‘In this school, English is about…’

Practical tools for reflecting on the what, why and how of English teaching

Venn.JPGA friend’s nephew, when in Year 8, remarked to him: “I used to enjoy English, but all we do now is write PEE paragraphs.” If this is a pupil’s view (even an unfair one) of English in their school, then something has gone badly wrong. It’s extreme, but it is – I think – indicative of a trend in secondary English, in which the narrow imperatives of external assessment are dominating planning and thinking, and when GCSE ‘AOs’ are busily colonising Key Stage 3. Meanwhile, tests and secure-fit assessment frameworks are increasingly dominating primary teachers’ thinking about the teaching of reading and writing.

In this post, I offer two simple tools which I have used with both primary and secondary teachers for reflecting on the principles behind English as a subject. This might be as part of a process of curriculum renewal, of the revitalising of practice, or of a deliberate attempt to build cohesion and shared purpose. Or it might just be to to stimulate professional discussion about some basics – on what they are doing, how they are doing it, and why.

Continue reading “‘In this school, English is about…’”

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Developing critical readers: preparing students for GCSE English Language reading papers

Thoughts on how students are taught to write critically about texts in exams

This post was originally an article for NATE‘s Teaching English (Issue 12, Autumn 2016.) It has been edited slightly.

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Preparing for the new English GCSEs has compelled English departments to put their Key Stage 4 curriculum through yet another revision. For many, this has been taken as an opportunity to be creative with the curriculum, to devise fresh practice and to sharpen classroom teaching of knowledge and skills. However, the combination of a short time frame and a highly pressurised environment has pushed some departments towards an anxious, somewhat mechanistic approach to the specifications, with teachers focusing narrowly on the hoops through which students will have to jump. Continue reading “Developing critical readers: preparing students for GCSE English Language reading papers”

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Objectives and purpose in English

Thoughts on learning objectives and on the way we frame learning in English

This post was originally an article for NATE‘s Teaching English (Issue 8, Summer 2015)

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‘Is that what you went into English teaching to do?’ Reflecting with English teachers on their planning, whether for lessons or whole schemes of learning, I often find myself asking them this question. It isn’t asked in a despairing sense but as a sort of a litmus test of the real value, integrity or power of an ‘objective’ (or an ‘aim’, or an ‘assessed outcome’.) For example, no English teacher went into the profession to get children to ‘practise expanding adverbial phrases’. No one followed a calling to help students to ‘make comparisons between texts’. Of course, these are important but they are not really an end in themselves; they are a means to students developing power in expression and critical awareness and discrimination as readers. They should not be the start and the end of English lessons. Continue reading “Objectives and purpose in English”

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From page to screen and back again: teaching Shakespeare through film and film through Shakespeare

Page.jpgThis blog post was originally an article, written in 2003 with Craig Morrison for the NATE magazine English, Drama, Media, when we both taught at Parkside Community College in Cambridge. 

The practice it describes has since been developed further, but it is still all just as applicable now as it was fourteen years ago, as are the suggested uses of classroom technology. Continue reading “From page to screen and back again: teaching Shakespeare through film and film through Shakespeare”

Making the investment

Reframing ‘engagement’ in the classroom

Any mention of ‘engagement’ in the education Twittersphere or blogosphere will create a flurry of emotive debate. To many, it is now a dirty word, summoning up caricatures of content-free, gimmick-laden teaching, in which the aim is simply to engage so that learning somehow follows. In fact, there is a strand of discourse in which even considering how to engage pupils, or to think that anything other than ‘learning itself’ or ‘the richness of the subject’ is motivation enough, is a failing – a sort of lowest common denominator approach.

Of course, this is in reaction to historical imbalance. In training, I use videos of exemplar ‘Outstanding’ lessons from just five or six years ago, to show how remarkably empty of learning a lesson can be when it is designed around activity and engagement. And the idea that pupils will ‘behave’ if only a lesson is made engaging enough is, of course, very dangerous. Continue reading “Making the investment”

Being ‘good at English’

Image result for correctSome possible ‘qualities’ of excellence in English

There has been some discussion recently on blogs and Twitter about what it means to be ‘good at English’. Often, this is in the context of thinking about progression – from Key Stage 3 to 4, or from GCSE to A-Level, for example: what should we be aiming to ‘produce’ in students? Continue reading “Being ‘good at English’”

Googling for originality

A simple classroom technique, when drafting and editing.

Recently, I have been doing quite a bit of drafting and editing of creative writing with Year 5 and 6 pupils, and I have been finding this little game useful. I’m sure it’s not original, and I have used it with older students since search engines became a thing, but it is still new to many teachers – so here it is. (It’s very, very simple.) Continue reading “Googling for originality”

Asking real questions in the classroom

Number #5 in an occasional series of short posts on feedback, appearing in no particular order

One of the main ways in which teachers ‘give’ feedback to pupils is through follow-up questioning. This is sometimes the case in written feedback, but is particularly the case in oral feedback, as part of dynamic classroom teaching, in which feedback is folded into learning and is indistinguishable from the discussion and exploration of ideas. It is one key way in which teachers insist on deeper thinking.*In English, it is one of the key ways in which we push analysis and explore response.

Continue reading “Asking real questions in the classroom”

From 1994: on coursework and exams

TES.JPGJim Stewart and I wrote this for the TES in 1994, after the first round of new GCSE exams in English and English Literature, replacing 100% coursework. I wouldn’t agree with everything in it now, or with all of the expression, but – as comes across – we were a very angry profession at the time. I’m posting it here as a piece of educational archaeology! Continue reading “From 1994: on coursework and exams”

A poetry lesson

An account of a poetry lesson, with some thoughts on efficiency, on how we treat texts and on knowledge.

Sequencing.jpgWhen I became an Advanced Skills Teacher, in 2002, the designation was still fairly new. There was quite an intensive appointment process involving a portfolio of documentary evidence, a set of testimonials and a visit by an external assessor, who watched me teach a mixed-ability Year 10 class. For this, I served up a ‘sure-fire’ double lesson on a poem, which I thought went very well. However, while the assessor enjoyed the lesson and was complimentary about it, she had a major reservation. Just the week before (she told me) she had seen the same poem “taught very well in just half the amount of lesson time.” I found this a little irksome. I argued that I could very easily have ‘taught the poem’ in half the time, but that the lesson was about more than covering curriculum content as quickly as possible. But did she have a point? Continue reading “A poetry lesson”

Who is doing what in the classroom? A tool for planning and reflection

It is always risky to discuss something as complex as teaching and learning in terms of any sort of ‘model’. It is always reductive and probably wrong. However, at the moment I am finding it useful to think of classroom teaching working like this. (Click to enlarge)

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Based on well-rehearsed principles*, this schematic might be a useful analytic tool for reflecting on planning, lessons and teaching over time, and as a focus for CPD. Continue reading “Who is doing what in the classroom? A tool for planning and reflection”

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