My bleeping research project – part 1

Stop peeing

I have blogged many times about essay writing before, I glowed with righteous indignation about the writing I saw being taught over and over by colleagues (and myself). I decided that essay writing in English needed a reboot and I wanted to get it done.

It’s funny how time, and thought, and reading, and talking to experts can bring sense and maturity.   Here’s a little bit of my journey (also known as “the bleeping research project”).

I have split my summary into 4 parts:

Part 1 – the research project

Part 2 – what I actually taught the control group and the test group

Part 3 – the findings

Part 4 – what I “think” this means.

Here is part 1.

The bleeping research project

Every research project needs a hypothesis. Here’s mine. You can see already how lopsided I am. I wouldn’t cut in the ivory corridors of edu-research.


The plan was to compare the written outcomes of two Year 7 classes, who were learning essay writing for the very first time.  My school were generous enough to let me go for it.


At first I was sure what the relevance of this context would be, but it did ‘feel’ significance at the time. To focus you then, each of the 64 students in the two classes had secured L5 for Reading and Writing in Year 6 and most had achieved a verbal/non-verbal reasoning top band score.  This became relevant later on when I needed to tackle the “how do we write our ideas down” issue. It also then questions the relevance of anything I have to say about essay writing for mid or lower ability students (forgive the “ability” word). More on this in part 3 and 4.

Class 1: PEE/PQE – the control group.

  • Participant students studied a literary text through a series of structured exposition lessons (the same introductory lessons for both classes).
  • Students then used our in-house PEE essay structure and sentence starters to write an analytical response. These responses were compared against responses gathered from the test group.
  • The rationale of the control group is to allow validation of the success and usefulness of simplified essay structures.

Class 2: the test group.

  • Participant students studied the same literary text and participated in the same exposition lessons.
  • Students were then exposed to the essay question and allowed to explore this freely.
  • Students then worked together to discuss how a written response should be organised and written up.

With just one lesson a week I was limited with what could be done, so we worked out that this was possible:

  • Over 3 terms teach 3 bespoke literature units, pupils write 3 separate essays – one per unit.*
  • A short story, a collection of poetry and a play.
  • End of year 7 exam – an unseen poem.
  • Surveys of student experience

These essays were then to analysed and given numeric scores:

  • Length of response
  • Number of analytical words used (pre-defined set)
  • Score out of 20 quality of analysis (pre-defined set – subjective)

We (colleagues, tutors from my MA, various English-types who offered advice) oscillated numerous times on the best way to collect data from these essays.

The length of each response was decided upon because it is a ‘truism’ that pupils who use PQE structures or sentence openers only ever write short analytical paragraphs.  It was also then an expectation that not using a PQE structure should result in a longer response. Were longer responses better – in that you have more opportunity for the quality of analysis.

The number of analytical words used became significant because having discussed “what an essay is” both classes also had to tackle “what analysis is” and this was and could be done without any reference to essay writing, essay structure or essay sentence openers.

The pre-defined set of analytical words had also been part of the very early teaching of all Year 7 students in the very first week of the year before they were placed in sets. They had tackled all of them and practiced using them.  For interest – here’s the list:


The quality of analysis would have perhaps been the most difficult one to tackle if I had been doing all this alone. But my department had last year decided to take on the new Edexcel Language and Literature GCSE and with it came some comprehensive KS3 assessment criteria.  We therefore have our own in-house assessment system for essay writing in English which is detailed in minutiae. A pain as a classroom teacher. Great for my bleeping project.

Before I go any further, I probably also need to be upfront about some of the mitigating factors.

  • Both classes had 2 hours of English a week with another teacher. Although neither classes were ‘taught’ essay writing by their other teacher, they were expected to create analytical writing following which method I had covered with them.
  • Both classes participated in the usual assessed essay responses in line with internal assessment and data collection.
  • The school planners have a PEE frame in them.
  • Some students have parents who are English teachers (well, it could totally be a thing, couldn’t it!).
  • Some students were aware of PEE from primary school.
  • Marking and feedback was given on each essay (more on this later).

I am trying to keep these blog posts as short as possible, so that’s it for now, the next part will be: What I actually taught the control group and the test group.

*At the end of the academic year 14/15 it was agreed to continue the research project into year 8 which the same group of students.

Thanks for reading,



Let whoever is without sin…

Esse Quam Videri

24th December 2015

People as things

A recent blog by Tarjinder Gill really got me thinking. I instinctively dislike the identity politics that is currently so popular with some parts of the left wing and she made me dig deeper into why that was. She argued passionately that we are united by our humanity. I agree that the sort of labels used to define those subject to discrimination and in an effort to correct injustice, can simply make us lose sight of shared humanity. A particular memory from my past stands out when I think about this:

It was a long drive to visit my 88 year old father around the M25 from Reigate to Barnet, especially for a young and frazzled NQT.  I arrived to hear him literally hollering at the home help. The agency used by the council often sent different people but I’d met this this chap before and felt…

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Everyday Writing

Raymond Bradbury is reported to have said (among other things):

Raymond Bradbury

Over 20 years ago this advice was given to us – a gaggle of wet-behind-the-ears Creative Writing undergraduates. It seems rather contrived now: to carry about a notebook and chewed pencil end. But I do. The purpose then was to build fluency. Fluency in the practicality of writing, fluency in expression, voice, inspiration, and silence. “Building writers is like building a wall,” said one professor, “one sodding brick at a time.”

It would be gross exaggeration to say that I have followed Bradbury’s advice faithfully. But over the last 20 years I have filled some 15 notebooks and over a hundred pages online of writing.

When I was 20 years old, my writing voice was cynical, dark, and worrying. At 30 years old, the voice was hollow: falsely buoyant, darkly comic, restricted and curious. Now at 40, my writing voice is no more confident or certain, it is changing again. Bleak landscapes inhabited by warm-hearted individuals; pain moulded relationships living in richly symbolic environments. My writing has shifted in style too, sometimes daily it seems. Laboriously dense description. Then sparse. And every shade between.

Every time I sit down to write (honestly now perhaps 3 or 4 times a week) I start with anxiety. What shall I write about? How will I start? The waiting and the silence are hard task masters. Only with years have I realised these moments are also part of the process. So I feel great empathy for the students I teach who struggle with the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of writing.

Like so many things in English – we as teachers are often the jack-of-all-trades, and while I don’t necessarily want to use the word ‘master’, I must confess that even with over 20 years of writing, a degree and a Masters in it – I still don’t feel well qualified to teach it in the classroom.

Teaching writing means so many things…

Handwriting. Spelling. Grammar. Punctuation. Sentence openers. Techniques. Sentence length.

It is this multiplicity of outcomes that I think has inaccurately shifted the spotlight of emphasis onto the technicalities of writing, rather than the what of writing.

So this year, we have been giving students the opportunity to write more.

Here’s what it looks like:

  1.  A short exemplar of either narrative voice; setting; character; dialogue; action (etc). I rotate focus and style for variety’s sake.
    This is the ‘read more’ bit of Bradbury’s advice.  We have a huge collection of mini-exemplars available for any and every purpose.

Flannery OConnor

The above is the opening of Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood – we use this with nearly every year group.

2. A simple instruction that focusses on who the narrative voice is and what the content is:

3. Free writing. At first we do two minutes, then 4, then 5. We alternate these depending on what else we are covering in a lesson. These writing moments are not designed to create polished writing. The purpose is to ask students to write often, write variety and to write freely.

4. We do this daily (if possible) sometimes in class, sometimes at home. I have started generating Writing Calendars for students and colleagues who want to write every day.  More, more, more writing is the point.


5. Spit and polish. At the end of a particular session of writing (perhaps 3 lessons, perhaps 6) students then choose which piece they would like to develop. The word ‘develop’ here is significant for me. It would be very easy to use the word ‘improve’ but improvements often imply an APP style success criteria that requires students to write more like Dickens and less like Hemingway.

So we return again to narrative voice and style – who is this person telling this story? What is important to them? What do they need the reader to know, to feel, to think?

We ask:

  1. How does this person think and speak?
    Unless they are Victorian then we don’t need to sound like Henry James; we then go back to our exemplars and find example of one that is closest in style.
  2. How quickly is the drama or action unfolding?
    This will often shape the sentence length and sentence structure used.
  3. What is the most important detail?
    This is the focus for descriptive techniques – here is often when I give my one restricting instruction. Just one technique* allowed in this piece of writing.
    Choose it well. Plan it well. Use it well.


DSC_0012_2* As a side note here, I tend not to encourage the use of poetic techniques in prose writing (alliteration, onomatopoeia etc). We teach personification (and pathetic fallacy) and extended metaphor.


If you are interested in the daily writing calendars they can be found on TPT here.

Goal setting 2016

My registration group are approaching their first set of big exams.  Nerves and nonchalance abound in equal measure.

Sometimes we need a bit of a plan.  So we made one. A small, manageable plan for each month in 2016. Work stuff, home stuff, fun stuff. Easy and hard stuff.  We planned it all.

number the stars

If you would like to use this with your classes – you can find it on TPT here.

How to Read: TLT15

Reading all the Books

On 17th October, I travelled to Southampton for my second year presenting at TLT. I was talking about reading (not much new there), and, specifically, how to read. Reading, of course, is at the core of what we do as teachers; and not just as teachers of English. More and more in my new role, I’m coming to see that reading may be the only silver bullet in education: beautiful in its simplicity, obvious in its impact.

The reality is that our strongest readers read the most, and our weakest readers the least: the exact opposite what we need to see to close the gap between our best and worst performing students. This is not only true in their home lives, but also in our classrooms. Anyone who has ever asked for volunteers to read (including: me; guilty as charged) is advantaging those strong readers, and further denying reading…

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Stepping up


Update on the Teach First Innovation Awards

We had a remarkable evening at the Teach First Innovation Awards on Thursday 3 September. There is a buzz and optimism about Teach First that is the tonic we need after so long feeling, as a former award winner described it, like a ‘lone wolf’.

The other finalists are a great bunch and all of their ideas are stellar. We recommend you take a look at their ideas:

The Advocacy Academy @AdvocacyAcademy

Graduate School of Education @matthewhood

The Grub Club @thegrubclub2015

Mindful Music @MindfulMusicLdn

Powered by Me (no website / Twitter yet)

Tales Toolkit @TalesToolkit

We are looking forward to working with them – and are hoping that despite The Advocacy Academy and Powered by Me not winning in this round, that there will still be support available to help them get lift-off for what are clearly strong ideas.

Winners 2

We were of course…

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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.


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