Helpful Homework

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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




Dread the Unseen

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

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

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

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


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

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




200 Word Challenge: Non-fiction


If the 200 Word Challenge isn’t a proper-set-in-stone-teaching-thing yet, then everyone needs to get their skates on and catch up.

Chris Curtis @Xris32) ,  father of the 200 word challenge, here and here , has lit the equivalent of an Olympic torch, that just keeps going. Not only is it rooted in very sound pedagogy, demanding regular, silent, extended writing, it is also a workload gift, placing the expectation of hard work rightly at the feet of the student and not the teacher.

Other proponents of the 200 word challenge that have to be mentioned include @heymrshallan and @Matthew_Lynch44 , who have generously shared their hard work.

In September we will be running the weekly 200 word challenge across the department. When collecting resources for this, I wanted to adapt them slightly, after reading Andy Tharby’s (@atharby) excellent ‘Making Every English Lesson Count’. In the chapter Challenging Writing , Tharby states that in his early years as an English teacher, when preparing for speech writing, he and his students would spend a great deal of time identifying rhetorical devices, explaining rhetorical devices, and then writing their own rhetorical devices. The result, he argues, was often ‘shallow and poorly argued‘.  He has since adapted his approach to include a great deal more explicit content of the topic, building knowledge first. The result: ‘developed arguments and well-researched evidence.’ This surface-level style of writing is also discussed by Dave Grimmett @daveg5478) in his post about ineffective analysis, here ; the dangers of all style & no substance.

In order to ensure that the 200 word challenge doesn’t become ‘surface’ writing, particularly for our less able students, AND keep the vital ‘unseen’ element, I decided to add some factual, context to each task. There is a great deal of assumption in English exam tasks about what is ‘general, shared knowledge’. We owe it to students to make sure we are actively sharing the world with them, and not making snap judgements about what they know/understand.

On each slide, students are given 5 facts that they can choose to use either for or against the topic. I am hoping they will become masters of ‘spin’ and I look forward to see how inventive they will become at using the information to their advantage.  They will need to practise this, I imagine, and I hope to add opportunities for oracy e.g. pair work arguing for and against the same statement. Chris also wrote this excellent post on vocabulary recently on linking words together according to groups and meaning. As vocabulary is another priority for my department this year, I have used 5 related words for each topic, borrowed from Chris’ wonderful word lists.

I will share the full PPT when complete, below are 5 of the slides. I hope it is less reinventing of the wheel, and more standing on the shoulders of giants – adding to the amazing bank of @Team_English1 resources, rather than muddying the waters!


A Route to Readability Part 1

Having only been an English HoD for a year, I escaped the trauma of making judgements about the placement of students into GCSE tiers. A reflective over-thinker (who, I’ve been told, would take an hour to walk along a street as a toddler), I was spared the task of playing out scenarios in my head such as ‘… on a good day, with the wind blowing in the right direction, with a good text, and nice questions, John could get a C…’ We have a tendency to focus on what students can do, rather than what they do, consistently, do.

Cue the great GCSE reform and the entrance of the single tier and the accompanying relief at having one less thing to think about.  The updated information from Ofqual (March 2017) about GCSE reform states very clearly that ‘Exams can only be split into ‘foundation tier’ and ‘higher tier’ if one exam paper does not give all students the opportunity to show their knowledge and abilities.’ So, in a single tier English GCSE, it should follow that all students have this opportunity.

The single tier means that in a comprehensive school those who are within a fingertip of 8s & 9s are reading and responding to the same text as those who have an EOY11 FFT of 1 or 2. Whilst there have been reservations about single tier in English, as discussed in The Guardian GCSE Reform: Can one exam work for pupils of all abilities?  and in this 2013 document by Tim Oates, Tiering in GCSE , I am a supporter. I don’t want be the one to cap or jeopardise a student’s ability to to reach their potential. In my school, our new mixed ability groupings exemplify this core belief that there should be no ceiling on student progress and allow students wriggle room to grow, mature & develop between Y10 & Y11.

Taking away the tier and the sets does not mean, however, that the issue of accessibility has disappeared along with it.  Carrying out a Flesch-Kincaid readability grade level and reading ease test on the new AQA specification GCSEs (Specimen, SAMS & June 17 exam) highlights exactly what ‘opportunities for… all‘ really means. Overall, reading grade level ages range from 2.9 (Lang P1 SAMS 3) to 12 (Lang P1 Specimen, Lang P2 Specimen, Lang P2 SAMS 2). The average reading ease scores range from 92.4 – accessible and easy (Lang P1 SAMS 3) to 49.9 – college level reading, very difficult to access (Lang P2 SAMS 2). The complete table is at the end of this post, which may be useful when choosing texts to support or challenge your students.

In summary, averaging out the texts used by AQA in Lang P1 & 2 students are required to have a reading age of a Y9 student (with a RA of around 14.0). Any students below this may struggle to access the paper fully to formulate their response. In 5 Things every new (secondary) teacher should know about reading , David Didau quotes ED Hirsch Jr, who argues that “if decoding does not happen quickly, the decoded material will be forgotten before it is understood”. Add to this unfamiliar material, time pressure, poor grammatical control, poor handwriting and anxiety, and we have a recipe for disaster where students with lower reading ages are concerned.

To really understand the landscape of our cohort we began, at the end of term, a process of literacy profiling. Below are two examples from students, one in Y7 moving into Y8 in September, the other in Y10, moving into Y11. The profile captures an attitude to reading, a handwriting sample, evidence of grammatical control and will have the reading age (RA) and spelling age (SA) score added to the sheet. Every child from Y8-11 will be profiled in this way. It is relatively quick and is throwing up some interesting patterns, and anomalies among students. For example, a female student, X, in my class is incredibly hard working and a model student. On paper, it seems as if she should often achieve higher grades than she frequently does. After testing, she is shown to have a RA far below her chronological age and her reading statement describes exactly how hard she has to work to read effectively. I wonder if this has been picked up by any of her teachers before?

Literacy profilingThe profiles will be stored centrally and be accessible to all English teachers. The main and most important patterns will be shared with all staff. With this information, we will  run interventions according to need, using a variety of resources e.g.. Sarah Barker’s excellent approach to addressing handwriting. We will focus on a few key groups to track progress and evaluate.

It will also bring about greater collaboration between English, Inclusion and the Library, a multi-agency approach, if you like. The last thing I want to do is duplicate the good work being done elsewhere. However, the stakes have been raised in English, and across all subjects. It is very much our problem and we need to know what we are dealing with. In the 2013 Ofsted paper ‘Moving English Forward’  the introduction makes the bold and (I think) accurate statement that ‘there can be no more important subject than English in the school curriculum… Literacy skills are also crucial to pupils’ learning in other subjects across the curriculum.’

I know I will sleep much better at night having a realistic bottom-line understanding of our students (exactly how many students in Y11 are below the required RA for the material?)  rather than running through those ‘on a good day, with the wind blowing in the right direction…’ scenarios.

Reading Ages AQA

Reading Age scores of AQA papers.


Further Reading & Sources:

The Guardian,  GCSE Reform: Can one exam work for pupils of all abilities? 

Tiering in GCSE by Tim Oates

David Didau Learning Spy: 5 Things every (new) secondary teacher should know about reading

NASEN Supporting reading & literacy in Secondary Schools

Ofsted, Moving English Forward April 2013

Sarah Barker: The Stable Oyster @ladybarkbark Building Automaticity in Handwriting 

Beware the Gimmicks of July

I could not agree more with Fiona Ritson @FKRitson in her TES piece here, about the temptation to ditch learning in favour of fun at the end of the year. She is a teacher I have the most phenomenal respect for and I feel I have some balance to redress.

Last week, in a typical frenzy of production I made this:


Now, I grew up with an older brother, who taught me all the joys of Top Trumps (even though I never won), along with Dungeons and Dragons and Risk. For me, Top Trumps epitomised the combination of luck, strategy and stupidness that I experienced as a child.

In the last few weeks of term, I read Andy Tharby’s ‘Making Every English Lesson Count’ (2017) and many posts about interleaving, recycling and spacing. As if by some divine union, the worlds of Cognitive Load, End of Year and My Childhood came together in a resource trinity and the Eng Lit Top Trumps were created.

However, it hasn’t been a happy union. In spite of myself, I laminated for the first time in years and played the game with my 8 year old daughter, who couldn’t pronounce Porphyria, but who cared? We were giddy with ‘Top Trump’ joy as I beat her hands down in about 30 minutes flat, and she still didn’t know who Porphyria was.

As the Twitter ‘likes’ trickled in, I felt an overwhelming sense of responsibility. I felt I had foisted a gimmick on inexperienced, NQT Twitter for no reason, other than I thought it would be fun and looked pretty.

But, I haven’t given up quite yet. When I realised I was condemning teachers to plastic fantastic’ing 15x sets x 20 card,  for each class – for the true TT purist,  I knew this was not desirable or necessary (if the vacuousness of my game with my 8yr old was anything to go by). But I still felt the essence of the game – the comparison of one character’s qualities over another, comparing across texts, across the year, was still valid. What was missing was the justification and debate element, an opportunity for students to recall all they had learnt throughout the year – and give extended, spoken responses.

So, I came up with a significantly amended version, which I’m more than happy to share if anyone would like it. For this version, there is only one set of cards – 1 individual card per pair. Numbers can be challenged – they are about interpretation and certainly not set in stone, and quotes or evidence rewarded. Overly complicated? Yes, probably. Engaging? Hopefully. Will I be able to bin it if it goes wrong? Definitely. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

I have always had a last lesson Quiz of the Year. I cannot remember the last time I showed a film for the end of term, but have always loved the excitement and competitiveness of a learning review quiz. The whole class Top Trumps is just another version of that, except hopefully it will encourage and provoke extended responses. I will know if it works on Thursday……. or not.

Whilst I agree, to my very core, about keeping routines and standards high, I also believe endings should be marked and noted. My class have worked hard, they have achieved. I want them to see the culmination of all the knowledge they have acquired, to hear them talk with confidence about characters they hadn’t even met this time last year. I hope, truly, that Fiona and her aunt would not think our last lesson had wasted anyone’s time. And, I also hope that no NQTs have been hurt in the laminating of these cards.










Reference to Blogs:

‘Throw fun out of the window at the end of the school year’ published by TES written by F Ritson


The ‘Journey’ sentence

One thing we got wrong last year, for a chunk of our students, was the clamouring rush to compare. For students who had not yet mastered the single poetry essay, this was akin to painting by numbers, trying to work out (with lots of help) which bit went where.

I vowed that this year, 10 and 11 were going to write lots of individual essays, to perfect their essay writing skills, close language analysis and more importantly, to make sure they really, really know each poem. Armed with this knowledge, they will be far more able to juggle the chunks of information and evaluate point for point – which is the most, which is the least, which is different, similar etc.

Asking Y10 to write single poem essays has made me think really carefully about what I want them to do and how to make it accessible for students of all abilities. The first thing to tackle was the introduction. I know some departments have taught students not to write an introduction. I am slightly Old School about this, and fairly pragmatic. For me, a good introduction is a student’s way of saying very clearly ‘I’ve got this. I know what you’re asking me and I can answer it.’


Now, I am an absolute convert of Louisa Enstone (@englishlulu) and her work on PEE and have been a fan ever since I saw her talk through her methodology at researchEd in Swindon in 2015. She could not be more right when she talks about the limiting nature of any formula as structure, especially PEE to teach analysis. However, even she acknowledges that it is not necessarily ‘that PEE is the problem – it’s the way that we use it’. This is surely true of any formula for writing. In the words of Shaun Allison and Andy Tharby, the best way forward is ‘a tight but loose approach’.

So how can we help students with low confidence write a sophisticated introduction that is loose enough to be applied to any poem and any question that AQA might throw at them and tightly structured enough that it will support?

We are looking at Cecil Day Lewis’ Walking Away and the question: How does the poet portray his sense of loss and separation?

I first asked students to complete the sentence:   The poet portrays the sense of loss and separation as ……. 

The overwhelming majority of students chose the words ‘Painful’ ‘Difficult’ ‘Hurtful’. It was a ‘hallelujah’ moment knowing something had been retained from first reading. This is a vital step and one that I want students to spend time on with each of the 15 poems. James Durran argues that ‘to really ‘know’ a poem, students need to have formed a relationship with it which is more than intellectual.’ I think this act of pinning down is a sophisticated culmination of knowledge and essential to the analysis process. Chris Curtis also touches on this in his post on how he teaches ‘An Inspector Calls’. The reduction of the text to a single, pivotal idea is crucial.

I then put the following model on the board:

The poet portrays loss and separation as something painful and difficult. ‘Walking Away’ is a memory of the poet’s son leaving to play in a sporting match. This event has scarred the poet and he still remembers it vividly after 18 years. Although painful, it does end on a more positive note.

We then analysed the function of each sentence and spent time looking at how each adds logical meaning to the one before.

Walking away essay final

The final sentence, the ‘Journey’ sentence is one that has played on my mind for some time, as something that I felt needed including but is hard to help students decide where and when. Random rules seems much harder to remember.

Reduction to a pivotal idea is key, but does the poem leave the reader in the same place it began? Is there only one pivotal idea, or does the poet grow, develop, change, taking the reader on a journey? Whether it does or doesn’t, this help students to really ‘know’ the poem as Durran suggests and is a sophisticated, structural point for an introduction: How does the poet portray x? Mainly in this way, but leaves the reader feeling another way.


Mainly this way, and ends leaving the reader feeling the same (stuck, unable to move on, still haunted, scarred etc.).

What I realised as well, about the Journey sentence, is that it gives students wriggle room. It allows them to cope with contrasting ideas and anomalies in the poem and doesn’t force them into a single box e.g.. The poet feels this (and only this).

I’m going to continue to work with students on this process and modelled introduction and see how their understanding develops.

Further Reading:

Allison, S. and Tharby, A., 2015 Making Every Lesson Count Crownhouse Publishing           Time to stop ‘PEE’-ing ?        Poetry Hacks     A poetry lesson 





What is the impact? How do you know?

impactMeasurements and data do not sit well with many English departments. Things don’t always fit neatly into boxes, however many skill descriptors we generate. The problem, as Daisy Christodoulou in ‘Making Good Progress’  (2016) points out is that when we attempt to measure, ‘then ever finer subdivisions of grades are a perfectly good idea:…’ until we are attempting to measure ‘x% of a GCSE grade’s worth of progress per lesson.

The whole is more that the sum of its parts‘ is one of my favourite truisms in life, but there is something irresistible about a simple yes/no answer. The whole being simply equal to the sum of its parts, nothing more, nothing less.

During my first year in post as Head of Faculty, I have been asked by line managers, SLT, the DFE and Ofsted the same questions: What is the impact? How do you know? These seemingly innocent questions of four fairly innocuous words are the linchpin of much of what we do. Even in an Ofsted free world, we would want to know that what we are doing, all the planning, reflecting & refining, has impact.

Judging impact at the cutting edge of KS4 is easy, even though somewhat crude & brutal. Students can pass, meet target grades, outperform or they can ‘fail’ to measure up to the numbers assigned to them. Endless variables, endless factors on what is often thought to be shaky foundations in the first place.

But – impact over time matters, because why else would we be doing what we are doing?

Nestled within the term impact is the implicit idea of a destination – that there is somewhere you had intended to get the students to in the first place. As I mentioned before, the GCSE is an obvious and blunt tool for this. With KS3, it is a little more difficult. Unless the team have a sharp focus on the destination, their understanding of the impact will always be fuzzy. For this reason, we have been working on making the different strands of the curriculum explicit – grammar, vocabulary, content and exemplar texts.

For next year, our goal will be to judge whether our strategies are having impact in these areas. Do students demonstrate emerging ability as evidenced in summative assessments? The following should be the measure of the impact of our teaching:

  • Students’ emerging ability to recall/use the key vocabulary for the unit
  • Students’ emerging ability to use the grammar/punctuation for the unit
  • Students’ emerging ability to recall/use the content they have been taught in the unit
  • Students’ emerging ability to express their ideas orally
  • Students’ emerging ability to express their ideas through crafted writing

This will result in an increase in low stakes testing, clearer success criteria and in greater teacher judgement based on evidencing these emerging abilities.

If we simplify our assessment of KS3 tasks, removing many of the extraneous descriptors, we are much more likely to see the wood for the trees, and ‘know’ where progress is bring made, and where there are persistent, underlying problems.


Christodoulou, D., 2016 Making Good Progress  Oxford University Press