Embedding Learning over time – Our approach

There has been much written on this topic over the last year, and I am indebted to many members of Team English for their ideas. I’d also like to acknowledge Michaela School in shaping my thinking towards how we can simplify our delivery of core content. Below are some of the decisions we have taken as a team to get to where we are at present, just a couple of months in to the ‘new system’. It may be of use to Faculties who are considering moving into this area over the next year, and, as an aspiring Assistant Head, I’d like it to demonstrate evidence of a core Teaching and Learning approach that I believe in strongly and would look to work with middle leaders to implement across a school.

Following my reading of the following books,

I presented to my team the story of Student X (who happened to be an actual student (one of mine, in fact!)

Pic B

The overall message was she had got to 16 years old, about to sit her GCSE Language exam, without being able to write a story remotely competently. I felt, collectively, as a group of teachers, we had let her down in some way. How had she got to 16 years old without things like full stops and paragraphs being automatically embedded in long term memory? Of course, it is a simplistic picture -her attitude to learning (not bad), her attendance record (quite bad), and her SPLD will have contributed, but ultimately, I felt we could and should have done more. The full blog post is here

My message centred on how, for her, core English skills and knowledge had simply not become embedded and automatic, and we discussed as a team, how we might set about addressing this area. This is what led to the strategy for ‘Embedding Learning more effectively over time’.

After the team meeting, I met with my Key Stage Coordinators to discuss our guiding principles further, and the work involved in setting it up. Laura, Rachel  and Sue Strachan in particular have been absolutely amazing in helping turn the initially daunting plan into a reality, and have provided a huge amount of wisdom, ideas, caution, enthusiasm and time, all at important points along the road! Sue made two excellent points from the offset:

  1. Some of the methods people are using already so there is nothing for anyone to be worried about.
  2. Anything we implement should not lead to more work for the team

We all agreed that we were moving in the right direction with this, and that the sheer weight of research around how students learn best pointed to the fact we need to move more fully towards a ‘recap culture’.

The philosophy is sound:  Trim down and focus more on the essentials. Consistency of message. Practise it more. Make the core stuff automatic.

I knew in order to get ownership we needed to involve the team further in as much of the process as possible. We met in small groups before the summer in gained time to decide what might go into the first unit Knowledge Organizers, and to answer any initial queries.

Below is what we arrived at as key components for the new approach:

  1. Knowledge Organisers that identify the Core information that every student should know 

This is a large task, and the 3 coordinators and myself are constructing these every six weeks for the new unit. The rationale is simple: Establishing clarity of what constitutes the vital module knowledge/skills for students and teachers. It is a process being evaluated with the team before the KO is used, as they’re being used, and at the end of them being used. Decisions made so far:

  • No differentiation. The KO material should be challenging for most. High Attainers would be expected to go beyond the KO content.
  • KS3 and Yr 9 – 1 page.    KS4 – 2 pages.
  • We’ve not arrived at a ‘definitive’ set of categories yet. Terms and Defs, Vocab, Skills, Exam Requirements are recurring, but in our Anthology one we have a mini guide to the Romantics, and in our Yr 9 one -some punctuation reminders.
  • For each poem in the Anthology, we have identified an overview statement, 3 context points, and 4-5 quotes to be learned.
  • Definitions need to be useful to our subject and collectively agreed. e.g. we can probably refine the dictionary definition of ‘analysis’ for our ends. Some definitions are overly complex/unhelpful.
  • Quotes / Terms/Vocab must be explicitly taught in the lessons. If teachers do not see the use of something, a case is made and it comes out in the drafting stage. KOs must be the distilled knowledge of lessons, NOT a bolt-on with terms the teacher never uses in class.


    2. Identify a Quiz that can test KO learning easily, effectively and provide next steps for teachers/students 

Googleforms has been fantastic for us here. Sue researched this for us and has come up with a winner. Decisions made so far: We create a quiz that tests samples of different sections of the KO sheet.

  • Use Multiple choice questions. Don’t make them too easy.
  • We copy the quiz and send the link to each teacher for onward sending to their class.
  • The quiz takes 15 mins for students who do it in a computer room at the end for the module, following the main assessment.
  • The summary info gives the teacher an ‘at a glance’ guide to how each student did, the 2 worst score questions for the class, and a class percentage correct for each question.
  • TEACHER ACTION – The teacher can then use this info to re-teach any area where the majority of students didn’t get the right answers.
  • STUDENT ACTION -The teacher can also send the quiz results back to the student for them to re-learn areas as part of their next homework.
  • RE-QUIZ at later date in year as part of interleaved recap lesson (See Point 4)


3. Create a Quiz that uses a selection of information from KOs during the year to assess overall knowledge acquired.

We hope to use Googleforms again to get a sense of how successful we have been in helping students retain information over the course of the year. We plan to have one of these midway through Year 11. Action steps will be taken from these results -TBC.

4. Create Year Overviews that interleave recap lessons from older units and previous years.


You’ll see here that our first Yr 7 Unit -‘The Novel’ has the skills and knowledge revisited in a lesson in Yr 7 Module 2, Year 7 Module 4, and Year 8 Module 4 with increasing gaps. This is characteristic of our approach across all years. One lesson alone won’t ‘bring it all back’, but together with the other steps in place, it certainly helps refresh and remind.

5. KS4 Revision Weeks

Self explanatory. We have expanded here and built in a revision week before Xmas in Year 10, a revision fortnight in April of Year 10, a revision week just after Xmas in Year 11, and 5 weeks at the end of Year 11.

6. The use of starters to recap prior learning and accompanying activities based on knowledge of how students learn effectively -via low stakes quizzes, mcq, first letter recall, clues. 

I am convinced that the most effective plenary is the one that comes at the start of the next lesson, and we are using all starters in all years to recap core current module KO information in the form of a short quiz/activity. This starter may also be used to provide a short separate recap on a previous unit -particularly useful at KS4.

Here are some methods of challenging students in this way: MCQ, first letter recall prompts, quotes with missing words. Whilst open tasks such as a character mind-map can be useful, generally, closed questions on anything from exam timings to which characters link best to a key theme, will work best in the limited time you have for starters, to clarify for the students vital info you want to embed in their long term memories.

7. The use of homework to focus almost exclusively on KO learning and Target Work

Homework now increasingly offers students time/opportunities to learn sections of their KO. This is vital consolidation work to go alongside extended writing or reading practice. DIRT time can now be extended into homework usefully to further give students chance to reflect on and act on teacher feedback.

8. The use of fortnightly KO-Pause lessons to recap understanding of current unit, take time out to reflect, and make explicit links to other units. 

Every fortnight in KS4, we are recommending teachers take a lesson to ‘pause’ and go over key learning points from the last 8 lessons, checking students’ understanding of KO skills/knowledge, and offering chance for all to reflect on the steps they have taken so far. Current feedback is that half a lesson is probably enough for this, with all the other embedding learning steps going on, otherwise content will be squeezed too much.

Some teachers are starting to use this time to make the links between exam components explicit e.g. how the same skills are used in Unseen Poetry and Romeo and Juliet extract analysis. Sue has even gone as far as to use a Romeo and Juliet scene to test Language Fiction Reading skills via qns!

9. Modelling and Practice opportunities

The explicit use of  a variety of models has been an essential component in our department for years and  we are looking to up the emphasis on this even more with an increasing number of the team now trialling live modelling with their classes, and helping students understand the  steps towards success.  Being more unashamed about creating periods of silent time for students to produce extended writing and practising these steps on a regular basis is also part of how we hope to embed learning over time.

10. Metacognition work and extended DIRT/Target work time.

I have blogged on how highly I rate this in my post around targets work here, and Sue has also produced an excellent guide here.Metacognitive Activities Lesson Ideas & Approaches

11. Create consistency of teaching messages to students

We have moved away from PEA and teachers’ various sub-strands of this in recent years, and Sue and I have worked hard alongside the team to refine a system of 8 tiered prompts that fit our purposes better, and don’t tie down students to the old PEA approach that could prove limiting. The message for all is during the course of your analysis, red is always essential, while you should show off the orange and green skills now and again, where appropriate. Not everything, every time!  I am keen for succinctness, a move away from techniques waffling, and instead embracing ways to cover a sufficient quantity of quotes in the given time.

If we use the same messages over time, this will help embed them in students’ long term memories. IMG_8056

It’s only early days, and we may not see the full impact of these steps until Yr 7 and 8 reach Year 11, but the early signs are that the students are responding well, recalling things more quickly, and actually finding some of our recap activities ‘fun’ -Now there’s a dirty word to end on.

Thanks for reading.


Write a convincing story. 45 minutes. Go!

‘Sometimes reality is too complex. Stories give it form’

– Jean Luc Godard, film director, screen writer, film critic


Can we help students perform more effectively in the Narrative Writing exam? I think we can.

Many people have identified different approaches, excellent model structures for students to use with narrative writing, and Jamie Thom has collated these helpfully here: Jamie Thom’s summary of narrative writing tips  When we teach the module in the first instance and recap it later, we will, of course, utilise many of these  principles to guide the construction of an effective story, but this year we’re going to approach the exam itself a bit differently.

Let me give you an anecdote from my top set this year. It took 3 drafts for two thirds of the class to achieve a clear, logical, effective narrative that abided by the conflict/development/peak/resolution basic structure. Many top set students were unable to construct (without support) anything resembling an effective narrative. This was after 6 weeks of lessons / many years of doing story writing. My learning? This is going to be a damn tough ask in timed conditions, and one they shouldn’t have a blank slate going into.

I know examiners have warned against pre-prepared narratives, but ultimately, if a student is able to adapt their story to the frankly, rather generic titles the exam board provide, for me, it makes sense to use a piece which students are already pretty familiar with.

It works too.

The title I gave my class to work their narrative around was ‘A tough decision‘ -one from this year’s paper. 3 drafts later, they were happy and I was happy with their stories. I set them 4 new titles, and asked them to take 5 minutes with each (exam conditions) to consider how they would adapt their story to ‘fit’ the title. The titles were ‘A victory‘ , ‘Start with the line ‘There’s no way you’re doing that’ said Mum/Dad’ , ‘A time where you forgot something’, and ‘A dream come true‘. I asked them to evaluate how convincingly they had managed to adapt to the titles each time. The results were interesting. For each choice, roughly half the class said ‘no problem -could do that’, and the other half admitted ‘it would not be convincing’. BUT when I asked if you had ALL FOUR of those options to pick one from (same as in the exam) could you use at least one to adapt your story towards? All said yes, they could.

Of course, we will need to continue to test this hypothesis, and lower attaining students may find the adapting a tougher challenge so will need practice, but one thing I’m sure of is that it would not be as tough as inventing a whole complete piece of narrative fiction in 45 minutes.

One might argue it isn’t ethical. I would argue writing a story in timed condition isn’t ethical – no writer does this. Narratives are drafted and refined, not rushed. Also – a pre-prepared narrative that the whole class uses is not what I’m advocating. I’m simply encouraging every student to construct their own imaginative, original, individual story that we know, works, and will not be subject to marks tumbling in the content/structure section.

The three tiered plan for our students this year going into this exam is as follows:

  1. Use your pre-planned narrative and adapt to one of the titles

  2. Failing that, use one of your 3 pre-prepared structure plans and adapt to one of the titles

  3. Failing 1 or 2 being an option, devise a brand new narrative to suit one of the titles.


The freeing up of working memory via a pre-prepared narrative also surely can’t be ignored. A student will know where the story’s going, what the different stages are and what needs to be mentioned when.They can then relax a little, not feel the pressure of inventing a story during one of the most pressured times of their lives (something no author would do, and few teachers, if pressed, would enjoy) – and focus on all the touches that will up the marks quota: punctuation, vocabulary choices, spelling, sentence variety, etc.

Unless the story they use is horribly different to the exam title, I really don’t think it matters and I think the informal agreement around the group of examiners I worked with is they might lose a few marks for ‘forcing it to fit’ but they’ll lose a lot more marks for being unable to produce any kind of narrative structure.

It contributes 20% of a student’s English Language grade. It matters a lot they get this right.

Let’s look at the mark scheme for Eduqas.

Screen Shot 2017-10-08 at 12.02.54 PM

For the middle band 3 (likely to lead to the all important level 4 or 5) , the narrative must have ‘shape and direction’. It must have ‘control’. ‘Cohesion’ is necessary. These elements all require conscious crafting, and tough editorial decisions being taken that many students going into this exam will struggle with, primarily due to their lack of exposure to an array of good narratives over their lifetime, but also due to the way that things like cohesive links, and threads are something added in after several drafts and not in the spur of the moment.

Of course, as teachers, we will show as many good narrative examples as we can to guide and inspire, and I may be throwing my hands up here, but the reality that I saw as an examiner reading 500 of them last year, was that many students retained zero awareness of how to structure a story, and many otherwise good writers rambled around the title with no plot direction whatsoever. I’m determined this won’t happen to a single one of our students this year.

Hand holding a pen over paper.

I previously shared general tips here -and alongside Jamie’s summary blog at the top, students have many skills to get right in their story BEFORE they take it into the exam:

Screen Shot 2017-07-05 at 9.24.58 PM

Screen Shot 2017-07-05 at 9.25.16 PM

I know this may be controversial, but we’re going to trial it this year, and see whether it has a positive impact on results.

Thanks for reading and I would welcome feedback.

‘Why don’t students like school’ – 10 learning points



I know many people have spoken about the impact this book had on them, and I am convinced it is essential reading for all teachers. Here are 10 things I’ve learned from D.T.Willingham’s incredibly illuminating book and will be sharing with my Faculty.


1.      People are naturally curious but not naturally good thinkers. When faced with a problem, we quickly evaluate how much mental work it will take to solve the problem. If it’s too much or too little, we stop working on the problem.

If it’s just right –the pleasurable rush that comes from successful thought is addictive, highly motivating, and perhaps the essence of what we want students to experience on a daily basis.



This will lead to a fixed mindset towards our subject over time if we get this wrong.

Think carefully about the level of difficulty and students’ prior background knowledge –make tasks challenging –make them struggle, but respect different students’ cognitive limits.

Ask ourselves – how often do our students ‘struggle’? Is it enough?

Do we adapt effectively when we differentiate? Does it become too easy?

We need to make sure problems/questions are posed which stimulate curiosity. Perhaps remove objectives and consider as a Faculty instead what key questions might be asked during a module that strike the right balance of difficulty.

2.      Background knowledge is necessary to being a good thinker as it allows people to make links to a wider base of prior knowledge when considering new information.


3.      Background knowledge enables chunking, which is a way of cheating the limitation of working memory, freeing up space

Exemplify to students how automaticity via background knowledge frees up working memory to deal with new, tougher challenges –advancing thinking to the next level. e.g. tying shoelaces / driving. It’s the only difference between students who are achieving better results. More things have become automatic through successful, sustained practice.

For many students, it will take a long period of time to break old learned bad practice. We need to find opportunities to practice skills regularly – KS3 grammar booklet / grammar lessons / extended silent writing practice –all years.

With our Knowledge Organisers drive this year, we have started considering carefully which pieces of knowledge/processes need to become automatic for success. This is ongoing and the team are collaborating around these.

We have started making links between units/ideas/systems which is a broad method of chunking within our subject.

In lessons, we need to focus on a limited amount of the most important information, exploring it in greater depth.

4.      Students remember what they think about


5.      As humans, we are attuned to the power of narrative

We should create regular opportunities for students to silently pause and reflect and think for meaning

Structure lessons around stories – character, conflict, causality, complications – the hook is everything!

Avoid the relevance trap –school isn’t just about them and their lives!

6.      Rote learning / knowledge doesn’t always equate to understanding




It still falls to us to expertly question carefully around our core learning to ensure deeper understanding results, and new learning can be successfully applied.

Areas of information from the KO sheets should be explored and discussed regularly.

Provide different examples and ask students to compare how they fit with the concept/skill being taught. This is a proven way of checking understanding of a concept.

7.      Practice needs to occur even after something is ‘mastered’ – it protects against forgetting, and improves transfer We have spaced our practice out. We have interleaved lessons/homeworks/starters and quizzes so should be returning to skills/practice regularly.
8.      Best example yet of why Learning Styles are nonsense. ‘Should Auditory learners listen to the shape of countries described on a map? / Should Visual learners watch videos when learning piano?’ These are just great examples to use if students still cite they are a particular type of learner!
9.      Be wary of praising second rate work in lower attaining students –the message sent is ‘good job for someone like you’


10.   The gap is widening between students who are knowledge rich and those who aren’t. Having factual knowledge embedded in long term memory, makes it easier to acquire more factual knowledge.‘You have 10,000 facts in your memory. I have 9000. I might remember 10% of the new facts I hear due to my ability to make more links. You remember 9% as a result of being able to make less links.’ The gap widens. To catch up the weaker students must actually work ‘harder’ than the higher attainers.

We need to be vigilant here and challenge this, not settling for sub-standard work and questioning why it’s being submitted. Sanction if necessary. High standards for all and praise strongly when potential is seen.

This remains a challenging area to identify for staff, and one that needs Faculty meeting discussion around strategies.

Set high expectations of the quantity to be learned by lower attaining students. Provide practice booklets/tasks to get basics to automaticity quickly. Consider in intervention/support work in class the language we are using. Are we dumbing down, and nurturing ‘learned helplessness’?

We need to do more to help kids read at every opportunity and be exposed to new words/information via homework / worksheets / texts. Check understanding regularly.


Springhead – a magical place to inspire young writers

Just over ten years ago, a colleague invited me to my first Springhead creative writing trip with a small group of students, and it had a profound effect on me. When I moved schools in 2012, I ‘brought’ the trip with me, and have continued to take students of all ages since.

The aim of the weekend is simple – to gather inspiration from the surroundings, escape from the pressures of work for students and staff(!), and write.

That might be poetry, story openings, character portrayals -whatever takes your fancy.

Springhead is a old Grade 1 listed building nestled in the most beautiful grounds in the village of Fontmell Magna, Near Shaftesbury, Dorset

Many students have described it to me as a highlight of their school life, and having had a profound impact on them. The bonding experience of sharing poetry, and being in such a beautiful setting, having fun, is very powerful indeed.

I have in the past taken Yr 12/13 groups, and Yr 8/9 groups -usually no more than 20 students for the ‘small group’ vibe.

We go with a relatively simple agenda:

  • Two or three different writing activities on Friday afternoon, evening and Saturday morning -first impressions / character  / setting work -sharing early efforts in circle time
  • Visit the local village, church, graveyard -Saturday afternoon -continue to add to notes/poems.
  • Come together for the final time and everyone reads one piece to the group that has been polished for the final evening.

My role is to observe funny/moving little moments throughout the weekend from the students, and weave each of these into a poem about them, which always goes down very well!

We also tend to usually have a final night play performance in fancy dress, which they love, and have a bonfire with marshmallows -some students may bring along guitars to play whilst there’s also a piano in the main building.


It truly is a magical place, and it holds a special place in my heart, having visited 6 or 7 times at different key moments in my life – about to get married, pre-kids, post-kids, new job, etc.

Eddie who runs the place is a published tree photographer, and expert on the wildlife and area in general, and is always happy to take us on a guided walk, whilst Linda and Nicky who we have dealt with in the past in admin. and support are always happy to help.

Image 11

I hope I’ve inspired you to take a small group along yourself – it really is an amazing trip. Here’s the link:


I’ll end with a couple of dodgy verses from yours truly from different years…

Back to our sanctuary, our own quiet place

People start writing, leaving their trace

On a weekend of laughter and friendship and words

You’re writers like poets, the boundaries are blurred.

I hope you’ll all look back in the future to come

And think of your Springhead, and just what we’ve done.

For me, this trip helped form my vision of teaching
Of freedom, expression and continually reaching
For how to tap into our creative talents
and find somehow what is the right learning balance
Of craft and of effort, of being inspired
By nature and life and questioning why.

Thanks for reading.

Twitter, turning 40, and terrific hugs

I’m getting old. Early next year, I turn 40, and in grudging deference to the event, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking: Is this it? Am I doing the things in life I want to do? Am I making time for them, for my family?

Over the summer, one important step I took was a break from Twitter. Something I’ve realised is that, ultimately, it’s just work, and I need to keep that more firmly in mind.

Just over 18 months ago I joined Twitter properly, and started using it for educational purposes. I’ve absolutely loved it – the buzz after posting a blog, the new followers alerts, the mind blowing FREE(!) CPD, the sharing, the teacher camaraderie and support…

But it can also take over. Look at the poll results below.

Screen Shot 2017-09-03 at 1.23.17 PM

It suggests that more than half of us spend over 5 hours a week on Twitter, and a worrying number of us, 10% spend over 15 hours. I’m pretty certain that I was not far off that latter figure some weeks.

The site is utterly immersive. Whilst one can drop in to Facebook, check the latest updates from friends, throw a few likes and comments in and then get out, Twitter, I find, is different: conversations/debates quickly emerge, and you’re hooked! One blog post references links to others and before you know it, you’ve forgotten where you started! Hours can quickly disappear, or worse – during the day when you’re doing other things, your attention will never be exclusively on that time in the park with your family, or meal with your wife; it’ll be considering how to challenge someone’s ideas about differentiation, who you’ve never met.

635969385074624333-631703838_addiction twitter


I hope this doesn’t sound like a lecture. It’s meant to be the same kind of advice I give my  colleagues: find ways to maintain a life! Ultimately, for most of us who I presume use it for educational purposes -Twitter is still ultimately just work.

I have had the raised eyebrows from my wife when I’m not focusing on a film in the evening after I get home at 8pm from a Parents’ evening and turn on Twitter. I’ve moaned to colleagues about not doing enough exercise, then realised a Twitter chat has cost me the 45 mins I could have been swimming in the local pool. What a hypocrite I am when I lecture students about getting off social media, and reading instead, when I have been hugely guilty of losing track of story plots for this exact reason!


This summer I had a bedtime hug from my little boy that was bigger than ever before, and I am positive it was partly down to me devoting an entire day to him, and leaving my phone with its Tweets behind!

So, I have a plan to change my Twitter approach. I am going to dedicate an hour or two on separate occasions during the week to catch up on stuff and blog once a month, but that’s it. The phone will also be physically placed away from any other activity -just putting it out of the room is an effective step I’ve found. I want to stay informed; I’m ambitious, and know I will keep my profile high by utilising some of the amazing ideas/research I read; I love the professional contacts I’ve made on the site too, but life’s too short for the debates that drag on for hours, sometimes days (although Rebecca’s recent Windowsgate was genuinely amazing…) I want to do other stuff. Life’s too short.

This summer I’ve written a children’s book and planned several more -something I’ve been dreaming of doing for years;  I’ve created a 20 minute film documenting my little boy’s journey from birth to school that he starts tomorrow(!) complete with all kinds of iMovie wizardry which I had never used before; I’ve played piano to random passers by all over Bristol in the Play me I’m Yours initiative  , and just felt generally, with the Twitter self imposed ban, that I’m using my time more effectively to achieve stuff that I care about.

Anyone can do this stuff over the summer, but back in the work routine is where it matters. That’s my aim: I’ve allocated weekly time to do/achieve certain creative things that make me happy, and I hope in this crazy job of ours, and as a likely fellow Twitter user, you find time to as well!

The kids’ book I’ve written is called ‘Roscoe’s Sunrise’ and it looks at a little boy who gets ignored by all around him who are obsessed with technology.

Enjoy Twitter this year, but remember it’s still just work.


A memorable weekend…examining

A Memorable Weekend

‘Drown her!’ Those two words made crumble.

Let’s go back to the begging of a dull Friday afternoon.

I was a collage student, and it was another boring English lesson.: Day shar vue you might call it. I put my hands into my head, and waited patiently with baited breath for the end of school. It finally came; I ran down two fights of stairs and excited the doors. I couldn’t wait to get home and when I did, I gave my mum and brother a huge.

“Go upstairs sweaty,” She said kindly.

I climbed the two stories to my room, as the sunset was rising.

“Sleep well. You’ve got a big day ahead tomorrow,” as she sprited to the door. However, before she closed the door, her town suddenly changed, and she turned back to me. “You’d better be carfull tomorrow, mind!”

Before too long, everything was packet, and we were on our way to the airport, and my smile could not be moved. It was as if it had been drawn on with a sharpie. Have you ever been on holiday with some of your friend?

We were going to Magaluf. It was a know brainer. I didn’t want to leave my best friends’ behinds, but I was going with my cousin, Jess and she was great. My stomach was soon rubbling so we got ourselves some food although we had to weight in the queue.

It was a three hour flight, and my friend Jess decided to read for a while. She can be anti-social. I looked out of the window and the view was astoning.

We soon arrived, left the airport, and got in our hire car to drive to the hotel. However, before too long, there was something a bit strange about a car that had pulled up alongside us and wasn’t going away. The two men in the car were big bulit guys and looked a bit weird, as if they had done some coke caine.

I started to get a little scared and whispered to Jess, who simply replied

“There’s nothing wrong. Ignore them. Stop being a complete and under wimp!”

But I was right; there was something wrong. Suddenly the other car slammed into us and we were forced to pull into a layby. The other car pulled up next to us; the two men got out, and there was a vicious screech as the two men ripped off our passenger side door. My first thought was ‘C’mon. This is brand new.’

I knew then though that we were getting kidnapped, and the great bass of a classic basshunter song became audible.

I hurdled in the corner of the car. But they pulled us out, and took us both screaming and kicking to a path next to a river with a sign saying ‘DO NOT TRESPASS. UNRESTRICTED AREA.’

The first man pulled a knife from his waste band, and calmly declared,

“When you kill someone, it’s like you steal their sole.”

Jess and I both shuddered.

The other guy piped up next.

“Teenagers are humanities’ greatest cruelty. Drown her!’

“Don’t kill us please,” I begged. “We were so exited to come here; we don’t want to die! Am I aloud to just call my parents?”

The first guy with the knife dropped it for a moment, and reached into his bag for a phone for us to use.

This was our chance! It was a break or make situation.

We ran for it, and were too quick for the men to follow. We managed to find a nearby hotel, and tell them everything that had happened. It had been a crazy day and a lucky escape for shore.


Effective Analysis – The Waffle Files

Just a short post here to follow up on my recent one: ‘The problem with techniques’.

Having just finished marking English Language Paper 1, I’m convinced that there are three main reasons why students have lost marks on the reading section, and these are areas that I will be working hard with my department next year to address:

  1. Using waffle, particularly around techniques

  2. Not sharply identifying the meaning/effect of a quote

  3. Not covering enough quotes as analysis needs to be more succinct

I used to run a challenge in Year 12 that encouraged students to see if they could offer 200 words of analysis based on one quote. I showed them an example I had written as a model, exploring almost every individual word and technique, and alternative interpretation possible, patting myself on the back for my analysis wizardry. I realise now that even at A-level, this is not something to aspire to, and it is incredibly dangerous indeed to promote long examination of a single quote at GCSE level.

Succinctness of analysis of a quote, then swiftly moving on to the next, is fundamental to success.

I believe this extends beyond English Language reading sections, into Literature: Anthology analysis, Extract analysis, Unseen Poetry, and probably further. Can I emphasise again just how many clearly top end students have scored significantly lower than they should have, as they dwell on 3 or 4 quotes for too long, making labored points about techniques, rather than covering 7 or 8 briefly in the time provided.

I think there needs to be a move towards succinctness from Year 7 upwards.

Here is my model for ‘Effective Analysis’ which I’ve come up with. The closer to the centre, the more important it is. Any analysis missing the yellow and red band is worthless in my view. Green and Blue bands will help push for the very top grades, but should be carefully taught alongside an awareness of the dangers of waffle, which I’ve mentioned before. Hope you like the way I have symbolised the waffle as menacing shadows!

Effective Analysis pic

Click here for the picture slide   Effective Analysis

In the resource below, I offer two activities for teachers to use to get students to explicitly identify which examples of analysis are ‘waffle’ and why; which one is ‘good’ (sharply analysing the quote’s meaning/effect), and which one is ‘excellent’ (including technique focus). Here’s a snippet:

AN example 1

AN Example 2

The third sheet in the resource offers students the chance to become examiners, and spot where the tick would come, putting a line through all the unnecessary waffle.

AN Example 3

AN Example 4

Click here for the resource document above  Establishing effective analysis – The Waffle Files Sheet 1

There are notes for teachers alongside.

I hope this is helpful. I am convinced that results will significantly increase for us all if we can make analysis succinct, and remove the ‘waffle’ from students’ analysis.

Thanks for reading.


The problem with techniques

It’s costing our students marks: many, many marks.

Let me try and explain how in this short post.

Firstly, can I state from the offset that I like techniques. I think we have a duty, as English teachers, to engage with the craft of writing; of course we do. I was excited to learn more recently about subtle varieties of repetition from esteemed Twitter colleagues like Mark Roberts and many others. We have terminology lists for every module for every unit across Years 7-11. I plan to have Faculty Meetings next year with more focus on building teachers’ subject knowledge of techniques. I admit I had no idea what Commoratio was until I spoke to Mr Pink!

However, it is the foregrounding of this teaching within the analytical method that I have a big problem with, and, if my examining so far is anything to go by, in my opinion, marks are tumbling around the country as a result.

Our passion for techniques, and for some, sharing new, increasingly sophisticated and subtle terms, sometimes from Year 7, with students, is leading them to equate discussing techniques as a necessity for top marks.

On 9 out of 10 occasions, this is NOT the case.

I am an English Language examiner this year, and have been for many years for Eduqas,  as well as an English teacher for 12 years, and it is quite clear that across the ability range, across schools, a tiny minority of students are able to analyse techniques effectively. Most invariably get themselves into a huge mess in their desperation to use them, as they substitute focusing on sharp analysis of the quote’s meaning/effect for waffley, laboured technique spotting.

Top students are often using long wordy paragraphs examining language and structural techniques around a single quote, sometimes effectively (usually not so), but, as a result, they only manage to cover three quotes in this way in the allocated 15 mins per question. They will not earn more than 3 or 4 marks for this then. (It’s roughly 1-1.5 marks per quote analysed sharply I reckon, although this is obviously not set in stone)  They should be covering 7 or 8 quotes  (1 every 2 minutes) for the top marks.

Lower ability students are waffling on about techniques they don’t understand, ending up with lines like ‘creates a picture in the reader’s head’ and earning next to nothing.

For all students, I’m really concerned that they don’t understand why they’re losing marks left, right and centre. We’ve raved about techniques and they’ve learned them, and they’re going to damn well go in and find them!

Let’s look at two fictional, amalgamated examples from this year’s exam paper, that I’ve written (based on things I’ve read from students). Disturbingly (with recent events -sorry), it’s about escaping from a house fire, and the question I’ve chosen is  ‘How is drama and excitement created by the writer?’


The writer uses a compound sentence in the line ‘she doubles up with a fit of coughing and splutters’ which creates drama powerfully and makes the reader think about it being exciting. The use of repetition is very powerful in the piece adding a strong sense of drama in the line ‘Fire, Ruby, Fire.’We learn ‘she hoped the fire wouldn’t hear them’ and this is personification because of course the fire can’t really hear and it isn’t a person. The writer’s using this for effect.In the line ‘Gasping, retching and hanging on to one another’ the writer uses a triplet and high energy verbs to build up excitement and sparks drama in the text and within the reader making them alert and scared for the girls. To make it dramatic, the writer uses a range of sentence lengths and some are short  in the line ‘We’re human chimneys’ which make the reader slow down and the reader feels on edge, and the text pauses for what will happen next. Another way the writer’s kept it dramatic is by lists of verbs and adjectives which makes the reader worried in the line ‘She tries to push up the window which is stuck’ and this adds an atmosphere that keeps the reader hooked. Finally, in the line ‘The fires of Hell’, the word ‘hell’ has a capital to denote it is a noun, and it also comprises part of a complex sentence which creates imagery in the reader’s mind. 

  • Sounds amazing, right? They’ve learned some techniques though! I’d give it 0/10. Not one accurate analysis of meaning. I’ve tried to point out common avenues below of how many students deal unsuccessfully with techniques from my example above:

  • Examining the mechanics
  • Explaining its definition
  • Merging too many techniques together at once for clarity
  • Desperation to link back to the question too early before meaning/effect considered.


In the line ‘she doubles up with a fit of coughing and splutters’, drama is created as the reader learns Ruby is struggling to breathe and choking due to the fire. The call ‘Fire, Ruby, Fire.’ indicates how Ruby’s sister is desperate to wake her to ensure she doesn’t die in the flames. The writer uses the phrase ‘she hoped the fire wouldn’t hear them’ and this reflects the fear of the two girls who are desperate to escape the menacing clutches of the fire that appears to be listening out for them, adding to the drama. In the line ‘Gasping, retching and hanging on to one another’ the writer observes that the girls are becoming ill from the fumes, almost vomiting, but using each other for comfort – the way death seems imminent here adds to the drama. The image ‘We’re human chimneys’ illustrates the way the girls are immersed in the smoke and they are breathing it out constantly. Another way the writer’s kept it dramatic is the sense of hopelessness as everything appears to conspire against them, as their escape route is seemingly blocked ‘She tries to push up the window which is stuck’ .Finally, in the line ‘The fires of Hell’, the word ‘hell’ indicates the sheer scale of the fire and has associations with the biblical place of torturous suffering, which the girls are facing. 

 No techniques whatsoever. I’d still give it 8/10. Techniques exploration, yes, might have driven it into 9 or 10, but really- is it worth foregrounding this element in our teaching for the sake of 2 marks?!

Look where my bold type comes each time in Example 2. That’s where my tick would come. It’s where the meaning/effect is sharply nailed, and linked to what’s going on in the story (far more important than identifying the technique in my view, and often forgotten by students who sometimes analyse language in isolation.)


So, how might we do it differently then, going forward?

  1. Prioritise the analysis of the quote’s meaning/effect every time, and do many, many exercises that encourage students to spot where the tick would come. Make this explicit. Analysing meaning/effect is NOT a lower level skill. It is the crux of reading analysis -more important than technique analysis, and something that many A-level students still consistently don’t quite nail.
  2. Show examples of slightly waffly technique analysis with a sharp nailing of meaning/effect in the middle, and encourage students to condense down the piece of analysis. Being succinct is everything.
  3. Encourage students to get to it quicker (Abandon PEA)  – The line “_____” suggests ___________________ while the technique also indicates…
  4. Share examples of waffly discussion of technique definitions/mechanics, and encourage students to spot why no marks would be awarded.
  5. Talk about techniques being of secondary importance to meaning/effect. Let’s put them in the ‘middle ground’ somewhere. Encourage students to weave them in but don’t overplay them and let’s try not to get too excited by them! It’s the meaning/effect that is what earns the mark and shows real understanding of the writer’s craft.
  6. Discourage students from analysing via ‘technique leads’. e.g. The writer uses similes and compound sentences in this section…  This leads to redundant sentences in my view. A technique analysis sentence must ALWAYS include sharp analysis of meaning/effect to be worthwhile.    Much better to lead by content. e.g. ‘The writer focuses on the desperate struggle and challenge of ________________ in the line “________” and the simile here suggests__________…
  7. Discourage reader obsession. This leads to lines like this ‘This provides tension for the reader as the reader becomes scared and more alert’. Nonsense. I don’t ever remember in my life as a reader, becoming ‘more alert’ when I was reading! It sounds silly and conjures up images of a reader in all kinds of animated poses on their sofa, reading. Surely it sounds more sophisticated to just reference the writer’s intention, and frame it from that perspective? e.g. ‘The writer aims to create tension / a fearful mood here…’

Thanks for reading!

‘Will you be quiet and let me think?’



I’ve always needed silence to think productively. Background music always seemed to disrupt my train of thought; In my teens, I escaped to my grandparents’ place in the Welsh countryside to revise for my A-levels, and my current home office is in our converted attic, away from the albeit adorable chatter of my excitable 2 and 4 year old kids!  I’ve been known to pause films and say to my wife ‘Wait, I need to think, let me work this out.‘ Yes, I’m one of those people!

As for learning anything, often at school, teachers and lecturers’ points seemed to wash over me, and it wasn’t until I got home and reflected carefully, away from my mates, away from the classroom discussion, that the lesson ideas seemed to become clear, and I ‘got it’.

I’ve been struck by the power of silent work in the classroom over recent years, and decided to do a little research this week around the area regarding its productive use, and the misconceptions we might have as teachers concerning it.

I’m indebted to the following two research articles which have helped me consider this fascinating area further and I would highly recommend reading:

Hamelock and Friesen 2012 ‘One student’s experience of silence in the classroom’

Claire Deans 2012 ‘Pupil Perspectives on Silence’

I arrived at 8 main points on the topic:

  1. 1.There is an unfair negativity around silence.

Some students view silence as dull and unhelpful, and is often associated as an oppressive last resort from the teacher who wants to establish discipline by ‘silencing us’. @DrHelenELees, in her book ‘Silence in Schools’ draws a distinction, however, between “strong” and “weak” silence. ‘While the former is a deliberate stillness, where pupils are encouraged to sit and reflect, the latter is an enforced quiet, where teachers impose silence.’

2. The all powerful social aspect is removed through silence, creating the conditions for unrestricted, focused thinking.


Lyndsey Caldwell spoke at Researched Oxford of the ‘heightened teenage sense of self’ which basically means that, without fail, students will prioritise acknowledging a peer’s comment or look, over thinking hard almost every time.  Daniel T Willingham reminds us that ‘Unless the cognitive conditions are right, we will avoid thinking’. 

It follows that if our job is to create the conditions to enable thinking and learning to occur, we need to remove the all powerful social burden from students’ shoulders, by asking for silence. They will ‘silently'(!) thank us for it, I’m sure.

Additionally, the social pressure of a class discussion can be immense too. By giving a period of silence, we remove the demands and potential anxiety around quick fire responses -something that often would hugely benefit from an opportunity to silently think and reflect before the discussion.

3. The illusion of the ‘productive working/learning environment’ and the vast difference in productivity during silent work.

During many observations of teachers over the years, I have commented on a ‘productive working environment’. This meant, in essence, that students were behaving, talking about the task (well those closest to my ear-shot were and they might have been talking cluelessly with a lack of prior knowledge to guide them in the task but I digress…), and writing stuff down. I may have even replaced ‘working’ with ‘learning’ now and again. I’m pretty certain 90% of the time, I would have been wrong to go as far as the ‘L’ word.

I never cease to be amazed at the way students can cover 2 questions with vague, muddled answers in 30 minutes sometimes in these ‘productive working environments’, then answer 6 questions sharply in the next 20 minutes of silent work.

It is clear then, that we have an obligation to create periods of silence in every lesson we teach if we are setting high expectations.

4. Resist attempts to break the silence. Stay strong!

It’s so easy to feel unnerved, awful as a teacher, cruel even during these periods of silence. No-one’s smiling! Hell, they’re not enjoying your lesson!  Andy Tharby talks of an anecdote where he gently waves a student’s hand down, angling for more resilience from them. Students will ask questions, ask you to check their work, ask to go to the toilet… RESIST! They’re testing you! If your task is a good one, they’ll be required to recall, think, produce, reflect on the process of what they’re doing, and refine, all beautifully uninterrupted. And that includes US! During silent time, we need to resist the urge to interrupt their thinking with a ‘Just one more thing, guys!’ reminder.

5. Talk to articulate and refine learning, not to learn.

‘When we talk, I’m not learning’ -So said a student in the study covered by Deans. This isn’t always true though. We do often need to refine and adapt our understanding of concepts based on articulating what we know already with our peers. This is a useful process. But so is silence in allowing the chance to reflect and internalise learning in the FIRST instance. This first instance would greatly benefit from silence I believe – perhaps after an important instruction, model or explanation.

6. Call it thinking time rather than ‘silent work’.

Simple really – less negative connotations, and justifies it nicely!

“When it is quiet, I can think more clearly. It helps me to get my thoughts about what I am going to write or say next”. (From one of the Year 5 students in the research covered by Claire Deans)

In addition ‘time to think’ seems to have consistency with Vygotsky’s work on thought and language (1962), particularly the stage of maturation, where speech goes ‘underground’ and becomes inner-speech. If we can therefore assume similarities between inner-speech and time to think, then for these processes to take place most effectively, a silent environment on occasion could be conducive to more thoughtful reflective responses.

7. Silence offers the opportunity for the learner to control the pace.

Don’t we all want this chance at times in life? Silence grants it!

Slow-time is defined as time where learners can think at their own pace rather than the pace of the rest of the class. This time was characterised as private time or space free from intrusion, interaction or demand for an immediate response (Ollin, 2008).


8. Reconsider our perception of the silent student.


I have a mental checklist at parents’ evenings:  Behaviour, Contributions, Effort, Data, Next steps.  I often end up commenting on Contributions – they don’t speak much – they need to contribute more in lessons. It is even one of our prerequisites of a ‘Highly motivated’ learner in my school, but is silence always a sign of disengagement, of apathy, of not being an ‘active learner‘?

Check this out from Hamelock and Friesen:

In “some cultures silence…can be viewed as a sign of complex thought” (Bosacki, 2005, p. 86). I recall various situations of my own silences as a student and know that my experiences were not all the same. Sometimes I remained silent because I agreed with what was being said and chose not to speak. In other situations, I was deep in thought and was using the time to make sense of my thoughts and gather a response.


Final thoughts

What might we ask for then from students in these periods of silence?

To think before a discussion, to think after a question, to allow reflection time after an activity, to concentrate/focus on an activity, to reflect on the process involved in completing an activity.

It’s all sharpened, I believe, through silence -as a powerful weapon in the teacher’s arsenal.

I’m not advocating silent classrooms all the time. My own target is around 30% of the lesson -short bursts of anything between 5 & 20 mins  -that should utilise productive learning. I shouldn’t admit this, but I often also give an incentive of 10%  – 2 mins free talk time following the silence. This works well as a reward!


Join Club Silencio today! It’s a pivotal scene in one of David Lynch’s finest films ‘Mulholland Drive’. If that’s not a good enough reason to try it out more, I don’t know what is!

Thanks for reading.




Student X’s story and a Vision of Teaching and Learning

For a while I’ve been wanting to collate the core ideas from my recent reading into a vision for Teaching and Learning for my Faculty. I think I’ve achieved it!

Pic A

From an A2(!) notes sheet I recently filled with reflections on important next steps, the word that comes up time and again is knowledge, and my aim is to ensure our Faculty embeds that more effectively over time.

The books and following people have all helped along the way in shaking the foundations of what I understand about teaching and learning, transforming my views, and I would highly recommend either following them on Twitter, and reading their fantastic blogs/books. Carl Hendrick Daniel Willingham Lyndsey Caldwell Katie Ashford Dawn Cox Mark Roberts Tom Sherrington Sarah Barker Mr Pink Shaun Allison Andy Tharby David Didau Chris Curtis

I recently presented to the Faculty my vision, and I started by sharing a narrative that one of my Yr 11 students had written. Frankly, it was appalling. She’s about to sit her English exams where one task is Narrative writing. She’s going to fail and she shouldn’t do.

She’s got a SPLD, there’s lower than normal attendance, but she’s a sparky girl verbally, and I presented the case that we could have done more for this girl who should be leaving school with a C (4/5?!) in English.

Basically, we could/should have done more to embed the skills she needed to succeed by utilising more of the kind of activities Science tells us help students learn most effectively: repetition, skills drills, mixed practice, re-drafting time, quizzing, recaps.

If this stuff below had been embedded in her long term memory by Year 11, it would be automatic when she is writing – as automatic as driving a car is to us.Pic B

For the whole Powerpoint, click here

I don’t know yet how it’s all going to look but I’m excited to work with my team on the details.

Here are my guiding focuses as we start to plan:

Knowledge Organisers: Deciding what we want ALL students to know by the end of each year. Make this explicit. Consider how to differentiate this effectively.

Repeated Practice:
  The path to expertise.  1) For fluency-to embed in long term memory. We also need to rectify embedded bad practice which will take much repetition! 2) Deliberate practice – to draft, take feedback, improve, take more feedback, re-draft and find ways to celebrate excellence in the refined end product.

Offering a balance of creative aspects that engage curiosity/interest, WITH the other side:Repetition, skills drills,  recap activities etc  – and being unashamed, unapologetic, and open with students about this side -sharing with them our vision of how people learn best:  – these activities help make knowledge automatic and embedded in LT memory over time, freeing up working memory. Knowledge provides the foundations we need to progress onwards to creative and critical thinking successfully.

Targets work: Sufficient time to reflect on, and respond to specific targets set, not only evidencing improvement, but metacognitive awareness of these targets through opportunities to explain to others the processes followed in improving.

Quizzing within, and at end of each module – closed qns, qns with cues, multiple choice, etc, and then interleaved recap tests to embed knowledge during the year – systematic, dates planned.

Stronger focus on the basics – Grammar, Spelling, Vocabulary, Terminology – systems in place – skills drills, etc. Let’s be unapologetic about this traditional grounding. Many students are ‘word poor’ – Let’s address this. Many students in Yr 11 don’t know what a simile is. Let’s address this so it’s as automatic as 2+2=4.

Silent work – Creating opportunities for this more in lessons removes the social pressure and innate reluctance to think. ‘Teenagers have a heightened sense of self’ and will always prioritise a word or smile to their friends over thinking. This is natural. Let’s help them out by removing this obstacle and using silence a bit more. Collaborative group work is fundamentally flawed in aiding effective learning to take place.
Modelling – Critical we share exemplar work at every turn. Live modelling, modelling of students’ work, improve on low level models, and most importantly model the processes followed to achieve effective work and overcoming obstacles along the way.

Challenge – Make it a struggle, make it tough, not what they can do. Strike the balance though. Cognitive Load theory awareness – the most important thing teachers should know about. Don’t overburden working memory but if tasks are challenging but achievable, then dopamine is released. The buzz of overcoming a problem just beyond comfort zone is immense for students.

Consistency – Working together to refine important aspects of our provision, achieving greater consistency in messages and explanations of key areas from teachers over Yrs 7-11. Complete teacher autonomy is not always effective in achieving the best practice.

Flexibility/Slow approach – Setting up Year overviews that have scope to be flexible, and teachers don’t feel the need to rush through content. If something needs to be re-taught/ consolidated for 3 extra lessons, do it.

Role of Homework (and Starters?) – Recaps/Targets work/ Embedding knowledge only?


Hope it’s of interest. Thanks for reading.