Language Paper 2 Writing – An Introduction

This term we’ve been preparing our Y11s for the second round of mock exams. We do Paper 1 Lit and Lang before Christmas and both Paper 2s around Feb/March. This works for us as a way to structure pupils’ revision but more importantly (and I strongly believe this is of massive importance) it eases teacher workload.

So, this term has been all about Paper 2, arguably the hardest of the two language exams. Why? Twice the reading in the same amount of time and no choice of tasks for Q5. After having read a pair of texts about such varied issues as festivals (interesting) and snow (less interesting) pupils then have to form an opinion on the issue, an issue which most or many 16 year olds may never have considered before.

Now I don’t think this is a bad thing, not at all. The enormous variety of possible topics allows for many opportunities to provide our pupils with a breadth of reading material over the course of the curriculum and build up their cultural capital. I enjoy teaching paper 2 but it does have its challenges.

Like all English leaders, I spent the days following results day last year using AQA’s ERA tool to pore over the areas in which our pupils achieved well and those in which they needed more help. The pattern was clear, and not unexpected; Paper 2 writing was the section of the exam in which our students, (91% of whom are EAL) struggled the most. So what have we been doing to tackle this?

Firstly, I am a firm believer in empowering teachers with confidence and subject knowledge through in-house CPD ( I’ve blogged about this here) so our department meetings this term have been dedicated to Paper 2 Writing tasks. I have asked those teachers in my team who have a talent for writing to set tasks in meetings, talk us through how they would plan/teach this task and then we all have a go. In the time we have we often only write a couple of paragraphs but we then share these with each other, in a totally supportive environment, and someone types them up so we all have a copy of what everyone has written. These models are then shared in class with pupils. So far, pupils have responded positively to models written by the English department as we share the different approaches we’d take to the question and acknowledge the challenges we face when attempting the questions. Some of us are not naturally gifted writers and the pupils appreciate that we don’t expect them to be either.

One of the biggest challenges our pupils face is knowing where to start with the writing tasks. They struggle to form opinions on topics about which they care very little and they don’t read enough to know that articles do not start with the phrase “I agree with this statement because…” We have very high expectations of all our pupils and the fact that the overwhelming majority of them speak English as a second language, or are Pupil Premium is never used an excuse to explain away any underperformance. These challenges are barriers which we all climb over together. However, this does not mean we don’t need to give pupils a great deal of support and scaffolding to help them climb over those barriers.

In a recent CPD meeting we shared the idea of starting the writing tasks with a reference to a recent news event. For example, an article on advising young people to take care of the environment may being with ‘You may have seen the news coverage recently of the devastating forest fires in California”. I found this useful so I decided to develop it further for my grade 3-4 pupils in intervention. We came up with the following structure for writing introductions:

  • Reference to a recent news event (doesnt have to be real but should be realistic!)
  • A rhetorical question or a statistic
  • An emotive statement of intent/call for action

The introduction will look something like this:

Q: “The internet causes more harm than good. It is the worst invention in human history.” Write a speech for Parliament in which you argue for or against this statement.

A: The news has been dominated this week by the tragic death of Molly Russell, the 14 year old girl who killed herself after being exposed to a series of images promoting self harm and suicide on Instagram. Her father has said that Instagram killed his daughter. He, like over 60% of parents we surveyed, monitored his daughter’s social media use closely. He thought he knew what his daughter was accessing. But how much do we really know about what our children are looking at when they are in their rooms, staring at their phones? This tragedy is the alarm we all need to hear, the alarm that should wake us up to the danger of mankind’s greatest invention: the internet.

For those of you groaning at the inclusion of those overused AFOREST techniques in the plan (urgh, AFOREST!) they are techniques that our grade 3-4 students are already familiar with and can write easily. Remember, our aim is to make them feel confident and capable as they approach this difficult task. As a result, these pupils wrote introductions which were engaging, outlined their argument for the body of the essay, and helped them stay focused on the task. I will add some examples to this post when I’ve typed some up.

Hope it helps!


Taking a DIY approach to CPD

This month I wrote a blog for TES about how middle leaders can take control of their team’s CPD. Follow the link below to read the full article.

With school budgets tighter then ever, most teachers are experiencing a professional development drought. Many schools now do CPD in-house, but this is often of varying quality and is not always relevant to individual teachers.

To be honest, external courses are often not much better.

I haven’t been on a paid-for external CPD course in about five years. The last one was when the film studies specification changed. As leader of that particular course, I was allowed to go on the rather expensive day out to a hotel function room, where I ate some dry sandwiches and had the course specification read aloud to me with accompanying PowerPoint slides.

Read the rest of the article here

Why We’re All Doing Just Fine

This is a call to arms to all you teachers out there who sometimes feel inferior when you compare yourself to others. This is a shout out for all you ‘adequate’ teachers, all of us who are doing just fine, getting on with it, feeling fair to middling. This is my chance to say why we’re all doing just fine, and that’s perfect actually.

Over the summer classroom displays were a hot topic on Twitter with lots of people posting their beautiful works of art for all to see. Oh, how envious many must have been. I once would have felt that way myself but, being 32 and having taught for 10 years, I just thought ‘Good on you folks for having the energy to do that!’ My creative juices start and end with what colour socks to wear in the morning. My classroom displays are the product of spending the last 10 years ‘taking one for the team’ and allowing Open Evening to be held in my room. All of a sudden the whole department has to help jazz the place up and turn it from a jungle of ripped backing paper and blue-tack stained walls into a multi-coloured, laminated and fully backed theatre of key quote dreams.

So, if you ever feel a pang of guilt when you see beautiful displays shared on Twitter, remember that it might look nice, but so does a kitten, and kittens are much more cuddly than displays. Get a kitten. You’ll feel just fine.

Next up, resources. First of all, I love a good resource booklet as much as the next person and always find the time to thank those who have shared such gems through Team English and beyond. I know how much hard work goes into them. At this stage in my career my own resources are basic at best. I used to take such pride in a PowerPoint. I even used to spend time downloading new fonts. Just take that in for a second. As an insanely busy new teacher I spent time DOWNLOADING NEW FONTS. What the merry hell was I thinking? My students’ results were no better for it. I needed to find a use for my ever increasing stationery addiction so I now teach with a chunky notepad, a good pen, the text we’re studying, and a visualiser. If there’s no visualiser in the room, I talk at the kids for an hour and tell them to make notes. That’s ok to do because I’m the only person in the room with any qualifications and I’m worth listening to. Our results last year were the best they’ve ever been and I have more space on my hard drive for pictures of cats. What could be better?

I don’t know a great deal about language terminology as I’m a literature student and sometimes on Twitter I see people debating whether such and such is an example of asyndeton or polysyndeton or polycystic ovaries or something like that and I have a pang of “blimey, I should know this stuff… everyone else knows this stuff!” And then I remember that I got a whole entire degree without knowing lots of things that other English specialists may know, and I have successfully taken hundreds of children through their GCSEs without knowing them either. I am certainly not celebrating ignorance; I bloody LOVE learning and try to instil that same love into every student I teach but I also know that I don’t know everything and there are gaps in my knowledge. I do, however, know all the words to the musical episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Don’t tell me I’m not talented.

And finally, work life balance. Anyone who says they’ve got this nailed can go and get in a bin. Get right in that bin and don’t come out til you’ve been up all night trying to mark 120 mock exams where every kid has taken the beach picture prompt to mean ‘shark attack’ but without any of the subtlety or nuances of a Spielberg script.

You don’t work at home? Oh well good for you, now smug off. You had time for a run this evening did you, and you feel great do you? Well I had time for a migraine tablet and an episode of Pointless before I fell into a broken sleep worrying about whether or not Year 11 will have made ‘expected progress’ in their latest assessments.

All any of us can do is our best and big each other up along the way. We need to be cheerleaders for each other and if that means creating a safe space where you can say ‘actually, no, I’m not doing so well today’ then do that. By all means do it right now and ignore all those that claim they’re getting it right all the time.

And on that note, I’d like to use this opportunity to give a massive virtual group hug (because they know I don’t like real ones!) to my own personal ‘safe space’ buddies: Becky, Fiona, Amy, Caroline, Grainne, Lyndsey, Sana, Nat, Freya, Charlie, Rebecca, Sarah, and our token bloke, Chris! My group chats with you lot keep me sane in a cray cray world!

Thank you for reading.

Reading for Pleasure?

This year I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to encourage more of the young people I teach to read for pleasure. This is every English teacher’s dream and it often seems like an unattainable goal. If anyone had a solution to the reading challenge then it would be packaged, sold and millions would be made. Billions even.
Disclaimer – If you’re hoping that this blog will be my big reveal of the holy grail then please stop reading now as you’ll be disappointed. I haven’t found the answer but I am working on it…

I’ve had to reflect on the way we present reading in school. For instance, as a younger teacher I used to get pupils to do reading when they were in my detentions. It seemed like a purposeful way for them to spend their time once they’d apologised for the pen throwing or general disruption they had caused in my lesson. But what I was really doing was far more damaging. This is a detention, this is a punishment, reading is punishment. That’s what I was telling them. I soon stopped this foolish practice and would urge any other teachers who have made this mistake to do the same.

As time went on a I became confident that my department was doing everything right in terms of encouraging reading for pleasure. Reading lessons in KS3 once a week, where there is not a pen in sight, are common practice now. Teachers and students read together and pause to discuss and reflect on the story at regular intervals. I also introduced the idea of reading at the beginning of every lesson; this was initially a response to a timetabling disaster which left us running from room to room every period, trying to settle a class and set up the lesson. I decided that having every pupil silently read for the first 10 minutes of every lesson would not only be a calm and engaging way to begin, but had the practical benefit of allowing the harassed teacher to catch their breath and get the resources ready. Finally, we had a massive clear out of all our old and tatty class reading books; you know, the ones you’ve had since 1985 with questionable graffiti on every other page. We donated them to the art department who made some beautiful book art and we used them for black out poetry. The literacy budget was spent on hundreds of shiny new reading books, much to the delight of everyone.

So far so good, right?

Wrong. Whilst our department and school is doing all we can to promote reading (and I must give a shout out here to our incredible library team) I’m still not satisfied that we are making a big enough difference. Kids still pretend to read in our reading lessons and get caught daydreaming or hiding a phone behind the book. A few still regularly forget to bring their own book to the start of every lesson despite a high profile reward system to encourage this. And the shiny new reading books? Some still haven’t been touched. These pupils are in the minority so you may ask ‘what’s the problem?’ The problem for me is that I don’t want any child to leave my school having never experienced the pleasure of a good book, having never experienced what it’s like to feel sad when reaching the end of a great novel, having never experienced the desire that a character was real so they could be your actual real life friend!

My expectations of all the children that pass through our doors is very high, as it should be, but I’m starting to worry that the reading issue is something we cannot tackle alone.

I recently read Daniel Willingham’s Raising Kids Who Read: What Parents and Teachers Can Do. I naïvely thought that this would be the aforementioned holy grail; Willingham’s going to tell me how to get the buggers to read! And he did… Sort of. It soon became apparent that maybe our children reach us too late for us to fix the reading problem. No culture of reading at home? Forget it. Pupils raised in a household with few or no books (as many of ours are) are very unlikely to ever get to grips with reading at all, never mind reading for pleasure. As a secondary English teacher, I’m in awe of my primary colleagues who know how to teach children to read from scratch, but even they will face an uphill struggle to engage reluctant readers if this is not pushed at home.

It seems like parental engagement and community outreach might be the key to this problem; I am proud to say that the community my school and I serve is one of the most culturally diverse in the country and so pupils and families who speak English as an additional or second language make up the majority of our catchment. As a result, the number of English language novels in the home is often very limited and the taboo many teenagers experience about going to the library means some of our kids never have access to varied reading material outside of school.

I don’t know how to fix this. I have no answers, and I’m sorry if you’ve got to this point in my blog expecting some. I do intend to go hunting for them though, and speaking to our library and literacy coordinator about parental outreach is going to be my next step.

I would be interested to hear what other schools do to engage parents in reading or if you have had any success with engaging reluctant readers. Any comments below will be appreciated.

Thank you for reading.
Hopefully it’s been a pleasure.

Twinkl, Twinkl, Little Stars!

Here at Team English our main job is to share excellent resources and connect you all to each other so as to save you time and energy when planning. As such, I was excited recently when Twinkl got in touch to ask what we thought of their Secondary English resources… I had to admit I didn’t know that they did Secondary English materials. I have used Twinkl resources in the past but always for KS3 classes (usually SEN or EAL groups) as I always assumed they only did Primary materials.

How wrong I was!

Having browsed Twinkl this half term I have found a treasure trove of resources for our new Y7 Much Ado About Nothing scheme, our Y8 Gothic Horror unit and – Holy Grail – their very own AQA sample papers! Anyone who has tried to make their own exam paper knows how utterly time consuming this task can be, especially if you decide that a detailed mark scheme with indicative answers is needed. They even have exam packs for The Sign Of Four!! Those exclamations are entirely necessary because if you’ve tried to teach that particular Sherlock story this year you’ll know that barely any resources exist. One well known resource site told me they didn’t bother making Sign Of Four schemes of work because “our research showed that no one was teaching that text.” One-Nil to Twinkl.

Of particular interest to me were their resources on that awful structure question on AQA Language Paper 1. A difficult question for which to prepare even the brightest pupils, yet the Twinkle Q3 resource pack breaks the skills down into manageable chunks. All of the AQA packs that I have so far downloaded look ready made for my EAL pupils but also touch upon the higher level skills needed for the most able in my mixed ability classes. The packs include attractive visuals for which Twinkl are well known but also lesson plans, word mats and mini exam papers.

The only downside? You do need a subscription to access these resources which is a luxury some can’t afford or simply may not want to pay. That is entirely up to you but do have a look at their growing bank of materials and see what you think. I reckon you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

By Nikki

‘Write’ or Wrong – Trying Something New

Over summer I read this blog by the very talented Chris Curtis. I magpie a lot of ideas from a lot of blogs, but this one has had the biggest impact on my department. I promised Chris I’d let him know how my little project went so that’s what this blog is all about. 


Teaching writing is hard. Most English teachers are guilty of reducing writing to a clever mnemonic or a tick list of features to include. We all know that good writers are readers, but for those kids who don’t read, or don’t read enough, this tick list approach has been our life-raft for creating adequate writing, but nothing more.

I have taught persuasive writing for the past 9 years using that awful AFOREST approach. I’ve told countless students to start with a rhetorical question. And end with one too! I’ve shared excellent pieces of persuasive non fiction with classes and then reduced it down to “highlight the persuasive techniques everyone” often not stopping to discuss the real impact of the writing. Why? Because I know no other way. Most of us know no other way. 

My young nieces and nephews all enjoy writing. I remember being stuck in dire M6 traffic with two of them and knew they were getting bored. Fortunately, being a teacher, I’m never far from a notepad and pen and within minutes they were busy writing stories about fantasy worlds and talking cats. Not once did they complain that their hands hurt, or that they didn’t know how to start, or asked whether this was being levelled. They wrote for a good half an hour and took great pleasure in reading to me afterwards.

I sat wondering why I couldn’t make this happen at school? Did my nieces come from a home of writers and prolific readers? Not really. Was it because my students were older? Maybe… but I wasn’t convinced. It lay in how I’d set the challenge. My nieces got to choose what they were writing. There was no assessment. No expectation other than to please themselves and, to a lesser extent me.

It would be wonderful if we could harness pupils’ early enjoyment of writing and reading throughout high school and into their later lives (I know that not all children do enjoy these activities but I’m starting from the perhaps naïve assumption that they don’t all hate it at first). Sometimes a piece of work will have to be assessed. Sometimes they won’t get a choice of topic and will have to answer a dry exam question. But… but. That’s only sometimes. We’ve let this occasional need to assess and limit their writing bleed into our daily teaching practise. My challenge was to change this. 

The Challenge

After reading Chris’s blog I decided to pitch the idea of Writing Workshops to the English department. This was my first year as HoD and I didn’t want to make too many dramatic changes, but I hoped I could get people on board with this. Like all changes, I knew I’d have to have a clear idea of the challenges and questions the team would ask.

The Writing Workshop lesson would be once a week, where pupils would be given a writing prompt and then they would write. That’s it. Write, all lesson. The teacher would lead some class discussion to start with, share some ideas etc. But then they just write. The teacher will have time to move around the room live marking and giving instant feedback.

We needed to begin from a new starting point and rearrange our expectations. Children know how to persuade and argue. Ask your class to tell you why they should be allowed first into lunch next week. You will see an impressive range of persuasive skills on show. They know how to explain and inform. Listen to them helping a friend with their homework. They know how to describe, how to explain, how to make something dramatic, emotive, funny – they are experts at funny!

The challenge from my team was not about lots of extra marking, as I’d expected. The concerns were mostly that, given this new approach, I had made the gamble to remove all ‘writing units of work’ from our remodelled curriculum. I’ve put that statement into inverted commas because, as far as I’m concerned, all units of work in English are writing units. I’m fed up of spending 6 weeks on teaching the nuances of gothic writing to a Y8 class, only for them to produce a mediocre piece of horror writing which strongly resembles the plot of The Conjuring at the end of it. People were understandably unsure about how we would teach writing without a 6 week scheme of work to back it up. I asked them to trust the pupils and trust themselves, the feedback they give and the skills they can share.

The Story So Far

I’m very lucky to lead an enthusiastic team of talented English teachers who all want opportunities to add more to the school and show off their skills. In this instance I was pleased when one of the team approached me asking if she could lead on the Writing Workshops. She wanted to put together a schedule of topics to be covered – she rightly felt it made sense to have a focus each half term and she wanted to put together a bank of writing prompts for everyone to use. If this was going to be long term, it needed organising so that classes don’t repeat all the same tasks next year. I was more than happy to let her take this on.

Once the lessons began we faced a couple of teething problems, namely the Writing Workshops not happening! People felt the lessons could be expendable if a little extra time was needed on the Animal Farm unit or or if a lesson was missed because of Eid. Cue a department meeting agenda item – Writing Workshops are not an add on, they are as important as our units of work.

The second issue was just breaking old habits. When you’re used to teaching writing through a breakdown of a persuasive text, followed by a card sort, followed by highlighting techniques, it’s hard to do something different. Especially when that new something requires you to leave the pupils to their own devices for most of the lesson. No one likes to feel redundant and some of us like the sound of our own voices a little too much (me included, I think I’m hilarious!).

After a few more feedback sessions in department meetings to iron out these issues, and getting people to share great examples to prove it can be done, we seem to be on the right track. The whole project might die on its proverbial backside before the year is out, and I’ve no solid data yet to prove it’s making a significant difference to pupil progress. But its early days and I’m optimistic, as are my department. That’s half the battle.

Confessions of a Hoarding Teacher

 It recently occurred to me that I might be a hoarder. I’m one more visit to Ryman’s away from having a house filled from floor to ceiling with pens and notepads that I don’t have time to use because I’m busy unwrapping my new pens and notepads. For someone who likes to claim that I am not a materialistic person, I do seem to collect a lot of things. Pens and pencil cases, hoodies (mostly Marvel themed), dvds and books, cushions, candles… and teaching resources.  

My classroom has 5 filing cabinets. Each cabinet is filled with resources from my 10 years of teaching and training but most of these resources are now irrelevant. They link to old specs, old curriculums, and some of them are just bad ideas from my first few years of teaching that I’ll never use again. So why keep them? I can’t imagine the day will ever come when I think ‘Ooh, remember that OHP acetate of Education for Leisure – the poem you’re no longer allowed to teach to children for fear they’ll go on a killing spree? That’ll be handy for my lesson today! Now where’s the overhead projector got to?”  
I hoard on Twitter too. I ‘like’ many tweets and add links to Pocket, because for some reason I think I’ll be more likely to read those articles when they’re hidden in another app. I pay for a Dropbox subscription because I want access to everything the shared English drives have to offer. I subscribe to the email updates of many brilliant teaching blogs but rarely find the time to read them. I have notepads (there they are again!) filled with notes and ideas from teachmeets and seminars. I have annotated Reading Reconsidered and various other edu books with ideas and references that, at the time, I fully intended to go back and use someday. Of the vast materials and notes I have amassed over the years, I think I’ve used about 1% of them. 

That’s not to say that any of this idea and resource hoarding is useless. The best ideas must have stuck in my head without the need for further reference because I know my teaching practice has improved over the years, and I always like to try new things. The question is why can I not be more selective about what I keep and what I dump? Why do I save EVERY SINGLE Dropbox link I come across on my timeline, regardless of whether I not I teach that particular text or even year group? This year I have attempted to justify my hoarding by convincing myself that, as HoD, I should be collecting useful resources to pass on to my team. A nice thought, but is that really my responsibility? Do I have time for that? So far the answer has been no. And the year is unlikely to get any less busy from this point on. 

The fact is, I like hoarding all of this stuff because I have major FOMO. That’s Fear Of Missing Out for those of you fortunate enough to have never come across this phrase. I worry about not having that resource to hand should I ever need it. What if Education for Leisure comes back onto the curriculum? What if coursework comes back and all those packs I made 5 years ago become useful again? What if one day I do decide I need to read X’s blog on the progressive Vs traditional argument?  

As long as I have the space, virtual or physical, I suppose I shall continue to hoard. But if the Channel 5 documentary makers ever come knocking on my door could someone please stage an intervention? Thanks.