A clear, cohesive whole

I wanted to share the systems set up at my school for Quality of Education and T&L. School systems tend to evolve over time and are dependent on so many factors – the individual staff in post, the school culture and school priorities. Unfortunately, a one-size-fits-all will never work but, I hope this post can at least help someone reflect or support them trying to establish their own systems for the first time.

  • Staff need a sense of a clear, cohesive whole for T&L. Staff need to know what the underlying principles for good teaching are and how these can be delivered. Staff need both. For the what in our school, we have a framework of 4 Key Qs – What do I want students to learn? How will I show them the learning? How will students practise the learning? How will I check they have learned it? At previous professional development sessions I have shown staff how these questions relate to the very rich research base around good teaching. Fundamentally, whether the principles are broken down into 4, 10 or 15, if their basis is content, modelling, practice, consolidation – they are all singing from the same hymn sheet. What matters is that your staff know what song your school are singing! In terms of the how – again, there are more high impact strategies than can be meaningfully & routinely used by your staff. The aim is the ‘sense of the clear, cohesive whole’ and will differ depending on the school culture. When I set about naming our key teaching strategies, I knew they needed to build on the 4 Key Questions and I wanted oracy, literacy and independent work at the core. After discussion at SLT, we settled on 10 Excellent Teaching Strategies (which, I only realised later, can be abbreviated as tenets). Our 10 ETS are now the main driver for T&L conversations with middle leadership and staff. We are moving to the expectation that in any drop in, one of these high impact strategies is in action. I would expect to see a teacher in a modelling phase, questioning, independent work, reading or explanation. The framework, the strategies and the repetition hold teachers in a supportive way.
  • Bring all your professional development avenues together. We have a weekly PD session, T&L briefing twice a term and I send a T&L bulletin each week. They are all short and all repeat the same message for that week. If Monday briefing refers to Cold Call as the school focus, T&L briefing will be on an aspect of this and the T&L weekly bulletin will share a blog post, research summary or video on this topic. The weekly bulletin is a very short email with a quick summary, links embedded and a nod to what is coming up in the next week. I used to create beautiful newsletters but soon realised that, at the end of a working week, if I could barely be bothered to read them, why should anyone else.  
  • Make the granular details of your teaching strategies explicit. Our professional development programme includes sessions on each of our strategies that are revisited at different points. During these sessions, we explicitly walk through what the strategy looks like in practice. Staff always have time after these sessions to work in faculties and continue the conversation of what this means for their subject, specifically.
  • Curriculum tools and resources need the strategies built in. This is a key message for Faculty Leads and one that I repeat often. If it doesn’t exist in your curriculum tools, it won’t exist in the classroom. If we are changing habits, we need to use the habits and routines teachers are already familiar with – the principle of habit stacking. To embed Turn and Talk, it needs to be built into PPTs or booklets – giving teachers a trigger to use. Without this, strategies may be used without real intention, limiting the impact. This carries the risk of derailing the teacher’s confidence if it doesn’t work, wasting valuable time or not being used at all. Collaborative planning on shared resources is key.
  • Make accountability transparent. There is a danger that quality assurance and accountability measures obfuscate what is needed to drive change. Lengthy documents can become albatrosses that do not help senior leaders or middle leaders. Staff, too, can be so far removed from this process that the process becomes meaningless. Staff know we have 3 cycles of PM, so we talk using the language of Cycle 1, Cycle 2, Cycle 3. We have scrapped the need to use additional language for accountability – 60 day plans, Short Term Plans etc. and so avoid confusion and distraction. For each cycle, I add notes to a Google Sheet which has a template to capture a Department Overview of quality of curriculum, classroom T&L, data, student/staff experience and action plan. This is shared with each Faculty Leader to discuss the priorities for the coming cycle. This part of the process must be transparent. The Middle Leaders need to hold this information themselves, rather than it being something held over them.
  • Hold whole school book looks. We have 3 large book looks a year that involve all staff. We set up Google Forms and staff look at books across a subject, or through the eyes of a student, across a curriculum, using our Chrome Books to capture their responses. It is developmental. Staff see books as representative of us as a whole school, rather than of themselves as a teacher or as a department. It also generates a lot of conversation about departments between department, and about key students. Finally, it supports SLT to see the big picture between what is in the Curriculum and what is done in the classroom.
  • Line Management meetings mirror the school calendar. Another Google Sheet is shared with Faculty Leads and I pre-populate the agenda for term (Cycle 1,2,3) so that we discuss what is coming up in later in the term, as well as any immediate concerns. This way, I can support FLs to be forward thinking – a genuine challenge for any busy middle leader. They come to the meeting prepared to discuss the points on the agenda rather than being wrong footed on the day. Central to this agenda is T&L – dealing with behaviour issues occurs to enable quality T&L, talking about data and outcomes is talking about the quality of T&L, talking about curriculum is about strengthening the quality of T&L and making it more impactful. These two documents – the Link Meeting agenda and the Department Overview are all we need have a dialogue about where the Faculty/Department is and what is needed next.
  • Be in lessons, a lot. I walk the school every day and visit lessons. It is the most important part of my job. Having conversations with teachers and students is vital. I learn more from these drop-ins than I would from formal lesson observation. I learn about the climate and culture of every class in school, which students might be struggling and why, which teachers are transforming their relationships through day-in, day-out perseverance and which teachers benefit from conversations about seating plans or distractions in the classroom.

It is not perfect but we are a long way from where we were. I have a few next steps. First, we need to join up all of our thinking from our book look Google Forms, Lesson Observation Forms and Support & Challenge meetings. This will enable Faculty Leaders to lead with even greater clarity and purpose. Secondly, although we have Care written into our school mission – Knowledge, Care, Ambition, Care is the one element that we need to constantly work on – like behaviour, it is never done. Whilst it is wrapped up in our pastoral and behaviour system, it is undeniable that good relationships are critical in the classroom. We need to look at how we absorb this into our T&L framework and strategies, rather than it being a separate and distinct feature of the classroom.

Disciplinary Reading

Disciplinary literacy is hard to pin down. Our task in T&L, curriculum or literacy is to support departments in developing the beginnings of a framework. Otherwise, we run the risk of it becoming stuck, as an abstract and nebulous concept.

At my school, we have good buy-in when it comes to reading. Staff understand the why and many departments will actively look for opportunities to weave texts into their curriculum.

Our next step is building specificity when it comes to reading in Maths versus reading in History, or reading in English versus reading in RE. In order to set departments up for this task, I went through the following steps with staff.

  1. Start with the why. Don’t worry if you’ve delivered this 20 times over, some messages are worth repeating. The final point is worth pausing on as a genuine positive. This is what Marc Rowland calls ‘within our gift’. We have the opportunity to have a significant impact if we commit to delivering that 20 minutes plus, ourselves, in school – through home learning, through curriculum resources, through tutor time.

2. Name your strategy and define the parameters. We have built Read to Succeed into our SIP, our professional development and into our key T&L strategies. It is important for staff to know there is a plan and how the specific ‘bit’ of CPD they are sat listening to, fits into that plan.

3. Before launching into reading, I made the link between reading and writing. As a staff group, we have looked at this before in terms of the amount a student needs to know/do to approach these tasks or texts. Interestingly, whilst putting together the presentation, I came across an article that suggested that the impact of good writing on reading is much stronger than the impact of good reading on writing. It good for staff to think of all language and branches of literacy as feeding into and improving each other. The curriculum is language in all its forms.

4. I then asked staff to read this text for a few minutes. Thankfully, I could see by some of the smiles on their faces, the point had been made – where there is an absence of one or more of the elements above, comprehension is significantly affected.

5. What I also shared with staff was this version, which mapped how, as expert readers with a fairly decent sense of the organisation, purpose and sequencing of academic text, we will work really hard to make sense of what we are reading. The key point is here, we need to explicitly highlight text structure and organisation as well as vocabulary.

6. Lack of organisation and textual structure knowledge, alongside a lack of knowledge about vocabulary and typical discourse markers for the text type, make for a catastrophic failure in communication.

7. How do we know where to start – vocabulary or organisation and structure? My advice to staff was to model the thinking processes behind both word level barriers and passage/whole text level barriers. We use the NGRT and their Individual reports on students give detailed information about weaknesses at a word/retrieval level or a whole text level. Disciplinary reading requires departments to systematically build in opportunities for the presentation of organisation and text structure as well as vocabulary and concept building.

8. What can we measure ourselves against? I showed staff the very useful EEF RAG rating document on literacy in secondary schools. To move to the exemplary rating, today was the beginning of those departmental conversations about what we need to model to students to read this text.

9. Demonstrate to staff specifically what that might look like. I shared this slide make it explicit what this would sound like in the classroom. This was also used later when staff had to practice this modelling based on a text from their own subject in their department group.

10. In order for departments to practice highlighting both the organisation and language features of their subject specific text, I modelled an example from Maths, an idea adapted from @ClareFeeneyUK, and talked staff through how I might present this in a lesson. There are two useful key points for students – the first is that there is a predictable structure and we need to make sure students know that. The second is that the reading strategy is very much about reading and re-reading and re-reading, converting text to mathematical operations as we go. We need to explicitly give students permission – and in fact, instruct students to re-read.

11. Staff then had 10 minutes to use the model prompts, use the individual subject specific texts and demonstrate to each other how to deliver it in class.

12. After staff had completed this, I explained that we are at the start of this particular journey. Graphic organisers are one tool that can support both teachers and students to structure reading and writing. These will be something we can return to and embed slowly and purposefully throughout school.

13. Finally, I wanted staff to know that to get this right will take time and deep thinking about the materials we use.

The full presentation with the subject specific text types is here.

I hope it is useful. Any feedback, warmly welcome.

Anatomy of a lesson: English

As thousands of trainee teachers start ITT courses, I thought it might be useful to post something in really specific terms about teaching, and if possible, encourage others to do the same.

We often talk about elements of lessons, and share these freely, but we don’t very often talk about how these element stitch together in the course of an hour and what is needed to pre-empt difficulties or barriers to learning.

I realise that through this post I am potentially putting myself out there for all kinds of criticism. However, as a T&L lead, it’s important to always keep learning, even if that is a little uncomfortable sometimes. I think it’s also important to be really explicit and specific when we talk about teaching with trainees and less experienced teachers. There is always more than one way but this is the anatomy of one of my English lessons:

  1. Lessons always start with a retrieval task. It always relates to something very recently covered, is relevant to the lesson ahead, and signals to students that it should be retained. The simple routine of having the title ‘Back of books’ means students know this is the starter task. I never use handouts or resources for the retrieval starter. For me, it needs to be important enough to record in books (not set adrift on loose paper) and it needs to be fluid and quick.

2. After this, we move into the lesson outline. Every lesson, throughout school, begins with a universal slide. This is something we have had in place for a number of years and we find that it sends a strong message to students about consistency and clarity. As yet, there is no compelling reason to abandon it. The title is always specific to where we are in the play for later reference. Our lessons are based around learning questions and students know that by the end of the lesson, they will have the knowledge they need to answer the question. The key word – Machiavellian was introduced as part of reading homework, before this lesson, so students understand the concept in depth before the lesson. (All homework is reading homework with a Google Form quiz. Students have the booklet and I record a video of me reading it for students who would find just reading it difficult). During this 3 minutes segment, I always very clearly narrate what we are doing and why.

‘This lesson we are going to be reading Lady Macbeth’s first scene. We will try to understand what Shakespeare wanted us to see and think about her character. We’re going to annotate some of the key language and organise the main ideas. Then, we are going to put this together in a written response.’

This ongoing commentary of the lesson is absolutely key. Students know what they are doing, why they are doing it and what the expected outcome is.

3. This next segment of the lesson contains the key content/knowledge/explanation. It is key that I highlight what students need to know. However, it is also important that students have some opportunity to make conceptual links with what they’ve read already and begin to build confidence in their own interpretation and analysis. After a student read through of the reading of Macbeth’s letter and Lady Macbeth’s soliloquy, I might ask students to do several things before we annotate in detail: find a word on each line that stands out (what does it tell us about Lady Macbeth’s intentions and character?), respond to 5 questions to ensure the literal meaning is secure, or turn and talk to you partner for 2 minutes to identify a pattern of language and explain why. These quick tasks make the annotation and explanation phase quicker and more meaningful. Students are primed and attuned to the language.

I always annotate using a visualiser and have a fully annotated copy of the play available. If someone has been absent, I give them the complete copy so that during the retrieval task they can update their script – I don’t want anyone to feel behind.

I ask students to get out their highlighters and if I write something down, they should too. Annotating using the visualiser means that I can switch between board and play easily, with no loss of learning time. This is also a period of hands down questioning and I always try to be deliberate with who I ask questions to, building confidence and self-efficacy.

After annotating, we summarise the key ideas in relation to the learning question. I usually do this with a turn and talk, or mini-whiteboards. Again, I give students a commentary at every stage of the lesson.

‘Now that we’ve unpicked the speeches, what 3 main things do you think Shakespeare is trying to show us about Lady Macbeth? Turn to your partner and talk’.

4. The next part of the lesson is modelling, leading into independent work. I will collate the 3 main ideas about the presentation of Lady Macbeth, addressing misconceptions along the way ‘Go back to the language. Is that most important idea?’ Then, taking those 3 ideas as our starting point (what is the presentation?), we will piece together the how and the why. Depending on where we are in a course, we will either do this together or students will do with a partner. At the end of this segment, we now have a structured map on the board with notes – our knowledge, almost ready to write. The next part is often the really sticky bit as you move students towards working in silence, completely independently. I model how it should look (sentence stems, collaborative opening sentences etc), even if I modelled it yesterday and the day before. This is not a test and it is the capacity to write independently about the topic, even with prompts, that I am interested in. As I teach mixed ability classes, I will always give students some additional vocabulary, detail or interpretation that can be used for the higher bands. Students need to see what this looks like in real terms, all the time, and then many will automatically start including it themselves. There are no additional resources, just a few extra notes on the board.

‘If you’re aiming for the top grades, you might want to think about bringing in an alternative way of looking at Lady Macbeth and adding a few more sentences. Perhaps, Shakespeare is showing us that she is too weak by herself and needs spirits to give her courage’.

My modelling will usually include a non-example as this one of the most powerful ways to move students along:

If I wrote this in my analysis what is wrong with it?

Shakespeare uses the adjective ‘fatal’ to describe Duncan’s entrance to the Macbeth’s castle. This shows that they are evil and that they will kill him.

Let’s re-write this to add more detail.

5. Then students write in silence, for the remainder of the lesson and/or into the following lesson, depending how long the above has taken. The learning question is not about a single lesson unit, but about a knowledge unit, and so we move on when it is covered. While students write, I look at their books and help if they need it. I am always full of lots and lots of praise, whispered to individuals as I go round so that they do not lose focus. After they have finished the writing task, I’ll always look at the work as quickly as I can. I know marking is a contentious issue, but it has always worked for me to mark independent writing as quickly as possible so that I can pick up on a range of issues – lack of work, lack of understanding, spelling errors across a class, misconceptions etc.

6. Finally, we consolidate. How does Shakespeare present Lady Macbeth? This is either through the next retrieval task the following day or as a oral quick question task at the end of the lesson.

That is all. A very stripped back lesson, lesson after lesson. The text always takes centre stage. No additional worksheets. No sticking, no gluing. It isn’t perfect and it isn’t the only way, but it is one way that might help someone starting to do this for the first time this September.

I would love it if others contributed their anatomy of a lesson and used the #anatomyofalesson on twitter.

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.