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

Towards a vocabulary rich KS3

This week, I have had the genuine pleasure of observing the department. I love watching other people teach. There is always a ‘takeaway’- something to learn from someone else, something to reflect on. It often prompts some of my most furious bouts of creating new things!

One of these moments came from my wonderful mentee. She was in the midst of introducing the opening of a text to Y7, when the term pathetic fallacy came up. She began explaining the meaning of the term, when a student said ‘Aaah, we’ve learnt that!’ This then rippled around the classroom as the students pieced together their memories and collaboratively worked out that they came across it in term 2, with A Christmas Carol. I realised that, as a second placement trainee, unless she had time and inclination to go through each scheme of work, or look at every unit skill tracker (with key words collected), she wouldn’t have known what students had done, especially as some students are on exercise book 3. It made me realise that even class teachers might be hard pressed to remember precisely what, when, & with how much frequency words had been encountered.

So, I set about collating everything we have introduced for Y7, 8 & 9 this academic year. The results can be seen on the slides that appear at the end of this post. Below, is a walk through of what I want the team to know we have or intend to cover.  It is as close to a ‘knowledge organiser by year group’ I could come up with. Grammar is being mapped on by my KS3 lead, so that will be added later.


There are roughly 100 key words for each year. The majority are context dependent and there are words revisited throughout years, and across years. Schmitt (1997) confirms that the ‘frequency of occurrence of a words is…especially important when it comes to dealing with low frequency words’ and that ‘grouping is an important way to aid recall’ (197).

In addition, I want to know that students are learning both sophisticated words for analysis and tier 2 words that have been selected from Dave Grimmett’s vocabulary lists by year group, a brilliant resource ( @dave5478 ) and from Geoff Barton’s Planning for A* vocabulary lists, here.  These words have been chosen to match the topics, texts and tasks, grouped together to enable students to use them more independently. They are ambitious and do set a high challenge, but I distinctly remember my frustration last year when I had my Y7 class confidently using vocabulary that our Y11 had never come across, and I knew, quite frankly, it was too late. By then, the students were at risk of genuine cognitive overload dealing with everything else we had to teach them.

We will test a small number of terms each week, and check again at the end of term. A next step will be to create short, non-fiction reading passages for each term using the words in context so that students can see them ‘live’. Schmitt also states that ‘writing vocabulary begins with reading it’ because of the complex interdependency of language (2013). This will enable teachers to unpick student knowledge of prefixes, suffixes, roots etc. Finally, as well as reading tasks and written responses, speaking and listening opportunities are embedded throughout the year as further opportunities to use and model.

As we’ve been using vocabulary lists all year (although we all agree our testing routines need tightening) this is nothing new. However, what it will give to staff, is a very clear overview of where we have been and where we are going. It sets out the language we can assume familiarity with, and quickly check for gaps, rather than starting from zero every time we begin a new unit.

Two arguments can be levied at any attempt to boost vocabulary with word lists: one is that a list of any kind limits students (at the HA end), the second is that it does not allow for differentiation (at the LA end). Since we have been using termly word lists, what I have noticed in student books, is an overall higher quality of language used generally. My personal vocabulary is different to that of my colleagues and that far from limiting students, I’ve observed teachers confidently using more ambitious vocabulary from their own personal stores, enriching the classroom further. As for differentiation, the lists are our ideal baseline, what we hope for every student. Some may need support getting there, the testing will flag this up. Hopefully, if I can pull off my great intervention plan this year  (more about that here ) this will be a space to give that support.

Next on the list will be to map KS4 in the same way, and include sentence structures as part of the explicit knowledge to acquire. But for now, the sun is shining and the garden is literally screaming at me.





Further reading:


Department Improvement, inch by inch 2016-17

So, this is my version of an end of year DIRT task; an opportunity to look back on my first year as HoD. There is a klaxon of a theme that runs through all that I’ve learned this year, that will lead to ongoing improvement: routines and consistency. Once you have the big stuff in place, it is by sweating over the details that you start to move that really entrenched old school C/D borderline.

Learning Questions

This was the year I ditched Learning Objectives and replaced them with Questions. My department have heard more than enough about this, as have my students. The outcome, I think, has been lessons with a very sharp focus on the key learning, with activities, vocabulary and tasks that meaningfully link to it. If it doesn’t help answer the question, it shouldn’t be in there. This does mean a lengthy pre-lesson, pre-SoW process, but the clarity and understanding the teacher has of what, why and how is vastly improved. Gone are random worksheets that ‘relate to the topic’ and in their place are slow deliberate, consolidation tasks that check understanding and highlight gaps.

Schemes of Work

Watching my class of Y7 this year confidently identifying anaphora & hypophora, discussing to what extent Brutus is a tragic hero in Julius Caesar, deciding on Beowulf’s flaws from Seamus Heaney’s translation and reciting Ozymandias, you realise that the only ceiling over children is the one we construct. I don’t doubt that there are some things we could deliver better or differently, but we are much more confident about the challenge of material that students can successfully work with.


Quite possibly, in my humble opinion, the most powerful differentiation tool in a teacher’s armoury (with not a Red Amber Green/Bronze Silver Gold/Must Should Could in sight). Teachers need to think through who to ask which questions, when to use pause and collaboration, how to not let a student off the hook and when to include evaluative questions that extend the learning for the HA students. It is an excellent area to develop and reflect upon as a teacher at any stage of their career.


We have generated ambitious and sophisticated vocabulary lists from KS3-4 which we pre-teach each term and are part of the end of unit success criteria. They are in context of the unit and are modelled by teachers in delivery of the content. This is consistent across the whole year group. The challenge now is to make sure, as a department, we establish routines for explicit vocabulary testing.  Developing excellent MCQs for every unit is a long process and one that we’ve started. It is an area I want to prioritise next year and ensure the department feels knowledgeable and confident about effective explicit vocabulary instruction.

Profiling students:

I want every student to be reading age tested, handwriting tested, SPaG tested and vocabulary tested in September. Our wonderful Inclusion department does this as standard for the incoming Y7s, but I want to create a detailed profile of every student from Y7-11. The reason for this is two-fold. My strong suspicion is that it has been too easy for some students to slip under the net, that a single test in Y7 does not accurately inform us of who is in our classroom by the time we get to Y10. With the new GCSE in mind, I want to know, for sure, what we dealing with in a single tiered system, that requires all to access the same text. The second reason for creating a detailed profile is that it will help inform an intervention programme that I’m keen to set up. We will have a much sharper focus of how to group students according to need and address some of their literacy barriers, in similar groups. Something to tackle before, in the blink of an eye, we are attempting to analyse Jekyll and Hyde extracts and write extended responses.


So how does intervention look in reality? Like almost every school in the UK, our senior leaders are stripping meat from the bare bones of the teaching staff, as budgets dictate. There is no slack. There are no light timetables. But in English, we do have  staff with odd hours here and there. The square pegs and round holes of the timetable jigsaw.

Intervention has always been problematic. We have only been able to offer piecemeal support for small numbers of students, and there is always a push and pull with the curriculum and removal from key content.

But I think I have a solution. One of our department goals is to embed the weekly write, 200 word challenge, brainchild of @Xris32 and developed by wonderwomen like @heymrshallahan. I plan for this to be a rolling programme to maximise exposure to unseen, unknown tasks: unseen fiction, unseen non-fiction, unseen poetry, creative/descriptive writing and writing to present a viewpoint. This embedded, writing curriculum, throughout every year means that while the class is engaged in these tasks, students with an intervention need can, for a short time, be matched to a ‘free’ English teacher, with a ‘free’ period (below quota) for small group A side/B side intervention. No content is missed, no conflict with the SoW. Students grouped according to their profiled needs, and protected by being timetabled.


Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about the department is the team – the house that we have built. We’ve been through a very challenging period as a school and by and large, no-one wants to leave the department. It seems like we’ve now got the timber frame, and in 17-18 we’ll be working on the doors, wallpaper and floors -not a 60 minute makeover, but a model for sustained and visible improvement.


Re-posted from  June 2016

With update June 2017 at the end of the post:

My first and most urgent job taking over the department has been to reform our KS3. Having been without a HoD and KS3 lead, we had got by with a sticking plaster approach for KS3 for some time; re-hashing units cobbled together from a variety of years, taking the path of least resistance, enabling us to wrestle with KS4 and see the legacy spec out with a flourish.

In the great KS3 reform, I started with the end point – EoY9 as a line in the sand, but with eye firmly fixed on EoY11. I wrote a list of 15 skills we wanted students to be meeting by EoY9. They tie in with GCSE, but should run through any KS3 curriculum anyway.

These became our guiding outcomes to map KS3 onto. I firmly wanted KS3 to be dictated by this, not the texts or the tasks.

The next stage was creating a period of consultation with the whole department. I read the amazing @fod3‍ blog here which really helped clarify this stage. Everyone in the dept. received a pack which included extracts from the Ofsted report ‘KS3: The Wasted Years’, the 15 guiding outcomes and around 8 KS3 LTPs, wonderfully curated by @saysmiss‍  using #KS3LTP. We discussed the vision we had for KS3, which included depth over breadth, high level of challenge and access to the ‘best of what has been thought and said’. The 8 LTPs I chose all contained these elements to reinforce that message. Colleagues were sent off to look over the LTPs and highlight what they liked with these principles in mind. We met again and together rebuilt Y7, 8 & 9. Each year with an overarching theme and chronological texts (with some exceptions that I conceded). One colleague said how excited she was about teaching KS3 after this process.

The next stage involved meeting with the newly appointed KS3 lead and mapping the 15 outcomes across the years.

We decided on a progression of skills that included a heavy focus on response to text (developing opinions and independent response) and creative writing in Y7 and gradually introduces Structure, Comparison & Contrast and Evaluation, interweaving other skills throughout. With the skills mapped and end of unit assessment tasks clarified, we began building! I printed all resources we had and using term overview sheets, the collective experience in the team enabled us to consider pitfalls and successes.

Before setting pairs off to plan, I reiterated the vision for KS3, to keep planning focused, so that we didn’t drift again into lots of busy-time resources and activities.

We now have the basis of all units. There is still LOTS to do – firming up the schemes for a start. We then have our grammar for writing to map across years, essential vocabulary list for each term, cover booklets with 6 lessons per term, HW tasks, skills to map onto trackers, our additional reading lists to distribute… But, after just 3 weeks, what was a mountain, now feels doable.

June 2017:

Nearly one year on, and we have almost made it. Some SoW worked better than others, but this may be a case of adjusting challenge at key points.  In Y7, Beowulf was a big hit, as was Animal Farm and Julius Caesar. In Y8, our new, rigorous Love Poetry unit was successful, as was the Gothic, and I am hoping, the Writer as Camera unit (structure) for term 6. Y9 have got a head start on viewpoints & perspectives, as well as what characterises Robert Browning’s poetry and the Victorian era.

We have raised expectations. Students write often, in silence and are encouraged to reflect more on their work. We have slowed the pace and can work on three extracts over a 7 week term, digging much deeper into rich texts. We have raised the status of reading. We have generated ambitious and sophisticated vocabulary for every term in advance and use these as success criteria throughout.

But, like any journey, the landscape of KS3 will change as the GCSE seeds are sown, and will need refining for a few years to come. We are a little way off our destination yet. Our main 17-18 KS3 targets look like this:

  • Embed our grammar syllabus fully – very much confirmed after hearing @katie_s_ashford at researchEd Oxford. We need to set up our grammar homework, followed up with Grammar Gap lessons.
  • Embrace the 200 word challenge, brain child of @Xris32, and include a rotation of unseen poetry, unseen extracts, writing prompts and comprehension.
  • Use whole class feedback across the department.
  • Use the S&L opportunities we have in each year group and demand more of students, as well as providing routine opportunities for memorising poems and quotes.
  • Use learning questions as the driver for lessons to keep the focus and intention sharp.
  • Build evaluative questions into our SOW as part of our challenge syllabus, paving the way for KS4 but also ensuring our most able students are not simply doing extra, but learning to scratch under the surface.
  • Test reading every year, to make sure no-one feels they are falling under the radar, falling behind or failing and work closely with our inclusion department to support them.


Hopefully, next year, we will really start to see the impact of everything we have set in motion.

Coming Clean

Excuse the exciting title – this is not however, a confessional blog, in which I declare some terrible dark secret (like those days when I feel like I have completely lost the ability to teach – is it just me…?) No, today was a ‘clean copy annotation’ day for Year 10. It has been one of the successful new strategies I’ve embedded this year. It has become habit, and students seem to see value and purpose in it.

Designing the course for the new spec AQA, I decided to put as much of the content into this year as I could, leaving next year for perfecting skills, deep learning and practise. As we’re whooshing through the poems, I periodically whip out a clean copy and ask students to fully annotate it,  based on what they’ve remembered. And rather than groan and wail ‘Miss! That’s long!’, they pick up pens and tackle it.

It seems to be helping on many levels: it is building confidence, it’s forcing thinking hard about something and activating memory, and it’s embedding quotes, terms and analysis, and it is repetition – which I think we seriously underestimate the importance of, for fear of boring students.

Clean copy annotation has become one of my very quick-win teaching strategies. and could be used in just about any subject. No matter what damage students have done to a previous poem, it is also the promise of a fresh, clean start!