Improving Close Language Analysis



We are what we repeatedly do. At the moment, our students are repeatedly writing weak close language analysis.

In our AQA GCSE breakdown for language the average score for Q2 (P1) and Q3 (P2) was much lower than I had anticipated. This is a worry, mainly because the ability to write good close language analysis is the nuts and bolts of all four exams. Unless we get this single thing right, we are unlikely to make huge gains on other parts of the exam.

During our INSET department time, we agreed that we would make this, and only this, the focus of our starter activities all term for Y11.

Attached is a simple 28 slide PPT, with single quotes from both literature texts and unseen fiction (slides 1-5 Jekyll and Hyde, slides 6-10 Macbeth, slides 11-15 L&R poetry, slides 16-20 An Inspector Calls, slides 21-28  unseen fiction).

Every Y11 teacher will be using this for a variety of starter activities throughout term 3. These include:

  1. Identifying what language techniques are being used.
  2. Identifying which are the rich language words in the quote.
  3. Identifying the contextual importance of the quote (the point in the narrative, the themes it highlights, the character information revealed etc.)
  4. Analysing the effect of individual words, specifically answering the question of why this word? by considering synonyms and connotations
  5. Analysing the effect of the word or phrase in sentence and in context.
  6. Constructing short analysis paragraphs drawing together the above, using a variety of modelled frameworks which do not include ‘This shows that….’
  7. Magpie-ing (stealing) the good work of others to improve own work.
  8. Repeat, repeat, repeat.


Taking the quotes from literature texts means we will also be surreptitiously revising literature content. The little voice inside my head that reminds me of  the ‘need to interleave’ is calmed knowing that students will have to draw on their factual knowledge in order to write with fluency about each quote. The bottom line is also that – without the confidence to do this properly, all writing becomes reduced to thin, formulaic, descriptive, and often very short responses.

Please feel free to use and adapt the PPT here.



Ode to Subject Knowledge (& Keats)

I’m fairly sure I will remember this Christmas as the Keats Christmas. I spent much of the first week completely engrossed in his life and poetry, preparing to teach it for A Level. I have to confess I can bear more than a passing resemblance to a truculent teenager when it comes to reading greats and classics. I think we can all be guilty of the odd inner shoulder shrug and a ‘nah, not for me’ when it comes to acknowledging the deep significance of something we are, at that moment in time, completely ignorant of.
To put this into context, I went to a woefully inadequate school. My polytechnic-turned -university education almost completely ignored literature pre-20th Century (apart from John Donne bizarrely, who I still love to this day) as I sat in lecture after lecture on colonial and post-colonial literature and the literature of violence. I left with the impression that literature was a chaotic bundle of random authors, shouting into the wind. I’d had no opportunity to build schematic understanding of the chronology of literature, the literary movements or the links to history – other than the impact of colonialism, of course. As a result, I sure understood imposter syndrome when I first took on the role of Head of English.
The beauty of subject knowledge though, is how easily it can be fixed. The biggest hurdle is ourselves. I recognise my inner moody adolescent too well. The fear of the unknown still exists – accepting what we don’t know about our subject can be as daunting and terrifying, as it is thrilling, but I now jump in head first and know that I have nothing to lose.
Keats may not be to everyone’s tastes, but there is something about his approach that has struck a really deep chord. He was no academic scholar and derided by many of the establishment throughout his painfully short career. But he studied Shakespeare, Milton, Dante and others with obsessive intent. He excelled because of his habits and repeated actions, not because of his class, his schooling or his family. There is something really very admirable about this. Reading his poetry is like stepping into a kaleidoscope. There seems to be an infinite number of worlds (allusions, references, cultural nods) housed within each image. The more you know, the more you realise you have yet to learn.

This makes preparing to teach it slightly daunting. Reading Peps Mccrea’s Memorable Teaching reminded me of the catastrophic mind-mess that can be created when teachers present their material in a disorganised, overloaded, thoughtless way. I am most reminded of my mum asking my brother, now with a physics PhD, to help me with my maths homework when we were younger; an actual mind-mess for sure, and totally counterproductive. We are therefore going to start at the beginning, as Keats did:

  1. Introduction to classical myths & legends, especially those that feature prominently in Keats’ work.
  2. Look at how classical allusions have permeated into our culture and have shaped  much of our culture today – especially with reference to the work of Matt @Positivteacha and Doug @DoWise
  3. Use a history of literature timeline to root Keats in his era, but enable students to look back across time – connecting him to our work on Shakespeare, tragic conventions, and the romantic poets from the GCSE poetry anthology . This fantastic guide created by MissR @AlwaysLearnWeb here is an excellent summary.
  4. Prime students to look out for the key themes in Keats’ works in advance –  conflict that exists in beauty, gender, permanence & immortality, sensuality & the ‘lived life’, and his own identity as a poet.

I hope to share resources, if I put any together. But, I have a feeling that the work itself is as rich a resource as we will need – and will be more than enough to keep us busy.

If I get the opportunity again, to teach something I’ve never taught before, I will grab it! I  may not always love it; I may, in fact, really dislike it, but I think it’s important we’re taken out of our comfort zones and stretch ourselves from time to time. Really learning something new as a teacher is quite a humbling experience, and one I hope I can communicate to my students.

‘Had we but world enough, and time…’

The OverPromise

Debate Club. Reading Club. Parent meeting. Parent phone call. Mock exam small group support. Middle leader meeting. CPD training. Department meeting. Teach. Mark. Plan. A week like any other.

Perhaps one of the problems of the teaching profession is a tendency to over promise, for both others and ourselves. We want to do more than we are capable of. Teachers are usually, by their nature, committed to making a difference. Not super, not heroes, but pretty serious about the job they do.  The world of school can read like a series of Matrix codes floating above the heads of every individual. We know how to make a difference, we can crack the code, but we are always in conflict with reality – facing a lack of real time and human resources. Even that doesn’t stop our engrained desire to solve, fix and make good with the world.  And that is often where many problems begin.

We tell the anxious Y11 student we can mark that quickly. We tell ourselves that we can run off a scheme of work whilst sipping a latte and munching on a Danish pastry, and be done in time for lunch (actually, some of #teamenglish can). We tell ourselves we can do it all, but we can’t.

Sometimes, others over-promise for us, A fairly innocuous pledge to support a child, in a meeting between a leader and a parent, can equate to hours of work over time for the classroom teacher; time that unfortunately, does not exist.

Likewise, systems can over promise on what they can deliver. Designed to evidence what we do, they are invariably cumbersome and fraught with problems. Perhaps, when the focus is too firmly fixed on the promise of the solution, it is easy to lose sight of actual process teachers will have to go through to get there.  Evidence favours things that are swift, neat and linear. But as many English teachers would agree – swift, neat and linear are concepts that don’t always sit well with the progress of something like writing.

Expectations from institutions and the government continue to move steadily skywards, set against the backdrop of teacher shortages and a financial squeeze. Given that I’m more Mini-me than Morpheus, I have no power to challenge the over-promises made by governments on my behalf. However, I can keep my own in check:

No, I can’t run a third club this week, even though you are wonderful students and I’m sure it would be fun. Sorry.

It’s all about people.

There have been many posts over the years about stepping up to Middle Leadership along with much helpful advice. Two posts really stick out to me and seem to have left a residue of thought, even after a year –  Marks Roberts’ How to be a Head of Faculty and Freya Odell Moving From Inadequate to Good.

I’m sure there will be many new HoDs and HoFs taking time this week to simply ‘breathe and be’ after a whirlwind term. Some may feel overwhelmed by the weight of responsibility. It’s easy to be your own, most critical, least supportive friend, but nothing was ever solved through harsh self-castigation. Your time is far more productively spent assessing your priorities. Are the students, are your team, front and centre of everything you do?

I’ve always felt that any level of leadership, from the head to the classroom teacher, is about enabling and supporting those in your remit (staff or students) to do their job, so that they may shine. I am amazed that the lessons we have learned about managing students are almost completely forgotten when it comes to managing staff. Supporting students does not mean that we excuse poor work or are inconsistent; it means that we apply our high expectations to all and make it achievable. Adults are like little people, just bigger.

When I first became Head of Faculty a year ago, I was bursting with strategy and vision. I could easily have had my strategy eat colleagues for breakfast and blinded those around me with my incredible laser-like sight, but I was also in the fortunate position of being promoted from amongst my colleagues. The department was made of up friends; people I had been through, and seen through, difficult times. I had a keen awareness of my responsibility to them as well as the students in my care.

If anyone had told me how much a HoF/HoD role is about the staff, I would not have believed them had I not lived it for the past year. It’s easy to forget that staff, like students, are not fixed constants. They grow, they develop, they move forwards. Whatever the experience of the team, a belief in (and support of) everyone, to work towards excellence, both collectively and individually, is vital.

Every time I see something amazing on twitter, every new policy that seems to be the best thing ever, I need to pause and ask myself: what impact will this have on the staff and students? Will this enable staff to do their job better, more efficiently and effectively? Or is it new for the sake of ‘new’? It’s easy to look at other departments and feel a sense panic and urgency that you’re not doing it like everyone else.  Indeed, this remnant of our evolution is pretty useful, safeguarding our survival, but you also need to work with your context, your teachers and, of course, your students. The wisdom of twitter leaves me in awe, but I’m not doing what I do for twitter.

So, how do we keep students front and centre of everything we do? Simple: frame every conversation around them. Make sure the key to all your vision and strategy is benefit, in real terms, to the students. Be transparent about what is preventing students from experiencing the success that they should. Where there are issues within the department, be brave and name them – low expectations? subject knowledge or approaches? lesson planning? marking and feedback? Expose the gaps that you have inherited, or that have been allowed to fester, and work together to fill them. As the wonderful Mary Myatt says in ‘High Challenge, Low Threat’, no one wants to come to work to do a bad job.

My advice to anyone trying to take stock before the bell rings for the next round, is this: it’s all about taking care of the people in your remit.  Keep them front and centre and you won’t go far wrong.

Learning Questions & Demystifying Writing

Last year I embarked on a fairly-ish risky, solo adventure. I abandoned all Learning Objectives in favour of allowing a Question to take the driving seat. My colleagues eyed me with something akin to horror and pity: that maybe the new HoD really was the wrong side of eccentric.

I didn’t ask any of the team to do as I did, but did spend some time explaining what I was doing and why. I intuitively felt (and observed in lessons) that Learning Objectives unnecessarily confused the relationship between activity and learning, and seemed focused on what students would do, rather than what students would learn. Objectives are action-led, end-goals and often don’t happily lend themselves to verbs such as ‘understand’ ‘explore’ ‘learn’. These terms are difficult to qualify and almost impossible show in a single lesson.

Not only have Learning Questions clarified my planning (cutting any extraneous material from the lesson), they also seem to have clarified and demystified writing for my students, especially for those with the lowest confidence. As I am now a year into using them, I make them as simple as possible. They usually look like this:

  1. What does Macbeth and Banquo’s reaction reveal in this scene?
  2. How does Stevenson create a Gothic atmosphere in the extract?
  3. How does Shakespeare present love in this scene?
  4. What does Lanyon’s reaction reveal about science in the Victorian era?
  5. What techniques does Wiglaf use to persuade the men to fight the dragon?
  6. What impression does Priestley create of Sheila during her interview?

If the focus is sharper, more specific, or leading in any way (arguably, as 4 & 5 are), I found that students had difficulty transferring their knowledge of an extract from one question to another, even though they had understood and applied their content knowledge to a similar question only a few days before. Students had responded confidently to the question ‘How does Shakespeare demonstrate Macbeth’s turmoil in this soliloquy?’ in class, but when given the same extract and a more general question ‘How does Shakespeare convey Macbeth’s state of mind in this soliloquy?” students didn’t confidently make the leap between the two.  Experience taught me that  ‘tight but loose’ (Allison and Tharby, 2015) LQs seemed to make content knowledge more accessible.

The use of a LQ in place of an objective creates an underlying culture of developing responses, using the tools of the lesson (the key words, the content, the scaffold) to answer and give an opinion. After all, questions seek solutions. Even those students with the lowest confidence can write a response to the question. Asking a student to answer the LQ verbally and then transfer their ideas to the page could be the difference between a U and a grade 2 for some students. To build confidence for all, students hear me frequently return to the question, asking and answering, with lots of modelled teacher talk, and as a class, we piece together our response.

For structure over extended writing, students echo the words from the Learning Question to start each paragraph. In an extract-based exam task, students logically work through the text from top to bottom looking for answers to the LQ in each section of an extract (top/middle/bottom as a very crude guide).

Not every lesson needs a LQ where the end product is writing.  Some LQs take 2-3 lessons to be answered fully; some merit a full essay response; some a modelled exemplar copied from the board and some bullet point notes agreed as a class.

I’m sure there is plenty of refining to be done and scope for research into the transfer of information from one LQ to another, as well as whether content knowledge is more securely acquired from LQs. Having surveyed students across Y10 and Y11, the overwhelming response was positively in favour of LQs over LOs. Students reported that they have a much clearer understanding of the lesson focus and the learning that has taken place.

From my perspective, I like that students are thinking in terms of questions and answers, that there is an ongoing sense of learning as purposeful. I also like that over the course of 2 years, students will have come across hundreds of questions and considered how they frame a response, over and over again. When it comes to end exams, answering questions should be in their DNA. Finally, I now have students ask me in lesson, in all earnestness, ‘Did we finish the answer that question yet, Miss?’ . I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a student ask me ‘Did we complete that Learning Objective, Miss?’ . Ever.


Helpful Homework

I am committed to helping my team reduce their marking burden, not least for their wellbeing, but also from a dogged determination to strip back anything that does not help students make progress.

Homework has been a contentious issue for our department, and I’m sure many others. The increase in writing and marking for 4 essay-heavy exams has meant teachers have had little time for more than a cursory glance at written homework tasks. We are in the process of embedding whole class feedback next year, but I certainly didn’t want book marking to be replaced with homework marking. However, there seems to be solid evidence that ‘the impact of homework on learning is consistently positive (leading to on average five months’ additional progress)’ (source: EEF ). The caveat being that this is highly dependent on the type of homework and how it fits into the SoW.

In the most effective examples homework was an integral part of learning, rather than an add-on. To maximise impact, it is also appears to be important that students are provided with high quality feedback on their work”

It seems important then that tasks are relevant and that if they require feedback, this is more than a cursory glance.

Homework booklets will address Vocabulary, Grammar and Reading in KS3 and Vocabulary, Content Knowledge & Reading in KS4. Each booklet has the same structure and rotation of tasks to develop a sense of routine. One thing we need to foster in our cohort is habit – the importance of doing similar things over and over again.


The readings are a mix of fiction and non-fiction, with a series of short answer questions or short written responses that can be peer marked, and easily checked by teachers. I want students to see reading as something so fundamental to their learning that it invades every element of our subject.  We are lucky enough to have reading embedded in our tutor time once a week and the majority of students read now, with great focus and concentration. For the remaining, reluctant readers the booklet provides an opportunity for buddy reading, tutor assisted intervention or even whole class reading.

The extracts are closely linked to the unit texts and inspired by a range of sources seen on Twitter – Doug Lemov (@Doug_Lemov), Rob Ward (@RobWard79) and Eleanor Mears (@EnglishEffects) to name a few. They include key unit vocabulary in context as well as critical discussions of the themes or big ideas in the texts. A better grasp of big ideas and themes was a key recommendation in the AQA GCSE English Literature examiner report. As a result, rather than skimming over the content, students will have the opportunity to reflect on these themes through a variety of forms (novel, non-fiction article and discussion/debate) and over a period of time.

Access some of the extracts here: These will be added to over time.



Dread the Unseen

Unseen poetry is something that, as a department we would say, we didn’t do enough of.

We added it in, like a condiment on the side, in between the main servings of Jekyll and Macbeth. We trusted that everything known about Heaney, Duffy, Byron, Shelley et al. would morph into any poem, anywhere, any table, any chair.

Next year, we can do better. We do not give students anything like enough exposure to unseen poems. We have rightly adopted a depth over breadth approach to texts, but without allowing access to more poetry, there will always be a fear of the unknown.

So, as part of our of our extended writing programme, I want students from Y7 – 11 to experience unseen poetry, building confidence and voice. I’ve put together a poetry anthology, which we’ll give to students as a booklet.


The main ideas behind it are labelled above. Essentially, it was put together with the following in mind:

  1. To be a physical resource, available in the classroom, useful for class teachers, cover teachers and avoid the need for last minute photocopying.
  2. To double up as a help guide, fostering a sense of independence and resourcefulness.
  3. To activate schema in the first stage, in a similar way to the unseen GCSE questions. Positioning the reader through a written (and visual) prompt so that existing knowledge of the topic is drawn upon, will aid understanding.
  4. To insist on a paired reading of the poem, challenging students to think about rhythm and rhyme, when they are powerless to resist! Reading poetry forces these things upon the speaker and demands their attention.
  5. To provide bridging questions that can support and scaffold, modelling how to notice what to notice.
  6. To include an opportunity for silent, extended writing.
  7. To provide a range of poems that deal with different types of voices, types of people, types of relationships, types of situations, types of environments. It was not intended to be  balanced by gender, race or era, but by a range of different experiences. As unseen poems, it’s also important to choose poems of a reasonable length and without obscure and implicit contextual depth. For that reason, past exam papers, Poetry By Heart and the Cambridge University Poetry & Memory Project  shared by Daisy Christodoulou were fantastic sources of inspiration.
  8. Finally, to challenge students. The final 5 are more suited for KS4. The last poem, by Simon Armitage, has a reference to an anatomical part, that is best not shared with Y7, but Y11 could probably benefit from thinking about the richness of language and the poet’s prerogative to vividly depict the world.