Can’t Revise, Won’t Revise

When I realised my year 11s were not revising English as much as I wanted this year, I first went to my usual strategies: 1) long rants about why they should study and 2) giving them more revision materials – as if the solution to them not studying the things I had already given them would be to give them even more things!

But after a little more discussion and some pupil interviews, it was clear just how much they were struggling with the demands of many challenging GCSEs – and every teacher expected them to revise heavily for their subject. These were pupils for whom securing a 4 in English would be an excellent achievement and for many of them the fact isn’t that they were refusing to revise, but that they didn’t know where to start. And even when they started, some didn’t really know the most effective ways to proceed. Here are some strategies I took to try and address things.

Making the first step easy

The Behavioural Insights Team have developed the EAST framework (Easy; Attractive; Social; Timely) as a way of changing behaviour. They say that the “small, seemingly irrelevant details that make a task more challenging or effortful (what we call ‘friction costs’) can make the difference between doing something and putting it off – sometimes indefinitely.”

With two English GCSEs, and 4 papers, 3 texts, 15 poems, terminology, strategy, etc to consider, you can see why some pupils struggle to get going. For those who don’t know where to start, we have to make the first step easy. And this means creating a single tangible step which can then lead logically to a next step. For example, ‘memorise quotations’ could become: Identify 5 quotations for Banquo > Write 5 quotations on flashcards > Write a cue on the other side > Use the Leitner system to memorise. The abstract becomes concrete.

But even this can fall down on the first step because pupils might not have flashcards. They might not know where to start identifying quotations. They need to know what a cue is. Any friction can lead to giving up. When setting up these initial practices with my class, I provided the quotations and also provided flashcards. (A6 size are optimal – they are easier to carry in a pocket and there is no temptation to fill the cards with lots of text.)

I have often heard some pupils say that you can’t really revise for English Language but there are definitely many ways that they can, but without a tangible first step they won’t, so this was a particular focus for me. Any urge to just hand out tons of sheets of paper was met with the question: what is their first step?

Model desirable difficulty

Even if a first step is taken, it’s really hard to sustain revision. And let’s not pretend that we are all that different from pupils. I have just checked twitter, eaten some peanuts, chosen a different album to listen to in the space of writing this paragraph. And this whole blog post has been sitting unfinished for weeks, so pupils don’t have the monopoly on procrastination and giving up.

But we do need to make it easier for pupils not to give up.  When things get tricky, pupils will always default to the easiest option, so they will reread notes to feel that they are fluent, they will revise subjects they like or are successful in, they will avoid the tricky topics. All because they are hard and it is not enjoyable. One way is to help them understand that it’s not too much of a problem if revision is difficult. In fact, it’s quite helpful.

The Leitner system is an effective way of building in retrieval practice, but it can be a challenge when trying to memorise a lot of new material, because there will be quite a lot of failure. (If you are not sure what I am talking about here, watch this short video).

When introducing any strategy like this, I would recommend spending a lesson using the strategy, pausing regularly to discuss what is happening, reflecting with pupils before, during and after the process. With my class, this was important because it gave them a reference point for when they were struggling on their own. Because we started with a small number of quotations/ flashcards, there was an element of success too.

The pupils who always seem to find revision and study easy are those who can self-regulate. Zimmerman (2002) sets out these features of a self-regulated learner: Setting short and long term goals; using appropriate strategies to attain these goals; monitoring their performance; restructuring their physical and social context; managing time efficiently; self-evaluating; attributing causation to results; adapting future methods. None of these come easily, so modelling each stage can help to stop pupils giving up.

When sharing or devising revision strategies with pupils, try to identify those that have elements of this built in. For example, the Leitner system has the monitoring part and also allows pupils to adapt their methods. Techniques like exam wrappers can also account for lots of stages in this cycle.

Build revision in

By the time pupils get to what Sir Alex Ferguson would call ‘squeaky bum time’, they have filled several exercise books and have a locker or a desk drawer overflowing with revision materials and handouts. Mine are no exception. I have changed quite a lot about teaching GCSE from the start for future classes, which I have written about here, such as using exercise books as revision guides, so I wanted to build in similar principles for anything that I handed out. Anything given as a resource or a task in class would be designed to become a revision resource.

An example is this handout for a lesson on George Orwell. I would previously have given a handout with all the information and maybe some reflection or consolidation activities linking to the text. I still did those, but I wanted this useful knowledge to last and not be forgotten. So an adaptation of the Cornell note-taking system was created. The summary helps with the immediate consolidation, but the design of cues should facilitate retrieval practice later on. It turned a simple sheet of text into a revision resource. Joe Kirby has written about Renewable Resources as an important tool to reduce teacher workload and students using these resources as part of later revision certainly reduces workload.

The goal in all of this was not for me to do the work, but for me to get things going. I jump-started the car but they drove it.*



*I like this last line but please don’t think about this metaphor too much as it probably isn’t as profound as I think it is.

Doing things so you don’t have to do them…

One of the best things about my job is that I get to see lots of other people teaching, and this week I noticed a common thread in lessons that allowed me to reflect on my questioning, and then, in a roundabout way, on my teaching of writing.

In particular, I saw No Opt Out, a technique taken from Teach Like a Champion, used expertly in several lessons. This is the idea that when a student says “I don’t know”, you stay with them until they get it, or give various cues to support, or ask another student before returning to them. As Lemov writes: “In the end, there’s far less incentive to refuse to try if doing so doesn’t save you any work, so No Opt Out’s attribute of causing students to answer a question they’ve attempted to avoid is a key lever.” It’s something that we practised in CPD last year and it was great to see it being used in lessons.

Yet there are some very real problems that can occur when this is used. Momentum can be lost when you stick with a student, especially when the question might just be a quick check that forms part of an explanation. It can mean that others in the class switch off, which is not great, especially when the strategy is designed to eliminate this kind of thing. I felt a little of this ‘switching off’ in one of my own lessons this week.

These are the pitfalls of No Opt Out. But the strategy exists for the long term gains rather than just for addressing the moment where students don’t get it. This happens over time by building a culture in the classroom where “I don’t know” is rewarded with “Great. I’m going to help you so you will know.” It becomes easier to think when the question is asked than to avoid it. Showing that you will probe is a way of ensuring that you don’t have to probe in the long run, but you have to keep doing it until everyone works it out. This can then mean that the best exponents of No Opt Out rarely have to use it! Or, at the very least, they know that “I don’t know” actually means that and not “I haven’t thought about it.”

So why did this lead me to think about writing? Well, by coincidence I have been teaching redrafting, which is another method which we can make obsolete after a while. When we explicitly teach it well, we can get to a point where we rarely have to do redrafting. Once students have the habits effective in redrafting, they can become proficient in revising work, editing things as they write. I have been using Kelly Gallagher’s STAR Revision mnemonic (which I think is one of the few useful ones in English) to model this. You can read more about this in Revision Before Redrafting.

It takes work to build these habits, but once students know how to do it, they can do it in their head, they can do it mid sentence, they can reorder sentences in paragraphs as they write. You barely have to teach it again.

Revision 1Here are some examples of how this works, taken from one of my classes this week. In the first example, the task was to redraft the opening. You can see lots of changes, with perhaps the most interesting one that it now starts with a simile.


Revision 2In the next example, a different student is now consciously revising as they write. This was the very next lesson after the explicit teaching of redrafting. You can see them change their mind halfway through ‘beautifully’ and constantly  revise their writing. Is it perfect? Not yet. But it is almost a second draft without writing the first.

Revision 3The final example has just one word changed. The man holds a photograph on his heart rather than his stomach. I love that.

Looking at the messy examples above reminds me that another keep-doing-it-so-you-don’t-have-to-do-it strategy is being fussy about presentation! Whether it is thinking, revising or using a ruler, persevering at the start means that you will rarely have to do it again.

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.