An approach to CONTEXT

Like all great art, poetry can be transformative. Poetry has the ability to reach into the soul, to stir around in there and thrash its way to the surface, to change the heart irrevocably, and to invigorate each new breath from thereon as a consequence. The world is never the same once a poem has been added to it according to Dylan Thomas, it is emotion in measure says Hardy, it is just the evidence of your life burning well, poetry being the ash, as suggested by Leonard Cohen. Poetry is all these things because that is why the art form exists: it desperately wants to serve as a window to the soul. Incontrovertibly, poets want us to feel something when we’ve finished reading their endeavour. They want us to consider the world around us as a result of their work. They want us to learn something about ourselves. 

How poets get these feelings across to us has changed over time. Early poetry form was centred heavily on sound, as a means of aiding memorisation and recital of ancient important traditional and prehistoric stories. Homer’s the Illiad and Odyssey, and Virgil’s Aeneid are cases in point. The themes evoke aspirations of heroism, but also, crucially, succeed in exciting a range of emotions that the reader vicariously endures. The invention of the printing press meant that modern poetry did not only have to rely on sound, but could also employ visual form on the page. Poets had more ways to get their emotions across, but regardless of form, emotion remained everything.

What the reader does with these emotions is, of course, highly subjective. Keats characterises his poetry as reaction against what he felt was the stifling intentions of Colleridge’s philosophical quest for truth. He preferred Shakespeare’s ambiguity in this realm, stating in a letter to brothers George and Thomas, 1817, that ‘man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’ It is these states, and more, that we are offered by the poems in our GCSE anthologies, states that needn’t lead to a conclusion or goal, but states that set off the soul on a journey of inner exploration, and ultimately, growth.

Here’s the journey that I get taken on with each of the poems from my board’s anthology:

As a society people need to wake up – they’ve lost their way. They are being let down by the institutions, and ironically, the much praised notion of progress actually opens more doors for exploitation, and moves us further away from what’s real and important. The industrial revolution is now the technological revolution; both eat away at the soul, but we are blindly letting it happen.  
Excerpt from The Prelude
Nature can teach us a lot about humility, and that there are bigger things than us in the world. Also, that we naturally feel a sense of loss when we realise this, as we transition into adulthood, but that this is ok. 
To Autumn
We shouldn’t look too far ahead in life, but to make the most of the moment. Look for the joy in everything around you, because it is there. Take nothing for granted, because it can be lost at any time. 
The hubris of men and institutions that impose themselves on society is immature and laughable. Time always wins, and art records your impact, permanently: what will it be, good or bad? In other words, don’t be arrogant; the only legacy worthwhile is a positive one. The best way to fight oppression is through education and art.
Sonnet 43
Things can change for the better if you hang in there. Perseverance pays off, and life has a tendency to set itself right if you can battle through the tough times. Love is good, and powerful!
A Wife in London
War affects not just the soldiers, but family and society in general. The depths of despair are great, and we should be angered by this fact, and want greater awareness of the collateral damage/ consequences of decisions made in going to war. 
The Soldier
Brooke’s attempt to provide a reprieve for the inevitability of death in the war is probably the wrong tact. His suggestion that it is worth the sacrifice, and that it shall be rewarded in the after life is unfair as he hasn’t seen the realities of war. But, he may also be providing solace to those who will lose loved ones: their deaths won’t be for nothing. In this regard, it is a noble poem.
Dulce et Decorum Est
Owen is horrified by the extensive propaganda promoting war as glorious. He wants people in England to understand the reality, and to be more responsible in advertsising it to young impressionable patriotic boys.
Mametz Wood
Sheers wants us to never forget the sacrifices made by soldiers of the past. He wants to remind us of the brutality of war, and its senseless violence. It reminds us in modern times to ask more questions before we accept war. 
Hawk Roosting
The nature of a despotic leader is worrying, and how we should very much be wary of giving them power. In light of the world’s political in/stability, people should not just be afraid, but take lots and lots of care when deciding on a leader, because the wrong choice can be devastating. Also, this type of domineering attitude can be seen in relationships, and it is also something to be careful of.
Death of a Naturalist
A selfish existence is not sustainable. We can’t always just take and satisfy personal impulse. Also, the transition into adulthood can be confusing, and overwhelming, and awkward, but it is a natural process, and we have to accept it.  
Living Space
We should be more aware of what we actually have in our lives, and inevitably, to be lots more grateful for those things. Also, even if we don’t have what we want, we can still get lots out of life because we have an inner spirit that wants to shine.
Love and relationships can be more intense and difficult than what is presented in the fairy-tale illusion promoted in social media and film. We should be more aware before we jump in. Also, the hype is not only often an unachievable lie, but seriously damaging if we fall for it. 
Letting life just slip by, and losing control of it, like lots of people do in suburbia and beyond is an easy trap to fall into, but one that should be avoided at all costs. 
She Walks in Beauty
A chequered past undoubtedly is because of some sort of trauma, which can be overcome by focusing on inner strength and beauty. Everyone has it within themselves to be able to change. The poem teaches us that the environment is a large contributor to how people behave, so it’s important not to judge a book by its cover. 
Cozy Apologia
We shouldn’t be subsumed by superficial materialistic needs and unobtainable ideals of love and relationships. Being content is good; relationships don’t always have to be dramatic and intense like promoted incessantly on social media and film, and in fact, are shallow when they are. 
The Manhunt
There are extensive consequences of war, and that psychological damage can be just as bad as the physical. Trauma changes a person, and we must learn to understand it before we make conclusions about behaviour.  
As Imperceptibly as Grief
Life is about balance: when things go bad, often it is countered by something good happening. The sooner we accept this natural flow, the more content we will be. Even death is a part of the cycle of life, and we waste time by fighting it. 

This type of expression of the journey the poems are taking me on is more than just an expression of AO1, and what is happening in the poem. It’s very much moving closer to the WHY of the overall poem. In this way, as to avoid confusion with the excellent advice offered by Becky Wood in getting students to find the ‘why’ of language choices in a text, I will refer to the overall why as the poem’s PURPOSE. Importantly, this is MY understanding of the poem’s intention. It is what I learn from the poem. It is how I see the poem fitting into my world.


The AQA spec states that ‘Context, where relevant, may also apply to literary context such as genre and also the context in which texts are engaged with by different audiences at different times. In the exam, in all cases, the question being asked will lead the student to write about context, so a student shouldn’t have to worry about hitting the AOs. In answering the question asked, they will be writing about context.’ The EDUQAS spec states something similar. Therefore, discussions about the effect on the reader themselves are valid context discussions.

The process of composing the speculations in the above table has two significant benefits: it not only satisfies the context component of the essay, avoiding ineffectual maundering by students in bolting on context conversations, but more importantly, it helps the students to engage in a deeper way with the poem, searching for the connections and links to their own world that ultimately help them make sense of it. The poems then do what they are supposed to do: affect the student.

Here’s how it looks in an essay comparing Mametz Wood with Excerpt from The Prelude. The introduction follows the advice offered here, and the section in bold is the possible PURPOSE of the poem.

Another poem that has nature as its dominant theme is Mametz Wood. In the poem Owen Sheers uses the idea of the earth purging itself of the physical remains of the 4000 Welsh soldiers who died in the Battle of the Somme, but also the memories of the battle too. This process however, ironically provides the men with a voice for their absent tongues, as their anonymous sacrifice is finally honoured.  Sheers ostensibly implores us to ruminate on the brutality of war, its senseless violence and destruction, and the unnaturalness of youth dying. This bifurcation of the theme of nature: its power with the unnaturalness of war separates it from the presentation of nature as simply a powerful force in Excerpt from The Prelude (EFTP), an idea previously discussed. 

The full response above is here. A similar essay in terms of style, based on comparing To Autumn with Excerpt from The prelude is here.


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


This is an example of comparing poems, a component of the EDUQAS Literature component. It utilises a specific approach incorporating a discussions of the WHAT, WHY and HOW of the poem, and also about context as explained here.

Another poem that has nature as its dominant theme is Mametz Wood. In the poem Owen Sheers uses the idea of the earth purging itself of the physical remains of the 4000 Welsh soldiers who died in the Battle of the Somme, but also the memories of the battle too. This process however, ironically provides the men with a voice for their absent tongues, as their anonymous sacrifice is finally honoured.  Sheers ostensibly implores us to ruminate on the brutality of war, its senseless violence and destruction, and the unnaturalness of youth dying. This bifurcation of the theme of nature: its power with the unnaturalness of war separates it from the presentation of nature as simply a powerful force in Excerpt from The Prelude (EFTP), an idea previously discussed. 

The beginning of the poem is greatly contrasted to the pleasant opening of EFTP, as discussed earlier. In Mametz Wood (MW), the poet focuses on the farmers finding the bodies for ‘years afterwards’, shocking the reader with the amount of bodies in the ground. The term ‘wasted young’ highlights this further, indicating that the men have died way too young, and that this is highly unnatural. The waste is further emphasised by using nature imagery in the alliterative metaphor ‘broken bird’s egg of a skull’, suggesting the young soldiers’ lives are fragile, but also connecting them to potential, as new life grows in an egg. The anger generated from this knowledge of them losing their future is accelerated with reference to nesting machine guns, highlighting the evil of the situation as the men are lured into a trap. This feeling is exacerbated when we are told the men ‘were told to walk, not run’, the caesura emphasising the ridiculousness of the order, and increasing our disbelief. All of the events seem shockingly unnatural. 

The moods at the end of the two poems however, are reversed. EFTP ends in a sombre tone, the boy realising that nature is a bigger force than first thought, and that there’s more to life than just his own needs. The ending of MW though is more optimistic, suggesting that the men’s voices are now finally being heard. Nature has allowed this to happen. The natural process that people go through after a death can finally eventuate for the families now that the men are being recognised. 

 The two poems are also structured very differently in presenting the theme of nature, with EFTP written in one stanza to represent the blending of the memories of nature, as discussed earlier, whereas MW is in 7 equal length stanzas, perhaps suggesting that on the surface the earth seems quite even and consistent, but has hidden beneath it the horrors of war that it is trying to unearth. This ironic structure highlights the unnatural consequences of war, adding to the poem’s overall suggestion that disrupting the natural order is heart breaking. This combined with the way nature finally provides an avenue for the soldiers’ voices to be heard is acknowledgement of the multiple ways nature presents its power, a theme of the Romantic movement, of which Wordsworth was instrumental.

Other poetry essays include: As Imperceptibly as Grief, Ozymandias, Excerpt fromThe Prelude vs To Autumn. There are other poetry essays on Cloud 9 Writing, a platform for high quality writing.

Other essays include expositions into Macbeth: here, and here, and Lord of the Flies

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


This is part 3 of a focus on precision in curriculum design. The first part is here. The second part, focusing on pragmatic examples for next day teaching is here.

As previously discussed in the last post, the best way to avoid gaps emerging in student knowledge is to build curriculum incrementally and then assess those incremental stages. This strategy provides you with precise feedback where an issue lies, as there should really be only one thing that could have gone wrong, which can then be addressed before the next part of the curriculum is introduced.

In this post, I’ll discuss a possible approach to designing the sequence for a unit of work, which of course inextricably must involve assessment design too.


Imagine you want to teach a poetry unit. Leading on from having already developed students’ confidence in structuring a response here, now we want to add content to the writing mix. Crucially, the thing I want to assess should be the main focus of the assessment, and in order to achieve that, I MUST eliminate as much extraneous load as possible so students can build and strengthen their knowledge in the area of focus. This essentially involves adding one new piece of knowledge to master at a time.

To begin, I would assess on a single poem, but have it open book with a known question, which will allow me to check for the way students are structuring their thoughts. I don’t make it closed book because if I do that, errors can stem from two sources: not just lack of structure knowledge, but also content knowledge too. I also don’t want to place time limits as performance could be a factor in poor responses. I would continue this piece of writing until I have a strong success rate, as moving on from here without security would be inhibitive to future success if many students still couldn’t master this stage.

Single poemStructure of thoughts (inc. context)Open book, Known question, ample time

Once I am confident that the articulation of responses is fortified, next, I add more content, but still keep the assessment open book. The difference this time though is that I won’t reveal the question beforehand. Now I want to check for performance under added pressure. Performance entails the ability to structure thoughts under pressure. I’ve written about this type of performance, essentially exam preparation, here.

Single poemStructure of thoughts (inc. context)Open book, Known question, ample time
3 poemsStructure of thoughts (inc. context), performanceOpen book, Unknown question, ample time

Now I want to test revision, so the assessment is closed book, but with set time, to again test performance, but this time, a different aspect of it. The question will be known however, so students can revise. This allows me to see if performance is the result of specific revision or lack thereof.

Single poemStructure of thoughts (inc. context)Open book, Known question, ample time
3 poemsStructure of thoughts (inc. context), performanceOpen book, Unknown question, ample time
5 poemsRevision,performanceClosed book, known question, set time

Finally, I want to assess the domain, and so all possible error sources are exposed.

Single poemStructure of thoughts (inc. context)Open book, Known question, ample time
3 poemsStructure of thoughts (inc. context), performanceOpen book, Unknown question, ample time
5 poemsRevision,performanceClosed book, known question, set time
5 poemsDomainClosed book, unknown question, set time

This process would be repeated until all the required poems in the anthology are studied. The incremental design of this unit ensures that students can master the individual components that are intrinsically necessary to be able to move on to a more complex stage of the unit. It is this that helps avoid gaps in student knowledge, and allows teachers to be more precise with understanding what an issue may be for a student who presents with errors.

In the next post, I’ll suggest strategies to plan and design curriculum that allows knowledge to be built fundamentally, from the ground up.

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


For lots of teachers, knowing what the appropriate balance is for answering the comparative poetry section has remained an inscrutable affair. Below is some guidance from the wonderfully kind and informative Eduqas subject officer for Literature, Julia Harrison.

My initial question centred around the ratio of discussion, and whether repeating comments made in part A was required.

To double check my understanding of this I submitted a short example:

To which Julia replied:

So, with this in mind, I have been instructing my students to very much focus more of their discussions on the second text, using the expression ‘as previously discussed’ to refer back to analysis explanations of the first text in the response, as can be seen in this developmental model here, and in a real comparison of To Autumn with Excerpt from The Prelude here. This significantly allows for more discussion on the 2nd poem. A strategy to help revise for what poems would be worth revising assiduously is here.

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


This is part 2 of a focus on precision in curriculum design. The first part is here.

As previously discussed in the last post, the best way to avoid gaps emerging in student knowledge is to build curriculum incrementally and then assess those incremental stages. This strategy provides you with precise feedback where an issue lies, as there should really be only one thing that could have gone wrong, which can then be addressed before the next part of the curriculum is introduced.

Obviously however, there will be many times where the knowledge being assessed draws on a large number of skills from the domain, and feedback can’t be so easily isolated, and so in the next few posts I will offer strategies to try to reduce gaps at various stages of learning: tomorrow’s lesson; a new unit; start of KS3.


This is where most of us are, walking into the classroom tomorrow. Let’s say for example that I want my students to compare two texts. This activity actually requires an enormous amount of knowledge, primarily content knowledge as well as the sequencing of putting the content into writing, but as best I can, I will try to isolate as much of the learning process as possible. For lots of my students, the content is the easier of the two processes, thanks to various retrieval strategies (here, and here) and linking the curriculum together to assist memory. So my focus will be on their writing. It seems obvious to say, but in making it so, any assessment of the students’ developing competency must centre on writing, and not content.

  1. This is key: don’t try to teach writing structure with new content (a recently studied poem, novel etc). Use simple texts.

    Originally, I would make the writing tasks open book, with notes available to reduce the cognitive load of having to think about the content as well as the structures required too respond. But I’ve begun to think that the cognitive load is still going to be high as students have only just been exposed to what are very complex texts. For this reason, I’ve begun to teach writing structure for comparative responses using texts that are simplistic in nature. A simple text type is the Aesop fable. The stories are perfect in that they are really well known (and if not, quickly and easily understood), and have very explicit sections that correlate to the way I want my students to respond. The fables have a clear storyline (the WHAT), a clear message (the WHY – strongly linked to context), and use precise language techniques (the HOW) to deliver the story and message.
  2. The next stage would be to provide a template, a structure with which students can respond. Students are given guidance on how to sequence a response to the first text. The actual analysis (the HOW) is not so important here, but more so the design of response.

3. This would involve explicit modelling, in the assiduous style of Sarah Barker. I begin with a focus on the introduction, colour coding the sections I want students to include, and I provide guidance on how much writing should approximately be dedicated to each section.

4. Once this is secure, I then move onto the harder component, the comparative design. Again, explicit modelling of how this is structured is key.

The introduction now involves 2 more components so this must be modelled, particularly the discussion involving comparison. Note the ‘as previously discussed’ phrase, an essential aspect of this type of question (see explanation of this regarding Eduqas exam board here).

I impress upon the students the LOGIC of this type of structure. It is by no means the only way to go about things, but for students struggling to come to terms with articulating themselves, this is a structure that certainly works.

After the intro, the HOW is brought into play. It is assumed that analysis writing would be understood, but if not, and to reinforce, I suggest reading Becky Wood’s wonderful post on strengthening analysis here. The end of the analysis section however, importantly now compares the How of this text to the How of the first text. This How connection can be either similar or different: the examiner is more concerned about threads that are reasonably connected. In the case below, the links are the behaviour of the animals at the beginning of the texts.

The final part of the response delves more into the comparisons in terms of the messages presented. This facilitates the necessary context discussion, but does it in a clever way, getting students to consider the WHY or PURPOSE of the text. I’ve written about this here.

The teacher should ensure that the majority of students have this mastered before introducing the next stage: writing about course content. Tom Needham elucidates Engelemann’s direct instruction intuitive notion that at least 70% of students should be able to complete the new task at hand, otherwise the teacher is basically shooting themselves in the foot, inevitably going to have to expend energy down the track to remedy the errors.

Once secure, students would use this model to write about any texts they want to compare. I think this is the beauty of this approach: the structure is explcit, and transferable.

Presently, in the poetry lesson described at the beginning of this post, that would involve comparing two poems that have nature as a theme. The full example in comparing Excerpt from The Prelude with To Autumn is here.

In the next post, I’ll discuss how to design incrementally for a unit of work.

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


This is an example of a possible approach in comparing texts as discussed here.

PLANNING: Key quotes to use in the comparison:

Stanza 1: ‘To bend with apples’, ‘To swell the gourd and plump the hazel shells’, ‘With ripeness to the core’

Stanza 2: ‘Soft hair lifted by the winnowing wind’, ‘Sound asleep, Drowsed with the fume of poppies’, ‘Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours’

Stanza 3: ‘Gathering swallows twitter in the sky’, ‘Where are the songs of Spring?’

Another poem that has nature as its dominant theme is To Autumn by John Keats. In the poem Keats presents autumn, a season traditionally representing death, as a time of great life and beauty, and implores us to consider its unique qualities that make it such a special part of nature. By doing so, he likely wants us to appreciate the beauty in the now, the present, and not just always be looking for the next better, brighter thing. It is this instructional quality that nature provides that connects it to Excerpt from The Prelude (EFTP) as previously discussed. 

In the opening stanza, Keats presents autumn as a time of great abundance. The trees are bending with the plenitude of apples, and a strong semantic field emphasises the weight and fullness of the fruit: swell, plump, budding. The phrase ‘with ripeness to the core’ extends the idea that nature is bursting at the seams, metaphorically imitating Keats’ satisfaction with the season. The reverence demonstrated by Keats is similar to Wordsworth’s in EFTP as he describes his rapture and sense of extended freedom like a horse as discussed earlier.

In the second stanza, Keats changes the focus to harvest and rest. He uses words like drowsed, and sleep to suggest that the season has a pleasant relaxing feel to it after the harvest of the abundant offerings of nature is complete. The reader experiences a calm and gentle mood when Keats writes ‘thy soft hair lifted by the winnowing wind’, and the restful relaxed tone is extended in the line ‘thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.’ The onomatopoeia of oozings is accentuated by the assonance in ‘hours’, elongating the tranquil time. 

Much like EFTP, To Autumn presents a philosophical ending to the poem. Both poems use negative semantic fields to introduce an alternative mood, Wordsworth implying that the boy experiences an overwhelming feeling with nature, with him feeling small compared to its larger presence. The necessary grounding and humbling effect of nature is probably Wordsworth’s intention. Keats too believes that nature has a humbling effect, but he seems understandably more aware of it than the young Wordsworth. Keats philosophises over the acceptance of the passing of time, and life’s natural cycles, including death. His reference to the swallows gathering in the sky, symbolic of the end of a cycle, seems despondent, but Keats himself implores us to not think beyond the moment, to not ask where the songs of spring are, for autumn has its own beauty: it is necessary to appreciate what we have. The fact that Keats has had so much death around him in his life makes this instruction more than admirable.    

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


Shelley’s quintessential metaphor on a reprobate monarchy dominating 19thcentury Britain is foreboded before the first line is read. The title, Greek for ‘ruler of air’ sets the tone of absurd hubris and arrogance, almost to a point beyond satire, almost caricature.  Shelley, having read about the Egyptian ruler Rameses II as a ruthless military man and megalomaniac, sees opportunity for synecdoche, inviting his readers to establish parallels with the present monarchy. His target is of course George III, an obstinate king, highly criticised for his refusal to accede to the American province, their right to independence. But it is not just George that Shelley uses his art to excoriate. It is anyone in authority arrogating the right to rule over another, anyone who suppresses the freedoms of the individual. For the Romantic poet, such oppression is the very death of the soul. 

The 3rdperson tale in the opening line ostensibly distances the poet from critics establishing a line of treason, but probably more likely places the metaphor in a wider context, a universal, timeless pandemic. The antique land could be anywhere, from any time in history, such is the precedence of despotism. The vastness of the statue summarily emphasises the contrast of its destruction, the ellipsis wasting no time in directing the listener to the focus of the tale: the shattered visage symbolically half sunk, nature and time having its way with it. The frown and sneer of cold command cleverly introduces the antipathy, evoking imaginings of a man full of hatred and condescension, but worse, willing to exercise both. The pretension of significance, imperatively instructing ‘ye Mighty’ to look on his works and despair, encapsulates the characteristics of historical tyrants, obsessed with power, but vanity also: mine’s bigger than yours. Shelley can’t help himself either in having a quick gibe at the Church, the ‘king of kings’ a reference to Jesus, forcing the connection between the hubris of Ozymandias and an institution Shelley openly detests, not only for its hypocrisy in wealth disparity, but its insistence of the soul to lose its freedom and surrender to a higher power.  

Having suitably disgusted us with the character, Shelley adroitly denudes the figure by utilising the caesura in ‘Nothing beside remains’. The sharp juxtaposition of his arrogance with the reality annihilates the ruler, and the remainder of the poem cruelly exposes his insignificance with repeated alliterations drawing our attention to the desolation in which he is now enveloped. 

Time then, is the ultimate ruler, obliterating everything to dust. The allegory is clear: we are but specks in a larger scheme, and humility and fairness are more desirable constants than delusions of power. But notably, art also has its power. It is the story of the sculptor, who well those passions read, that we are left with, the sculptor who, brazenly recording the culture they find themself in, has placed him or herself in great jeopardy by doing so. This too is the poet, ineludibly aware of the metaphor’s inevitable controversy, but nevertheless compelled to write and chronicle and satisfy one of art’s central goals: in serving as a critical lens, as Johnson’s ‘legislator of mankind’, as watchdog over the workings and exploitations within a culture. Shelley, in composing the poem with such sophistication, employing the strict structure of the sonnet form and the consistent iambic pentameter, only broken for specific emphasis, serves the second central function equally as well, a function encapsulating and epitomising the Romantic movement: art must be beautiful too, as therein lies the power to translate the message.  

This essay is part of a series of essays on texts within the EDUQAS English Literature course. Other poetry essays include: As Imperceptibly As Grief, Excerpt from The Prelude. Macbeth essays: here, and here. Lord of the Flies essay: here

Other essays can be found on the Cloud 9 Writing platform

Image used from here

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

What are some of the favourite books of highly experienced English teachers?

Looking to add to your reading collection? Of course, browsing the bookstore is a lovely and rewarding thing to do, but sometimes it’s great to get a recommendation, especially if time isn’t on your side. Below are past or current favourites of some of the most recognisable past or current English teachers on Twitter. Their choices are certainly diverse, and demonstrate the wonderful openness and heterogeneity of our subject.

Each contributor is represented by their Twitter handle. They are in no particular order.


  1. The Assistant – Bernard Malamud
  2. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
  3. Moby Dick – Herman Melville
  4. Ulysses’ – James Joyce
  5. Germinal – Emile Zola


  1. 100 years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  2. Reasons to Stay Alive – Matt Haig
  3. The Snowman – Jo Nesbo 
  4. Life After Life – Kate Atkinson 
  5. 1984 – George Orwell. 


  1. The Odyssey – Homer
  2. The Sound and the Fury – William Faulkner
  3. Dubliners – James Joyce
  4. Blood Meridian – Cormac McCarthy
  5. The Brothers Karamazov – Dostoyevsky
  6. The Crying of Lot 49 – Thomas Pynchon
  7. Sorrows of Young Werther – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
  8. Slaughterhouse Five – Kurt Vonnegut
  9. Winesburg Ohio – Sherwood Anderson
  10. Moby Dick – Herman Melville
  11. White Noise – Don DeLillo
  12. Austerlitz – W.G. Sebald
  13. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter – Carson McCullers


  1. Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens
  2. Wide Sargasso Sea – Jean Rhys
  3. The English Patient – Michael Ondaatje
  4. Waterland – Graham Swift
  5. The Siege of Krishnapur – Farrell
  6. The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks
  7. Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy
  8. Giovani’s Room – James Baldwin
  9. If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things – John McGregor
  10. Love in the time of Cholera – Gabriella Garcia Marquez
  11. Stoner – John Edward Williams


  1. The Bloody Chamber – Angela Carter
  2. Paradise Lost – John Milton
  3. The Turn of the Screw – Henry James
  4. Krapp’s Last Tape – Samuel Beckett
  5. Giovanni’s Room – James Baldwin
  6. Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy


  1. War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy
  2. Hadji Murad – Leo Tolstoy
  3. The Odyssey (currently enjoying Emily Wilson’s stripped down verse translation) – Homer
  4. Pale Fire – Vladimir Nabokov
  5. Beowulf – Seamus Heaney
  6. HhHH – Laurent Binet


  1. England Made Me – Graham Greene
  2. The Country of the Blind and other stories – HG Wells
  3. Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguru
  4. A Portrait of a Lady – Henry James
  5. The Ginger Man – J P Donleavy


  1. 1984 – George Orwell
  2. Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks
  3. Everything is Illuminated – Safran Foer
  4. The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald
  5. Stoner – John Edward Williams
  6. Wise Children, & Nights at the Circus – both by Angela Carter
  7. The War of the Worlds – H.G. Wells
  8. The Moonstone – Wilkie Collins
  9. Mort, Wyrd Sisters, Small Gods, Jingo, A Slip of The Keyboard – all by Terry Pratchett
  10. Thursday Next – Jasper Fforde
  11. Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguru
  12. The Return of the Native – Thomas Hardy


  1. Stoner – John Edward Williams
  2. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius – Dave Eggers
  3. A Whole Life – Robert Seethaler
  4. Nod – Adrian Barnes
  5. A Thousand Acres – Jane Smiley


  1. Beloved – Toni Morrison
  2. Paradise Lost – John Milton
  3. The Master and Margarita – Mikhail Bulgakov
  4. Lanny – Max Porter
  5. The Book Thief – Markus Zusak
  6. The Old Man and the Sea – Ernest Hemingway
  7. The White Hotel – DM Thomas
  8. Ruby – Cynthia Bond
  9. Return of The Native – Thomas Hardy
  10. The Road – Cormac McCarthy
  11. Long Way Down – Jason Reynolds


  1. Trainspotting – Irvine Welsh
  2. London Fields – Martin Amis
  3. A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess
  4. 1984 – George Orwell
  5. Collected Short Stories – Nikolai Gogol
  6. Lanark – Alisdair Grey
  7. High Rise – JG Ballard
  8. Blood Meridian – Cormac McCarthy
  9. Lucky Jim – Kingsley Amis
  10. Life and Fate – Vasily Grossman


  1. A Gentleman in Moscow – Amor Towles
  2. A Kestrel for a Knave – Barry Hines
  3. In Cold Blood – Truman Capote
  4. Love in the Time Of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  5. Rabbit, Run – John Updike


  1.  It – Stephen King
  2. The Knife of Never Letting Go – Patrick Ness
  3. The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
  4. Sapiens – Yuval Noah Harari
  5. A Short History of Nearly Everything – Bill Bryson


  1. Stoner – John Edward Williams
  2. The Collector – John Fowles
  3. The Pigeon – Patrick Suskind
  4. How to stop time – Matt Haig
  5. Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace – Kate Summerscale
  6. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – Jonathan Sarfran Foer
  7. If nobody speaks of remarkable things – Jon McGregor
  8. Hangover Square – Patrick Hamilton
  9. Giovanni’s Room – James Baldwin
  10. The Swimming Pool Library – Alan Hollinghurst
  11. Blind Assassin – Margaret Atwood
  12. Crime and Punishment – Dostoyevsky
  13. Basil – Wilkie Collins


  1. Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy
  2. Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel
  3. Things Fall Apart – Chinua Achebe
  4. The Secret History – Donna Tartt
  5. If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things – Jon McGregor
  6. The Famished Road – Ben Okri
  7. Everything is Illuminated – Jonathan Safran Foer
  8. Love in the Time of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  9. Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguru


  1. All the lights we cannot see – Anthony Doer
  2. The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
  3. The Night Watch – Sarah Waters
  4. Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks
  5. 1984 – George Orwell
  6. Regeneration – Pat Barker
  7. Germinal – Emile Zola
  8. A Little Life – Hanya Yanaghari

Understandably, many of the teachers felt unable to limit their choices to the ones offered. Even deciding what is a favourite is not an easy thing to do, but I thank these teachers for contributing, and I hope it helps your summer reading ventures. It’s certainly given me some direction.

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

Excerpt from THE PRELUDE

The EDUQAS edition (Book 1: lines 150) of Excerpt from THE PRELUDE is remarkably similar in structure and intent to the AQA excerpt (Book 1, line 81 in the 1799 version), albeit with a very different ending.

A third of the way into the first book of Wordsworth’s ostensible autobiographical epic, we are presented with him as a boy enthralled, yet concurrently overwhelmed, by the forces of nature. The nostalgic impressions are vivid yet assiduously controlled, iambic pentameter deliberately woven into a single stanza, symbolising the blending together of the feelings, their inseparability characterising this period of Wordsworth’s life. 

The first half of the excerpt is dominated by a positive tone, detailing the rapture it was for not just himself, but the confederate, emphasised by the deliberate use of the first person plural ‘we’ and its possessive, ‘us’. The use of the conjunction ‘And’ to begin the poem immediately suggests a continuation, as though we have missed something previous, but nevertheless, something happy, energetic and vivacious. The caesura before ‘happy time, it was indeed, for all of us’ emphasises the joy shared, but interestingly, Wordsworth is keen to highlight that his own sense of joy exceeds those around him. His rapturous sense of place and time is compared to an ‘untir’d horse’, wild and powerful, and free, again emphasised by caesura.

The sense of energetic movement is furthered in the vivid sound descriptions of the ice-skating, the sibilance echoing the blades slicing effortlessly along the ‘polished’ and pristine ice, and the commotion akin to ‘the chace’ understood in hunting, is presented as unequivocally festive. The revelry in nature is cleverly highlighted by the contrast to the cottage windows, the adjective ‘blazed’ connoting a sense of security the boy feels, knowing his home and the warmth contained therein is available at any time; the summons however, is not heeded because the outside world affords him an even greater assurance. 

The second half of the excerpt however, delivered after the first clear full stop in the poem, contains a strong negative semantic field, and whilst there is still positivity expressed in the movement, the tone alters to reflect a psychological introspective perspective of the poet’s voice. Amongst the darkness, the echoing from the precipices is described as alien, and palpably misunderstood, and importantly, noticeably melancholic in nature. The extension of pentameter to trimeter emphatically signals significance, and it is here that Wordsworth’s intentions take centre stage: the depiction of a first, ineluctable, but crucial, existential crisis. It is the young boy’s vague acknowledgement of something nebulous, yet larger than himself existing in the world that governs the ending of the excerpt, his development taking him imperceptibly out of the impulsive and self-serving id, and into the more aware and conscious ego. Wordsworth’s Romantic notions are sublimely fulfilled in this way, presenting the poem as instructional, rather than simply entertaining. Nature has a great deal to teach us: least of all is humility and modesty in light of the irrepressible hubris of mankind that Wordsworth feels precipitated and continuously manifests in 19thcentury industrial Britain. 

Necessarily, however, the poem ends with hope, affirming nature’s ultimate generosity, as the ‘sparkling clear’ stars that light the sky mitigate the death of the sun, the self-serving id, and provide us with the light needed to navigate the transition to the ego and the grappling with the loss of naïve innocence.

I have written another Eduqas poetry anthology essay: As Imperceptibly as Grief, as well as Macbeth essays (here and here) and one for Lord of The Flies here.

This essay can also be found on the Cloud 9 Writing platform here, a place where students can read expositions into texts that will push thinking and stimulate further analysis and writing.

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger for more English resources, and discussions about teaching and learning.       

Image taken from


If you are waiting for summative assessment to determine where students’ issues lie, then you’ve missed the boat. Why? Because summative assessment tests from the domain, and isolating issues is extremely problematic. Adam Boxer articulates the discord succinctly here, evincing implications for the insistent reporting of student summative progress in terms of ‘where to next’, but it is Daisy Christodoulou that is ultimately instructive in this area. As a simple example, take an essay written about a novel. Taking out the subjectivity of the criteria used to assess a piece of writing, a poor score could be the result of numerous possibilities: lack of content knowledge, lack of skill in articulating ideas, or from performance in test conditions. Each of these components also has its subcomponents respectively:  

Lack of content knowledge – what content specifically (does it include context, and if so, to what extent?), revision techniques…

Lack of skill in articulating ideas – structuring a response, logic, expression of points, linking to the question…

Performance in test conditions – understanding what each question demands, organising time, controlling anxiety… 

Dylan Wiliams’ seminal work on formative assessment provided a reprieve from the deficiency of summative assessment feedback, tooling teachers with what amounts to be an interventionist approach, addressing errors before they spiral out of control and become irretrievable in summative forms. But Dylan himself laments the focus on assessment in such a phrase, preferring to call the strategy ‘responsive teaching’. The compunction stems from the use of the word assessment, with the distinction between assessment for learning regularly conflated with assessment of learning, where the direction of the teaching is not changed. Responsive teaching seems idyllic: the teacher continuously scans the students, infers as much as is possible their current knowledge and adapts teaching where required. However, it is not the terminology that enervates this strategy. I believe there exists an implicit and intrinsic negative connotation to this approach: the need for such responsive action suggests the delivery of the content is initially not strategic enough to ensure knowledge is built upon incrementally, and that mastery is not achieved before the next stage is delivered… 

I contend that this is a significant contributor as to why students arrive at GCSE level with insufficient knowledge to demonstrate competency. * 

Intuitively, the solution lies in designing progressive curriculum that does ensure incremental mastery of knowledge. Perhaps never before, with the understanding afforded to us with research into the effects of cognitive load, has it been so apparent that in order for students to achieve optimal learning we must work harder to design a very precise curriculum that painstakingly details knowledge that should be built upon from the ground up that eventually constitutes the domain. In this way, assessment and curriculum are inextricably linked. One drives the other. Assessment is curriculum is assessment.  I provide a link to how this can be achieved at the end of the post.

So why hasn’t this already happened? 

  1. Demands of progress  
  2. A lack of continuity 
  3. A lack of understanding about cognition 
  4. Uncertainty as to what the domain actually is 
  5. Design issues  

Demands of progress  

Christine Counsell is compelling in her post on the imperative of teaching the ‘hinterland’ as well as the ‘core’. It is hardly surprising however, that teachers have omitted the necessary ecosystem in which a curriculum thrives, having it obfuscated by the exhortative demand for progress, and given little guidance in how to counter it. To say that an alternative approach is exigent would be an understatement, because the decision to design curriculum backwards from GCSE rather than forwards from scratch has simply not worked. The proof lies in the fact that despite rigorous attention to monitoring student progress, lots of students still fail to consistently achieve success with what subject leaders would call fundamental skills in their subjects. This is not limited to specific subjects, or students, but applies to all; it is ubiquitous across the globe, and probably the most ironic of all school issues, in that it is the most inclusive.  

No teacher in the world is content with the numbers of students who simply fall through the cracks, but unless we design curriculum that prevents cracks from ever opening, teachers across the globe will be inexorably and exhaustingly destined to superficially rescue weaker students. This seems like an enormous waste of what is essentially a finite resource.  

A lack of continuity 

Ian Cushing’s delineation of the incongruity of grammar policy between primary and secondary can be seen as emblematic of the wider paralysis. As a new year begins, and new faces present themselves, teachers spend lots of time working out the strengths and weaknesses of the cohort and assimilating them into the teacher’s preferred method/curriculum/expectations. Students with gaps are simply passed on year upon year, often with little or inadequate communication or a serious plan as to how to close the gap. Regardless of well-intentioned monitoring systems, when a student presents into your class with obvious gaps, it is incredibly difficult to address the gaps by going back to root causes of issues, with a mountain of new content to be taught. The Matthew effect takes full control, and issues become exponential in no time at all. Without a pre-existing scheme of work that can address gaps, and time to complete it, only the highest of skilled teachers will be able to solve the inequity.   

This is a highly stressful scenario, and with the pressures of performance management so palpable, it is little wonder that retention of teachers is so low at the moment. The imperative of prioritising knowledge to be gained is the panacea to this pervasive ailment. Solomon’s fable (no, not the biblical one) superbly highlights the inadequacies of our current epistemology that stretches and stretches and stretches until we snap.    

A lack of understanding about cognition 

Fortunately, this is being improved each day, and schemes of learning can be shaped around the increasing understanding of how knowledge is best delivered and retained, and how learning spaces can be optimised. Tom Needham’s blog on application of theory is a brilliant example of the advancements in applying cognitive science to affect teaching. Oliver Caviglioli is also leading in this area.

What constitutes the domain? 

This is perhaps the primary reason why a lack of standardisation exists in English. There are conflicting views as to what should constitute the domain of knowledge that would equip a student to become a successful communicator and interpreter of our world. David Didau outlines a strong position here, and adds grammar and literary knowledge (context) to the list. Should we focus on building general knowledge and developing vocabulary as informally intimated by Patrick here?  The 2013 National Curriculum for English adds its views here. Is it simply knowledge, the articulation of that, and the neglected, but essential, performance of the articulation?  

Whatever a school believes the domain of their subject to be, enunciating what it is must become the very first port of call before any teaching is done: what are we teaching and why! Tom Sherington explores this here, but it must be taken to greater depth. Secondary key stage 3 curriculum design can easily be consumed by a focus on the types of texts that should be taught (what actually represents all that’s best and known?), as opposed to concentrating on specific knowledge that leads to specific skills. Indubitably, reading and writing are the primary concerns, and while it is difficult to define what success means in both of these aspects, I think there would a consensus on much of it: students being able to punctuate their writing would be one. The rise of comparative marking would suggest that although using criteria is highly subjective and thus restrictive, English teachers do have a sense of what successful writing and analysis looks like.  

We may not be able to agree on everything, but there would be some components that could be standardised so that students would never again fall through the respective crack.  The sections that become standardised would need to be expertly designed so as to guarantee incremental advancement. Bear in mind that this does not immediately result in a loss of autonomy, a grave fear of most in the profession. The standardisation could be bespoke to each school depending on what is believed to be the domain, and what levels of increment assessment should take.  

Either way, this must become the priority of any CPD undertaken.  

Design issues with incremental curriculum  

The ‘curse of knowledge’ can very much be a factor in curriculum design. Establishing the baseline knowledge is crucial, and carefully sequencing activities and assessment that build piece by piece without extraneous cognitive load is imperative.

How I go about this will be the basis of the next post. 

*Bear in mind I am not talking about being able to pass. Cohort referenced governance renders the notion a nonsense in terms of equating passing with demonstrable knowledge. 

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