Author Archives: deadshelley

Peer Review – Aiming for the Bull’s Eye

Sir Michael Wilshaw commented recently in the Telegraph that inspectors “don’t see enough extended reading and extended writing” in English lessons. This has prompted a good deal of debate in our department staffroom: it’s all very well saying that inspectors want to see extended writing, but how would this work in practice? How would it be possible to evidence impact and progress in a lesson focused on extended writing?

After much head scratching in my department, we decided that the answer lay in peer assessment and careful redrafting. Not only would this help to embed the culture of craftsmanship written about so eloquently by @huntingenglish, but it would also enable us to nurture our pupils’ intellectual resilience through structured peer scrutiny (see Zoe Elder’s inspirational Full on Learning for further details).

Anyway, the upshot of all my musing is that I thought I’d share the best tool that I have come across for self and peer review – The Evaluation Target Board. The Target Board was created by Thinkwell and I was introduced to it through the Connections for Learning programme at my school. However, I’ve added my own ‘twist’– the magic is in the plenary! This is how I have made use of it to help Y8 pupils improve their persuasive writing.

This sequence of activities is based on the TV programme Room 101. Celebrity guests are asked to make an argument for ‘things’ (in the loosest sense of that word) to be consigned for all eternity to Room 101 (see Orwell’s 1984 for literary context). If you are unfamiliar with the format of the show, here is a clip.

I begin by asking pupils what they consider the most essential elements of powerful persuasive writing. Pupils work in pairs to ‘brainstorm’ their ideas. They feedback and I collect their ideas on the board. Depending on the group and the ability level, we might end up with something like this: emotive language; rhetorical questions; facts & opinions, etc…

Next, I ask them to rank the following examples ‘what I wrote’. Apologies to cat lovers.

Example 1: I really don’t like cats. They are very upsetting. Basically, they act like they own the place. They’ve got horrible rough tongues and they are always licking their sticky bits. As if that wasn’t bad enough, they’ve got really smelly poo. I think that they should go into Room 101.

Example 2: I can’t stand cats. We call them pets, but basically they couldn’t care less about us. They just parade around the house, acting like they own the place. What’s the point in having a pet that thinks it’s superior to you?

As if that wasn’t bad enough, they spend half of the day sleeping and the other half licking their sticky bits with their horrible, rough tongues. What have they got to be superior about?

And just when you thought they couldn’t get any more disgusting, they leave a dead thing in your shoe as a ‘present.’

Not only that but they have the stinkiest poo in the whole world.

Go on – stick the moggy in Room 101. You know you want to.

Example 3: If I could have one wish – just one – it would be that every cat in the whole world would spontaneously combust at my command. Kitty apocalypse! And, boy, have those furry little blighters got it coming!

It’s not just the way that they parade around the house acting as if they own the place; it’s not the way they spend half the day snoring on some sun-lit cushion and the other half licking their sticky bits, while you’re trying to eat your dinner – it’s not even the way they wake you up in the morning by clawing your chest and trying to curl up on your face. No, it’s the fact that they think that they are better than you.

And just when you thought that they couldn’t be any more revolting they leave a surprise in your shoe. Some twitching, half dead/ half alive rodent or bird – its still warm guts squelching in your sock.

Trust me – I won’t rest until the last of the feline species is crammed, spitting and yowling into Room 101!

Following the rank order exercise, pupils share the features of the text which they have identified as most effective. Following feedback, I ask them if they want to change their list of criteria. It is at this point that I give out the target boards and ask the pupils to record their effective writing criteria (in no particular order) against the bullet points. The target board that I used on this ocassion had five bullet points and therefore required five criteria, but you can vary the number of bullet points for purposes of differentiation.

By this stage, the class have engaged in paired and grouped work and they should all have demonstrated progress . You can make this progress ‘visible’ by asking pupils to work on mini-white boards and to display their criteria before and after the ranking exercise.

The next phase involves the pupils working individually, planning and writing their Room 101 speech. If they are stuck, I suggest ‘Facebook’, ‘Karaoke’ and ‘Justin Bieber’ as deserving candidates.

It is at this point that the target boards come into their own. All of the pupils swap their work and use their target boards to peer review the work that they have been given. If criterion number 1 is ‘a strong opening’ and the piece they are marking has the strongest opening they can imagine, they write number 1 in the bull’s eye. If the opening is weak, number 1 is written in one of the outer concentric circles or off the board altogether. They then repeat this procedure with each of the criteria. A perfect piece of work would have all of the numbers in the bull’s eye.

First draft
First draft target board evaluation

Pupils then have to redraft at least the first three paragraphs of their peers’ work, using the criteria and trying to ‘improve’ the writing in accordance with the criteria, so that they can justify moving all of the numbers into the centre of the target. In the plenary, pupils read out before and after versions and explain how they improved it, using the criteria. I have found that there is immense power in asking the pupils to articulate how they have improved the work. It delivers quality metacognition.

Second Draft
Second Draft Evaluation Target

Finally, because pupils have worked in pairs/ groups and selected only a limited number of criteria, there will be variation in the criteria that pupils have used to assess and improve their peers’ work. I ‘blow up’ the work to A3 size and create a gallery in the classroom, displaying the ‘improved’ writing alongside the target board and criteria. Pupils wander around the room, reading the work and I ask them to stop at the piece of work which they feel is most effective. I take note of where most of the pupils have gathered and ask them to explain why they have chosen that piece of work. This opens up a space for a discussion about the most essential criteria for persuasive writing.

The target boards are incredibly versatile. You can suppy your own criteria or the pupils can generate them from exemplar matrerial (as above) or from A Level or GCSE mark schemes. I have used them to great effect across all key stages.

Have fun!


SOLO Stations, Havisham and the Talking Cure


Beloved sweetheart bastard. Not a day since then
I haven’t wished him dead. Prayed for it
so hard I’ve dark green pebbles for eyes,
ropes on the back of my hands I could strangle with.

Spinster. I stink and remember. Whole days
in bed cawing Nooooo at the wall; the dress
yellowing, trembling if I open the wardrobe;
the slewed mirror, full-length, her, myself, who did this

to me? Puce curses that are sounds not words.
Some nights better, the lost body over me,
my fluent tongue in its mouth in its ear
then down till suddenly bite awake. Love’s

hate behind a white veil; a red balloon bursting
in my face. Bang. I stabbed at a wedding cake.
Give me a male corpse for a long slow honeymoon.
Don’t think it’s only the heart that b-b-b-breaks.

Carol Ann Duffy

Before I begin, I need to make it absolutely clear that I am not holding this sequence of lessons up as an example of ‘outstanding’ practice. Having said that, it certainly represents progress in terms of my own engagement with SOLO and I feel confident that not only did the pupils enjoy the lessons, they also learnt a good deal about the poem and, in some cases at least, overcame their fear of tackiling ‘difficult’ poetry independently.

I have been experimenting with SOLO taxonomy since September and my pupils have responded well. I have seen the positive impact of the approach reflected in the development of a shared pedagogical language; greater engagement and, above all, deeper learning. The following lesson was my third or fourth attempt at SOLO stations, an approach I picked up from Oops! Helping Children to Learn Accidentally’, I remain very much under the influence of the book’s author, Hywel Roberts. In Oops, Hywel talks about the importance of building anticipation and creating imaginary contexts for learning and I decided that this approach would help me engage my disaffected Y10s.

Lesson 1

In the first lesson I introduced the ‘Big Question’ which we would keep returning to during our preparation for the CA, namely ‘Is love a mental illness?’ This generated a good deal of very interesting discussion. Next, we talked about the role of psychoanalysts in treating mental illness by interpreting the dreams, behaviour and language of their patients. I called one of the pupils out to the front of the class. I had prepared him earlier and he related a dream in which he was in his home town and speaking in his mother tongue, but no one could understand a word he said – not even his family. We then discussed possible interpretations of his ‘dream’. Finally, I explained that in the following lesson they would be working with footage and a transcript of a patient and attempting to reach a diagnosis. The result was a satisfying sense of anticipation amongst the members of the class.

Lesson 2

At the beginning of the next lesson, I reminded the class of the ‘Big Question’ before screening a clip from David Lean’s adaptation of Great Expectations and, having asked the pupils to underline vocabulary that they were unsure of, I read the poem. Pupils fed back and I clarified terms like ‘spinster’ and ‘slewed.’ Next, I explained that they were to take on the role of psychoanalysts. They would work through a series of station/ tasks designed to help them focus with gradually increasing depth on the language and behaviour of ‘the patient’ as presented in the transcript/ poem. Once they had identified, listed, analysed and explained aspects of Mrs Havisham’s behaviour and language, the final outcome would be a ‘report’ on the patient. I briefly reminded them of our agreed protocols for SOLO stations and told them that, while they could begin at any station, the point was not to ‘progress’ as fast as they could through the levels, but to develop as deep an understanding of the patient’s plight as possible – this might necessitate returning to the unistructural and multistructural stations to gather more ‘knowledge’.

Pupils carried a psychoanalyst’s ‘notebook’ with them in order to record their ideas and assess their progress against SOLO self assessment rubrics which were tailored to each station. They then decided where they wanted to start based on their assessment of their current understanding. All of the stations were clearly identified, so that pupils could navigate the room with ease and as had been the case in previous attempts, those pupils who had been a little ambitious in their self assessment adjusted their starting points quickly.

There were two prestructural tables, which were strewn with confetti and images of Mrs Havisham from various adaptations and illustrations. There were also copies of the extract from Great Expectations and paper tissue boxes complete with strips of paper containing additional information regarding Mrs. Havisham (an idea I nicked from David Didau’s excellent blog) .There were also multistructural and relational tables. At one multistructural station, pupils worked with the text highlighting examples of oxymorons, similes, metaphors and onomatopoeia and exploring what they told us about Mrs Havisham’s state of mind. At one of the relational stations pupils worked with the blacked-out shape of the poem, exploring how that might connect with Mrs Havisham’s behaviour and use of language in the poem as a whole. Most importantly of all, each ‘station’ had an objective and an outcome and its own SOLO self assessment rubric. This meant that even if the task was geared towards gathering multistructural information, pupils could potentially achieve at an extended abstract level of thinking. For instance, in the case of a task that required pupils to ‘identify’ (unistructural) and ‘list’ (multistructural) the things that Mrs Havisham ‘did’, they could still develop an understanding of how her relative lack of activity – she sits and ‘stinks’; ‘caws’ at the walls and opens a wardrobe – could be connected with the powerlessness of women in a patriarchal, Victorian society (extended abstract). Unfortunately, not one of the little critters came up with that! Pupils understood that they were to take time out between stations to self assess, reflect and develop their ideas. You will perhaps have noticed that I have not referred to any extended abstract stations. That’s because there weren’t any. In attempt to slow things down, I had decided to save this final level for the third lesson in the sequence.

Lesson 3

In the third and final lesson, pupils worked in small groups with their notebooks, discussing and developing their ideas. I then supplied differentiated writing frames for the report and relational connectives for the main body of the text and extended abstract connectives for the diagnostic conclusion. Pupils had to refer to their notes in order to write about the background to Mrs Havisham’s breakdown, her behaviour and her language. In the conclusion, pupils drew on all of the information to develop a hypothesis or a diagnosis, using extended abstract connectives.

The Verdict

This was an improvement on my previous experiments with SOLO stations lessons. There was time for reflection and each station was differntiated using the SOLO self assessment rubric. As a result pupils were engaged and produced good work. However, the psychoanalytical ‘frame’ for the lesson meant that the final product did not read like literary criticism and could be seen as an unnecessary distraction. This may have been a flaw in my planning: after all, this was preparation towards Controlled Assessment. However, they enjoyed adopting the role of psychotherapists: the pace of work was productive and there was understanding; there was analysis and pupils were mostly able to pull it all together into something approaching a hypothesis or diagnosis, which explained the elements of the poem and the connectives seemed to work well.

If I’m honest, I think that the sequence was a little ‘busy’ – it certainly took a lot of preparation – and in future I will adopt a more pared down approach. I would also avoid using the psychoanalytical frame as an over-arching approach to analysis of thge poem. Although the pupils enjoyed it and the idea of reaching a diagnosis leant purpose to their reading, it was in the final analysis a distraction.


Using Poetry to Revive a Tired Curriculum Part II

In the last post I outlined the ways in which we as a department have attempted to re-inject creativity into our KS3 curriculum by explicitly teaching the skills required in order to ‘make’ poetry.
For a number of reasons, we decided to focus on ‘free’ verse. Firstly, because it is difficult to write ‘good’ rhyming poetry unless you are a skilled poet: word choices are inevitably determined by the requirements of the rhyme rather than by the desire to choose the perfect word. Secondly, we have found that the lack of rules means that even the least able pupils have a fighting chance to produce something poetic, powerful and true. Where free verse is concerned, accurate spelling and punctuation are not the be all and end all. Finally, it seems to me that there are just two defining characteristics of free verse and that is the line break – which I wrote about in my last post and poetic ‘voice’, which is the subject of this post  .

Poetic Voice

Cliff Yates, in his book Jumpstart Poetry in the Secondary School, says that unless the poem is in the form of a recipe or a letter, “the poem ‘should sound like someone speaking, the person who wrote it, or the chosen narrator.” In other words, the writer needs to be aware of the sound of what they are writing, the ‘voice’ of the poem.

We decided to encourage our budding poets to think about ‘voice’ by using Peter Samson’s ‘objects game’. It is very simple and very effective. Essentially, pupils choose from a list of possible objects and, following a spot of brainstorming and mind-mapping, they write a poetic monologue from the perspective of that object. From the outset, pupils are encouraged to make decisions about the kind of ‘voice’ their object might have. Would it be angry, childlike or mournful and how this might be reflected in the language of the poem.

This is the list of objects, as it appears in Samson’s Writing Poems:

A vacuum cleaner in a shop window
A loose button on an old overcoat
A stained glass window in a derelict church
A lift in nan office block
A motorbike in pieces on a kitchen floor
A wardrobe in a hotel bedroom
A spoon in a bedsit
A bus shelter at midnight
A piece in a jigsaw of a landscape with scattered houses
A pub (P.H.) on an Ordnance Survey Map
A packet of aspirin in a bathroom cabinet
A safety match I a box in a cardigan pocket
A reading lamp on a tidy desk
A reading lamp on a cluttered desk
A roller blind in a window overlooking the sea
A paintbrush in a jar of turps

Some of these suggestions are a little bit ‘old school’ we don’t use them all and some of them we tweak to make them more relevant. However, they are carefully thought out and each of them can yield incredible results.

Getting them writing…

Getting pupils to engage with writing poetry has proved to be much easier than we imagined. Peter Samson’s advice is to keep it simple. He advocates four simple rules: “don’t stop once you’ve started; don’t rhyme because it’s a constraint; don’t write to the edge of the page otherwise it becomes a story ( so break the line where you want to place emphasis) and, most importantly, don’t worry.”
Having established these ‘rules’, we have found that is best to ask pupils to write in a concentrated fashion for short periods: 2 minutes – 10 minutes depending on the group… This time can always be extended, but the strict time constraint has the effect of encouraging pupils to take the plunge and start writing. After all, you can’ be expected to produce anything fantastic in such a short time,, so why worry!
We have also found that writing with the pupils is very important. It means that they see you taking the same creative risk that they are – and they feel supported and secure as a result.
Finally, if they are really stuck you can give them a first line. Remove this stumbling block and they’re off!

Drafting – less is (sometimes) more

Drafting is essential if your aim is to produce reflective writers who will ultimately become better readers. Although it is certainly the case that the first draft of a poem is sometimes the best draft, it is more often than not necessary to redraft the poem. It is a case of releasing the living poem from the draft, in much the same way as Michelangelo spoke of uncovering the statue that was already in the stone. In any case, drafting is an essential skill for all pupils to learn and drafting a poem is a good way for pupils to begin to get to grips with this key skill. We encourage pupils to be ruthless in the redrafting process, by asking pupils to begin by deleting from the poem any words that are inessential and to refine the choices and positioning of the words that remain. We might also encourage pupils to consider cutting an entire line or even a stanza. The trick is to ‘ ‘show’ and not to ‘tell’. From this point of view, sometimes less is more…

Developing More Effective Readers and Writers Through Focused Reflection

In the first post, I explained that we hoped that by becoming writers who not only wrote but drafted their poems, making conscious editorial decisions, pupils might also become expert readers – able to approach texts from the inside and to consider the editorial decisions of other writers. They would  see the texts that they encountered – not as a inexplicable, miraculous creations but as the product of a series of comprehensible editorial decisions.

This being one of our goals, it was essential that we encourage pupils to reflect on what they had done and to articulate some of the editorial decisions that they made. This is where the teacher’s own poetry comes in handy. Having agreed protocols as a group (kind, constructive and specific works well here), the teacher presents their poem to the class, explaining what she was aiming for and how she had attempted to achieve this through the creative decisions she made during the writing of the poem. The pupils are then encouraged to critique the poem, asking questions about the language of the poem. Having taken part in the critique of their teacher’s poem, they are ready to work with their peers: pupils then present their poems to a partner who  acts as a critical friend, asking questions about the poem and the process that gave rise to it  and encouraging them to articulate their creative decisions.

It’s not perfect, but we’re getting there…

Using Poetry to Revive a Tired Curriculum Part I

Towards the end of last academic year, I started fretting about how pupils would respond to the question, ‘What  does ‘doing’ English at Maricourt mean to you?’ Put simply, I was worried that we were in danger of becoming an exams factory. This was reinforced in my mind when one of my colleagues commented that teaching sometimes felt like ‘shovelling wet cement.’ If that was what it felt like to teach English, what must it be like to be on the receiving end? I had to face up to the situation and ask the pupils themselves. This is a sample of what they said:

It was not that there was anything especially worrying in what they said, what troubled me was what they didn’t say. They didn’t mention creativity, they didn’t mention imagination and they certainly didn’t mention inspiration! Something had to be done.

We decided that the best way to reenergise the curriculum, our teaching and the pupils would be to make ‘making’ poems central to our classroom repertoire. This would have a number of benefits. Most obviously, the focus on poetry would reintroduce that crucial, lost creativity into the curriculum. Better still, the nature of free verse meant that less able pupils could concentrate on working with the words themselves without getting hung-up about spelling and punctuation. Finally, we felt sure that encouraging pupils to become ‘writers’ would enable them to approach reading ‘from the inside.’ Having made authorial decisions themselves, they would be in a better position to get ‘beneath the bonnet’ of any text and see what makes it work from the perspective of a writer.

We decided to concentrate on structure (through the exploration of ‘line breaks’ in free verse), poetic voice and drafting. We then set about devising units for years 7,8&9. Leaving nothing to chance, we engaged the services of a local poet, Tony O’Neil, to act as poet in residence. In addition to leading poetry workshops, Tony agreed to help create an anthology of pupils’ poetry and to host an evening in the summer term, when the parents and guardians of those pupils whose work had been anthologised would come together to celebrate the work. I envisage wine, cheese and vol-au-vents (they must be due a come back)!

Anyway, I would like to use this and subsequent blogs to share with you some of the approaches we have adopted. No doubt some of them will be familiar, but I’d like to think that there might be some fresh ideas too. I should at this stage declare my sources. Cliff Yates’ book Jumpstart poetry in the Secondary School has proved to be invaluable. The book is still available from Amazon, but I have not worked out how to embed a link (sorry)!

We used the poem ‘This is Just to Say’, by William Carlos Williams as our starting point with Y7.

Tasked to answer the question, ‘What is Poetry’ and  having investigated various examples of writing in groups, the pupils decided that  one of the most fundamental differences between poetry and prose is the way in which the poet ‘breaks the line.’ I then gave out a version of  ‘This is Just to Say’ set out as a prose paragraph. The pupils were adamant that this could not be poetry, so I challenged them to experiment with different ways of ‘breaking the line’ in order to unlock the musicality of the language (Don’t worry – I didn’t present it to them in quite those terms)! We then compared our versions with Williams’ version and discussed whether or not it now qualified as poetry.

I told the class that Williams was a doctor and that one possible reason for the ‘shape’ of his poem was that it was written on a prescription note. We then talked about whether or not the pupils had ever apologised for something that they had enjoyed doing – (some cracking oral work). Pupils then worked on different shapes of coloured paper and wrote their own ‘apology’ poems.

By the end of the lesson, the classroom was awash with coloured paper and the pupils were practically clambering over their desks to read out their work. It was particularly striking that those pupils who had hitherto been reluctant writers felt empowered to take part. Because they knew that the emphasis was on choosing exactly the right word and putting it in exactly the right place and not on spelling or punctuation, they flew! I now have a number of pupils who are mad keen to write and I am excited to see how this impacts on their ability to ‘read’ poetry as ‘writers’, as opposed to just ‘readers.’

Inside Out Poetry

‘Inside Out’ Poetry

I may be speaking for myself here, and if so I apologise, but isn’t it the case that we teachers of English sometimes assume that our pupils ‘know’ how to ‘read’ poetry,  when in fact they haven’t a clue?  The truth is that pupils are terrified when they are confronted with a new poem to analyse. They do not feel equal to the  challenge of  cracking the code of the inscrutable and obscure text in front of them and their response is to shut down.

As a result, I have got into the habit of approaching the poem from the inside out, starting with the  words or lexical items – the linguistic soil out of which the poem grows and only then working towards a reading of the poem as a whole. I have come to think of this approach as ‘inside out’ poetry.  At its most simple, this might involve working with a word cloud as a pre-reading exercise.e one below. The pupils work in groups with the language of the poem – grouping words and anticipating themes; exploring connotations and speculating about style.  This is brilliant because it means that they have rolled up their sleeves and got the linguistic muck beneath their fingernails. It also means that they have formulated theories about the poem and they are keen to test their theories out against the poem itself. As a result,  they have a sense of ownership of the poem; they are no longer intimidated and they have already begun to engage in close analysis before they have even read the text.

If you haven’t tried this approach to and would like to you need to take a look at Wordle and ABCya. Of the two, Wordle is by far the sexiest, but it comes with a health warning: firstly, network firewalls mean that Wordle may not work in school and, secondly, you can’t save the word clouds that you make on Wordle. Instead you have to take a screen shot and paste it into Word. If you want to save it as a Jpeg, you can, but you would need to paste it into ppt and save it in the appropriate format. ABCya is a good alternative. While the word clouds that it generates are less striking than those that you can make on Wordle, it does work in school and you can save the images. Here’s one that I made earlier:

Poetry Word Cloud Made Using ABCya


Using Poetry to Develop Our Psychic Abilities

This is essentially a development of the ‘Inside Out’ approach to poetry and  another example of the benefits of approaching reading through the mindset of a writer (see previous posts). I would also like to think that it is in the spirit of @HYWEL_ROBERTS’ book Oops! – a book which I have found incredibly inspiring and regenerative.  In Oops,  Hwyel stresses the importance of ‘hooking’ your pupils into learning. He argues that the best way to do this is to create an imaginative context for learning and then to introduce a ‘lure’, which pupils can’t resist and which leads them into learning whether they like it or not. He also writes about the impact of ‘altering the status quo’ on pupils learning: a change in venue or routine, or anything out the ordinary tends to engage pupils’ interest and prime them for learning.  I have tried to draw on these excellent  ideas in developing the  lesson, which goes something like this:

When the pupils enter the class room they find a sealed envelope on each chair. As this is unusual, they are intrigued. They are told to place the envelope on the desk in front of them and to leave it alone for the time being. Next, in order to create an appropriately imaginative and engaging context for learning, I introduce my ‘pretend’ learning intentions. The pupils are told that the objective of the lesson is to develop their psychic abilities; the outcome is that they will be able to ‘read’  a poem in a sealed envelope. By this point, they are ‘buzzing’ – another of Hwyel’s favourite concepts.

I then explain that before exercising their psychic powers and using muscles in the mind that we rarely exercise (cross curricular connections with science?),  it is important to limber up our minds, just as they would in PE (another cross curricular link?). I then display the following words on the board:

carrot, cabbage, onion, broccoli, plum.

This is a starter activity that I have pinched from Helen Dunmore and you can find it here. Pupils have to identify the odd one out in the list. The obvious candidate is ‘plum’, because it is the only fruit, but the trick is to get them to think about any other possible odd ones out. For instance, ‘onion’ is the only one that begins with a vowel. The key is that there is no ‘right’ answer. I then display the next list and the pupils go through the same process:

happiness, wedding cake, bride, bouquet, coffin.

Odd ones out could include ‘happiness’, because it is an abstract noun, or ‘wedding cake’, because it is the only one that they can eat. There is usually some bright spark who identifies ‘funeral’ as the odd one out, because all the rest are connected with happiness. At which point, I ask them if any of them have ever been married?

Anyway, the activity works well, because of the element of competition and because it gets the pupils’ brains working  thinking about words and the way they can be categorised. It also, as Dunmore points out, nails the Literacy objectives for that lesson.

Next, I ask the pupils to take the sealed envelope, to close their eyes and to press the envelope to their foreheads, while concentrating and trying to visualise the poem. They ALL do this and I am filled with joy at the power I exert over these impressionable young minds ; ) But, seriously – is there anything better than being a teacher?

While they’ve been doing this, my helpers have been giving out envelopes filled with words. They do not know this (though some of them will suspect) , but they are the lexical or ‘content’  words from the poem in the envelope.  There are two ways of doing this. You can laboriously type the words of the poem into a table, leaving out ‘grammar’ words, like conjunctions and prepositions, into a table or you can feed the poem into a text ‘cruncher’ like this one at Teachit. However, you need Teachit works membership to access this. Failing that, I am sure that there are free text crunchers if you google for them.


all alone already away bed believe black blight book
both bottles call clear crime dad dead death disbelief
disconnected distance drop end ends gas get give gone
grief hear hot hour just kept key knew leather
life lock long look love mother name new number
off out pass phone popped raw renew risk rusted
same scrape she’d shopping side slippers soon still such
sure tea there’s time transport warming years


The next stage is for the pupils to gather the words into groups. They do this in pairs. The only rule is that they give their group of words a title. Working with the words in the table, they might identify groups of words with titles like ‘death’, ‘domesticity’ ‘loss’  or ‘time’. However, it also pays to advise them not to look for groups based on spelling or word types (abstract nouns), which they might be inclined to do, depending on how the starter activity panned out. You can differentiate by asking specific pairs to aim for a specific number of groups.

I generally allow ten to fifteen minutes for the completion of this task, after which they go pairs into fours to compare, agree and rank order the groupings that they are most pleased with. Next they feedback and, as a whole class,  we talk about the groupings: are there any surprising groups? Do they all ‘fit’ together?  Finally, we ask what a poem with these groups of words might be about.  Without realising it they are exploring the semantic field of the poem (the real learning intention).

The next step is for the pupils to use the words and their groupings to write at least five lines of ‘the’ poem. They are allowed to add additional words;  they do not have to use all of the words and they can change the tense. However, they must not attempt to rhyme. I allow them ten minutes to write without stopping. This tends to take the pressure off. After all, you can’t be expected to produce a masterpiece in ten minutes (see previous posts). Of course, if the energy is there, I allow it to run on.

Because the pupils are working with a poem ‘concentrate’ – a bit like undiluted orange squash, they write with more confidence and the results are usually very impressive. They get to experience a feeling of success. It is at this point that I ask them to open their envelopes and one pupil reads out:

Long Distance II by Tony Harrison

This poem works well because it is not too long, so the pupils will not be overwhelmed with words and there are a number of clear semantic fields.

I ask the class if any of their poems share similar ideas with the ‘real poem’ and there is always at least one poem that is close to the original. We talk about similarities and differences and then I ask why this should be the case. Is it down to psychic ability? By this time all of the pupils have caught on and it is easy to draw out the ‘real’ learning outcome – the concept of semantic field and the connection between semantic field and theme.

I have used this lesson with all key stages and have found that it delivers engagement, creativity and learning. You can, of course, discard the envelopes and the psychic window dressing and it works just as well.

Cross-posted from Let’s go to work…