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 http://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-views/


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

https://www.nate.org.uk/file/2017/03/NATE_TE_Issue-13_33-36-ENSTONE-FINAL.pdf           Time to stop ‘PEE’-ing ?

http://www.learningfrommymistakesenglish.blogspot.co.uk        Poetry Hacks

http://www.jamesdurran.blog     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.