Article of the Week #4 – primary proms

primary prom

This week’s collection are Primary Proms – two infomation texts .


Teaching restraint in descriptive writing

What does good descriptive writing look like?

L6 writing

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

It continues in a similar vein for several paragraphs.

This is the picture the student was describing:

descriptive image

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

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

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

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

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

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

On becoming writers who read

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

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

Writing as detectives

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

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

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

descriptive writing 2

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

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

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

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

descriptive writing 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for reading


Article of the Week #3

Body image pic


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

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

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

Download here: Body Image – Obama girls and body image

Have a great week.


Why reading must come before analysis

Why reading must come before analysis OR why the essay writing project may never happen…

If you are interested in reading my previous posts on the essay writing project they can be found here.


Rewind and start from the beginning

I have hit a stumbling block in my quest for a better approach to teaching essay writing. A major one. Actually it’s not a stumbling block, it’s a person.  Me, mostly me and how and what I teach.

I have realised (yes – belatedly) that if I am going to teach students to write better essays, then they must first have more and greater things to say about the texts we are studying. If scraping by with a basic PEE response isn’t going to cut it anymore, then we need to find some truly interesting things to say about texts.

So before I begin to tackle teaching essay writing, I need to look again at how I teach reading. Specifically reading, comprehension, understanding and inference.

Up until recently, I had worked on the assumption that if students could read the words on the page and knew what those words meant, then this would automatically result in comprehension and understanding.  For example if you read:

Wow, it’s pretty cold today.

Almost all of you will have understood that I mean it’s pretty cold today. That’s how it works right?

But for struggling readers there is no guarantee that they would find this meaning first time. Not only do struggling readers often find single-syllable or multi-syllable words hard to decode, they often read haltingly – one word at a time – which means they do not (or perhaps can’t) hold in their conscious minds the meaning that is created over a series of words.

Now I could ask a student several times to re-read the text above and they would, no doubt, find the meaning soon enough.

But what happens when we encounter longer, less simple texts?

In her book What Teachers Can Do When Kids Can’t Read, Kylene Beers includes one such example.

Beers 1

Beers 2

You can see here that as Mike struggles to sound out some of the more challenging words in the text, he loses his ability to create accurate meaning from it.  He loses confidence and then gives up.

We all have moments like this, we read a short text then pose the question “Ok, who can summarise that for me?” and young Mike shrinks back looking slightly ill.  But the odds are not in his favour and I call on him anyway and he looks down, chooses one word at random or begins to read the first sentence aloud.  Before too long, hands are waving desperate for the opportunity to share the correct answer.  Once this is given, Mike no longer needs to create meaning from the text for himself. Someone else has done it.

The more I think about these moments, the more I realise that this is where my focus should be.  I am keeping my fingers crossed that the number of dreaded PEEs kids will have to churn out for the new GCSE will be slightly less.

But the chances of them having to read something like The Gift of the Magi and understand it, well that’s something they are going to have to be able to do.  There won’t be anyone that Mike can rely on the help him understand the unseen texts in the exam hall. He’s on his own from step 1.  Now that I think about, why haven’t I tackled this step to begin with?

So it’s back to step 1 I am going.  And thinking about how I can intentionally and explicitly teaching struggling or less confident readers to do what seemingly comes naturally to confident readers.

Beers’ book tackles this issue head-on providing a collection of strategies that help student create meaning on their own.  Her aim being that if students learn and use these strategies, turn them into skills, then there isn’t any text that they can’t grapple with.

Her first challenge is to articulate intentionally what we do as readers every time we read.  Beers calls it Think Aloud.

Think Aloud

The think-aloud strategy helps readers think about how they make meaning. Think-alouds help struggling readers learn to think about their reading and to monitor what they do and do not understand. As students read, they pause occasionally to think aloud about connections they are making, images they are creating, problems with understanding that they are encountering, and ways they see of fixing up those problems.

This is what my Think Aloud for the first sentence of Jekyll & Hyde looks like.  Here’s the text:

Mr. Utterson the lawyer was a man of a rugged countenance that was never lighted by a smile; cold, scanty and embarrassed in discourse; backward in sentiment; lean, long, dusty, dreary and yet somehow lovable.

Here is a transcript of my Think Aloud:


Wow. Confident readers do a lot of work as we read.  We:

  • figure out what’s confusing us
  • pause and re-read
  • ask questions and clarify
  • think about what words mean
  • summarise or rewrite using our words
  • build pictures and visualise ideas and action
  • make connections to our own knowledge and to the world we live in
  • make connections between words and phrases
  • link what we have just read with what went before it
  • use what we are reading now to help inform what we will be reading next

Think Alouds are just one way that we can help students become confident, independent readers.  If my students were able to “think” the above, then imagine how they could use their thoughts to write an epic PEE.

You can find a short run down of Think Alouds here.

I’ll be sharing my progress with using Think Alouds and other strategies, as well as hopefully seeing some impact on essay writing!

Thanks for reading.

Helping hands

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

structured support

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

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

Written on the palm of the hand and each finger:

Reading Section – 1 hour

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

2) Read the passage.

3) Answer all the questions.

4) Do the 1 and 2 mark questions quickly.

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

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

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

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

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

More ideas for the hand template:

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

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

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

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

Lot’s of possibilities…

Trust me, you can read

*An update post*

A while ago, I posted about giving students an opportunity to read, actually read, in my lessons. The post is here if you are interested. The particular group of year 7s I am working with admitted to me that they can’t read, hate reading, won’t read.  So I designed a unit of work that would “force” or perhaps I should say encourage them to read.  The unit is downloadable on my free downloads page too.

Here is the end of that mini-unit.


The big “pull” for these kids, a starbucks lesson!  Unbelievably, it was that simple.

The challenge – each student choose a book from the library and during my one lesson, reading club and for homework – they would read it and finish it. The deal was it had to be 150 pages and a chapter book, no graphic novels or the Guinness Book of Records.  If they read more than one. Fantastic.  Some students read 5, most read 2, a handful didn’t finish their first book but did read.

The reward – a starbucks lesson.  This is an easy win for me.  As I regularly do coffee and cake revision, so my room is kind of set up for it.  With the help of a student in my tutor group, we made 21 hot chocolates, with squirty scream and marshmallows.


We then sat around, chugging our drinks and nibbling cupcakes, and discussed the books we had read. Book club style.

7x3 reading 2

The kids wrote their own reviews, made recommendations or not. We discussed why we enjoy some types of books and not others.

I asked when and where it was best and easiest to read.  Some fessed up to not reading at home but enjoying reading in my classroom.

As we were already a mess, we decided that mess should be embraced and celebrated. So we designed a few spontaneous reading quotes, posters, adverts.

7x3 reading

Now, I need to make sure I’m not just being warm and fuzzy about this.  So here is the “progress” as I measured it, across 6 weeks:

  • For the duration of the project, all students read more than they would usually.
  • Some students read a book, independently, for the first time.
  • Many students exceeded expectations by reading more than one book.
  • Some students admitted enjoying what they read.
  • Most students were able to explain the basic plot of their novels.
  • All students were able to outline details about the main character.
  • Some students could explain what they thought the writer’s message was.
  • Many students choose books by new authors or in new genres.

For me, taking one hour a week to do this project and achieving the above is good. Damn good.

My final thought, I would highly recommend snaffling up World Book Day books or Quick Reads as prizes for students.  Each student in this class received a book as a reward for participating in this unit.  I gave them out on Wed  18 Dec. By Fri 20, when we broke up, 4 students had already read their free book.

Well done, 7×3, well done indeed.

Reinventing the wheel #2

Sometime ago, I wrote a post on reinventing the wheel  for our year 7 literacy lesson.  I was determined to pick up these ‘left behind’ students and see their love of reading and writing increase rapidly, as well as their ability to analyse and explore different texts.

I am now 8 weeks into the new plan, so here’s an update.

Firstly, a little context.  The class I am working with (one of 4 similar classes in my school) has about 25 students, mostly boys.  Their reading ages range from 5.8 years to 9.8 years.  They openly admit to never having read a chapter book themselves.  They might have been in the room, at primary, when a book was read.  But they did not do that reading.  These are the students who drift off 2 mins into class reading and never catch back up.  In addition to my literacy lessons, these students also have 3 hours of English (with me – wooo), paired reading with a prefect and if at the lowest end Lexia / Ruth Miskin from our specialist HLTA.

So what I am I doing?

Getting excited about books

So, how to get students excited about books and reading.  Taking them to library is a definite plus.  Our library is amazing and the kids love it in there.  Rewarding reading, not just reading skills.  For every 30 mins read, students gain an award point.  For every book read, they gain a house point.  If every student in the class, reads a whole book by Christmas, the class get a ‘starbucks lesson’. Yes – it is what it sounds like, and no, it is not healthy.  Hot choc, marshmallows, cupcakes, muffins, bean bags, cushions: sitting around in my classroom chatting about the books we have read.

So, we went to the library, we all chose a book (of at least 150 pages and slightly beyond our current reading age). Then we started reading.

we love reading

Every student a different book

The idea stems from the desire to see students demonstrate independent reading skills.  Not relying on someone else’s answers or knowledge to help them.  So having decided to build a scheme around students reading different books, required a different approach to lesson time.

If your interested in this concept, I would highly recommend “Trust Me, I Can Read“, this practical guide from a number of high schools in the US, outlines the approach to teaching real reading skills to disillusioned students.  They champion a choice based curriculum, where the teacher presents mini-lessons on an idea and students demonstrate this in application to their own book.  This book covers so much more, parental involvement, thematic schemes, encouraging independent analysis.  I have only just begun really.  So, below is an example of a mini-lesson as I start out with this class.

The concept is funnel based – the teacher provides the generalisation, the students funnel this and provide specificity and detail.  So for a 20 minute period I teach, front and centre, chalk and talk style.  Students apply my generalisation to the sample text, which is most often a youtube short film.  This is followed by the ‘read-anywhere’ slot.

mini lesson

This part of my lesson was structured and ordered.  What followed was less so.

Read anywhere

Being painfully aware of the students’ lack of experience and confidence in reading and also wanting myself and the 2 support teachers for this lesson (yes, I am spoiled) to hear students reading aloud.  We went for a read anywhere approach.  read away

Given the freedom to sit on the floor or window sill, lie on the desks, students read for 30 minutes. During this time they had to complete a task based on the mini-lesson and some would read aloud to myself or my support staff.

I cannot believe how useful this was…

Firstly, as an English teacher I tend not to read during class for extended lengths of time because it’s pretty dull for students and they tend to drift off.  Also, I very rarely have students read to me for an extended period, because it can be slow and laborious and they find it hard to follow a narrative if they are panicking about how to say that word 3 lines down.

So listening to students read out loud to me was useful, partly because a number of students admitted problems with reading (like the words moving around on the page etc) and partly because it is amazing how the weakest students were some of the more fluent readers.  It also flagged very quickly the students who had chosen books way above their reading (Kathy Reichs uses a lot of technical language which can be very hard) and how students can read a complex book (The White Queen) and then only be able to say – it’s about kings and queens.

I have all the evidence right in front of me now.  All I need to do is work out the steps from A-B.  What is that I should expect from these students after 8 weeks of reading?  Greater fluency, more confidence, more independence, better vocabulary, analysis of ideas and character?

If you would like to see my scheme of work for this 8 week independent reading unit, I will be sharing it over the next week or so.  So keep an eye out.

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

Teaching x-ray vision


Teaching inference and deduction skills to low ability students is sometimes a minefield.  The whole point of inferring is that you can make connections, often beyond a text, this is a tough challenge when the words on the page are hard to decipher.

I believe it is key to teach inference and deduction early and to teach it explicitly.

In lessons I equate the skill to an x-ray.  Looking below the surface.  Seeing beyond the skin.  Understanding what is living in the bones of a text.

Task 1:  Inference pictures

The pictures below allow students to make simple inferences within a limited scope.  There are wrong answers to these questions, and although I do like to get carried away on unusual ideas, sometimes we need to start with the obvious and work from there.


  1. Using your observation skills, write down everything you can see.
    (The items are……)
  2. Using your inference skills, what can you figure out about the owner of the items.
    (I think the owner is…..)
  3. Write down (explain) how you figured out who the owner was.
    (I know this because….)

inference 1

In feeding back on this, students will refer to real life or other texts (film) and the connection is made.

Task 2: Text inferences


Read the example of inference below:
I wouldn’t eat after that two-year-old if I were you.
Inference: The two-year-old probably did something gross to the food you were about to eat or has a cold and you could catch it. Something bad will happen to you if you eat it!

This text allows students to explore different ideas but again there are some very clear wrong answers.  The negative language means it cannot be a positive emotion being expressed.

The specific reference to an age means that there is a limit to what might have happened.

I often ask students to imagine what a photograph going with this phrase would look like.  This generally describe something like this >>>

Now we could move onto other more flexible inferences:

  1. If she died, I wouldn’t go to her funeral.
  2. A woman walks into a hospital clutching her huge belly and cursing out her husband, who trails behind her carrying a large bag.
  3. You’re driving on the motorway, listening to the radio, and a police officer pulls you over.

The last one usually generates much debate on speeding and police officers’ favourite music artists.  It’s also funny how often students miss the meaning of “huge belly” on no 2.

I find myself using these activities time again when teaching some texts from Boy in the Striped PJs to Hamlet.

I will share my inference and deduction slides on my free downloads page.