Upgrading Non Fiction: A 10 step approach to developing richer content in non fiction writing

Beyond the usual problems of poor spelling, punctuation and grammar in my Year 10 non fiction writing lies something altogether more sinister: a lack of content. Too often, I see student letters, speeches, articles and reviews that simply run out of steam. Students often start well, using all of their strongest ideas in the opening two paragraphs, before realising that they have nothing else to write about.

This means that ideas are poorly developed across the whole text and in individual paragraphs. Students write paragraphs that are 4 lines long, consisting of 1 or two sentences. Or, it becomes clear that students only have two solid ideas that they actually develop across the whole text, resulting in thin, shallow pieces of writing. I set about tackling this in the following way. For texts and resources, please see the following ‘work in progress’ Scheme of Learning

  1. Exposure to rich, challenging core texts

    Too often, a lack of content is due to poor prior knowledge of an issue. To tackle this, we started every writing task with a reading task, making sure we looked at a rich, challenging text to begin to build our knowledge. For example, we started a task on formal letters by looking at an editorial from The Guardian. This built confidence by exposing students to a range of ideas and content.

2.  Modelling of high quality student texts

We then moved to something more familiar by exploring an excellent student model. We used the visualiser to pick apart features and content. Models were stuck in books and referred back to.

3. Collaborative Planning

Students then worked in teams to plan together. Again, I wanted to expose them to as much possible content before they started producing their text. Each group had a Scribe, a Chairperson, A Creator and a Spokesperson. Below is a group plan for a letter of complaint about a holiday:


4. Movement and further exposure to content

I wanted to really push students here to pick up further content for their text. Students moved about the room and picked up ideas from each plan- simple as they had been scribed on the desk with a whiteboard pen. I played cringey music (Agadoo/The Birdie Song…) to give students a 3 minute time frame and an idea of when they must return to desks.

5. Keep it or Bin it

Students then decided whether to keep or ‘bin’ their ideas, putting an asterisk  next to their 5 strongest ideas and a cross next to anything they no longer wanted to include. They were then encouraged to hone this further by numbering each point with an asterisk, therefore creating a chronological plan for their text.

6. Oral Rehearsal and Upgrading

Students then started their text. I encouraged them to use whiteboard pens on the desks to rehearse each sentence before transcribing into their books. This gave them an opportunity to edit as they wrote. Students also read each sentence aloud to check for errors.


Not only did this allow students to quickly edit their work, but I could also assess writing quickly as I circulated.

2nd attempt:


First draft after oral rehearsal:


7. Speed Dating Peer Assessment

Students were each given a pink highlighter and edited each other’s work. They were given a minute for each book, simply highlighting potential errors.

8. Speed Dating Oral Rehearsal

Students sat in two rows facing each other. They practised reading their work aloud to their partner, listening for any errors.

9. Final Draft

I wanted to give students ample opportunity to write something that they were proud of, and to complete the editing process in full. Students completed their final draft on plain A4 paper with guidelines underneath, understanding that their final piece should be of the highest quality.

10. Pictures for Parents

Finally, I took pictures of each final draft and emailed home the images to parents as an example of each student’s best work.

Results so far

  • Students are more confident before writing, as they have been exposed to so much potential content, in a number of different formats
  • Students are more engaged as lessons are a mix of individual work, collaborative group planning and movement around the room
  • Accuracy has improved as students are constantly editing their work- on the desk, in books and orally.
  • Students are producing work for an audience (in this case, their parents) and enjoyed being able to send something home that had been produced to a high standard

Remember and Remember and Remember: How I’m boosting Y11 recall of Shakespeare

I was really inspired by the post here  from @lauralolder, where she described how she got results with quotation retention in her Y11 class. Also, as part of our whole school CPD programme, we’re focusing heavily on the work of Hattie- currently dipping in to ‘Visible Learning for Literacy’ and Hattie/Donaghue’s ‘Learning Strategies’ . Essentially, I want to do the following with my class:

  • Increase student retention of key quotations
  • Increase student knowledge and understanding of the whole text
  • Boost confidence with low stakes ‘easy win’ testing, especially where my more challenging students are concerned
  • And finally- get the balance right between surface and deep learning by establishing a ‘rhythm’ to the lessons. Or, as ‘Visible Learning’ puts it:

If you turn too quickly to the next set o’ facts, without giving students sufficient time and tools to go deeper, they will quickly learn that surface learning is what you value, and in turn, surface learning is all you will get.’

Or, as this image puts it:

Surface to Deep-thumb-600xauto-20625

Firstly, each student gets a little ‘test’ book. They loved these, and came over all nostalgic for primary school spelling tests.

Image result for small yellow notebook

The notebook is where they record answers to a series of tests that (hopefully) fall into a rhythm over the course of a week.

The process

To get students used to the process of using their little yellow test book, I started simple. I started by gauging prior knowledge of ‘Macbeth’- students wrote down anything they knew about the play in their main workbook. They were encouraged to do this in note form, then we compiled a list on the board. I wrote down any misconceptions (e.g. King Duncan kills Macbeth…) with a view to crossing off any ‘mistakes’ when our knowledge of the play had improved.

We then read a text on the historical context of ‘Macbeth’, looking at details like the Gunpowder Plot. During this stage, students were encouraged to highlight key information/underline important facts- for this I looked to this blog from @PeterMDeWitt which helpfully outlines the best strategies to use for surface/deep learning.

Next, students had to shut their books. This terrified them- I think they had a sense that their knowledge was going to be put to the test.

  1. They had to summarise what they had just read in their workbook. Most of them hadn’t been prepared for this, so we had to repeat this stage. This wasn’t a problem as it led to some useful discussion about how quickly we can forget information we read.
  2. They then looked back at the original text, using a red pen to add any information they may have missed. We discussed how their memory worked and we used an analogy I learned during my own GCSEs to illustrate the idea of retention:

Image result for grassy path

We spoke about how retaining knowledge works in a similar way to the slow evolution of a path through the woods. If you walk across the grass once, there will be no imprint. But the more the path is revisited, the stronger and more usable a path becomes. It sounds simplistic, but this was a bit of a revelation to me when I was doing my own studying- I knew the importance of retaining information because I wanted to do well. But I’d never stopped to think about what was happening when I did ‘remember’ or how I could speed up the process.

Then, as we read, we continued the process of closing the text, summarising, then checking our knowledge and discussing what we missed.

At the start of each lesson, students would be retested on their knowledge of the scenes covered in the previous lesson. But each test would be gradually more open ended. E.g.

Test 1

  1. ‘Fair is foul and ____/_____/_____’
  2. The Great chain _______/_______
  3. Thane of _________

Test 2

  1. ‘Fair is _____ and _____/_____/_____
  2. The Great _____/______/_______
  3. Th___ of ________

Test 3

  1. This quotation from Act 1 scene 1 symbolises the inversion of the natural order
  2. An Elizabethan concept of social hierarchy
  3. Macbeth receives this title

Once students had consistently started scoring 9/10 or full marks, we moved on to the next scene and started testing on that.

Amongst this, I was conscious that if I only focused on surface level knowledge, I would end up with a group of students who could recall information from the play but wouldn’t be able to analyse the text in any depth or make connections. We have this image on the wall of every classroom at our school:

Screenshot 2017-09-24 at 09.48.01

So to build on the low stakes testing at the start of each lesson, we:

  • Summarise constantly. Students use information from each test as part of 5 minute written summaries throughout the lesson.
  • Make connections. Students write about a new scene, but are required to make links back to information recalled in their test books.
  • Use blank extracts and close copies of the text when we write

In addition, I’ve set high expectations for homework. Students have pre reading before each lesson (not much- this may be only 1-2 paragraphs) and take their books home to revise following each lesson, ready for a test.

Finally, I raided my son’s toy box for one of these:

Image result for jingle bell shaker

We’re also learning quotations by chanting them together. Every time they hear the bell, they have to stop whatever they’re doing and the whole class recites quotations from Macbeth. A different student takes charge of the bells each lesson and we gradually build up the number of quotations used in each chant. A new quotation is added in each lesson- we’re currently up to seven.

Impact so far

Compared with similar classes I’ve had (this is a middle ability group), this group have been able to demonstrate a far more varied knowledge of the text. Rather than written responses focusing on picking apart the little bit of the text they can recall, they’re moving through different points, linking to new evidence. Also, they’re far more confident. When a challenging student with a history of poor confidence with Shakespeare gets 10/10 on a recall test in the first ten minutes, it’s a spring board into producing something later in the lesson that demonstrates ‘deeper’ learning. I know it might all sound a bit intense- but it’s working!





Gambling on Feedback with Google


I’m pretty much up to my neck in Google. It’s my go-to search engine, it organises my social life via Google Calendar, every resource I produce for school is created and shared via Google Drive and it bears the heavy responsibility for about 3000 precious pictures of my kids on Google Photo.

The school where I work is also deep into Google. We’re one of 6 Google ‘Lighthouse’ schools, chosen because we have heavily invested in technology (currently, years 7, 8 and 9 students all have access to their own Chrome Book, with plans to roll out access across all year groups) and we even timetable it via our ‘Google Projects’ lessons in KS3.

The Risk

This week, the ‘risk’ I’ve taken is to use Google to facilitate live peer feedback in a year 8 lesson.

Risk Rating: 3/10

Given how submerged I am in the whole Google universe (and how slick the Apps generally are) I feel pretty confident that I can pull this one off. Also, students are allegedly well versed in using Google in other subjects- I may be the one getting schooled by the end of this session.

The Situation

Year 8 have been slaving away at some Dystopian writing for the last few lessons. Using images of abandoned/decaying urban sites as a prompt, they’ve crafted some pretty impressive description. Today, they’ll be sharing their writing with the class via Google Docs and giving constructive feedback to peers.

Firstly, we used the acronym ‘FISH’ to determine what we were looking for when giving feedback.


Students then shared their work with the class via Google Docs and started commenting. Some of them were familiar with this form of feedback, having used it in other subjects. For some in the class, this was the first time they had used the ‘comment’ function on Google Docs.

20170712_105206 (1)

Students then used the feedback to edit and improve their writing. By clicking on ‘resolve’, they could either accept or reject a proposed change to their work, or deal with any suggestions that had been added.

The Hitch

Well, firstly, 8 students out of 33 didn’t have their Chrome Books. Either they were with the technicians being repaired, they had ran out of battery, or they had simply forgotten them. When this number of students are effectively incapable of accessing the resources for the lesson, it’s certainly a hitch. These students went back to basics, swapping books for peer feedback. Not exactly the slick, techy look I was going for.

Secondly, the sound of 25 students tapping on their chrome book is no match for the power of verbal feedback. When students give feedback verbally, they’re developing on so many platforms- they’re making eye contact, adjusting tone and pitch, hopefully avoiding saying ‘like’ every two seconds, thinking about posture and body language. The cynical side of me wonders whether feedback on this platform is essentially a ‘get out of jail free’ card- like sending a text to break up with your boyfriend, or a (much) milder version of an internet troll, hiding behind a faceless online persona.

Finally, without me to facilitate the feedback (as I would have done if it had been verbal) there were a few sad faces when no one had provided feedback for a student. These students felt rather isolated and it took me shouting ‘Everyone get onto __________’s document and give them some comments’ to resolve this problem.

Was the risk worth the risk?

Risk reward rating: 5/10

I liked the live aspect of this approach and its ‘neatness’- that is, peer comments disappear once they are dealt with. I can see this working brilliantly with 6th form students, where a teacher has to provide an individual student with extensive, targeted feedback. Again, Google Docs is nothing if not slick- it saves work automatically, you can identify student comments easily (i.e. you can avoid anonymous abuse of the platform) and it makes the whole editing process seem more appealing and logical to students.

However, if this is a risk worth repeating, I would definitely scope out any potential access issues before starting- and make a back up plan.  Also, using Google Docs for peer feedback in isolation seems to limit rather than empower students. In future, I’ll be using it as a platform for peer feedback alongside discussion- rather than as an end in itself.

Google Case Study- Cramlington Learning Village




Risky Business

Students are constantly expected to battle with failure. We tell them to ‘Fail Better’, or tell them that Michael Jordan has ‘failed’ 9000 shots in his career and “that is why [he] succeed[s]”. We get them to plan, edit and redraft, always ready with a red pen to point out errors, to critique. And if they’re afraid of failure, we say “Try, don’t give up!” We expect them to pick themselves up, dust themselves off and to make progress- to be constantly getting better . We expect teenagers- with all their baggage- to risk failure in front of their peers. And if they don’t take a risk, we call them out on it. 

But as teachers, how comfortable are we with our own failures? Risk taking in the classroom is surely where we uncover inspiration. By diving into the unknown, risk allows us to forge ahead with new learning and to break new ground. It allows us to make connections with students and to inspire a love of our subject. But with risk, comes the possibility of failure. In a climate of content driven curriculum, an emphasis on retention of knowledge over time and linear courses, can we really allow ourselves the possibility of failure?

I work at a school only recently removed from Special Measures, where the behaviour and compliance of students in lessons has been an area of constant focus. To introduce risk into the classroom could mean that students start talking about something unrelated to the lesson. Something that happened last week at their Granny’s house, while they swing on their chair, flip a bottle and talk across the room. And that moment of fuzzy ‘failure’ and lack of engagement is the exact moment that your Head Teacher chooses to walk down the corridor, locking eyes with first the bottle flipper- then you.

Is risk therefore worth the risk?

In this blog, I’ll be trying to take a risk every week in the classroom. Something that puts me out of my comfort zone. If it fails, I’ll unpick the process and, like I’m constantly telling my students, try to ‘fail better’- that is, to use what didn’t work as part of a path to success. I firmly believe that risk creates powerful moments in the classroom- moments where we can make connections with students that simply wouldn’t happen where we choose to play it safe. So let’s get it wrong, let’s risk a look from someone that says “WTF are you doing in there?” 

Where we push at the edges of our practice, we inspire, we motivate, we connect. Regardless of errant water bottle flippers and occasional aimless chat, risk is worth the risk.