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How do you feel today?

Working at a school this Friday, I came across a resource that I really liked but I could see that, with a few tweaks, it could be even more useful. So, I’ve made my own version of it.

23-11-2009 11-00-51

23-11-2009 11-02-27

Each ‘emoticon’ has beneath it a strip of five boxes that could indicate intensity or that could be used to track emotion over a period of five lessons. The sheet is purposefully made using outline drawings so that colour might also be used to develop an emotional pattern.

I imagine that this resource could be used to encourage students to reflect on their emotions say, as part of a SEAL learning objective. It might also be used to reflect on the emotions of others perhaps as part of engaging with a writer or speaker.

The link is below; I hope you find it useful.

How do you feel today.pdf

Progression in writing to describe

In Stella Gibbons’ 1932 comic masterpiece, Cold Comfort Farm, the author obligingly stars the most purple of descriptive passages with one, two or three stars to allow readers to skip or admire her descriptions. The first of her starred passages is a description of the eponymous farm and begins:

“Dawn crept over the Downs like a sinister white animal, followed by the snarling cries of a wind eating its way between the black boughs of the thorns. The wind was the furious voice of this sluggish animal light that was baring the dormers and mullions and scullions of Cold Comfort Farm. The farm was crouched on a bleak hill-side, whence its fields, fanged with flints, dropped steeply to the village of Howling a mile away . . . “.

cold comfort lead

The novel parodies Laurencian, over-romanticised accounts of rural life but Ms Gibbons is still working (mostly) within the rules of descriptive writing, albeit with a comic twist. In the extract above we see extended metaphor (and a mixed one at that) and a density of poetic techniques placed cheek by jowl with an appeal to the reader’s senses. There is also a unity or direction to the description that attempts to paint this world as a dark and menacing place.

Of course, it doesn’t quite come off as Ms Gibbons well knew. The creeping white animal (some sort of cat?) becomes ‘sluggish’ and the wind, personified by its ‘snarling cries’ loses its menace when it encounters the absurdly over-detailed list of ‘dormers and mullions and scullions’. When we read that the neighbouring village is called ‘Howling’, the joke is complete. Ah-ha, we think, this is parody – the clumsiness in style is all part of the deliciousness of the conceit.

Right now, I expect that Ms Gibbons would be amused. My attempt to analyse her technique with a degree of seriousness would have her chuckling heartily because that’s pretty much the point really – it’s a style of prose that is quite deliberately awful in order to make us smile. We don’t need to analyse it, we just feel it. Nevertheless, it’s a great starting point for more able students when teaching them about some of the finer points of writing to describe.

Progression in this topic begins with the basic definition of descriptive writing as being rich in an appeal to the five senses and full of poetic techniques. I usually start with a sense chart (see below). Students use the frame to capture details of a scene, making sure that all columns contain at least one or two details.

small sense chart

For the least able students, using this chart as a basis for writing can create a pleasing first draft.

As with teaching any form of writing, the teaching sequence follows the flow chart pictured below.

Writing Sequence

To take this one step further, each sense detail may be developed, usually with reference to simple poetic techniques like simile or metaphor. There are many ways of achieving this with students and a handy reminder of the range of techniques available to writer may be useful (the resource below is suitably simple although as you can see it was made for a different purpose).

mr strand drops

Middle ability students now have the basis for a very pleasing piece of descriptive writing. It contains an appeal to the readers’ senses and has that density of poetic techniques that is the hallmark of description. However, the work does not need to stop there. The most able writers don’t just describe; their writing has an overarching unity, a direction, a point. One way to introduce this to students is to examine some critically acclaimed examples.

The choice is almost limitless but three that immediately spring to mind are the killing of an iguana from ‘Out of Africa’ by Isak Dinesen; ‘The Shooting of an Elephant’ by George Orwell and the description of Coketown from ‘Hard Times’ by Charles Dickens (see resource link at the foot of this posting).

More able students can admire their rich use of sensual detail and the wonderfully poetic language but, more than those, they can see in these descriptions something else – that overarching unity, the drive to harness description to the writer’s purpose.

Once I have modelled my reading of one, students explore the others, recording the three main elements – sensual detail; poetic language; and writer’s purpose. Now, they have a way of shifting their writing to the highest level.

I usually follow this reading sequence with a writing task that gives students a chance to explore their new-found knowledge. They plan their writing using a frame divided into three sections and headed with the elements of descriptive writing outlined above. The results are startlingly original and often reach the highest levels of attainment. You may even want to explore with your learners the delightful Ms Gibbons’ work.

Resources to download

The Teaching Sequence for Writing – boxes.doc

Small Sense Charts.doc

mr strand drops explained.doc

Writing to describe examples.doc

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Great Expectations Assignment

This is a quick posting for Mike and all the others who have requested more details of the Great Expectations GCSE assignment that I alluded to in my posting entitled, “Little bits of learning”. If you haven’t read it, then this is going to make very little sense – actually – come to think of it – if you haven’t read it, WHY NOT? ;)

The main resources (including an assignment plan) that I use when teaching this sequence can be found by clicking the link below. Unfortunately, at the time of writing, Box.net is once again playing up. So, fingers crossed first then click below. You should get to a folder with six resources in it that you may download and adapt.

Briefly, the resources are: chapter 1; chapter 39; a summary of the whole text; a worksheet on chapter one; a short model text; and the assignment plan. Reading this plan it should be clear than the teaching sequence includes homework that is designed to feed into the essay sequence (thus giving less motivated students a reason to do it!).

Keep those fingers crossed and click here.

My original posting on Great Expectations is here – Little bits of learning.

Sentence Investigations

It is a strange coincidence that, just as DNA has only four bases and yet accounts for the vast diversity of humanity, prose is made up of only four types of sentence and covers everything from a child’s first scribblings to Solzhenitsyn.

Teaching students about the four types of sentence is good practice in English teaching but better practice is to allow them to explore this idea for themselves. One way to achieve this that I devised, is to expose the sentence patterns using colour.

si demoFirstly, students are shown how to complete this ‘sentence investigation’ using a model text. This text is divided into its separate sentences and each is coded using one of four colours: simple sentences in one colour; compounds in another; complex ones in a third; and fashionable “fragments” in a fourth. The results looks like the image to the left. Now the reader has a way of discussing the patterning of sentences together with an insight into the link between structure and the writer’s purpose.

The next step is to supply a similarly formatted text for the students to explore, perhaps in small groups. I like to use passages where a character faces some conflict as they seem to provide more obvious patterns. Look again at the example above: the writer is signalling a character’s distress by his use of fragments (in pink) appearing so hot on the heals of all those complex sentences. As the character’s patience evaporates so too does their control of ‘full’ sentences.

si holes thumb

Once students have investigated several passages for their differing effects, it is an appropriate point for them to turn their attention to their own writings. Using the same technique I ask students to analyse their own control of sentences. I ask them to see if they can find similar patterns. Students assess their own work and that of others and suggest ways forward in the development of their writing style. Sometimes these are crude comments about the range or frequency of sentences used but sometimes this work creates that breakthrough moment: young writers appreciate for the first time that there is a rhythm to prose and that they can achieve limitless effects simply by varying that pattern of four.

Form Audience and Purpose

I made this resource for revising with my students in preparation for their GCSE English Paper 1. I wanted to highlight the connections between potential texts on Section A and their purposes.

Having used it now with two classes I can say that it works well and serves as a useful ‘at a glance’ revision sheet. Students tick the first column if they think that text could be used in the exam. They then make brief notes about the text’s form and likely audience. Finally, they circle the purpose for each text from the range of purposes given in the final column.

FAP paper 1

Texts On AQA English Paper 1.doc

Test frames for word classes

smarties-jxs4If you are teaching grammar with your students, you will probably want to examine the common word classes at some point.

One word of advice, avoid trying to define these classes by their roles. It is still commonplace for many of my students to say, “Oh a verb, that’s a doing word.” Hmm. One immediate problem with this approach of course is the abstract. Imagine, believe and think are not thought of as ‘doing words’ by students. Likewise, all adverbs do not end ‘ly’ and telling students that adjectives are ‘describing words’ is not helpful when you think of words like kitchen (as in ‘kitchen wall’) or Christmas (as in Christmas music). And don’t get me started on demonstrative adjectives like ‘this’ or ‘those’!

A far better approach is to examine these word classes by the spaces that they occupy in our language. Thus an adjective occupies the space or spaces beside a noun. It modifies our understanding of that noun by virtue of its close proximity if you like.

To this end I have developed the following ‘test frames’ spurred on by my grammar guru, Adrian. Now when I ask students to consider Frost’s use of adjectives, I supply them with a simple frame that allows them to highlight those words as occupying those particular modifying spaces.

As students use the frames, which are very simple and easy to remember, they see connections in function for themselves. Over time, the frames are abandoned and students only refer to them occasionally.

Incidentally, I know that these frames are not entirely bulletproof: there are some weaknesses in several of them. However, they do serve as a very useful strategy that supports an investigative approach rather than learning ‘functions’.

Test Frame for Verbs.doc

Test Frame for Nouns.doc

Test Frame for Adverbs.doc

Test Frame for Adjectives.doc

It’s not just food…

Tomato soupSo begins the rather irritating tag-line of a series of TV advertisements for a well-known supermarket’s line in groceries (whose initials might be M and S). In case you haven’t seen them, the advertisements are an object lesson in noun modification. Yes, yes, I know, I should get out more…

In grammatical terms this is a very simple idea: start with a noun and add a modifier and another and another until you have… a sweet-tasting, all-butter, rich, over-egged pudding. ;o)

In the world of advertising there is nothing new about noun modifiers of course but their success in these recent supermarket advertisements reminds me of a grammar lesson.

Begin by showing students a menu that says, ‘Soup’, ‘Meat’ and ‘Pudding.’ Ask students to comment on why this is rather less than appetising. This will lead nicely into an exercise of modifying those nouns. Students can invent their own menus designed to attract a reader and simultaneously explore the effects of adding modifiers before the headword and after it (pre and post modifiers).

For example, “Delicious, fresh, home-made, tomato soup with crunchy brown bread rolls”.

Now, doesn’t that sound better?


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