Nice or nasty? The case of the ambiguous euphemism

We all know what a euphemism is right? Yes, it’s a mild or polite expression used instead of something harsh or unpleasant sounding. Euphemisms are often used when dealing with taboo topics and are helpful for avoiding embarrassment. For this reason our discourse on subjects like sex and death is usually littered with euphemistic language, such as:

  • ‘John passed away yesterday evening’
  • ‘Grandmother is no longer with us
  • ‘Did you sleep with my boyfriend?’
  • “And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived.”

Euphemisms are not always used for polite reasons, of course. They can often be employed for evasive reasons, allowing the speaker or writer to attempt to skirt around or deliberately avoid an awkward issue. Militaristic jargon offers plenty of examples of this slippery language use:

  • collateral damage – killed and wounded civilians
  • friendly fire – accidentally shooting soldiers from the same side
  • enhanced interrogation techniques – torture

Typically, George Orwell was one of the first writers to highlight the use of this equivocal and deceitful language. If you haven’t read it, check out his seminal essay “Politics and the English Language”.

So far, so straightforward.

Less well known is the opposite of euphemism: dysphemism. Etymologically euphemism comes from the Greek eu (‘well’) and pheme (‘speaking’), whereas its antonym means ‘bad-speaking’. Dysphemism therefore deals with the vulgar and the derogatory, deliberately making things sound worse or at least less dignified than they might otherwise be:

  • kicked the bucket
  • topped himself
  • ‘They have made worms’ meat of me’ (Mercutio)

As this is a respectable and well-mannered blog, I’ll not share any examples of sexual dysphemisms. I’m sure you can come up with some if you think long and hard.

Dysphemism is a term that is well worth teaching your pupils, given that it allows a nice counterbalance to efforts to modify language in a more pleasant direction. Knowledge of both terms offers pupils a greater opportunity to evaluate language choice. Let’s look at the example above and consider why Shakespeare used dysphemism for Mercutio’s death throes dialogue. ‘Worm’s meat’ evokes a gruesome image for Romeo and Tybalt (and the assembled feuding families) to dwell on. It acts as a reminder of the grim consequences of the frivolous violence: Mercutio’s corpse will decompose and he will become food for insects (are worms insects? Probably but I can’t be bothered to look this up). Look at the results of your honour and testosterone-fuelled dispute, his blunt language seems to say.

This is all very interesting, but my favourite part of teaching these two terms is when they intersect, when we are confronted by a word or phrase that blurs the lines between well- and bad-speaking. My Year 13 class came across an example recently when we were looking at the poem ‘On Her Blindness’ by Adam Thorpe:

If I gave up hope of a cure, I’d bump/myself off…

One pupil nailed this down as a euphemism:

  • It’s avoiding direct reference to a taboo subject (suicide)
  • ‘bump’ is a gentle verb, as opposed to ‘crash’ or ‘hit’ say

Which is difficult to argue with. But another pupil (politely, of course) did, identifying it as a dysphemism:

  • It’s blunt and direct – instead of something like  ‘fall on my sword’ or ‘take my own life’
  • If you consider what would make the ‘bump’ – jumping off a tall building or in front of a vehicle – the verb actually seems a lot harsher and more violent than on first appearances
  • It’s an insensitive phrase. Unless you were callous you wouldn’t use this phrase to discuss someone who had tragically taken their own life

Which is difficult to argue with also.

Since then, we’ve started to notice more of these ambiguous occurrences, these grey areas between propriety and disparagement. And recognition of these nuanced phrases makes for sophisticated grappling with the writer’s use of language.

Right, I better go now. I need to use the bathroom/go for a slash.

Thanks for reading,



Back to school. Beware novelty.

“We survive on novelty, so much less demanding than commitment.” 
― Mikhail Lermontov

Unlike the rest of the population, who do this kind of thing at the start of January, teachers usually make their new year resolutions at the end of August. We skip (or sometimes trudge) back, full of new ideas, new goals, new pedagogical practices gleaned from a summer of reading blogs and edubooks, while the rest of those on the beach flicked nonchalantly through Dan Browns and thrillers with the word ‘Train’ in the title.

Workload and burnout issues to one side, this is a good thing. If only as many pupils as teachers turned up for that fuzzy first day determined to improve and work smarter, after a period of reflection about their work habits, and the effectiveness of their intellectual input and output. I’m just as guilty of this as the others. I write blogs to (hopefully) help people think about, and even improve, their teaching. I want them to make notes. With a highlighter, if they must. I believe in picking up new ideas, in becoming a better teacher. And yet. And yet…


Sometimes the quest for improvement becomes a search for novelty. Novelty is great. It is fun, fresh and funky. To start with. The successful novelty single enters the Top 40 (younger readers, ask your parents), spends two weeks at the top of the charts, gains ubiquity on the nation’s radio stations, sells a gazillion copies, appears on Top of the Pops (younger readers, ask your parents), before finally making a swift, undignified descent out of the charts and into oblivion (otherwise known as local radio).

The same often happens with new teaching ideas. It especially happens with new school policies. In the meantime, the kids – who at the start of term are bombarded with new tasks and sexy strategies – are sometimes left bewildered and dizzied by change. Until the next new thing comes along.

In the past, I was very guilty of this. My pupils will get bored, I’d tell myself, if we do the same thing over and over again. Repetition is the enemy, I thought. The boredom, of course, was all mine. I wanted something shiny and unaccustomed, not them. Not all the time anyway. They were quite happy revisiting topics, using the same skills, until they’d got the hang of it.

Now, I do less and do it more often. Familiarity hasn’t yet bred contempt in my classroom. I asked my Year 10 class last year – I’m aware this is a methodologically dubious way of garnering evidence – what single thing I’d done that they thought had helped them improve over the course of the year. Number one was the use of memory platform starters at the beginning of nearly every single lesson. I was worried that my students might find this dull. Instead, they enjoyed the routine, found it reassuringly predictable, and most importantly, found it most helpful in advancing their knowledge.

So what am I going to do differently this year? I will be:

  • introducing a couple of things I picked up from Andy Tharby’s excellent Making Every English Lesson Count
  • finally getting round to buying and using a visualiser
  • spending a bit more time on teaching root words and etymology when developing vocabulary

And that’s about it. In other words, I’ll be refining, not charging in gung ho like a child tearing open presents on Christmas day.

I hope you’re feeling energised and revitalised by your break and by the splendid new tips you’ve picked up. Do yourself and your students a favour though: don’t lob out the sparrow from the fount of new found knowledge*. By all means innovate, but don’t tear up what already works in your search for improvement.


* and don’t invent bad new idioms, when perfectly serviceable cliches will do

Rethinking Boys’ Engagement – My talk from #TLLLeeds17

Lots of people have asked me to share my talk from the Teaching & Learning conference held at The Grammar School At Leeds on Saturday 1 July. As you can expect from a 40 minute session, it’s quite a long read. I wrote this script in advance and memorised most of it, but of course the wording will differ slightly from what I actually delivered. I’ve also attached my slides at the end:


Teaching boys is straightforward.

That’s what I was told as a trainee teacher. There were strategies to follow. Top tips to implement. Sure fire ways of guaranteeing engagement in every single lesson. These strategies were logical. They were common sense. They worked for me.

Think back to the start of your career; I’d like you to write down three of the boys’ engagement strategies that you were given. Let’s see if they match with mine. We’ll come back to these later.

Let me start by telling you a bit about myself and how I ended up here standing in front of you today as “the boy guy”. I grew up not far from here, in an ex-mining town. I went to the local comp and had a very poor experience at school. I caused lots of problems for my teachers. It took me a long time to finish my education and, having taken the scenic route, I ironically ended up deciding to be a teacher.

Towards the end of my PGCE year, I found myself in a job interview, at the school where I did my second placement. An inner city comp for boys in Manchester, it was located in an area of very high deprivation, very high EAL, very high FSM. A challenging school. As you can imagine, most of the questions were about engagement and behaviour. To be honest, I found it dead easy to answer these: all I needed to do was parrot back the advice I’d been given in university and explain how I’d adapted these in my practice so far. I got the job. The school was the perfect fit for me. I understood boys. I grew up with my three brothers in a masculine household. Back in the day, I was even was a boy myself. This was going to be fine.

And things were fine. I implemented my boy-friendly strategies, tested out my top tips and my classes did really well. My pupils’ GCSE results were excellent. I was promoted three times in three years. This struck me as a vindication of the teaching strategies that I’d used so far.

OK, so my career was motoring along – cruising actually – and sure enough, now in the role of Head of English, I was asked to lead CPD on…yes, you’ve guessed it: boys’ engagement. People came out of these sessions saying nice things. Really enjoyable. Very useful. Hell, some people might even have used some of the strategies I gave them in their own classroom. We can but dream.

In 2014 I decided to do something radical. In search of a new challenge I got myself a job at a school that was a mixed comp. This meant that I would now be teaching girls as well. I know… crazy. It also meant relocating to Devon. The new school was in a lovely, affluent middle class area but had a significant intake from local villages that followed the pattern of rural deprivation. The English results were below where they should be given the entry data. Boys in particular were massively underperforming.

I was under no illusions that the main reason I’d been given the job was my reputation as  the “boy guy”, the answer – no, the panacea – for all their boy-fuelled nightmares. The first year, I’d sort out English. The following year I’d spread my magic fairy dust over the rest of the college. And the funny thing is, that’s what started to happen. The results for boys began to improve. Oddly though, they also did for girls. I put that down to girls being compliant. It was obvious that they’d just gone along with the boy stuff.

Towards the end of that first year in Devon, I wrote a blog – my first ever – on how to improve progress through boys’ engagement. And to bring things full circle, I was also asked to deliver more CPD sessions on – yes, you’ve guessed it – boys’ engagement. Things were going exactly as they should be. My strategies continued to bear fruit.

Not long after writing that first blog, I had an epiphany. In the shower. My epiphanies always happen in the shower. I don’t know why. Suddenly, I was struck by a thought. In fact, it wasn’t sudden; it had been niggling away in the back of my brain for a few months, including while I was writing my boys’ engagement blog.

What happened is I realised that all of my views on how to teach boys were actually… bollocks.

Well, not all of them. But a fair chunk. Especially the boys’ engagement strategies that had been the bedrock of my teaching practice.

So what made me rethink boys’ engagement? What had occurred in the meantime to bring about this dramatic U-turn – the sort that would make Theresa May blush.

Two things has happened. 1) Since joining Twitter, I’d started to read what other people – clever people – had to say about gender and education. 2) I’d started reading books about education – properly reading them, not just skimming over for juicy quotes like I’d done in my busy PGCE year.

The rest of this talk will take you through some of those boys’ engagement strategies that I’d had preached to me, and I had preached in turn. I’ll show you why they are myths, not facts. Then I’ll show you what I did next with my newfound knowledge. Then I’ll give you a list of three things to take away, which I think make all the difference when teaching boys.

Myth number one is:

  1. Boys like competition
  • Demotivates boys who don’t immediately succeed
  • Boys who don’t succeed are the ones who need most motivation

Jackson (2002; 2006) Elkjaer (1992)

Now of course some boys love competition, including myself. But the problem you have when you start introducing competition into the classroom is this: in a classroom, there can only be a finite amount of winners. And boys are very good at quickly working out if they are going to be one of the winners. And if they aren’t they will opt out or not try very hard.

I remember vividly a competition I used to run in the early years of my career: the PEA World Cup knockout. As the winning pair of pupils held aloft their prize (a box of Maltesers) I recall looking at their joyful faces feeling proud that I have inspired them to excel, to produce outstanding work. What I didn’t realise, that I do now, is that the many losers were left silently deflated.

Myth number two is:

  1. Boys and girls are ‘naturally different’ and need to be taught differently
  • Differences between the ‘male brain’ and ‘female brain’ are slight and contentious
  • More within gender differences than between gender differences

Baron-Cohen (2004), Slavin (1994)

Like many other teachers on Twitter, I’ve been very much influenced by cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School? Reading and re-reading it, I was struck by the fact that this book, all about how we best learn and retain knowledge, doesn’t mention gender. At all. So I asked him why it didn’t. And very generously, he replied. His email said:

  • boys do better on standardized tests, girls earn better classroom grades
  • distributions of boys’ and girls’ performance on either one is largely overlapping
  • addressing it is not likely to make either group learn more in school

This is the biggie for me. Myth number three:

  1. Boys need topics that are relevant to them
  • ‘Boy-friendly’ curricula do not improve boys’ achievement
  • Gender-stereotyping ignores pupils’ genuine interests and limit aspirations of boys (and girls)

Pickering (1997), Lingard et al (2002; 2003), Keddie and Mills (2008), Younger and Warrington at al (2005)

I spent days, weeks, years designing curricula that were as boy-friendly as possible. Every element of my planning was based around making learning as relevant as possible to boys’ lives. There are many reasons why this was wrong, including:

  • It is practically impossible to make things relevant to all the pupils in your class. Unless, of course, you teach to stereotypes and assume there is one thing called ‘the boy’ who is an extrovert and likes football, gaming etc. And we’ve all met plenty of boys who don’t fit that description
  • We all get bored eventually, even of things that we are normally interested in. As Willingham notes ‘the content of a problem may be sufficient to prompt your interest, but it won’t maintain it.’
  • We often only remember the ‘relevant’ part (e.g. a mention of a football player) but forget the actual learning bit
  • On the other hand, how many times have you found yourself reading an article, or watching a documentary, about something you had no interest in, only to find yourself gripped?
  • Therefore, the search for relevance limits our pupils. It deprives them – especially our most disadvantaged pupils – the opportunity to accrue cultural capital about topics we presume will not interest them. And that is unacceptable.

Now let’s look at a couple more common myths. These ones are different though: I knew they were bollocks from the outset:

4.Boys have different learning styles

How many times were you told that boys were most likely to be kinaesthetic learners and needed the opportunity to move around or touch stuff? Luckily, I intuitively ignored this long before it was debunked. The problem is that 90% of teachers apparently still believe this kind of crap. Keep spreading the word.

5. Boys prefer male teachers

During my time as “the boy guy” at no point was I arrogant enough to believe that being male made me a better teacher of boys. I’ve met many female teachers who do a fantastic job with male pupils.

6. All boys are struggling

Not all of them. Some are doing fine. Others, like white working class boys are generally not.

Now you’re probably thinking wait a minute. You told us your results were really good. How come that was the case if you were following these bollocks strategies? I’d asked myself the same questions:

  1. How had I managed to get such good results while following these strategies?
  2. How come I’d managed to get good results out of really difficult boys?

 After the original crushing devastation of realising I’d swallowed a load of bunkum for years,  I realised something that left me feeling liberated. Joyous even. The answer was obvious. My pupils had done really well despite these strategies. Which meant that my other teaching approaches must have really worked.

Once I’d grasped this I was asked to undertake a whole school improvement project as part of my NPQSL.

Risk factors

To identify which boys were most likely to underperform, I devised a risk factor model. I trawled back through our data and realised that the boys who did worst in exams at my school were likely to have been:

  • Boys
  • FSM
  • L4OE
  • Placed in bottom sets
  • Poor attendance

I gave every pupil in Year 11 a mark out of 5, based on the risk factors above. 15 pupils had the maximum risk factor of 5 in English and maths. They became my target group. Here’s what their results looked like at the end of the project:

  • 12 of 15 pupils gained C or above in English, 10 in maths
  • 9 pupils got C or above in both

Now, to put that into context, at the start of the year 4 pupils were forecast to get a C in English, 3 in maths, and we were hoping that maybe 2 would get both.

  • 8% A*-C rise in English
  • 7% A*-C rise in maths
  • 12% rise in Basics measure
  • FSM gap narrowed by 17% in maths, 15% in English

So what did we do to get those results? Well, let’s start by looking at what we didn’t do:

  • Intervention
  • Peer coaching
  • Academic mentoring
  • Pastoral support
  • Rewards
  • Incentives
  • Increased parental engagement
  • Notify the pupils

The emphasis was not on intervention or coaching or peer mentoring or parental engagement. The pupils didn’t even know they’d been targeted. The focus was on one thing and one thing only: the quality of the teaching in the classroom. I did training with English and maths, looking only at three areas. Unlike in previous years, this time I went back to make sure the training had worked, to check that people understood it and knew how to implement the ideas.

So what made the difference. I was able to reflect back on the stuff that had worked despite my boy-friendly diversions. The stuff that had worked all along. These became my alternative list of strategies for making sure boys do well:

  1. Quality feedback that encouraged lots of repetitive practice in their areas of weakness
  • ‘live’ or ‘short’ marking
  • Onus on motivation of immediate improvement

Hattie and Timperley (2007)

The pupils were initially reluctant but by the end of the project they were asking their teacher to come over and give them immediate feedback and tell them there and then how to improve their work. The impact on their output in both subjects was significant. It really did make a difference.

2. Positive relationships based on effective behaviour management

My list included:

  • Depersonalise behaviour
  • Don’t hold grudges
  • Very clear expectations
  • Positive reinforcement
  • Let them know that you care (but not too much)
  • 80% pep talks/instilling a sense of belief
  • 20% letting them know when you’re disappointed
  • Stay calm at all times (apart from when you’re pretending to be really quite cross)

And now comes the most important thing. If there is one part of my talk today that I want you to remember it is this:

3. Really high expectations for all pupils

Jones and Myhill (2004) ‘Troublesome boys’ and ‘compliant girls’

  • ‘tendency to associate boys with underachievement and girls with high achievement’
  • ‘80% of the teachers expected that boys and girls should get same results. This commitment to equal achievement, however, was not reflected in teachers’ perceptions…about classroom attitude and behaviour and ability within different areas of the curriculum.’

This study involved interviewing lots of teachers from across all different key stages. The first thing you notice is that 80% of teachers agreed in principal that there is no reason why boys and girls shouldn’t be able to achieve the same results. Now the very worrying thing about that is that 20% had presumably written off boys from the outset. The rest believed in the equality of opportunity. The problem was, there proved to be a disconnect between what they said they believed and their actions once they got into the classroom.

  • ‘Teachers give voice to a deficit model of male achievement. Boys are principally seen in terms of the things they cannot, will not and do not do. Girls are seen in terms of the things they have achieved and in terms of compliant behaviour.’

I’d like you to discuss this. It’s not an easy topic to address:

  • What implications does this have for your classroom practice?
  • Do teachers in your school ‘give voice to a deficit model of male achievement’?
  • How do you know?

I’d like to give you an example of how this might happen. Let’s call this the Top Set Effect. Imagine a head of faculty decides to set on potential rather than current ability? They sit down and discuss this with the teachers in the faculty. They all agree that morally (and for the sake of results) it’s the right thing to do. Let’s give boys going into their GCSE groups – especially FSM boys – more of a chance by putting them in the top set based on their KS2 score, not what they got at the end of Year 9.

Then six weeks later the HoF asks for any suggested set changes. What happens next? There are ten requests to move down pupils who are ‘not top set material’, who ‘don’t have the right work ethic’. Nine of them are boys. Seven are FSM.

This is when difficult conversations need to be had about high expectations. Not just saying it. Not just believing it. But actually doing it and showing it day-in, day-out in every single lesson. Because, believe me, boys are pretty good at quickly sussing out how much you really believe in them.

So, you now have my real boys’ engagement strategies. In  fact, can we drop the word ‘engagement’ along with the strategies themselves? Yet you might also be thinking: but couldn’t these ideas (1. quality feedback, 2. positive relationships, 3. very high expectations) also apply to girls? And my answer to that is yes. Of course they could. In future, I’d like to no longer be known as “the boy guy” and instead be “the guy who has some ideas about how best to teach pupils”. It’s less catchy but I think you’ll find it’s more helpful in the long run.

TLLeeds Slides Rethinking Boys Engagement M Roberts

Memorising quotes – should we expect pupils to remember more?


“More? You want MORE?” (Oliver!)

Over the past year or so, there has been a lot written about closed book GCSE English literature exams. Some blogs and articles have argued that expecting students to remember about a hundred quotes or so for a couple of exams is an unnecessary form of cruelty, devised only to test those with decent memories. Others have countered that closed book exams encourage pupils to engage with texts in a much deeper way, embedding content in their brains in a manner that allows them to truly appreciate the text’s deeper meaning.

What’s my take? Me, I want MORE.

Not only am I convinced that pupils can, and should, memorise upwards of a 100 quotes for the Literature exams, but I also believe that they can, and should, aim to memorise some extra quotes to enable them to have a deep understanding of a text and show off this knowledge.

The purpose of this blog is not to state the case for closed book exams. Others, such as David Didau, have already put forward very convincing arguments. Instead, this blog is intended to offer an insight into my practice and explain how I think that demanding more of a pupil’s memory will enable them – eventually – to offer vastly improved interpretations of the GCSE English Literature texts.

Memorising more

So what more do I demand? In addition to the key quotes for each character/theme etc., I also expect pupils to memorise quotes that a) showcase their awareness of context or b) introduce a critical viewpoint. That sounds like what A level pupils have to do, I hear you say. Yes, and that’s what I’ve been expecting of my two mixed ability GCSE groups. So far, they’ve largely risen to the challenge, having gone from wailing in unison, a la Harry Seacombe, ‘You want MORE?’ to recognising the impact this has had on their performance in assessments.

To see what this might entail, let’s look at some example sentences for Romeo and Juliet essays, focussing on the context of male violence:

  1. In that time there were lots of duels between men.
  2. In the Elizabethan era there were lots of duels between young men.
  3. Tybalt behaves like many young men from the Elizabethan period – quick to fight a duel if challenged.
  4. Shakespeare uses Tybalt as an example of the violent and quarreling nature of young men from the Elizabethan period, many of whom were quick to fight a duel if challenged.
  5. Neil McGregor has written about the explosive tempers of privileged young men during the Elizabethan period, many of whom were obsessed with the idea of defending their honour and were quick to fight a duel if challenged.
  6. Neil McGregor has written that in the Elizabethan period ‘weapons were part of everyday life’.  Privileged young men, like Tybalt, were obsessed with the idea of defending their honour and were quick to fight a duel if challenged, preparing themselves with daggers that were ‘part fashion accessory, part murder weapon’.

The six sentences should, I believe, correlate with the six bands of context bullet points of the mark scheme.

Imagine my delight when the extract and question on male violence came up on the AQA GCSE Lit paper 1 exam and lots of my pupils (including many Grade 5 hopefuls), told me “I got McGregor in”.

In my opinion, the examples above don’t just add to the memory burden – although, of course, they do have to learn them in advance. In my experience, they act as a context prompt, helping to develop wishy washy statements about ‘patriarchal society’ and so on. If a pupil is struggling to articulate the significance of Tybalt’s ‘Fetch me my rapier, boy’ I’ll say something like what did Neil McGregor say?

I’ve found that these context quotes are particularly helpful for the poetry anthology questions, especially for “contextless” poems such as The Emigre and (god forbid they might need it one day) T****e.

Here’s a flavour of some of the things I’ve asked mine to memorise:

  • Poppies – ‘The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic’ Stalin
  • London – ‘Man is born free and everywhere is in chains’ Rousseau
  • Ozymandias – ‘Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely’ Lord Acton
  • The Emigre – ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there‘ L.P. Hartley; ‘Sunlight is the best disinfectant‘ Louis D. Brandeis
  • Charge of the Light Brigade, Bayonet Charge – ‘If I stay here and fight, I will not return alive but my name will live for ever‘ Achilles, The Illiad

Some will inevitably argue this is asking too much. Some may want to ‘aim a blow at my head with a ladle’. Some will continue telling their pupils that they are hard done to and that it is unfair for the exams boards to expect them to remember so much. I’ll keep on drilling them in memory platform starters and making sure they have a sound awareness of context and critical thought.

Thanks for reading,





Structure and evaluation revisited: some reflections on language paper 1

Along with my dissection of ‘Tissue’,  the two most popular blog posts I’ve ever written focussed on the teaching of the structure and evaluation questions on the new GCSE English language specs. Given that these involve skills that were previously only really taught at KS5, this wasn’t much of a surprise. For the structure question, I attempted to identify the most relevant structural features that writers use, and give tips about how pupils could apply them and explain the effect they have on a reader.  For the evaluation question, I introduced the GRANDDAD mnemonic (somewhat apologetically given how fed up we rightly get with some of these often unhelpful aide memoires). Since then this creaky little amalgam of the elements of fiction have taken on a life of its own, to the extent that it’s even been pilfered, more than once, and sold on TES resources (not acceptable – don’t even think about it). More amusingly, a colleague in my faculty told me about a pupil from a nearby school whom he tutors. This pupil told him not to worry about teaching her Q4 (AQA’s evaluation question) because her teacher had ‘invented a new way’ of answering it… yes, it was everyone’s favourite geriatric mnemonic.

I digress. Now into my second year of teaching the structure and evaluation questions, I feel ready to do my own bit of evaluation- what’s worked and what needs to be gently and discretely euthanised, away from the glare of the classroom. The reflections that follow will focus on the AQA paper (specifically the sample paper that uses Isabel Allende’s  City of the Beasts), but as ever will include general points that will apply to all specs. I’ve just finished marking a Year 10 paper lang 1 assessment, not long after marking a Yr11 mock on the same paper. Here’s what I found.


Q3  How is the text structured to interest you as a reader? (8 marks)

My original list for the structure question, I’ve come to realise, is too long and some of the structural features on it are too hard for the majority of GCSE pupils. With my current bunch of Year 10s, I’ve pruned my list of ten features down to five:

  1. Narrative time (narrative summary, scene time, exploded time and flashbacks/flashforwards)
  2. Spatial shifts
  3. Todorov’s narrative stages (specifically equilibrium and disruption)
  4. Exposition (through thought, background information, conflict, dialogue and dates/time etc.)
  5. Patterns (types of repetition, contrasts/juxtapositions, semantic field etc.)

I’ve found these likely to appear in most texts, the easiest for pupils to learn, and, crucially, the ones that best enable pupils to identify the effect on the reader. If I had the narrow down these even further I’d say focus on spatial shifts, Todorov and patterns. I’ve been pleasantly surprised that other structural devices that I’ve introduced while teaching literature – such as foreshadowing, anagnorosis, in media res, unreliable narrators etc. – have kept on appearing in pupil answers as well.

Responses to the question

Very common errors – across all ability ranges – include:

  • not identifying any structural features (often involved mainly paraphrasing the bullet points)
  • not using evidence to support point about use of structural features
  • misunderstanding of structural features (in the City of the Beasts extract for example, most pupils erroneously identified the narrator’s exposition through background information as a series of flashbacks)
  • not explaining the precise effect on the reader (the perennially vague assertion  ‘makes you want to read on’)
  • Analysing language instead of structure

Slightly less common errors

  • Evaluating i.e. giving a Q4 response
  • re-telling the story

Impressive responses

  • noting that spatial shifts are often imagined rather than physical movements, implying Alex’s disinclination to face up to reality
  • the use of pleonasm and traductio (especially on the pronoun ‘her’) highlighting Alex’s obsession with his mother’s welfare

Generally, this is a question that most pupils find a real struggle. Most of our pupils are gaining 3, 4 or 5 marks.


A student said ‘This part of the story, set during breakfast time, shows that Alex is struggling to cope with his mother’s illness.’

To what extent do you agree?    (20 marks)

Having taught the evaluation to two classes now I can indeed confirm the bloody obvious: it’s a lot, lot easier to teach this questions to pupils who read. Or have read a book. Ever. I can also confirm that GRANDDAD works. But I feel obliged to point out that it is far from essential. I marked or moderated quite a few papers that I or my colleagues had awarded 16 or above (18 is the highest we’ve given yet). Most used GRANDDAD to frame their response. Some – voracious readers of course – ignored it and did their own thing to great effect. Funnily enough, the second group made me even more pleased than the first. But the non-readers who didn’t use any of GRANDDAD generally crashed and burned.

Responses to the question

Very common errors – again across all ability ranges – include:

  • By far the most common mistake: not using the language of evaluation (as Nick Wells has helpfully pointed out, AQA clearly expect a hybrid of analysis plus evaluation)
  • Not using evidence to support evaluation
  • Re-telling the story

Less common errors:

  • Not leaving enough time to answer Q4 properly, or at all. Thank god that this is nonetheless a big improvement on last year’s Q4 fiasco where many pupils failed to write anything at all
  • Focussing only on their own opinion – using Alex’s domestic woes as an opportunity to vent their own grievances against their feckless parents and the adult world at large. Often entertaining, but not rewarded with actual marks

Impressive responses

  • Lots, using David Lodge’s quote about names, focussed on the averageness of the protagonist’s name and linked this to the universal themes of love and death that affect all readers. Some, cleverly, linked the name and the everyman/ordinary guy archetype. Others focussed on his unusual surname (‘Cold’) and made perceptive use of the lack of domestic warmth in his mother’s absence
  • Some pupils, presumably GCSE Psychology students, made great use of Freudian psychoanalysis of the character. Even Little Hans (I thought they were referring to Donald Trump for a moment) got a look in, as did Freud’s dream theory. Cracking stuff
  • Allende’s use (and subversion) of cliche: the dream sequence, the incompetent father thrown into the domestic role, the strict yet loving mother
  • My favourite: symbolism about the crow. One pupil recycled something I’d mentioned when teaching R&J: the collective noun for the crow being a murder of crows. They then expertly evaluated its use as a symbol of death in this context


While it’s easy to get frustrated that pupils have failed to evaluate properly, AQA have certainly not helped with this example paper. Look again at the question. It’s a shocker. Most pupils have, quite reasonably, read the statement and accompanying question and thought I have to say whether I think Alex is struggling or not. Which, of course, is not what the mark scheme is looking for at all. What the question is asking them is actually do you think the writer does a good job of showing that Alex is struggling? This is a very poorly written question – unlike, I have to say, the other examples which are absolutely fine – and AQA have to get their act in order to ensure this doesn’t happen in the real exam. The question is bloody hard enough as it is without this kind of misleading statement.

While we’re at it, the bullet points don’t help one bit. Pupils who tried to structure their answer around the bullet points generally did a lot worse. The bullet points are not your friend, is what I say to my pupils and I suggest you do the same.

Thanks for reading,



Types of repetition and why you should teach them – part 2

‘Repetition is based on body rhythms, so we identify with the heartbeat, or with walking, or with breathing.’  Karlheinz Stockhausen

In part 1 of this blog, I listed various types of repetition that will be familiar to you and others that may not be. In this offering, I’ll be looking at examples of how you might get your pupils to use some of these complex terms, and will explain why I think it’s a good idea to do so.

Let’s start by looking at a famous passage, from Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh, that contains repetition:

‘Choose a life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a big fucking television. Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers… Choose DIY and wondering who the fuck you are on a Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows, sticking junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away in the end of it all, pishing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked up brats you spawned to replace yourself. Choose your future. Choose life… But why would I want to do a thing like that?’


A pupil well drilled in the AFOREST mnemonic will be able to easily spot the language feature of ‘repetition’. They’ll notice that the word ‘choose’ is repeated throughout the passage and will probably be able to write that ‘Welsh uses repetition to suggest the narrator’s feelings of frustration with modern life’.  Lots of English teachers will argue that that’s enough, that there’s no need to complicate matters by introducing obscure terminology. I disagree. Apart from naturally sounding more sophisticated, I contend that the different terms outlined in the previous blog allow a) greater understanding of the nature of any given repetition in a text and b) more chance of insight into the context.

And context is key with language features. How many times have you been asked by a pupil about the purpose of a rhetorical question or alliteration? I used to be guilty of waffling on vaguely on about ‘making the reader think’ or ‘speeding up the rhythm’ but now I just explain that it is totally dependent on the context of the example. This can be explained to some extent by the background skills vs knowledge debate: we can all stick up posters that tell our pupils what a metaphor is and teach the generic skill of spotting them, but only when we get them to truly understand the specific usage in a text can they usefully analyse the use of that device.  So, let’s have a go at applying something more complex and teasing out the context a bit further:

The use of anaphora places emphasis on the opening to sentences. Therefore, the writer is encouraging the reader to pay particular attention to the beginning of each sentence/clause/line. This is a deliberate choice, of course. Rather than just repeat the word (or group of words), as the label ‘repetition’ would imply, they are very much accentuating the initial lexical choice. In this instance, Welsh chooses to place the verb ‘choose’ at the start for the following reasons:

  1. It highlights the fact that, before anything – big or small – can be achieved, first we have to make a decision
  2. It conveys the unrelenting pressure to make those decisions
  3. It makes each sentence an imperative; there is the paradox that we are being instructed to choose
  4. The options that follow the choice become increasingly less appealing. Yet, the primacy of the verb leaves us hammered into still feeling like we must select something
  5. The continual use of anaphora reflects the desire to choose ‘objects’ to possess. This gets to the heart of Welsh’s anti-consumerist, anti-capitalist, anti-conformist message. For the author/narrator, our choices are anything but: we have been brainwashed into automatically – the anaphora illustrating it is literally the first thing we think of – into yearning to choose something to have
  6. ‘Choose life’ was a 1980s anti-drug slogan. Welsh subverts it by using the initial verb as a springboard for each other decision about our existence.

You’ll also notice that the extract uses anaphora in a circular manner. In this case, it’s an example of commoratio (returning to the strongest argument). Switching the initially optimistic imperative into a nihilistic rhetorical question nails down the existential angst of the narrator. This rhetorical question isn’t just making the reader think, it’s making the reader question their worldview and ultimately the futility of our existence.

Let’s look at another example, from Othello, of where using the specific term – epizeuxis this time – makes the analysis more precise:

‘Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is tupping your white ewe. Arise, arise!’

Shakespeare’s use of epizeuxis  ‘now, now, very now’ could be interpreted in the following ways:

  • the use of successive ‘now’s emphasises the terrible immediacy of the situation (Othello seemingly taking advantage of Brabantio’s daughter): it is literally happening as we speak
  • By placing these words next to each other it also (apologies for the indelicacy here but Shakespeare wouldn’t mind) implies the penetrative nature of the words going into Brabantio’s head and mirroring the sexual act – Stockhausen’s ‘body rhythms’ taking place.
  • The third ‘now’ is actually diacopic, adding emotional intensity and prolonging the telling of the awful rumour. The intervening adverb ‘very’ amplifies the sense of urgency and futility that the father feels.
  • The epizeuxis of ‘arise, arise!’ acts as an imploring coda, a passionate call to action that wouldn’t have the same affect if spaced out.

I hope by now that you’re starting to feel that there may be something in this. I fancy the challenge, you’re thinking, but how should I teach these terms practically? My advice:

  1. Don’t try and introduce them all in one go. Giving them a long list and getting them to find examples of each in passages is a bad idea. They’ll be overwhelmed and likely to start saying ‘this is the one where it’s at the end and the beginning but I don;t know what it’s called’. Do no more than three at a time, and go back to test that they’ve stuck. I’ve been teaching my Year 10s for two terms now and we’ve only covered four or five of the more complex ones.
  2. Choose the ones that will feature prominently in the literature texts you will study, preferably in your key quotes. There’s little point spending ages on obscure terms and not giving pupils the chance to apply them in context.
  3. Tell pupils not to panic if they can’t remember the term, or the correct spelling, during assessments. If in doubt, ‘repetition’ will suffice.
  4. Don’t reward pupils for merely using the term. Ideas are only sophisticated if clearly expressed. If they spot the use of symploce, say ‘so what?’ until they can explain why it’s been used in that example.
  5. Think structure as well as language analysis.  Is there a pattern, like in the Trainspotting example?
  6. Link to evaluation where possible. Is the commoratio effective or are we drifitng into homiologia?
  7. Get them to use these rhetorical devices in their own writing. That’s bloody obvious isn’t it. Isn’t it?

Thanks for reading,


Types of repetition and why you should teach them – part 1

‘Happiness is the longing for repetition.’ Milan Kundera

There are lots of different, complicated names for types of repetition. Why should English teachers bother to teach them? After all, pupils have got enough to remember in the new exams without overburdening them with other unnecessary, fancy-sounding, difficult-to-spell terms.


I’ve written before about why I think it is important to teach complex terminology.  With repetition, I  think it’s really worth the effort to go beyond using the basic idea of ‘repetition’ as a catch-all term for something that happens more than once.

In part 2 of this blog I’ll explain why, by looking at specific examples. To begin with, let’s have a look in detail at why ‘repetition’ is an unhelpfully amorphous term:

Selected types of repetition (definitions from Dr. Gideon Burton, Brigham Young University)

Repetition of words

Anaphora – Repetition of the same word or group of words at the beginning of successive clauses, sentences, or lines. (‘O night with hue so black! O night, which ever art when day is not! O night, O night, alack, alack, alack!’ A Midsummer Night’s Dream)

Anadiplosis – The repetition of the last word of one clause or sentence at the beginning of the next. (‘The general who became a slave. The slave who became a gladiator. The gladiator who defied an emperor.’ Tagline for the movie Gladiator)

Diacope – Repetition of a word with one or more between, usually to express deep feeling. (‘She wondered whether, if her chances had been different, she might have met a different man.’ Madame Bovary)

Epistrophe (also called epiphora) – Ending a series of lines, phrases, clauses, or sentences with the same word or words – the opposite of anaphora. (‘If you’re so funny/
Then why are you on your own tonight?/And if you’re so clever/Then why are you on your own tonight?/If you’re so very entertaining/Then why are you on your own tonight?’ The Smiths ‘I Know it’s over’)

Epizeuxis – Repetition of words with no others between, for vehemence or emphasis. (‘Education, education, education’ Speech by Tony Blair)

Polysyndeton (also known as syndetic listing) – Employing many conjunctions between clauses. (‘He pulled the blue plastic tarp off of him and folded it and carried it out to the grocery cart and packed it and came back with their plates and some cornmeal cakes in a plastic bag and a plastic bottle of syrup.’ The Road)

Symploce – A combination of anaphora and epistrophe. (‘Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. Where there is despair, may we bring hope’.) Mendacious speech by Thatcher.

Repetition of clauses, phrases

Isocolon – A series of similarly structured elements having the same length. A kind of parallelism. (‘What the hammer?/what the chain?/In what furnace was thy brain?’ William Blake ‘The Tyger’)

Repetition of ideas

Commoratio – Dwelling on or returning to one’s strongest argument. (‘This parrot is no more. It has ceased to be. It’s expired and gone to see its maker! This is a late parrot. It’s a stiff! Bereft of life! It rests in peace! If you hadn’t nailed it to the perch it would be pushing up the daisies! It’s run down the curtain and joined the choir invisible! This is an ex-parrot!’ Monty Python Sketch)

Homiologia – Tedious and inane repetition. (‘Today you are you! That is truer than true! There is no one alive who is you-er than you!’ Dr Seuss)

Pleonasm – Use of more words than is necessary semantically. Rhetorical repetition that is grammatically superfluous. (‘Naan bread’: ‘naan’ already means ‘bread’. We also use CIT Teams at my school, which when expanded means ‘College Improvement Team Teams’)

Repetition of letters, syllables, sounds

Alliteration – Repetition of the same sound at the beginning of two or more stressed syllables. (‘Gawain,’ said the green knight,/’By God, I’m glad/the favour I’ve called for will/fall from your fist.’ Sir Gawain and the Green Knight)

Assonance – Repetition of similar vowel sounds, preceded and followed by different consonants, in the stressed syllables of adjacent words. (‘…viddy him swim in his blood.’ A Clockwork Orange)

Consonance – The repetition of consonants in words stressed in the same place, but whose vowels differ. (‘…glazzies tight shut…’ A Clockwork Orange)

Sibilance – A more specific type of alliteration that relies on the repetition of soft consonant sounds in words to create a whooshing or hissing sound in the writing. (‘…some shivering starry grey-haired ptitsa in a shop and go smecking off with the till’s guts.’ A Clockwork Orange)

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Here’s one I made earlier: using your own creative writing as literary texts

As a trainee, I was reluctant to share my writing with pupils. Not my exemplars, they were fine. Pretending to write like a pupil, as a way of modelling good and not so good responses,  was a doddle. But using my own writing – articles from my previous life as a journalist, short stories and extracts from a novella I’d written for an MA – was a different matter. My subject mentor was adamant however that I should use some of them in class. The kids will be impressed, she insisted. Looking back now, I think I was worried about the following:

  • making myself vulnerable to abuse (I’d been given some tough, tough classes and was very much still finding my confidence in terms of behaviour management)
  • the fiction might not be of a good enough standard to share. How dare I muscle proper high quality texts out of the way with my scribblings?
  • it might be too good for them. They might feel inadequate in my godlike presence and be demoralised when asked to compose something of their own
  • they wouldn’t understand it: they’d find it too highbrow or pretentious. Even worse, they might not laugh at the bits that were meant to be funny
  • the content was too adult for them. I might upset some pupils. There may be complaints by parents

I needn’t have been so cautious. They were impressed. They were intrigued. They asked sensible, thoughtful questions. They asked to see more.

Image result for blue peter here's one i made earlier

Over the last decade or so, I’ve continued to use my own writing – opinion pieces, short stories, scripts, shopping lists – in lessons. Contrary to my initial fears, these lessons have been some of the best I’ve taught.

My favourite ever lesson used a poem I’d written for my wedding. I gave it to the class as an unseen poem with my name removed. One pupil asked why there wasn’t a writer’s name at the bottom. ‘It’s by anonymous,’ I lied. This was high risk, of course. They might have hated it and slated it. Yet it was a gamble I was willing to take: they were a collection of lovely, polite (albeit very opinionated) pupils and I didn’t want them to feel obliged to say nice things to protect my feelings. Surprisingly for ones so young, they quickly understood the sentiments of the poem. They also spotted things that I hadn’t consciously thought about during the creation. It was quite moving actually.

This week  I shared a poem I’d written recently with my Year 12s:


Wrapped around the slanted lamppost,

embossed by a sign that reads

7 miles from home.


Snared around the resurrected lamppost,

pressed dry by wind and diesel breath.

Each time I speed by, outraged:

cut off in bloom; allowed to brown, now

bandaged in a pink cellophane shroud.


I stop, one day, read a mildewed note

‘To Lily, our precious girl.

Forever growing in our hearts.’

Wilted stems offend no more –

neglect seems like the only course,

while green stalks persist in distant minds.

The poem was bespoke, written after struggling to find something suitable to go with the one we were studying. It worked a treat. As some of this class were wise to my old ‘anonymous’ routine, I adopted the pseudonym Tom R. Barkers, an anagram of my name. The class enjoyed the daft trick and provoked sophisticated, nuanced interpretations of my amateur offering. One pupil sheepishly told me it was his favourite poem ‘of all the ones we’d been studying’. This was a nice touch but we had just done ‘Tissue’ so anything else was bound to be an improvement.

Previously, I shared the opening to a short story with my Year 11 after they’d been pestering me to show them some of my fiction. Instead of just reading it, I set it as a ‘literary’ extract for GCSE language Paper 1:

Source A

 This is the opening extract to a 2005 short story by Mark Roberts, which tells the story of a dog’s dislike for his owner.  In this scene the main character is describing his relationship and daily routines.

 The Captive of Camberwell

 A dignified temperament and awareness of the need for sycophancy prevents one from showing one’s true nature.  Take today for instance: what does she feed me? Chicken and liver in unspecified meat gravy.  Despite having no access to calendars and the television not yet being switched on, I know that today is a Thursday.  How?  Because, as sure as unkind winter follows indifferent autumn, one’s diet is also cyclical and unchanging: Monday rabbit, Tuesday beef, Wednesday lamb… I shall not bore you with the rest of the week, suffice to say that each day brings a meal made of dubious meat, which remains cylindrical despite the sickening wobble it performs as it is shaken from the tin. This form of dietary torture, a recipe only for heartburn and irritable bowel syndrome, is exacerbated by the following familiar scene.

‘Tyke? Tykey! Dinner’s ready.’

I feign enthusiasm and skip mechanically towards the scene of the crime, licking my lips with a sarcastic air that I’m confident she is too moronic to notice.

‘Tykey boy loves his din-dins doesn’t he?  Doesn’t he baby?’

‘No I don’t you stupid old cow.  Have you actually smelt this stuff?’

Of course, she can’t translate this comment.  She interprets my outburst as a sign of pleasure and caresses the back of my neck with her podgy, sausage-like fingers.  It sends a shiver of repulsion along the hair on my spine. I wolf it down, purely to avoid prolonging the ordeal, yet she takes this also as a sign of contentment.

‘Mummy’s going to have her din-dins now, isn’t she?  If Tykey’s a good little boy there might be some left for him.’

Now imagine if she really was my biological mother.  Picture the scene: a morbidly obese woman in her late-forties is on all fours.  Her sickeningly tight leggings are wrenched down around her knees.  The odours that might escape the confinement of the Lycra are beyond comprehension.  She is attempting to coax her theoretical mate towards his nemesis.  In order to reproduce he must first scale her vertiginous behind.  This is not easy when you are a Yorkshire terrier.

Eventually she finishes her main meal and reaches predictably for her arsenal of jam doughnuts.  Self-loathing grabs me as I realise that I look forward to the sugary delight of the dusty white powder, not to mention the sticky red goo nirvana that erupts from its core.  What sickens most is the build-up to this treat.

‘Come and give mummy a kiss.’

‘Oh god…’  I head toward her and allow her to scoop me up with her flabby palms.  She brings me to her furry upper lip and I am forced to close one’s eyes and contemplate an alternative target: the hot little Jack Russell from the park; a muddy puddle; anything to take one’s mind from the task at hand.  As a result I lick wildly, catching her nose, cheeks and chins as well as the syrupy bliss. She squirms with pleasure and drops me to the ground gently.  I head back to my basket feeling like a crack whore, satisfied but forever soiled.


sycophancy – pretending to like someone to get something out of it

vertiginous – extremely steep

nirvana – an ideal or perfect place

Despite the challenging vocab  and disturbing content (‘you’re not right in the head, sir’) another very successful lesson.

Beyond the apparent ego trip – and let’s be honest here, this is a rare occasion when you’ve got a captive audience to read your fiction – here’s why I think sharing your own work is a good idea:

  1. It’s a brilliant way into the structure question (Q3 on AQA). The writer (you) gets to explain the decision to begin in media res,  use flashback devices, adopt the second person, use particular spatial shifts etc. The benefit of gaining insight to the deliberate nature of the construction process cannot be underestimated
  2. The same goes for evaluation (Q4 on AQA). Why did the writer chose that name? What was intended by describing the character in that way? Why use such a mocking tone at a seemingly tragic juncture? Let’s ask the writer. S/he’s here!
  3. It allows pupils the opportunity to develop critical evaluation skills in a safe environment. It’s hard to find fault with Heller’s opening to Catch 22 but much less so when the teacher has said, this isn’t perfect, I’m not 100% happy with it. What could I have done better here to create enigma or increase tension?
  4. With the right class, it allows you to let your guard down and be seen as a human being, not just an educator. The fiction we write says a lot about us – whether we write what we know or the opposite – and this fascinates pupils. Since using these extracts a few pupils have been far more likely to show me their writing and ask for reading recommendations from me
  5. It gets you writing more. English teachers are generally frustrated novelists or poets, who have become bogged down with writing reports, feedback, lesson resources and exemplars. I tend to find that writing poems or short stories doesn’t feel like extra work. On the contrary, it’s a valid excuse to ditch the marking for a couple more hours

Thanks for reading. Unlike my pupils, I know you don’t have to.




Ditching pronouns – analysing poetry with clarity

What’s the quickest signal to an examiner that a pupils doesn’t really understand a poem? Pronouns.  Or rather, to be more precise, overuse of pronouns. Pronouns, as I often tell my pupils, are not your friend.

Let’s look at a typical example of a pronoun-heavy analytical paragraph:

Power is presented in ‘Storm on the Island’ through the memories of the damage that nature has done. This is shown through the declarative ‘we are prepared’, which suggests that nature has a history there and that they are ready for them. The adjective ‘prepared’ implies that they are ready for the storm to come as it is a frequent occurrence there and they know natures capability for destruction. This makes the reader feel impressed with their ability to deal with a future storm because they have such powerful memories of the damage from the past.

Now some of this resembles decent analysis: focus on key words, technical terminology identified, awareness of effect on reader. But what prevents it from displaying real clarity, real understanding, real knowledge is the imprecise use of pronouns (and adverbs). You can tell that the pupils has some appreciation of the poet’s methods and the wider themes. But the vagueness and ambiguity caused by certain pronouns belies a hazy, insecure feel for the poem.

An examiner will find themselves mentally muttering the following questions:

  •  ‘This is shown…’ (What is shown?), ‘This makes…’ (What makes?)
  • ‘They are ready…’ (Who is ready? The poet? The speaker? The people on the island? The people of Ireland?)
  • ‘has a history there’ (Again, where exactly  is there?)

Another example:

In ‘Poppies’ loss of power is presented through images of separation. The metaphor ‘the gelled blackthorns of your hair’ conveys the sense of the barrier between them. The noun ‘blackthorns’ indicates the defence he has erected to keep her at bay. She feels as though she  is losing her control over him, causing the reader to feel sympathy for her plight.

Problematic pronouns:

  • them
  • he
  • her
  • she

Not being specific with the last two pronouns usually shows that the pupil is unsure whether the poem is autobiographical or not (it isn’t: Jane Weir has adopted the persona of a mother whose son is going off to war – not that you’d know from this woolly response).

This morning, I’ve marked a frustrating number of mock papers that fall into this trap. It may be a question of writing skills: pupils are perhaps just being sloppy in their explanations. I suspect otherwise. I think this is usually a tell-tale sign of a lack of revision, a giveaway that students only partially get, or half remember, the themes and ‘meaning’ of the poem. As a result, context is unsurprisingly weak and comparisons are basic at best.

So pronouns are not pupils’ friends. But they are helpful (depressingly helpful) symptoms for the teacher who is trying to work out which poems to go over again.

Thanks for reading,


Dear AQA, It’s time to talk about ‘Tissue’…

Dear AQA,

We’ve been together for a long time. For over a decade now, you’ve been a part of my life: reliable and reasonable, dependable and decent,  occasionally formidable but consistently fair. As in most relationships, there have been periods where my affection for you has waned. There have, I must admit, been times when I’ve considered leaving you. Periods when I’ve gazed with yearning at WJEC’s saucy little grade boundaries. Times when I’ve had dalliances with Cambridge and her wantonly appealing iGCSE. Days when I’ve thought I might have to get to know OCR and find out what she’s all about.  Welsh board put me off with her indifference to my advances; she went two whole weeks once without returning my calls. I left message after message. Maybe she sniffed my desperation for an answer. Cambridge, if I can speak frankly, turned out to be a big mistake. Finding out what she was up to, and getting a straight answer out of her, left me pining once again for your straightforward charms.  The walls of Kafkaesque bureaucracy she built up around her had me, and many others by the look of it, running back into your matronly embrace.  Yes, I’m sticking with you. We’re in it for the long haul. So, I am going to be honest with you; you once told me you appreciated my opinion, and I’m sure you weren’t just saying that to get me to like you more. To speak plainly, you’ve done something that’s upset me. I’m not alone by the comments that people have been saying about you behind your back. Well, I’m going to give it to you straight, as real grown ups do when their partner does something that causes them pain. It might seem like a little thing to you but, I’m sure you’ve been around the block enough times to realise that these seemingly minor things can escalate. You know the kind of thing I’m talking about: one minute your partner’s nose-picking is a mere irritant, the next thing you know you’re sleeping in separate bedrooms and muttering the d word under your breath. What is this minor crime that causing major friction then? It’s time we had a serious talk about…’Tissue’.


To those fortunate enough to be uninitiated, ‘Tissue’ is a poem by Imtiaz Dharker that features in AQA’s new Power and Conflict poetry anthology. I’m going to quote it here, in its entirety, for ease of reference. If you have a weak heart or strong aversion to very “poetic” poetry, you may want to drink some whisky or antifreeze first:


by Imtiaz Dharker

Paper that lets the light
shine through, this
is what could alter things.
Paper thinned by age or touching,
the kind you find in well-used books,
the back of the Koran, where a hand
has written in the names and histories,
who was born to whom,
the height and weight, who
died where and how, on which sepia date,
pages smoothed and stroked and turned
transparent with attention.
If buildings were paper, I might
feel their drift, see how easily
they fall away on a sigh, a shift
in the direction of the wind.
Maps too. The sun shines through
their borderlines, the marks
that rivers make, roads,
railtracks, mountainfolds,
Fine slips from grocery shops
that say how much was sold
and what was paid by credit card
might fly our lives like paper kites.
An architect could use all this,
place layer over layer, luminous
script over numbers over line,
and never wish to build again with brick
or block, but let the daylight break
through capitals and monoliths,
through the shapes that pride can make,
find a way to trace a grand design
with living tissue, raise a structure
never meant to last,
of paper smoothed and stroked
and thinned to be transparent,
turned into your skin.
Yes, my dear AQA English, it’s a poem about paper. Or rather, as BBC Bitesize artfully puts it, it’s about ‘how paper can alter things’, with paper used as an extended metaphor for life. But you already knew that didn’t you? You chose it of course. Either by group discussion (on a Monday morning after a heavy weekend, perhaps) or more likely, it was the pet favourite of the Principal Examiner. I’ve met quite a few of your principal examiners and have found them to be rational, thoughtful and thoroughly sane. How this monstrosity slipped through is quite puzzling.
What is my issue with ‘Tissue’ then? Having known me for a while, you might not be surprised to hear that I have multiple concerns. Think of them as a list of demands, screamed down a red telephone line during high stakes negotiation with an unhinged poetry extremist:
  1. It’s utterly incomprehensible. Yes, it’s clearly about paper but the extended metaphor is as shaky as a gold-miner’s sieve. I consider myself pretty decent at understanding and analysing complex ideas about poetry but this one has got me stumped. Lots of colleagues, in school and on Twitter, (some of them much cleverer than me) have admitted feeling the same. It is impossible to comprehend  (etymology: ‘grasp’ and ‘together’ and none of us can). I feel it’s my duty to tell you that others – on TES forums and eduTwitter – have been very unkind about the poem. I wouldn’t ever do that kind of thing in public, of course. Someone called it the ‘worst poem ever’. Somebody else said it was ironic that it was called ‘Tissue’ because they wouldn’t wipe a certain part of their anatomy on it. I recently bumped into a colleague in my department who was purple in the face and swearing at the wall. I thought he’d split up with his wife or had been assaulted by a child. No, he said, he’d just had to teach ‘Tissue’.
  2. It’s pseudo-profound codswallop. This is the kind of thing normally associated with juvenilia.  Deeply philosophical but totally superficial outpourings of multi-layered guff.  And I say that as someone who otherwise respects Dharker’s skill. I’ve enjoyed teaching’This Room’ and ‘The Right Word’, both complex but accessible, well-written poems that have appeared in previous AQA anthologies. Certain parts, such as ‘An architect could use all this…and never wish to build again  with brick’ are hard to read aloud with a straight face, which isn’t helpful when the audience is 26 Year 11s.
  3. Nobody knows what it means. Ok, this is pretty much the same point as one and two but in what way is paper an effective metaphor for life? It wears away and disintegrates? It gets old? No, it turns into skin: you and the paper become one. We always say poems don’t have to mean anything but we know that’s largely bollocks of course. We like them to have some sort of conclusion and message, no matter how tentative and enigmatic. This one doesn’t even tantalise, it merely mystifies, regardless of however many times you scrutinise for hidden symbolism.
  4. It’s not really a poem about Power. Or Conflict. Unless it is and I’ve missed the point (see points 1, 2 and 3).
  5. It’s too difficult for GCSE. Someone – go on, be brave – may be able to convince me that they understand what it’s about. But they still won’t be able to convince me that it’s an appropriate choice for the exam.  Especially on a new tier-free paper. In the old days you only had to subject your top pupils to ‘next to of course america i’. Now my pupils with a grade 2  forecast (not that that means anything of course) will have to steel themselves for the prospect of this Bernard Matthew’s style turkey of a poem.
  6. Is it (whisper it) perhaps something of a tokenistic gesture to get more ethnic minority voices into the anthology. I have no issue with that. You just picked the wrong poem my love. How about something like… erm… ‘The Right Word’ by Imtiaz Dharker instead?
  7. There’e no escaping it. With the choice of questions, last year’s cohort could have one Get Out of Jail Free card, to enable them to duck a poem – just one mind – that they found to be not to their liking. If this turns up as the named poem – good god, just imagine! – they have no hiding place. Those old apocryphal tales of pupils committing hari kari by ramming pencils into their eyeballs might start to come true.

But you wouldn’t do that to us, would you, my dear old AQA? This is not just the rantings of a disgruntled teacher who can’t stand a particular poem. Since time immemorial, English teachers have enjoyed whinging about certain poems they hate. Think ‘On the Train’ by Gillian Clarke. Or ‘I love to See the Summer’ by John Clare. We all have our personal bete noires. This is not what this letter is about. The poem shouldn’t be there. Someone made a mistake. We’re human: it happens. So, go on, admit you ballsed up and take action. That promiscuous rival of yours, Edexcel, did this just the other day: she admitted she’d been foolish to include 28 poems on the Poems of the Decade A level anthology and, after ‘feedback’ from her clients, hacked the collection back to a more shapely 20.

Come on, my old friend, let’s do it. I’ll stand by your side while you make the necessary arrangements.  Although, actually, you don’t have to go public on this. It’s ok for us to have our little secrets. I know it would cost a fortune to reprint and distribute new anthologies. Let’s just nod and wink, and tap our noses, and say we’ll not make it the named poem. Ever. You could put a mysteriously unexplained asterisk next to it on new editions of the anthology.That way we can all just ignore the damned thing and get on with teaching challenging but worthwhile texts like Ozymandias. We’ll go through the motions of course. We’ll teach it on a wet Wednesday in November, then forget we ever did.  Everybody wins: me and you stay together, Imtiaz Dharker gets paid, pupils’ eyeballs remain intact.

Forever yours,


UPDATE: The good natured folks at AQA English provided a humorous and, ahem, phlegmatic response to my blog. I’ve attached that below, along with my reply:

Dear Mark,

We’re not going to lie, your recent letter took us by surprise and we have to confess to being a little hurt. Yes, your eyes have wandered in the past but we have, and always will, value our long and trusted relationship. During those moments when you were tempted by those glossy offers, we reflected and did our best to step up and be the ideal companion. We’d like to think we’re continually growing and doing the best we can by offering you support and fair, quality assessment for your students. Our question papers will always be accessible and we have designed the mark schemes to reward students for what they can do, rather than penalise for what they can’t. You may call this a matronly embrace, but we call it fair.

You have been honest with us and we’d like to be honest with you. The linear GCSE English Literature is untiered and so we need to provide an anthology that contains a broad collection of poetry that will challenge the full ability range. Tissue isn’t just your 1-ply cheap option; think velvety 3-ply and you’re getting close. You’ve asked us to own up to making a mistake. We’re an honest bunch and would hold our hands up if we were in error, but we love Tissue and know of many students that do too. But isn’t that variance of interpretation and opinion one of the things that we both love about literature? Life would be boring if we all liked the same things so why not embrace that difference?

One thing’s for sure, we’re dependable as we’ve always been and we’re not going anywhere. We aren’t going to let a small difference of opinion get in the way of our flourishing relationship. We love to talk about literature and would be more than happy to arrange a time to discuss the multiple interpretations of Tissue. We don’t mean to be overly forward, but our phone number is 0161 953 7504 and our email address is if you did want to get in touch.

Forever yours,
The AQA English Curriculum Team

P.S. But more seriously, thank you for raising your concern with us. We always value feedback from teachers about how students are engaging with our choice of set texts and use it to inform the resources and support that we can develop in future.

Remember that the questions in the exam will seek to allow students of all abilities to interpret a poem like ‘Tissue’ in their own way and select evidence from it to support their own insight of the theme ‘Power and conflict’. The mark scheme does not presuppose any particular view or interpretation of a poem.


Dear  AQA English,

It was jolly good of you to get back in touch. Exam boards are not known for their sense of humour, but your heartfelt response explains why I fell for you in the first place. I’m glad that we’re on intimate terms again; time – and half-term – is a great healer. So is not having to teach ‘Tissue’ for at least a week. But I do appreciate your efforts: as the tragic travails of Kylie Minogue and Nigel Farage have made it all too painfully aware, the strongest relationships need to be worked at. I still do take issue, or take ‘Tissue’ rather, with a few of your points:

  1. You said that the aforementioned poem ‘isn’t just your 1-ply cheap option’ but is more ‘velvety 3-ply’. I must, I’m afraid, continue to demur. Rather than seeing a luxurious, deeply layered and comforting tissue, I instead perceive the thinnest and scratchiest absorbent paper known to all mankind. Think of the industrial standard bog roll that used to be found in hospitals, lunatic asylums and secondary school toilets in the 1980s.
  2. Despite my desperate pleas for reason, you insist that you ‘love Tissue and know of many students that do too’. I understand why you feel the need to defend the honour of ‘Tissue’ – once you’ve invited it into the family, as with racist brothers-in-law and little puppies that defecate all over the carpet, you feel obliged to stick by it. But please don’t drag the innocent children into this too. I’ve yet to find a pupil who hasn’t physically recoiled after encountering ‘Tissue’ and am shocked that you claim to have unearthed ‘many’ that are fond of the monstrosity. Who exactly are these students? Please produce examples of their work and sworn affidavits that they weren’t paid to knock out a couple of PEA paragraphs.
  3. Life would indeed ‘be boring if we all liked the same things’. As I said in the original blog, however, this one’s not about personal preference. I’ve taught many a stinker over the years but this transcends whether I like it as an individual. It’s not going to allow pupils ‘of all abilities’ to access it. It doesn’t fit in with the rest of the cluster. It ultimately lacks genuine meaning. If it was just me, I would have received plenty of stick for my blog. English teachers on Twitter are not shy at coming forward to lambast idiots who slag off quality pieces of work. I’ve copped my fair share at times, usually with good reason. Yet, the English teaching public have spoken: it’s not exactly scientific but you’ll have noticed that the blog attracted many comments on Twitter. Over a hundred in fact, which is a decent sample (as well as over 2500 views of the blog itself). Apart from 4 masochistic souls, all of them were united in their strong aversion to the text. There was a near consensus: not only is it a bad poem, it will strongly disadvantage lower ability candidates should it, god help us, appear as the named poem.  You end by reminding me that ‘the mark scheme does not presuppose any particular view or interpretation of a poem’. It will be interesting to see if any pupils, given that their teachers are genuinely flummoxed, can come up with any view or interpretation of the poem.

It was good to hear from you. Do keep in touch. The next time we meet though, let’s perhaps not talk about ‘Tissue’. The hurt may be too much. I may cry. Just in case, you bring the Kleenex and I’ll bring a 100% cotton handkerchief.

Yours with affection,