Planning for next year: subtract three and add three

3 and 3(1)Image: @jasonramasami

Picture him. For 200 metres he strides ahead, his pale legs pumping like pistons; to the other runners, he is a dot, hitting the second bend as they finish the first. And then, suddenly, mid-stride, he stops. He bends, gripping his right side, wincing. He runs a little. He stops again. And starts.

And stops.

The pack, dispassionate hunters now, run him down – quickly leaving his unstable legs in their wake. He walks the last 400 metres, and only once attempts to break into a run. Thankfully, he does manage to finish. Last.

I was that kid on sports day.

And, to be honest, I still am.

Pacing ourselves across an academic year is a hard thing. Our mental and emotional resources are finite and each year many of us overestimate what we can realistically achieve in such a short space of time. So much competes for our attention and so much crops up unexpectedly. Like my sports day version of Aesop’s hare and tortoise, many of us get off to flyer and end with a whimper.

Instead, I propose that we keep our personal improvement focuses simple and modest. I also propose that, despite the temptation to rip everything up and start again, we stick to only three areas. Finally, I suggest that we should  counterbalance these by removing (or reducing) three time-consuming practices that most probably have little impact.

So, the three to go are …

1. Worksheets. Just recently I filled three green bins with retired worksheets. I have wasted so much of my time walking to the printer, guillotining them, handing them out, picking them off the floor and re-printing for those who have lost them. Most questions and tasks can be projected from the front of the classroom. If students need grids, tables and diagrams they can draw them for themselves. If we want to teach organisation habits, then perhaps this is a good first step!

2. Typing on a slideshow what I could write on the board. So often my planning consists of writing things on a slide before a lesson that I could just as easily write on the board during the lesson! In fact, students seem to find this easier to follow – perhaps because their working memories are less likely to be bombarded with too much information. Of course, there are many benefits to projecting images, models and task lists but much of what I pre-prepare could simply be written there-and-then. (I appreciate that this is harder for inexperienced teachers.)

3. Homework that requires unnecessary marking. I have been experimenting with this over the last year by setting grammar tasks that students complete at home and then self-mark as I guide the whole group through the answers. They do not miss out. They get careful, detailed feedback and are helped to understand where and how they have gone wrong. What’s more, I pepper them with further questions to check their understanding is not superficial. It also allows them to experience a new concept three times – in class, for homework and again in class – something Graham Nuthall’s research demonstrates is vital for long-term retention. It is very possible to give students clear feedback on their homework without lifting a red pen.

And the three to work on are …

1. Systematic building of subject specific vocabulary for retention and transfer. In English, students encounter certain terms and concepts over and over again in different contexts: grammatical terminology, literary devices and conventions, etc. Despite my best efforts, I find that I still have top-set year 10 students who do not know what a verb is. My plan is to develop a generic list of key terms that we will cover through the year in various contexts. On their first encounter of each, students will receive a definition, an associated image (as a cue) and some kind of mnemonic. They will write these in the last two pages of their exercise books. Through the year their knowledge and understanding of these will be regularly quizzed and they will revisit them in a range of texts and situations (including their favourite game: Shoot Down). They will be expected to provide precise definitions. In the spring term, I will set my year 7 group and my top set year 11 group – who will have been exposed to these terms in my usual, less systematic way –  the same test so that I can compare their knowledge and understanding. Granted, my experimental design lacks scientific rigour, but these results and my observations should be useful in informing me whether this is a fruitful path to follow in future.

2. Improve my teaching of rhetorical writing.
Too often, I have been guilty of ‘persuasion by numbers’ – i.e. giving students a list of simple devices and asking them to tick them off as they write. This tends to lead to artficial and bloated writing. I want my students instead to choose and employ devices as and when necessary so that they think about the clarity and overall impact of their work. I’ve also just ordered Sam Leith’s ‘You Talking To Me?’: Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama. I’m hoping it will give me some useful pointers.

3. Better prepared explanations and questions. With the time saved by producing fewer worksheets and less elaborate slideshows, I will plan my delivery more carefully – see my post on better explanations here. This might mean mugging up on grammar rules, googling the best mnemonic for spelling a tricky word or annotating texts carefully before I teach them. Having just co-written a book that argues the importance of modelling and questioning, it is high time I started to practise what I preach.


With the new language and Literature GCSEs rolling out from September, along with the fact that we have our first ever Year 7 cohort, I will have more than enough to attend to. That’s why I have to keep it simple.

Have a wonderful summer. I’ll see you next term.

And remember: keep next year’s planning realistic.

What do you plan to add and subtract?

General knowledge, the new English GCSE and the ‘as-the-crow-flies error’

as-the-crow-fliesFINALImage: @jasonramasami

Q: How do you make a duck sing soul music?

A: Put it in the microwave until its Bill Withers.

My partner enjoyed this joke so much that she spent most of last week retelling it to anyone within earshot. Unfortunately, however, her comedy attempts received a flat reception at her workplace. Two people had never heard of Bill Withers and one, bizarrely, was aware of the soul legend but did not know that a ‘bill’ is a duck’s beak.

This reminded me of a similar teaching moment from earlier this year when my year 11s attempted a practice iGCSE Core exam question based on a piece written about a remote region of eastern Russia, the Kamchatka Peninsula. The task was as follows:

Using your own words, explain what the writer means by the words in italics in the following phrases:

(ii) ‘the terrain is so impenetrable’ (line 33)

Two marks were available, one for each correctly explained word. Answers that read ‘the ground/country is so impassable’ (or similar) were credited with two marks. Of a class of twenty-five 15-16 year-olds – mostly working at about a C – only one achieved both marks and most did not get either. Even though the following discussion made it clear that the majority of class-members were comfortable with the meaning of ‘penetrate’ (don’t ask why!),  the fact that most did not understand the word ‘terrain’ in the first place rendered the meaning of ‘impenetrable’ impenetrable.

The Bill Withers joke and iGCSE question cause confusion for the same reason: a lack of knowledge. Once we become fluent decoders of text, comprehension requires good general knowledge and word knowledge. It can be a mistake to think of reading and general knowledge as separate abilities – in reality, they work in tandem. Understanding the Bill Withers joke and the meaning of ‘terrain’ are not measures of reading skill or joke-deciphering skill; they are measures of the scope of your general knowledge. In a mutually beneficial relationship, general knowledge helps us to understand what we read and, in turn, reading helps us to further develop our general knowledge.

E. D. Hirsch’s work is controversial – sullied perhaps by its association with Michael Gove – but his theories about reading make a lot of sense even if you disagree with his solution (a Core Knowledge curriculum). I found these two paragraphs from Hirsch’s The Knowledge Deficit (2007) fascinating:

To understand language, whether spoken or written, we need to construct a situation model consisting of meanings construed from the implicit words of the text as well as meanings inferred or constructed from relevant background knowledge. The spoken and the unspoken taken together constitute the meaning. Without this relevant, unspoken background knowledge, we can’t understand the text.

This is why we are able to understand some texts but not others, no matter how well we can decode the words. We possess the relevant knowledge in some cases, and in those cases we can understand what we are reading, but we lack it in others, and in those cases we cannot comprehend the text. Since relevant, domain-specific knowledge is an absolute requirement for reading comprehension, there is no way around the need for children to gain broad general knowledge in order to gain broad general proficiency in reading. (p. 39)

The idea that a reader needs to construct a ‘situational model’ to comprehend text is relatively new to me. Only in the past year or two have I become acquainted with Hirsch’s work and it is a shame that his ideas do not seem to be well-known amongst English teachers.

I admit I am no expert in reading theory and that the causes of reading difficulties can be complex. I am also aware that there are plenty of other factors that affect a child’s ability to read. I recently read Kathryn Asbury and Robert Plomin’s G is for Genes: The Impact of Genetics on Education and Achievement (2013), a useful introduction to the findings from the Twins Early Development Study (TEDS). Twin studies are revealing more and more about how the complex interplay between genes and environment influences cognitive ability and educational achievement. For instance, recent studies suggest that 60 to 80% of the differences in individual reading ability can be explained by genetic influence. Environmental factors – including the amount of knowledge we have exposed them to – cannot alone fully predict a child’s ability to comprehend a piece of writing.

It would, therefore, be too simplistic to blame all reading difficulty on a lack of exposure to general knowledge. It may well be that the ability to find meaning in an unfamiliar text is partly a function of general cognitive ability. Similarly, some children will learn knowledge more quickly and that’s a fact of life. Nevertheless, Asbury and Plomin are at pains to point out that all children, barring those with severe learning difficulties, should be capable of gaining reading competence with the right support. In other words, by the age of 16, most children should know the word ‘terrain’ and know that ‘bill’ is more than just a nickname for William.

Last week, we looked at the specs for the new AQA English Language exam. Students will sit two exams and will be expected to read and answer questions on unseen fiction and non-fiction extracts, contemporary and 19th century. Ofqual have set the following assessment objectives:

AO1: Identify and interpret explicit and implicit information and ideas; select and synthesise evidence from different texts.

AO2: Explain, comment on and analyse how writers use language and structure to achieve effects and influence readers, using relevant subject terminology to support their views.

AO3: Compare writers’ ideas and perspectives, as well as how these are conveyed, across two or more texts.

AO4: Evaluate texts critically and support this with appropriate textual references.

These are useful, of course, but give little guidance about to how to plan the curriculum and teach sequences of lessons. Abstract objectives and criteria like these have been the lingua franca during the decade I have worked as an English teacher. Implemented poorly, they can lead to the shortcut I call the as-the-crow-flies error, which occurs when we make a beeline to teaching generic reading skills before exposing students to the background knowledge needed to employ these skills. For instance, if I want a child to master AO4 it appears logical to teach them how to ‘evaluate texts critically’; however, the problem lies in that they can only do this if they are able to fully comprehend the text in the first place. Yes, we can teach a child to think, write and speak in an appropriate evaluative and critical style and this will lead to some success but it will not replace background knowledge. Teaching like this is like trying to unscrew the lid of a medicine bottle by pressing alone and forgetting to turn.

Similarly, the as-the-crow-flies error will occur again if we think that by exposing students to a few non-fiction extracts they will become better at reading non-fiction texts. To read these texts with insight they will need a deep and wide-ranging knowledge of the world. Like many schools, we are aiming to teach the new language GCSE almost exclusively through the new literature GCSE. We will expose students to non-fiction that enhances and sheds light on the literature they are reading – i.e. if we are reading A Christmas Carol, we might supplement our reading with Victorian non-fiction texts on the plight of the poor. Sourcing these texts will be the tricky bit. This seems the most sensible approach for two reasons: one, content takes priority over skills; and, two, it will lead to a richer, more fulfilling curriculum. The exam skills can come much later in the course.

So what can we do in our everyday English lessons to help us side-step the as-the-crow-flies error? Here are some ideas (even if they are drops in the ocean):

1. Expose students to challenging literature that extends their knowledge of the world right from key stage 3. The horse has often bolted by key stage 4.

2. Always focus on content understanding and vocabulary knowledge when reading texts. Don’t gloss this over in the hope that focussing on higher-order skills will ‘accelerate their learning’. Instead, it will just leave gaps. Depth over breadth, every time.

3. Remember that exposure to knowledge can come through a range of means such as the richness of teacher explanation and class discussion. Even a well-narrated documentary is fair game for introducing new knowledge and vocabulary.

4. Remember that skills are ultimately ways to manipulate knowledge. Yes, they should be taught explicitly, but not to the detriment of knowledge.

5. And, most importantly, encourage children to read. Exposure to knowledge cannot come through lessons alone

Lastly, schools need to recognise that the responsibility for ensuring that students have the requisite knowledge to comprehend a wide range of reading material cannot depend on English teachers alone. To read and comprehend texts about the past or the present students need to know a lot about the past and the present. I remain convinced that, putting individual differences to one side, a child’s performance in English Language is as much a measure of the quality of their whole education as it is a measure of the quality of the English teaching they have received.

Your comments are very welcome. I am still learning.

Related posts:

English teaching and the problem with knowledge

Can we teach students how to make inferences?

(Don’t forget to order your freshly-published copy of Making Every Lesson Count which I have written with Shaun Allison.)