Tag Archives: English Language GCSE

Evaluation: it’s a piece of cake

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Never marry a tennis player. Love means nothing to them. Or so the old joke goes. I’m convinced that there should be a teaching equivalent of this line that goes something like: Never offer an examiner some cake. ‘Some’ can mean absolutely anything to them.

This is no joke, though. It is the very nature of these assessment descriptors that the interpretation of words like ‘some’ or ‘evaluative’ or ‘understanding’ is entirely subjective. Daisy Christodoulou has written about this problem with criterion-referencing, citing both Tim Oates and Dylan Wiliam on the issue of the subjective interpretation of descriptors. It seems that the English language is pretty unhelpful when it comes to precision of meaning.

So it came as no surprise when I tuned into this week’s #engchatuk to find English teachers discussing the topic of teaching ‘evaluation’, with a broad range of interpretations of what the word meant. The natural conclusion of this is that there were also a wide range of ideas presented on how we should then teach pupils how to evaluate. There were a number of interpretations (and, thus, approaches to teaching) that I don’t think I agree with and some that were close to my own interpretation.

I’m not suggesting that I am right, but this is my take on evaluation. A good way to look at it is through the medium of cakes. (Heck, a good way to look at anything is through the medium of cakes.) More specifically, though, I think a useful example of evaluation is that which Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood do when they take on the wearisome task of making their way through slabs of crème pât-doused confectionery each week. (You never hear them complain about workload, do you?)

Here’s an example:

Here are some of the comments that Paul and Mary make whilst evaluating:

  • “they look like Little Gems”
  • “they’ve lost their shape in the oven”
  • “if you wanted more definition, you could have fridged them before you baked them, and you had plenty of time”
  • “they’re great – the only thing is they’re slightly over-baked”
  • “a beautiful flavour – I love the marzipan… I’d like to have seen a bit more colour to lift it up on the top”
  • “the appearance of the top is lovely – that nice crackle on the top”
  • “you’ve caught a few of them though”
  • “for my taste, I think it’s slightly over-gingered… I like the flavour ginger but the burn that comes, for me, is too much”
  • “I would have liked a lot more nuts in it”
  • “the whole thing about a biscotti is that it’s dense with flavour, and you’ve got large areas of empty crust”
  • “the texture’s excellent, but, for me, a biscotti should be absolutely rammed full of whatever you’re putting in there”
  • “what’s making it bitter?”
  • “it’s lavender but it’s not a lavender that you recognise”
  • “it’s a very difficult thing to use lavender in biscuits… it’s just not working, that lavender, is it?”
  • “I’ve only finished one and I’m not getting [the lavender] coming through at all”
  • “for me it doesn’t look like a biscuit; it looks more like a pudding”
  • “the white chocolate doesn’t really need anything with it if it was a very thin coating”
  • “the flavour of that cinnamon… the mixed spice – it’s very strong”
  • “this doesn’t work really”
  • “the look of them, I think they look great”
  • “I’d never have thought of putting colouring in, just a swirl – so pretty, and the filling is good”
  • “I think the flavour… the biscuit is baked extremely well, it does melt; the flavour is really nice as well”
  • “I think it looks very professional”

The range of comments are varied, but they seem to focus on: outcomes (“they’ve lost their shape in the oven”); impact (“the burn that comes, for me, is too much”); alternatives to elective choices (“if you wanted more definition, you could have fridged them”); and context (“it doesn’t look like a biscuit; it looks more like a pudding”). It may be that you could identify other categories for these comments and group them in different ways – I’d be interested if somebody has spotted different patterns (I wondered about the question “what’s making it bitter?” – perhaps this is the question we ask when we want pupils to evaluate: why is this writing like this? or what’s making it have this effect?)

What one might do, having identified what these comments are doing, is to teach pupils to make similar comments – we could give them sentence stems, or model the process with a text. But I think that misses out something crucial here and that is: the importance of who is doing the evaluating here.

Paul Hollywood was born into a family of bakers – his parents own a bakery, and his grandfather was head baker at the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool. He started working with his parents at 17 years old and, in his own words, “lost my youth because I had to get up and go to bed early… I never had girlfriends or went clubbing until I was in my mid-20s.” By the time The Great British Bake Off hit our screens for the first time in 2010, he’d had nearly 30 years of professional experience in baking, including holding the position of head baker in such lauded institutions as The Dorchester hotel on Park Lane.

But Hollywood is just a beginner compared to Mary Berry, who began her working life demonstrating ovens for the electricity board – she’d do this by turning up to people’s homes and baking them a Victoria sponge. After studying at Le Cordon Bleu school in France at 22, Berry worked for a range of food related bodies (such as the Egg Council and the Flour Advisory Board), before becoming food editor on a number of magazines. Over her 60 year career, she has published more than 75 cookery books.

What is crucial to Hollywood and Berry’s ability to evaluate so effectively is the knowledge and experience they bring to the task.  They can evaluate precisely and judiciously because they know their way around good baking. The recipes that they are tasting may be new to them, but they have a clear understanding of the processes a baker needs to go through to achieve success across the gamut of baking techniques: they understand immediately whether something has been successful or not, as well as the reasons why it has or hasn’t worked. What is more, they can instantly identify what the baker should have done to improve or rectify. They understand the wider context of any bake – the required effect of the recipe, and the tradition that runs through a particular style of baking. And, in an instant, they apply all of this knowledge and experience to what they are seeing and tasting and… they evaluate the bake.

So how do we teach pupils to evaluate in their reading responses? Obviously, we don’t have the time to furnish them with the wealth of knowledge and experience that Hollywood and Berry have accumulated, but building knowledge and experience should be our goal nonetheless.

The way to teach evaluation is, first and foremost, to ensure pupils read lots. Build up pupils’ experience of writing and of the traditions of writing – of literary fiction, poetry, non-fiction, drama, etc. By experiencing the effects of writing, when confronted with a new text, we want them to be able to identify when a writer has followed a tradition or subverted it, whether they have been successful in achieving an impact, or how utilising techniques may have highlighted their biases. Secondly, when reading a text, we should spend a lot of time teaching context: what are the historical, social, cultural and biographical contexts that inform a text? When evaluating, pupils should be connecting their analysis to these contexts – can they read the text through the veil of what they know about the writer’s interests or perhaps the contemporary reader’s preoccupations?

I’m totally convinced that this is what evaluation is in English: connecting a text to one’s own knowledge and experience of reading. It isn’t a quick approach, like giving sentence stems or modelling the process (we should do this anyway, all the time), but it is quite simple: get kids reading more and think carefully about what they are reading. Read through the traditions of writing – from Greek myths to modern reportage. And read around the texts too – build up a picture of the context: the nourishment that fed the writing.

So where analysis might be seen as a student’s understanding of language, evaluation is an expression of their wider knowledge. You want me to end this by saying “it’s the icing on the cake”, don’t you? Well, I won’t. I’m better than that. Only an idiot would end a blog with a half-baked pun.

What is the point of Speaking and Listening? #BlogSyncEnglish

There has been much hand-wringing over the past couple of years about the place of speaking and listening in the English curriculum. The refrain from English teachers and teaching unions has generally been along the lines of this cri de coeur from Joe Walsh of NATE:

“What is proposed is essentially a downgrading of the importance of speaking and listening skills in the English GCSE.”

And where have teachers placed the blame of this devaluation of speaking and listening? Step forward Michael Gove and the DfE.

The thing is, I’m not so sure that speaking and listening has been devalued. Or at least if it has, Gove and the government aren’t entirely culpable.

When I trained, speaking and listening was a teacher-assessed element of the English GCSE, making up 20% of the overall grade in the AQA specification that my school followed (three tasks in, broadly: presenting, role-playing and discussion).

It might also be worth adding that one of the three pieces of coursework in the concurrent AQA English Literature GCSE was also allowed to be delivered orally too – that piece constituted 10% of the overall grade.

This, one would assume, is the evidence that speaking and listening once had a place of value in English. By removing it from the GCSE and letting it stand alone, we are told, Gove has devalued speaking and listening.

This suggests that the very value of speaking and listening is subjective rather than intrinsic: that its value is only based on the utility teachers and pupils see in it. When the speaking and listening assessment affects a pupil’s GCSE grade, it has value. When it doesn’t, its value is diminished. This seems to also suggest that the value of speaking and listening is ultimately decided by schools, teachers and pupils – even if that decision is provoked by curriculum changes.

But the narrative of a devalued speaking and listening is one that troubles me. It is my contention that speaking and listening may now actually be finding its rightful place in the English curriculum, and that the changes made in the past few years are actually bestowing speaking and listening a more intrinsic value.

When announcing the changes, Ofqual admitted that that there were huge inconsistencies in teacher assessment of speaking and listening. This meant that “in schools where the rules are interpreted differently, or where marking is more vulnerable to pressures from accountability measures, [pupils] may have received extra credit – when grade boundaries were set – for work of the same quality.” This seems a euphemistic way of saying that some schools inflate grades in speaking and listening assessment. Indeed, I did placements in three schools during my training year and was struck by the vast difference in interpreting the grade descriptors. It was clear in one school that they were inflating the grades to give low achieving pupils a better chance of passing the GCSE (they did this with the kindest of intentions – they cared about their pupils and truly wanted the best for them). However, this is anecdotal so we should adhere to a principle of charity and suggest that the majority of teachers weren’t cowing under the pressure of accountability measures and that they continued to approach the assessments with integrity. But even if this is the case, inconsistency is still rife. This is because, as Daisy Christodoulou has suggested:

So even if we think we are rigorous in applying the rules and we take pride in fair and accurate marking, the outcomes probably still aren’t actually fair and accurate.

Of course, speaking and listening in the new GCSE English curriculum is also teacher assessed. However, it seems that exam boards will be taking moderation a little more seriously than they did in the old GCSE. Whilst details are still yet to be finalised on this, it seems that they will be requesting audio-visual recordings of a sample of students from each centre. Moderation in previous qualifications meant that an examiner from your board came in once every five or so years and schools handpicked a few pupils to do a speaking and listening assessment in front of them. As a process of moderation, it was a fleeting nod to the idea of rigour.

I would hope that, with the new assessment, schools will produce audio-visual recordings of all pupils’ tasks for internal moderation. I think this will have the further benefit of bestowing a sense of formality about the speaking and listening ‘examination’, suggesting that we as schools value this strand of our subject highly. In this sense, it will still down to schools to decide on the value of speaking and listening. If we take it seriously then we are saying: this has value.

We really need to stop the hand-wringing and the ‘think of the children’ arguments like this one: “For some, these S&L activities have been proud moments, huge hurdles to overcome, only for their grades to become worthless.” Their grades are only worthless if schools and teachers don’t value them.

However, it isn’t solely down to us. I actually think that in separating the assessment from the GCSE grade, Gove, the Dfe, Ofqual – whoever you want to hold responsible – have brought out a more intrinsic value in speaking and listening. It no longer has subjective value as a component part of the GCSE. In previous qualifications, it was hidden away: once the exam certificate was printed all we could see was the overall English grade. But now speaking and listening has achieved independence. Future GCSE certificates will give a grade for English (reading and writing, still enmeshed) and a separate grade for speaking and listening. Potential suitors (colleges, employers, etc.) can now see exactly how well their petitioner has demonstrated verbal communication within the context of formal education. As a former of employer in an industry of mainly customer-facing roles, I would have found this incredibly useful.

So to suggest that separating the speaking and listening from the GCSE is downgrading it seems absurd to me. I think that, finally, speaking and listening may have been elevated to its rightful place.


A free resource – but not for everyone: literary terms display

I recently wrote about how a colleague and I plan on approaching the teaching of 19th century fiction extracts as part of the new English Language GCSE.

To support the introduction of some more sophisticated figures of rhetoric, we’ve also produced some A4 posters to display in classrooms, the idea being that they don’t give definitions of the devices but are merely there to be memory cues for pupils. We want pupils to learn the devices – if they contained more information, we feel that pupils would rely too heavily on them, which isn’t helpful when they get to the exam hall.

I’ve had loads of requests for the display so, as promised, I’m sharing it here.


I’ve written before about why I think people selling resources to teachers is wrong.

When people sell resources to other teachers, they are restricting those resources from people who can’t afford to pay for them, as well as from those who just don’t want to have to pay for resources.

With this in mind, I’m going to set a restriction on downloading this resource: if you sell resources to other teachers, either on your own website, on a resource website or on TES, then this resource – that is available to download free of charge – isn’t for you. I don’t care if you give some resources away – if you sell some resources too, you aren’t allowed this one.

Obviously, if you DO sell resources to teachers, I have no way of stopping you from downloading this, so I am just going to rely on you being honest. Of course, you can be totally dishonest and download this display and use it anyway. That’s your prerogative and is out of my hands.

But for anyone else who is happy to share resources for free, here is the GCSE 19th Century Fiction – Literary Terms Display, as promised. I hope it is useful.

NB: the idea for this display came from a t-shirt I saw someone wearing – it was of a design very similar to the ‘Hyperbole’ poster. So I can’t claim complete originality on this, I’m afraid.

The new English Language GCSE: introducing 19th century fiction

Despite my delight at the inclusion of unseen 19th century fiction on the new English Language GCSE, I know that it will present some challenges to pupils. This means it will also present challenges to teachers in working out how pupils will access prose that differs greatly from the kind of prose written today.

With that in mind, I thought I’d share how a colleague and I have thought about introducing 19th century fiction to pupils starting the new GCSE this year.

We decided that, rather than concentrate on exam skills in the first instance, the initial study of 19th century fiction should be an introduction: we will look at conventions, literary devices and stylistic features.

So, whilst we are teaching for the Edexcel specification*, which differs from other specifications in some ways, this may still be useful as an introduction to 19th century writing if you are using other exam boards, or when introducing the English Literature GCSE 19th century text.

The challenge in reading 19th century fiction is, as mentioned earlier, that it does differ from the prose of today: there are stylistic, linguistic, grammatical differences, not to mention that the historical context means the content may be quite alien to pupils reading it today.

Of course, when talking about ’19th century fiction’ we are making reference to hundreds of different writers, from different countries all over the world, and from literary schools of different aesthetics, writing at different times over a period of 100 years, so we should acknowledge that it isn’t a homogenous mass and that each text will present it’s own separate challenges. However, there are certain similarities we can see across a varied range of texts, similarities that are a result of 19th century fiction’s placing within the wider literary tradition.

So here’s how we will be approaching the teaching of this topic.

After a lesson or two recapping sentence structures and composition, we’ll start by looking at a piece of 19th century prose fiction alongside a contemporary piece of writing and try and identify the differences. We’ve chosen the opening to Melville’s Moby Dick (1851) and the opening to Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now (2004), if only because of the beautiful symmetry in seeing the opening words alongside each other.


We’ll ask pupils to note how the writing is different, eliciting ideas on sentence length, syntax and language.

Before exploring these differences in detail, we’ll want pupils to understand a context for these changes, and will prompt them to think about this with these images:


We’ll briefly introduce the idea of the rise of the ‘plain style‘ that we are familiar with today, and situate 19th century writing within the context of its readership. Pupils should note that, amongst other influences:

  • many writers of the era had enjoyed a classical liberal education and so were well versed in elaboration
  • a lot of Victorian fiction was aimed chiefly at educated women of leisure – an audience with nothing but time to kill were compelled by elaborate prose.
  • industrialisation and rise of mass media democratised written language – as more people could read, fiction began to appeal to a broader audience (one without a classical education).
  • speed of communication (rise of the telegraph) meant that brevity was king – letters would previously take weeks to arrive so more time was taken over elaboration.
  • perhaps increasing secularisation meant that the ornamental language of scriptures became less pervasive.
  • in the early 20th century, influential writers such as Ernest Hemingway openly promoted the plain style.

With a little historical context behind us, we’ll spend some lessons looking at:

  • syntax – how much of the 19th century writing may just seem strange or initially difficult because of word order, and how moving around that order can help pupils decipher it. Mark Miller‘s excellent post on syntax was hugely helpful in our planning here.
  • archaic language – how can pupils try to make sense of language that isn’t in regular use today? We’ll go through some basic reading strategies that pupils can use to overcome this. We’ll ask pupils to see if they can identify and root suffixes or prefixes within these archaic words and whether they can help with meaning. And we’ll encourage pupils to look at the word within the context of the writing. In this example, I’ll point out that ‘flags’ here doesn’t mean those cloth things:Slide22

Finally, we’ll spend a bit more time looking at the lengthy sentence structures, or more specifically:

  • periodic sentences – these are those long, winding sentences that withold the main clause to the end. They often have a number of subordinate clauses that build the sentence up, and are prevalent in 19th century writing. We’ll look at the effect of them and have pupils identify the main clause in examples. Here are some examples of periodic sentences, starting with a famous one from Nikolai Gogol’s excellent short story ‘The Overcoat’:
The subordinate clause at the opening is eventually reconciled by the main clause at the end.
A short periodic sentence from Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’ – the main clause in red; subordinate clauses in green and blue.
From Melville's 'Moby Dick': the main clause is in red; the subordinate clauses are numbered.
From Melville’s ‘Moby Dick’: the main clause is in red; the subordinate clauses are numbered.

Once these key features have been explored, we decided that we would then explore other linguistic features of the writing across a range of extracts.

We sat down and looked at some extracts together and noticed how much of the writing utilised classical rhetorical devices. So we turned to our secret weapon… Mark Forsyth’s excellent book The Elements of Eloquence.


We noticed how writers relied on figures of rhetoric throughout the extracts we’d selected (from Jane Austen, Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, Charlotte Brontë, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James, amongst some already spoken of in this post). Probably something to with that classical liberal education that I mentioned earlier. We identified a number of these figures that were used more prolifically than others and chose to structure lessons around introducing these within the context of the writing.

The lessons from hereon in will follow a similar structure (note that this structure isn’t necessarily all one lesson – these stages will most likely take place over a couple of lessons):

  1. Introduce figure of rhetoric.
  2. Explore examples of the figure in literature, look at varieties of usage and identify the effects created by the writers in using it.
  3. Introduce an extract from 19th century fiction and explore: look at meaning and various linguistic features used by the writer and their effects; identify where the writer has used the figure of rhetoric introduced earlier and explore effects.
  4. After modelling by teacher, pupils will write a short response to the extract (we start with David Didau‘s Reading Skills Ladder as a structure), discussing the effects of identified language.
  5. Pupils will then be given a stimulus linked to the extract (image/video clip) and then a writing prompt to produce a piece of imaginative writing. They will be asked to try and use the figure of rhetoric they have just learned about and, as they work further through the unit, to use a variety of these as they accumulate in their writing ‘armoury’.

We’ve also produced a display of the linguistic devices pupils will need to know over the course of the scheme of work. The premise of this display, similarly to the one I produced on the elements of language before, is to only give memory cues to pupils: they don’t explain the devices, they merely give images and examples that should help pupils recall the figure in question. Below is an overview of the display, so you can see the figures of rhetoric pupils will explore over the unit. For lower ability pupils, you may choose to condense some of these figures into one device (i.e. isocolon and anaphora parallel structureslitotes and hyerbole emphatic expressionanadiplosis and diacope = repetition). Once this is fine-tuned, I’ll upload the display here.
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So this is how we’ll try to introduce 19th century fiction on the new English Language GCSE this year. It isn’t groundbreaking at all – I’m sure that this is a structure that many use. And I’m not saying it is the right way – I’m sure that our ideas will develop a lot as we teach it. But hopefully this will be of some use to some of you; moreover, we hope that you might be of some help in how this develops with any comments you have on it.

*(I think Edexcel slightly differs from other specifications, as Edexcel will always use 19th century extracts on Paper 1, whereas others such as AQA may draw from 19th, 20th and 21st century for their Paper 1 – correct me if I’m wrong.)