Navigating the islands of poetry

Every poem is an island. To get to a poem requires sailing out from the mainland of routine language. Some poems are close to shore, others much further away; on every island it is possible to feel remote and at home. A poem is defined by the rugged shore of its right-hand margin, cutting it off from prose.

Robert Crawford

When I think back to my first encounters with poetry as a boy, I realise that I often understood poems, yet I simply didn’t get poetry. Later as a teacher, I have spent an awful lot of time working on how I will teach individual poems, but not nearly enough time on how to teach poetry. If I continue the metaphor above, I have focused on the island but not the archipelago, or the…er…ferry journey (this is why I’m not a poet). With the prompt of this month’s #blogsyncenglish, I thought it was time that I did. So, how do we get to a point where a poem is no longer something remote, something that only exists in isolation?

Sequencing- building a bridge

No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead.

T.S. Eliot

An example of a poem that I have ‘taught’ recently is ‘Tissue’ by Imtiaz Dharker. When teaching this, there was just so much I had to tell students and with that came a number of shortcuts. A poet was reduced to “Born in Pakistan. Brought up in Glasgow. Conflicted.” Teaching the poem in isolation led to these kind of generalisations. (Of course, it wasn’t completely in isolation, because I was teaching it as part of the conflict cluster. AQA can dictate that it is in the conflict cluster but what it has in common with The Charge of the Light Brigade I am not sure.) I felt that my teaching of the poem was fine; my class knew the right things to write about and understood the main idea. But it was just a poem on its own.

I don’t have time to teach any other poems by Dharker, but wouldn’t it have been much better if we’d studied more of her poems earlier and appreciated a body of work that this was only a small part of? Could we study other poets dealing with similar themes? Would there be a special combination of poems we could study in sequence that would mean that we arrive at ‘Tissue’ ready for it? If a poem is a specially constructed puzzle, can we give them the clues beforehand, and if we can, what are they? For starters, a more comprehensive grasp of metaphor would have helped my students with this particular poem.

Whether our ultimate goal is to prepare students for literature exams or whether we just want them to develop an appreciation, perhaps a love for poetry, we need to think quite carefully about the sequencing of poems.

The sequencing of learning about poetry should start early. It need not be dictated just by the poems selected by an exam board, especially when these might change, but it does need to be selected consciously. And not just a poetry unit each year where students study a bunch of interesting poems, often favourites of the teacher, or perhaps collected together under a common theme. Then they get to year 10 and rattle through poems in the anthology before we finally make sure that we give enough tricks and mnemonics to cope on the unseen poetry questions.

I’m honestly not sure about what the ‘correct’ sequencing of poetry should be. Should we, for example, start in year 7 with Shakespeare’s sonnets and move towards contemporary poets in later years? Should we start with simple poems? Should we start with poems of a certain structure? Should we rattle off one of each kind of poem in an introduction to poetry unit? These are important questions to ask and ones which a new curriculum gives us a chance to answer.

Relevance- spotting landmarks

Poetry is common. The stuff of it is common, even commonplace. Poetry comes from what we as human beings have in common. It puts us in living touch with our shared realities.

David Constantine

This is poetry as illumination, for it is through poetry that we give name to those ideas which are, until the poem, nameless and formless-about to be birthed, but already felt.

Audre Lorde

Because poetry is often shrouded in ‘high style’, it can be difficult for students to have this illumination, particularly when a poem is usually brief. Students can seem to ‘get’ other texts more readily because they spend time finding what they have in common with characters and how the themes affect them. It is never hard to empathise with characters, but isn’t it strange that we can find more in common with a citizen of District 12 who kills a bunch of fellow children than we can with a poet pondering their own mortality?

I’m not an advocate of making everything relevant in the classroom, but in many ways poetry is so valuable because it is universal and relevant. If we can somehow tap into this and help our students to identify the connections, they will navigate the islands of poetry fearlessly. I know that a child may not quite need the reminder that we all do of the fleeting nature of time, of the inevitably of death etc; starting a lesson with “we’re all going to die…which is why this is a GREAT poem!” might be ill-advised. Yet because much of our poetry deals in universal truths- even if these truths can themselves change- we can expose students to great examples of poems that do connect.

There are obviously lots of ways to navigate individual poems, but with a little thought we can at least ensure that they arrive on the island with a map.

Old texts, new perspectives

When Go Set a Watchman was published, it seemed that To Kill A Mockingbird was ruined for us. When Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet placed “To be or not to be” at the very start of the play, it was sacrilege. But this is part of the beauty of literature, that the words on the page never change but our perspectives can. Kenny Pieper, in this lovely post on reading Go Set a Watchman, writes:

Over time we change, experience and age altering our outlooks, and that is reflected in the way we read.When we re-read old favourites we don’t merely repeat the process because we have changed; our background knowledge has increased, our life experiences enhanced. So, like Jean Louise, we might return there but it can never be the same.

English teachers will visit the same texts many times in their careers and every time that we reteach a text, we reread it. Each time we will spot those differences- sometimes subtle, sometimes transformative- that keep things from ever getting stale.


As we learn more about the world, our perspectives change. I spent a couple of days in Venice this summer and of course I thought of The Merchant of Venice throughout my stay. Navigating the intricate streets, I was both fascinated and claustrophobic. I often had no idea where I was- thankfully I was never too far from a sign. Perhaps other factors such as the intense summer heat and the swarms of tourists exacerbated this feeling of oppression. I could see echoes of this in so many of the characters, most of whom are trapped in some way: Antonio, trapped by his lack of capital; Jessica, trapped by her father (and Portia trapped by hers); Shylock literally and figuratively trapped by his religion. I thought of Belmont (which in my mind was a mountain visible in the distance) as a place that was so far removed from this place that Bassanio would do anything to be there. I loved the bustle of the Rialto bridge and the romance of the canals. When I teach the play again, I will approach it quite differently. (I can’t say that going to King’s Cross has changed my perspective on Harry Potter though.)


This year, like every year of my career, I am teaching Macbeth. The scheme of work starts inevitably with Act 1 Scene 1 but I don’t think that the scene with the witches is particularly interesting. It is fairly dramatic, and there are some language elements worth picking apart, but I feel that it is all fairly superficial. So I did a Cumberbatch of my own and started with Macbeth’s soliloquy in Act 5 Scene 5: “Tomorrow and tomorrow…” It is one of the best passages in any Shakespeare play, it deals with the human condition as well as anything and is a perfectly formed poem in itself. It demonstrates Shakespeare’s wordplay and use of metaphor. It also leads students into the question of how he ended up like this and serves the study of Macbeth as a tragic hero much better. By changing the starting point, I changed the whole relationship students have with the play. It is framed as a play about a person, rather than a play about witches.


Another thing that is hard to avoid is how time changes the way we read texts. Characters who were once much older than us become younger and our relationship with them changes as a result. Our political opinions change, our passions change, our circumstances change. A poem which has changed for me is So Many Summers by Norman MacCaig, one I always find a way to teach. It’s a simple poem, where the speaker passes a boat and the body of a deer every year on his fishing trip. The last stanza is:

Time adds one malice to another one–
Now you’d look very close before you knew
If it’s the boat that ran, the hind went sailing.
So many summers, and I have lived them too.

Year after year, I have taught this poem, one I first read when I was at school. Just like the speaker, the hind and the boat are still there for me, year after year, so the message of the poem becomes more resonant each time I come back to it.

Even though these are the same texts for us, our students are meeting them for the first time, and viewing them from their perspectives, so this poem is an entirely different poem for them. They see the speaker, and the boat, and the hind, for the very first time. Yet their perspectives, far from being naïve or simplistic, help to keep our texts exciting and new. The cries of “oh no” that came from a couple of students as we read the end of Of Mice and Men reminded me that these texts can always surprise. It is great to hear their fresh opinions on texts that you take for granted- I have lost count of the amount of times a comment from a pupil has changed what I think about a character or a simile or a theme.

Whatever we read, our perspectives are routinely changed. Does Orson Scott Card’s homophobia change the fact that I enjoyed Ender’s Game? Does knowledge of Steven King’s addiction invite a more favourable interpretation of The Tommyknockers? Most importantly, and I know that this isn’t ‘literature’, but does this article on Jar Jar Binks as a kung fu master change everything we thought we knew about The Phantom Menace?

Revision Decisions: proposition composition

Over the last couple of years, sentences have played a prominent role in my classroom. Students know what good sentences look like, can often discuss the mechanics of them, but lately I have encountered a couple of problems.

One is that students decide the type of sentence, then fit the content to it. For example, they will decide to use an embedded clause, then begin to write it, throwing in whatever detail springs to mind. It’s the same way of thinking that leads to random rhetorical questions clunkily arriving in persuasive writing and is perhaps an inevitable consequence of informing students that they must use certain techniques in their writing. I want them instead to have the idea in mind, and the effect, then construct the right sentence to express it, choosing the structures that work best in that instance.

Another problem is that students commit to sentences and once a sentence is written, it is very rarely changed. On redrafts, individual words are often replaced, sentences are added to paragraphs, but the basic sentences don’t change all that much.

So, to help address these issues, I have been trying to model explicitly  all of the decisions that writers make when they construct great sentences. This helps the first problem because students look at different options before committing, and with these additional options they should be more confident in rearranging sentences, addressing the second problem.

To illustrate how I am doing this, let’s look at a sentence from Il Duro by D.H. Lawrence, an 80p Penguin Classic:

He suddenly began to speak, leaning forward, hot and feverish and yellow, upon the iron rail of the balcony.

We can’t see all of the writing decisions that Lawrence made. He had to choose the ideas, the words themselves and then the syntax. To begin to explore the third of these in particular, we can break the sentence up into its basic ideas, or propositions, of which I see eight:

  • He began to speak.
  • He spoke suddenly.
  • He leant forward.
  • He leant on the balcony.
  • The balcony had an iron rail.
  • He was hot.
  • He was feverish.
  • He was yellow.

By my reckoning, there are 40,320 different ways to organise these eight propositions. I like to ask students to put these together, without changing the main ideas or the words (except for verb endings). This means that they have to make some of the choices that the writer had to make. Crucially, they start with the ideas to be expressed and not an arbitrary sentence construction. It is the order and relationship of these propositions that will lead to subtle differences in meaning.

With this sentence, I know in advance the kinds of things that will likely be up for discussion. Why is “He suddenly began to speak” the main clause? Why not “He leant forward”? What happens when we change “leant” to “leaning”? Why “hot and feverish and yellow” and not “yellow and feverish and hot”? And so on. And we can ask questions of the students about their choices too. Then we can compare: students with each other, then students with the writer.

In these discussions, we look at the ways ideas can be combined. Through coordination, subordination, through causal relationships, right branches, left branches, colons, commas, appositives, prepositions and present participles.

Here are the propositions from another sentence in the book:

  • Her head was tied in a kerchief.
  • The kerchief was red.
  • Pieces of hair stuck out over her ears.
  • The hair was short.
  • The hair looked like dirty snow.

At #TMBRAD, we had a go at writing sentences from this:

The actual sentence: “Her head was tied in a dark-red kerchief, but pieces of hair, like dirty snow, quite short, stuck out over her ears.”

This isn’t a particularly ground-breaking approach- it is pretty much just sentence combining after all- but it’s new for me, and it’s improving my students’ writing. As Jeff Anderson writes, in Revision Decisions:

But the point of combining is not simply to put two sentences together (one sentence…and…another sentence) to make a long sentence. The point of sentence combining is for young writers to see relationships among ideas and to discover more effective ways to show these relationships […] Sentence combining is about playing with ideas and shaping them into effective syntactical patterns that make sense for individual writing situations.

Further reading:

revision-decisions Revision Decisions is another wonderfully practical book from Jeff Anderson, and inspired the ideas above.

Building Great Sentences by Brooks Landon covers similar ideas, and there is an audio course from The Great Courses on the same subject by the same writer.


Trying to be a better English teacher

A few weeks ago I wrote about becoming better teachers of our subjects and concluded with: “I have become a better teacher in recent years by trying to become a better English teacher”. I thought it was worth trying to give examples of general approaches I have taken to improving my teaching. Here are some ideas that work for me, many of which could be transposed into different subject areas.

Collecting models

Whenever I read something interesting, I keep it. If I see an interesting sentence, I write it down. If a print advert makes me smile, I rip it out. If I see a colon used effectively, I save it for a lesson in the future. For students to become better writers, they need to be surrounded by high quality models. Everything we teach should be exemplified. I have a few posts on this, including Working With Mentor Texts, and I think this approach has improved my practice more than anything else.

When it can’t be found, I make it myself. I have found this particularly useful when it comes to essay writing. Students need to read essays and see what a good analytical paragraph might look like. If you don’t then you get the old ‘makes it more interesting’ or as I read the other day, ‘Shakespeare is trying his best for the play.’ The thing is, it’s really hard to comment on the effect of language. More examples=better responses.

Reading around the subject

There are lots of books with ideas on how to teach English, but they often tend to just give a few ideas for activities. Rather than reading books on teaching English, I would definitely recommend delving deeper into the subject, reading books which are not necessarily designed for teachers but will build subject knowledge and provide inspiration for lessons. I have started listening to audiobook lectures on the way to work now that my commute is longer, and already they have improved my teaching.

The great thing about English, is that anything you read can be useful. You can read a YA novel to recommend to students, you can read a history book to help learn about context. Every novel is a source of models and mentor sentences. Here is my list of books I recommend to start with.

Not making excuses and not dumbing down- the subject is exciting enough

It’s easy to apologise when teaching Shakespeare or poetry, subjects which students seem to approach with dislike, and say things like “well, we have to do it” or “I’ll try to make it fun”. Then whole lessons are spent trying to avoid contact with them. So instead of studying poetry, we study song lyrics and instead of writing essays on Macbeth, we design costumes for the witches. I used to do it so often, scouring the internet for ways to make my subject fun and doing lots of misguided things that I thought were necessary to make it all interesting. Obviously this came at the expense of learning. It’s okay to use things like Pop Sonnets as a way in, but students will always rise to the challenge if you teach the difficult stuff and support them to get there. For me, a love of the subject is cultivated by teaching the subject in all its glory and not trying to apologise for it.

Learning from other English teachers

There are so many great English teachers out there and lots of them blog. I love reading blogs because they are immediate, are personal, are often unfiltered, and are written by teachers based on their day to day experience. There are many blogs I enjoy by non English teachers of course, but the English teacher blogs have had the most direct impact on my teaching. Andy Tharby has a great list here to start from. Many tweeting teachers don’t blog but are generous in sharing what they do. A photograph of a classroom display might trigger some ideas, an interesting article might be shared which inspires a sequence of lessons, a throwaway comment might transform your approach to a text. I don’t spend as much time on Twitter as I once did, but it’s an invaluable source of inspiration. Not because it’s Twitter, but because it gives me easy access to these ideas. (Albeit we shouldn’t get too carried away with new ideas)

There is also this other thing called ‘real life’ which has quite a few more teachers! Chatting to colleagues in my department and in other schools is always useful. Seeing other teachers covering familiar topics in their own ways is wonderful and helps me to avoid becoming set in my ways. Our subject based school CPD this week consisted of our English department talking about a couple of poems and how we could teach them. The discussions helped everyone improve and I am sure our teaching of English Literature will be better as a result.

Developing efficient marking strategies

Man, the marking. I don’t think it can be avoided that English teachers mark a great deal. Because of this, English teachers need to develop strategies to make marking simple and effective. I honestly don’t hate marking any more because I have efficient methods and I continue to work on them. Every English teacher should prioritise making marking more efficient.

5 seems like a nice number to stop on. I’d love to see some other suggestions in the comments.

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