Why do students struggle to revise for GCSE English?

It’s that time of year. The “revision period” is fast approaching. Around the country, students sit hunched over their bedroom desks (if they’re lucky enough to have either a bedroom or a desk), surrounded by revision guides, their notes from class and an arsenal of garishly coloured stationery. All too often, however, these study sessions splutter to a halt. They don’t know where to start. They struggle to maintain any kind of momentum. They ditch the English notes and opt to revise instead for a subject, like maths or biology, where the question of how to revise seems much more obvious.

But it needn’t be like this. There are things that we, as their English teachers, can do to stop the abrupt stalling of their study sessions. Let’s now consider ten common misconceptions about English revision and think about what we as teachers can do to help students avoid them.

  1. Revision is something that is done in the lead-up to exams

It’s February so revision becomes the buzzword. After-school sessions are advertised. Study skills assemblies are introduced. Revision guides and past papers are printed out. Normal homework is ditched and is replaced by a single word entry in student planners: ‘Revise!’.

All of these activities contribute to the widespread perception that revision is an activity that should be done towards the end of a course, or as an end-of-unit assessment looms. The language teachers use has a heavy influence on these mindsets, with talk of ‘catch-up sessions’ and ‘study leave’. Yet English revision should not look like this. By promoting short, frequent study sessions from the start of the course, we can help foster an attitude of ongoing “revision”, rather than last-minute cramming. Our homework should reflect this. Our Do Now tasks should reflect this. When we distribute study materials should reflect this. And above all, the language we use and the implicit messages we send to students should reflect this. 2.

2. Memorising quotes is the main focus of revision

Knowing quotes is important. But it’s not enough. Being able to recall important parts of the text, especially in closed book exams, is necessary but it’s not sufficient in itself. As English teachers, we know this. But do we make that clear repeatedly to our students?

Again, our approach sets the tone. If we mainly set quizzes about quotes we’re implying this is the be-all and end-all. Instead, we need to see this as an early stage of revision, a precursor to more generative learning activities, such as practising exploding quotes, identifying suitable synonyms, considering the specific impact of devices and so on.

3. Retrieval practice is just for key knowledge

The ability to recall key knowledge about texts is vital. Yet, as we’ve seen, it can only be a starting point. As English teachers, therefore, it’s imperative that our retrieval activities also encourage complex, conceptual thinking. Mixed quizzing offers the opportunity to cover both aspects of successful English study. By incorporating analyse, evaluate, discuss and compare questions alongside fact-based questioning, we can encourage our students to use this foundational knowledge as a springboard for deeper thinking. Here are a few examples from A level teaching, which could be easily adapted for GCSE lessons:

Here’s another example for Of Mice and Men:

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4. Lots of notes guarantees good study sessions

Students are usually pretty rubbish at taking notes. I succeeded as an English student not because of my notes, but despite them. It wasn’t my fault though; nobody had ever shown me how to take notes. Are we making the same mistake with our students? Using the visualiser, we can model this fundamental part of the process:

This much might be obvious, but are we then checking that students understand why we annotate in this way, and how it can act as the first step of our revision process? Are we giving them useful techniques to help them organise their notes, so that they are note-taking selectively and are making useful summaries of their notes?

5. All quotes are of equal importance

Once students have memorised some ‘key quotes’ and you’ve hit them with trickier questions like the one above, they’ll hopefully recognise that, to mangle Orwell’s classic line, while all quotes are equally important, some are more equally important than others! By modelling the process and encouraging them to identify quotes with the highest utility – the ones that can cover most themes in an essay question – students will start to practise applying these quotes to different questions as part of their revision.

6. Revising context is straightforward

Read the examiners’ reports and you’ll see that students’ writing about context is a major irritant for examiners. As well as learning the basics – not mixing up Elizabethan and Victorian periods, for example – students need to be shown how to practise the skillful weaving together of contextual ideas with analysis. Getting the balance right – enough context to tick the criteria but not a mini-essay on Wordsworth’s relationship with his father – is key, and this is something they need to plan out and work on during revision.

7. If I know about the most effective study techniques I’ll be fine

So we’ve taught our students how to use flash cards. We’ve hammered home the futility of highlighting or re-reading our notes. Our work is done. We can relax now, right? Wrong. A study by Blaisman et al. found that despite knowing about the most effective study techniques, students often ended up reverting to the dodgy techniques that give the illusion of fluency, like highlighting. Disturbingly, 53% of students in this study ‘admitted to studying in a single session before an exam’. These strategies need to be revisited frequently in class, with the benefits made clear, and our homework needs to ensure that they have no choice but to use these techniques.

8. You can’t revise for the creative writing questions

While many students will happily spend time learning Macbeth quotes, far fewer will take the initiative to practise effective writing strategies. I show my students not only what good writing looks like, but also how they can learn chunks of their best paragraphs and adapt them for different exam prompts. This can give a crucial nudge to make sure that their response to the creative writing piece isn’t just dreamed up on the day.

9. If I’ve not got a good vocabulary, there’s not much I can do about it

Increasingly, I’m convinced that, like the number 42, synonyms are the answer to all questions about life and the universe. Struggling to fully analyse a key word in the quote? Synonyms. Floundering with inference? Synonyms. Can’t think of a better verb than ‘walked’? Synonyms!

But you can’t sneak a thesaurus into the exam, of course. Which is where many students struggle in English exams. They know what they want to say but can’t find the write word to say it. The answer? Learn these in advance as part of your revision. Once more, you’ll need to model this in class, explaining how belligerent and bellicose are both synonyms for ‘aggressive’ but illustrating how one works better than another in a particular context. Then it will go on a flash card as part of an exploded quote or, eventually, a full paragraph of writing.

10. Drawing up a revision timetable will make sure I revise key areas

Our students need to be organised to revise well. So giving them a timetable, with key poems to cover, characters to go over and themes to revisit seems like the obvious solution. The problems with this approach are numerous. First, different students should dedicate more time to certain activities than others, so a one-size fits all approach won’t help with this. Second, a lengthy planned out revision schedule is less easily adapted. Rather, we need to encourage our students to change the focus of their sessions depending on how these sessions are going. Monitoring and evaluating these sessions are crucial and, again, that’s something we should be modelling.

Ultimately, as experts, we can’t take for granted that students know how to study for English. The assumptions we make can mean that their revision in our subject never really gets off the ground.

If you’ve found this blog useful and haven’t already read it, you might want to get a copy of my book You Can’t Revise for GCSE English!

Many thanks for reading,



Remains, Trauma Theory and Modality

This is a guest post by Jamie Edgecombe, a brilliant English teacher I work with who doesn’t really do Twitter. He’s the only person I know who doesn’t have a phone. Or a telly. I’ve been trying convince him to share his wisdom in blogs but he’s been too busy writing a novel and finishing his PhD. Finally, he’s cracked and this piece doesn’t disappoint:


Combat is chaos. Read or listen to any number of interviews with combat veterans[1] and a trope that emerges is the chaotic experience that erupts when someone is trying to kill you and you are, ultimately, trying to kill them back. Senses are overloaded. The threat of death, injury and failing one’s comrades can be crushing and, as modern psychology has proven, carry long terms effects[2].

Whether instinct takes over, training kicks in, or you maintain a strategic mind (some people can – many cannot), actions are taken under fire. Often, circumstances force themselves upon you. They change unpredictably and do so quickly. You react, react again, get it right, or wrong. These dynamic experiences are faced in all war zones and ‘types’ of war because war, no matter the strategic conditions, and by its very nature, involves killing people. That means creating situations where this can be achieved on your terms, or facing scenarios whereby the enemy has the upper hand.

That said, it is not always the case that the frontline soldier is thrown into combat situations. In guerrilla conflicts and police actions, not all orders involve directly engaging in combat situations. Amongst the myriad duties undertaken by different armed forces, there are logistical missions, guard duties, escorting non-combatants, and policing activities: any of which could prove fatal. Mortar attack, sniping and, of course, ambush can bring chaos and death down upon your head. Moreover, not all combat missions result in contact with the enemy. For example, not even the wide spread use of ‘search and destroy’ missions in the Vietnam War[3] meant that American troops encountered the enemy. Most often they did not. Why? Because a guerrilla force, or an army that knows it cannot match its enemy in terms of firepower and / or logistics, withdraws to fight another day and on its own terms, relying on booby traps and sporadic attacks, often to purposefully inflict psychological damage.

Nerves are shredded in open combat. Nerves are shredded waiting for attacks. Nerves are shredded when fearing for one’s own life. Nerves are shredded when seeing someone else suffer and die. Trauma, from the Greek for wound, can be incurred from a single event. It can form through accumulation. Its symptoms can be immediate; they can surface years after the event.

Simon Armitage, in his poem Remains, explores the traumatising impact of frontline service, especially the impact of such chaos and the regret that can surface after participation in a violent event. There are few contextual markers within the poem itself to give away which combat theatre the persona is remembering and “talking about” (the poem is a lyric in the monologue form, after all), but the references to ‘sand’ and the knowledge that Armitage took his inspiration from his interview with Guardsman Tromans can safely leads us to read the poem through the lens of the Second Iraq War (2003-2009). What such a contextualisation means is that we can understand the shooting in terms of the persona’s experience of urban warfare, like that experienced by British troops in Basra, where insurgents used guerrilla tactics and where there was also a great deal of lawlessness. For the British soldier in Basra, death or mutilation could come from any quarter and at any time.

Trauma theorists, such as Judith Herman, have provided medical experts with useful symptomologies for understanding how trauma can manifest within victims and disrupt their psyches. Novelists like Toni Morrison, short story writers like Tim O’Brien[4] and poets, like Simon Armitage have, in turn, adopted and transposed these symptomologies into their written works. Trauma narrative has become its own genre. What Armitage’s poem brilliantly portrays is the damaging impact of doubt, of the confusion that operating in a combat zone can inflict, and how such morally liminal experiences can linger on in a victim’s life.

Many study guides provide a detailed commentary on the poem’s imagery and form. What I would like to present next, and briefly so, is how Armitage evokes the traumatising collision between violence and doubt.

The Looter

Immediately, Armitage provides the experience’s situational context through the line ‘On another occasion, we got sent out to tackle looters raiding a bank.’ Here, the fronting of the prepositional phrase foregrounds the fact that the mission is one amongst many, and, as the passive verb phrase ‘got sent’ makes clear, soldiers on active duty are at the behest of their superiors. One can interpret the purpose of the line in terms of contextualisation: 1) the mission is given (they will be facing looters, not conventional enemy troops, or insurgents, although robbery and extortion were weaponised by the insurgent groups within Iraq); 2) the mission was “memorable” (it stands out from many because it has become one of the persona’s traumas). However, given that trauma can be accumulative, the prepositional phrase, in conjunction with the passive construction, work together to evoke the disempowerment faced by the persona. While placing him “again” in a threatening situation, a clear enemy will not be delineated. Disempowerment, whilst under threat, and in a situation where threat is a continuous presence (accumulating over time), are all triggers for trauma.

Furthermore, ‘tackling looters,’ is not a situation where military training is going be of much help. As documented in the British press, British soldiers were not an effective policing force in Iraq. They were highly trained combat units. Due to this, instances where looters were killed were reported in the press[5], despite laws of engagement stating that ‘offensive action must only be directed against military objectives.’[6]

Is the looter armed?

Languages have the amazing capacity to express that which is beyond immediate experience or direct access through memory. We can hypothesis, interpret, desire, imagine, reason, demand. Modality, on a basic level, is a category in linguistics which concerns expressions of possibility or necessity[7]. Grammatically, we can make statements that express truths, or about what which we believe to be true. These statements of truth can declare a sense of certainty, but also probably (low or high). There is a continuum of belief. This branch of modality, that concerns itself with truth, in all its degrees, is called epistemic modality.

Epistemic modality provides a useful lens when examining the doubt haunting Armitage’s persona in Remains. Take these statements, for instance:

‘And one of them legs it up the road, probably armed, possibly not.

Well myself and somebody else and somebody else are all of the same mind,

so all three of us open fire.

Look at the different shading of the epistemic modal adverbs in ‘probably armed, possibly not.’ Both adverbial phrases are lightly shaded and, as such, reveal the voice’s sense of confusion. Was the man a threat or not? This is a common doubt war zones and can lead to internal conflict. However, Armitage’s nuanced structuring of the line, reveals a grim, if repressed, possibility: ‘possibly’ is lighter (less certain) than ‘probably.’ Grammatically, or semantically, there is a greater likelihood that the looter was not armed. An unarmed civilian (criminal though he maybe) has been killed; a war crime has been committed. As such, deflection (he might be armed) slides into guilt (he probably wasn’t).

Moreover, the rhetoric of affiliation, as evoked by the similar morphologies of ‘possibly / probably’ (with the attendant alliteration etc), just does not hold up. In other words, these adverbs do not mean the same thing, nor carry the same semantic weight. The guilt is dissolving the supposed rationality that hovers behind the idea that the looter could have been a threat and therefore he could have been engaged under the rules of engagement. Such trauma, as caused by exposure to another’s mortality, at one’s own hand, cannot be countered by the promotion of sanctioned killing.

Interestingly, what the proceeding two lines reveal is that the persona did not act alone – ‘somebody else and somebody else are all of the same mind.’ The same mind? What does this mean? Military training took over? That the sense of threat and fear permeated the unit? That violence has become a communal way of life? Does the dissemination of blame dilute the poem’s evocation of guilt (legally or in terms of regret)? No.

Additionally, within a poem so sharply focused on precise imagery, despite the ambiguity haunting the persona’s motivations / actions, when the looter is finally carried away, no confirmation is made about whether there a weapon or not. We are left with a kind of moral aporia.

The Blood Shadow

Whether reference to a weapon was mindfully omitted by Armitage or not is inconsequential. The lacuna exists: the doubt exists, a doubt burning at the centre of the voice’s trauma. Such a missing detail could be viewed as psychological constriction, where the victim attempts to suppress elements of the traumatic experience (this can be mindfully employed, or unconscious). Such a view is supported by Armitage’s inclusion of other references to symptoms of constriction, like ‘the drink and the drugs’ that ‘won’t flush him out.’

Most often constriction is unsuccessful. The events come back through various forms of psychological intrusion. The ‘blood shadow’ lingers, as a literal blood stain at first, then a stain on the voice’s consciousness, the euphemistic nature of ‘shadow’ failing to drive the looter into the past, into memory and obscurity. How can it? Even in the persona’s sleep, he relives the event all over again. The past punctures his present and nightmares are a notorious symptom of intrusion. Significantly, within these dreams, alongside the experience’s vivid evocation through imagery (the sharpness of which is demonstrative of hyper-arousal), we have a key repetition, as the looter ‘bursts again’ out of the bank: ‘he’s probably armed, and possibly not.’ It does not matter, in terms of the ‘[d]ream.’

Just as there was no escape for the looter (‘[h]e’s torn apart by a dozen rounds’), there can be no escape for the voice either, not from the gnawing trauma of doubt. It remains.



Word count: 1664

Jamie Edgecombe,

Tavistock, May 2019

[1] As well as the well represented genre of military biography and autobiography, Youtube has provided a platform where hundreds of veterans’ stories can be accessed and the voice of the men themselves. See, for example, the Billings Gazette’s Vietnam Voices, amongst many.

[2] See the work of Judith Herman, such as her Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence: From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror (2015, Basic Books)


[3] I mean, here, the American involvement in the Vietnamese conflict, from 1965-1973

[4] A number of O’Brien’s novels also explore the lives of servicemen traumatised after having had fought in Vietnam.

[5] For example, see https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2006/jun/08/comment.iraq

[6] Whether this rule included armed looters I do not know. The U.K. Government’s document pertaining to rules of engagement is available on line, but is still heavily censored. See https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/689834/iraq-rulesofengagementforoptelic_mod-83-0000142-z_.pdf

Moreover, in the Rules of Engagement for Soldiers document, the chapter concerning the protection of property, no mention is made of how to tackle looting. See https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/619906/2017-04714.pdf


[7] See, Kai von Fintel (2006): “Modality and Language”. In Encyclopedia of Philosophy – Second Edition, edited by Donald M. Borchert. Detroit: MacMillan Reference USA. Most recent version online at http://mit.edu/fintel/www/modality.pdf

‘The Emigrée’ by Carol Rumens – A Guide (AQA Power & Conflict poetry)

Along with the poem that shall not be named, ‘The Emigrée’ tends to be pretty unpopular with English teachers I speak to about the Power & Conflict poems. On first reading, I can see why. In a sense, I agree that it’s annoyingly “contextless”. By this I mean that it is neither autobiographical, nor does it appear to be based on a specific conflict or place. Without a clear link to social and historical context, or autobiographical detail, teachers often feel adrift when it comes to providing pupils with the requisite knowledge to address the context criteria of the mark scheme. Others argue that the extended personification is a bit clumsy and, like our speaker, appears a but muddled towards the end. They’re probably right. But, nonetheless, I like the poem. Increasingly so each time I teach it.

Here’s my interpretation and what I like to focus on:

Fantasy and childhood

The poem begins with a cliché. Every student and his or her dog know that, post-primary school, you can’t begin a story with ‘There once was a country…’. It’s been used too many times before. Yet the ubiquitous nature of this opening is deliberate. In electing to use this subverted cliché, Rumens is alluding to key tropes of the fairy tale genre, such as the innocence and naivety of childhood; the otherworldliness of strange and distant lands; the loss of clarity and reason when characters are placed under magic spells; the spectre of evil and the malign influence of the adult world. The ellipsis at the end of the phrase is instructive; the use of aposeopesis reflecting the speaker’s unwillingness to continue (perhaps as a result of the traumatic memories) or inability to fill in further detail (due to the unreliability of the child’s recollections). The hackneyed beginning does seem to diverge from the most popular openings though. Normally, a once upon a time scenario identifies the character(s) first before identifying the location. For Rumens, the ‘country’ and then later the ‘city’ are foregrounded, making this land the main “character” of the poem, which is reinforced and amplified by the frequent use of personification.

Light and darkness

Sunlight acts as a clear motif throughout the poem, with four references, including the final words of each stanza. ‘Sunlight’ has obvious connotations of optimism and positivity: just like the city, it’s a life-giving and life-sustaining force that ensures a sense of warmth and comfort. ‘Sunlight’ is also associated with openness, as in Louis D. Brandeis’ famous maxim that ‘sunlight is the best disinfectant’. Approaching the theme of light and darkness through this well-known quotation, I think, really allows pupils to evaluate the speaker’s relationship with her place of birth. On first appearance ‘my memory of it is sunlight-clear’ is a bold statement of confidence in the speaker’s ability to recall the true nature of the city. The compound adjective ‘Sunlight-clear’ implies a perfect perspective that sees the real city beneath the opaque veil of tyranny. The ‘sunlight’ disinfects the darkness that shrouds the city in the ‘worst news’ that the speaker encounters, presumably in morbid media images or through anecdotes of fellow exiles. But on a deeper level, all it not quite what it seems. The speaker admits that she ‘never saw it in… November’, which gives us an impression that the speaker is perhaps offering an idealised, rose-tinted description of the place, one that crucially may never have existed, even in the good old days.  ‘The Emigrée’ is certainly a nostalgic poem. The etymology of ‘nostalgia’ leads us back to the Greek for ‘homesickness’. In this case, it is possible to argue that the speaker’s yearning for the past and for her place of birth has maybe affected her ability to depict the city as anything other than a utopia. Rumen’s choice of ‘November’ is interesting. Is this an allusion to Ishmael’s explanation of his seafaring wanderlust –whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul’ – in Moby Dick? If so, it would certainly fit the speaker’s (in this case impossible) desire to journey back to a place of fulfillment, particularly one that offers a contrast to the metaphorical drizzle of the exiled land. The choice of ‘November’ piques the reader’s interest. Why not those bleakest winter candidates, January and February? Just like Melville, I think Rumens recognises the crepuscular quality of November: the fading light, the steady descent into darkness. She hasn’t seen the place in the grip of despotism. The worst was yet to come. But ironically, the idealised images of summer that linger in her mind lack the authenticity of the approaching metaphorical winter.

Indeed, the speaker seems to acknowledge the ultimately damaging power of the ‘sunlight’ associated with her long lost love. The speaker is ‘branded’ by it; not only does this dynamic verb hint at a permanent tattoo of remembrance, it also hints at the sharp pain that this mark of identity brings. Finally, Rumens’ use of synaesthesia illustrates the inner conflict of the persona. Initially ‘It tastes of sunlight’ appears to offer an hyperbolised celebration of the city and its dramatic hold on the speaker. The city permeates her senses to such an extent that the speaker feels they are able to feel its character on their tongue. But the mixed up senses also highlight the speaker’s confusion and inability to identify the “genuine” nature of the place. Time and distance have created a barrier to reality.

The power of objects

The lack of a ‘passport’ signals a clear loss of identity. The speaker feels stateless, trapped and unable to travel to the one place they crave to be. Earlier the speaker refers to the memories as a ‘paperweight’, which is an intriguing symbol. Yes, there’s an element of transparency yet it is perhaps decorated in a way that prevents crystal clear perception. The idea of a burden also emerges; the speaker feels the heaviness of these memories as well as the beauty. It might just be me, but this object reminds me of 1984, where Orwell uses it as a symbol of Winston’s (failed) efforts to find out more and better connect with the past.

I also like the simile ‘the frontiers rise between us, close like waves’. ‘Waves’ are natural and eternal, just like the speaker’s recollections. Yet while waves have a calming predictability about them, they also carry a sense of danger. They can be unpredictable in their sudden bursts of unexpected power, which can overwhelm.

Inventing context? 

Rumens presumably decides not to highlight the location of the homeland to touch on ideas of universality. Yes, the poem appears to be located in the Middle East, but I think it’s a mistake to go heavy on providing pupils with facts about say Syrian refugees and then trying to make it stick. A potentially more rewarding approach, I feel, is to see this as a poem principally about memory and then locate it within the literary heritage for contextual insight. When teaching it, I like to write ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there’ on the board, then return to it later in the lesson after going through the poem. I tend to find that pupils then find it easier to consider this poem as a poem about the power of the past and the impact of joyful and traumatic memories on displaced individuals.

Thanks for reading,


The Perfect English Faculty

The Perfect English Faculty

The perfect English faculty can be found at Moonwater Park School, which is located in a small town in the South West of England.

As 11-16 comprehensives go, you could describe it as average, in terms of PP intake and percentage of SEN pupils – which were both around national average – and its Progress 8 measure, which last year was a smidgen above 0 (although the English results dug them out of a hole there). In the nicest possible way, you could call it a bog standard comp.

So how come I’m using the word ‘perfect’ to describe its English department? Well, I can see some of you raising your eyebrows at my choice of adjective. Some will dislike the connotations of the word, with its suggestion that it can’t be improved. What’s more, if I spoke to Erica – the Head of Faculty – and Julia – Second in Faculty – about this, I’m sure they wouldn’t like the term either. Especially given that 4 or 5 years ago the English faculty at Moonwater Park was really struggling, with an absence of leadership, low morale among the English staff, and poor pupil outcomes in the subject. But now I think it really is perfect. In my eyes. It’s a place that should inspire us all. A faculty that we might all try and emulate. Every time I come back from visiting I’m bursting with ideas. And bursting with pie. They do a mean chicken and ham in the canteen on a Thursday.

What then makes this humble little department so special? What makes them stand out from the crowd? What’s their secret to exam results that would have most headteachers salivating, the way that I’m salivating now thinking about that pie?

The rest of this talk will involve me outlining the ten characteristics that make Moonwater Park’s English faculty so good. And along the way, I’ll hopefully tell the story of how they went from being a faculty in crisis to a team at the very top of their game.

  1. Evidence-informed

They read a lot of stuff about teaching and learning. They want to improve as teachers, and they aren’t willing to rely on intuition to do so. I asked Erica to give me a list of the ten books they’ve read over the last few years that have been particularly influential. Here’s what she gave me:

top ten books.png

Some of them will be very familiar to you. Some may be on your to-read or to-buy list. Others you might never have heard of.

But aren’t all departments evidence informed? you might be thinking. I don’t think so. We’re here on a Saturday morning, giving up our time because we want the answers about what might work best in teaching. We live in a bit of a bubble. Take a look at this question from TeacherTapp recently, which showed that 68% of teachers who responded still thought learning styles was a valid theory:

teacher tapp

And Moonwater Park’s English faculty have had to plough their own furrow. Because the school’s CPD is pretty poor. They’ve sat through some seriously inadequate CPD sessions, groaning through nonsense about Bloom’s taxonomy and wincing at growth mindset banalities.

  1. Rigorous assessment

One book that’s had a big influence is Daisy Christodoulo’s Making Good Progress.

Like most English faculties, the new GCSE English specs caused anxiety at Moonwater Park. Grade boundaries – which are always complete guesswork anyway – are set high. The focus is on constant improvement based on clear feedback. Pupils are given grades at the end of unit assessments, but this is done with the massive caveat that grades are only set after the exams and that pupils should only focus on what is in their control i.e. getting better. The focus is therefore on avoiding complacency and emphasising consistent improvement, not obsessing over target grades and mark schemes. The numbers will take care of themselves at the end of the exam. The faculty standardise then cross-mark each end-of-unit assessments and mock exam, then each moderate their own class with queries going to Erica, the Head of Faculty. Cross-marking isn’t always popular – some teachers are keen to mark their own classes to make whole class feedback easier – but the grudging acceptance is it reduces teacher bias in marking[1]. Teachers tend to give more marks to pupils they like and mark down pupils from underperforming groups.

Another thing that they do is set papers that are slightly more challenging than the exam board specimens. This is influenced by Julia’s reading of Bjork and Bjork, and their introduction of the term ‘desirable difficulty’, where making learning harder in the short term results in improvements in long-term learning. In this case, it means that when pupils encounter the real thing, the papers are hopefully easier than expected.

And this is what Brian – one of the English teachers – when hearing of Bjork and Bjork called the practice dartboard effect. What does he mean by this?

Professional dart players practise using a special board. What’s different about this one?


Well, the trebles, doubles, 25 and bull are 50% smaller than normal match boards. This means that when they play in real games the targets seem MASSIVE. Similarly, pupils at Moonwater come out of English exams saying things like “that was much easier than the one you gave us Miss”.

Before we move on, please note that I may be the first speaker to cite a darts website (Gillings .P. (2011) http://www.dartsperformancecentre.com/dpc/blog/art/429/practice-board-investigation-.htm) as evidence at one of these events. Please don’t tell Tom Bennett; I honestly don’t think I’ll be allowed back to ResearchEd.

  1. A challenging Key Stage 3 curriculum

ks3 english

The level of challenge has also been ramped up at KS3. KS3 lead Rosemary tells me that not long ago the KS3 English curriculum was a mess. Four years ago, if you wanted to teach a KS3 lesson you needed 19 different envelopes for all the card sort resources. Lessons involved stuff like pupils acting as ‘envoys’, teaching each other pupils, generally moving around tables. KS3 lessons were taken by the most inexperienced teachers. Terminology was basic. Shakespeare was largely taught through modern ‘translations’, graphic novels and Baz Luhrman’s ubiquitous Romeo + Juliet, with guns to get the interest of the boys. The emphasis was on engagement through fun, with texts chosen for their accessibility and ‘boy-friendliness’. And now? The emphasis is on retention and retrieval of knowledge. There are lots of opportunities to practise extended writing. If you go into an English lesson you’ll usually find pupils writing in silence for 20 or 25 minutes, building up their stamina and developing their craft. This is helped by the fact that Erica has made sure that the most experienced, most skilful, most knowledgeable teachers get a hefty KS3 allocation. Technical terminology is now sophisticated, albeit with a relentless focus on effect not feature-spotting. Shakespeare is done properly, using radical ideas like using his actual language and teaching the whole thing. And Gripping but complex novels, chosen by the faculty after reading Doug Lemov’s chapter on The Five Plagues of the Developing Reader in Reading Reconsidered[2]. Now, all of the plagues are covered across KS3, ensuring pupils at Moonwater are no longer bamboozled by the step up to English GCSEs.

  1. Sharing knowledge

To enable a high level of challenge, Erica knows that the teachers really need to know their stuff. Why is this so important? Erica is aware that researchers have consistently found a positive link between strong subject knowledge and student gains.

As such, Moonwater’s English faculty spend a lot of time in faculty meetings working on subject knowledge. Talking about the context of novels. Annotating scripts. Discussing their interpretations of poems and threatening to kill anyone who disagrees with them.  They all teach the same books, meaning they can share articles, resources and critical guides. They all teach the same topics horizontally, so Year 7 are doing Shakespeare at the same time as Year 9. The second in faculty, Julia, told me they were worried that this might get a bit tedious, a bit samey, but it didn’t. Instead there’s been lots of discussion and sharing of ideas about Shakespearean tropes, for example. It’s spread to the English office. When I was there, I got involved in a conversation about Jungian archetypes in modern Gothic fiction, a feisty discussion on allegedly misogynistic writers and listened to a fascinating impromptu lecture on equivocation in Macbeth. Unashamedly intellectual.

So what’s so special about this? Doesn’t everybody share subject knowledge in their departments? I’m not sure that they do. All English teachers have topics they feel confident teaching. Some are absolute experts in certain areas. Others have definite knowledge gaps. Some are happy to admit to this and seek assistance. I’m very happy to admit that when it comes to teaching iambic pentameter, I’m pretty shite. Others are less comfortable at saying this. Increasingly, non-subject specialists end up picking up English teaching. In this case, it’s essential that knowledge is propagated, through informal discussions and more formalised ways, such as through knowledge organisers and quality schemes of work, to ensure that all pupils receive similar opportunities to access the best insights into language and literature.

As Rob Coe[3] has argued, a key strategy for improving outcomes is ‘targeting support for teachers at particular areas where their understanding or knowledge of student misconceptions is weak’. This is what Moonwater English do: they discuss their knowledge gaps, common misconceptions and work hard to put it right. It’s not enough to know about and teach, say, the concept of the sublime. You’ll also need to be to anticipate where students might misapply it to the poetry of Wordsworth, for example.

Erica also shares blogs on subject knowledge that help teachers know more about the topics they teach. The favourite three from last year were:

  • Matt Pinkett – Allusion and cultural capital[4]
  • Rebecca Foster – Essay writing challenges[5]
  • Sarah Barker – ‘London’ by William Blake[6]

As a result of the emphasis on subject knowledge, while they’ll be a difference in delivery, Julia tells me there’s far less likelihood that pupils in one class get less access to important facts, ideas, context and interpretations than those in another class.

  1. Prioritise workload

 Every man, woman and their dogs seem to be banging on about workload and well-being at the moment. But, as opposed to the routine platitudes being spouted, Erica and Julia have actually taken practical steps to reduce the strain on their English staff. They’ve had to do this as they recognise that the marking expectations for English teachers are insane. I can certainly agree with this: I recently endured a dose of AQA Literature Paper 2 mock marking that nearly finished me off. One pupils, bless ‘em, wrote 24-bloody-4 pages of A4. Times that by 30 kids and it’s clearly unsustainable. Some people ask Erica why they don’t get their papers sent off to be marked elsewhere.  Well, the finances don’t allow it.

So instead they’ve had to be really savvy about how they construct the English assessment calendar, particularly because the whole school assessment machine is farcical: too many data drops, badly scheduled, designed only for feeding the data beast, which has become even worse in the Frankenstein’s monster world of (reanimated) life after levels, with junk data being the order of the day.

So instead, here’s what Erica and Julia have come up with in an attempt to genuinely reduce workload in English:

  1. No expectations that people will mark over the weekend or during holidays, although the schedule allows this as an option for those who prefer this
  2. Schemes of work and end-of-unit assessments have been cut from 6 to 3 per year. As well as having fewer assessments, this means they address topics in more depth and breadth – no more madness like rushing to finish a novel for the assessment. Also, some of the assessments are now done using speaking & listening criteria and multiple choice tests, especially the ones done around the time of GCSE mock marking
  3. No more than 2 mock English exams in any series. They did 4 once. It wasn’t pretty
  4. Teachers are trained to use a combination of live marking during lessons and whole class feedback for when they need to take work home
  5. No emails at a weekend or after 6pm. If they need you urgently, they’ll text or call. They very rarely do
  6. Meetings start on time and finish on time. AOBs are not allowed. They don’t have meetings for the sake of it. Oh, and because the meetings mainly focus on subject knowledge – talking about texts and words – teachers like attending them now. They’re English teachers; this is what they signed up for
  7. Stationery is banned

Before you start throwing chairs and demanding Erica’s head on an A3 guillotine, let me clarify: they haven’t completely banned stationery. Just some of it. Namely highlighters and glue sticks. Why?

Rosemary told me about the impact of reading Alex Quigley’s classic blog[7], subtly entitled ‘Why I Hate Highlighters!” In it, Alex cites research that shows that highlighters:

  • are ineffectual as a revision tool[8]
  • feel good to use but avoid deliberate difficulty[9]

For example, when revising pupils build up a façade of confidence by highlighting text, creating a sense that they are achieving stuff and stuff is going in. Whereas tools like flashcards create deliberate difficulty by forcing pupils to test their knowledge gaps.

Rosemary also felt that highlighters:

  • Waste lesson time while they’re being handed out – “Miss, this one’s gone dry. Miss, can I have a blue one instead of a pink one” etc.

But what about the glue sticks?, I hear you scream inwardly. Well, Erica read Chris Curtis’s blog ‘The Photocopier is Jammed’[10]. In it, Chris points out the problems with too much photocopying:

  • Exercise books with millions of pieces of paper
  • Over reliance on annotation (and highlighting – Chris doesn’t like highlighters either) of texts rather than understanding meaning
  • Worksheets as a poor proxy for learning/progress – pupils might spend a lesson completing the grids on an A3 worksheet, but when you translate that to an A4 exercise book, it might only be 5 lines

Soon after, Erica had a sticky epiphany:

  • We spent 400 quid on gluesticks last year – money that could have been spent on new texts
  • And gluesticks waste even more lesson time than f”*^ing highlighters – where’s the lid gone? Why are you smearing that on his blazer? Why does it take 15 minutes to stick in two sheets of A4?

So, what happened when Erica refused to buy any more gluesticks?


Well, at this point of the conversation, Erica’s eyes became lachrymose and her voice became hushed. She told me about the Great Stationery Riot of May 2017, where teachers at Moonwater Park fought pitched battles in the English corridors over the last box of Prittt Sticks. Where English colleagues plucked out each other’s eyeballs in a frenzied fight for the last pack of Stabilo’s finest neon chiseltips. Where children sobbed as A3 sheets sailed out of the window on a gust of the wind. Where Ofsted arrived and, appalled by the lack of half-folded, half-sticky bits of paper, put the school into special measures.

Of course, none of that took place.

Here’s what really happened:

  • teachers grumbled for a bit and then noticed that kids had stuck less crap into their books that term
  • Extended writing productvity soared
  • Kids copied down really important stuff from the board – like teacher’s model exemplars – and ignored less important stuff
  • The photocopying bill dropped by a third
  • Nobody died

And like that…they were gone.

  1. Free of gender bias

Frequent readers of my blog or followers of my tweets will know that I’m obsessed with looking at issues around male underachievement and masculinity (I’m currently co-writing a book about this, which I’ll try and plug relentlessly at the end). If so, you might have been wondering how long it would take me to ask Erica about the English gender gap at Moonwater Park. Well, within 15 minutes Erica was admitting to me “we have a boy problem”. We have a boy/girl attainment and progress gap. Not as much as 4 or 5 years ago, when they had a boy chasm, they are closing it, but it’s still a concern.

So what have they been doing to try and change things. A key study, Julia tells me, that changed the way they looked gender was by Susan Jones and Debra Myhill[11] of Exeter University.

In this study, Jones & Myhill investigated whether teachers’ perceptions of gender affect their expectations of how pupils will do academically.

They found that teachers tend to associate girls with high academic achievement and boys with underachievement. In addition, there is a disconnect between what teachers say about boys’ potential in theory and how they act and treat boys in the practice of the classroom. Jones and Myhill revealed to Julia how boys are seen as frustrating by their teachers. They are viewed stereotypically and are labelled under a deficit model, in terms of the things they ‘cannot, will not and do not do’

Teachers’ attitudes towards behaviour show that boys and behaviour are often                  inextricably linked for teachers. Academic potential comes second to   preconceptions about perceived behaviour problems.

Reading this, Julia and Erica realised they had an issue. They’d seen examples of teachers treating boys differently, and having lower expectations of them. They realised they needed to sit down and have difficult but frank conversations as a team.

  1. High expectations of all pupils

This was particularly important given Julia’s knowledge about Rosenthal and Jacobson’s classic study on the Pygmalion Effect[12] whereby teachers’ high expectations of pupils often leads to better outcomes. But Julia had also read Babad et al’s 1982 study into the opposite effect – Golem Effect – a type of self-fulfilling prophecy whereby negative attitudes about a pupil’s academic ability or potential leads inevitably to poor outcomes. And according to Babad et al. Golem beats Pygmalion every time. In other words, negative self-fulfilling prophecies has a more powerful hold over pupil’s self-efficacy than positive ones.

Since then they’ve worked tirelessly as a faculty, gently challenging each other about stereotypical language, comments that reveal potentially lower expectations and thinking carefully about their curriculum and groupings. Especially groupings.

  1. Equitable grouping

Moonwater’s English leadership believe that an ethos of mixed ability teaching is the fairest and most productive way to raise achievement for underperfoming groups, especially their biggest underperforming group: disadvantaged boys.

Erica had noted the link between the set that pupils are placed in and their self-efficacy in a study by Ireson and Hallam[13]. She also knew that other studies[14] have argued that lower expectations of lower sets lead to a watered down curriculum, less homework and less feedback, and have shown that pupils from certain underperforming groups are more likely to be placed in bottom sets regardless of their prior attainment.

Rosemary admitted that in the past boys who were perceived by teachers as bright but difficult were often demoted to bottom sets as a punishment for their non-compliance.

So they agreed to move to mixed ability. And behaviour and outcomes improved. With one small problem. Erica noticed that among the highest prior attainers weren’t getting as many top grades as they’d hoped. This led to a tweak in the second year: they inserted a top set in each population alongside the mixed ability groups. But even these top set weren’t your average, rigidly hierarchical top sets. They ensured that they had large percentages of higher prior attaining disadvantaged boys and other underrepresented micro cohorts in each of the top set. And that proved to be the optimum way of keeping an equitable but effective setting set-up.

  1. Funny, passionate, calm

They have a laugh. They take the piss out of each other in a tender and affectionate way. Some of the English teachers naturally get on better with certain of their colleagues, but there’s no cliques. If they argue, it’s usually about what’s best for the pupils.

They go out every fortnight after work. Usually to the pub, although sometimes a café as some of them don’t drink. Sometimes it’s just a very swift one, other times they’ll stay out rebelliously late.

Perhaps this is why it seems to be a stress-free faculty. It isn’t, of course. Teaching is a tough job, but any anxiety is well-disguised to avoid any stress being passed on. George, one of the NQTs, is really interested in stress contagion, having read about it in the TES and subsequently in studies[15] that show that teachers who are on the edge of burn-out pass their stress on to their pupils, even leading to lower outcomes for their pupils.

Erica recognises that the job of a head of faculty is to act as a shit-shield from above (SLT, DfE and Ofsted) and that the job of teachers is to act as a shit-shield for pupils. So they don’t panic if their class does badly, as happens from time to time, on an assessment. And they don’t provide pupils with ready made excuses to fail by complaining about the fact that they can’t take books into GCSE exams and have to actually learn stuff.

What a great faculty, eh? Having listened to these ten qualities, I’m confident you’ll agree that this is a pretty special English department.

But now is the time to reveal something which the discerning listener among you will probably have guessed already.

There is no such place as the Moonwater Park School.

That is to say, there may well be a school of that name, but I don’t know of it, nor do I know any English Faculty with just that combination of qualities. The faculty I teach in has quite a few of these characteristics. Others we’re working towards. Some of the other qualities are things I’ve read about or just feature on my own quirky wish list.

The idea for this talk was conceived after re-reading a classic essay[16] written by George Orwell for the Evening Standard in 1946. I’ve borrowed some of his words for this conclusion. In it, the great writer lists his ten essential qualities of the ideal…pub. And this mythical pub’s name? The Moon Under Water.

moon under

Let’s take a look at what George felt constituted the perfect pub:

  • Victorian architecture
  • Darts is only played in the public bar
  • Quiet enough to talk – no radio or piano
  • The barmaids know the customers by name
  • It sells aspirins and stamps, and lets you use the telephone
  • Snack counter selling liver-sausage sandwiches, mussels, cheese, pickles…
  • Six days a week, you can get a good, solid lunch
  • Creamy draught stout
  • Beer is never served in a handleless glass
  • The garden is its best feature – “Mum doesn’t have to stay at home and mind the baby while Dad goes out alone.”

Now some of these features of perfection seem quite dated. And quite idiosyncratic. Which reminds me of parallels with education: we often follow our personal preferences, doing what feels right. We are also vulnerable to fashionable fads.

Yet some of these features are timeless and universal. If you go into a pub these days, you’ll still want a nice drink, in a clean glass, served by someone with whom you’d like to have a friendly relationship. Just as in the classroom, in pubs relationships and quality of delivery matter. Although I’m not suggesting for one minute that you should try and persuade parents that schools should be more like pubs.

But if anyone knows of an English Faculty that is research mad, has a fun atmosphere, high expectations for all, regardless of their gender or background, likes a pint, and hates bloody glue sticks, I should be glad to hear of it, even if it is more than 7 minutes’ walk from my house like my current school.

Thanks for listening,


[1] See Christodoulou, D. (2017) Making Good Progress?: The future of Assessment for Learning

(OUP, Oxford); Campbell, T. (2015) Stereotyped at Seven? Biases in Teacher Judgement of Pupils’ Ability and Attainment, Journal of Social Policy, Volume 44, Issue 3, 517-547

[2] Lemov, D., Driggs, C. & Woolway, E, (2016) Reading Reconsidered: A Practical Guide to Rigorous Literacy Instruction (Jossey Bass, San Francisco)

[3] Coe, R et al. (2014) What makes great teaching? Review of the underpinning research, (Durham University, Sutton Trust)

[4] Pinkett, M. (2017) https://www.tes.com/news/understanding-allusion-isnt-just-about-cultural-capital-its-about-literacy

[5] Foster, R. (2017) https://thelearningprofession.wordpress.com/2017/12/16/on-our-fortnightly-essay-challenges

[6] Barker, S. (2017) https://thestableoyster.wordpress.com/2017/12/15/marks-of-weakness-marks-of-woe/

[7] Quigley, A. (2015) https://www.theconfidentteacher.com/2015/01/hate-highlighters/

[8] Dunlosky et al. (2013)

[9] Brown et al (2013)

[10] Curtis, C. (2017) http://learningfrommymistakesenglish.blogspot.com/2017/04/the-photocopier-is-jammed.html

[11] Jones, S. & Myhill, D. (2004) ‘Troublesome boys’ and ‘compliant girls’: gender identity and perceptions of achievement and underachievement, British Journal of Sociology of Education, Vol. 25, No. 5, pp. 547-561

[12] Rosenthal, R. & Jacobson, L. (1968) ‘Pygmalion in the classroom’, Urban Review, Vol. 3, Issue 1

[13] Ireson, J. & Hallam, S. (2009)

[14] Rubie-Davies, C., Hattie, J. & Hamilton, R. (2006); Hallam, S. & Parsons, S. (2013)

[15] For example, Oberle, E et al. (2016), Herman et al. (2017)

[16] Orwell, G (1946) https://www.orwellfoundation.com/the-orwell-foundation/orwell/essays-and-other-works/the-moon-under-water

Falling to pieces: common mistakes with AQA Language Paper 1 – Q3 Structure

I’ve marked a lot of Q3 responses during the last week or so. Here’s what can, and invariably does, go wrong with this tricky little 8-marker:

  1. Using the bullet points/Re-telling the story

 Using the bullet points is a bad idea. I’m not saying they’re the most unhelpful bullet points I’ve seen in a GCSE English exam question, but they’re in the top one. As well as encouraging an unhelpful tick list approach to the text, they also actively encourage weaker candidates to re-tell the story, with comments like:

‘At the beginning of the text the boy is sat waiting for his parents to pick him up but as the text develops the writer changes the focus on to him thinking about what he’s going to have for his tea. At the end of the text he never gets his meal and goes to bed hungry.’

How to avoid your pupils doing this: tell them to ignore the bullet points completely

  1. Writing about language

 Pupils might well produce beautiful analysis on the use of personification at the start of the extract, but it won’t be credited, as it isn’t the focus of the question. Unless pupils can show how language (e.g. repetition, use of short sentences and so on) contributes to an overall structural pattern, then it will go unrewarded. That’s not to say that pupils shouldn’t ever focus on key words or phrases, but they must be used to support comments about structural features, rather than looking at language in isolation.

How to avoid your pupils doing this: when giving feedback highlight the amount of wasted words they’ve written due to a sole focus on language

  1. Not identifying structural features

 Pupils might not need to use complex terminology when writing about structure, yet I find giving pupils some common structural features to focus on allows them to write about structure more convincingly. Vague comments like ‘the feelings change halfway through’, usually become more confident when framed as ‘a disruption in the equilibrium’, as knowledge of the feature encourages students to be more precise about when things have gone awry and what the implications are.

How to avoid your pupils doing this: teach them a few generic features that crop up frequently. I came up with the mnemonic SPENT (Spatial shifts, Patterns, Exposition, Narrative time, Todorov’s narrative stages) for my class, but you could probably trim this down even further for struggling pupils

  1. Ignoring the effect on the reader

 Having said that, you can identify structural features all day long, but they’re pretty useless without a clear explanation of why they’ve been used by the writer. It might well seem helpful to point out that the narration comes from a third person perspective, but it’s an unwelcome example of feature-spotting if it doesn’t spell out exactly how this adds to a sense of tension for the reader.

How to avoid your pupils doing this: say or write ‘so what?’ every time they pick out a feature without explaining the wider meaning

  1. No evidence

 Similarly, writing about structure in general without using evidence, to pinpoint specific turning points or key features, is usually indicative of a pupil that hasn’t really understood why a writer has put the text together in a particular way. Often structural features are lobbed in randomly without any real sense that the pupil knows what they actually mean.

How to avoid your pupils doing this: initially, lots of live modelling then practice on single paragraphs. It’s better to do one well than three badly

  1. Meaningless attempts to identify effect

 You know which phrases I mean. I’m reluctant to even mention them, lest a pupil accidentally see this and think it’s a recommended list of phrases to use. My pupils know they are banned. I tell them each time they write any of them, somewhere in the world a baby hedgehog dies:

  • Makes the reader want to read on
  • Creates an image in the reader’s head
  • Makes the reader want to find out what happens next
  • Grabs their attention for the rest of the novel
  • Puts the reader on the edge of their seat

Of course writers structure their texts in a way that encourages a reader to want to keep reading. It would be a brave writer that deliberately intended to discourage a reader from reading any further. Even Finnegan’s Wake was constructed in the hope that people might want to keep on reading it. As such, these phrases need to be excised from your pupil’s work with extreme prejudice. Even if they use the phrase as a springboard for identifying precisely how the technique makes a reader want to continue they may have deflated the examiner’s sense of hope for life in general at the first sight of the abomination.

How to avoid your pupils doing this: have a banned list. Refer to it frequently. Mark very harshly for pupils who use prohibited terms in mock exams. See @heymrshallahan’s excellent ‘alternatives for… resource’

  1. Hyperbolic interpretations of effect

 Conversely, pupils can get a bit carried away by effect, leading to sentences like this:

‘The spatial shift of the character ‘walking into the shadows’ clearly signifies that he is destined for eternal damnation in the sulphurous fires of Hell. As a result, at this point of the text, the reader will feel utterly traumatised and will not be able to sleep for 72 hours, such is the haunting effect of this totally terrifying movement into the world of the Satanic.

How to avoid your pupils doing this: use my example above, or create similarly breathless exaggerations. Get them to critique it. They’ll soon stop.


I Only Have Eyes For You: Themes of perception in GCSE English literature

As happens from time to time, I’ve recently become fixated with a song. Released in 1959, The Flamingo’s ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’ is, on the surface, a straightforward tale of romantic love.

Set to an alluring, beautifully harmonised doo wop, it tells a much-told tale of attraction and fidelity. Dig beneath the surface, however, and you’ll find something of a slightly different order. Take a look at the opening lyrics:

‘My love must be a kind of blind love, 
I can’t see anyone but you’

What we’re actually dealing with, appropriately enough given its newly-acquired earworm status, is not romantic attraction but blinkered obsession. As the song progresses, we find a speaker so love-struck that they become utterly dislocated, having lost all sense of space and time. It may well be read as simple hyperbole – a way of expressing everyday feelings of longing in exaggerated form – but I prefer the reading of a person so transfixed by another that they are utterly unable to focus anywhere else. It’s almost as if the fondness has become so accentuated that we are dealing with a borderline stalker.

Anyway, why am I boring you with my sub-NME muso meanderings? Well, I’ve thought for some time that the theme of perception is a very helpful (if you’ll forgive the puns) lens through which to view much of the literature texts that we study at GCSE.

Set yourself a quick challenge. Name as many quotations from the texts you study that mention eyes. And then preferably, as I did, set this same challenge for your pupils. See how many they can come up with. We do Romeo & Juliet, Jekyll & Hyde, DNA and AQA’s Power and Conflict poetry anthology and my list – certainly not exhaustive – looked like this:


Then we discussed what the eyes represent. We came up with things such as:

  • Honesty
  • Human emotions (often hidden)
  • Personality
  • Seeing things clearly
  • Being blinded to the truth
  • Affection and adoration
  • Sexual desire
  • Pain and suffering
  • Memory

We then applied some of these symbolic themes to the individual texts. For the poems this allowed us a basis for comparison. I also got the chance to re-use one of my favourite adjectives, lachrymose (tearful or tear-inducing).

In a future lesson, I may play The Flamingo’s while my pupils read ‘My Last Duchess’. I get the impression that Duke Alfonso would like it as much as I do.

Thanks for reading (with you eyes – wooh, spooky),



Evaluative verbs – adding sophistication to analysis

Recently, I wrote an article for TES about how an unexpected number of pupils at my school achieved grade 9s in GCSE English. It was popular and I received lots of feedback. One area that interested many people was the discussion about the evaluative verbs that top students tended to use in their writing. Traditionally, teachers of GCSE English have encouraged pupils to use analytical verbs, often pushing them for a synonym for ‘suggests’ or ‘shows’. I have an example list of my own that I’ve used for some time:

Analytical verbs – some alternatives for ‘suggests’ with brief definition
Adumbrates – puts forward an outline/foreshadow a future event
Advocates – puts forwards a particular opinion/viewpoint/belief
Amplifies – emphasises by adding extra impact
Connotes – creates a deeper metaphorical meaning
Constructs – builds up an idea
Conveys – gets across a message/idea/theory
Defines – gives us the clear meaning of something
Demonstrates – Provides a clear explanation/example
Denotes – what the word actually means/dictionary definition
Emphasises – draws attention to something
Evidences – provides evidence/proof for an argument/theory
Evokes – brings about a strong feeling or idea
Exhibits – Displays a certain attitude/tendency
Foreshadows – hints at subsequent events/themes
Highlights – draws clear attention toward by making it stand out
Identifies – provides the clear meaning of something specific
Illustrates – creates a distinct image
Implies – suggests something beyond the obvious
Indicates – acts as a clear pointer or a signpost
Insinuates – mages a vague suggestion beyond the obvious meaning
Mirrors – A similar or the same visual image
Parallels – runs alongside a similar idea/theme
Portrays – Shows or represents something/someone in a certain way
Presents – Introduces an idea
Projects – takes an idea and makes it more distinct
Proposes – puts forward an idea/theory
Puts forward – Gives a theory/opinion/idea
Reflects – Espouses the same or similar theme/idea
Reiterates – repeats or supports the same point/feeling/idea
Represents – takes an idea and puts it forward in a different light
Reveals – makes a meaning/interpretation clear that was previously unclear
Signifies – uses a word or a sign to make the meaning clear
Symbolises – takes a visual image and uses it for a deeper meaning

With the advent of the evaluation question on GCSE English language specifications, teachers have now placed a greater onus on ensuring their pupils use the language of evaluation to ensure that examiners can tell they are attempting to sum up the quality of a piece of writing or the technique that the writer has deployed. Often this takes the form of the ubiquitous adverb ‘effectively’ and adjective ‘effective’. For example ‘Orwell effectively portrays the unpleasant conditions for miners through his personification of the ‘roaring…machines’…’ Or ‘This is effective because ‘roaring’ implies the lethal nature of these giant machines and gives a sense of the deafening volume…’

What I find, however, is that the most successful pupils evaluate consistently, whether or not the question prompts them. In the literature exams, our highest attainers wrote about how a writer ‘ridicules’, ‘trivialises’, ‘demonises’ or how a character ‘coerces’, ‘sentimentalises’ or ‘derides’ another. I’ve tried to put together a list of the evaluative verbs pupils might typically use in their writing. This is far from definitive. And some of the verbs are only evaluative if used in a particular context. But it’s a good place to start if you wish to really stretch your top pupils:

  • Criticises –  rebukes, admonishes, chastises,  lambasts, castigates, demonises, condemns
  • Questions – queries, disputes, casts doubt upon, refutes, interrogates, examines, challenges, exposes, provokes
  • Ridicules – mocks, trivialises, satirises, lampoons, derides, pillories, parodies, caricatures
  • Celebrates – commemorates, honours, salutes, recognises, acknowledges, memorialises, lionises, fetishises, idealises, eulogises, elevates, glorifies, sentimentalises, romanticises, beautifies, deifies
  • Subverts – undermines, overturns, alters, modifies, corrupts
  • Accepts – welcomes, embraces, affirms, reaffirms
  • internalises, externalises
  • Technical terms – anthropomorphises, zoomorphises

Here are some examples of how evaluative verbs might elevate responses to a sophisticated understanding of the writer’s intention:

  1. Stephenson portrays Jekyll as a duplicitous character. (simple statement)
  2. Stephenson insinuates that Jekyll has repressed his transgressive desires, leading a conflicted dual nature. (analytical statement)
  3. Through his portrayal of  Jekyll’s conflicted dual nature caused by his repressed transgressive desires, Stevenson ridicules hypocritical Victorian attitudes towards sin. (evaluative statement)

Thanks for reading,


A quick word – retrieval practice for single word quotations

For some time now, I’ve begun virtually every lesson with a memory platform. Usually, this takes the form of a simple quiz, sometimes using a multiple choice format. Crucially, I interleave topics that we haven’t studied for a while with things that we’ve recently covered. Pupils regularly tell me that this approach has a) improved their retention of knowledge b) made them feel more confident ahead of assessments and c) become a nice, familiar routine at the start of each session.

But sometimes, in the hectic life of the average teacher, things go wrong. I haven’t had the chance to construct a quiz on a particular topic. My soporific PC won’t load up in time. I’ve had to deal with an incident at break time and my class are sat waiting for me to begin. Then I have to wing it. I have to make up a quick knowledge quiz on the spot. So I’ll do things like have a brief scan of the extract we’re about to analyse, work out the likely key quotations, and write things like:

Write down a synonym for the following words

  1. expensive
  2. guarded
  3. empty
  4. depressing
  5. waste


Identify the word class of the following

  1. hopelessness
  2. under
  3. somebody
  4. could
  5. extremely


Which characters could the following adjectives be applied to?

  1. callous
  2. impetuous
  3. nurturing
  4. possessive
  5. arrogant

The other day, under pressure to come up with a worthwhile memory platform in a matter of seconds, I remembered a brilliant blog that Chris Curtis had written a while back about single word quotations, which had inspired me to write something about Shakespeare’s use of single word motifs as a trope throughout his works.  So, under pressure with 29 expectant eyes on the board, I scrawled the following on the board:

Identify the text/character from the following single word quotation:

  1. sweet
  2. signature
  3. sunlight
  4. somebody
  5. squat
  6. shipwreck
  7. suddenly
  8. sabre
  9. sneer
  10. sheath

And it worked well. In most cases, with most words, pupils were able to use the single word as a springboard for identifying the ‘wider’ quotation. Even if they couldn’t recall the ‘full’ sentence or line, they took comfort from the fact that they could analyse the single word anyway. Follow up questions bounced around the room: who said it? to whom? which scene? what’s the line before? ‘Sweet’ worked really well because of its frequency in Romeo and Juliet, prompting multiple answers, and allowing me to bang on about single word motifs once more. ‘Sunlight’ performs a similar function in ‘The Emigree’.

So the following day I did it again. But this time I planned ahead, this time planting some deliberately ambiguous single word quotations in there – words that could come from two or more of the texts (Jekyll & Hyde, R&J, DNA and the AQA Power & Conflict poems) that we study:

  1. blind
  2. grave
  3. dark
  4. black
  5. ache
  6. fear
  7. doomed
  8. somebody
  9. head
  10. plague

This worked ridiculously well. Next day, I started getting a bit more creative, linking the words thematically:

  1. dove
  2. crow
  3. nightingale
  4. swan
  5. lark
  6. drugs
  7. intoxicated
  8. beers
  9. stumbling
  10. gin

And the day after:

  1. fetch
  2. throw
  3. catching
  4. fall
  5. stumble

And so on.

The beauty of this is it’s quick, effective and requires not much planning. But it also has the following (originally unintended) benefits for pupils:

  • it enables them to make links between texts
  • it highlights motifs within the texts
  • it highlights key themes (such as perception/inability to see clearly) within the texts
  • it makes them realise that one word could help them remember three different quotations in the exam
  • it makes them appreciate that they might well remember the word but they can’t remember the context of the text (who said it and when for example).

Give it a go. It might just rescue your lesson the next time your memory stick malfunctions or you leave your photocopying in the staff room.

Thanks for reading,


Why bother with complex terminology?

It began as a mistake. The other day, I went to an AQA GCSE English language feedback meeting. I shouldn’t have gone. Like a bruised rib that you can’t resist poking, or a declining TV series that you give just one more chance, I rarely find anything other than discomfort from these things. But, I felt I had to go. I wanted some answers. It’s a tough job, speaking on behalf of a huge organisation, fielding difficult questions from annoyingly opinionated people like me. I wanted reassurances that steps were being taken to avoid this year’s marking fiasco , which saw a frantic rush to mark papers before the deadline, and trainees and postgrads given contracts to mark. I also wanted to understand what in the hell examiners were looking for on Paper 2 Q2.

The AQA facilitator was really nice: an amiable woman who was clearly trying to reassure those of us (most of us, I felt) who were worried about key aspects of the spec and the first round of examinations. But one thing she said very much riled me. We were discussing technical terminology. We spent a lot of time discussing complex technical terminology. Technical terminology got a bad press. Technical terminology was asked to leave the room, tail firmly tucked between its legs. Her case against complex technical terminology went something like this:

Sophisticated technical terminology isn’t necessary.

Words like anadiplosis, polysyndeton and anthropomorphism aren’t required. They are fancy words, glitz and glamour terms that are used purely to dazzle. These words are superfluous and hinder clarity. They get in the way of meaning and are devoid of real impact.

Sophisticated technical terminology isn’t necessary.

Complex terms are fine at A level but aren’t required at GCSE. Pupils will do fine without them; pupils will analyse more effectively in their absence. They’ve been put there purely to try and impress examiners but, in reality, they aren’t rewarded. They are an unnecessarily complicated substitution for the technical terms that we’ve always used. They’re show off words, given to pupils by teachers who have misunderstood what the exam board really want. Teachers tell pupils to use fancy words. Fancy words irritate the examiner. The examiner awards low marks.

Sophisticated technical terminology isn’t necessary.

These words are ridiculous and unpronounceable. I don’t even know what some of these words mean. These silly Greek and Latin words will just confuse pupils, not encourage them to arrive at perceptive responses. We shouldn’t teach them because:

Sophisticated technical terminology isn’t necessary.

I’m paraphrasing, and taking a few stylistic liberties of course, but the central argument remains accurate. There was relief in the room. The backlash had begun. We could finally consign these esoteric and arrogant words to the (A level) dustbin.

I demurred vigorously. Here’s why I believe the argument against complex technical terminology is wrong:


1.The pupils end up feature spotting and forget to focus on the effect

This is an odd argument for sacrificing sophisticated words. Let me be clear: feature spotting is a bad thing. Feature spotting should not be awarded good marks, regardless of how clever-sounding the features are. Feature spotting is, however, a sign of poor teaching – or perhaps poor listening on the part of the pupil – rather than the sign of an inherently unnecessary term.

What do I think is the most important part of analysis? Effect, effect, effect. If, in their desire to bedazzle examiners with sophisticated terminology, some (or rather, from speaking to examiners I have met, many) teachers haven’t made that clear to pupils then there lies the fault.

Good pupils can and will do both, if given sufficient models, practice and quality feedback. I’ve given examples of effective use of terminology and effect here and here.

2.  These words unnecessarily complicate things

Why bother with obscure Greek terms like ‘anthropomorphism’? It’s such a mouthful and difficult to spell. Well, firstly, the most significant myths of Western civilisation (and Eastern I’m guessing) are based around anthropomorphic ideas. The Garden of Eden and the Satanic serpent. Most of the Greek myths. Much of our great literature – such as Animal Farm – and classic children’s literature – The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, for examplerelies on giving animals human characteristics. But it’s a clever sounding word, so let’s ditch it right?

The gazillion different types of repetition like anadiplosis, commoratio and epimone are also daft aren’t they? If used without exploration of effect, or course they are. But wielded judiciously they can really help pupils achieve a whole new level of understanding of the writer’s craft. Anadiplosis offers an excellent insight into the way that the interaction between language and theme develops, often in a cause and effect structure, as in the classic example from the Star Wars:

Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.

Yoda’s s powerful wisdom is certainly amplified through the use of anadiplosis. The original emotion mushrooms to more destructive feelings. Anadiplosis is domino rally repetition and deserves our attention not mockery.

3.They are best saved for A level

If a teacher feels that pupils are ready to deal with more complicated-sounding ideas and terms, why should we wait? I walked in on a colleague teaching (or rather re-teaching) the concept of liminality to a group of Year 9s the other day during an Of Mice and Men lesson. Their mature appreciation of the notion astounded me. But no, let’s wait until we’ve just got our nice small A level class (full of well-behaved hardworking girls no doubt) to go over these things in a nice, cosy environment.  Why shouldn’t Key Stage 3 pupils be able to grasp litotes? Suggesting otherwise is low expectations in my opinion. I’ve taught anagnorosis, dysphemism and portmanteau neologisms to ‘bottom set’ kids before and they’ve risen to the challenge. This may be an unpopular opinion, but part of the problem lies in some teacher’s preconceived notions of what some kids can achieve.

4. We need a hierarchy of terms

Why don’t the exam board tell us what to teach, point us in the right direction, give us a list? Let’s teach to the mark schemes while we’re at it and direct our curriculum rigidly to what will appear in the exam while we’re at it. This sounds arrogant (okay it is arrogant but it’s also true), but I don’t need an exam board to tell me what’s appropriate for my pupils. I’m an expert in my subject. I’m trying to educate comprehensive, state schools pupils to appreciate unrestrained intellectualism in a way that will not disadvantage them when they come to compete with more privileged public school counterparts. Two of my Year 13 pupils recently sat the Cambridge English entrance exam. I’d hate to think that they came unstuck by reference to an ‘esoteric’ term that kids from Eton had learnt in Year 9.

Also, why should one Greek word – ‘metaphor’ – be more seen as more accessible and appropriate for younger pupils than another – such as ‘microcosm’? Yes, there’s the question of frequency of occurrence, but I’ve seen metaphor explained so badly at times by some teachers that it was almost not worth bothering. The concept of microcosm – when applied to Lord of the Flies for example – is arguably easier to get your head around – certainly to define – than trusty old metaphor.

And when it comes to feature spotting, some common language features are just as likely as obscure newbies to lead to empty comments. This happens a lot with our old friends alliteration and rhetorical question. How many times have you seen pupils identify alliteration and fail to clearly explain its purpose, or have read that the rhetorical question ‘makes the reader think’?

5. They’re only being used to try and impress examiners during analysis questions

Not only do these terms help appreciate the writer’s craft, they also help improve pupils’ writing skills.

Look again at the paragraphs where I paraphrase the AQA representative’s case against complex terms:

Sophisticated technical terminology isn’t necessary.

Words like anadiplosis, polysyndeton and anthropomorphism aren’t required. They are fancy words, glitz and glamour terms that are used purely to dazzle. These words are superfluous and hinder clarity. They get in the way of meaning and are devoid of real impact. (commoratio)

Sophisticated technical terminology isn’t necessary. 

Complex terms are fine at A level but aren’t required at GCSE. Pupils will do fine without them; pupils will analyse more effectively in their absence. They’ve been put there purely to try and impress examiners but, in reality, they aren’t rewarded. They are an unnecessarily complicated substitution for the technical terms that we’ve always used. They’re show off words, given to pupils by teachers who have misunderstood what the exam board really want. (commoratio)Teachers tell pupils to use fancy words. Fancy words irritate the examiner. The examiner awards low marks. (anadiplosis)

Sophisticated technical terminology isn’t necessary.

These words are ridiculous and unpronounceable. I don’t even know what some of these words mean. These silly Greek and Latin words will just confuse pupils, not encourage them to arrive at perceptive responses. (commoratio)We shouldn’t teach them because:

Sophisticated technical terminology isn’t necessary. (epimone)

I can use these rhetorical features in my writing precisely because I learnt them when analysing texts. For instance, I used epizeuxis when I wrote about ‘effect, effect, effect’. And I’ve used other ‘lesser’ types of repetition as well. Simple, easy-to-spell and easy-to-identify Greek words like err… ‘anaphora’.

So have my pupils. They can take Yoda’s famous anadiplosis and do things like this:

Fear of the headteacher leads to homework being set. Homework being set leads to miserable pupils. Miserable pupils forget to hand in homework. Forgetting to hand in homework leads to suffering in a lunchtime detention.

So, you’ll hopefully forgive me for getting annoyed by the AQA facilitator’s well-intentioned but, I think, potentially damaging remarks. Let me know what you think.

Thanks for reading,


The Word Spectrum: explaining, exploring and evaluating word choice

With a bit of training, most pupils can explain why a writer uses a certain word. You know the kind of thing I mean:

Dickens uses the word ‘clutching’ to portray Scrooge as a miserly and selfish character. ‘Clutching’ suggests he doesn’t want to let go of the money that he has in his possession, which makes the reader feel as if he lacks generosity and only thinks off his own needs.

Which is fine, as far as it goes. What pupils tend to be less good at, in my experience, is exploring and, especially, evaluating the choices of diction that writer’s make every time they craft a sentence. Put simply, pupils often forget that writers have a wide vocabulary at their disposal and make deliberate decisions about the precise words they select, consciously or otherwise. It’s obvious to us, but pupils sometimes don’t grasp (or clutch? No, that wouldn’t make sense) that characters are therefore constructs, shaped by the writer’s imagination and the words that are used to describe them go on to define them.

Students can be trained to explore choice of diction through alternative interpretations of the same word or phrase. If done well, this can develop their analysis, like this:

The word ‘clutching’ can also mean an action where a person tries to grab something that belongs to someone else. So, in this case, Scrooge can be seen as self-centred but also actively trying to take wealth from others.

Sometimes, however,  this type of exploration can be come mechanical: pupils search for alternative interpretations when the first interpretation is the only plausible line of analysis. A more fruitful form of exploration, I find, is exploring alternative word choices, explaining why the writer didn’t select them, and evaluating the diction that the writer eventually plumped for.

As a class, we often discuss these choice. For that reason, I prefer to do this exploration graphically on the board; I’ve inadvertently ‘invented’ a type of thinking map – a word spectrum line – that I think does the job well.

Let me give you an example. The play DNA by Dennis Kelly includes a juicy little quotation by Cathy, one of the play’s potentially psychopathic characters – ‘I threatened to gouge one of his eyes out’.


Left to  their own devices, most pupils can tell me that ‘gouge’ shows how violent she is and how she wants to intimidate the other character involved. But when we look at where that verb fits on the spectrum of choices for an action that involves removing an eye, things get more interesting:


Every time I’ve used this technique, despite much wincing at the grotesque direction of the discussion, I’ve found my classes really get to grips – if you’ll pardon the pun – with Kelly’s choice of verb. We talk about how ‘gouge’ is really nasty as it is done with the fingers (like ‘yank’ we feel), which implies lasting damage. Unlike the more neutral ‘remove’ or the gentler sound ‘pop’, although one pupil felt that the plosives suggested an unpleasant sense of force. Recently, my Year 11s could only come up with ‘claw’ or the Shakespearean ‘pluck’ as potentially nastier alternatives. Then we wrote a paragraph explaining the writer’s choice, the precise effect, discarded alternative diction and evaluated the overall decision. The standard of analysis was significantly better than the first attempts.

In passing, I shared this technique with my colleagues the other day and they were much taken with it. The next day I popped into a couple of other lessons where it was being used in KS3 classes to explore writer’s choices in other texts.

I’ve got the feeling that this technique could prove useful in the ongoing battle against the GCSE English language evaluation question. Or would ‘war’ work better? Definitely not ‘skirmish’…

Thanks for reading,