Whose knowledge is it, anyway?

Note 1: This post is geared specifically at Australian readers. If you are reading this in the UK, I am assuming that you will have some knowledge of knowledge organisers based on the writing of Joe Kirby, James Theobold, Kris Boulton, Barbara Bleiman, etc. This post, however, will discuss the utility of knowledge organisers at A Level, which may be of interest.

Note 2: This post is intended to accompany a presentation for the upcoming VATE conference prepared by my colleague Emily Fitzpatrick and myself.

Consider the following scenario, that you most probably face every single day: you are working with a capable student who has reached a plateau with their essay writing and has asked you for extra help. What, realistically, should you attempt to address? Their content knowledge, or their written expression? If we flip the scenario, let’s consider what your student is most likely trying to juggle when constructing an essay:

  • Linking their ideas to key words from the question
  • Applying feedback from a previous essay
  • Managing their time
  • Avoiding repetition
  • Trying to remember small details (correct spelling of a character’s name, remembering possessive apostrophes, etc.)
  • Trying to remember how to use new or more sophisticated vocabulary
  • Trying to remember a quote from a particular scene
  • Trying to remember what literary devices are being used

As writers such as Joe Kirby have commented, a ‘Knowledge Organiser’ is a potentially powerful way for students and teachers to address some of these challenges. I first came across them a couple of years ago when a former colleague mentioned Joe Kirby’s blog post in a department meeting. We trialed their use with our Year 12 VCE English classes (equivalent to A Level in the UK) and were quietly impressed with both their popularity among our students and their effectiveness in helping improve our examination performance. To give you some context, our department had seen a gradual decline in its average study scores for English over several years: from a high of 35 in 2011, falling to 34 by 2013, to 32 by 2015. During this same period, the average ATAR scores and study scores for the school had risen year on year. Six months after we rolled out the use of knowledge organisers at Year 12, our 2016 VCE exam results came in: an average of 35.

So, was the mighty knowledge organiser the silver bullet? No, obviously, but the strong correlation between their introduction and these results (especially given the fact that very few other variables were at play: much the same teachers each year, with much the same cohort ability as per previous NAPLAN scores, etc.) suggested that our use of knowledge organisers helped bring about an improvement in teaching, learning and revision overall. The reasons for this I will speculate on later. First, an overview of what a knowledge organiser is (and more importantly, what it is not) and how we used them.

What is a knowledge organiser?

Below is a snippet from the first page of a Macbeth knowledge organiser that my colleague Emily and I put together:

Macbeth KO 1

Although it may appear to be dense with detail, this is because it is intended to be used from Year 10 to VCE level and requires a little more depth of detail than the examples offered via Joe Kirby’s blog. Before I explain the rationale behind its construction, let me explain what this is not:

  • It is not Sparknotes, nor the Insight guide, nor Shmoop, nor any other study guide simply copied and pasted onto an A3 sheet.
  • It is not your own personal thesis listed onto an A3 sheet
  • It is not a recipe for spoonfeeding, for students to regurgitate word for word (this personal view may appear to conflict with the belief that knowledge organisers are primarily for self-quizzing)

What is it, therefore?

In my view, it is core text knowledge that is designed to work as a ‘springboard’ into a more detailed and conceptualised reading of a text. Elements of it can and should be used for quizzing purposes, but my belief is that the knowledge organiser should be used as a tool to improve writing, by enhancing both the depth and precision of a student’s content knowledge. I am still experimenting with a preferred format and sequential layout for a knowledge organiser (especially in terms of how characters relate to each other and embody the central tensions of a text), but for me a knowledge organiser should include both an ‘A side’ (core knowledge) and a ‘B side’ (essay structure):

A side elements:

  • the central themes or tensions (where possible expressed as assertions that can be developed and challenged)
  • character traits
  • conceptual vocabulary – especially abstract nouns that convey ideas
  • literary devices that characterise the style of the text
  • essential quotes – the ones that help form the most subtle and deep connections with other parts of the text

B side elements:

  • essay planning methods
  • essay structure outlines
  • key verbs and conjunctions to help develop analysis


How do you design one?

Ideally, in collaboration with your colleagues. My preferred process would be as follows:

  1. hold a discussion meeting with your colleagues, in which you decide upon the aims and outcomes of the unit of study and discuss the essential text knowledge and ideas that should be taught. Keep the following questions in mind: what should every student understand about the text to be able to do their justice on any essay topic, and what would help your strongest students branch out into the subtext of the text? Debate and agree upon what should be included on the knowledge organiser.
  2. Nominate one or two people to take these notes and write up the first draft of the knowledge organiser.
  3. Hold a final meeting in which you collectively edit and amend the draft, before one colleague refines the final edit.

It is the discussion and collaboration within this process that is key. Having every voice included as part of the process improves both the level of collective investment and the quality of the final edit. Crucially, it allows you to learn from each other. This year I have taught Measure for Measure for the first time. The best training I have received all year is listening to an experienced colleague of mine explain how he had taught the text previously and what subtle details were truly essential to understand the subtext of the play. This was only possible because we had scheduled a special planning meeting devoted to pooling our collective wisdom.

It does take time to create a knowledge organiser, but consider the following equation:

  • teaching lifespan of a VCE English text = 4 years
  • number of students in our cohort = 125 approx.
  • number of students who will benefit from this over time = 500


So, how might you use one to improve writing?

This is the essential question to consider. It is no use spending the time creating a knowledge organiser if all students do is file it away in their folders. Yet more importantly, a knowledge organiser is most effective when students and teachers view it as a springboard into the text. Over the last couple of years I have used the following strategies in conjunction with a knowledge organiser:

    1. Students write definitions on the sheet for vocabulary / terminology as you teach them. Use these keywords to build semantic maps, extending the conceptual vocabulary further. Model this with example words, e.g. power / hubris
    2. Set frequent recall quizzes on terminology / quotes / spellings, etc.
    3. Character mapping – use the character traits to flesh out character maps as you study the text. Build more detailed influences and connections maps as you do this
    4. Indexing the text – as you read, index key pages which focus on one of the central dilemmas listed on the knowledge organiser
    5. (After the first read-through) Colour-code the key quotes according to which dilemma(s) and tensions they reflect
    6. (After first read-through)​ Use QR links on the sheet to help build mind-maps on the central tensions. Add links to critical readings of the text
    7. Guided writing: 2+2 principle – set a paragraph topic and students must use 2 quotes from the KO + 2 additional quotes
    8. Flash card creation – to memorise quotes, students write 2 quotes on one side of the card + central dilemmas explored on the reverse. Minimum 20 quotes from the KO, with 20 additional quotes (creating at least 20 cards, with 40 quotes in total)
    9. Developing interpretations: take assertions from the central tensions and ask students to mind-map or write a paragraph exploring it in detail using quotes from the knowledge organiser or their cue cards
    10. Essay planning: students use the reverse side of the sheet every time they plan and write a practice essay.


Does it work?

In my view, yes, but for more complex correlative reasons than may first appear. I agree largely with the opinion of Barbara Bleiman that the more you consider this as a starting point for exploring the agenda of the writer, the more useful knowledge organisers become. Last year our English department saw a sharp upturn in exam results upon introducing knowledge organisers, but it is worth unpicking the complex reasons that might explain this:

  1. Creating them fostered close and consistent collaboration between the English team which led to improved subject knowledge and collective teacher efficacy
  2. Through creating them, we helped standardise a consistent approach to the way we taught writing
  3. Student content knowledge improved significantly, both in terms of their recall of key details and terms of how they were able to work outwards from the knowledge organiser into a consideration of the wider agenda of the writer
  4. It rather unexpectedly fostered stronger student cooperation than before – students were able to work with peers in other English classes by using the knowledge organiser as a starting point for their own discussions and debates within their study groups. This level of truly collaborative learning was, for me, the most exciting development of the year. Our students were no longer tied to their individual teachers, but were able to form their own revision groups – think of it as a ‘knowledge squared’ approach.


VATE Presentation

At VATE, Emily and I will help guide you through how to create one and how you might use them effectively in more detail. If you are coming along, we would be delighted to see you there.

Here are a couple of resources you may find useful:

Macbeth Knowledge Organiser

Knowledge Organiser Template V1





On improving essays – the line of argument

Over the last few years, I have been trying to encourage my students to improve their essay writing by sharpening their initial thinking about any essay topic. Time and time again I read essays which, while offering reasonable text knowledge and written expression, suffer from a weak line of argument. All too often, the introduction is a simple restatement of the essay topic, the body paragraphs list three or four separate ideas covering key terms in the topic, while the conclusion repeats back the introduction. Enough for a C or lower B grade, perhaps, but insufficient to really demonstrate sophistication in thinking. To compound this further, much of the guidance published in official VCE English study guides struggles to make absolutely explicit more effective approaches to essay planning. Take, for example, the current edition of the Insight guide to VCE English:

‘Paragraphs should flow well and be linked through a logical progression of ideas that develop the argument.’

Robert Beardwood, English Year 12, Insight Publications (2016), p.67

There is very little to object to in this advice. It is logical and straightforward. Elsewhere in the same book, there is good advice on how to interrogate a topic and generate ideas. Yet it is not enough by itself to prevent students from following mechanical approaches to topics which run the risk of listing disconnected ideas. Additionally, students are still left with the challenge of working out what ‘flow well’ actually means in practice.

So, how do we make the implicit explicit in this case? The first stage is to take the proposition in an essay topic and convert it into a problem by applying the question stem, ‘Is it true that… ?’

(Is it true that…) ‘In Stasiland, Funder exposes a world both cruel and absurd’ (?)

Essay topic adapted from the 2015 VCE English examination.

By converting the proposition into a problem, students are now led to create an initial ‘Yes, because… but…’ argument. This instantly forms an effective overall contention and suggests the overall thrust of the essay. Now all that is left is to work though two procedures:

  1. brainstorm definitions of key words to generate relevant text examples
  2. form the line of argument by expanding upon the contention

The line of argument is my main area of interest. To create greater complexity in their line of argument, I have begun to encourage my students to adapt the Aristotelian process of narration – affirmation – refutation in their planning. If we return to the students’ initial contention we can then expand it into the following thinking sequence:

  1. (Narration): Initial problem established by the writer (Yes, because…)
  2. (Affirmation): Consequences of this problem for people / places (Consequently…)
  3. (Refutation): How this problem is resolved / unresolved (However…)

While this obeys the classic five-paragraph essay structure, it can form as many body paragraphs as is required to satisfactorily address the essay topic. Crucially, it takes the standard method of brainstorming separate ideas and arranges them into a linear argument. This is one way to improve ‘flow’. Below is an example of one of my current Year 12 student’s writing on Measure for Measure. For her practice coursework task (closed book, written under exam conditions) this was the introduction and opening body paragraph:

Neve Measure essay page 1

Neve Measure essay page 2

While this is by no means perfect, there is a real sense of the student trying to illuminate the essential problem proposed by the essay topic. Please note also that this is not one of my strongest students; she would ordinarily be regarded as a grade B candidate. Given how hard she is working, and how readily she is willing to apply more sophisticated thinking routines, I have high hopes for her eventual exam performance.

It has been an enjoyable process over the last couple of years trying to continually pare down the planning process to this point. My students can now (generally) draw up a clear line of argument in an essay plan, with clearly identified examples, in around 5-6 minutes, which is pretty good.

On hinge questions

As part of my professional development cycle for this year, I opted to explore the use of hinge questions in English lessons. My initial interest in the technique arose from reading Dylan Wiliam’s Embedded Formative Assessment. On page 100 of his book, he explains how:

‘The hinge is a point at which the teacher checks whether the class is ready to move on through the use of a diagnostic question. How the lesson proceeds depends on the level of understanding shown by the students, so the direction of the lesson hinges at this point.’

For Wiliam, these questions take the form of a multiple choice question, with very carefully worded distractors among the different response choices. An excellent discussion of how hinge questions can be used to correct misconceptions is available on Joey Bagstock’s blog. He makes a sound argument for the utility of multiple choice questions in improving comprehension and understanding.

One of my queries with this, however, was over how effective hinge questions could be in guiding students from sound knowledge of a text to a considered personal appreciation of it. More specifically, I was interested in exploring how an extended response to a hinge question might form a precursor to analytical writing. Certainly, the idea of a ‘hinge’ point in a lesson dependent upon sequential knowledge mastery is a sound one; if you want students to correct a misconception, then a hinge question is an effective way to address this. Multiple-choice questions become useful, therefore, in ironing out comprehension errors, or in identifying when students limit their interpretations of quotes to surface details. But how useful would they be if the aim was not to clarify a misconception, but to force students to defend and justify a position?

This is where my interpretation of a hinge question widens slightly from that put forward by Wiliam and others. For me, hinge questions can serve a dual function: to address potential misconceptions (via a multiple choice question) and to steer a lesson into extended personal interpretations of texts.

An example of how I have used this comes from my current Year 10 English class. At present, we are studying comparative analysis – Montana 1948 and the documentary The Tall Man. In The Tall Man, at the point where the defendant in a trial (a police officer who has been accused of the manslaughter of an aboriginal man held in police custody) is found not guilty, the film overlays the sound of a pedestrian crossing ticking. It is an interesting stylistic choice which hints at the endemic corruption within the Queensland justice system and the inevitability that it will close ranks and protect their own. The hinge question I set was quite simply:

What might the significance be of the pedestrian crossing sound?

I ran a standard think-pair-share-square routine and asked students to flesh out their response notes at each step of the discussion. Below is an example of the notes made by one of my students, Maddie (who has given me permission to publish her work):

Maddie Qu notes

The challenge then became one of how this discussion (and these exploratory notes) would transfer into her writing. Maddie is ranked near the middle of our Year 10 cohort and in previous years has scored close to the national average for NAPLAN reading and writing. During the next lesson, my class had to write an analytical paragraph under timed conditions, which was to be formatively assessed. They were given fifteen minutes to draw up a brief plan (with paired discussion allowed) and then thirty minutes to write their paragraph. Here is her work:

Maddie V1

Given that this was an initial draft, the quality of this was rather promising. Near the end of the paragraph you can see the emergence of the hinge question notes, with a good attempt at close technical analysis. Not perfect, but for an ‘average’ student this is encouraging. The following lesson, I ran a whole-class feedback session with integrated DIRT time. Here is her improved version, written in 20 minutes:

Maddie rewrite pg1

Maddie rewrite pg2

Now she is approaching the depth I am looking for. While there are mechanical accuracy and expression issues (which she is working hard to overcome), the quality of insight is sharper and, crucially, offers a measure of independent thinking. This alternative use of a hinge question in conjunction with scaffolded discussion has begun to pay dividends for her. It is an approach that I will continue to refine over the remainder of this year.

On using marking codes for VCE English essays

‘That’s him pushing the stone up the hill, the jerk. I call it a stone – it’s nearer the size of a kirk. When he first started out, it just used to irk, but now it incences me, and him, the absolute berk.’

Carol Ann Duffy, ‘Mrs Sisyphus’


Marking has always been for me, I confess, something of an onerous task. Time-consuming, draining, laborious and – to be brutally honest with myself – quite ineffective at advancing learning.

Over the last few years my use of verbal feedback and continual checking for understanding has developed enormously. I frequently use hinge questions, multiple choice quizzes, thinking routines, exit tickets, bursts of silent writing where I circulate around the room and add instant comments while pupils write, etc. Through this, I have become reasonably effective at preventing major misconceptions from creeping into essays before they are submitted. That said, marking full VCE essays remains my metaphorical boulder. I have always been guilty of over-marking essays with the usual litany of methods: highlighting errors, comments in the margins, SMART targets at the end of the piece with a summative comment, etc. In part, this is because it was the default expectation of teachers when I first entered the profession, reinforced by the then expectations of Ofsted (The UK national inspectorate).

It took me a long time to fully face up to the one question that every English teacher should ask themselves when they are about to pick up their red pen:

How exactly is that mark on the page going to help the student improve?

Much recent discussion of marking, such as from Jo Facer at Michaela school in the UK, argues eloquently in favour of not writing comments on students’ work and instead on prioritising continual whole class feedback on common errors and weaknesses. There is a great deal of merit (and sanity) in that approach and I have begun to use it increasingly with Years 7-9 classes, often with single paragraph pieces. I will share my own methodology on this in a future post. (For a more comprehensive review of feedback approaches, the recent EEF report is essential reading.) That said, for VCE English essays I still find it difficult to ‘let go’ of marking and have sought to find a balance between offering a clear indicator of what to address while minimising my annotations themselves. As a consequence, over the last couple of years I have experimented with two different feedback approaches: marking codes and mastery grids.

I first began using marking codes back in 2010, when I was appointed Head of English at Silcoates School in the UK. One of my colleagues, Russell Carey, was Chief Assessor for the Cambridge IGCSE Literature exam paper and explained to me their process of using internal marking codes for assessing pupil scripts. We rolled this out across the department to create a consistent system of annotating work (Brief aside: Ask yourself this question: what does a tick on a page actually mean to a pupil? Do they know? Do all teachers mean the same thing when they tick work?), and pupils appreciated the continuity as they moved through year levels and between teachers.

When I moved to Australia in 2013, I had to learn the VCE system and appreciate the subtle differences in approaches to essay writing here. Consequently, my well-honed system of marking codes for GCSE and A Level responses was forgotten and I reverted back to default mode: lots of generalised comments, ticks and summary targets, with very little class time devoted to re-writes. Having now assessed the VCE English examination for the last two years, I feel more confident in my judgements of quality and have worked out the most common errors I try to correct via annotations. The EEF report offers this summary finding on the need to distinguish between errors (fundamental misconceptions) and mistakes (carelessness) when marking:

‘Careless mistakes should be marked differently to errors resulting from misunderstanding. The latter may be best addressed by providing hints or questions which lead pupils to underlying principles; the former by simply marking the mistake as incorrect, without giving the right answer.’

A link to my new marking codes sheet can be found here:

Marking codes feedback sheet

My workflow when using this is as follows:

  1. Skim read the essay to quickly spot major errors, then close read. Ticks on relevant points and circling SPAG mistakes
  2. After reading, highlight the most pressing 5-6 errors on the piece and assign a code in the margin
  3. Write a ‘one quick win’ target on the bottom of the piece, trying to make the target as absolutely specific as possible.

Time taken per essay (800-1000 words) = 9 minutes

As I mark the essays, I keep a Word document open and dot point any major conceptual or knowledge problems that form a pattern among the class. An example of a summary sheet I give out can be found here (Note: I am teaching Measure for Measure this year for Text Response). The feedback lesson then runs as follows:

  1. Explain and correct the main conceptual errors to the whole class
  2. Show 2x examples of the best writing and annotate why they are strong
  3. Give pupils around 20 minutes to read through their essays, process the codes and write their corrections on the essay itself. I circulate and conference with students as they work on this.

The major strengths of this approach, for me, are:

  • Time saved – around 6 minutes per essay (It would ordinarily take me 15 minutes per essay)
  • Efficiency – I no longer write out the same annotations twenty-odd times
  • DIRT (Directed Improvement and Reflection Time) – students have to act on the feedback, with dedicated time set aside for this

Marking codes are not without their challenges, however, with the main ones being that students often struggle to write meaningful corrections due to poor text knowledge or weak expression. It is essential that the codes are as specific as possible, too, since they replace individualised comments (Note: I am still very much in the process of refining these). Over time, my VCE classes have gotten used to the system and have become more willing to think through their errors.

This year, I decided to pilot a mastery grid approach with my Y12 class to compare it against marking codes. Dylan Wiliam describes one method of using them in Embedded Formative Assessment, pages 122-127. I have taken the general principle of a mastery grid and adapted it for tracking structural components of essays. You can find a copy of it here:

Mastery grid feedback sheet

The marking process I use is more or less the same as for the codes sheet. This time, however, I am aiming to offer a relative indicator of quality for the major structural and technical aspects of their essays (each element still contains a letter code which I can add in the margins to signal that a correction is needed). Interestingly, the majority of my students prefer this system because they can gauge both how good each essay is overall and how each skill is developing across a series of essays. The major challenge with it is that without the use of explicit marking codes, students need to be provided with far more ‘worked examples’ of successful and weaker pieces for students to really engage with the self-correction.

Neither of these systems is perfect and a claim can be made that marking codes and mastery grids offer little tangible benefit over traditional annotation and correction. Ultimately, you have to ask yourself: what compromise are you prepared to accept? For me, these methods offer better written feedback than before in less time.


If you feel that this post has been helpful or useful in any way, please let me know in the comments section. I would be particularly keen to hear any suggestions for improvement you may have, or any alternative approaches you may use.

Edit: Based on Emily’s comment, I will also include links to my feedback sheets for Argument Analysis. If you use any of my materials, please let me know how well (or badly!) it worked for you.

Argument Analysis Marking Codes Sheet

Argument Analysis Mastery Grid Sheet

On meeting your heroes

‘The youngest, aged twelve, could not conceal her disappointment, and turned away, feeling as so many of us have felt when we discover that our idols are very ordinary men and women.’        – Louisa May Alcott

I have never really placed much stock in the idea that you should never meet your heroes. To my mind, it is a sentiment predicated on an unfounded fear of seeing our idols as fully rounded people – human, with very human qualities – and instead holding them up as unrealistic objects of adulation. I have always found it rather thrilling to consider that people who have accomplished outstanding, authentic works of creativity and innovation were simply people like you and I. It helps, of course, to admire people who are just as well-known for the integrity of their character as for the calibre of their achievements. Think David Bowie, Nick Cave, Christopher Hitchens, Kate Bush, etc.

The closest I had ever come to meeting a hero of mine, prior to last week, was when I met Luke Haines in 2002. At the time, I was living in France and working as a volunteer translator for a local radio station, Jet FM in Nantes. Luke Haines, whose songwriting I greatly admired, was the founder of cult indie group The Auteurs and was touring with his new band Black Box Recorder. I was asked to be his interpreter during a live interview on the radio. I found him to be, let’s just say, somewhat aloof. Since then, my life has drifted along in a steady stream of normality, as I settled down with my family and tried to forge a career as a teacher.

Part of my new role at my current school is that of whole school literacy co-ordinator. To that end, I have spent much of this last year researching the work of Steve Graham, Judith Hochman, Debra Myhill, Doug Lemov and others in a bid to ascertain patterns in how other schools and districts have successfully implemented literacy across the curriculum. As part of my research I had the opportunity to spend a wonderful couple of hours with Phil Beadle, picking his brains about how best to begin the process of reinvigorating literacy instruction at my school.

At this point, I should point out that I have long been a fan of Phil Beadle. Indeed, I believe that his achievements should be treated with respect approaching awe. If you are British and teach English, you cannot fail to have come across his work. Australian teachers are likely to be unfamiliar with Phil’s career; check out some of his masterclasses on the old Teachers TV channel to find out how English should really be taught. Not via relentless drills or excessive use of lectures (although there is certainly a place for this), but through a skilful balance of explicit instruction and emotional engagement with texts. There is an art to the craft of teaching, and Phil Beadle is the acknowledged Picasso of the profession. And he has the results to prove it, too.

So to say that I was daunted by the prospect of a private meeting with him is quite an understatement. I was terrified.

Phil was a true gentleman in person: generous with his time and expertise, warm-natured and refreshingly honest. His advice on literacy instruction was precise, realistic and grounded in experience. A summary of his recommendations follows below (please note: I have fleshed out Phil’s ideas with some of my own beliefs and interpretations).

The main barriers to overcoming poor literacy instruction (both in English and school-wide) are as follows:

  1. Poor teacher knowledge of literacy
    • Teachers of English prefer the semantic aspects of the subject more often than not: discussing texts, inferring meaning, etc. They tend to have literature backgrounds, or wider arts degrees, and are less confident in grammar and linguistics
    • Syntactic aspects of English are often neglected as a result – teachers were often not taught these when they were at school and feel unequipped to properly deal with them. This is an example of the ‘Peter Effect’ – you cannot give what you do not have. At a minimum, all teachers should teach the following:
      1. Punctuation must be explicitly taught – especially in terms of how it promotes rhythm in writing
      2. Parts of speech, and essential sentence construction (subject + verb + complement) must be explicitly taught and practised as the bedrock of good writing


  1. Oracy is vital – and must be systematised
    • Oracy feeds into writing – if you can say it you can write it – so must be the natural starting point for establishing and perfecting writing tasks
    • It is a fallacy to believe that reading = better writing; it can, but mainly through oral rehearsal of the language acquired via reading
    • Students must be trained to speak in standard academic English, using the target vocabulary and grammar that will underpin the writing
    • Teacher-led, whole-class discussion must be reframed: use a variety of ways to place the onus on students to speak and articulate their thoughts, via think-pair-share-square, etc. Thinking routines such as the work of Project Zero can be useful for this.


  1. Extended writing needs greater routine
    • How often do we require students to write for an extended length of time in lessons, or each week? How many subjects require this?
    • Aim to ask students to write in as wide a range of forms as possible. This is especially important at Years 7-9, but also in later years, too. Junior Schools need to think carefully about this, also, since each day should involve extended writing as an extension of meaningful oracy


  1. Marking is often ineffective
    • Does marking actually value literacy? Does it demand that students learn from their mistakes, or act upon repeated targets?
    • Beware absolute reliance upon AFL, which is suitable for Maths / Sciences (where sequential knowledge mastery can be measured) but is not as effective in other subjects where multiple skills are often assessed as part of a wider rubric, e.g. English essays.
    • Mark rigorously, writing absolutely specific targets which must be acted upon. In a student’s exercise book, these can become running targets, e.g. Target 1 written on the first piece of work is always that same target number in any future writing for that pupil. Progression can then be seen in the book – if you stop writing Target 1, they must have mastered it.
    • A whole-school approach to marking must encompass literacy, and must be firm on this. Set out a standard annotation key which all teachers use and make sure that it becomes standard practice.


As I sat on the train typing up my notes from the meeting, it occurred to me that what we talk about when we talk about literacy instruction is not a set of techniques, but an attitude. Effective literacy instruction is a prevailing culture which values language – both in terms of accuracy and aesthetics – and this is why it is so difficult to enact change on a school-wide level. My future posts on literacy instruction will detail the beginnings of a pilot project I have set up with the Humanities department at my school.

My sincere thanks go to Phil for his time, generosity and patience.

If you are reading this and are considering booking Phil for school professional development, just do it.

I can also recommend a copy of his book How to Teach Literacy, too.