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






Studying unseen fiction (part 1)


garden-gnome-523380_640One of the real pleasures of teaching CIE iGCSE Literature this year was preparing students for analysis of unseen prose fiction. Unlike the Language counterpart – the prose fiction selected by Cambridge have always unusual, interesting and challenging.

The new English Language GCSE sticks unseen fiction back in the game from this September and whether you have chosen a board that does contemporary or old, it will be something to tackle.

It’s a bit different, but the same as well.


Prose extracts whether they are from short or long fiction provide a unique opportunity to test students independent inference and deduction skills. After all, we aren’t in the room to clarify plot, character, themes and purpose. Nor is there the typical Unit 1 shouty headline and garish picture choice to help guide understanding.  Students are presented with part of a text, rather than a whole. They are literally in medias res.

How did I work it out?

Culture of strong readers

Now is this time – more than ever before – to look at the culture of reading in your school. It is clear that students who are strong readers – whether they read extensively for pleasure or not – will be more successful than those who aren’t. I have written before about the importance of developing readers who are confident. In this new exam, we cannot risk students who stumble through sentences struggling to decode individual words at the loss of whole passage meaning.

But how, here are a few things I have tried:

  1. Talk a lot about what I read. I don’t just mean the obligatory Miss L is reading posters. I have used whole school assembly time to talk about reading, struggling with reading, about books.  I regularly start my lessons with a book review, a mini-read (the bit just before the oh-shit moment is always a good one to read), a book trailer. Talk about books a lot.
  2. Article of the week. This is something else that I have written on before. The idea from Kelly Gallagher was first implemented to build cultural knowledge – to get students to think about current issues, to help them understand the world they are growing up. For part of the year – I did this. It resulted in some of the best classroom conversations I have ever had. See here for one.
    The idea is that each week you set an article for a homework task and students respond to it with some reflective writing. This can work just as well with prose fiction extracts and in fact, although I loved the discussions that resulted from the non-fiction articles I set, I loved even more the learning that resulted from the prose extracts.

Teaching unseen prose fiction – what, how and maybe why?

The process seemed pretty simple to me, at the beginning. We need to be able to pick up any extract and say what was going on, how the writer created these goings and why.

So working out what is happening in an unseen text is the first port of call. Basic comprehension seems obvious enough. Yet we don’t often tackle it in KS3 anymore, not cold, without any surrounding prior knowledge. In terms out that actions and events are easily misinterpreted.

Here is the process we came up with (minus the exam question hoo-ha):

  1. Read the text. Read it again. Read it a third time.
  2. Write a bullet summary of the WHAT covering – characters, events, relationships.  WHAT the writer is doing.

Seems simple enough doesn’t it? I challenge you to try it – perhaps even with this CIE old exam paper. Unseen lit paper – example 1 It’s amazing what different versions of the conversation between Dr Aziz and Mrs Moore I got. Were they arguing, were they flirting, are they friends, strangers?

We spent more time than expected get good and accurate at reading the WHAT in unseen texts.  This is where my prose fiction article of the week came in useful. But also 100s of paragraph long extracts as starter tasks.

Next came how – HOW is the writer are doing the WHAT?

    1. We would always start with dialogue for prose fiction, CIE are pretty reliable at choosing an extract with good dialogue.
      How does the dialogue reveal character, relationships?
      How does the dialogue move the action forward?
      How does the dialogue reveal history, background?
    2. Setting is another one that students can get their mitts on with relative ease – how does the writer bring the place to life?
    3. Mood is less easy if you haven’t done prior work on it. Mood in prose fiction is often connected with those awful vague adjectives like gloomy and eerie. I think mood and reader’s reaction are also sometimes confused.   This blog does a better job of explaining it –  I use the list of mood words here to study sentences and short extracts before we tackle longer ones. I have some lesson resources to share on mood shortly.
    4. Language, form and structure come more naturally – they are ingrained in our curriculum and students tend to be happy finding techniques. The above groundwork should ensure that they have something to say once they have found them.
    5. Themes and ideas can be another tricky one – while it might be possible to identify the theme of mortality or death in an extract concerning a funeral, it would be very difficult for a student to infer where the writer might be going with that idea.  We don’t have a long view.  We can hedge our bets “The writer might be suggesting” but before we go this far, we have to ask what are the expectation of analysing themes in an unseen text? It is not the same as looking at science and religion in Jekyll & Hyde.

Why – why is the writer up to all this?

To adequately look at themes and ideas, we must tackle the WHY. And if I’m honest – this was the area that I found most difficult. We are used to teaching the writer’s purpose, intention. After all every text has a message – we know that.   So tricky was the why, that it deserves it’s very own blog post. Soon, promise.

Thanks for reading

ps. You may want to ignore all of the above after results day next week.


Espresso Yourself

We heart school1

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

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

Sometimes we just need a little bit of time.

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

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

Espresso yourself blog

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


Book review: Raising Achievement by Caroline Bentley-Davies

Raising Achievement

The Teachers’ Pocketbook series is designed as handy overview of some the key areas of interest to teachers and school leaders. Raising Achievement does just that. Although it is easy to forget it is a pocketbook at all – so vast are the areas that Caroline Bentley-Davies manages to cover. At 128 pages including the myths of achievement; relevant research; metacognition; countless practical tips and a self-audit. There is nothing reduced or curtailed in this overview of raising achievement. Brevity and precision focus on the topic are what Caroline Bentley-Davies achieves and this is to our benefit.

The view here is holistic, there is no miracle cure for raising achievement – it cannot be done at the snap of our fingers, yet Caroline Bentley-Davies brings a lot of hope in her clear, strategic and practical approach. She covers honestly the issues for classroom teachers, students themselves, support teams, SLT and parents. The practical tips cover everything from first teaching strategies, to feedback, to revision. Sutton Trust and John Hattie are neatly segued into her practical thinking, as is Dweck’s Growth Mindset. While the case studies may be slightly obvious, Caroline Bentley-Davies highlights the gaps and errors we all make when we are hurrying through our curriculum.

Raising achievement is a thing, even in schools where results are good. There are always groups who are underachieving, they might not be pupil premium or able lazy boys, but they are there. It’s easy to think that if we just get on with good teaching then these groups should make progress like everyone. Right? No. It is clear from reading this book that I can look again at how I deal with the graffiti girls and sporting heroes in my school. But the best thing is – I don’t feel that crushing dread at the thought of tackling this issue, because now I have an overview of the ins and outs and some practical tips to try. I really like the idea of family learning – that’s first on my agenda.

I can honestly say I would never pick up a book with ‘raising achievement’ in its title. But I am glad I did.

I was provided a free copy of this book by the author in return for a fair review.

Always look on the bright side of life


Motivational posterLanguage is a wonderful and precious double-edged sword. It has the ability to build and create but can just as easily destroy.

I have a very distinct memory from my time as a secondary school pupil – it was an assembly. We were informed in clear and definite terms that things had changed and it was no longer acceptable to refer to someone as ‘coloured’. That term – too connected to South Africa, apartheid – now held such unpleasant connotations that we needed to drop it.  And so we did.

At various times in my teaching career, words have been banned. Words ‘like’ or ‘ain’t’ are popular – and when well communicated most students see the benefit of being able to express an idea without them.  I worked in Croydon when one famous academy chain banned a whole bunch of words, putting a sign up saying “we woz” is banned. The irony.

‘Basically’ is the classic student sentence opener these days. When students use it – I blame myself.  It’s a filler word, they haven’t clearly formed an answer because I probably didn’t give them enough thinking time.  So I stop, allow time and start again.

All of the above shaping of language seems acceptable, doesn’t it? It is either curtailing prejudice or you know, like, stuff that basically makes you look less cleverer. But who decides what is acceptable or unacceptable?  Where the line between hate-talk and censorship falls?

In 2012, the US Department of Education created a list of words that it wanted removed from classrooms.  It contains some hilarious entries – dinosaur (for creationists among us) and Halloween.  These silly additions belie the worrying undercurrent of some of the other words on the list.  Poverty. Abuse. Freedom. War.  Slavery. Terrorism. Homelessness.

The legislation of language is something that I find troubling in general.  Each year I have to retackle my thinking on it – the ‘nigger’ in Of Mice and Men (or the ‘bitch, slut, tramp, tart’ – although we don’t seem to mind that so much) – forces me to grapple with whether language should or can be censored. And if indeed whether language is the problem at all.

Banning words – one example would be the word ‘banter’ – does not stop teasing or cruelty.  Does censoring student language, help them change their behaviour? Is this what happened when we stopped using the word ‘coloured’? I don’t think so.

The opposite works equally. The muttering over and over of positivity does not necessarily result in rainbows and unicorns.  Singing ‘all things bright and beautiful’ does not the weather change. But I do know many, many people who find comfort in the language of positive thought (religious or otherwise) and are convinced that it can lift the spirits.

How do we decide what approach should be used and enforced in school?  Who should decide this?

I am deeply uncomfortable with banning words – I am happy, always happy, to talk about words and the power that words have.

I am deeply uncomfortable with the use of words to control behaviour. Even when this is designed for positive effect. I don’t like maxims or tenets or sayings – I understand rhetoric, please don’t ask me to use rhetoric that is so hollow, it is in fact empty.

Here’s what I will do:

Talk about words and why words are powerful.

Talk about why words should be spoken with thought.

Explore the responsibility we have for the impact of our words.





Slaying the dragons we can’t see

slaying dragons

We had our final parents’ evening of the year this last week. Year 10.

My year 10 class is small. Just 19 pupils, with FFTs ranging from B – D. We have the luxury of three ‘top’ sets this year, which means my set, set 4, isn’t overcrowded. For a number of reasons, this was and is important. For the kids themselves it mattered.

We started the academic year with a piece of coursework on Romeo and Juliet, an analysis of Mercutio’s character – comparing the play and Leo’s film. It was the perfect beginning to the year – subject content that was gripping and slightly controversial, paired with a tricky outcome. At the time, that comparative essay felt like a Herculean labour.

When I gave marks back to the class, I saw only two reactions. One was “Yes Miss!” the pride and jubilation displayed by male pupils. They deserved to be proud and I celebrated with them. After all, we had slayed the dragon.

rocky 1

The second reaction quieter and less certain. The female pupils in my class had been equally successful, but their success produced a type of shock that made me deeply unhappy. It was an undeserving, anxious surprise. One that meant they needed to check that there wasn’t a mistake.


I have seen this reaction time and again this year. When studying modern drama, poetry and imaginative writing. The girls seem so uncertain of their own abilities.

My year 10 girls have a difficult road to navigate. They are not top set nerds. They are pretty and popular. Their social life matters. Yet they are hard workers, the grafters who write everything you say down because they might need it sometime. They check repeatedly the requirements of a piece of coursework or an exam. They read and annotate the mark scheme. They copy up notes to ensure they are neat and orderly.

Why then is their success a surprise?


At parents’ evening I tried to tackle this issue. I ended up having roughly one of two conversations. Here’s how the first conversation went:

Me: Your daughter is an excellent student, but I am worried that her lack of confidence might end up hindering her. She seems so surprised when she does well.

Parent: She’s always found English hard though.

Me: She doesn’t find English hard – some bits need more time and planning, but I don’t have any concerns about her. In fact, she got a B on her last piece of coursework.

Parent: A ‘B’? Wow. I hated English at school. She’s doing better than me.

Me: Do you ever ask her about what we are studying? Her ideas in lessons are really clever.

Parent: She said you did Shakespeare, I hated Shakespeare at school.

Me: Please do encourage her to tell you about her work. It is excellent. Perhaps you could have a look at her book sometime?

Parent: I wouldn’t understand it, would I?


The second conversation went a bit like this:

Me: Your daughter is an excellent student, but I am worried that her lack of confidence might end up hindering her. She seems so surprised when she does well.

Parent: She gets really upset and worried about everything. She just wants to do well.

Me: She is doing well already. We are half way through year 10 and she is already writing at a B grade. She shouldn’t act surprised when that happens.

Parent: She doesn’t think she is clever.

Me: I wish she wouldn’t feel like it’s luck or a one-off thing. It is all down to her. She needs to develop more trust in herself. She does everything we expect of her so of course, she is going to be successful.

Seeing my class again after parents’ evening, I was more determined than ever to see if I was in some way helping or hindering these girls.

What did I notice?

  1. At the front of their exercise books, my class have a sheet of everything we cover in year 10. They tick off the subject content and reminders about mark schemes and exam percentages. To this I have added a checklist of skills in Literature and Language (for example – close analysis of language). At the end of each lesson, students tick off the skills we have used or worked on. Although in itself this is pretty meaningless, I can use it as a visual for the girls later – ‘Look how often we have studied this skill, you know what you’re doing. Trust yourself.’
  2. I found that I was instinctively more inclined to take answers first from the ‘more confident’ boys and the girls were happier adding to the boys’ answers. I am starting to warn the girls in advance about the question I would like them to answer. The boys then had to build on their ideas.
  3. The girls always wanted to check with me first, before doing something. I was their ‘built-in’ approver. So now the girls have to write their idea or sentence first and then tell me what is good about it or what they think still needs work.
  4. We have a whole school boy/girl seating plan policy. So every unconfident girl is sitting with a generally more confident boy. This means again the more confident boy is often shaping the conversation and discussion. Now I have moved the girls so that they are seated within range of other girls that they can turn and talk to. I need to monitor the success of this before I can say whether it’s effective or not.
  5. I circulate this small class often. My circuit has tended to go via some of the boys who have other needs first. Now I go to the girls first, check they are confident in the task and what is needed, before I move on.

It’s funny how often I was unconsciously feeding their lack of confidence.  I am so much more aware of this now.  I am absolutely determined that these girls will stop seeing their success as a fluke or an accident.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

Thanks for reading





A Matter of Fact #6 – Travel texts – Southern Chile

Two travel texts this week, both on the beautiful landscape of Patagonia in Southern Chile.

matter of fact 6

As per usual, I have included short and long answer questions, a comparison question and two transactional writing texts.

Here is the PDF: Patagonia

If you spot any great articles, please do let me know either via the comments or on twitter.

Thanks for reading,



Don’t panic – 100% exam

blog 1Exam prep getting you twitchy yet?
Yeah me too.

I have a bunch of exam classes this year, one however is causing me to pause and think.

My top set year 11 English class are doing (essentially) 100% exam for Language and Literature.

The decision was taken in late September that they would take (in addition to the planned CIE iGCSE Literature qualification) the 80% exam version of CIE iGCSE Language.  The 20% being the S&L that remains with this qualification.

I don’t want to get into the whys and wherefores here.  Yet – it continues to make me pause.  Their exam schedule will go something like this:

  1. Language Extended Reading paper – 3 questions on 2 unseen texts
  2. Language Directed Writing paper – 2 questions based on unseen 1 text
  3. Literature Prose and Poetry closed text – 2 questions, 1 on Literary Heritage text and 1 on a collection of poetry
  4. Literature Drama open text – 1 question on a Shakespeare play
  5. Literature Unseen – 1 question on an unseen extract or poem.

Rather than preparing for this over two academic years, we have had just one.  In that time we have read Jekyll & Hyde, the CIE poetry collection – Songs of Ourselves and The Tempest.

As a result, being exam ready is taking on a whole new meaning for me.  The sheer volume of material to cover for the Literature means I have had to teach the Language elements implicitly whilst teaching the Literature.

Last Monday evening, I delivered a staff INSET session on practical approaches to exam readiness.   Below is a brief summary of my approach – which is inspired by Doug Lemov’s Practice Perfect (which I highly recommend).


1. Encode success – content is king.
It would have been very easy for me to rush through the knowledge content of the course.  Knowing that you have 6 months to prepare students for 5 exams and read 3 texts, might result in a pressure kick.  Whilst I do believe in ensuring there is time for revision, I could not rush the teaching.  It took us from September through to early December to read Jekyll and Hyde.  December and January were dedicated to the 15 poems and now we re-reading The Tempest in its entirety.


We revised and tested our knowledge as we went.  Writing essays, summarising, creating revision resources along the way.  They will be no time for in-depth revision later.

2. Analyse the game and embed the process


Yet this is not an exercise in intelligent curiosity.  Pupils are studying for a purpose and as broad ranging as my class discussions may be, their examination answers are the end product.  We must be realistic about the hoops that examiners asks pupils to jump through.  Know them and show them.


Within this is instilling confidence with exam questions and answer processes.

The wording of individual exam questions is predictable.  There is often a rubric used, so that the given content of a year is almost the only change.  It seems logical to share this rubric with students.  Have them sort it out, internalise it and remove the fear.  To give them an extract and have them use the rubric (aka exam question generator) write an easy exam question, a tough one, one they would love, one they would hate, the left-field one, the one even Mrs Enstone would hate.

Hand in hand with this goes the rubric process of answering a question.  Mark schemes don’t change year on year and as such we should be able to help pupils articulate and internalise the process of answering any question.  “Question 1 Miss? I need to do this, this and this. So first I’m going to…”

3. Isolate the skill


The skill of memorisation cannot be championed in the classroom enough.  My students are fantastically knowledgeable about the texts we have studied.  Yet their ability to apply sophisticated technical literary terminology is still emerging. It’s only through dedicated classroom time to memorising can I ensure that this vocabulary is confidently secured early.  Linking texts and ideas to critical terminology makes sense.

blog 2

Literary terminology can be like stacking dolls – once you remember one term, they kind of unstack around you and suddenly you’ve remembered 15 clever words.

Those triggers are easy to identify and pounce on – I use bits of the examination hall as the triggers. A photo of the door, the lights, the clock.

A photo of the stage in our examination hall reminds us of: Stagecraft > Caricatures > Facades > Duplicity > Repression > Social norms > Stereotypes > Gender.

Each of these terms links to moments in the texts we have studied. Each idea can be unpacked precisely and in detail.  Each will trigger a series of single word quotations.

4. Make a P.L.A.N


We don’t have time to create and learn different approaches to essay planning. The questions and mark schemes are too varied.  I don’t want my pupils to have to pause and search for a different plan for each question. I trust they know the content and are prepared – the PLAN strategy works for each question on every paper. P.L.A.N was suggested by the very lovely Mrs S (@HeadofEnglish) – it hasn’t failed me yet.

5. Plan with marks in mind

Planning with marks in mind means I must tackle the hard questions now – or even way before now.

Do we know how to gain full marks?
Could we write a full marks answer in exam conditions?
Is this true for every question on every paper?

My class is an A/A* group – I must be able to answer yes to these questions, otherwise what am I doing in my classroom?


Being an examiner helps (though not in a literal sense as I don’t teach the exam board I examine for), yet it’s the research that counts. Reading examiners reports, studying exemplars, recalling papers, writing answers myself and having them marked.

6. Plan to the last minute

I’m pretty confident now with the CIE exams. I know where the strengths and weaknesses lie. Now students can play these to their advantage.


Why not answer the questions in a different order?

If pupils have internalised all the knowledge and processes needed beforehand, the mystery and fear of the paper is removed. The last step is ask the question ‘which is my best route to full marks?’ For some this maybe answering the questions in a different order.

7. Think aloud


You’ve probably heard of a walking/talking mock. I don’t exactly know what they are and have never used this strategy.  But I do like to do a Think Aloud answer.

This goes back to my point about being confident that I could write a full marks answer.

It’s a simple process, outlined in the picture above. The essential key is that I say aloud my every thought. As I am thinking, planning and writing – I am verbally modelling for students my thought process and how I go about writing.

Sometimes I put students in charge of listening for different AOs, writing down only key words or counting quotes etc.  They can write a P.L.A.N as I talk or just write the thesis statements.  For the language papers – they often give me the Reading marks as we go, they work out how well I am ‘using my own words’ or when I move up a Band on the writing marks.  Then it’s their turn.

As I said at the beginning, these are just a few of the key strategies I am using with year 11 this year.  I’m hoping that they are fruitful for this amazing and resilient class.

Thanks for reading.


Article of the Week #5 – Gender


Two articles prompted by the #HeForShe campaign for gender equality.

As ever with a set of questions and two transactional writing tasks.

PDF file is here: Gender – Emma W

Huge thanks to my very excellent colleague, Dr R, for providing sourcing these.

Thanks for reading,


Article of the Week #3

Body image pic


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

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

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

Download here: Body Image – Obama girls and body image

Have a great week.