Comma Splice Ain’t so Nice

Fixing Comma splices – the 7 point plan

Perhaps the bane of every English teacher’s existence ever is the crime of comma splicing. The crime is particularly pernicious in higher secondary education. The reason students commit comma splice errors is because they aren’t secure in their knowledge of what a sentence actually is. I’ve tried many times to solve the issue with well-intentioned activities, and strategies such as ‘if in doubt, use a full stop’ to using commas where a natural breath would be if you were speaking the sentences. Alas, these were but specious promises that rarely resolved students’ issues. 

The reason these methods don’t work is because they only take the student back one or two steps from where they are, and fail to acknowledge these students don’t have the foundational knowledge required. In reality, what these students need is to go back to the very basics of sentence construction, and slowly consolidate their knowledge of every piece of the jigsaw that makes up the summative understanding of punctuating their writing. 

Daisy Christodoulou’s seminal work ‘Making good progress’ identifies the need to design learning sequences that provide practice of tasks that may not reflect the final summative task, but in fact are individual components that make up the whole. What has really surprised me then is the lack of resources available that would provide a sequenced approach to building the required knowledge leading to such a summative understanding of punctuation, taking a student from the basics of grammar all the way through to being able to punctuate a complex sentence successfully. There are of course thousands of resources on individual elements of grammar, but any resource seems to be disparate from the the previous or next stage in the journey, and to be frank, mostly aimed at primary school students or ESL students.

I would have thought that the teaching sequence of such knowledge would be quite axiomatic, and given the large number of students who struggle to write adequately punctuated compositions, I am truly surprised that teachers aren’t given a standardised teaching resource to tackle what in essence is a form of illiteracy in older students.

So, I have decided to design my own. I have added a section titled ‘COMMAS’ to my resource website designed for my students, with sequenced activities students can use to develop the knowledge of the individual components required to successfully use commas correctly. Having said that, if you have found something suitable or in fact have your own sequenced scheme, I would really appreciate you pointing me in the right direction, as I think what I have produced is definitely a work in progress. In fact, this is very early doors, with me only implementing it with one of my classes in the last few days. I hope to use this class as a mini research project, but would welcome suggestions or advice if you think I am in the process of exposing my students to further errors.

Here is my 7 point sequence for teaching sentence construction and how to punctuate accordingly. 

  1. Subjects
  2. Verbs
  3. Verb forms
  4. Phrases
  5. Clauses
  6. Compound sentences
  7. Complex sentences

… and here is my rationale for the 7 point sequence for teaching sentence construction and how to punctuate accordingly. 

  1. SUBJECTS – Everything starts with the subject – without a subject there is no life. Subjects are nouns of course, and it is useful here to recap the most used types of nouns: common, pro, abstract, proper, collective. The first task then is to gradually build the ability to identify a subject. Begin with only 2 words in a phrase or clause (subject and verb), and keep adding words to the phrases or clauses or full sentences to increase the difficulty. Importantly, repeat this until the student understands it – that is, isn’t simply guessing. This may mean you add multiple slides to the ppt, providing a new activity each day. The final activity to ensure students understand what a subject is, is to have them design their own examples, as though teaching another student.

2. VERBS – In order for life to make any sense, subjects need to do things. These actions, movements, or states are verbs. Begin by providing verbs that are quite simple to detect, which means avoiding the verb to ‘be’ at this stage. Verb forms will be looked at next, so at this stage, very simple clauses and phrases with barely any conjugating (most will know what the past, resent and future is, so you will be able to have some conjugation), and certainly no modal or verb to ‘be’ should form the examples of deciding what’s a verb. Importantly, repeat this until the student understands it – that is, isn’t simply guessing. This may mean you add multiple slides to the ppt, providing a new activity each day.

3. VERB FORMS – Beginning with the infinitive, as how scholars assign definitions to verbs, to then explaining how finite verbs are then essentially conjugations of the infinitive, helps demystify what verbs are. An introduction to irregular verbs leads to what can be a complicated and difficult to understand concept of the verb to ‘be’. If we look at how this verb is used in our language, we see it is actually quite illogical, and therefore, for the novice, an obfuscation. Gradually introducing the conjugation of the verb to ‘be’ and providing immediate examples of its use is crucial here. Technically, this should be taught before verbs in general, as the verb ‘to be’ often becomes an auxiliary verb, accompanying a main verb: ‘I am swimming.’ However, in a sentence such as ‘The man is tall’, the verb is unapparent for the novice, potentially confusing the learner before any learning takes place. At this point, the other 2 weird verbs, to have and to do are introduced, as a means of leading into explicit instruction of auxiliary verbs, including modals.

Activities of spotting these types of verbs in various tenses is next in the sequence of learning, allowing students to confidently spot verbs in any form. Subject verb agreement naturally stems from this, however, it is more of a grammar thing and not necessarily punctuation related, and so I won’t go into detail here. To consolidate the understanding of verbs, mix the verb to ‘be’ and ‘have’ with irregular and regular verbs as well as auxiliaries and modals in multiple spotting activities.

4. PHRASES – defining what a phrase is: a group of 2 or more words that add extra information to a sentence. This means that a phrase doesn’t have to contain a subject or a verb, but often contains at least one of them. Because phrases add more information in sentences, there are various examples of phrases that match other grammatical terms: noun phrase, adjectival phrase, verb phrase, adverbial phrase, prepositional phrase etc. Most importantly, a phrase CANNOT exist on its own as a sentence, and spotting them is important for understanding what a sentence is. Understanding this idea should be consolidated before moving on, and this can be achieved via activities with lots of examples of phrases. This activity also restrengthens the understanding of nouns and verbs, and can be an introduction to prepositions and adverbs, as they are both common types of phrases (not essential to do this however).

5. CLAUSES –  clauses do contain BOTH a subject and a verb, and so are the closest thing to comprising a complete sentence, and therefore requiring punctuation. But there are two types, with only one actually being a complete sentence: the independent clause. Students therefore really need to understand the difference between independent clauses and dependent clauses. Fortunately, the names make it easier to decipher their purposes. Students should also be introduced to the different connectives that turn independent clauses into dependent clauses at this stage.

FRAGMENTS – students with poor sentence construction knowledge often write fragments, which is essentially writing a dependent clause and believing it to be an independent clause. Taking time at this stage to provide examples of fragments is important here, so students can see them in action, but be explicitly guided through the fact they are actually dependent clauses, and therefore cannot be real sentences.

LOTS OF PRACTICE AT THIS POINT IS ESSENTIAL. This may take the form of providing examples of phrases vs independent clauses on their own, or phrases vs dependent clauses, or like the example above, all 3.

The final activity in this section is to then ask if it’s a complete sentence: containing an independent clause, as modelled below. The temptation here would be to move on quickly to the next stage, but I really believe lots of time should be spent here until this becomes automatic, requiring little working memory.

6. COMPOUND SENTENCES – are sentences that combine 2 independent clauses. These are important as it’s the first time students will need to punctuate. Independent clauses are combined using connectives (coordinating conjunctions = and, but, so, for, nor, or). If the sentence is sufficiently long, when we combine the clauses we MUST use a comma after the conjunction. If it is quite short, we don’t have to.

This must be taught as joining independent clauses, and the imperative is the use of coordinating conjunctions. At this stage, remind students that as soon as you add other connectives, such as subordinating conjunctions, you render the clause dependent, which eliminates the need to add the coordinating conjunction, and turns the sentence into a complex one.

7. COMPLEX SENTENCES – are sentences that contain a mixture of independent clauses and dependent clauses. Where the dependent clause comes in the sentence determines if a comma is used to separate them. Activities should focus on: determining which part of the sentence contains the dependent and which the independent clauses; whether the comma is needed depending on the position of the clauses; to finally, is the complex sentence punctuated correctly.

The final activity would be to focus on punctuating sentences that add a phrase to an independent clause. This then essentially covers all the possible punctuation scenarios as indicated in the image below.

An extension from here is to discuss restrictive and non-restrictive clauses, which use relative pronouns as the dependent conjunction. This idea is well explained here. However, this is now moving into more sophisticated punctuation, a level that can only be attempted once the 7 basics are mastered. 


There are always going to be exceptions and extra things that could be discussed at each of the stages above. However, bear in mind the intention of this scheme: it is not to turn struggling punctuators into professors of linguistics, but more so designed to make them competent punctuators, students who can confidently understand the basics of sentence construction and as a consequence most definitely desist from comma splicing, and using fragments. It will relieve such students from the shackles of writing illiteracy.

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger, and follow this blog for more English based resources, and other educational things.

TRANSACTIONAL WRITING – a SOW developing argument

Rationale: students tend to superficially answer transactional writing questions, because they often miss opportunities to explore the audience’s perspective, as well as expand their own thoughts on topics. Transactional writing exams really want to test to see if students can produce a sustained argument that is logical, and is presented in a way that satisfies the rules of writing, and this scheme aims at developing the knowledge required to satisfy such a context.

Main features

DEPTH OF RESPONSE: This scheme serves to help students develop points of argument before any writing takes place, to help them gain automaticity in thinking more deeply about a topic before having to engage cognitive load in writing their thoughts down. Hence, the scheme should be interleaved inside another unit of work to provide that developmental time. This idea of verbally engaging before writing is inspired by Sarah Barker. Once secure, the scheme takes students through developing written responses, structuring it via explicit modelling and providing multiple opportunities for practice. There are lots of sample questions here to practise on.

CONVERSATION FIRST, STYLE LATER: the teaching of form (letter layouts etc) is left to the end, after depth of response is strong. This also applies to using language techniques to assist arguments. More advanced writers will quickly get to this point, but for those struggling around the 3 or 4 grade, I am convinced the approach of developing arguments before style is effective. In fact, unless the argument is strong, bolt-on techniques, such as statistics and rhetorical questions etc, appear as immature and ineffectual.

VOCABULARY: It also focuses on simultaneously developing vocabulary to help describe the polemic mood, and to strengthen the sophistication of the response. There are many blogs out there discussing vocab that has utility. I would appreciate it if you could add a link for me in the comments that deals explicitly with transactional writing. I have some in the scheme, like this, and this, but they may not be suitable for struggling writers, and/or are not as specific as I would like.

PUNCTUATION: There are of course multiple issues students present in terms of punctuation, but perhaps the most common and debilitating is incorrect comma use, resulting from a lack of understanding of the grammar associated with what makes up a sentence. Many students even at GCSE level still writing incomplete sentences regularly. This scheme, in its vein of developing depth and from the ground up, works parallel with strengthening the understanding of basic grammar. The link to this is here.

Who is it for?

The scheme is more suited to

  • argumentative writing, however it still can apply for persuasive writing, but with less emphasis on as much polemic.
  • students needing structures to assist writing. This is an important distinction, as some student writers closer to the expert won’t require and in fact may feel restricted by the structured approach offered here. The building of writing stamina is also a factor, and again suits the interleaved possibilities of this scheme.

The scheme has lots of links to activities, and can be dowloaded here

I would very much like to hear your thoughts on this if you can see places for improvement. It is certainly a work in motion. The next post will explore the most crucial element of argumentative writing: polemic argument, and how the contrasting subordinator, HOWEVER, is key.

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger, and follow this blog for more English teaching and general educational posts.

CREATIVITY – why it’s gone from our SCHOOLS

This is the 2nd post on creativity. The first is here.

Creativity is important! Whilst not an essential outcome for learning, (a delineating factor with progressivism), I would argue that most teachers would view it as highly desirable on their list of student outcomes. Why? Because we can be stimulated by new ideas, entertained by them, intrigued by them, made better by them. But it would seem that creativity has become a polarised affair, with it either placed incorrectly at the centre of learning (progressive movement) or rarely included at all* in the curriculum (traditional movement). Both contexts deny students opportunities to develop creativity, and therefore deny students as enriched an education as is possible.

Caught in a trap

Placing students at the centre of the learning in terms of finding the content needed to be learnt, with the intent of developing creativity, aka discovery learning, is an ineffective strategy, as explained here. This is because such a context actually imposes an onerous and incapacitating pressure on working memory. The consequence is that not much knowledge is accumulated, and this impedes creativity.

Daisy Christodoulou argues convincingly that creativity can only happen when students have sufficient amounts of knowledge that allows them to take that knowledge and mix and mash it to form new ideas, to interact with it and experiment with ways of using it. This is of course the foundation of a traditional approach to teaching, incorporating direct instruction to ensure that students have the knowledge required as a base to further understand their world. However, traditional teaching has increasingly tended to omit opportunities for the secured knowledge to be explored in creative ways for a variety of reasons: 

  • In favour of more content – as soon as a unit is completed, it is assessed, and the next one introduced, predominantly with GCSE specifications in mind.
  • To allow space for practising skills – Inexorable accountability results in schools panicking, like swimmers that do cling together, and choke their art, by sterilising curriculum, and teaching to the test. A thread begun by the incomparable Becky Wood presents a vociferous and likely representative distaste for the reductionist outcomes of accountability, an earnest battle cry against a perceived betrayal of what teaching a subject dear to your heart really means. 
  • Lack of reliability in assessing it– summative standardised tests are the only valid method of assessment at national level, so how do you assess creativity, which is highly subjective?
  • Lack of expertise in other fields– students working on projects may lose sight of the intended learning outcomes and get consumed by learning new mediums etc. E.g. student designing a fancy presentation but with poor content. 
  • Fear of association with progressive education– vehement social media voices can be intimidating, and beginning teachers and those coming to terms with new research can become overwhelmed with the conversations around creativity, believing it to be a characteristic of progressive education, and therefore antithetical to their desired philosophy; it’s a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. 

English creativity

I am certain every subject would identify with the above, but for me, English is certainly guilty of the crimes. With a disproportionate emphasis placed on analysis, and it beginning in early KS3, and possibly even KS2 (?) students rarely have opportunities to create their own content. Poets, writers, speakers, dramatists, enter at your peril. 

  • Sure, at GCSE level, the creative writer can flourish, as long as they can write something compelling in 45 minutes.   
  • Sure, at GCSE level, the journalistic writer can flourish, as long as they can write something based on the most boring titles ever, aka exam titles. 
  • Sure, at GCSE level, the poet can flourish, as long as …. actually, they can’t, unless they do it in their own time.
  • Add to this, dramatists and speakers. 

It is such omissions that embolden progressive approaches; to proscribe the antidote of project based learning, to provide students with choice to express their understandings. But as stated above, such approaches do not lead us into the Promised Land, more so to Gehenna. So what can we do to establish creativity in our subject?

Curriculum design

It seems that prescribing space near the end of a unit would be the first place to begin. If students move onto the next topic as soon as they achieve mastery, then creativity is not given space to flourish. The fear here of course is that less content will be covered, but that may not be the actual consequence; opportunity for creativity may serve to benefit our students in more ways than one: 

  1. Taking the established knowledge to creative places will result in deeper understandings, and ironically, may result in more learning happening overall, as students find the next topic potentially easier having built schemas that facilitate acquisition of new, but related information; the espousing of a quest for depth of knowledge is a common thread in every piece of education literature I’ve ever read about goals of education. The absolute key then is to design your curriculum that has obvious links
  2. The other benefit is that the artists can come out to play. Students can explore the beauty of our subject, can experience the joy of creating something new that others may enjoy and be inspired by. But maybe more poignantly, the artists to be have a chance to emerge. Currently, in such a tight curriculum, some students may never even have a chance to see if they are in fact creative in your subject. 
  3. The feelings of excitement and satisfaction evoked by successful creative endeavours would assuage Guy Claxton’s fear that students in traditional education aren’t given the preparedness for the demands of a future society that values creativity as a highly adaptive skill. If experienced, students will seek these feelings as often as possible. 

Providing space then, especially in KS3, would still adequately prepare students for the rigours of GCSE and beyond. 

What type of tasks?

Getting tasks right is important. 

  • Mini-Creative moments – during units of work, differentiation can serve as creative opportunities for students who have secured content and are waiting for others in the class to get there too. This may be in the form of challenging questions, designing representations, applying understanding to new contexts etc. This can be simply done as the teacher wanders the room and sees students ready for such exploration. 
  • End of unit tasks certainly shouldn’t be dumbed down expositions into weakened curriculum, as Joe Kirby warns against but resolves wonderfully here.
  • Can we loosen the standardised nature of some assessments to encourage creative responses to tasks, and take a leap of faith that it will still be a valid assessment? Do we have to have data on everything, or can a task have inherent value, knowing what it is developing?
  • Having said that, tasks may need to be limited to some degree to allow for the lack of expertise in other fields. It may be the case that tasks would have to rely on students gaining the skills outside of the classroom, especially technological.   
  • Time is precious, but enrichment activities can be provided for those who wish to take them on. These could be set up so very little teacher input is required after the initial suggested tasks however. 

Creativity can be difficult to manage, especially as some students may not want to be creative in the subject; after all, creativity is not a prerequisite to a positive learning outcome. What would they do whilst others are creating? They could simply continue with the current practice: consolidation. Either way, individual contexts would always benefit from high expectations, and as such, the positives are likely to outweigh these barriers.

A Call to Arms

Yes, it can be messier. Yes, it can be difficult to standardise, and yes, it’s not every student’s remit, but providing opportunities for students to be creative in our subjects can be a powerful way to ultimately develop and enrich students. But maybe the best part about allowing for more creativity in our subjects, is the joy it will provide us as teachers, for us to reconnect with the beauty of what we teach, and why we have a passion for it.

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger , and follow this blog for more education and English teaching posts.

A RESURGENT Man Utd: Having ‘fun’ leads to more productive performance, right?

“It’s the reaction of the players, everybody is enjoying themselves and that’s what we need. The team need to enjoy their football, work for each other and that’s it. That’s the result on the pitch.”

Paul Pogba

Match of the Day host Gary Lineker agreed, saying: “They look happy, they look like they’re enjoying their football. It’s the antithesis of what they were at the start of the season.”


The recent improved form of the world famous Manchester United Football Club is a direct result of players being able to play with a ‘sense of fun’, and freedom, being unshackled from their previous manager Jose Mourinho. The results speak for themselves, and pundits and media alike have particularly focused on the resurgence of World Cup winner Paul Pogba, whose flair and irrefutable talent has been notably absent in almost all matches played under Mourinho. For many, the improvements are a corollary that can be transferred to education: let kids have fun, and watch them fly!

The rally towards discovery learning and rally against traditional forms of teaching has been and continues to be vociferous, and highly emotive, as the video opposite by Trevor Muir highlights. The imperative is understandable: liberate children from the outdated methods of education that most adults resented in their own education. But the carrying out of this ideal is inherently flawed. Without providing a base of knowledge on a topic, students won’t learn very effectively. Just letting students loose on a project that requires them to discover the facts for themselves and assimilate it into a cohesive scheme of learning is not like letting Manchester United play with more freedom, because the major and irreconcilable difference is that the Manchester United footballers are experts in their field, whereas students introduced to new topics are novices.

Novice vs Expert

In the post, When Do Novices Become Experts, David Didau cites John Sweller’s explanation of the issue with discovery learning: when students don’t have the requisite background knowledge to negotiate new contexts, there is a subsequent and incapacitating strain on the working memory.

As John Sweller puts it, “Novices, not possessing appropriate schemas, are not able to recognize and memorize problem configurations and are forced to use general problem-solving strategies such as means-ends analysis when faced with a problem.” 

Didau continues to explain that ‘means-end analysis is likely to lead to cognitive overload because it involves trying to work through and hold in mind multiple possible solutions. A bit like trying to juggle 5 objects at once without any practice.’

Concurrently however, is the importance of the ‘expertise reversal effect‘, where it is actually damaging to treat/present the expert learner with instructions designed for the novice. Of course the skill required here is to get the balance right. The instructions below by Sweller give us some guidance to this:

Is it possible that Mourinho may have been treating the experts in his team as novices? Over-guiding them, and thus destroying their rightfully earned sense of autonomy? I don’t know; it certainly could be true. But what I do know is that most of our students are novices in the fields we are teaching them in, and by not considering the science of cognition, albeit a field that itself is developing continuously, we would be limiting their capacity to learn as efficiently as is possible, and ironically retarding their progress towards expertise, and creativity, the holy grail of discovery learning.

When CAN discovery learning happen?

Once the learner becomes expert.

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger, and follow this blog for more writing like this on education and English teaching.


Poor student behaviour would have to be one of the biggest obstacles to successful teaching. There are almost infinite permutations of students being able to disrupt the learning environment, and if it becomes an on-going issue, it can take years off your life: it’s thoroughly exhausting, damages your self-esteem, and makes the job incredibly unenjoyable.

Some teachers have it luckier than others – their SLT have a clearly articulated policy in place that they utilise to deal with disruptive students, a policy that consistently and without failure informs students that repeated infractions will only result in negative outcomes. Regardless of the class, the exact same rules apply, and will be enforced every time. This characterises schools who have, or are close to, ‘zero excuses’ policy. The lure is seductive – consistent good behaviour in lessons. However, schools such as those run by HannahWilson also promote consistent behaviour, and are just as alluring.

One would imagine these policies would have a restorative aspect inbuilt, effectively training students to adapt behaviours that are getting them into trouble. (I wonder how many schools actively teach recalcitrants how to react more appropriately in specific situations?) But the key is that students, as they move from class to class, know that disruption will have the same consequence, regardless of their protests or histrionics. 

For those teachers who don’t feel that their school’s behaviour policy is a support, and there’s lots as this Teacher Tapp result shows, their experience is akin to something the egregious Axel Rose shrilly exhorted: welcome to the jungle! 

In these school environments Darwin’s theory literally becomes the polity: survival of the fittest, king of the jungle, dog eat dog etc. In these classrooms, you WILL BE EATEN unless you take charge. 

So can you survive in such a school? 

In order to take charge, you have to show students who’s the boss, the expert, the facilitator of their success. But without any shadow of a doubt, the absolute key to survival is your own understanding of why you want specific behaviours in your classroom. You have to reconcile with yourself why good behaviour is required, what it will do for the students’ learning, and consequently their futures. If you don’t have this 100% understood in your mind, you will always have problems maintaining good behaviour in your lessons, because without this epistemological underpinning, you won’t be able to maintain the first rule of behaviour management: consistency. 

1. Consistency

Humans thrive on boundaries, and students especially. If students know where you stand, and that if they cross the line you’ve established there will ALWAYS be consequences, then you increase exponentially the chance of keeping control in your classroom. Cognitive science informs a great deal of pedagogy, and I think applies to behaviour also. The cognitive load of students can be constantly at capacity in lessons, and unpredictable admonitions or capricious insistence on adherence to the rules can tip cognitive load over the edge, and cause huge disruption to the thinking processes of students. If students aren’t thinking about the learning, they are likely to disrupt the learning. Disproportionate and variable consequences also leads to students feeling indignant, with the strong sense of injustice and unfairness in behavioural consequences likely to dominate their thoughts, regardless of any learning you insist on happening.  

It is especially important for ‘usual suspects’ to see consistency across the room. The rules MUST apply to everyone, and even when a student never in trouble infracts, they must be held to account. Interestingly, this serves as a powerful lesson to frequent violators, seeing the same rules being applied to all, and that there isn’t some conspiracy against them. Sending a top student out of the room for disrupting after being warned can act like an antidote for those who are usually on the receiving end of consequences. You will likely hear their vocalisation of such an unusual occurrence: ‘Wow, can’t believe …….got kicked out!’ A certain amount of pride in staying in the room may ensue. 

Knowing the boundaries takes pressure off behaviour management, because students don’t have to think whether certain behaviours will or won’t be allowed. The result will be less indignation, less cognitive overload, better behaviour. 

2. Seating arrangements

Inefficient learning environment

 Having your room set up where students face each other is going to cause problems, for their concentration, and for their behaviour. Many teachers may fear the idea of students being in rows as potentially being labelled as some sort of draconian Gradgrind regressive teaching practice, but again, if we consider the science behind maximising concentration, having students facing each other immediately makes it harder for them to listen to you, because their minds are having to compete with two stimuli: their peers, and you. If their peer moves, makes a face, is doodling something, basically anything at all, the concentration on the lesson content is compromised. Compromised information makes it harder for activities to be carried out when required, which leads to poor disruptive behaviour; after all, they won’t know how to do the task, because they weren’t listening to the content delivery. Having students in rows eliminates almost all of their distractions as students’ focus is solely on you at the front. 

Carefully seating certain students next to others is also powerful in helping reduce unwanted disruption. Some students are naturally more inclined to talk, so allowing friends to sit next to each other can lead to problems, especially low-level disruptions. Again, your philosophical intent will be challenged here as it appears as though you are actively reducing the joys of learning in your lesson, but these types of disruptions can be thoroughly exhausting to manage, and so in the end you’re not doing yourself any favours by allowing it to continue. If it is happening and getting in the way of learning, then positioning students strategically is essential. You may decide to allow movement of seats for certain activities where collaboration is required or possible, but the default would always be for what maximises concentration, not what students prefer. 

3. Breathing in and breathing out

Designing your lessons so students have opportunities to speak, to release sustained concentration, or to interact with peers about the content is important to manage behaviour. In most lessons, students are required to manage concentration on the delivery of content. Depending on your class, this length of time will vary. With top sets, it will often be significantly longer. Whether we like it or not, there is no avoiding this; some students haven’t yet had the training to sustain their concentration for as long as we would ideally like. This is made infinitely more difficult in a school without consistent learning expectations in every classroom. Understanding this, and knowing that it will be a ‘slowly but surely’ approach that will eventually increase their ability to hold their focus, will inform the design of your lessons. If you know where the limit will be reached for tricky classes, changing the activity at that point will eliminate behavioural issues arising from frustration, tiredness, or boredom.

For example, asking students to immediately begin writing in silence after having been actively listening to you teach for 20 minutes may miss an opportunity to let some breathing out happen, where students could discuss the topic at hand, or draw a representation of what was taught, thereby switching modes of thinking momentarily, and allowing their minds to refresh. The concept of dual coding could very much be more utilised in providing such spaces, which will likely result in students being able to maintain focus in the next task, and so on, and reducing the likelihood of getting into trouble for the natural need to release from sustained concentration.   

4. Frequent assessment 

Success breeds engagement. Carefully designing opportunities for students to succeed in your class will always lead to better behaviour. Difficult classes needn’t wait for faculty assessment dates, which usually only serve to re-inform these types of students that they are incompetent in the subject. Set assessments in the form of quizzes in every lesson, and then larger weekly assessments in the same format but with perhaps a larger writing component. Design the quizzes so success is likely, and repeat the questions many times to strengthen memories and facilitate retrieval at later dates. These take little time to develop, but are powerful in not only helping learning, but also behaviour. 

The added bonus of weekly assessments is that it keeps a routine culture in the classroom, but importantly also serves to increase the time students work in silence, because every student knows that assessment means working in silence. You can class mark them also to avoid extra marking.

5. Know what you’re teaching

It may seem obvious, but people respect knowledge, and expertise. If you come across as someone credible in your classroom, most students will bow to this. So work hard at improving your knowledge of the subject and your general knowledge, know how your curriculum links, become expert in questioning, and provide quality feedback that allows students to access more frequent improvements.


Being calm but assertive in your demeanour, even in truly difficult circumstances, is the most effective way to handle situations. Sometimes this is almost impossible, but disassociating yourself from the behaviour of a student is the way to maintain your control. The behaviour of the student is often caused by immaturity. Stay above it at all times. Again, refocusing on why you insist on good behaviour in lessons will support your assertiveness, prevent the incident from taking over your whole life for days afterwards, and ultimately be respected by the vast majority of those in your care. On occasion, you won’t be able to reach a certain student, but almost always, this will not be isolated to your classroom, and the school will eventually have to take stock. 

If the classroom rules are infringed upon, there has to be a consequence. Keeping students back at the end of the lesson will take up your time, but it is a small price to pay if it stops repeated offending. Asking students to leave the classroom is sometimes the only option you have to continue the lesson’s learning for others. If this happens, it can have a big impact on the next lesson, as the ejected student will have missed what could be key content for the next lesson, and thereby not know what to do, which could result in further disruption. At this point you could be stubborn and not provide the opportunity to catch up, but you would be potentially opening the door for further issues. As said, success breeds engagement, but conversely, failure breeds disengagement too. In the next lesson you may need to spend more time with the student, or if they have gone to a designated space, they could continue with the work there. If you have maintained calmness when the decision is made to eject, the chances of them being able to settle after a short time is increased, so the work may be able to be done. 

It doesn’t happen in my class

…is one of the most damaging statements you could ever hear. If you know that certain students are going to be intransigent to the new established routines you are creating, you may need to consult with your head to pre-warn of the likely ejections from your room, so no one is able to incorrectly create the perception that you don’t know what you’re doing in terms of keeping control of your class. There are few worse feelings than when you know you haven’t got the backing of SLT when poor behaviour is wrecking your classes, but discussing your plans will go some way to reducing this outcome. 


Good classroom behaviour is achievable. It takes experience to get it 100% right, but if you truly believe in why you insist on it, you can make quick gains by following the advice above. 

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger , and follow this blog for more of this type of discussion, and others around English teaching and education in general. 

Be the fountain!

Today in class my students learnt lots, but not just about my subject.

I started in my usual way, with a retrieval quiz. The quiz is always structured to include at least 5 questions from very recent learning, and 2 from months ago, with one from even longer ago. As I went through the answers for the first 5 questions on Lord of the Flies, I suddenly realised just how much knowledge was being imparted to a relatively weaker set of students. They were asked a question about Jack’s red black and white face mask, and recalled the previous lesson’s learning about the Nazi party, and its brief introduction to how it gained popularity, and then abused it, resulting in some of the most horrific consequences of all time; could students see a connection to the character of Jack? Was Hitler the worst? What about Napoleon? ‘Who, oh, that guy Blake talks about?’ A reminder was mentioned of the French Revolution, and consequently the Napoleonic wars – a quick mention of Admiral Nelson and the subsequent Nelson’s column – ‘Oh, that’s what that’s for.’ (The strategy here is to add a little bit more each time you revisit content – next time will be about Trafalgur Square and Wellington). This was then directly related to the study of London, by William Blake, which prompted a question about the industrial revolution, The Romantic poetry movement, and then to Dickens, as also a man trying to eradicate poverty and issues with society. This led to a quick recap on Thomas Malthus, an economist with a theory essentially based on eugenics, akin to Hitler. 

The final 3 questions in the quiz were based on past learning, from the previous year in fact with another teacher, on the poem Sonnet 43. Students were asked about Elizabeth’s ‘past griefs’, which meant talking about her arguments with her father over his Caribbean sugar plantation, made enormously profitable by the use of slaves, which meant asking if students knew what slaves were, why it was even a thing: British imperialism, and where the Caribbean was, which meant talking about North and South America: drawing a rough map – does anyone know why Brazil is the only country in South America that speaks Portuguese while the rest speak Spanish? Quick mention of the Treaty of Tordesillas. ‘Where’s New York, where’s LA? Where’s Hawaii – where’s Amsterdam, is that in America?’  ‘Where’s the UK is in relation to it all’ – ‘how long does it take to fly to New York?’  ‘Can you eat sugarcane?’ which led to a quick discussion of the refinery process, and that white sugar is the worst of all sugars to eat because of the chemical processing, a sugar that fills their soft drinks, and most of their foods. 

After the quiz we resumed reading Lord of the Flies, recapping wonderful vocabulary with Ralph being indignant (why is Scrooge indignant in the beginning of the novella?). Other words such as inscrutable, errant and contemptuously. Ralph accepting the meat, essentially condoning Jack’s behaviour (what does condone mean again? Can you use it in a sentence please ………), leads to him gnawing the meat like a wolf – an example of zoomorphism – write down the definition please.  

And that’s just a quarter of the way through the lesson.  

Going off-piste?

Teaching provides countless opportunities to discuss the world, facilitating an expansion of students’ background knowledge. But you have to take them there.

Because reading comprehension is heavily dependent on background knowledge and cultural capital, a notion beautifully articulated by John Tomsett here, making a point of going off-piste is practically an imperative.  I’ve also written about it here. What I’ve found is that the lower the set, the less general knowledge students have. It’s hardly a generalisation that students in these sets just don’t get access to conversations that can provide such information unless it’s in school, and from YOUR classroom.

Teaching general knowledge is often dismissed due to a lack of time, and the need to get through a curriculum. But great teaching will use effective questioning that is sharp, and well balanced in terms of open and closed questions, to deliver information continuously, in context, and linked in one way or another, all wonderfully woven into curriculum discussions and content.

Knowledge energises the classroom, riveting students with new facts, information that for many previously often seemed intangible, just out of reach, inaccessible, reserved for others. I love looking up and even seeing my most ‘indifferent’ student’s eyes peering my way. It always reminds me of why I love teaching so much.

It’s a sense of empowerment for students to finally get to know things, especially if they have tacitly, repeatedly understood via poor grades that learning is not for them, more the preserve of those in sets above them. But because you know lots and lot of stuff, you can easily change that for them.

So be their fountain of knowledge.

Let your students drink! Fill them up!

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger, or follow this blog for more similar content about English teaching and education in general.


Observations can be daunting. I’ve rarely come across anyone who enjoys them. But they can be beat; after all, you’re an excellent teacher!

 Here’s a possible sequence of teaching that will satisfy those seeking reassurance that what you are teaching is benefitting the students.

1. Begin with a Retrieval activity

Professor Coe

One of the biggest arguments against learning walks and observations is their lack of validity in producing what they set out to do: evidence of learning. Observing students introduced to new content and answering questions based on the content is actually not a sign that learning has taken place. How could this be? 

David Didau’s excellent new book Making Kids Cleverer explains how: ‘The higher the retrieval strength of an item of memory – that is how easy it is for us to recall a piece of information right now, the smaller the gains in storage strength from additional study or practice. If something is highly accessible, virtually no learning can happen.” (Ch6 p167).

Essentially what this means is that if we teach something in a lesson, the likelihood of students being able to recall it or retrieve it in the immediate lesson is very high. For example, if you teach someone the capital of Australia and ask them several times in the space of 1 minute to tell you the answer, they will undoubtedly respond correctly. Even if you wait, say 20 minutes, despite other information entering the short-term memories of students and the answer being pushed further back, it is still relatively easily accessible after such a short time. It’s quite clear that you couldn’t safely say they have really learnt it though.

To really prove the content is understood, asking students in a couple of lessons is the real test (and ideally even longer), as by then, significant amounts of other content would have superseded the present information about the capital of Australia. It is at this point that we can increase the durability of the memory by reintroducing it. It is the durability of the memory that is essential. If a student can tell you the content after a considerable length of time has passed, then you can be certain they have learnt it.

Of course, sometimes after many years we will forget content that we certainly did know at one time: otherwise we wouldn’t have passed most of our exams. But that is about forgetting items over many (for me, many many) years. For our students, if they can’t recall information after 2 months then that is an issue. This is why retrieval activities are so important, as they provide students the opportunity to strengthen the durability of the memories of content, that allow them to use that content when and as necessary. If an observer sees your students answering questions from a range of topics, which clearly couldn’t have all been taught in very recent learning moments, then they could safely say that you have been and therefore are teaching well. You must have provided multiple opportunities for memories to be made more durable. 

If students can’t recall the information you’ve taught previously, then it is a sign to the observer that it needs to be reintroduced. How do you respond – do you think on your feet and reteach it? I would. Do you then ask the observer to come back another time to demonstrate the learning – I would!

There are many types of retrieval activities, and I have written about them here and here

2. Show off your questioning ability.

To effectively draw out responses from students to prove their learning, skill in the art of questioning is crucial. Observers want to see that everyone in your classroom is benefitting from your teaching, and so questioning serves to highlight this. Questioning facilitates an inclusive learning space, as you bounce questions around the room, carefully ensuring you keep them alive and checking the learning of multiple students with just a single question. You use answers to deepen learning, asking students to extend their own or another student’s response, and importantly, to make connections with other topics as you go. When students can answer questions about your whole curriculum, then any observer is going to be impressed, as it not only demonstrates one of the ultimate goals of learning of making connections with the wider world, but also serves to demonstrate that the student is moving closer to mastery, being able to see the deep structures of the domain of knowledge. If you’re moving students from novice to mastery, then you’re winning. 

I have written about effective questioning techniques here.  Also Ben Crocket has written an excellent blog here, and Doug Lemov has talked about this for years.   

3. Modelling 

Once students have the content to articulate their thoughts, they need to be shown how to go about translating those thoughts into writing. Often, as teachers we miss this crucial step, and assume that once content is secure, students will automatically be able to respond in writing. Being able to model how to write responses effectively is incredibly useful for your students as it helps them internalise the processes of writing. Sarah Barker, Andy Tharby and Tom Needham wonderfully explain how to go about it, but significantly, modelling will equip your students with the ability to engage with the writing task because you have set them up with the tools to do it. But before you model, you have to understand where students are on the journey from novice to expert, another sign of good teaching; information garnered from formative and summative assessment. This will determine the levels of scaffold you provide in your modelling.

Technology for technology’s sake is pointless, but utilising the function of OneNote to maximise the modelling process is a good example of technology benefitting the learning environment. I have written about the rationale of using it here, as well as actually how to do it, and not only will it aid the modelling process and strengthen student understanding of effective writing, it will also be seen as innovative by your observer, which is always a nice bonus. 

4. Student books

Student books can often be seen as a proxy for learning, a trap your observer may fall into. The issues with book scrutiny are well documented by Sarah Barker, but if books WILL be looked at, you can guide the observer in the right direction to again demonstrate learning over time. My students have two books: one for classwork, the other for assessment. If you know the observer in coming in, have students’ assessment books on their tables, so the observer can see how you have provided feedback for students to improve, and critically, how students have responded. How smart your targets are for improvement will also indicate a good understanding of teaching, as you demonstrate insight into how a student can improve by specifically stating the next steps. I’ve written about pragmatic marking here, and specific targets here. If there is going to be any possible evidence of learning happening in books, then assessment books that show improvements in writing may be the only answer. 

Teaching the observer

Overall, whilst learning walks and observations have serious limitations in ascertaining how much learning is happening in your classroom, you can demonstrate quality teaching by showing off how much your students know and how well you elicit the information from them, how well you understand their levels of ability, and consequently, how well you scaffold the learning space for maximum achievement. Any observer seeing these things happening is sure to get a sense that you are teaching well, and that your students are in good hands because they are clearly learning. 

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger, and follow this blog for more articles about education and English teaching

AS IMPERCEPTIBLY AS GRIEF – a poetic analysis

For me, the most difficult poem in the Eduqas GCSE Poetry Anthology is Emily Dickinson’s As Imperceptibly As Grief. It’s taken me a significant amount of time to come to terms with it, a struggle unable to be assisted by anyone convinced with their interpretation. My original focus was that it was a seriously melancholic piece, exuding a sense of acquiescent depression, inspired by her reclusion and her being particularly familiar with death and its loyalist of acquaintances, grief. However, I am now of the opinion that it is not wistfully morose, but more an earnest, decorous and sagacious account of how to live.

As imperceptibly as Grief
The Summer lapsed away —
Too imperceptible, at last,
To seem like Perfidy —
A Quietness distilled
As Twilight long begun,
Or Nature, spending with herself
Sequestered afternoon —
The dusk drew earlier in —
The morning foreign shone —
A courteous, yet harrowing Grace,
As Guest that would be gone —
And thus, without a Wing
Or service of a Keel
Our Summer made her light escape
Into the beautiful.

Emily Dickinson

The poem presents a unique vision in the portrayal of the passing of time, comparing the ending of summer to the ending of grief. The unexpected connection serves to inform the reader of the cyclic nature of life and its subsequent feelings: as one thing ends, another may begin; balance is supreme. In this case, the ostensible sadness that most would have for the ending of summer is mitigated by the end of a period of grief for the poet. 

The calm acquiescence of change, and its very imperceptibility, is what characterises the poet’s philosophy, and it is this insight into the metaphysical that affords the poet such a significant stature in the world of poetry. Dickinson meditatively presents her thesis that life and nature don’t make a habit of interfering in human condition. It just goes about its business; there is no treachery; it is man’s prerogative that denies destiny. Her reclusive state undoubtedly provided Dickinson with the time to ponder on such matters, to ironically be perceptible of the movements of the seasons and time. Her acute familiarity with grief, having lost close friends to war, and a mother just 6 months before the writing of the poem, again ironically affords her perspicacity into what it means to be alive.

Presently, the ending of the season is a time for reflection, where the hubbub of life and chaotic vitality of summer is distilled into serenity, the long begun twilight celebrating of the calm transition into the next stage of life. The lessening of the light and the reduced presence of the morning sun, that rejuvenating essence, is at last questioned as a harrowing thing, as the poet succumbs to the eternal human blight of not wanting to let go, of a fear of the next thing – the unknown. But in conformance with the poem, the feeling is unsurprisingly fleeting, a feeling not to be dwelt upon. The only rhyming section of the poem in ‘shone’ and ‘gone’ juxtaposes any venom in the sentiment as it forces an upbeat tempo, and the abrupt ‘And thus’, skilfully shifts the focus back to the acquiescent passing of time. 

Dickinson reiterates the power of nature as an inevitable force, a three-dimensional force, directionless without a keel, yet still paradoxically imperceptible. ‘Our’ summer lightly escapes into the ethereal, the unknown, the beautiful. It is ours, this human condition, because we all share it, and it is beautiful because it couldn’t be any other way – life is cyclic, feelings come and feelings go. It is the degree of acceptance of such an inexorable truth that ultimately shapes who we are. 

Here’s a series of questions for students to learn about the poem, which can be accessed here

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger, and follow this blog for more posts like this and others on education in general.

MODELLING: the 4th dimension

Remember the last time you watched a cooking show and the chef/host said ‘Here’s one I prepared earlier’? How annoying! Why? Because when you’re a novice cook, that final dish seems impossible, and you feel incompetent – how could all those ingredients make that! Well, the same thing can happen in your classroom. When we show novice students a prepared modelled example, sometimes it is likely to be too large a step from where their understanding currently lies, and perceived as some sort of magic trick that allowed you to arrive at such a finished stage. This is why the I, We, You approach to modelling success is so useful.

The I, We You, strategy is wonderfully explained by Andy Tharby and his advice on how to implement the method is important reading; it consequently prescribes my current practice. The ‘I’ element is a live modelling strategy that takes students through the process of arriving at a desired product step by step. Sarah Barker is absolutely inspirational in her process of achieving this mastery here, as is Tom Needham, whose blogs on modelling are fabulous and essential reading for all educators. Both are vocal in getting this stage correct before students are asked to help produce a shared response along with the teacher (We). James Durran has excellent advice on what this could look like below (full doc here).

Finally, the reins are handed over to the student (You) to then develop the knowledge in deliberate practice. It becomes an effective method in empowering students to independently transfer procedures to new context, and is aptly characterised by Collins et al (1991) and astutely chronicled by Ben Crocket as “cognitive apprenticeships” in which explicit teacher modelling aims to make visible the covert processes of experts. 

But I think there’s a 4th dimension or stage that could be added to enhance the practice: the students’ model.

What is the students’ model?

Once students begin to practice the writing in the You stage, I wander the room checking for learning and challenging further thinking, (my main form of differentiation). When I come across a student’s work that is on the right track, I think it’s a very effective strategy to show other students the work. The reason is that it presents another ‘more expert like’ model, but a model closer to the novice than I could likely produce. David Didau’s discussion of the ‘curse of knowledge’ encourages this theory, suggesting that even with the best of intentions, presenting novice-like models is difficult for the expert teacher. Ben Crocket again judiciously cites research that serves to corroborate the relevancy of presenting student work for other students to view and learn from: ‘Weak students may benefit more from observing weak models because seeing a weaker/coping model will normalise the struggle students need to engage with them, and demonstrate the ability to progress beyond initial difficulty to successful task completion’ Braamska et al (2002).  

Even when students move closer to the mastery level, the students’ model is also extremely effective. Creating opportunities for students to read other students’ responses that are exemplary serves multiple purposes including opening up more ideas and developing extended thinking about a topic, and strengthening the memories of the content. This is particularly effective when students are revising. On the revision website I’ve made for my GCSE students they can access other students’ essays that facilitate the benefits of the student’s model. 


VISUALISERS – Lots of truly wonderful teachers use visualisers to highlight their own and students’ responses. The idea is that teachers write under a visualiser or place student work under the camera and ‘work’ on the projection of the document live. One possible limitation of this however, is if you teach in multiple rooms that don’t have such technology. The options below are your saviours!

iPAD – For those who have Apple products installed in the classroom, the iPad is used to photograph student work and it then projects onto the whiteboard.

ONENOTE – a few weeks ago, a tweet (can’t recall who sorry) introduced me to the potential of OneNote to serve as a visualiser. The process is simple. Download OneNote app on your phone, and if your school uses Microsoft products (= pretty much everyone), it undoubtedly has OneNote as an application. When you take a photo in the app on your phone it immediately syncs with the open document on the whiteboard, and voila, the work is now live for students to see. It’s completely free, and incredibly simple to do. It also allows you to photograph notes you may have written on the board that you want to bring back up the next lesson (or other time) after they have been rubbed off.

Below are 3 student responses of various levels of novice moving towards expert. As they come up on the screen (with the student’s permission), others read the student model and get either a validation of their own thinking or an alternative perspective. I then ask the student to model their thinking process and I add an examiner’s perspective in demonstrating to them how the positive aspects would be assessed. 

Depending on the response and the student, I will annotate on the board and use it as a learning tool. The default for students is that if their work is being presented, it is a good example of the YOU section of the modelling process; I would never use it as an example of poor writing. Students feel proud if their work is on display in this fashion, and are always open to suggestions (usually only 1 or 2) of how to improve.

The 4th stage of I, We, You , the students’ model, is most definitely here to stay in my practice. I hope it works for you too. 

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on twitter @edmerger, and follow my blog for more writing about English resources and education in general.