Simplify explanations to maximise understanding

We English teachers have thought a lot about words. Thousands of hours have gone into reading, writing and thinking about them. Sometimes they come out of our mouths and sound impressive. Occasionally, they come out in the wrong context and sound ridiculous (or is that just me?) In this post, I want to specifically consider how we use this dazzling hoard of words with our students, both in written resources and verbal explanations.

While we obviously want to expose our students to new vocabulary and challenge them to expand their repertoire, as I’ve written about here, teaching new words well needs careful consideration. Throwing many new and complex words at students without thorough explanation and multiple revisits will not transform their vocabularies. Many students do not learn by osmosis; they need to practise and recall words they have learned to embed them in their long-term memories. Students may well be able to grasp the vague meaning of words through context, but I would argue that using overly complex phrasing in our written and verbal explanations too early can confuse meaning and obscure learning. A high challenge, knowledge-rich curriculum can easily become too high-level too quickly without careful thought. I’m particularly interested in KS3 and how we can get the basics right to promote deep understanding of the ideas in literature.

Take this written explanation of the poem Ozymandias. Imagine this is the first time you are introducing the poem to the class:

Ozymandias is about the transience of human power. In his unusual sonnet, Shelley explores the fall of a tyrannical Ancient Egyptian ruler whose dictatorial cruelty becomes ephemeral when compared with time and nature.

 Shelley explores this idea through the decaying statue of the pharaoh which was erected during his lifetime and neglected after his death.

It is likely that even the highest ability students would struggle with some of these words. You could gloss ‘transience’, ‘ephemeral’, ‘tyrannical’ and ‘dictatorial’ but it would take much more time to understand the basic meaning of the poem.

Now consider this explanation:

Ozymandias is about the idea that time and nature will always be more powerful than humans. This is because all humans eventually die, even very powerful humans like kings or queens.

Shelley’s poem uses the example of a powerful Ancient Egyptian ruler. He was very cruel during his lifetime.

 A a huge statue of him was made to celebrate his greatness. The poem shows that, after he dies, the statue is completely forgotten. It rots away with time.

This second version is very simple. Almost too simple. But it guarantees a basic understanding before proceeding further. I would definitely want to teach the concepts of ‘transience’ and ‘tyranny’ later, but until the students understand the basic meaning of the poem, they will tread a much thornier path into deep analysis of its ideas.

Let’s consider another AQA anthology poem: The Emigrée. Imagine you are verbally introducing it to your students before they delve in.

Explanation 1:

The Emigrée is about a female emigrant who feels displaced. She was born and raised in a country that she feels a great sense of loyalty to, but one that is ravaged by war. Because of the conflict, she had to emigrate somewhere new but now longs for her original home while feeling marginalised in her new society.

Explanation 2:

The Emigrée is about a woman who had to move to a new country. This is because the country she grew up in became dangerous with war. The poem shows how difficult this is for her. She really loves her home country and feels out of place and bullied in her new home.

Even with the highest ability students, I would want to use the second explanation as a starting point before examining the poem closely. First and foremost, I want every student in the room to completely grasp the basic meaning of the poem. Paradoxically, starting with explanation 2, in my opinion, is more likely to help students to eventually articulate themselves in an ‘explanation 1’ fashion.

Nowhere is this idea more important than in teaching Shakespeare. Giving a simply-worded explanation of the play before they read it, or a basic overview of the complex scene before they study it, is crucial to giving every student in the room a chance of understanding it deeply.

Here is a checklist that I find useful when editing written or verbal pre-planned explanations, particularly with regard to introducing a topic for the first time:

Simplifying explanations

I am not in any way suggesting that everything we teach students should be over-simplified, or that vocabulary doesn’t matter. But I do wonder if, as English experts, we sometimes try to expose students to too much, too early. What do you think?


When did we become obsessed with language techniques?

Is teaching too many techniques too early obscuring meaning?

Knowing how geeky I am about education, a friend of mine recently gave me a dusty copy of her GCSE poetry anthology. Reading through her thorough annotations was revealing: she had not labelled a single language device. Not one. All she had done was expertly tease apart the words used by the poet and make extensive notes on the implications of those words, as well as the images created by them. Word choice. Implications. Image created. Not a mere mention of anaphora, of onomatopoeia, of a tricolon. Nowhere did she remark on the assonance or the alliteration found in a line. There wasn’t even mention of a metaphor. In her annotated poems, it was evident that she understood the idea of metaphorical language implicitly – that the poem, by default, was to be read as a figurative work of art that should be peeled to reveal layers upon layers of deeper meaning.

I am not saying that understanding the devices isn’t a useful tool in the box of literary analysis. But our insistence on teaching students technique after technique too early can have an illusory effect, hindering deep understanding and shrouding meaning. I have found that, when taught a long list of techniques as a starting point, students can become skilled in remembering definitions of them and spotting examples in poems, but often find it hard to come up with an insightful explanation for why that device is being used. E.g. “The alliteration in the words ‘Lone and level’ emphasises the idea that the statue is by itself in the desert.” Hmmm.

Perhaps this difficulty comes partly from not focusing first and foremost on the words chosen by the poet and the many possible interpretations of those words. I have written on expert blindness before; it is worth us remembering that even understanding the literal meaning of a line in a poem can be a challenge for some of our students. As experts in artful analysis, it is so easy to forget this. Paraphrasing the literal meaning of a line is a really useful place to start, before delving into the deeper ideas implied by the poet.

If students are to understand and analyse poetry well, are these the things they need to master first?

  1. That poems are not always literal; many lines have a deeper meaning to them, or a message that the poet is trying to carefully convey through every word choice.
  2. That a line is not a sentence. Students need to know that the idea does not necessarily stop at the end of a line and be taught this explicitly.
  3. All words have implications or, if you prefer, connotations. E.g. ‘sneer’ in Ozymandias. You can get so much out of that one word. ‘Sneer’ makes us think that the pharaoh has a nasty look on his face, but also that he somehow feels superior, like he is mocking his own people and laughing at them.
  4. All words create images in the reader’s mind. ‘Sneer’ creates the image of a cruel, heartless ruler who mocks his own people.

In my dream poetry curriculum, I think I would have students focus solely on the above before beginning to think about the effects of key devices, or how structural choices may reflect the ideas of the poem. I wonder if this approach would help students to understand and love poetry as deeply as we do. What do you think?



Live modelling with ‘everybody writes’

Live modelling is difficult but powerful in English teaching. Students can see your thought process playing out in front of them: ‘That word isn’t quite right there,’ [deletes word] – ‘this word works better because…’ Live modelling shows students how to transform abstract ideas into a coherent whole.

The questions my department has been asking are:

  1. How can we make live modelling a consistent part of our English teaching?
  2. How can we ensure that students are not passive during a live modelling demo?
  3. How can we get every student actively involved in the process?

I’ll blog about sentence-level live models another time, but here I want to focus on paragraphs and a method we have been experimenting with.

Firstly, I should say that we use The Writing Revolution’s single paragraph outline strategies when planning a paragraph: topic sentence and supporting details. We believe that this gives much more freedom than constraining PEE or PEELAC structures, because it is entirely content driven. The topic sentence states the main idea or argument of the paragraph and the supporting details are all the ideas, quotations, contextual points (or whatever is relevant to the content) to illustrate it. Here’s an example of a paragraph plan for Romeo and Juliet, Act 3 Scene 2. We came up with this one as a class, but students are able to do this on their own because we’ve modelled how to plan so many times.

Question: How does Shakespeare present Juliet in this scene?

Topic sentence:In this scene, Shakespeare presents Juliet as conflicted between her loyalties to her family, the Capulets, and her husband, Romeo.

Supporting details [just in note-form]

  • ‘Dove-feather’d raven!’ – oxymoron – conflicted
  • ‘Shall I speak ill of him that is my husband?’ – chooses R over T
  • ‘One word banished hath slain ten thousand Tybalts’ – hyperbolic – loyalty changed – devastated – shocking for audience

Concluding sentences [sum up ideas in paragraph and think about why Shakespeare presents her this way]: Perhaps, through Juliet’s extreme outbursts, Shakespeare is further emphasising the idea that passion and love can override all other emotions.

Imagine we have got to the point in the lesson when this paragraph is planned, as above. We would have the plan projected on to the screen, on a word document. [Note: generally, I find typing works best for live modelling. Writing on the board is slower and stops you from keeping an eye on behaviour. Visualisers are great, but don’t allow such speedy or clear edits.]

Displaying the plan on a word document, I would highlight the first supporting detail and ask all students to have a go at writing it up into a sentence or two, keeping the when/who/what/how/why sentence expansion questions in mind (I might even put these questions up somewhere if the group needs the reminder). I would give them a few minutes, and I would ask them to do this somewhere which is designated for rough notes: the back of the exercise book, for instance. This is so that, when it comes to writing up the paragraph properly later, they aren’t just copying up the notes from before.

While students write up the supporting detail note into full sentences, I would circulate the room looking for good examples and not-so-good examples. I would use this opportunity to note misconceptions to address with the class during modelling. Then, I would bring the class back together and choose someone to share their sentence with the class. You can choose someone at random, or you can be more strategic based on your class circulation. I would type up the exact sentence(s) the student reads out, and then everyone would read it on the board. At this point, it’s really important that students aren’t scribbling down all your suggestions or splitting their attention. They’ve got to be focused solely on the board while you play with the sentence and make it better, talking through your thought process. You might narrate the improvement of one yourself or take suggestions from the class so that it is a group effort. You might mix it up. We tend to keep the ‘I do, we do, you do’ model in mind.

You would then repeat the process with each of the supporting details, until you have formulated an excellent paragraph on the board, with the help of the entire class. Crucially, at every step of the way, students have had a go at writing each bit and then watch as an example from the class is transformed into something better. Then, they’re ready to try the whole thing on their own from scratch. See below for the model that my year 10s and I wrote as a class, based on the plan above.

This is just one way of live modelling, but we are finding it very useful. Here’s the breakdown of the paragraph modelling process before they write one completely on their own.

  1. Draft: everybody writes a sentence
  2. Display: ask for a sentence from the class
  3. Redraft: improve the sentence while all students watch


  1. Draft: everybody writes another sentence
  2. Display: ask for a sentence from the class
  3. Redraft: improve the sentence with class input

Hope this is useful! Let me know what you think.

The paragraph that we wrote as a class:

In this scene, Shakespeare presents Juliet as conflicted between her loyalties to her family, the Capulets, and her husband, Romeo. When Juliet hears about Tybalt’s murder, Juliet uses the oxymoron, ‘Dove-feather’d raven!’ to describe Romeo, demonstrating her confused feelings. On the one hand, she believes Romeo to be a ‘dove’, a bird which symbolises peace and innocence. On the other, she now sees him as a murderous ‘raven’ who has been hiding his true, violent identity. This exposes to the audience that Juliet no longer knows how to view the man she loves. However, when the nurse criticises him, Juliet responds with the rhetorical question, ‘Shall I speak ill of him that is my husband?’ It is evident that, while she disapproves of Romeo’s actions, she feels loyalty to him. By the end of the extract, Juliet exclaims, ‘One word banished hath slain ten thousand Tybalts.’ This hyperbolic statement illustrates just how important her new husband has become to her. An Elizabethan audience might have been shocked by this change of allegiance because family loyalty was expected and a daughter, in particular, should have demonstrated subservience. This scene demonstrates Juliet’s courage because she is rebellious enough to put a man she has only known for a few days over her own family. Perhaps, through Juliet’s extreme outbursts, Shakespeare is further emphasising the idea that passion and love can override all other emotions.

edu game its

The teacher-student empathy gap: overcoming it with over-learning  

verb image

I have discussed expert blindness in a previous post, and how we teachers can easily succumb to its alluring hold. Lately, I have been thinking a lot about a closely related topic: the teacher-student empathy gap in the classroom. As English teachers, often with a wealth of subject expertise, it can be tempting to impart our nuggets of literary wisdom whenever an opportunity presents itself. However, empathising with how complex and overloading that can be for students is critical in order for a lot of learning to happen.

Rather than throwing stuff at them and ‘seeing what sticks,’ or seeking opportunities to dazzle students with our own knowledge, we must carefully craft lessons around consolidation of prior knowledge, precise instruction, modelling and deliberate practice in order to narrow the empathy gap. Rather than teaching them everything we know, they need to over-learn what is most important. Disclaimer: that isn’t to say that you should reduce your subject down to the bare bones of exam content for five years. But it is important that students spend most time on understanding the core of the subject. You cannot build on crumbly foundations.

Should you be teaching all the rhetorical devices if students have not really mastered the idea of figurative language/metaphor? Should you teach Aristotle’s peripeteia if students aren’t entirely clear on the conflicts between the characters in the play? While I am a huge believer in high challenge and cultural capital for all, I am also more and more convinced that this approach can be overloading and riddled with expert blindness if it is not designed with a long-term, gradual mastery approach in mind.

A recent CPD session at my school focused on these four things that the human mind struggles with:

  1. Overload– our working memory is easily encumbered.
  2. Abstraction– it’s hard for students to grasp abstract ideas.
  3. Forgetting– within 1 day, students forget most of the new content they have learned.
  4. Transfer– applying knowledge to new challenges is especially hard for novices.

So, how do we overcome these things and reduce the teacher-student empathy gap and expert blindness? The following broad suggestions are ideas that my English department is thinking about. I’d like to explore each in depth over the coming months in more precise, targeted blogposts.

  • Simplify and clarify explanations.
  • Use precise examples (and lots of them!) every time we teach a new concept and ‘bad’/ ‘non’-examples too.
  • Break tasks down into component parts and practise each chunk.
  • Plan ahead by selecting the priority content that must be mastered, and the ‘fingertip’ or ‘hinterland’ knowledge that enhances understanding.
  • Over-learn the most important and transferable knowledge in each unit.
  • Minimise distractions, both in the classroom (displays etc.) and in the lesson content. For instance, when talking through a new concept, consider having an image on the board that enhances understanding rather than a dense chunk of text.

As ever, let me know what you think!

Strict AND warm


As a collective, we have been discussing ‘warm-strict’ and its variations for ages, yet it’s one of the hardest things to actually obtain in our teaching. In many schools, staff seem to fall on either side of the partition.

When I first started teaching, after a totally teenager-free world in journalism, I was frequently told I was a little too ‘Miss Honey.’ In other words: too smiley and soft. Not tough enough. I worked hard to get tougher. I focused most on my voice (making it firmer and louder), my posture (looking more confident and authoritative) and even smiled a little less. While this invaluable feedback definitely improved my presence, I have learned that smiling less is never a good idea. The adage ‘don’t smile until Christmas’ is not the right advice. Let’s coin a new saying: ‘The tougher you are, the more you should smile.’

One of the teachers I have learned most from, Charter’s headmaster Barry Smith who I worked with at Michaela, is remarkable precisely because he is the warmest/strictest teacher I have ever encountered. To him, teaching involves a degree of acting: being ‘big’, being ‘on’, being larger than life and ready for jovial, positive interactions at every turn, even if you’re knackered and crawling to that time of year where you would prefer to be drinking gin alone in a dark room. This larger-than-life positivity is hard, but really important. [Side note: this is why teachers need so much sleep.] [Second side note: visit Charter if you can for an amazing demonstration of warm-strict in action.]

I also think teaching is about authenticity as much as it is about persona. Teenagers can sniff out disingenuousness; they’ve got to know that you actually do care about and value them. This means asking them questions, getting to know them, remembering the small details and checking in when you know things are hard. ‘Checking in’ is entirely distinct from letting them off.

This flood of positivity and warmth is absolutely necessary when you’ve got high expectations and unshakeable boundaries, but let’s face it: it’s really hard to do both well. Those who do are the teachers, I believe, who get the most out of students. You don’t want a student to behave and work hard just because they fear you; you want students to behave and work hard because they respect and, crucially, trust and know that you care about them. You want them to enjoy being in your classroom – not because you’re making it ‘fun’ with pointless activities that try to engage them, but because a) your expectations create a focused environment which allows them to feel successful in your subject and b) they are happy to be in the warm, positive atmosphere that you have created.

In my school, Jane Austen, we focused on positivity in a recent CPD session and thought about practical ways to inject more warmth into the school building. Here are some takeaways:

1. If you have a merit/demerit system, try to give out five times as many ‘merits’ as negative consequences.

2. Fill the corridors with positive teachers who greet all passing students with a ‘hello’ or ‘good afternoon.’

3. Use corridors and break times to have interactions with students that build relationships. Teachers could: test them on their subject using recall questions, ask what they have learned today, ask how their weekends were, ask about hobbies, ask what they are reading, recommend books etc.

4. Don’t relax your expectations, but relax your persona: have a laugh with your students, have in-jokes, laugh at yourself. That doesn’t make you weak or ‘too warm’. It makes you human and the stricter you are, the warmer you need to be.

5. Praise students on their successes whenever you see them: ‘Great to see that you’re the top house point scorer in form 10K Annabelle!’ Or ‘I called your mum yesterday to let her know about your amazing quiz result. Well done!’

6. If you know a student’s name: use it! If you don’t: try to learn it by asking them and testing yourself next time you see them.

7. Encourage students’ smartness by praising smart uniform.

8. If a student has been absent, always tell them how great it is to have them back.

9. Email heads of year/ assistant heads of year/ tutors with praise to pass on to individual students or whole classes.

10. Even if you’re correcting something – an untucked shirt for example – frame it positively. ‘We want you to look nice and smart.’

Let me know what you think, and if you have any more ideas!

The Writing Revolution in the classroom: post 4

Before I discuss the planning and writing of paragraphs, something that The Writing Revolution has utterly transformed for me, I’d like to write about one more sentence-level activity that we have been using.

Have you ever taught students who don’t know where to begin with a sentence? Students who have contributed verbally during a lesson but clam up when it comes to writing their ideas down? Perhaps you have students who are good at starting, particularly with the aid of a well-crafted sentence starter, but never seem to get all the important information in. They might end up describing what has happened in a text rather than explaining why. As we all know, writing is a complex beast, and one that’s really hard to teach because of all the moving parts we, and the students, have to juggle.

Along with the activities I have previously discussed, my department has been using TWR’s sentence expansion activities across year groups in an attempt to improve writing. It is a simple but effective idea: give your students a short sentence/statement about the text and follow it with a combination of who/when/what/how/why questions for them to answer in note form. You don’t have to use all of the questions; it depends on the sentence required.

An example:

You have just read Romeo and Juliet’s Act One prologue with your students. You present them with this:

(Short sentence) He makes clear that Romeo and Juliet are fated to death.


When? ………………..


You teach students to fill these out in note-form. This is what you might expect:

(Short sentence) He makes clear that Romeo and Juliet are fated to death.

Who? Shakespeare

When? opening prologue

How? lovers = ‘star-crossed’ & ‘death-marked’

Then, they use their notes to create an expanded sentence:

Expanded sentence:In the opening prologue, Shakespeare makes clear that Romeo and Juliet are fated to death by describing the lovers as ‘star-crossed’ and ‘death-marked’.

As with all of the activities, it is crucial to model them lots for students at first: both with live modelling and a worked example.

To start with, we drill the students in a couple of things:

  • Unless you’re discussing a character, ‘who’ is always the author of the text. This helps students to get used to writing about the author as the person behind a story, deliberately making decisions – something that kids all over the country struggle with.
  • If there is a ‘when’ section, always start your sentence with the ‘when’ bit followed by a comma – this helps students to get into the habit of writing complex sentences.
  • Use the word ‘by’ before explaining how an author did something.

More examples:

To Kill a Mockingbird

She presents the ladies as stereotypical Southern Belles.

Who? Harper Lee

How? ‘fragile pastel prints’

Why? Dainty, delicate

Expanded sentence: Harper Lee presents the ladies as stereotypical Southern Belles by describing their clothing as ‘fragile’ and ‘pastel’, which suggests that they are dainty and delicate.

Your turn: (use a different example)

She presents the ladies as stereotypical women.




Expanded sentence: ______________________________________

Oliver Twist

These examples encourage them to write two sentences.

How does Dickens present Nancy? Use the two extracts we have just read.

He presents Nancy as the victim of a miserable life.

Who? Dickens

When? chapter 40

How? ‘bad and wretched’

Why? ‘fallen women’ – difficult life – Victorian London — you can put this ‘why’ part into a second sentence, like the example below.

Expanded sentences: In chapter 40, Dickens presents Nancy as the victim of a miserable life by having her describe herself as ‘bad and wretched.’ Dickens wants to show how difficult life could be for fallen women like Nancy in Victorian London, who have to turn to crime and prostitution to survive.

He presents Nancy as the victim of a miserable life.


When? ………………..

How? ………………..


Expanded sentences:__________________________________________________________________________________

He creates suspense

Who? Dickens

When? chapter 44

How? Bell ‘tolled for the death’

Why? to reveal fear of being caught —you can put this ‘why’ part into a second sentence, like the example below.

Expanded sentences: In chapter 44, Dickens creates suspense by describing St. Paul’s Cathedral bell tolling for ‘the death of another day.’ He uses the word ‘death’ to hint at something bad happening and to reveal Nancy’s anxious and fearful state of mind as she knows there could be fatal consequences if she is caught by Fagin or Sikes.

He creates suspense.

Who? ………………..

When? ………………..

How? ………………..

Why? ………………..

Expanded sentences:__________________________________________________________________________________

If students practise answering these questions, they are simultaneously practising comprehension, summary and, perhaps most importantly, anticipation of what their essay reader will want to know. These activities teach them how to write well-crafted sentences filled with important information.

As ever, let me know what you think!

[My awesome HoD made the TKAM and Romeo & Juliet examples]



The Writing Revolution in the classroom: post 3

In this series, I’m looking at one aspect of The Writing Revolution per blogpost, and how I’m using it in the classroom. Posts 1 and 2 are here.

I’ve seen ‘because/but/so’ written about online more than any other TWR strategy and I understand why. It works so well!

The idea is that students finish the same sentence starter three different ways with the conjunctions because, but or so. This is brilliant because it requires them to think more deeply about the content and to manipulate the knowledge they have acquired. Some of our students almost scoffed when they were first introduced to it, deeming it far too easy. It quickly became apparent to them that this activity is much, much harder than it looks. Particularly finishing a sentence that contains the conjunction ‘so’.

The first time we trial it with students, we explain it in very simple terms using an obvious example. I might use something like this.

I did not hand in my English homework because my dog ate it.

I did not hand in my English homework but I did hand in my Science homework.

I did not hand in my English homework so I got a detention from my teacher.

I’d explain how the conjunctions are different.

Because shows that you are going to give a reason.

But shows a change of direction – something unexpected compared with the first part of the sentence.

So can be read like ‘as a result’ – so shows that the writer will explain the consequence of the first part of the sentence.

I’d give them an easy one to do first. E.g.

I forgot my money for lunch because

I forgot my money for lunch but

I forgot my money for lunch so

Once they’ve got it, we move on to content-based activities. Here are some examples from our resources. Obviously, the older the student or the more familiar they are with this activity, the more you can ramp up the difficulty.

Used to check comprehension of  the ‘Oliver Twist’ plot after reading a chapter


Bill Sikes tries to escape because he does not want to get caught.

Bill Sikes tries to escape but cannot immediately find a way out.

Bill Sikes tries to escape so goes through a window and climbs on to the roof.

Your turn:

Charley Bates is afraid of Sikes because______________________________________________

Charley Bates is afraid of Sikes but_________________________________________________

Charley Bates is afraid of Sikes so__________________________________________________

You’d expect responses such as:

…he brutally murdered Nancy

…courageously tries to get him caught by shouting to the angry mob.

…’retreats’ from him as soon as he sees him.

Your turn:

Nancy has a terrible life because___________________________________________________

Nancy has a terrible life but_______________________________________________________

Nancy has a terrible life so_______________________________________________________

You’d expect responses such as:

…she has always lived in poverty and has had to turn to crime.

…still appears to love her abusive husband.

…sees no hope for her future.

Used to focus on the main ideas in a poem

 This one was done by my HoD:


Duffy’s war photographer finds his work difficult because he cannot forget the memories of those he photographed.

Duffy’s war photographer finds his work difficult but knows that it is his duty to report back on the things he has seen

Duffy’s war photographer finds his work difficult so tries to impose ‘order’ on the photos in order to cope with what they contain.

Your turn:

Duffy’s war photographer feels guilty because_______________________________

Duffy’s war photographer feels guilty but____________________

Duffy’s war photographer feels guilty so_______________________

You’d expect responses such as:

…he does not help the people whose suffering he takes pictures of.

…tries to persuade himself that he is carrying out his duty.

…his hands ‘tremble’ as he develops the photographs.

A harder one for Romeo and Juliet


At the beginning of the play, Romeo sees love as a ‘madness’ and a ‘disease’ because his unrequited feelings have completely taken hold of him.

At the beginning of the play, Romeo sees love as a ‘madness’ and a ‘disease’ but completely changes the language he uses to describe love when he meets Juliet for the first time.

At the beginning of the play, Romeo sees love as a ‘madness’ and a ‘disease’ so Benvolio suggests that he forget about Rosaline and attempts to ‘examine other beauties.’

Your turn:

When he meets Juliet, Romeo compares her to a ‘holy shrine’ because___________________

When he meets Juliet, Romeo compares her to a ‘holy shrine’ but______________________

When he meets Juliet, Romeo compares her to a ‘holy shrine’ so________________

You’d expect responses such as:

…he sees her as a deity who is worthy of worship.

…he does not yet know that she is a Capulet.

…she responds with religious imagery to show that they have an immediate, strong connection.

This exercise works so well because it’s versatile, it provokes deep and critical thought that is more focused than an open-ended question (e.g. ‘Why does Romeo say love is a ‘madness’ and a ‘disease’ at the beginning of the play?’) and it provides a precise and thorough check of a student’s understanding of the topic.

It’s very important to a) complete them yourself before giving the activity to students so that you can anticipate responses and b) only do it if you are confident that they have enough knowledge about the topic to be able to complete them successfully.

As ever, please do let me know if you have any thoughts or feedback!


The Writing Revolution in the classroom: post 2

In this series, I’m going to be looking at one aspect of The Writing Revolution per blogpost, and how I’m using it in the classroom.

A couple of weeks ago, I gave some examples of how my department is using ‘fragments into sentences’ exercises that are embedded in the content. This week: paraphrasing. Before analysing the deeper meaning of a quotation, we have to ensure that students actually understand it on a literal level. This is such a crucial step, and one we often miss out because of our understandable enthusiasm for encouraging students to find meaning in literature. This is obviously most important when the language is dense (Dickens, Shakespeare etc.)

We have found paraphrasing activities to be a useful first step when looking at quotations. It encourages students to think carefully about what a writer or a character is actually saying and helps them to better articulate why it is a suitable quotation later on when planning a response.

When starting these activities for the first time, it’s useful to give students good examples and bad examples of paraphrasing. Eventually, they will be able to paraphrase something without a preamble. You might want to start with some really simple examples to introduce the concept, such as, ‘I’m absolutely starving!’ – students could paraphrase as ‘I am really hungry’ or ‘I really want to eat something.’ Then, the next step could be to embed the paraphrasing activities into the subject content as per the examples below, written by me and my HoD. Note: the students would have already read and discussed the passage that these quotations come from. These are from a written resource that students read through with the teacher, but you could also use them as a guide for explaining paraphrasing to students verbally.

Example 1

If you paraphrase someone, you express what they have said or written in a different way.

Imagine you are answering the question: How does Mr. Brownlow show his uncertainty when talking to Nancy?

This would be a good example of paraphrasing:

Mr. Brownlow asks, ‘for what purpose can you have brought us for this strange place?’

In other words, Mr. Brownlow is asking why Nancy has taken them somewhere so unusual and hidden away.

This would not be a good example of paraphrasing:

Mr. Brownlow asks, ‘for what purpose can you have brought us for this strange place?’

In other words, Mr. Brownlow is asking why Nancy is so afraid. — this isn’t what Mr. Brownlow is saying. He might be thinking it, but this is not what he is saying in this quotation.

Or Mr. Brownlow asks, ‘for what purpose can you have brought us for this strange place?’

In other words, Mr. Brownlow is asking why Nancy has brought them to a strange place. — this is too similar to the original quotation. It hasn’t been paraphrased.

Your turn: How does Nancy reply? Try to paraphrase Nancy’s words

Nancy replies by saying that she has, ‘a fear and dread upon me to-night that I can hardly stand.’

In other words, Nancy is saying__________________________________________________


Example 2

Imagine you are answering the question: How does Mercutio mock Romeo?

This would be a good example of paraphrasing:

Mercutio asks, ‘Why, is not this better now than groaning for love?

In other words, Mercutio makes the point that making jokes is better than feeling sad because of love.

This would not be a good example of paraphrasing:

Mercurio states, ‘Why, is not this better now than groaning for love?

In other words, Mercutio is saying that Romeo should forget about love.– this is implied in what he says, but this isn’t exactly what he is saying here.

Your turn: try to paraphrase Mercutio’s words:

Mercurio states, ‘drivelling love is like a great natural,that runs lolling up and down?’

In other words, Mercutio is saying_______________________________________________



The Writing Revolution in the classroom: post 1

In this series, I’m going to be looking at one aspect of The Writing Revolution per blogpost, and how I’m using it in the classroom.

PEE, PEA, PEEL, PEELAC – whatever variation you have come across, we’ve all attempted to structure students’ paragraph writing with a prescriptive template like this. For weaker students in particular, or for students with very limited time before an exam, these scaffolds are a way of ensuring that key boxes are ticked and AOs covered. Because writing is so hard, giving a rigid template helps focus students’ writing. Or does it? As many have discussed, I’m starting to see clearly that most templates, even if not quite as prescriptive as the classic PEE, box in students’ thinking in and hinder analysis.

Writing should be content-driven. It sounds so obvious, but it’s easy to forget because we are too busy making sure paragraphs fit the mould. The more a student knows about a topic, the easier they will find it to write something down. Without tools and guidance however, knowledge-rich writing often resembles word vomit: a sprawling splatter of thought projected on to a page.

I have always struggled with knowing how to get students writing well. Lower or higher ability, getting students to write accurately, clearly, analytically and in a well-structured, coherent manner is probably the English teacher’s greatest challenge.

The Writing Revolution has greatly altered my thinking on how to get students writing better. Firstly, I am now much more focused on sentence-level activities than I used to be. Secondly, I have found the single paragraph outline structure to be a really liberating planning template. (Note: that may sound like an oxymoron – but bear with me).

Activity 1: fragments and sentences

I’m sure many of you have been astonished by how many of your students, even in KS4, do not write proper sentences. They may know that a sentence is a complete thought in theory: that sentences must contain a subject and a verb. But when it comes to writing a paragraph, and they’re juggling 9486526429 moving parts, the theory behind a ‘complete sentence’ escapes them. In my English department, we have been trialling The Writing Revolution’s fragment/sentence exercises that are embedded in subject content. I like them so much because they do two things at once.

  • They show students how to recognise a fragment and how to correct it.
  • They strengthen subject knowledge.

You can use them in many ways, but I have found them most useful when checking for literal understanding of a text. For instance, when reading Oliver Twist with our year 8s, we’ll want to check for plot understanding first and foremost (Dickens’ thorny syntax ensures that first-level understanding is no easy feat). Let’s imagine you’ve just read a passage from chapter 46, in which the brutal Bill Sikes violently murders Nancy despite her pleading.

In order to check that they’ve understood the story, at the same time as improving their sentence writing, you could do a quick activity like this:

Turn these fragments into sentences

  1. is angry because
  2. murders her by
  3. hits her with
  4. tries to persuade him by

This creation of proper sentences is forcing students to cement knowledge of the who and the what – the first questions that you need to ask of a text before deeply understanding it.

You could also use activities like these to go further: to think about the how and the why. Something that is really hard to understand, arguably at any age, is the concept of irony. As the master of irony, Dickens’ Oliver Twist is a good place to introduce students to the idea. After teaching them rigorously bout Dickens’ views on society and what irony means, you could use an activity such as this one that my head of department designed to check for understanding while practising sentence writing:

Extract from Chapter Two of Oliver Twist:

Upon this, the parish authorities magnanimously and humanely resolved, that Oliver should be ‘farmed,’ or, in other words, that he should be dispatched to a branch-workhouse some three miles off, where twenty or thirty other juvenile offenders against the poor-laws, rolled about the floor all day, without the inconvenience of too much food or too much clothing, under the parental superintendence of an elderly female, who received the culprits at and for the consideration of sevenpence-halfpenny per small head per week. Sevenpence-halfpenny’s worth per week is a good round diet for a child; a great deal may be got for sevenpence-halfpenny, quite enough to overload its stomach, and make it uncomfortable. The elderly female was a woman of wisdom and experience; she knew what was good for children; and she had a very accurate perception of what was good for herself. So, she appropriated the greater part of the weekly stipend to her own use, and consigned the rising parochial generation to even a shorter allowance than was originally provided for them.

Turn these fragments into sentences to show your understanding of why Dickens wrote Oliver Twist:

  1. uses the word ‘farmed’ to suggest that poor people were treated
  2. says that there was enough to ‘_________’ a poor person’s stomach, but what he actually means is
  3. describes the workhouse authorities as ‘________’, but
  4. describes ‘too much food’ and ‘too much clothing’ as an ‘inconvenience’ but
  5. believed that the workhouse system needed to be reformed because

[Note: in the delivery of these activities, it is important to model for the students and get them practising orally first.]

As ever, I’d love to know your thoughts on the above. I’ll be looking at another activity next time.


Sampling: improving feedback, cutting workload

Feedback isn’t good feedback unless it is acted on and makes a genuine change to the quality of someone’s work. That isn’t to say that there’s a magic panacea: a piece of feedback that will take a student’s low-grade, formulaic essay to a sparkling example of intellectual pursuit. But over time, feedback that is regular, targeted and acted on will make a tremendous difference.

Many teachers argue that writing in a student’s book is important for morale and relationships – it’s a signal to the student that we are looking and investing the time. For me, the time it takes teachers to give individual written comments in students’ English books outweighs the positive impact. And what do the students do with the written comments? How can you ensure that they are specific enough that the student can ‘action’ them independently? ‘Use more sophisticated terminology’ or ‘be less vague’ is not going to help the student who, if they knew how to do that, would have done it in the first place. It’s like telling a teacher to just get better at teaching. For many of our students, writing is a struggle with so many moving parts; it’s impossible for them to pinpoint their own weaknesses.

So, what makes good feedback?

  1. Frequent*
  2. Specific
  3. Actionable
  4. Acted on

Whole-class feedback

I’m a huge advocate of whole-class feedback for two reasons: I believe it benefits students more than personalised feedback and it benefits teachers because it slashes workload. This is how I have approached whole-class feedback so far. It might be useful; it might be useless. If you have any other ideas on how to do this, I’d love to hear them. 


Firstly, I only read a sample of books each week or fortnight. So, for a class of thirty, I might read the last piece of written work from ten students and ensure that I am mixing my sample every time. For me, this cuts workload while increasing the frequency of feedback: I’m seeing the most common mistakes more often and working to solve them quickly and responsively.

do this for two reasons: firstly, so far, it seems that the most common mistakes are being made throughout the class and are unlikely to be isolated examples. Secondly, this gives me far more time to think about the type of beneficial, specific feedback I can give to ensure I’m closing the feedback loop. I also make use of the time in lessons. During silent student practice, I circulate and read students’ work, offering support and guidance where necessary and noting anything interesting under my headings (more below). I would not note down something that only one student is getting wrong – this is something to be addressed individually either during the lesson or afterwards. 


I have an exercise book with the following headings on each page: written accuracy, spellings, misconceptions, vocabulary and examples. I keep one book per class because I like to flick back and see how they’ve improved. It also reminds me of what they were struggling with last time we looked at poetry, for instance. I don’t want to lose loose sheets of paper.

Written accuracy

This is where I note down anything to do with grammar – are lots of students writing fragments? Are lots of them misusing commas? Are many of them neglecting those all-important capital letters?


Shakespear, anyone? Here, I’ll note down the most common (and most important) spellings that need to be taught and tested to automaticity. 

Content misconceptions

Are they persistently writing that Juliet is a Montague? That Oliver was born in 1812? It might be more general: are they all forgetting to tie in context to their essays? Here is the place to note down common problems. 


You can read more of my thoughts on vocabulary here. If I see a word being misused in a few students’ work, I’ll know that their grasp on it is shaky and I need to do some more work on how to use it. At the moment, I’m trying to get to the bottom of why all of my year 11s misuse the word ‘diction’, for example.


A place to collate some excellent examples to share with the class, and some good examples of a mistake in action to present to the class to demonstrate where we’re going wrong. Obviously you can tweak and anonymise these if necessary.

How to feedback

By the end of the week, I’ll have one page with notes underneath my 5 headings. Whatever is written there will inform my teaching the next week and beyond. It is a good way of collecting regular and useful information about the class.

At my school, we build in a recap of important content for the first ten minutes of every lesson. This is a good place to include quizzing that’s informed by your notes. For example, if there are 5 spellings that most of my students are often getting wrong (Shakespear, anyone?) I will make sure I give my students a catchy way to remember them and I’ll test them on those words right at the beginning of lessons until the students are getting them right. If everyone is wrongly writing that Juliet is a Montague, I’ll re-teach who’s who and make sure I’m quizzing them on it verbally and during written recaps.

There might be an issue that’s harder to solve than consistent quizzing during recaps. For example, you might need to spend a chunk of time teaching the idea of appositives in a sentence. E.g. Oliver, the vulnerable orphan, is treated unfairly by everyone he encounters.

Perhaps you taught it once, and 80% of your students are getting it wrong. Their bracketing commas are missing, their appositives have verbs aplenty: they haven’t got it as you hoped they would. Here, I might invest a bit of time planning an activity in which I re-explain what they are, show them examples, show them non-examples, and get them to write some. I might ask them to match the character with the appositive first, then to write them into full sentences, then to create their own.

All this will ultimately benefit everyone – even the 20% who were always getting it right, because over-learning to automaticity is what we’re aiming for. Yes, this takes a bit of time to plan. But I would prefer to spend planning time on an activity that I know will be of benefit than writing endless comments on their work.


*Caveat: as David Didau points out, feedback needs to be less scaffolded over time so that students don’t come to rely too heavily on teacher input and learn to struggle through their subject’s challenges independently. He notes that, ‘If teachers give too much feedback too quickly and don’t encourage their students to struggle, it hardly surprising that students would avoid taking the trouble to memorise procedures and processes.’ This is a good point, and one to keep in mind. However, the benefit of whole-class teaching of misconceptions over personalised feedback is that students don’t perhaps feel the sense of being propped up as they otherwise might.