On KS3 English Curriculum Design


If students studied The Odyssey in year 7…

They would learn about the incredible story of the Trojan War and understand the meaning behind a number of idiomatic phrases, such as ‘the face that launched a thousand ships’, ‘between a rock and a hard place’ and ‘beware Greeks bearing gifts.’

The names of Greek and Trojan heroes – Achilles, Menelaus, Agamemnon, Hector and, of course, Odysseus himself – would become familiar to them, as would their stories of glory and suffering.

Through the tales of Penelope, Clytemnestra and Helen, students would learn about gender inequality in the Classical world, which could then be critiqued, perhaps referring to the wealth of contemporary literature that writes back to these myths from different perspectives and viewpoints.

Learning about the lives of the immortals would be a must. The founding of Olympus, the battle with the Titans and the creation stories of some of the gods could all be covered. The nature of myth itself could be explored, so that students start to conceptualise the way human beings make sense of their world through narrative.

It would be a chance to study art of the Mycenaean period and for students to learn about the different periods of Greek Civilisation. Discussions could develop an understanding of the nature of civilisation, exploring Odysseus’s questionable actions and his treatment of his men.

Students would learn about the oral tradition of passing on stories from one generation to the next through bards like Homer. There would be the chance to establish the connection between the lyre and the lyric poem – a cornerstone of their poetry studies in later years.

Language exploration would be rich and plentiful. The grammatical and semantic roots of ideas like democracy, xenophobia and polytheism would all have concrete examples to aid their understanding and link antiquity to the modern world.

There would be the chance to introduce etymology and to show how contemporary society often draws upon the distant past to define itself through borrowing names like Hermes for lightening service, Nectar for heavenly benefits, and Ambrosia for foods of the gods, for instance.

The opportunity to look at the grammatical structures of epithets would be interesting and fun, as well as helping to explain how poets retained such a wealth of information in their own heads using recurring patterns of rhythm and rhyme. Comparisons to our digital world would be necessary.

Students would learn epic poetry and what it meant to be a hero in the Classical world – about the importance of attaining lasting fame (Kleos) through action (Achilles) or cleverness (Odysseus). An understanding of epic and heroism would underpin much of the wider curriculum and be a thread that is returned to in different time periods.

If students, then, studied Shakespeare’s Sonnets in year 8…

They would begin by learning about Petrarch and his love for Laura. They would be introduced to the tricky idea of idealised love and begin to see how yearning for something beyond your grasp is very different from the modern world’s desire for instant gratification.

By reading about Petrarch’s Canzoniere students could begin to understand that as well as working as individual pieces, poems can also function together as part of a wider narrative. A difficult concept for students to grasp who tend to only get fed artificial anthologies put together for exams!

At this stage the basic stylistic and thematic concerns of sonnets could be introduced – how 14 lines is just about the right length to develop an idea from start to finish and how the form represents something of a literary challenge that all the major poets tend to have a go at it.

Students would be introduced to the notion of an argument (as distinct from disagreement) and be able to understand the connection between the desired beloved and the yearning lover.

There would be an opportunity to develop an overview of the Elizabethan timeline and how minor poets – Sir Thomas Wyatt and the Earl of Surrey – imported the Italian form into English, making changes to reflect the lack of as many rhymes in English as in Italian.

By the time they got to Shakespeare’s sonnets, students would know a little bit about how and why Shakespeare wrote poetry during times of plague. The idea of patrons and the need to make money (Shakespeare was not an aristocrat) might surprise them and bring him a little closer to their lives.

Students would develop an understanding of the way Shakespeare popularised the form, and by concentrating mostly on the use of rhyme schemes and structures (quatrains, octaves, sestets and couplets) they would gain confidence and mastery that could be built upon later on.

Stories about the Beautiful youth and the Dark Lady would capture attention, as would the change of pronoun from masculine to feminine in the Victorian Age. Discussions about male desire would be rich and there would be a chance to contrast with male relationships in the past and present

Focusing on just a handful of poems would help students to see structural features at work. It would provide the chance to learn poetry off by heart – at first daunting and alien, and perhaps not really something that is part of their world, but then exciting and contagious with practice.

The difference in confidence and understanding would be palpable and inspiring.

The couplet in ‘Sonnet 18’ could be poured over. Students would be surprised by the power of art to preserve a life this way. They would make connections to the Greek concept of Kleos, and see how different generations wrestle with the same enduring questions about life and death.

If students, then, studied WW1 poetry and Journey’s End in year 9…

There would be a great opportunity for students to thread together the ideas and themes explored in previous years but in a time period more recognisable.

They could extend their conceptual understanding of literature through exploring the relationship between art and politics, contrasting the early jingoistic poetry of Rupert Brooke and Jesse Pope with the later trench poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon.

Students would be well placed to appreciate why those largely public school boys who enlisted early on, filled with images of Achilles and Classical heroism, thought it would be possible to be heroes and obtain glory and honour of their own. They could then reflect on what it means to be a hero.

The sonnet would make a return, but this time in the context of the bloody battlefields of France. Students could contrast the tradition of idealised romantic love with the reality of homoerotic bonds between brothers. They would see how the genre (and genres in general) bend and flex at the hands of the writers and the circumstances they are writing in.

Studying Journey’s End would provide an even starker contrast between the Flanders’ mud and the battlefields of Troy. The notion of aristeia would seem laughable in the face of the ‘the monstrous anger of the guns’ and ‘the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle’.

Students would learn about a different kind of play to reflect a different kind of war. Satire as a genre would enter students’ vocabulary, which would help them understand that this was not a war where the sword (or even the bullet) killed as much as the boredom, the waiting and the rats.

This would be an opportunity to explore ideas of class and make connections to wider social and cultural changes taking place then and now. It would make sense to learn about the women’s movement and to appreciate what we mean by context – how art both reflected and shaped changes in societal structures and gender roles.

Links back to the Classical World and to Shakespeare would be possible too, as would looking forward to the more demotic, plural society we live in today.

Students would see a world that did not have the means to express itself – trauma couched as neuralgia; silence seen as stoicism – so it had to invent new ways. They would see how over the years the notion of male heroism had completely transformed along with the role of the poet, whose brief was no longer celebrating, keeping alive but simply to warn.

They would understand why Owen believed that ‘true Poets must be truthful.’

If students studied a curriculum that included texts like these, they’d probably still spend their evenings looking at tiny screens, scrolling through endless images of themselves, but at least they’d understand that this is nothing new.

What’s more – they would also have been warned about the effects of such excessive narcissism!

Thanks for reading.


Ultimate Flash Cards

In terms of revision, we know what doesn’t work:


and doing nothing!

Conversely, we also know what is likely to be more successful:

spacing and interleaving
metacognitive strategies

The problem is some students find the language of these strategies off putting. The terms can seem opaque and clinical, no matter how many times you discuss and share the underlying reasoning.

Different terminology can help – words that capture the essence of effective study strategies but present them in more accessible and memorable language.  Often it is best to present things as clearly and simply as possible.

The Five Rs

The five Rs underpin our approach to independent study, including the guidance we give our students on writing effective flash cards.

  • reduce – identifying learning
  • recall – remembering learning
  • rethink – connecting learning
  • review – reflecting on learning
  • repeat – going back over learning

Flash card guidance

  1. Reduce

Create a learning overview by breaking down subjects into topics, units, modules and concepts. Whatever works best. Use the overview to group flash cards together within each subject. This makes revision more manageable and gives it a coherent structure.

  1. Recall

It can be useful to see recall as production and recovery. Production involves writing short prompts that invite retrieval of everything that can be remembered about a given topic, such as write a list or complete a graphic organiser e.g. Venn diagram or table.

Recovery involves recalling factual details using questions as cues. There are simple what/when/where/who questions, with how and why questions also used if appropriate. These questions strengthen memories and prime for rethinking. Three is about right.

  1. Rethink

This is important and involves designing activities that extend understanding by encouraging connections. Not exam tasks, but tasks inviting something to be done with what has been recalled, such as explanations, reasons, comparing and contrasting.

  1. Review

Planning makes study purposeful. Keeping track means weaknesses are prioritised and strengths returned to after forgetting has occurred. Colour coding (red for tomorrow; amber for a few days and green for a week) and adding dates is simple and strategic.

  1. Repeat

Steps 3-5 are repeated lots of time and at intervals. Dated cards and an overview of topics enable planning and reflection at review. Different subjects and different topics can be deliberately woven into a study session. Repetitions are determined by time available.


Screenshot 2018-03-29 17.15.33

The ‘ultimate’ reference is tongue in cheek – I don’t know if this approach is in any way optimal, but it is more likely to be successful than what is often produced and used.

Thanks for reading

The race to the bottom is still very much on!


Like you, I get lots of emails every day. I’ve not yet figured out – or rather not bothered to figure out – how to turn off the automatic alert. As a consequence, I frequently get interrupted at work. Earlier this week, an email popped up with the subject Quotation Bank in it. Mildly intrigued and on this occasion needing a distraction, I clicked the link. I wish I hadn’t. I think I have discovered a new low in educational profiteering.

As their name suggests, The Quotation Bank offer banks of quotations for all the major exam texts, all helpfully analysed for meaning and method. Whilst they are probably no worse than any other study guide, online or otherwise – they all adopt the same cynical approach of focusing relentlessly on assessment objectives and working backwards from mark schemes – there is just something very depressing for an English teacher of reducing literature to a bunch of quotes. Equally disheartening is having a whole industry that exploits the narrow end goal, but invests very little (by way of decent textbooks) on how to actually get there.

Perhaps I have a particular beef with what Quotation Bank has to offer because to me it signals a new low in the race to the bottom – one step too far in the finding of cute ways to maximise exam success through the back door. It’s fair enough for teachers to arm their students with an understanding of the text’s key lines alongside the study of the text itself, but to build a revision approach around a few decontextulised snippets alone seems to me to be rather missing the point, and certainly not what I thought I was signing up for when I came into teaching English.

All this reminds me of something that occurred a few years back when I was teaching Dorian Gray at AS level. I remember coming across a critical opinion crib sheet on the Internet, which consisted of a dozen or so quotations from different critics about the novel. I think I sighed before continuing my searches. I wouldn’t have given it a second thought, were it not for the fact that a couple of weeks later when I was reading through some recently released exemplar essays from the exam board, I came across some of the essays that contained the exact same critical quotations. Word for word.

Now it may well be that the crib sheet came after the exemplar essays. Maybe a resourceful student (hopefully not a teacher!) got hold of the scripts and knocked up a list of all the critics mentioned onto a flashcard for their own preparation. I don’t think so, but it was over five years ago now, so I cannot be sure. Either way, it doesn’t really matter. A quick search now for some of the ‘critics’ cited (and their supposed thoughts on Dorian Gray) throws up multiple cheat sheets and online flashcards with exactly the same material. It’s the literary equivalent of what journalist Nick Davies calls Flat Earth News, where news stories become news stories by sheer virtue of being spread widely with no one having the time, inclination or expertise to check their validity.

Now, I don’t expect A Level students to read the whole of tomes like Simone De Beauvoir’s Second Sex – who has? – but I would hope they could handle more than just a few pithy lines from a dubious critic. I’ve always been of the belief that one of the purposes of A level study, particularly in a subject like English, is to prepare students for the next stage of an education, whether or not they choose to continue with it. A level should, in part, be about introducing students to scholarship, teaching them the concept of literary theory and giving them a decent taste of the real thing. Not watered-down soundbites designed to convey an appearance of knowledge.

In my opinion, these are both examples of the race to the bottom – a race that is unfortunately still being run, despite the best efforts of many principled teachers and school leaders to base improvement on long-term, sustainable developments informed by evidence and genuine subject expertise. The pressure to achieve success is clearly is still all consuming and fuels a desire to find ways to bypass hard work, to look for quick wins and is the reason why companies like Quotation Bank continue to exist. The knock-on effect for a university education is only too clear.

What I think confounds the problem is the failure of the exam boards to do their jobs properly. And I am not just referring here to their inability to distinguish between knowledge and soundbites. It seems to me that, at least in my subject, there are just not enough examiners and that those examiners we do have do not always have the expertise required to examine properly. Whilst anecdotal, I know of several teachers who examined this year on texts that they had not read. A Twitter poll I conducted a few months ago suggested these were not isolated cases. Now, if you think about it – that’s ridiculous: you determine the grades of students for a text you’ve never read!

The response to this would probably go something like, ‘oh, but it’s the skills you are assessing for on the mark scheme.’ Sounds plausible, but it’s really just nonsense. Again, only anecdotal, but we have had several cases where our strongest students got much lower grades than we expected. Obviously, I understand we all have good days and bad days, but almost every time we ask for scripts back it is clear the examiner has not fully recognised some of the more sophisticated points made, and that trite, yet obvious analysis is rewarded whereas insight and subtlety is not. Surprise, surprise – on almost every occasion we appeal, grades go up, sometimes by a ludicrous number of marks.

It would be better if exam boards stopped focusing on making money on designing resources to support the teaching of their own specifications. The primary function of an exam board is surely to design and assess their qualifications, and to make sure the grades they award are consistent and fair. The curriculum, teaching and learning is for schools and teachers to worry about. Likewise if exam boards put more money and effort into recruitment, and not relied on the dubious proposition of valuable CPD for teachers, they would not need to lower the bar to get all their scripts marked. If all examiners had expertise in what they were examining, students would be encouraged to understand the whole text and get to grips with hard content and not just how to create the impression that they understand.

Without a market for short cuts, there would be little incentive for anyone to provide them, and the race would turn round in the other direction.


Less is more: pitfalls to avoid when feeding back mocks

lessismore12-171010141840-thumbnail-4It’s that time of the year when GCSE and A Level students up and down the country are sitting mock assessments. Many of these will be dictated by the school calendar, and many students will sit more than one. Whilst there is not the space here to dissect the relative merits of mocks, one would hope schools are thinking carefully about their value and the impact on students and teachers.

However mocks are set, they have to be marked. Given this usually takes hours – particularly for those with multiple exam classes – and students spend hours answering them, teachers understandably want to make the effort count. Often, however, this desire to do the best for our students can lead us to make silly mistakes, to increase our workload and reduce the impact for our students.

The following are some of the pitfalls I try to avoid when feeding back to students. They are based on a combination of my own experiences in the classroom or things that I have seen in the schools where I have worked. I do not intend to rubbish anyone who does any of the following, as we all do things that if we slowed down and thought about we would probably wouldn’t do anymore.

  1. Don’t write detailed individual comments on students’ work

Ok, this may not appear to directly relate to feeding back, but it does affect it. If you go to the trouble of writing copious personalised comments, you inevitably want your students to read them. In my experience, the 2-3 minutes they spend reading your comments, is never worth the 4 or 5 hours you spent writing them. Do yourself a favour and collate misconceptions at class level and invest class time addressing those instead.

  1. Watch out for conveying undesirable messages

Always be mindful of the unintended consequences of the language you use, even when you are trying to motivate students. Comments like, ‘the examiner wants to see X’, or ‘you can pick up easy marks if you do Y’ are actually quite destructive. In the short term, you might come across as clued up on the specification, but in the long term you risk devaluing students’ hard work and contributing to the wider perception that schooling is only about passing exams.

  1. Avoid relying on self-assessment or peer assessment

This is not a criticism of self or peer assessment per se. I am referring to instances where it is used in place of teacher marking. If you need to use students to mark your papers then you probably have too much work and you should address that issue directly, rather than sweeping it under the carpet. Also, longer answers, exam mark schemes and rubrics are hard enough for experts to interpret, let alone children. Students who mark their own work will do it badly, won’t learn anything from the experience and you will get dodgy results.

  1. Going through every question on the paper

Laboriously trawling every question is tempting, but ultimately a waste of time. I totally understand that we want our students to understand exactly why they gained a mark here, or missed a mark there, but this kind of forensic approach pretty much contravenes every rule about attention, working memory and motivation. In other words, the learning process. You would never try and cram so much content into an ‘ordinary’ lesson, so why do so when feeding back?

  1. Wasting time on spontaneous explanations

Closely related to the above is when we try to tell students what they should have written instead. With the possible exception of simple questions where the answer is either one thing or another, this attempt to provide an explanation on the hoof is unlikely to ever work. If students didn’t get something when you explained it carefully the first time round, they are unlikely to achieve an epiphany in a cobbled together explanation you haven’t planned for. Better to plan for addressing common errors in a more systematic way.

  1. Avoid unnecessary and burdensome DIRT activities

Giving students little personalised activities to tackle when they get their papers back sounds a good idea. After all, we want students to be able to recognise where they went wrong and take steps to address their misunderstandings without always having to rely on us. The problem, however, is that to design these kinds of activities well enough so that they are meaningful takes time, which could be better served planning 2-3 high leverage tasks for the whole class or for groups of students. You also run the risk of creating more work for yourself and getting in to a never ending feedback loop you cannot close.

  1. Be careful interpreting at question level

The closer you get to the exam the more sense it makes to focus your time on the questions that students performed badly on, right? Well, yes and maybe no. Obviously, you will be guided by students’ performance on specific questions – identifying areas of weakness before it is too late is surely one of the points of a mock exam. The problem, however, is that sometimes question level analysis can lead you astray. It is not always the whole question that needs addressing, but rather a specific step in a process is missing or a concept has not been fully grasped. Students need to understand what specifically needs attention, not simply to do better next time on the 8 marker question!

So, what to do instead? I am trying to keep to the following three things:

  1. Keep a record of the class strengths and weaknesses
  2. Note down exemplar responses, for better or worse
  3. Use these notes and exemplars in the coming weeks – not all at once

Not terribly original, I know. But it is intended to keep me sane and maximise the impact of my efforts on my students’ learning. Hopefully, I will stick to these principles, though I know this is often easier said than done.

To see, or not to see: that is the question


For much of Hamlet, the prince of Denmark skulks around Elsinore in a cloud of melancholy, questioning everything: whether he would be better off dead or alive, whether the ghost of his dead father really is the ghost of his dead father, and what, if anything, will happen to him when he shuffles of this ‘mortal coil’. These are big questions – some of the biggest we ask as human beings – so it’s unsurprising that despite its four-hour running time, the play fails to provide any definitive answers.

Such is the nature of drama, of course: to pose imponderables about existence, to set tensions and ambiguities in place that live on long after the curtain has fallen and the audience has departed. It’s a medium the genius of Shakespeare clearly understood: that the question is often far more revealing than the answer. His plays constantly question existence and show an appreciation for the absurdity of the human condition long before Camus wrote about the ‘fundamental disharmony between the individual’s search for meaning and the meaninglessness of the universe.’

Whilst there are a number of similarities between the theatre and the classroom – the performance, audience unpredictability and uncomfortable chairs – there is ultimately a world of difference between the questions posed by a playwright through the characters on a stage and the questions asked of students by a teacher in a lesson. The dramatist enquires away from the known order of things in search of new insight, whilst in the main the teacher starts from certainty to help construct that understanding for others – to teach the body of scientific and artistic thought that has been accumulated over time.

I have already written about how I used to waste lots of time asking silly questions. My orientation was too often skewed the wrong way; my questions tended to lean more towards the inductive like those of the artist, rather than deductive like those of the teacher. Too much speculation – why questions instead of what questions, or how questions instead of who or where questions. Too much; too soon. I was putting novice students in the difficult position of trying to grapple with ideas and methods that even Hamlet would have struggled to disentangle.

Andy Tharby has got the right idea when he argues we should focus more agreed interpretations first, as opposed to getting secondary school students to offer insights and judgements they are often ill equipped to make. I’m not advocating against developing thoughtful, enquiring minds; actually, quite the opposite. By focusing questions on building students’ understanding of what is already known (in this case about a text), it is more likely that in time, they will know enough to be able to ask about ‘the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns’ themselves.

Emphasising the deductive has improved my questioning and, in turn, my practice. I don’t mean in the showy sense where style is valued over substance, where the emphasis is on the moves of the teacher, not the content the question is trying to get at. I mean in terms of precision. Carefully worded questions help isolate variables for students so they can see what gets threaded together to form the complexities of plot, character and theme, and the intricacies of rhythm, rhyme and staging. Well-honed questions reveal gaps in understanding, as well as providing the path towards achieving it.

Screenshot 2018-02-10 09.33.14_preview

All this takes time, which means other things have to go – Powerpoint presentations, arty handouts, copious marking. All this becomes untenable. But that’s ok, because in the main, the questions are the lesson. The process also sharpens the subject knowledge, exposing strengths as well as weaknesses. When I’m struggling to phrase a question about Hamlet, Ophelia or Polonius, I realise I am probably not clear enough in my own mind about what specific aspect of their character I want to tease out. I read the passage again, perhaps around it too, until I know and then I have focus.

Almost all my lessons now consist of the text, a pen and a notebook, with all my scripted questions marked out for me in advance. I don’t always ask all of them, and they are still not as good as I would like them to be, but I think they make my lessons much more purposeful. There’s definitively still space to explore and, because that space has been created by the efficiency and precision of the questions and the speculations are stronger because they rest on a firmer base.

As Hamlet never said, ‘The question’s the thing that develops their understanding.’