cards

A post on iceberg thinking cards to follow.

13 minutes of fame (or vocabulary acquisition)

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

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

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

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


Hour1 – Introduce the vocabulary (word encounter #1)

The visual word wall:

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

visual word wall

Hour 1 – Vocabulary frames (word encounter #2)

Students then select the 4 words they are least familiar with and make vocabulary frames for them.  See here for more info on how to use vocabulary frames – http://learningtasks.weebly.com/vocabulary-strategies.html


Hour 1 – Thesis statements (word encounter #3)

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

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

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

Hour 2 – Vocabulary spat (word encounter #4)

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


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

Hour 2 – lino (word encounter #5)

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


lino 2

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

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

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

Question ball

Examples from last year were:

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

You get the idea.

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

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

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

Hour 3 – Snow storm (word encounter #7)

snow storm

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

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

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

What have I learnt from this?

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

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

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

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

Skills transition (KS4 to KS5)

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

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

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

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

Year 1 – obsession with Blooms

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

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


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

Out came the “creative” activities cards.


Year 2 – Knee jerk obsession with assessment objectives

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


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

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

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

Year 3 – Worth Taking a Risk

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

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


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

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

big picture

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

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

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

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

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

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

25 ideas for increasing student talk…

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

25 ideas

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

25 ideas for increasing student talk in lessons

More to follow on other student talk activities.

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

More than a bowl of spag (my Goldsmiths presentation)

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

Here is what we discussed.

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

The strategies handout – Handout – strategies

The poem – Auschwitz by Elizabeth Wise

The non-fiction text Auschwitz info

Killing the question, becoming more

I am free

When I first read about Kill the Question on @rlj1981’s blog (http://createinnovateexplore.wordpress.com/2013/04/19/3d-planning-and-kill-the-question/) the idea got me pretty excited.

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

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

Kill the question

Working up to it:

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

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

The activity:

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

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

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

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

Kill the question 2

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

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

kill the question - lord of the flies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next year then.

What came next?  The workshop

Kill the content  kill the question

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

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

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

year 12 literacy 2

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

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

year 12 literacy

We expected each group to provide evidence from:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Becoming more

This workshop got me thinking.

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

I stumbled across this resource on TES – http://www.tes.co.uk/teaching-resource/50-things-to-do-before-you-and-39-re-twenty-6180376/ and I fell in love.  This became my year 12s homework task each week until the holidays.  We made a list of 50 things and each week they would choose one (so did I) and come with some kind of evidence (generally photographic) before the following week.

50 things

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

For those few weeks, we became more.

spaceelevatornicechicken guitar

An Ode To Nothing


This short blog post is an ode to a practical and useful book I have used in the last 10+ years of teaching grammar.  For anyone who’s interested and has the money, it contains 70 grammar, language activities which are aimed at developing language use (please see note at the bottom of this post though…).  It is a very low tech book.  That’s one of the reasons I love it.  It’s broken down into sections called “Activities using no resources” and “Activities using pens and paper only”.  I was as appreciative of these categories in a basement in Soho as I was in foreign parts.

Why should you care?

One of the interesting challenges of recent inspection / observation criteria is this idea of “just going with it”.  Whilst I don’t want to get into the debate surrounding the semantics of what this means or whether it should exist, I realise it does.  As an English teacher, and facing another academic year teaching only our lowest ability students, I recognise that sometimes “just going with it” won’t always be about jumping off the brightest spark and launching into the stratosphere.  Sometimes it will mean stopping everything because we need to revise adverbs, synonyms, idioms (the list goes on).  For me, the challenge of this kind of “going with it” is my lack of instant preparedness.  Jumping off an idea is easier.  Being instantly prepared to teach a grammar feature is a bit harder.

I used Lessons from Nothing before I went into teaching secondary English.  However, it wasn’t long before I found myself adapting and modifying my tried and tested favourites to match what was needed in my classroom.

Below are 3 of my favourite “instant grammar” activities.   There is nothing mind blowing here.  But that isn’t what I want when I am trying to “go with it” in the midst of everything else.

Adverb game (no resources needed)

Most of us will have played this game in some form, but perhaps not this one.   I brainstorm a bunch of actions (please blow your nose) and a bunch of adverbs (violently) in advance.  Each student takes a turn at the front of the class and they are instructed to dramatise one of the actions in the manner of one of the adverbs.

Please blow your nose – romantically.

Please stroke the cat – curiously.

The rest of the class guess the action first and the modifier (adverb) next, thus underlining that adverbs modify verbs.  Yes, I know they also modify adjectives and other adverbs – but not in this game.

Change it (no resources needed)

This is a re-drafting activity which helps students internalise grammatical constructions through verbal redrafting.  I use this activity more (I’m not sure why) when teaching non-fiction writing.

I begin with a sentence “The newspaper said the situation was unable.”

We discuss whether we have been given any useful or specific information.  The answer, of course, is “no”.

Students are then asked to change any word within the sentence (I try not to say “to make it better”), any change that is grammatically correct.

Examples of the changes include:

“The newspaper said the mountain was unstable.”

“The scientist said the mountain was unstable”.

It can also be used  to teach embedded clauses and relative clauses.


Useful for teaching synonyms where the definitions do vary by degree.

Get students to brainstorms all the synonyms for the word “small”.

Draw a staircase on the board.


Then agree together where each ones goes in relation to the others.

microscopic – tiny – little – small

Do you agree?  No, why not?  Which one would you change?

The Ode’s End

I would be interested to know if you have any instant grammar exercise that you use regularly, the more low tech the better.  I also don’t expect everyone to rush out and buy this book (if you are considering please see below).

I’ve also got a few more examples to add, which I will photograph and upload next term.

If you are considering buying this book, please be aware many of the activities are stalwarts of every English department.  For example consequence, hangman, tableaux, anagrams, crosswords etc.

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.