Style over substance?

PollA poll immediately after the independence debate last night suggested Alex Salmond, the First Minister of Scotland was a clear winner. A Guardian article today explains that “Salmond’s win over Darling was one of style over substance.” Just like the phrase ‘empty rhetoric’, ‘style over substance’ dismisses the sophisticated role that rhetoric can play. In my opinion, the arguments from both Salmond and Alastair Darling were broadly on par- so how did Salmond ‘win’ the debate, if not the argument?

It’s always interesting to look at real examples of rhetoric and I have written before about how the best way to look at any type of persuasive writing is not to feature spot but to identify the argument and then see how language supports that. Salmond’s victory comes from the way that his language is used to support his message- Scotland should be independent from the UK and I should be trusted to take you there. Darling does strike some blows but not enough. (Before I get stuck in I must point out that this is neither a YES or NO blog but a look at some of the language used in the debate. I wouldn’t try to read more into it than that.)

Who am I?

The referendum is about a country but for this debate and for much of the campaign it has been about two men: Alex Salmond and Alastair Darling, leader of the ‘Better Together’ campaign. Very quickly in the debate, Salmond seems to seek to establish himself as a man of the people. When commenting on currency, he uses the Scottish-ism “We pay our messages”, emphasising his Scottish credentials. He later begins to describe debts as “enormous”, before switching to the less formal “ginormous”. This does again reinforce his ‘Hey- I’m just like you’ schtick. Alastair Darling, who is not blessed with a Scottish brogue does, rather uncomfortably, say “haud on” later. In trying to evidence his own Scottish credentials, he does the opposite.

Salmond uses the old ‘walk in front of the podium’ technique a little later on.

Once again, the message being I’m one of you. It felt a bit cringeworthy to me but it shows that Salmond is crafting everything about his speech. The barrier between him and Alastair Darling is further emphasised when Darling has to lean forward to be seen by the camera. Salmond adopts a relaxed posture when listening as Darling jabs a finger at him. In all of these exchanges, Salmond is isolating Darling, categorising him as the outsider- the overbearing yet distant authority figure who represents the UK Government.

PointOf course, we all hope the debate is more than just “I’m like you so vote for me.” After all, Darling does say “this isn’t about me or him”. (Although he did say before that “If I lose and he wins…” so maybe it is!)

Who are we?

So often, persuasion comes down to ‘we’. Who are ‘we’ and how can I make sure that you and I are part of this ‘we’ together? In this debate it is very interesting as both Salmond and Darling are careful to make the ‘we’ of this debate mean Scotland. However, Darling means Scotland with the rest of the UK and Salmond means without. So how does their language reflect this? Well, this is where I think Darling is quite effective. Darling manages to structure many of his arguments so that the solution can be seen by widening things out to the whole of the UK. He uses the phrase “UK-wide” more than once and later says: “Not just from Scotland but from all over the country”. He makes problems in Scotland easily solved when you take into account the whole of the British population. This ‘expanding’ of the debate also works when he is talking about Trident, the nuclear weapons development. When Salmond talks about solving a problem in Faslane, perhaps to emphasise the familiarity with a local issue (as he also does with the Ferguson Shipbuilders), Darling makes this a problem for the whole “West of Scotland”. “We cannot afford to lose £8000 jobs” he goes on to say, expanding it even further from a region to a whole country. The core message of “Better Together” informs the argument and the way it is structured. In doing this, he also makes the ‘we’ both Scotland and the UK.

Salmond repeatedly uses the phrase “The sovereign will of the Scottish people”. Darling criticised Salmond’s “smart lines” at the opening of the debate but it is a very simple way of laying the foundations of the argument that ‘we’ should have full jurisdiction on our own affairs. Salmond definitely has more of the lines but a simple line can be incredibly powerful and linger longer than a well structured argument. Salmond even speaks in hashtags at the end: “#teamscotland”.

Who are they?

Salmond has to tread a fine line between independence as a positive thing and as a divisive thing. He needs to use language to identify the UK as other but needs to avoid the negative tone too much as this will likely deter undecided voters. The Better Together- NO- campaign can then be left to be the negative party.

One way that Salmond does this is by referring to Trident as “weapons of mass destruction”. Here he is strongly arguing against nuclear weapons of course but the phrase has a wealth of connotations, and is especially prudent for Darling, who was a member of that Labour regime. In another heavily loaded phrase, Salmond in his closing speech claims that we should “rise and be a nation again”. Once again, this phrase, taken from Flower of Scotland, helps to build a warm sense of patriotism but let’s not forget that the verse concludes “That stood against him/Proud Edward’s army/And sent him homeward/Tae think again.” Far from being simply “smart lines”, these are words as full of meaning and are weapons of destruction themselves.

Salmond always refers to the UK government as “Westminster”. If Darling wants to emphasise that we should be included in the union for our own good, Salmond wants to emphasise that the UK government is isolated and distant from Scotland, even going so far as to say “Westminster is indicted”. Metonymy, personification: Salmond uses metaphor quite effectively here, although he does stray into cliche at other points. (“one trick pony”)

Knowing this approach from Salmond, Darling has to distance himself from the UK Government and he does by saying “I don’t agree with the present government’s policy” and that the bedroom tax is not good. However, by doing this he actually just reinforces Salmond’s point that “Westminster” makes decisions we don’t agree with!


I would be saddened if voters made their mind up on the big issues based solely on how a speaker performed on a debate, and I am not sure if anyone in the ‘no’ campaign will switch sides based on some stylistic flourishes. However, it is a dangerous game to dismiss rhetoric as merely style over substance. Elections should be won on substance, but they are often won on style.


An English teacher’s library

There are so many educational books out there that it can be difficult to know where to start. For anyone looking for books to read to improve their teaching, I would suggest they start from their own subject. The following list serves as both a reflection on books that have improved my teaching of English and a recommended reading list for English teachers. My friend and colleague @srcav has undertaken the same task for Maths teachers and you can read his list here.

YouTalkingYou Talking to Me by Sam Leith

All English teachers should read this. It’s an entertaining and constantly enlightening book on rhetoric and so many of my best lessons this year have been inspired by it. The book is particularly useful in helping to teach sophisticated writing techniques. While we may never use (or even understand) hyperbaton or tmesis, it still serves as a handbook to improve students writing. Not only this, but it will help teachers move students away from the awful technique spotting that litters essays on persuasive writing.

Rhetoric is language at play; language plus. It is what persuades and cajoles, inspires and bamboozles, thrills and misdirects. It causes criminals to be convicted and then frees those criminals on appeal. It causes governments to rise and fall, best men to be ever after shunned by their friends’ brides and perfectly sensible adults to march with steady purpose towards machine guns.

ShakespeareSpringboard Shakespeare series by Ben Crystal

There is a world of difference between knowing a play and knowing how to teach Shakespeare to a class of students who often arrive with negative attitudes towards him. I could have selected Shakespeare on Toast from the same author but I found his Springboard Shakespeare series incredibly useful in offering new insights into old favourites. Designed for a theatre audience who may not know the play, the books get to the heart of what makes them special: the context, the problems, the discussion points. Often, Crystal points out details that illuminate a scene and this can then be used in the classroom. I have used the Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream and there are others on King Lear and Hamlet. There is one simple idea from his books which has really stuck with me:

When looking at Shakespeare’s writing it makes sense to think of a play as being full of speeches to be spoken out loud, rather than text to be read: we speak in thoughts; we write in sentences.

There are more extensive books on Shakespeare worth studying of course, but this is a great one for teachers.

10Things10 Things Every Writer Needs to Know by Jeff Anderson

I have chosen this book in particular because of Anderson’s explanation of how to use mentor texts and the influence this had on my own teaching of writing. His approach of ‘read>analyse>emulate’ is simple but effective. This is just one of the sections of the book which can improve practice. There are many more chapters full of wisdom and it is one of those books that is often worth dipping in to for inspiration.

Models are our teachers. Using the scientific method of writing from models we can do just about anything. The trick is to zero in on what works in a piece of writing and to find what we can use in our own compositions. When we stumble across writing that strikes us, we pause, reading it slowly and closely, analysing and soaking in what strong writers do.

WordsBringing Words to Life by Isobel Beck, Margaret McKeown and Linda Kucan

Beck, McKeown and Kucan build a strong argument for why we need to teach vocabulary and explore how we should do this. The follow up, ‘Creating Robust Vocabulary’, is also a must read. The most important idea in this book is that without a clear and structured approach, students with poor vocabularies will find themselves further and further behind and that simply providing a thesaurus or word banks is not enough. I would also recommend Teaching Word Meanings by Steven Stahl on this topic.

The problem is that many students in need of vocabulary do not engage in wide reading, especially of the kind of books that contain unfamiliar vocabulary, and these students are less able to derive meaningful information from the context.

TeachNowTeach Now: English by Alex Quigley

This is a book I wish had been around when I first started teaching. Granted, I wasn’t really reading educational books back then, but you get the point. While Alex’s book deals with more than just subject pedagogy, the sections on teaching English are the ones which resonate. His section on ‘Using language to explain, question and feed back’ is particularly strong.

We should remember that the essential elements of great teaching do not require flashy technology, glossy labels or teaching packs- just skilled, well-practised pedagogy.

In limiting myself to 5 choices, I have omitted some great books. Feel free to suggest your own in the comments.

Persuasive techniques: studying not spotting

Persuasive writing is often broken down into lists of techniques. These lists can be memorised quite quickly without a sense of their utility. This leads in some cases to students who use a wide range of persuasive techniques but a) they don’t really persuade and b) they give an air of falseness to writing. They can name the techniques but don’t have a sense of the real impact of them. These techniques do have a place however, certainly as a bridge to more complex aspects of rhetoric, but I think how they are taught has a massive influence over how they are then used.

To explore persuasive techniques, I think it’s much more interesting to look at them in context, exploring the nuances of different techniques. Students need to spend longer exploring each one, how they work differently in a range of contexts and how they only make sense as part of a design by the writer. Then, when they move to using them in their own writing, students are better prepared. To illustrate how we might do this, I’m going to look at Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech and place it alongside Malcolm X’s ‘The bullet or the ballot’ speech. Seeing the techniques used in different contexts should help students to understand the subtleties.

Tone before techniques

As Chris Curtis discusses in his legendary sexy sprouts blogs, tone is crucial, and students need to see that any techniques they may spot have everything to do with creating a tone and building an argument. On a simple level, we can read King’s speech as hopeful and optimistic and Malcolm X’s as threatening. However, there is much much more at play than these simple short cuts. (They will be referred to as MLK and MX henceforth)

Opening lines set the tone:

“I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.” MLK

“Mr. Moderator, Brother Lomax, brothers and sisters, friends and enemies: I just can’t believe everyone in here is a friend, and I don’t want to leave anybody out.” MX

MLK’s language is grand and sets this up as a momentous occasion. Depending on your interpretation, MX goes for either self-deprecating humour or sets up the tone of division that he wants to create.

From here, both speeches go on to highlight the awfulness of the situation: MLK speaks of “the dark and desolate valley of segregation” and MX talks about how “All of us have suffered here, in this country”.

At this point, the tones diverge. MLK is clear that the solution is “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy” whereas with MX “it points toward either the ballot or the bullet”. If students can track this crucial distinction in tone they can first of all unpick how the language does the hard work. MLK: the situation is terrible, therefore we must have true freedom and democracy. MX: the situation is terrible, therefore we must have democracy- or revolution. MLK’s evangelical tone builds and builds, sermon-like towards rallying calls. MX, having presented the ‘bullet’ alternative, calls for Lyndon B. Johnson to take action. Despite the angry and threatening tone of the speech, MX’s tone shifts at the end and he proposes a sensible, peaceful set of actions. (MX is reported to have said: “If the white people realize what the alternative is, perhaps they will be more willing to hear Dr. King.”)

With a clear understanding of the shifting tone of each speech, any language analysis becomes much more straightforward and rooted in a clear purpose. Instead of generic ‘it is used for effect’, even simple responses will be specific about the intended effect.

Rhetorical question

For some reason, this is the technique students always remember and they always use it. Often badly. (“Do you want capital punishment?”) Exploring it in depth and looking at the technique in context shows just how effective it can be. In MLK: “There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” This question is used for one simple purpose: to set up the rest of the paragraph; to list all the conditions which must be met. MLK poses a question. He then answers it in depth.

There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: “For Whites Only.” We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.

Similarly, MX uses “So, where do we go from here?” to fulfil an almost identical purpose. It is used to structure the argument.

So, where do we go from here? First, we need some friends. We need some new allies. The entire civil-rights struggle needs a new interpretation, a broader interpretation. We need to look at this civil-rights thing from another angle — from the inside as well as from the outside…

The following section from MX shows how questions can be used to structure a paragraph. Note how the last question is only effective because of the examples which precede it.

How can you thank a man for giving you what’s already yours? How then can you thank him for giving you only part of what’s already yours? You haven’t even made progress, if what’s being given to you, you should have had already. That’s not progress. And I love my Brother Lomax, the way he pointed out we’re right back where we were in 1954. We’re not even as far up as we were in 1954. We’re behind where we were in 1954. There’s more segregation now than there was in 1954. There’s more racial animosity, more racial hatred, more racial violence today in 1964, than there was in 1954. Where is the progress?

For students, not only do they help to add these uses of rhetorical questions to their toolkits but they see that a rhetorical question is not something they add in somewhere to get more marks- it forms part of a structured, deliberate piece of writing. They can see that questions play different roles at different stages.


Much like rhetorical questions, it is very easy to spot repetition and students do, but they can often say things like “it makes it stand out”. Once again, repetition is used for different purposes depending on the intention of the writer. I would recommend first of all that students are aware of a couple of specific types of repetition: anaphora (the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses) and epistrophe (the repetition of a word or phrase at the end of successive clauses or sentences).

Anaphora is a mainstay of both speeches. We have established that MX takes a confrontational tone at times and his frequent use of “I’m not here to…” reinforces this (In fact, MX begins many sentences throughout his speech with variations on “I’m not…”).

Although I’m still a Muslim, I’m not here tonight to discuss my religion. I’m not here to try and change your religion. I’m not here to argue or discuss anything that we differ about, because it’s time for us to submerge our differences and realize that it is best for us to first see that we have the same problem, a common problem, a problem that will make you catch hell whether you’re a Baptist, or a Methodist, or a Muslim, or a nationalist.

There’s an interesting point in the speech where this shifts from “I’m not” to “they’re not”:

And this time they’re not going like they went last year. They’re not going singing ”We Shall Overcome.” They’re not going with white friends. They’re not going with placards already painted for them. They’re not going with round-trip tickets. They’re going with one way tickets. And if they don’t want that non-nonviolent army going down there, tell them to bring the filibuster to a halt.

It’s a wonderful rhetorical flourish and prepares the listener for the alternative. Because once MX has presented this picture, his final paragraph (which uses anaphora also: “let him”) is directed not really at the present audience but at Lyndon B. Johnson: “Let him go in there and denounce the Southern branch of his party.” The use of anaphora has fully supported the tone that we commented on earlier and certainly supports the bullet or ballot argument. After all the ‘not’ (bullet), it feels conciliatory for MX to use the positive-sounding “let him”(ballot).

MLK uses “I have a dream today” as punctuation, an exclamation, a rallying cry. He begins sentences with “I have a dream” to contextualise his hopes for the future. MLK doesn’t spend too much time on the nitty gritty of how this will happen but in many ways he does not need to. The speech is designed to build towards a crescendo and it is the sense of occasion, of emotion which is most important here. The anaphora shifts from “I have a dream” to “let freedom ring” and, much like MX changed the anaphora to change the tone, so does MLK. Still an abstract idea, “let freedom ring” suggests action rather than merely wishful thinking. (Interestingly, King only decided to use “I have a dream” on the spur of the moment. It was something he had used many times before and was memorised- he knew the power it had.)

Working through lists of persuasive techniques, you can provide example after example from these pieces that shows how something is used.

Forget spotting a personal pronoun, explore how ‘we’ is used for opposite purposes in “With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood” and We died on every battlefield the white man had”.

Don’t just find emotive language, contrast the proud patriotism of “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today,” with “Uncle Sam’s hands are dripping with blood, dripping with the blood of the black man in this country.”

Forget simply metaphor-spotting, what about how King goes from “flames of withering injustice” to “a great beacon of light and hope” and “joyous daybreak”? Then see how X moves from “catching hell” to “the most explosive year”.

I wouldn’t stop teaching these ‘A FOREST’ type lists. But like any aspect of English, we need to give time to explore things in depth for a fuller understanding.

Further reading:

Sam LeithYou Talking to Me? by Sam Leith is a wonderful book which has transformed my entire approach to teaching persuasive writing.

Joe Kirby’s blog on Reclaiming Rhetoric is a useful introduction to the subject.

x=y: A threshold concept in English

In an article for the New York Times, Robert Sapolsky writes the following:

Symbols, metaphors, analogies, parables, synecdoche, figures of speech: we understand them. We understand that a captain wants more than just hands when he orders all of them on deck. We understand that Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” isn’t really about a cockroach. If we are of a certain theological ilk, we see bread and wine intertwined with body and blood. We grasp that the right piece of cloth can represent a nation and its values, and that setting fire to such a flag is a highly charged act. We can learn that a certain combination of sounds put together by Tchaikovsky represents Napoleon getting his butt kicked just outside Moscow. And that the name “Napoleon,” in this case, represents thousands and thousands of soldiers dying cold and hungry, far from home.

This idea is fundamental to English teaching. In the texts that we study, things represent other things. Sometimes we are ushered as readers towards them quite clearly and other times they are puzzles for us to solve or flights of fancy for us to follow. James Geary, in his fascinating book I is an Other, explains metaphor in a simple equation: x=y. This equation is simple shorthand but it captures this idea in our subject that something we can focus on (x) sheds light on or represents another aspect (y). I would consider this to be a threshold concept: a ‘big idea’ that when understood will have a powerful impact on how students succeed in English. Once they ‘get it’, they are unlikely to go back. However, it can be difficult to spot when this hidden code is at work.

Sometimes metaphors are pretty obvious. One such example  is from Norman MacCaig’s lovely poem Frogs:

[frogs] make stylish triangles/  with their ballet dancer’s*/  legs.

The image is simple and works. We appreciate the physical resemblance. x (frogs’ legs) = y (ballet dancers’ legs). Elsewhere in the poem, frogs are ‘parachutists’, ‘Italian tenors’, ‘Buddha’. I love this poem in its simplicity- frogs are a bit like all of these things. However, even this has much more complexity if we explore it.

frog vennWhile a student certainly won’t be wrong if they comment on the physical similarities, they need to consider more: what are the things we can say about ballet dancers’ legs that we can also say about frogs’ legs? But it is more than this: what are the things we can say about ballet dancers that we can also say about frogs? Or, even: what are the things we can say about ballet dancers that Norman MacCaig wants us to think about nature? If students can grasp these layers of meaning then they will move beyond a straightforward interpretation of the phrase and the poem. Because then the comparison isn’t about frogs’ legs being like ballet dancers’ legs, it’s really about nature being beautiful and complex and graceful and strong. It’s about the fact that MacCaig can see in a creature and in a moment the beauty of the world.

The MacCaig example is a poet with his cards on the table and yet there are still so many layers. Robert Frost describes these layers of meaning as ‘feats of association’.

All thought is a feat of association: having what’s in front of you bring up something in your mind that you almost didn’t know you knew. Putting this and that together. That click.

The ‘feats of association’ are often subtle; they don’t hit us over the head and announce themselves. The ‘click’ isn’t always instantaneous. As John Fuller says in Who is Ozymandias, “The suspicion is generally and often rightly held that poetry is ‘about’ something other than its ostensible subject, and that there is a reason for its concealment.” Speaking of Ozymandias, my year 10 class have been studying it this week and the biggest challenge has been grasping the concept that the poem is a metaphor and that it isn’t really about a statue, it is about what the statue represents. If we don’t approach the poem as this kind of metaphorical puzzle then it really is just about a statue. There are also so many aspects of the poem which might seem arbitrary (like the rhyme) or inconsequential (like the traveller) if we don’t think in terms of  allusion and metaphor.

blackboardSo here’s where x=y comes in handy again. If students can balance the equation then they can solve it and unlock the poem. If they mention a technique for the x part then the equation needs to be balanced with the y of effect. If they comment on a theme in the poem (x) then they need to balance that with how that theme can be related to the wider world (y). This way of thinking makes them consider how anything they spot might have an intended effect rather than simply listing techniques. It also helps them to be disciplined when addressing the question, in our case about power and control. In the example in the image, we look at the effect of the alliteration. That could be explored even further, with all of those final ideas becoming a new x and wider points about power becoming a new y.

Of course, poetry is the place where we expect this trickery, but it is everywhere.  x is the dagger before Macbeth, x is Squealer in Animal Farm (x is everything in Animal Farm!), x is the shopping mall in Dawn of the Dead.

It’s a concept which can improve writing too. How often do students just write when what we want is for them to consciously craft writing? Even students who can analyse writing well don’t necessarily reverse engineer great writing themselves. By thinking about the y of their writing, then the x parts become rather straightforward. For example, if they want a particular tone in their writing then the vocabulary choices need to balance that equation.

This isn’t a neat mathematical equation and I would be loathe to reduce everything to this. Nonetheless, I think it’s an interesting way to approach a fundamental aspect of English.

*This apostrophe has bothered me.

Further reading:

Alex Quigley’s blog on Threshold Concepts is well worth a read.

GearyI is an Other is  a fascinating look at the role metaphor plays in our lives. His TED Talk on the same topic is here.



fullerWho is Ozymandias? is a book about the puzzles in poetry.

Shakespeare and the perception of incomprehensibility

First FolioFor many students, Shakespeare feels beyond their capabilities and the language seems completely inaccessible. But Shakespeare’s language isn’t really the problem- the majority of words are pretty familiar. The problem is caused by the things that students have to cut through: cognitive overload and the perception of incomprehensibility. Once these are addressed, Shakespeare’s language becomes much more straightforward.

Reducing cognitive load

For me, the biggest problem with studying Shakespeare is the wealth of knowledge students need to make sense of everything. Not simply vocabulary but the poetry, unfamiliar concepts, classical allusions, strange pronunciation, jokes which we can’t understand, topical references etc. Many things need to be known in order for a student to fully understand a scene and we can’t just point them all out as we read. Students need to be able to focus on the text without having to juggle a million new concepts. If they have too much to take on, they don’t understand the text and all those old prejudices rear their head.

I would therefore always start by watching the play. In an ideal world this would be in the theatre but most likely it’ll mean a film version. In starting with the complete play, students have the overview of plot, characters, themes etc. This means that the language is more accessible because they can contextualise it. There’s an argument that this spoils the reading of the text. However, surely the knowledge that Romeo and Juliet are doomed is crucial to our understanding of everything that happens before. And let’s face it, Shakespeare tells us that anyway in the prologue!

We should also endeavour to pre-teach some concepts which will unlock key sections of the text. Suppose we were studying The Merchant of Venice. Bassanio describes Portia:

Her name is Portia, nothing undervalued
To Cato’s daughter, Brutus’ Portia:
Nor is the wide world ignorant of her worth,
For the four winds blow in from every coast
Renowned suitors, and her sunny locks
Hang on her temples like a golden fleece;
Which makes her seat of Belmont Colchos’ strand,
And many Jasons come in quest of her.

Students who had previously been introduced to the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece would be able to spot the connection. Reading this extract without that knowledge would completely change the meaning of ‘golden fleece’ and ‘Jasons’. Having to stop here and explain that story takes the students out of the language long enough for them to become disconnected. Shakespeare needs to economically introduce Portia’s status as ‘prize’, establish Belmont as a special, almost mythical place and lead in to the sub-plot of the casket quest. An allusion to the Greek myth does that job beautifully but we miss it all if we don’t fully understand that myth.

This ‘pre-teaching’ can be integrated into the curriculum. For example, in year 7, our students spend time studying Theseus and The Minotaur in one scheme and then read A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which begins with Egeus taking his daughter to Theseus. Instantly, students understand the great authority Theseus wields because they can make the connection. These two examples just happen to be on Greek mythology but there are obviously other examples.

The curriculum needs to be carefully designed to offer these opportunities to prepare for Shakespeare. A poetry scheme of work could easily include Anne Hathaway by Carol Ann Duffy. A scheme on Blood Brothers could contain lessons on fate and tragedy. Rhetoric could be studied in Animal Farm before reading the trial scene in The Merchant of Venice. Vocabulary homework from the previous term could be designed around difficult words to be encountered in the play. Anything you can do to reduce the amount of new information is worthwhile.

The perception of incomprehensibility

Sometimes the biggest barrier is simply the perception that Shakespeare’s language is impossibly difficult so we have to address that. It is helpful to start with something which suggests the simplicity of Shakespeare’s language. Sonnet 130 is a great introduction, as it combines simple ideas and allows students that moment where they ‘get it’. From there, we can unpick other features of the poem without any fear of the language.

Another ‘way in’ to Shakespeare’s language is to choose a part of the play where the audience is being directly addressed, a soliloquy or chorus (more often a character serving the function of the chorus). While Shakespeare is an amazing wordsmith, we can’t forget that he is writing for the stage. Every line is there to convey something to the audience. Ben Crystal, in ‘Shakespeare on Toast’, writes: “People write in sentences, they speak in thoughts.” If students can unlock each thought then they can make sense of complex language and ideas. Take this from Act 5 Scene 5 of Macbeth, following Lady Macbeth’s death:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

In this soliloquy we get a glimpse into Macbeth’s mind. Each of his thoughts (colour coded) is relatively simple. Looking at the soliloquy like this does cut through that perception of complexity that puts students off. Then each ‘thought’ can be explored, the language analysed and the structure becomes clearer e.g. the layering of metaphors jumps out.

Sometimes there is a temptation to change the words but we should expect all students to study Shakespeare’s language. If you change Shakespeare’s language then you distort the meaning, you lose the rhythm, you lose the rich imagery and characters lose their ‘voice’. For me, it is the one non-negotiable aspect of studying Shakespeare. If you change the language then why study Shakespeare at all?

Shakespeare’s language isn’t always easy to unlock but hopefully these things help to cut through any distractions. I definitely feel that I’m still learning when it comes to teaching Shakespeare but I know that my students’ attitudes towards Shakespeare are changing. There is a real sense of achievement to succeeding in something difficult which was previously thought of in very negative terms. I also feel that the enjoyment of understanding a complex text is much better than simplifying things to make it more ‘fun’.

Further reading:

ToastShakespeare on Toast by Ben Crystal is useful and insightful. His Springboard Shakespeares  are short and packed full of ideas to support teaching.

Here is everything Chris Curtis has written on Shakespeare.



Writing endings

Students struggle with endings for a number of reasons. For many, it’s that they run out of time, and write things like ‘NOT FINISHED! SORRY SIR!’, others have no idea how to end something and a fair few have no plan whatsoever so an ending is a happy accident if it occurs. I find that some of the best writing from students can be ruined-or the impact lessened- if the ending is poor or nonexistent so in this post I’m looking at strategies to make endings much more satisfying. The ideas can be thought of in two ways: 1) strategies to allow for sophisticated, controlled endings and 2) quick wins for students struggling with endings. I’m focusing on fiction here, although it will hopefully be useful for other types of writing.

Start with the end…

Before starting to write, students should at least think about the end. Even better, they should write it. That way, everything builds towards that. Not every novel builds to a satisfying sentence or paragraph but for me the ones which do linger longer in the memory. In some cases, such as Stoner by John Williams, the ending can even elevate the whole text.

One simple way for students to think of story planning is in terms of conflict and resolution. If students have a clear idea of the resolution then they are essentially building their story towards this. This won’t always help them with specific ways to end writing but it will ensure that there is an end! I’d always recommend simplicity in narrative writing: one main story(conflict), a couple of characters, one setting and a small period of time in which everything occurs. This will help students to have focused endings too.

…end with the start

Look at how Charles Dickens does this in A Tale of Two Cities:

Opening: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”

Ending: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

It is satisfying the way that the language of the ending echoes the language of the opening. There is a link with the development of best into better. Also, the balance of the sentences is repeated and anaphora is used in both. And because the last line is describing his death in positive terms, it is the best and worse of times! To what extent these connections are always noticeable in a novel, I don’t know, but it would be very clear in a short story written by a student.

For students who are the master of their craft, this is a lovely way to structure writing. It can be designed right from the start. For students who are struggling, it’s a simple way to round off their work. If they struggle with an ending you can just say ‘link it to your opening’.

Another interesting way to end might be to use the title in the ending. This can even be reverse engineered by students struggling at the end who can use something from their ending as the title, offering that satisfying resolution and a sense of control.

Simply repeating the opening sentence would work or repeating a variation of the opening sentence e.g. asking a question in the opening that is answered in the ending.

Students can illustrate some sort of change from opening to ending. For example, if they started by describing the rain pelting against windows then they can end with the sun appearing from behind the clouds.


I don’t think this only applies to endings, but deliberately using some complex rhetorical techniques gives a satisfying, structured ending which feels controlled. I have spent whole lessons on antithesis (the juxtaposition of contrasting ideas in balanced phrases or sentences), anaphora (the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses) and epistrophe (the repetition of a word at the end of successive clauses or sentences).

For example, after studying  epistrophe, one of my students wrote this, although they eventually reworked it as an opening:

I’d asked my mum, almost my whole childhood,”Where’s daddy gone?” and everytime, my mum would say the same things: “He’s gone away but he’s not coming back”; “He loves you but he’s not coming back.”; “He’s a bad man, and he’s not coming back.” But that was before it all started. That fateful day, when he came back.

I like the way that the epistrophe highlights the phrase ‘he’s not coming back’ before the twist at the end. This ending from another student ties together all sorts of ideas and feels deeply satisfying:

As the snow began to fall into the trenches, it became unbearable. As the rain began to plummet into the trenches, it became hate. As the sun began to shine into the trenches it became heaven.

End on a thought

The end of a piece of writing can be conceived as a final thought which can be described in a word and then expanded into a sentence. If you can get students to encapsulate the ideas of their writing in one sentence then that can become the ending sentence of their writing. Look at the end of Frankenstein:

He was soon borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance.

The one sentence fully encapsulates the bleakness of that story. It is hugely satisfying for the reader too. It’s exactly the sort of sentence that students can read, play around with, construct their own. They could rewrite it, changing the tone:

He was soon whisked away by the waves and lost in shouts of joy.

It was soon hidden away by time and lost in memory and imagination.

Share and discuss examples

I use mentor mats which start with a complete mentor text and then include example openings and endings. Like anything, the more high quality examples students see, the better they will become. For instance, here is an interesting document with one list of the  ‘100 best last lines from novels‘. I’m not sure all of them work out of context, mind you, but they are useful for discussion. It doesn’t take much extra effort to draw attention to the endings of texts studied in class either. Of Mice and Men is great to discuss, ending as it does with, “Now what the hell ya suppose is eatin’ them two guys?” which is often met with ‘eh?’ in my classroom! I’d even recommend looking at the last stanzas and lines from poems to get a real sense of well-crafted endings where every word counts.

Impose length restrictions

Some students will write and write, often creating a whole novel if you let them. If you impose a limit then they have to plan things carefully and have time to craft consciously. Exam boards do this and in the WJEC English exam they have an hour to write two pieces so learning to be concise but effective is essential.

Hopefully, those ideas will help improve students’ endings – there’s nothing worse than



Mentor Mats

Since reading the work of Kelly Gallagher and Jeff Anderson, I have routinely used mentor texts to teach writing. As Anderson states in Mechanically Inclined, “A mentor text is any text that can teach a writer about any aspect of a writer’s craft, from sentence structure to quotation marks to show don’t tell.” (See my post on working with mentor texts here.)

To support the use of mentor texts, I am introducing ‘Mentor Mats’. Mentor Mats are A3, double sided alternatives to literacy mats and work as follows:

Side 1: A mentor text with 3 grammatical/structural/stylistic features highlighted.Mentor Mat 1

Side 2: Further examples of openings and endings. Mentor Mat 2

The mats offer a number of benefits:

They show examples of success. This is how we want students to write. I find it much easier to show this, than just to explain or offer checklists. Through exposure to high quality examples of writing, students will be better placed to produce examples of their own.

They show how to get started (and finished). Some students will mimic the structures of entire openings, stealing judiciously. Others will use the openings to just get a sense of the sort of thing you might write. In either case, I am confident this is going to have greater long-term impact than just telling them how to start. Hopefully, cries of ‘I don’t know how to start’ are a thing of the past!

They isolate important features. Seeing examples of language features in context helps students to see how they work and encourage them to use them.

They limit the amount of information. Literacy mats can sometimes bombard students with so much information that it is hard to know what to concentrate on. These mats focus on three main techniques, giving examples to illustrate.

They needn’t take a ridiculous amount of time to produce. My colleague spent some time creating the design but we have ensured that it is very simple to create a new mat from the template.

This is the pdf version of the first mentor mat: Travel Writing.

The text for the mats is taken from The Daily Telegraph Travel Writing Competition which you can find here:

(I was going to post the pdf of the mentor mat here but- and this pains me to write- I’ve just noticed a typo. A ‘particple’ isn’t a thing. It’ll be uploaded asap.)

As ever, feedback is welcome.

Revision before redrafting

One of the major changes I have made to my practice is the focus on redrafting. I have been clear to insist to students that they must redraft their work. Often, this is following feedback from me or from their peers. I use strategies such as Kelly Gallagher’s STAR Revision.

STARImageI’ve been using it at the end of the first draft but I’m becoming increasingly aware that the best place for revision of writing is during the writing process and there are a couple of reasons why.

First of all, those students who think deeply about their work make some significant revisions but it has to be said that many don’t. They change the odd word here and there but their final drafts are very rarely significantly different from their first.

Also, our younger students are going to be writing in examinations where they do not have the time or opportunity to redraft. They need to be able to revise as they go.

Now, I do acknowledge that I need to be better at teaching the skills needed for redrafting but these are actually the same skills needed for students as they write their first drafts. To get students to the point where this is natural takes a lot of work:


Modelling is massively important. This includes looking deeply at mentor texts, sharing high quality examples, but it is crucial that we also share the process. We model the mistakes, the rewording, the adding. Students need to see this process constantly and feel that it is an entirely natural process. I would always share high quality writing but good writers are experts in hiding their mistakes. The video below is made using and it shows me revising a paragraph on Animal Farm.

I like making these videos because they are under my control. I can prepare exactly what I want to show. I do also model from scratch in the classroom which does show a messier process. It should feel as natural as possible.


Students can’t only practise revision during these sessions of extended writing. They need to practise relentlessly and they can do this by focussing on small texts. I have said before that sentences are just small texts and they are a quick and easy way of modelling writing and the revision of writing. I really like Andy Tharby’s sentence escalator as it is such a great way of highlighting the revisions that we can make. By working on such a small level- the sentence level- we can be highly focussed and students don’t need to feel overwhelmed. Then they just build their writing sentence by sentence, revising as they go.

Also, it is perhaps a better use of time to ask students to redraft a small part of their text but do so multiple times than a redraft of a 3 page essay.


Students need to be taught that the best word is the right word, not the longest. Some of the worst writing is created next to a thesaurus. Let me rephrase that:a quantity of the most evil inscription is fashioned subsequently to a lexicon. This leads to comments like ‘The Birlings live in a cumbersome house in Brumley’. Frankly, ‘large’ would have been just fine.

To help, I would teach vocabulary which will help them explore nuances e.g. when writing about characters in a book. This might mean taking a list of synonyms for ‘kind’ and asking ‘Is Lennie caring or compassionate?’, ‘Is George gentle or humane?’

I’m starting to become wary of thesauruses anyway because they teach a kind of learned helplessness. They also add way too much time when the words will probably not be used properly anyway. I can see them as a way to avoid being overly repetitive and students should be exposed to new vocabulary but they don’t pick up the nuances of words from the thesaurus.

When you look at revising words, it isn’t just making them more complex- although there is a place for this- it’s about making the words do more. If you look at verbs as the most ‘powerful’ parts of a sentence, you can use those as a lever for transforming writing.

Give students sentences with words changed. Ask them about the differences. You could start with clear differences:

Joey walked towards the school gates./ Joey trudged towards the school gates.

or make it harder to distinguish:

Joey ambled towards the school gates./ Joey trudged towards the school gates.

When they have practised this way of thinking, they can play around with verbs- and other words- in their own writing. This idea of giving options is explored beautifully in Chris Curtis’ Techniques for Dummies.

Real world examples

original_lyrics_in_my_lifeIt is great to be able to find real drafts of writing. For example, I like placing a copy of different drafts of ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ and focussing on which might be the final draft and why. I wouldn’t normally teach song lyrics but I think Beatles lyrics might be ok. You can look at the original song lyrics and how they changed e.g. the original lyrics for ‘In My Life’ pictured. The purpose of all this is to show that writers change their mind and it isn’t always to ‘add more detail’ or swap words!

Tone/ focus

One of the skills to focused writing is knowing exactly what you want to say and the way you wish to say it. If there is a clear tone, then each part can be sculpted to fit that. If there isn’t a tone, then writing can be flabby and unfocused. Similarly, essays with a clear thrust can be revised so everything feeds into the thesis. The best way to teach this idea of tone is to read examples of writing with clear tonality. When reading anything, build habits of looking for tone and writer’s ‘voice’. You can compare extracts like the two below and examine the differences in tone and purpose:

Rather a stately house of its kind, but dolefully in want of painting, and with dirty windows. He took out his key and opened the door, and we all went into a stone hall, bare, gloomy, and little used. So up a dark brown staircase into a series of three dark brown rooms…The furniture was all very solid and good, like his watch-chain. It had an official look, however, and there was nothing merely ornamental to be seen. Great Expectations

They could compare this with:

The property has over the past four years been the subject of a meticulous project to create an exemplary private residence to an exacting specification complemented by luxurious fixtures and fittings throughout. At the heart of the property is the stunning bespoke family dining kitchen designed by Park Royal Interiors Ltd who were also responsible for overseeing the design of the bathroom suites. The property also boasts under floor zoned central heating together with an integrated Sonos audio system, Rako lighting and Cat 5 installation. The external appearance is complemented by Accoya folding door sets with eclipse advantage double glazing.


It may seem ridiculously obvious, but many students do not read their work back to themselves. They may do a quick check but they don’t reread with purpose- or at least they won’t if we don’t teach them to. When they reread, they should be looking for clarity, for style, for syntax and rereading for errors. When I’m sending an email, I will often read the email out loud to check the tone- it can be awkward if an unintended tone comes through in your writing. I also have to proofread a million times- I only just spotted a ‘form’ instead of a ‘from’ in this blog.

The plan

It can be tempting to draw up a rudimentary plan, but the idea of a plan is to ensure that the whole piece has that sense of focus mentioned above. It is in the plan that much of the structural work on a text has to be done. With a solid plan in place, it could be argued that your first draft is a kind of second draft. I would love to suggest a particularly innovative planning format but I would just use a mind map or a variation on it.

Other aspects to consider:

Cohesion– how does the overall text hold together?

Detail– we can model the ‘add more detail’ part by elaborating on ideas, clarifying ideas, looking into alternative viewpoints.

Introductions– provide many models of introductions and encourage students to revise their introduction after the piece is completed.

Everything that I have written could be in a post on redrafting so by teaching the skills of revision, we have also taught the skills for redrafting. Now, if students go on to redraft the work, they are in a strong position already and better prepared for the next draft.

Working with Mentor Texts

“A mentor text is any text that can teach a writer about any aspect of a writer’s craft, from sentence structure to quotation marks to show don’t tell.” Jeff Anderson.

In my post on Routines for Excellent Writing, I discussed the usefulness of mentor texts. You can read more about the what and why of mentor texts there. As a follow up to that, and in response to my #tmeng presentation, I am looking in detail at a specific mentor text in this post.

I have chosen this review of Rock of Ages. (original review online here) I chose it for the things I could pick out and look at with students. I’m looking at the unabridged text but I’d recommend cutting bits out, replacing, isolating paragraphs or whatever you need. Using a real text has its benefits but I would also suggest creating one from scratch if you wanted to demonstrate a specific idea rather than searching and searching.


I’m a bit obsessed with vocabulary. If I wanted a vocabulary focus I might look at the following in the text:

  • Naïve/ lugubrious/ narcissistic – complex words which will probably need explanation.
  • Satirizing/ screenplay/ production values – media terminology
  • Intensity/ frantically/ meander – words which I want to transfer into students’ working vocabulary. A word like ‘meander’ is so nuanced and precise that I’d love to see it in my students’ work.

Sometimes you need not spend too much time on vocabulary. Those last three words will probably inch closer to being used by students just because of the further exposure to them. On the other hand, texts could be chosen or created precisely to build vocabulary. For example, if you knew students were writing about fate, say, in Of Mice and Men, you could read this article: Is a US attack on Syria now inevitable? and the word ‘inevitable’ would (inevitably) find itself in students’ vocabulary. Furthermore, the paragraph below from the same text would help ‘caution’ and ‘reluctance’ shift ever closer to usage too, words which would come in handy writing about the text.

I have been stressing President Obama’s caution and reluctance to take action. But now it does seems difficult for him to back down without losing face. Unless something changes.


I find it much easier to study punctuation in context. For example, our mentor text has a number of brackets used in different ways:

  • Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise)
  • …a couple of grim bodyguards (Kevin Nash, of all people, and Jeff Chase, a giant 6’7″ bodybuilder).
  • (spoiler!)

The last example is certainly worth drawing attention to. I’d discuss it with students, ask them if it is ‘correct’, ask them if that matters, ask them to write their own. I feel that this approach is much more successful than trying to explain how to use brackets and should complement any explicit teaching of punctuation.


I’m often greeted with variations of ‘I know what I want to write but I just can’t get started.’ Good mentor texts can show many different ways to get started. When I ask students to write a letter, they can all get started. (I am writing to…) This is obviously not the greatest opening but they have been exposed to letters and letter writing in class so many times over the years that it is encoded. The opening to this review is not ground-breaking…

“Rock of Ages,” a rags-to-riches rock ‘n’ roll musical set mostly in a music club on Sunset Strip, wins no prizes for originality.

…but is still a useful opening to steal: “Gravity,” a stunning adventure story set in open space, wins first prize for visual effects.‘ From there, students can build. We can introduce other review openings and ask students to compare which ones are more effective and why:

  • Combine (1) a mysterious threat that attacks a town, and (2) a group of townspeople who take refuge together, and you have a formula apparently able to generate any number of horror movies, from “Night of the Living Dead” (1968) to “30 Days of Night.”
  • Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi” is a miraculous achievement of storytelling and a landmark of visual mastery.
  • After opening with one of the most terrifying flying scenes I’ve witnessed, in which an airplane is saved by being flown upside down, Robert Zemeckis’ “Flight” segues into a brave and tortured performance by Denzel Washington — one of his very best.


A sentence is a mentor text. We can use them on their own to highlight aspects of the writer’s craft or we can identify sentences of note in larger texts. In our mentor text, I noticed the following:

  • If you’re tracking those names, you’re perhaps impressed.
  • If you are of a certain age, you may remember them.
  • If you’re making the kind of movie where everybody in the audience knows for sure what’s going to happen, it’s best not to linger on the recycled bits.

Students can be asked to create their own. They can keep bits of the sentences or lose it all. They might play with the order. We could look at who ‘you’ is and the effect of that. Is ‘you’ the same in all sentences?

I’d also play around with a sentence like, ‘In a movie where all the stars except the leads are essentially satirizing themselves, Tom Cruise is the most merciless on himself.’

  • In a movie where all the__________________, x is the most__________________.
  • In a scene where none of the__________________, x is the least__________________.
  • In a world where__________________, x__________________.


Of course they also fall in love. Of course they have heartfelt conversations while standing behind the “Hollywood” sign. Of course they break up because of a tragic misunderstanding. Of course their mistake is repaired and (spoiler!) they’re back together at the end. Has ever a romance in a musical been otherwise?

This paragraph is perfect for a review and perfect to steal. It could fit into any review which touches upon typical genre conventions. It could be used in isolation as an introduction to anaphora. It could be used in a Media Studies lesson to explore genre. The idea of constructing a paragraph can be difficult to grasp and examples like this are priceless in helping to show what is possible.

For more on mentor texts, I’d recommend reading anything by Kelly Gallagher.

Routines for Excellent Writing

This is a posting of my presentation at the NATE North writing conference.

I think the routines and habits we establish in and out of the classroom are massively important. Whether these are routines to help the start of lessons go smoothly or to mark exercise books, there are things we should be doing again and again, refining, improving and embedding. Writing is no different. For students to be able to produce excellent writing there are several teacher and student habits I feel are important.

Part 1 Mentor texts and modelling

We want students to produce excellent writing but there are a few issues that we need to acknowledge. First of all, many students do not read regularly and do not encounter different writing styles. When I think about what made me a good writer at school, I am convinced that it was the fact that I read a great deal. But even if students have a reading habit, they are still less likely to read non-fiction and so when we ask them to write it is unsurprising that they will struggle if they have no idea of what a successful piece might look like. This is why we should surround students with mentor texts.

“A mentor text is any text that can teach a writer about any aspect of a writer’s craft, from sentence structure to quotation marks to show don’t tell.” Jeff Anderson, in Mechanically Inclined.

Whenever you are asking students to write, you show them examples of texts to use as models- mentor texts. I like calling them ‘mentor texts’ because of the associations of the word ‘mentor’-these are the texts we learn from. We should collect these whenever we come across them. They can be whole texts, sections of texts and can even be created by you for the sole purpose of being a mentor text- although I would only do this if I couldn’t find a better one in the real world.


The first step is to read the mentor text. It is worth creating opportunities for students to interact and analyse aspects of the text. Then I would draw attention to anything worth pointing out: paragraph structures, sentences, vocabulary, punctuation and anything interesting at all. Draw out the interesting aspects that make this worth studying. Then students should be encouraged to imitate the text.

Mentor texts can be in all shapes and sizes. An example I used recently was this review of Rock of Ages. There is a cracking paragraph in there which could fit in any review which touches upon genre conventions:

Of course they also fall in love. Of course they have heartfelt conversations while standing behind the “Hollywood” sign. Of course they break up because of a tragic misunderstanding. Of course their mistake is repaired and (spoiler!) they’re back together at the end. Has ever a romance in a musical been otherwise?

There are a number of sentences with similar constructions throughout the text. I would draw attention to these as we read:

  • If you’re tracking those names, you’re perhaps impressed.
  • If you are of a certain age, you may remember them.
  • If you’re making the kind of movie where everybody in the audience knows for sure what’s going to happen, it’s best not to linger on the recycled bits.

Both of the above examples would lend themselves well to activities where students imitate the language and style. For good measure, here are a few more openings of film reviews I think would work well as mentor paragraphs.


If you are looking for mentor texts, then they don’t come any smaller than sentences. In Everyday Editing, Anderson explains how he chooses sentences that:

  • Connect to students’ worlds-their interests, humour, or problems;
  • Show a clear pattern that is easy to observe, imitate, or break down;
  • Model writer’s craft and effective writing-powerful verbs, sensory detail, or voice.

I now spend much of my time in lessons looking at sentences, mainly inspired by the blogging of Chris Curtis (see recommended reading). We need to form a ‘sentence stalking’ habit as teachers and then pass that on to students.

TWP_20131018_003his paragraph from a mentor text I used with a class has several sentences of note and I chose to ‘zoom in’ on the opening one:


Like many homeless young people that come to Centrepoint, Mark is used to being ignored.

We can encourage students to play around with a sentence like this.

  • How is it different from Mark is used to being ignored like many homeless young people that come to Centrepoint?
  • How does it change if it becomes Mark is homeless. Mark is used to being ignored.
  • You could get students to substitute words. You could ask them to create sentences with a similar pattern e.g. Like many_____________, Mark____________________.
  • You could experiment with different words to start e.g. ‘unlike’ / Just like/ As with.

You can see examples of this in action below when students were asked to use the mentor text as a guide for a similar piece on an animal rescue charity:


HumansThe second example is notable because, although the student has used the mentor sentence to create their own, the ‘dear helpless humans’ opening does not fit and is an example of trying to cram in a language technique at the expense of the tone of the piece.

gonzabThe next example is also notable because the original  mentor text had a punctuation error (which I didn’t spot) and the student has imitated it. This makes me realise that students will learn from the texts we show them. If we show students who have a target grade of C a C grade piece of work as an exemplar, we are guilty of lowering expectations as they will imitate that and not a better piece of work.

Teacher as writer

The teacher should model the process of writing. It isn’t just a case of showing a final product to students. They need to know that there is a hidden part that the best writers never show but always go through. Students need to see that it is never a perfect process. Sentences change, bits are removed, and sometimes when it is completed we’re not that happy. My visualiser is an essential tool to help me to do this. A useful website is as you can record videos of your modelling. This allows you circulate the class and you can save them and refer students back to them.As we start writing, I also like to ask students to write on my whiteboard either side of the Smartboard. It makes their thinking visible, other students can take ideas and we have something to critique afterwards.

Part 2: revision and redrafting

The first part of the post was all about ways to ensure that students produce a strong first draft of writing. The next set of habits that we want students to encode are to do with the crucial stage of revision of work. After the first draft, something needs to happen to ensure that a further draft has some improvement. All too often, drafts can be simply neater versions of the first drafts with the odd word replaced with another using a thesaurus.

Acting on feedback

Target2Students should act on feedback as part of the process of writing and not just after it is finished. I use mail merge to create ‘feedbactivities’ which are handed to students as starters. Examples are collected here. The more immediate this feedback loop is, the more likely that students will improve as a result. I like improvements to impact on the current piece of work as well as the next.



Another useful feedback method is the Taxonomy of Errors. Simply put- this is a collection of class errors on a piece of work- read this blog for a more detailed explanation. In my own version, I collect the errors/targets along with some guidance on how to improve. The pictured example is based on the Centrepoint mentor text. In the example I have informed students of their more specific target (T4) but you could ask them to identify their target from the list or use it for peer assessment. Here is the list of targets.


In Write Like This, Kelly Gallagher makes a compelling case for revision:

It is modelling revision- taking a rough draft and moving it to a better place- that is critical if our students are to sharpen their writing skills. Many of my students come to me with a ‘I wrote it once; I am done’mentality, and it takes many modelling sessions before they start to move past this attitude. Anyone can write, I tell them, but rewriting is where good papers emerge. Revision is where it is at- the make-or-break point for the paper, the place where bad writing has the opportunity to be transformed into good writing.

His ‘STAR Revision’ is a good starting point. Remember that you can’t just give students this sheet and they’ll magically revise everything. It all needs to be modelled, discussed and reviewed. Versions of this could be produced for specific tasks and text types. (Thanks to @KerryPulleyn for this idea)







There are certainly more routines worth exploring to help to improve writing and I’m always grateful for more ideas. The above are proving effective for me but as always are works in progress.

Further reading

Most of my ideas come from other teachers. Here are some ideas for further reading:

Chris Curtis (@xris32) is a prolific blogger. His blogs on sentences have had a huge impact on my practice and they are collected here.

Jeff Anderson(@writeguyjeff) has written a number of books on writing. 10 Things Every Writer Needs to Know is a treasure trove of ideas and highly recommended.

Alex Quigley (@huntingenglish) has this brilliant blog on shared writing.

I’d recommend reading anything by Kelly Gallagher (kellygtogo).

Finally, I did speak about vocabulary in the original presentation as I feel that vocabulary routines are extremely important. Here are my posts on vocabulary: