Actually, factually: an approach to English Language GCSE

Like every other English teacher, I am endlessly in pursuit of that thing which will unlock textual meaning for GCSE students – the elusive holy grail of language. How can I make students see what I can see? How do we move students from novice reading and meaning making to the sharp identification of effect and perceptive analysis?

We are often guilty of trying to do too much and, as a result, we achieve very little. We look for strategies that will illuminate the way for our students, often by way of a short cut, in order to get them to the finish line. The problem is we can leave students no more able to cope with the demands of an unseen text than they were at the start of a course. What we may have constructed is an elaborate methodology to deconstruct the questions and hastily stuff learned segments of language back in. Students may follow these instructions to the letter but will still frequently reveal glaring errors suggesting that little sense has been made of the text. I wrote about this here and reflected on the issue we have when students grab at imagery, methods or language. Without seeing the whole, the detail will never make sense.

As is the twitter way, three events helped to crystallise my thinking on this and develop an approach that is more practical and, in my view, profoundly simple: 1. Carl Hendrick tweeted a link to a research paper on the importance of ‘just reading’. I found and read the paper and summarise the key ideas here, 2. I listened to Jennifer Webb talk about starting with the literal in literature for her Seneca English Conference talk, which can be accessed here, 3. I taught 4 lessons with real life Y10 students and tried it out.

The ‘Just Reading’ paper (Westbrook, Sutherland, Oakhill, Sullivan, 2018) presents a persuasive argument for allowing students to read a text in class without relentless pausing to complete extension tasks. These could halt comprehension rather than support and enrich it. Through a fast reading approach, students were able to hold ‘the whole’ in place and make inferences and predictions.

This concept of ‘holding the whole in place’ (apologies for coining a poor phrase  – I don’t expect it to catch on!) reminds us of the most basic requirement in English teaching – comprehension. Without this, things fall apart. Students need to actually, factually report what happens in the text before making suggestions about what a word like ‘tremendous’ conveys (which could, let’s face it, be one of any number of things: loud? gigantic? monumental? amazing?).

So, I took a Language Paper 1 and focused on Q4, the evaluation question. We used the opening of OMAM, chosen by the 2nd in dept (a brilliant choice given that these were the first face-to-face lessons students have had for 3 months – familiar enough to reassure, yet challenging in the form of a GCSE paper). The question was this:

Screenshot 2020-07-11 at 13.40.55.png

and the section of the text is this: Screenshot 2020-07-11 at 13.39.18

We have covered this question several times in Y10 and had often focused on gathering quotations to prove the statement, then make inferences about the quotations. This can be problematic. Students may be hard wired to seek and destroy ‘neon’ phrases and imagery because they think it gives them more to say. However, really perceptive responses may identify aspects of the relationship hidden deep in mundane and pedestrian language.

Step 1 was to ask the students to actually/factually/literally map what happens in this text that relates to the men and their relationship. They generated a list of around 8-10 points. What was great was that all students managed this, all students came up with a list that was pretty similar. The list looked like this:

  1. Walked in single file
  2. Both were dressed the same
  3. Description of the first man – small, quick
  4. description of the second man – huge, opposite
  5. First man stopped, second nearly fell into him
  6. First man sweating a lot, second man desperate for water
  7. First man shouts, second man ignores him
  8. First man shouts again and refers to last night.

Step 2 was to focus on the points and decide what we thought they showed. We focused on the first two points – ‘walked in single file’ and ‘both were’ dressed the same. Students immediately identified that, in most circumstances, walking in single file was unusual – this could be a problematic relationship. They also teased out that the men were apart and distant. We then looked at how we could understand their dress and the students offered ‘similarity’ and ‘connection’. The students were edging towards the sense of juxtaposition with the men deeply bonded together yet separate.

Step 3 & 4 students noticed the methods used (eg. repetition of ‘both’, descriptive adjectives etc.) but were not led by them. Instead, they were led by the whole, the meaning and comprehension of what happened. Students also considered what was the most skilful and we decided the opening was subtle and clever.

This actually, factually approach gave every student a way in to the question and text. It also helped some to draw fairly sophisticated conclusions about what the text revealed.

I used a similar strategy with Q3 on structure and, again, found students were able to  ‘see’ structure in a much clearer way – focusing them on what actually happened before they went looking for structure techniques.

It is certainly an approach to pursue and develop in September, especially to support students who find interpretation and inference difficult. I’m starting to become convinced that the answer has been literally staring us in the face all the time. Comprehension is the holy grail we’ve been looking for – Inference and Analysis’ poor cousin.













10 Curriculum Questions

This week, I’ve been running meetings with department curriculum leads across the school. Our curriculum team (myself, a KS3 and KS5 lead) is in its infancy because of staff reshuffling, so I wanted to ‘know’ the curriculum in each subject in order to coordinate the school curriculum journey.

Anyone responsible for school curriculum will understand this is no easy task. I ‘know’ English because I’ve lived and breathed it for years. I know the tensions and challenges, the knowledge that builds on other knowledge. But, I don’t ‘know’ History or Maths in the same way, and if I am going to be their voice to others it’s vital I represent, champion and challenge their curriculum in an accurate way.

Every subject has created medium term plans for KS3-5 shared with all. This is what I called Phase 1 – making explicit, transparent and accessible every teams’ curriculum journey. We are now in between Phase 2 and 3. Phase 2 is the ability for each member of the team to ‘know’ their own curriculum, to articulate those tensions and ambitions. Often, the final curriculum map is created by a Head of Department, who then has to work with their team to ensure understanding and buy-in.  Finally, Phase 3 is the enactment of that curriculum in the classroom – in every classroom, along a faculty corridor.

To run the virtual meetings with Heads of Department, I sent them a list of questions before the Easter Break to give them time to really consider their responses. The questions are below, with comments added:

  1. Can you show me where you have drawn on best practice from other schools/online SoW etc.? We’re a school that needs to make rapid improvements. It’s very easy to become inward looking and do things how you’ve always done them. This will challenge HoDs to think about our ambition for our students.
  2. Can you show me how the whole school literacy strategies for reading are being addressed? Reading is (rightly) being given prominence in curriculum planning. We have raised the profile of reading whole school, but what is happening with reading in lessons? Are HoDs deliberately incorporating reading in their MTP to give students opportunities to read? More importantly, do all teachers use consistent strategies to help students become better readers. We’ve identified this as one of our training needs. 
  3. What are the key underlying principles needed to become a historian/ sportsman/ linguist/artist? Is this made clear in every unit? This has been my favourite question. This has really helped me understand and ‘know’ what a student needs to do in a subject. What needs to be developed across school is how we’re communicating this to students. 
  4. How is a student becoming a better historian/sportsman/linguist/artist as they move from Y7 to Y8 through to Y11 ? What are they learning apart from topic knowledge that builds their expertise and competence? This is a fine distinction that is partly addressed by the question above. From my experience of our KS3 English curriculum, students were accumulating knowledge of a lot of books, but they weren’t becoming progressively better at English, they were just getting older! Can HoDs show me the opportunities they provide to move students from novice to expert? 
  5. Do the assessments require students to progressively complete more complex tasks as they move from beginning to end of topic and from year to year (eg. I,WE, YOU; retrieval – independent work; single analysis to comparison; application of knowledge etc.) OR, do they firmly embed a single task over a longer period of time? Is this made explicit to students in the short term planning (eg, recap of strategies used in the previous task etc.)? Ensuring assessments are firmly and logically tied to curriculum is key. However, subject variation needs to be considered. What is right for English is not right for Chemistry. What our HoDs are also aware of is that these details aren’t always being made explicit to students and that this is information often held by the teacher. 
  6. Can you show me how the curriculum builds learning in a KS3 unit across a term?
  7. Can you show me how the curriculum builds learning in a KS4 unit across a term? 
  8. Can you show me what, in this unit, demonstrates high expectations of all students and what support is in place to help all students achieve? This has to be our baseline – high expectations for all and support to help everyone get there. What constitutes the ‘baseline’ is something that departments need to be in clear agreement about and could be an area for development. 
  9. Can you show me where misconceptions are addressed in this unit? Also, when are they addressed? Is it pre-emptive? 
  10. Can you pinpoint the one thing students should have learned over a lesson, or 2-3 lessons), or a unit? HoDS know, teachers know, but are we making sure students know? 

We’re only half-way through these conversations and they’re providing us with rich, valuable insights. Consistency, as a barrier to the perfect, enacted curriculum, has been cited again and again. This has now prompted us to discuss knowledge organisers and booklets as a way of overcoming this: not as a top-down, imposed initiative, the next SLT fad, the empty appearance of productivity – but as a logical way of realising a well thought through plan.

Behaviour and Motivation for GCSE

Working in a challenging school, in challenging circumstances, means behaviour management is never far from my thoughts. If I’m not thinking about my classes, I’m considering ways to support colleagues and my department. I don’t doubt for a moment that being at the same school for nearly 10 years and having a position of responsibility makes life easier for me but, that in itself, is unlikely to be enough to maintain healthy relationships with groups.

Likewise, school-wide systems go a long way to support teachers with managing classes; everything from the lesson routines to centralised detentions to parking rotas. Again, as with experience and job role, school wide systems, however effective they may be, cannot replace the umpteen imperceptible daily interactions we have with students.

When a student walks through our door, when we look around the room during periods of silent writing, when a pen ‘explodes’, what we say and what we do matters. Students can work out pretty quickly who is in their (hopeful and aspirant) corner and who isn’t.

Disengaged behaviour and motivation can be thought of as two sides of the same coin. Highly-motivated students can still demonstrate disengaged, disruptive behaviour in the same way that disengaged students can be ‘no trouble at all’.  What we don’t consider in the classroom is that the behaviours of disengagement are the product of motivation – it takes effort and energy to disengage, to avoid failure, in the same way that it takes effort and energy to try.

There are an abundance of motivation theories. Each one examining the different drivers that may be working for or against positive and productive student engagement. It is an area as complex as human nature itself, dependent upon multiple behavioural, environmental and interactional factors. However, two truths seem to emerge: in order to be well motivated students need to feel that they matter and need to perceive that they will be successful (Hargreaves, 1982; Atkinson, 1964; Weiner, 1992). This is fairly useful knowledge for any teacher and particularly important to bear in mind when faced with disengaged GCSE students, who would really rather be parked than participate in challenging and complex thinking.

Showing students that they matter: Without being pulled into a debate about strict-strict, strict-warm, warm-strict or warm-warm styles of behaviour management, what I think is completely lost in these discussions is the need to own and thoughtfully manage our endless interactions with students, regardless of degrees of institutional rigour. After all, prevention is better than cure. Relationships need to be built and no amount of detentions will do this for you. Notice students. Recognise when they have made effort, thank and acknowledge them for their contribution to the lesson. Give them a goal for the lesson.Demonstrate your positive regard for all. Engage.

And, then use the behaviour policy.

Showing students that they can be successful:  This may be a harder nut to crack. Though scaffolding and modelling may seem to be the simple answer, the line between this support and a ‘maladaptive’ learned helplessness is a fine one. Learned helplessness will develop if students perceive their lack of progress is due to stable (unchanging) factors like ability, rather than unstable factors like effort, mood and concentration (Seligman, 1975). A quick turnaround with marking and building on good work in the next lesson will allow students to see incremental progress – increasing their perception of success (quick turnaround marking also sends a powerful message that their work matters).  Reminding students to look back in their books and see the successful prior learning, rather than continually modelling the same sentence starters and structures might also help combat the learned helplessness effect. Ask yourselves, as a department, whether every assessment needs to be unseen. What are you assessing students on – the ability to cope with unseen material or the ability to formulate a quality response in timed conditions? If it is the latter, then let them look at the assessment in advance. Add to this the good practice of regular testing and retrieval tasks, and confidence will develop.

It doesn’t always go well, of course. We are all human beings and relationships can be fragile. Nevertheless, developing a greater understanding of motivation theory has helped me to work on creating the best possible conditions for learning in the classroom.


Atkinson, J. (1964) An Introduction to Motivation. Van Nostrand: Princeton, NJ

Galloway, D. et al. (1998) Ways of Understanding Motivation.Routledge: London

Hargreaves, D.H. (1982)The Challenge for the Comprehensive School. Routledge: London

Seligman, M.P.(1975) Learned Helplessness. Freeman: San Francisco, CA

Weiner, B. (1992) Human Motivation. Sage: London


‘Words make you think a thought’

The above quotation from E. Y (Yip) Harburg (the man behind the songs and music from The Wizard of Oz) sums up, with brilliant simplicity, the power of words.

Everything I’ve focused on so far this year has been about the meanings and messages inherent in words and how we get students to think about them.

For the last couple of years AO2 has been a weakness in the department. We tried close language analysis starters for a term but frequently ended up so derailed by the starter that the teaching was squeezed into 15 minutes at the end.

This year, inspired in part by the ‘What, Why, How’ revolution, I have changed my teaching to fully explore the importance of the word. What, Why, How enables students to approach analytical writing more fluidly than the restrictive PEE of old. However, a note of caution here, as I’ve already seen some mutilation and zombification of WWH doing the rounds on twitter. If we’re not careful, before we know it, WWH could become another version of PEE – with the same issues that came before: ‘Miss, what’s the What?’ 

What WWH does offer is a clear path to ‘what the writer is doing’.  Identification of this is key and should come from the words, as well as any associated meanings and themes triggered by them.

Although WWH is preferable to PEE, I have probably more consistently asked students to tell me what meanings words have and supported them to explore these fully. This has meant a lot of very close language analysis, modelled over and over again. From looking at specific key quotations, themes naturally follow and become embedded in a student’s repertoire of what to look for. Here’s an example using Macbeth and Donalbain’s line ‘There’s daggers in men’s smiles’ below. The following list is what we extracted from 3 words:

  1. Daggersconnotations of pain, violence, murder – theme that echoes Macbeth’s violence at the beginning of the play.
  2. Daggers – plural unwittingly reveals the two daggers used to kill Duncan.
  3. Daggers  – repeated motif– echoes the floating dagger of Macbeth’s soliloquy.
  4. Men‘splural – suggests that there would be many threats from many people.
  5. Men’s  – plural -would have struck a chord with King James after discovering a large network of people were involved in his assassination attempt.
  6. Men’s – gender suggests only men are capable of murder – ironically and implicitly assumes Lady Macbeth’s innocence.
  7. Smiles – warmth, loyalty and honesty – juxtaposes the daggers.
  8. daggers‘ + ‘smiles‘ – conveys duplicity and the theme of appearance versus reality.
  9. ‘daggers’ + ‘smiles’  – links to Lady Macbeth – ‘Look like the innocent flower but…’, Macbeth – ‘False face must hide…’ and the witches – ‘Fair is foul…’

Once we have explored everything from a single quotation, I model writing the points above until students seem confident to do it independently.

What they are learning is the importance of the words – how the words  carry the themes, the context, the links, the effect etc. This, more than any other strategy I’ve used, has enabled students to write lengthy, detailed, thorough and perceptive paragraphs with a razor sharp focus on a single element – that also links backwards and forwards, in and out of theme and context.

Where this is most noticeable is with some of the less confident, low attaining students who now feel empowered to make a start.  Articulating the associated meanings of the word ‘dagger’ is an accessible task and gives students a way in before moving on to relate these ideas to some of the bigger themes at play. Below is an example of a 15 minute response, written in class, without planning and using some of the key ideas discussed about the quotation. Although it does not follow any recognisable pattern of a paragraph structure, it does show detailed engagement with the ideas in the text and in the language. There is room for improvement (organisation, development of some ideas, articulation, context) but it explores  – authentically, in the students’s own voice.

Sometimes, it is the very subtle and small shifts in our practice that have the most significant impact.

Anita 1

Anita 2







Planning Sentence Instruction

Our KS3 journey has been a long one, as I’m sure it has been for all departments.  I am grateful to have had the opportunity to visit some excellent schools to discuss KS3 (DGS and Cherwell in particular – @EnglishDGS, @MsCaldwell1), attend excellent training on Tackling Disadvantage through Literacy, focused on Year 7 transition and run by Hampshire LA English team (@hiasenglish) and, of course, read lots of excellent posts by other HoDs all wrestling with the same thing (@thecockerill, @joeybagstock, @Rosalindphys, @Edmerger, @TLPMsF).

It’s important, when all is said and done, that KS3 doesn’t favour the big picture (those large knowledge blocks – themes, concepts, author and text knowledge, genres etc.) over the mechanics (sentence types, vocabulary, textual structure, grammar etc.), so that students are able to see the patterns & threads in language that run through texts, across time and genre. Evidence suggests that deep learning (and extending learning) occurs when connections are planned, deliberate and enable students to fluently recall blocks of information to which new information can be added. Knowledge of the conventions of tragedy, for example, enables a far more sophisticated understanding of the tragic elements of An Inspector Calls, Of Mice and Men or the Boy in Striped Pyjamas.

So, whilst I had spent a great deal of time considering texts, sequence, concepts, even vocabulary, I hadn’t planned for acquisition of sentences and sentence grammar. We had used much of the great work of Alan Peat (Exciting Sentences) but in a disorganised way. I’m sure some classes were being re-taught the same sentence types year after year. Or, being taught great sentences as they appeared, never to be returned to again. These worries peaked in term 4 when I felt like I was literally lobbing sentences at Y11 in the vain hope that some might stick. I knew the chance of this happening was somewhere between fat and slim, especially when you throw timed, pressure-cooker, exam conditions into the mix.

Another consideration is the quality of sentence level knowledge students now have when they arrive in Y7. It is important that in secondary school we meet students where they are and support them to move forward. There are a number of grammar/sentence maps available online, created by primary schools that are an essential guide to what has been covered. A word of caution though: as we know, covered doesn’t mean acquired. I would be wary of anyone who accused secondary departments of fuelling the September ‘slide’ for by returning to previously taught SPaG/sentence types for these 3 reasons:

1. The ‘slide’ is likely to be caused by a whole host of factors, not least those that come with moving to a new, larger, more challenging, more socially demanding environment. Children need to develop socially, emotionally and cognitively. Also, students will benefit from a supportive, low-stakes starting point (‘I know you’ve covered this before, but let’s see what you remember…?’).

2. We interleave and recycle knowledge throughout KS3 and KS4. The move from KS2 to KS3 is no different.

3. If knowledge is domain specific, it’s important students review sentence types with more challenging texts and more challenging tasks.

So, a planned, deliberate sentence curriculum (of sorts) was born. In exactly the same way we can’t expect students to just absorb vocabulary, we can’t expect them to just absorb sentence types.

I have taken key structures, through which we can teach grammar and punctuation, for creative/descriptive and non-fiction/persuasive. I’ve mapped these against our units and they will be part of the task/assessment success criteria. Schemes of work will contain modelled responses that contain the sentence types and we will work together as a department to create grammar slides. Most importantly, they will be inescapably built into the schemes of work – part of the language needed to speak and write like an expert on the unit being studied. English teachers know that they should explicitly teach at least four of these per term – 12 per year, with the aim that students will leave KS3 having encountered 32 sophisticated sentence constructions. No more lobbing sentences at Y11!

It is a small step, but it feels like a very important one.

KS3 Curriculum                   Slide5










Sentence Curriculum Overview and by year





Thanks for reading. Any comments welcome.








Redefining Context for Unseen Texts


Most of us can work out what ‘small’ and ‘hungry’ mean and can even make a few inferences about what they suggest.

Better still, most of us can dig a little deeper when we put those words together – offering ideas about weakness, vulnerability and someone in need of aid.  What happens though when these words are used in a text to describe a highly successful headteacher working in a deprived area? ‘Small’ and ‘hungry’ no longer mean weak and vulnerable but could mean tenacious, formidable and not to be underestimated.

This example from AQA Language Paper 2, November 2017 clearly highlights misconceptions that arise when students grab at language in unseen texts. In the example above the words ‘small, hungry’ are attributed to Sister Brendan, the headteacher of the school. Under her watchful eye, the visiting School Inspector is met by endless happy, smiling children eager to show him their work. Her ‘small’ and ‘hungry’ mannerisms, along with several comparisons to birds, firmly establish her character as instinctively and fiercely protective of the children in her school.

The most important job we have as English teachers is to teach students about the cumulative effect of language and what words mean in context. A student rushing to respond to ‘small’ and ‘hungry’ with their well-learned structures would miss the point altogether and fall very short of understanding the text – regardless of what writing frame they use (PEE, PEAL, PETAL, SPEED). These frames are often criticised for being formulaic – and rightly so. However, even a beautifully crafted analysis, using the less restrictive What? How? Why? would account for little if it bears no resemblance to the meaning of the extract.

Equally, I would argue that this is not a vocabulary issue. Understanding the words alone is not enough, neither is developing a large and impressive vocabulary for the response. Although vocabulary will unlock the subtleties and nuances of a text, this means nothing if those subtleties are missed in the first place.

The issue here is reading.

We labour over writing. We create scaffolds and sentence stems to ‘get them going’ only to find that when we approach another extract – nothing has stuck and we need to do it all over again. We write blogs about writing. We argue over paragraph structures and those that constrain or liberate young and struggling writers. We write books about writing and it still seems that sometimes, some things work for some students. So, the debates roll on.

It’s unlikely that this focus on writing is addressing the real problem – poor comprehension of unseen extracts. Writing is the articulation of thinking and understanding – so, the issue here is reading.

Maybe it is time we stop our obsessive focus on writing and went back to reading. When students have read an extract in depth they usually have plenty to say. That’s not to say sentence stems won’t help, but students are less likely to be stuck immediately after copying the words on the board.

They’ll have ideas, they’ll have examples, they’ll have an understanding of the causes and effects at play in a text. No acrononymised paragraph structure will fix this. Ever. Most importantly, they will have a rock solid understanding of the context of the text, so are highly unlikely to describe the ‘small’ and ‘hungry’ human tornado that is Sister Brendan as weak and in need of help.

Reading for Context

In order to help our students read with context in mind, the first thing to address is how we define the term. Often our definitions of context are a little blunt and are frequently limited to ‘anything relating to the social, political, cultural and historical background of a text’. Instead, we should teach students early on that context is any element (inside the text and outside of the text) that gives the reader additional information to support their understanding. Analysing texts ‘in context’ will point students towards noticing the genre, the narrative arc, the subject matter, as well as the more familiar political and social aspects for pre-studied texts.

Modelling reading with a visualiser is probably the most effective way to keep reminding students to read in context. Allow students to see everything you pause on, everything you notice. For example, there is often a wealth of information to be found in the exam board introductions of unseen texts. Even simple details such this from the AQA Language Paper 1 June 2017 telling us that Rosabel was ‘on her way home’ can be used to build up a familiar and recognisable mental model of what is typical: tiredness, a desire to get home, reflecting on the day – all of this prior to reading the text. Modelling reading in this way can also show how you respond to the cumulative effect of language (images build on images, language on language) and demonstrate the small adjustments you make to create meaning as you read.

Ask powerful questions that will develop students’ ability to read in context, such as how would someone feel in this situation? In this job? In this place? How would you feel? What evidence can you find of how the writer or characters feels? Is it the same or different to you? These kind of questions will remind students to consider language in context and not ‘dislocate’ it from the intended meaning. A focus on context and a few carefully considered questions could even help students unlock the bane of teachers’ lives: alliteration. Are the alliterative sounds harmonious? Discordant? How does that fit the context? Is the action harmonious? And so on.

Build context into your essential ingredient list for close language analysis. Alongside methods and evidence, students need to unpick the connotations of a word or phrase in relation to the contextual information they have: why this word, in this context, with what effect? This should lead to analysis that is sharp, focused and confidently asserted.

Finally, using strategies from reciprocal reading students can move from your modelling through to effective independent reading – the I do, we do, you do model. Using a consistent, routine approach demonstrating how to question (why did the writer choose the verb ‘roared’?), predict (A mountain like Everest is probably dangerous/Teachers probably work very hard) and summarise the ideas (the text is mainly about how hard life is for the girl) will support students in embedding these strategies for themselves.

So, the next time your students struggle with the unseen texts on the language paper, don’t rush off to build yet another resource with sentences starters and word banks. Go back to the reading. Check that, as novice readers, they have grasped the fundamental importance of reading in context.

Curriculum Daydreams

The new  Ofsted framework in draft form is a thing of beauty indeed. I’m a vocal champion of the 3 year KS3 and dislike systems and resources that serve only to ‘teach to the test’. So, I welcome the guiding statements that ask departments to cast a very critical eye over their KS3 and ensure it is fit for purpose.

I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking (on more than one occasion) that life would be easier if we bought one in – a shiny, complete, resourced, robust ‘thing’ that would tick every box and allow us to get back to the job. The temptation can be overwhelming at times, even when costs are prohibitive and nagging doubts persist – would our Y7 really benefit from doing this?  These daydreams of a better life the department and students are not yet living somehow misses the point. I want that for everyone (not least for myself as a HoD, who bears the weight of all this) but I want to set the parameters for our cohort. I, maybe mistakenly, believe this is part of Ofsted’s ethos – one size does not fit all, and an off-the-peg curriculum may not have your learners in mind. A well-researched, reflective, resourced curriculum that meets the needs of a specific cohort should be an option for every school. But schools must consider how time, money and staffing will support this. Otherwise, we are right back where we started – weak KS3 schemes that plug holes and fill needs that learners do not have.

I began the rewrite of KS3 in 2016, after becoming HoD. The process I went through is written about in more detail here.  Essentially, it involved trawling twitter, blogs and schools websites for curriculum maps. Once I had collected the ones I could see value in  –  cultural capital, depth etc., I presented them to the department and collectively we built what we wanted to teach in the sequence that seemed most logical. It was largely chronological. The main concession being Y7 term 2, ACC because….it was Christmas (although at the time it was like a fingernail squeezing into my palm, I’ve since learned you don’t have to win every battle).

So, this was our first new KS3:Slide1.jpg

It did many of the things I wanted it to do but it became clear it prioritised texts over threshold concepts and knowledge. In other words, students would leave KS3 knowing a great deal about some challenging and culturally important texts (what happened, how language was used, what effects etc.) but wouldn’t necessarily know what literary concepts underpin them, connect them and why this mattered in the grand scheme of things.

So, the curriculum map underwent changes, but the implementation of this is still a work in progress. Now, I’ve tried to think about progression more carefully. Reading has to dominate Y7. Then, armed with an ability read critically and connect some of the grand ideas learned in Y7, the focus can shift more to writing: students need to develop fluency in understanding before fluent writing can follow. This then is the new model:




The differences are quite subtle but absolutely critical, in my opinion. There is still a huge amount of work to be done. But, I honestly think we’re building something for the long term  – a genuinely principled curriculum design. There needs to be fluidity – some texts should be able to drop in and drop out; English literature is a living, breathing entity after all. There always could be more – more diversity, more women, more modern, more classical and this should be reviewed regularly. Non-fiction voices, unseen poetry choices, World book day promotions, competition prompts – there are many ways to ensure your range of voices is balanced. The taught curriculum is only one part of it.

Finally, what follows is my thinking out loud when it comes to the new Ofsted Framework. I hope no-one reads this as ‘doing it for Ofsted‘ – it is purely my own way of systematically looking at things. Besides, I applaud the framework for including many things that we now accept to be of real value.  As I said, we have a long way to go yet. Hours of work are needed to pull together the bits in red (if anyone wants to give time and resources – I’ll happily take it!), but we are looking at it head-on, which is always half the battle.

I hope this is helpful in your own curriculum planning and thought processes.



More on ‘The 10 Whys’: Macbeth

I have to (tentatively) say, working on the ’10 Whys’ with my students has been one of the most significant developments in the quality of their writing since time began. Although they are in that clumsy, liminal space where they need to refine their expression, many have got what we mean by analytical, exploratory, perceptive. Some students are running with this and some are piecing it together. All, though, have an awareness of the depth  required in a higher level answer, and now have a road map of how they get there.

Here’s what I’ve been doing – this time with Macbeth:

  1. I followed exactly the same process with my Y11 as I did with Y10 and J&H. The full post is here. In short, students worked in pairs to answer a series of questions to tease out their ideas of why Shakespeare made the choices he did. We then took those responses and looked at modelled crafted sentences that expressed those ideas. These are below:
  • Shakespeare reveals the lengths people will go to in order to obtain power.
  • Shakespeare depicts the horror of guilt and remorse, embodied in the characters of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.
  • Shakespeare uses the witches to evoke a dark and sinister atmosphere. Shakespeare  uses the witches to appeal to King James’ interest in ‘Deaemonologie’. Shakespeare forces the audience to question whether Macbeth acts of his own free will, or is being guided by a supernatural force.
  • Shakespeare exposes Macbeth’s emptiness and isolation after the murder. He experiences no joy or satisfaction from becoming king.
  • Shakespeare employs the theme of appearance and reality to examine the central paradox of the play – that nothing is what it seems.
  • Shakespeare uses Lady Macbeth to embody uncontrolled ambition. He uses her decisiveness to juxtapose with Macbeth’s conflict.
  • Shakespeare uses the natural world and natural order to emphasises how wrong Macbeth’s actions are.
  • Shakespeare positions Macbeth as a worthy and heroic character in the opening of the play so that his downfall is more tragic.
  • Shakespeare establishes a clear moral order by concluding the play with the deaths of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth
  • Shakespeare utilities the motifs of light and dark to allude to the struggle between good and evil.

2. Once students have recovered from the fact that the third ‘Why’  has three different points, I move on to setting this as a homework task. Students learn the statements through self-quizzing and are then tested in class. This process of memorisation means that the language begins to become owned by the student.

3. We then went back to the ingredients of a paragraph, to re-set what they need to write. I attended Louisa Enstone’s talk ‘Stop PEE-ing’ many years ago at rED Swindon, which was a true lightbulb moment for me. There is no doubt that the more reductive and simple we make the writing process for students, the simpler the writing becomes. This precludes students from ever moving through the higher bands on the mark scheme.  Students do though need a sense of structure, so focusing paragraphs on the following has helped:

  • Point/thesis/idea statement relating to the Q
  • Embedded evidence + methods
  • Close language analysis
  • Link to the whole text and relate back to extract
  •  Why?

This is not acronym-ised. It is learned. Every time we write a paragraph, this list goes up on the board. Every time I walk around the class and check paragraphs, I ask students which bit have they missed. Every time we look at models, we identify elements of this structure. The models below are based on shared/student/teacher writing and respond to Macbeth’s soliloquy in Act 2 Scene 1 ‘Is this a dagger…’ How does Shakespeare portray Macbeth as a strong and villainous character?

4. So, now we have a routine when we write extract based essays is consistently repeated. It goes like this:

  1. Read question, circle key word, brainstorm 3-4 synonyms – triggers to help us focus on on the right language.
  2. Read extract – actively (judiciously!) highlight language associated to the key word and trigger/synonym words.
  3. Plan. Look at language highlighted. Organise language into three clear groups/points. Determine methods, consider links to other parts of the text/context/whys?/alternative interpretation to the question etc.
  4. Write.
  5. Check.

We are still in the early stages, but results are quite exciting. Higher ability students seem more confident to use their own voice and offer alternative interpretations. Weaker and less confident students are extending their writing and exploring ideas more thoroughly. Most importantly, students are starting to express something of value and depth. The examples below are un-scaffolded, un-supported, independent homework responses (before the feedback PPT slides above).




I would argue that the combination of two things has driven this improvement. Firstly, the explicit teaching of the Whys has opened up a deeper level of analysis. I am no longer wishing students will get it by themselves. As teachers, we ‘get it’ by ourselves, but only as a result of years of studying literature. Symbolism and tropes become so obvious, they metaphorically slap us round the face. Novice readers are often ‘blind’ to this. The whys allow students to make links and connections within a text and between texts. Secondly, the use of routine frees up attention to concentrate on other things, such as quality of expression. I have attempted to use the same language and same process every time we write an essay. This, with the modelling, means that the process starts to be internalised and automatic. Continually and explicitly making students aware of the structure builds a metacognitive framework, which can be tested in low stakes, independent writing tasks.

Thanks for reading. Feedback is always welcome.





The 10 ‘whys’ of Jekyll and Hyde

Like many English teachers, I’ve come across the phrase ‘This makes the reader feel…’ many times. This fairly clunky, and often misattributed statement makes a sweeping judgement about readers, and often leads to a very thin point, which misses out analysis completely.

When I posted this in April, it led to some debate about whether we can ever claim to know an author’s intention. Michael Rosen and Phillip Pullman even got involved, through a series of sub tweets. I felt simultaneously proud and ignored. And, whilst it’s very true that we do not know what a writer ‘intended’ to do, we can confidently, with evidence to support, say what they have done (whether it was the intention or not). Of course, this will vary from one reader to the next, but far better to teach students to make confident and assertive statements about what the writer has done (with the implication of it being for them as the reader), than encourage students to make sweeping generalisations about a reader’s feelings.

With the aim to edge students towards a deeper analysis I set about creating my own list of ‘whys’. Every time students offered close word analysis, I kept pushing them to go further and explain ‘why’.  Below is my list of 10 ‘whys’ for Jekyll and Hyde:

Stevenson exposes the hypocrisy of Victorian society
Stevenson argues against repression of mankind
Stevenson reveals conditions of working class London
Stevenson uses fog to create a gothic atmosphere and to symbolise all that is concealed
Stevenson depicts the Victorian sense of urban terror
Stevenson employs light and dark to convey struggle between good and evil
Stevenson reveals the struggle that emerged between religion and science
Stevenson reflects on the role of privilege, indulgence and ego in self destruction
Stevenson highlights public anxieties about science and the ethics of discovery
Stevenson uses motifs of concealment to symbolise repression

At sentence level these ‘whys’ aim to model confident language of analysis, ambitious vocabulary and contextual information.

Simply giving these to students would have missed out what they already knew from the text. So, I gave pairs a series of questions to tease out as much information as they could. These were:

  1. What could the two personalities of Jekyll represent?
  2. Why does the novel end tragically ?
  3. Why does Stevenson include descriptions of the area Hyde lives in? What do they show?
  4. Why is the fog referred to throughout the novel?
  5. Why is the novel set in a city?
  6. What do the lamplights, that seem to flicker through the darkness, suggest?
  7. Why are the references science and religion relevant?
  8. Why is Jekyll wealthy and comfortable? Why is he not living in poverty?
  9. Why is Lanyon the person to witness the transformation and why does it seem significant that he dies?
  10. Why does Stevenson use motifs of windows, locks and doors?

After sharing responses, we looked at the exemplar ‘why’ sentences.  Students have been given these and are learning them. This will give them vocabulary and ideas which they can later build on in their writing, and lose the vague, empty, reader response phrases altogether.


I ♥ Literacy

One of my tasks for the coming year is to revamp our whole school approach to literacy, after falling slightly by the wayside. Initially, I wasn’t overly excited by the idea (even though I think it was me who offered…), feeling it would be like a busmen’s holiday, stomping over familiar ground.  But, the more I engaged with books, posts and tweets on the topic, the more I felt privileged to be trusted with such an important role. Far from being the poor cousin of the English HoD, it’s a role which may share some common ground, but is distinctly different from leading a department .

So where did this love spring from? A colleague told me that if you tell teenagers they love something enough times, they eventually will. Telling myself there is much that can be achieved has gone a long way in changing my attitude. Recent books like Closing The Vocabulary Gap (Alex Quigley, 2018), Thinking Reading (James and Diane Murphy, 2018) and The Writing Revolution (Hockman and Wexler, 2017) have helped to ignite this explosion in optimism. Older texts worth revisiting or discovering for the first time include The Secret of Literacy (David Didau, 2014), The Literacy Leader’s Toolkit (Tyrer and Taylor, 2013), The Literacy Toolkit (Amanda Sara, 2009) and Don’t Call it Literacy (Geoff Barton, 2012).

On Thursday I tweeted a grand plan for KS3 literacy next year. I have one tutor time slot per week. People may have had poor experiences of bolt-on literacy programmes and may feel negatively towards it, and I know skills do not work when taught as generic, transferable ‘things’ (more on that later). However,  it is a golden opportunity have whole year groups focusing on the same thing, at the same time, each week. If there is one thing worth more than money in education, it is time.

We have been given time to raise the importance of something that is so fundamentally important to progress that, without it, darkness falls. My version of literacy (and I think it is vitally important that schools do personalise their version of literacy for their cohort) includes Presentation to build pride in learning, Non-fiction reading, Oracy, Vocabulary, Punctuation, Spelling and Sentences. This is some of my thinking behind plans for September:

  1. I followed @AlwaysLearnWeb’s idea of a termly focus. This way, teachers – in their role as both tutor and subject specialist- have time to reflect on each focus in their departments and discuss how they will contribute to raising that standard. In September, I’d like to have a Literacy Lead from each department to raise a literacy item in departments meetings relating to the work of that or the previous term.
  2. We are covering everything in Year 1. However, I don’t expect us to fix everything in Year 1. I want the grand plan to support all staff, as well as all students. Covering all bases, staff will learn the common shared language of literacy from topic sentences, to nominalisation, to paragraph types. Without this shared language, or shared purpose, we will never move properly forward. It only takes some analysis of KS4 whole school mock data, looking at students achieving low grades (1s and Us) across all subjects that you find yourself at the very sharp end of the wedge; poor literacy has an impact on the whole school, not just the English department, not to mention the devastating, far-reaching impact on young people.
  3. We’re starting with presentation because we want to set expectations high and maintain them. Currently, I’m a senior teacher (though not full SLT). I’ve learned over the past month how important it is to have SLT support for literacy, bringing together the T&L, Progress & Outcomes, and Pastoral strands of the school. I’m going to ask for a whole school book audit, so that by the end of week 2 all students have had some comments about their book work. Using whole class feedback, a single RAG slide on the board can be used to communicate to the class who is meeting expectation and who needs to improve. This will be one of our observable outcomes to judge impact throughout the year. Thanks to @MsSfax for her posts on handwriting for this section.
  4. Resources must be at an absolute minimum. There isn’t time in the day (nor money in the pot) to photocopy, create booklets, buy separate books. Everything must be achieved through PPT and odd bits of lined paper. Tutors are hard pushed as it is and need ready-to-go material. That poses the problem of juggling clean, clear, short PPTs* that are also wholly self-contained. To do this, I used the ‘hide slide’ function to give instructions in yellow boxes to teachers (you may need to re-hide slides if you download the resources). To signal to students that tasks are important,  I’m also going to make more use of the school planner, so students will be asked to record targets or responses. That way they have their own reference record for the year. *I’m already failing on this, so need to keep trimming things down – even lose some sessions to spread others over 2 weeks. Each literacy ‘lesson’  includes a mini quiz, what/why, task. There is deliberately more task material than can be covered.
  5. Earlier, I mentioned the problematic nature of some literacy ‘teaching’ – generic, decontextualised, non-transferable. I think this is where it is important to be really clear on your vision and core purpose. For our school, the purpose this year is to develop that shared language with students & staff, and to raise the profile of literacy once again across the curriculum. Tutors will take the strategies and knowledge back to their departments to use more specifically, in context, making them explicit. Some content will naturally be delivered more effectively than others, some sessions will push tutors out of their comfort zone; nevertheless, the key messages will be out there.
  6. I also wanted to draw on quick wins – lots of quizzes, competitiveness, some humour and provocation to ‘engage’ (although I realise this is another ‘mad woman in the attic’, and best left alone).
  7. Finally, how will I know any of it will have an impact? Some strands are observable (presentation, handwriting, improved student spoken interaction in class) and will be picked up by class teachers, departments, learning walks. Some self-reflection will be captured through online surveys. Mostly though, we are trying to have an impact on the school culture, which is not comfortably measurable. I’ll be looking at things like whether we have more students interested in debating than last year, whether more books are being taken out of the library, whether any staff choose a literacy focus as their PM pledge, whether my own classes feel more confident in offering answers in front of their peers, whether teachers report more students using punctuation or ambitious & sophisticated vocabulary, even if they are now getting it wrong.

Here are the resources for the first term – thank you for reading this post. Please feel free to adapt and use. Any comments welcome!