English Teaching Online - our half-termly themed newsletterEnglish Teaching Online ~ the one with all the SKILLS and EXAM PREPARATION
Summer (1) 2006

NB. You can also now read this newsletter online in the newsletter archive at: http://www.teachit.co.uk/index.asp?ednews=1

Newsletter bookmarks

NATE statement on Functional English | Ian McNeilly

The language of non-fiction | Geoff Barton

Preparing students for exams | Harry Dodds

Revision tips for GCSE English | Jerome Monahan

Preparation for A Level English Literature | Tom Rank

Revision and exam technique for A Level English Language | Tim Shortis

Concrete language and scaffolding: supporting pupils with Special Educational Needs | Andrew Buckton

Webwatch - essential prose weblinks | Rhiannon Glover

It's that time of year again. There's a whiff of hayfever just around the corner and your year 11s already have only one thing on their minds - leavers' day. Somehow between now and then you've got on the one hand to avoid killing them softly with exam poetry and on the other to try to teach them the skills that they somehow don't seem to have grasped in the last five terms, never mind the previous nine years. Then there's the sixth form, recasting themselves as serious students, optimistically expectant that they can make it all up in the next few weeks. It's all too easy to get into a pre-exam frenzy of exasperation and exhaustion, while your students look on, apparently nonchalant, doing their apparent best to ignore every word of expert advice you utter.

I'm a great believer in luck and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it.

Thomas Jefferson

This newsletter brings sane and sound advice. As Harry Dodds reminds us in his piece on 'Preparing students for exams', 'students are supposed to be doing some work, as well as you'. In each of the exam articles - Jerome Monahan on GCSE English, Tim Shortis on A Level English Language, Tom Rank on A Level English Literature, Andrew Buckton on supporting students with SEN - you'll find positive tips for encouraging independence and promoting understanding. They're not 'thunderbolts of revelation', as Tom Rank acknowledges - just a collection of practical, realistic approaches that will work with students and help them appreciate the skills the examiners are looking for.

Skills are, of course, a large part of what exams are all about - especially English ones. Geoff Barton's piece on 'The language of non-fiction texts' will be as valuable for students as anything specifically exam-related, helping to 'build their confidence, shaping them into better readers and writers'. In this context, the government's plans for new, separate 'Functional English' tests seem particularly pointless. NATE's response to those plans kicks off this newsletter.

All the best for a stress-free exam season.

Katie Green
Deputy Editor

Teachit prose links

Discover Teachit editors' favourite prose fiction resources:

KS3 library
KS4 library
KS5 library
Media library

Language library
Drama library

English Teaching Online

Read Teachit's previous newsletters:

Autumn 1 - Shakespeare
Autumn 2 - Poetry
Spring 1 - Media
Spring 2 - Prose

See our full list of archived newsletters.

NATE statement on 'Functional English'

As long as learning is connected with earning, as long as certain jobs can only be reached through exams, so long must we take this examination system seriously. If another ladder to employment was contrived, much so-called education would disappear, and no one would be a penny the stupider.

E M Forster

The National Association for the Teaching of English welcomes any measures designed to raise standards within English teaching and learning. In this instance, however, we do have deep concerns regarding the proposed tests in ‘Functional English’.

What are the educational questions to which ‘Functional English’ provides the answer?

It appears to us that employers have driven this initiative in the belief that that a good grade in GCSE English does not necessarily reflect an adequate level of linguistic ‘functionality’ for the workplace. No concrete evidence however, has been given to support such a position. Surely the government, through the QCA, cannot intend to create a whole, new, mandatory qualification without clear, well-argued evidence? Without models of the perceived failings of the current provisions within English, it is hard to see how the profession can respond in any meaningful way.

Who then is expected to deliver ‘Functional English’? If it is to be teachers of English, then what will be omitted from the already over-crowded curriculum in order to make time for it? If it is something that can be assessed within the current English curriculum, what is the point of it all?

But it won’t just be English specialists who will deliver this new qualification and few practitioners have had any training whatsoever in 'Functional English' – a qualification that will be applied nationally in 2009.

Of course, there will be many professionals subjected to meeting employers’ targets who are experienced, creative and thoughtful practitioners able to adapt their work – if indeed this is necessary – but they are insufficient in number to deliver this mandatory qualification effectively. Our fear is that ‘functionality’ will be taught separately and in a decontextualised way.

From NATE members who have experience of delivering ‘key’ and/or ‘basic’ skills, we know that bolt-on courses with functional purposes serve neither pupils’ nor teachers’ interests. Research has shown that literacy is best developed in a meaningful context, so that work-related literacies are best developed in the context of the workplace and not in the classroom.

In one sense, this proposal is a bold move by the government. We support efforts to help students use the comma, the apostrophe and inverted commas accurately. It is something that is taught already at both primary and secondary stages. However, to be able to punctuate is only a very small part of what it is to be a competent user of English and yet it is proposed that no one will pass Functional English at Level 2 unless they can ‘punctuate accurately using commas, apostrophes and inverted commas’.

Although both punctuation and presentational skills are important, we believe a preoccupation with them could prevent many candidates who are talented in other areas of English from being seen as ‘non-functional’, with the consequent loss of confidence and self-respect that comes from being labelled as failing in one’s own language. Are the QCA and by extension, employers, seriously arguing that people are somehow linguistically ‘non-functional’ if they cannot master certain aspects of punctuation?

As English specialists we believe all language acquisition is contextual and we would therefore welcome more consideration of where employers’ commitments both begin and end with regard to educating their workforce.

Education does not finish at the school gates. Employers need to help their employees through work-based training which can then be supported through vocational courses.

Join NATE: 10% membership discount for all Teachit subscribers

The language of non-fiction | Geoff Barton

To understand one thing well is better than understanding many things by halves.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Is there anything more boring than hearing about someone else’s dreams?

Dreams are, however, a reminder of the way we inhabit a universe of narratives. We watch films, plays and soap operas in narratives (even if the storylines are disjointed to maintain our interest). We tell jokes that are narratives. We talk to each other in narratives. And – no escape here – we dream in narratives.

No wonder that stories have been the dominant form of English classrooms for half a century or more.

The problem is, of course, that our students need to be able to respond to texts that aren’t chronological and which don’t always use the familiar linguistic signposts that our story immersion may have prepared us for.

Here are 3 things I want my key stage 3 and 4 students to know about the language of non-fiction texts:

For all its artfulness, fiction is more personal and ultimately more reassuring. Non-fiction texts, in contrast, have fewer agents, leaving us unnerved about where we stand in relation to their topics: 'Drinks were taken at the hotel' (who took them? Why? And why aren’t we being told?). 'It was announced yesterday that …' (who announced, why, and again why the concealment?). Get students playing about with such texts, challenging assumptions and interrogating subtexts.

Non-fiction uses less familiar connectives. My guess is that we almost instinctively respond to sentence (b) here as the more sophisticated:

(a) 'Macbeth starts the play as a hero but ends it as a villain.'

(b) 'Although Macbeth begins the play a hero, he finishes as a villain.'

Our students will be familiar users of connectives like and, then, so, next, later and but. Their writing as a result may be a bit safe and even plodding. Although is more ambitious, more complex. So let’s teach all our students to use although, however, therefore, despite, whereas and maybe even notwithstanding. Well, maybe not the last one. Let’s get these connectives into their linguistic bloodstream so that they can shake off the endless use of lower-level connectives and instead begin to train their phrasing in more analytical soil.

Finally let’s build students’ confidence with complex noun phrases, with the kind of writing they will encounter in factual and technical writing: 'The threatened strike was a result of an earlier dispute which developed after confusion over rates of overtime payment …'

As ever, we don’t want a return to the days when sample texts were dished out for students either to worship or sneer at. Instead we want active, investigative grammar work – tinkering, experimenting, challenging and rewriting.

All of this will build their confidence, shaping them into better readers and writers, and break down the divide between those who come to us from bookish backgrounds and those who don’t. As so often, grammar is an equal opportunities issue: we can help students over important linguistic hurdles by teaching them one or two explicit grammar features. Non-fiction texts are one of the most important areas for us to do this.

Preparing students for exams | Harry Dodds

Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.


Preparing students for external examinations can bring out strange and uncharacteristic behaviours in teachers. It’s not so much the exams that throw them off track as the need to look good in league tables and added-value calculations. The effect is deadening. Lively teachers stop taking risks, and begin to play safe – ‘I know they don’t need to be word-perfect with the Shakespeare extracts, but I just feel more comfortable if we’ve been through them all, line by line’ or ‘I don’t like spoon-feeding them, but there’s stuff that they just have to know’. The end result is that teachers assume all responsibility for their students’ success or failure, giving themselves unnecessary stress along the way, and effectively cutting the student out of the learning process. The final irony, of course, is that if the student succeeds, then it’s her success: if he fails, then it’s the teacher’s failure.


It is possible to prepare students for examinations without compromising the quality of teaching and learning. Of course you will have to spend some time making sure that students know what to expect in the exam, what papers look like, and on teaching them to read and think before they write, but that should be enough. If, however, your whole method of instruction consists in working through past papers then both you and your students are in for a dull couple of months.


Begin your preparation for any exam-related lesson by identifying precisely what it is that you want your students to learn, and establish very clear learning objectives. These will include any exam-specific objectives, but will also go beyond them.


Help students explore exam requirements in ways that will make sense to them. Try, as much as possible, to include in your delivery:

opportunities for students to explore and develop their own success criteria, and match them against exam criteria

peer- and self-assessment using the criteria developed above

plenty of pair and group discussion, hot-seating, debate – give students the chance to test their new understandings in relatively friendly contexts


Students are supposed to be doing some work, as well as you, so encourage self-reliance. Try not to:



rely on handouts and ready-made notes

The value of any course of instruction, whether it’s externally examined or not, lies in the learning that takes place during the process of preparation. In the long run, that learning should be worth more than the grade that’s achieved.

Revision tips for GCSE English | Jerome Monahan

Skill and confidence are an unconquered army.

George Herbert

It may seem to students that there is really very little revision they can undertake in the last few weeks leading up to sitting their English examinations – after all it is all about reading and writing and if these are not mastered now, then there is little that can be built in the time remaining.  Tackling such fatalism is as much of the battle as setting students specific targets and helpful techniques.  However there are a range of key tips – some generic, some more English-specific, that could make all the difference come June.

Students need to find their own compelling reason to do well in each and every subject.  Encourage your lot to imagine life with good passes in English and English Literature – not least the chance not to have to tackle the subjects again in re-take classes.

Encourage students to break the subject down, developing a precise timetable that will enable them to tackle the key topics and anthology poetry.  This should be exhibited in public at home.  The sense that time is finite but the task is manageable is a crucial combination students need to juggle successfully. 

Encourage students to create bright, memorable display material celebrating some of the key formula they need to remember in the examination.  For example, they should create their own memory jogging formulae for the key issues they need to cover in language and literature pieces. What acronym can be created to cover the key elements of good non-fiction analysis – genre; audience; purpose; style; tone; etc?  Encourage them to make them as silly as possible and add images, creating posters that can be displayed at home. 

Get students attuned to the fact that narrative exists in everything.  Every letter, newspaper article or advertisement is attempting to tell a story, with heroes, quests, dangers and endings.  It is important for students to recognise quickly what the ‘call to action’ in any piece of writing they have to tackle might be.  In thinking about that they will be a long way along the path to some sophisticated thinking about audience.

Get students used to the phrase 'Tell Sir Not To Moan and Yell'.  This covers most of the key elements needed for effective poetry analysis – the first letters of each word linking to the need to tackle the title; story (narrative); narrator; themes/tone, range of meanings and mood and finally the need to express something of yourself and your take on the poem near the end.  With this scaffolding in place students will be in an excellent position to make inter-poem comparisons.

Get physical.  Encourage students to write out some of the poems they have to cover, laying key lines on the ground and jumping from one to the next while reciting them.  This is not only fun and good exercise, but the kinaesthetic approach combined with actually vocalising the words will help embed the lines more deeply.  In addition, writing the poem out will force them to consider the punctuation. 

Encourage students to make good use of lost time.  Instead of just standing in a queue over the next month or so, make these occasions a chance to indulge in some poetry or newspaper reading.

Get students to make a list of the words they always seem to spell incorrectly – more material for exhibiting around their rooms or taking out on crib-cards for spare moment revision. 

Advise your pupils to eat a banana before going into English examinations (and all examinations for that matter).  The slow release sugars are far more effective as a means of maintaining alertness than the sudden shock, quick decline effects of chocolate.  Porridge is also good but bananas are much less messy to eat while waiting to go into the examination hall.

Remind students not to panic and to remember that  feeling bored in an examination is often a symptom of nerves.

Preparation for A Level English Literature | Tom Rank

I count examinations ... as the enemy of education. Which is not to say that I don't regard education as the enemy of education too.

Alan Bennett
(Hector in The History Boys)

"Think bored examiners," says the 'meretricious but not disingenuous' Mr Irwin to his elite class in Alan Bennett’s latest play. Of course I would never suggest that you encourage your students to be merely 'showy and falsely attractive' for the sake of better marks. But having pored over more A Level scripts in my time than has been good for my health, I believe there are a number of things you can do to help those eager souls in your classes (and even the not-so-eager ones) to do their very best. Begin by stressing that if the examiner can't read the answer they won't get any precious marks at all. If I struggle because of poor handwriting or atrocious spelling, I'll lose the plot before the end of the page – and it's a good idea to keep the examiner following your plot. (Not the plot of the book, of course – we've read it too). If the answer has a clear structure and leads the examiner confidently to a conclusion that answers the question, full marks may be the reward. English examiners may appear a curmudgeonly lot, red-inked and red-eyed, but really we're just ordinary soft-hearted English teachers, longing to praise and reward.

So how can your students bring out the best in the examiner – and in themselves? I once rashly stated that it was as easy as ABC:

answer the question

base it on the text

clear, coherent and cogent writing

These exhortations won't be thunder-bolts of revelation, so let me explain why I think they are worth emphasising.

Principal examiners craft questions that match the assessment objectives for the paper. Pick up the key words, stick to the question and you will be doing what's asked. Too many competent students gain disappointing marks because they ignore the question. If it's about the presentation of Cassio, don't spend your time on Iago just because you really want to write about him. Skilled candidates think on their seats: they adapt their knowledge to meet the demands of the question, not the one in their mock exam. Teach them how to plan instead of rushing headlong into an aimless journey. Plan model answers together, write introductions and conclusions, do timed essays – a chore, but they'll thank you for it.

Make sure they really know their books inside out, even if they can take them into the examination. Learn key passages – they'll thank you for that too – and how to use them. Don't write character sketches, support points by brief but telling details and make it clear that there's an author at work, choosing words and actions for effect. Never make assertions - bald claims without support – and discuss alternatives.

Considering the reader is basic courtesy. If they've learnt how to plan, flowing paragraphs should have the requisite topic sentences and connectives that create a seamless whole, directly addressing the question. Do all this and I can write glowing words at the end and give a good mark.

Easy? Well, it is A level, of course, so it will take some practice - by your students. You've passed your exams, haven't you? You could try picking up a red pen and becoming an examiner yourself – you 'll learn a lot - and earn a bit too.

Tom Rank has been marking examination papers for 19 years. He holds senior examining and moderating positions for A Level English Literature. Tom's Literary Connections website has links and resources for all aspects of English, especially literature.

Revision and exam technique for A Level English Language | Tim Shortis

Half my life is an act of revision.

John Irving


The word ‘revision’ might suggest a student redbulled up the night before the exam as s/he pores through heavy lever arch files. Such a method may work for some examinations but it is probably not appropriate for AS/A2 level English Language.

At A Level, examiners are interested in what the student can do in response to the task and not what is in their notes. Examiners will be looking for evidence of how students can think on their own feet and show insight and analytical capacity derived from knowledge, discussion and practices. They will be less concerned with peacock flourishes of learning for its own fantailed sake.

My main message about revision and exam technique is to make sure students have understood the nature of the exams they are revising for. In helping students structure their revision, teachers need to emphasise the exams are there to test what students know, understand and can do in response to a task (and not just what they know in response to a question). This calls for an active revision method of reading and thinking interspersed with short bursts of writing. And, rather than swot up on facts and frameworks the night before the exam, it may be more useful to go for a walk and get a good night’s sleep.

There is some useful guidance on the web about revision and exam technique but it is easily lost in the accreting information glut of awarding body protocols, procedures and other guidance. Here are some edited highlights relating to the AQA B English Language A Level.

Assessment: the mark schemes are too complicated for students (and for many other mortals). For a simple guide to what gets valued in A Level English Language answers go to http://www.aqa.org.uk/qual/pdf/AQA-6706-TG-ENB6-lang_development.pdf. Print out pages 26 and 27 which give a barebones outline of what gets rewarded.

Student answers: For responses to all units at a range of levels of performance go to http://www.aqa.org.uk/qual/gceasa/engLaB_teach.html which gives examples of candidates' responses to the summer 2004 examinations.

Past papers: There are examples of past papers for all units at http://www.aqa.org.uk/qual/gceasa/engLaB_assess.html and there is guidance on patterns to be found in past papers set for the synoptic unit on http://www.aqa.org.uk/qual/pdf/AQA-6706-TG-ENB6.pdf.

Exam reports: These are for teachers and not students but they are on the web and archived back to the start of the specification: http://www.aqa.org.uk/qual/gceasa/engLaB_exam.html If you read nothing else, the January 2006 report is particularly helpful for the way it spells out the problems of inappropriate response to Task 1 of ENB1, the importance of context in ENB2 and the role of the commentary in ENB5: http://www.aqa.org.uk/qual/pdf/AQA-5706-6706-WRE-Jan06.pdf.

Other websites: the British Library Texts in Context site gives copious examples of texts of the sort used in ENB6 Language Change questions. The use of facsimile material from a range of comparable genres and situations across time makes this the perfect revision antidote to the landmark histories of the English Language which predominate in books (and don’t help students in this exam): http://www.bllearning.co.uk/live/text/.

Tim Shortis is a Principal Examiner and Chief Examiner of A Level English Language and Language Consultant to the British Library Texts in Contexts project.

Concrete language and scaffolding: supporting pupils with Special Educational Needs | Andrew Buckton

I didn't fail the test, I just found 100 ways to do it wrong.

Benjamin Franklin

You know the scene. The sports hall has become a grid of single desks. The pupils hear the invigilator’s instructions. Then, amidst the surf-sound of shuffling papers, one student, bizarrely, has not turned the paper over. He is still waiting for the instruction to do so, to quite literally, begin. The problem is, he has Asperger’s Syndrome, and although is intellectually agile and capable of answering the essay titles and, you hope, get a good grade, he finds it extremely difficult to do anything other than take language literally. He sees and hears language in a concrete way. The problem for him is that the invigilator simply said “OK then. Good luck.” Everyone else noticed the nuances of her expression – her tone of voice and gesture to start. Perhaps it is good that she didn’t say “Off you go!” as he may have got up to leave.

These things happen. For many students with Special Educational Needs (SEN), the anxiety around exam time will be high. But there is some light. As we all emerge from the dark winter months feeling unprepared for the busiest term of the year, we can help students, including those with SEN to be well prepared. Things you could think about include:

Holding sessions that explore the language of exams and the layout of papers. For example, looking at the use of bold and italicisation to draw students’ attention to important messages, or the use of different fonts or insert boxes around specific questions.

For pupils with Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD) such as Asperger’s Syndrome, looking at questions and instructions in past papers that can be vague, ambiguous or misconstrued if taken literally.

Running time management sessions. These are helpful for any student, but especially so for students with SEN, who may be chaotic and disorganised at the best of times. A specific list of equipment they need to bring may seem patronising, but for a pupil with ASD it could be invaluable.

For many teachers working in the field of SEN each term can feel like a revision of the last as new concepts are grasped, briefly, then lost or not generalised. Some pupils seem to plateau and progress seems static. So too for many teachers who do not work exclusively in the field of SEN, but who regularly have children or groups of students in their classes who give them that same level of frustration and cause for concern; the group that doesn’t qualify for additional support, but who really need it; the group that will pull down the statistics and who, in two terms time, will be the ones that someone decide need a boost.

So what are we doing? Literacy Progress Units? Summer schools? Additional support? Teachit would love to hear about the SEN issues that you face in order to see how resources can best be developed to support you further. If you haven’t already done so, please add your views, experiences, concerns, ideas to the SEN frustration survey! thread in the Teachit staffroom.

Webwatch - essential revision websites | Rhiannon Glover

Examinations, sir, are pure humbug from beginning to end. If a man is a gentleman, he knows quite enough, and if he is not a gentleman, whatever he knows is bad for him.

Oscar Wilde


There are many excellent free resources and sites with advice and activities to help students with their revision and exam practice but to save you trawling through them all I have selected some of the best. As I have finally learned how to send an email to a whole class of students with one click of my mouse I will also be mailing these links direct to them together with weekly revision tips. This will avoid the time and wastage of photocopying and reinforce the message that there is no escape from revision!

I had a difficult job selecting revision materials from Teachit’s own range because there are so many tried and tested, exam-focused ideas. If you are preparing students for their SATS on Macbeth you should see the Macbeth - SATS 2006 Act 5 Scenes 1 and 3 study pack and the Macbeth - SATS 2006 Macbeth boosters 2006. I also liked the activity Richard III - Act 1 SATS 2006 Metaphors in Richard's first speech for those of you who've chosen Richard III for your students’ SATS text.

For GCSE I recommend the PowerPoint presentation Revision skills & exam preparation Doing brilliantly. Targeted at students aiming for a C grade, it alerts students to many techniques that will help them achieve success on Paper 1.

At KS5 Teachit has many resources which will help students with the mechanics of essay writing but the resource Essay writing Excellent essay writing is original and might help those students aiming at high grades hone their writing skills.

Two of the best websites to help your students with their revision apart from Teachit are the BBC’s GCSE Bitesize and AS Guru. Support is also available to students preparing for SATS, GCSE and A/S Level at Onion Street and SOS Teacher. Here students can get useful advice from qualified teachers, sound off to other students and be reassured that the aspects of English that they are struggling with are also stressing out their peers all over the country

Channel 4’s Homework High also enables students to post questions which will be answered by teachers if there’s a live homework session running.

Some good advice on approaching the GCSE English exam is available at S-Cool as well as practice questions with sample responses and discussion groups (though, be warned, these may leave your students more confused than they were before your visit). Resources suitable for A Level are limited on this site.

Andrew Moore’s site www.universalteacher.org.uk includes a wealth of clearly written and insightful resources suitable for revising for GCSE and A Level.


CP3: Critical Practice, Creative Process, Cultural Perspective

19th - 23rd July 2006
University of York

Do you use digital media in education? Would you like to share and develop your ideas with like-minded professionals? The CP3 conference provides a unique collaborative learning experience that will give you confidence, support and new inspiration.

CP3 is a creative, cutting edge, residential conference for teachers, advisors and education officers of both Primary and Secondary sectors. During the four-days, delegates can experience and brainstorm new ideas through a range of practical workshops that address issues surrounding how digital media is currently taught and studied and the endless opportunities it will hold for the next generation of teachers and learners.

The workshops and tasks will tackle storytelling, non-narrative and games, film and performance, digital animation, the use of Interactive Whiteboards and multimodal text creation. The conference aims to create an environment where people can share ideas with digital media practitioners, policy makers and fellow teaching professionals.

'When the world of the pupil links directly with classroom experiences the speed of teaching and learning increases dramatically … enthusiasm and motivation are raised to untold heights ….'
Ian Wall, Director, Film Education

The first 'Critical Practice, Creative Process, Cultural Perspective' residential conference took place in July 2005 and was a resounding success - please visit www.cp3.org.uk for details and testimonials.

Conference registration and accommodation costs £450 excluding VAT (£528.75 inc VAT), this includes conference materials, refreshments, all meals and some drinks. To book a place, teachers should go to the booking form at www.cp3.org.uk.

Please email cp3@filmeducation.org for further information.


National Literacy Trust

15th July 2006

For further information, go to http://www.literacytrust.org.uk/About/screenwriting.html

Want to unsubscribe? We try to keep this newsletter relevant and hope you find it useful, but if you don't wish to receive it in future simply visit http://www.teachit.co.uk/ and follow the instructions to unsubscribe. These are in the box on the right hand column of the site.

Changed your address? Keep us posted! To change your details visit http://www.teachit.co.uk/ and use the box on the right hand side of the page.

Copyright © 2006 Teachit (UK) Ltd