The Lit Exam – Easy or Tricky?

Some students who come out of the GCSE English Literature examinations saying one thing; “that was easy, Sir.” They say this for one of two reasons. Either they have revised, worked hard, been taught well and done well in the examination, or they have rushed the question, not revised as well as they could do and done what they think is a good answer, but one that will in fact get them no higher than a G or an F in old money, or a 2 or 3 in the new ways of marking the thing.

So, how well did you do today?


My student that I tutored read and studied three texts: Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, Shakespeare’s Macbeth and the great play, An Inspector Calls. He says, in round about words that the questions for his first exam were as follows [might not be word for word]:

Macbeth: How is Lady Macbeth portrayed in the sleepwalking extract? How is guilt shown elsewhere in the play?


An Inspector Calls: What is the significance of money in the play?

How did you answer these if you took this exam board question?

It was the first Edexcel examination so seeing this might give you some tips if you need a resit in November, or if you are looking at this next year and trying to figure out how the hell to answer such a question as these. The fact that he was unable to give me the Dickens question is a bit of a bind, for it is my favourite novel of all time, but that is for the second examination and so there is still time for me to write a later blog piece.

So here goes on the two from today.

Macbeth: Lady Macbeth the Sleepwalker

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Given the fact that I have not been given the exact text to work from it is difficult to see where it starts and where it finishes but the fact that it is a separate two part question says a lot. Normally, you would answer the first question and be expected to say something about the guilt she feels in the rest of the play in your answer. But here, they have split it to make it easier and so you will see the need to write [using those lovely PEED chains] about both sides of the question.

What would you include? Well, in the first part, you might write about the following:

  1. She is sleepwalking out of guilt
  2. Her mind is fractured because of the bad things she has done
  3. She cannot control or switch off the feeling of helplessness
  4. As such, she is damaged goods
  5. But then, she did ask for hell’s demons to unsex her earlier in the play
  6. She feels the nature of what she has entered into because the human heart cannot take such a thing as killing another human being

Guilt in the rest of the play

In the end, there is so much guilt to choose from. Here are just a few ideas for you to consider. They are not meant, if you took the exam today or whenever it was and you then read this and think oh dear, I did not put half of that in, to annoy you. If they do, then apologies from the outset, but they are meant to make future learners think about the depth of their answers.

  1. Macbeth feels guilt as soon as he does the deed
  2. He feels the guilt of Banquo’s death and sees the ghost. Is that not his fractured mind also at work? [compare to Lady Macbeth and get more points]
  3. There is the guilt of going to the witches for assistance
  4. There is the guilt of others for allowing Macbeth to do what he does; Macduff for not being able to protect his family etc

Guilt is resident throughout this play. It is there because the writer, Mr Shakespeare himself, wanted us to think of certain themes like this. He was writing around the time of the arrival of James 1st onto the throne in England and Shakespeare is almost saying what would we need to do to get rid of a monarch? How could it happen? It is pure conjecture of course, but can be seen as a muse for writing. The history of the Scottish battles, found in different texts [Holinshead Chronicles] will have had some influence as well. It is even possible to see the previous Queen, Elizabeth 1st, as being partly an influence. She is a strong woman in a man’s world and knows what it means to be so. With these and other possibilities, it is possible to run out of paper in an examination very easily.

But what of An Inspector Calls?

What is the significance of money in the play?


Written as a social criticism at the time against capitalism and its insidious activities in our lives, this play is a critique of how the rich treat the poor, how the employer treats the employee in a time before British benefits systems were invented. You worked and you got money to live. You didn’t and you ended up in the Workhouse. Sad, but true! Very Dickensian, I know, but true.

So to see a writer defining the importance of money in one’s life, one has to write an essay in terms of how one group of people in the play see money and how the other sees the need for it. The question is begging for you to compare the rich and the poor and their attitudes to income.


Here are a few ideas for you…

  1. The employer – Birling Snr – his sense of superiority over everyone
  2. The drunken party goer – Birling Jnr – a lost sense of family
  3. The employee – needful of employment to live, fearful of losing job
  4. The rich friend – keeping the little woman, male and female stereotypes
  5. The Good Samaritan – helping others out when we can
  6. The rich family – their attitudes to their wealth, keeping it in the family
  7. The workforce – How they are needful of the factory
  8. Inspector Goole – His comments on how one treats the other
  9. The Social Comment – the criticism being made of those who have at the time

There is so much more I can think of and that is without looking at the text in full, or revising it. I have not read it or taught it for about ten years, but they are the things that bounce back into my memory because it is such a memorable little play.

So how did you do?

I hope in August that you find out and it is good news from both Lit exams. When you take the next one, in a few days time, remember what is said here about depth and detail. Then it is time to revise for the Language exams in June and knock them into the stands when you answer. Remember, for all your English exams, write using those lovely PEED chains where needed and do not stop writing, for the more you can offer to the examiner, the better chance you have of scoring higher than predicted. If you only offer one page when there are four or five given for you to use, then do not expect much more than a 3.


It is up to you now. Time to get revising!


Making Sense Out Of Chaos

So, the government in their perpetually inept wisdom brought in a new grading scheme and everyone has been trying to grasp the nettle and work with it; student and teacher alike.

Here is how Edexcel Pearson think it works.


Regardless of what anyone else will say, especially teachers who claim that a level 4 is not a pass, the simplistic way to look at this chart is to see that the government are wanting you to look at two numbers; 4 and 7. If you can get an 8 or a 9, then brilliant. But we all can see from this that a 4 is a C.

However, I saw something yesterday that said the government and the exam bodies expect the same amount of students who got an A or a C to get a 7 or a 4. That is how they expect you to do. The rest then, are minor definitions of the highest grades and the very lowest ones. But remember, all of them, apart from a U [for Unclassified] are passes!

So, what do you need to do to get a 4 over the entire two exams?

Well, the first thing to note is do not panic and have a brain freeze on the day. One student of mine recently had a mock and this happened on the second paper. He knows what he is doing and should get a 5 or higher, [I am hoping a 6] but he let himself get flustered and then the old [or young, in his case] head froze and he shuffled his way through the rest of the exam, scoring a 4 overall [a 5 and a very low 4]. In the final exam to come in a few weeks, he should, if he does not let his nerves get the better of him, do well in both and then get that 5 for definite [if he does not, I will eat my car keys!], or a 6 if he writes the right things and does well in the second section of each, where being creative is not always the easiest thing to do on the day.

The second thing is to remember those PEED chains. You all know that the PEE stands for Point, Evidence and Explanation, or some other variant expression you have been taught, but how many of you take time to add Development to those ideas? It is so easy to write one point, use one short quote, to prove it and then say what it means before going on to the next point, but if you allow your life experience to find its way into the exam, especially in section A, where Q4 always catches people out, you will find that letting yourself go a little actually helps, if you stick to the answer. For example, if you write “The writer uses a pyramid like structure to his writing, using shorter sentences each time to make his point” [random, I know; first thing I could think of] and then add “when he says that ‘his life is always hectic” and then add that this sentence is mid length and leave it at that, then it is a waste of time.

I hope that makes sense.

But if you add development into that, at the end and say how it has an effect on the reader, how it makes the point come quicker, how it relates to modern audiences and is quite clever, reminding the reader of a sales and marketing tract, all these things can then add to your answer, before heading into the next PEED chain. Try it next time, in class, or in your next practice answer for Q4 and see what development does for your answer [and for the heart rate of your teacher].

The third thing you need to do is copy and paste the GLOSSARY OF TERMS off this site. Just type it in at the top and hit the link before copying and pasting into a word processing file. Then get someone to ask you to define [and give an example] of each one. Place a tick at each that you know. Asterisk those you cannot and then use that 6 pages to revise your technical English skills. Then learn them all by the exam so you know what hyperbole is and what it does etc.

Then there is that wonderful thing called Time Management which is covered here in this site as well. You have an hour, or 45 minutes for a section, whichever way you look at it, so break the time up for each question and stick to that time in the exam. Do not go over that time and especially under it, trying to pinch a minute or three from section A to give you a few moments more for section B.

Be ruthless in your time management!

But above all, go into the exams with confidence. You have been working towards this and working hard. Now go and make it worth the while. Make the best out of this situation and be the very best you can on the two days you are tested in this brilliant subject, and in August, when you get your results, rejoice with me, whatever they are.

Go on, get revising, now! What’s stopping you?



The Great Poundland Debacle

Normally, I would write pieces on this website which try to encourage you all in your efforts to get that old fashioned Grade C in your GCSE examinations, but something happened this week that has made me take the end of my fingers to my partly worn out keyboard in an attempt to counter something that someone in middle England has said in the public domain about the new level 4 pass and how it is to be considered as a “Poundland Pass,” whereas the higher grade of level 5 can now be considered as a “Waitrose Pass.”

Here is the article in question! It is to be found in the TES, the newspaper for education professionals. In my opinion, such an article as this is not very professional at all. 

Firstly, to consider something like the level 4, which lots of students worked very hard to achieve last year and rejoiced in August when they received their grades, as a “Low Pass” [a local school teacher used that term this very day on a lad I know] whilst seeing the 5 as a stronger pass, is just wrong by anyone in the profession, so I say to the author of that comment, shame on you for even suggesting it.

A pass is a pass, whichever way you cook it. We all know that the old fashioned grades D-G were still passes, albeit at a lower level than the required C, which you needed to move on to such as A Levels or college courses, but they were still all passes and some of them well achieved, even the ones below the grade C. I remember a lad in Year 10 before I left Hall Cross School in Doncaster who was expected to score no higher than an F grade in his English Language exams [overall grade] but with help and assistance because of his Special Needs, achieved a B grade. Anything is possible. So when the government introduced the new system of 9-1 marking and grading, we as teachers asked a simple question; where will the C/D borderline be? What will equate to a C and what will not? We assumed that it might be a simple translation from 9 being an A* and so on, down the list, but soon found that this was not the case.

For months, teachers did not know for sure and then came the bomb shell, that level 4 would be what was once considered a grade C. So, we professionals knew we had to push for the level 4 and above as much as possible, for the student and for the school or college. As a teacher myself, I knew there was going to be some issues that would need ironing out; what is the difference between a 4 and a 5? How do we stop employers demanding the 5 or colleges doing the same when a 4 is still the equivalent of a C? How do we sell the idea to the country that if a level 4 is a pass, then that has to become the benchmark needed for students to continue in education or be seen as having what used to be termed a C grade?

Now, it seems, with articles like this one, that employers are trying to insist on the level 5 as the benchmark, making it totally unfair to those who worked their backside off last year to get that level 4. One young man I know took a tutor on in late March of 2017. His exams were at the end of May and early June for all his subjects. He was eighteen and working, as well as being a trainee engineer and all he needed was the confidence to write his head off in the exam, especially Section B, where writing freely was something he had never really mastered. In approximately six weeks of one hour sessions, he was successfully taken by his tutor from the level 3 [or below] to a level 4 and when the results day came, his level of joy and excitement, as well as blessed relief, was palpable. When his tutor got the email, it had lots of exclamation marks [tut tut, I know] showing his utter joy in his success. His reaction is what passing at the right grade does to a student and is the best thing in the world for any teacher to see when the grades are given out in August.

So, to make it so that the work and effort he put in is now a waste of his time, effort and money is something that makes me ashamed of the profession I love and adore, as well as being ashamed with the government who introduced this sham in the first place and have let this happen. I may have taken my pension and not work anymore in the classroom due to disability, but I see these comments in articles like this and I cringe. How can we let those outside of education suddenly say that level 5 is the benchmark grade to get, or else? How can we stand by and let articles such as the one above dictate the levels of success achieved by so many hard working individuals? I know the article is trying to make that assertion, but to even mention words like “Poundland Pass” and “Waitrose Pass” is essentially insulting and offensive to student and to teacher alike. I find it incomprehensible that any teacher should create such a label as this, especially glibly like this one! I would loathe the idea of working in his school.

To all those hard working English Language and Literature students out there, I say this: keep going, keep trying hard, keep learning and head for the best possible grade you can get. If that is a 5, then rejoice with me in your success. If it is a 4, then rejoice also, for the grade you get is accepted by this teacher as a C grade and is accepted as the benchmark for future development. To think any other thing would be tantamount to labelling someone as incapable at whatever they are doing. I for one, when any student gets their results, rejoice in whatever grade achieved. These students have put a lot of work in over the last few months and years and deserve all the success they can achieve.

All students expect the same thing. It is up to us as teachers not to disassociate ourselves from the positives by mentioning the negatives. It is up to us to promote best practice and that does not mean referring to a level 4 as anything but what it is, a pass at GCSE English.

The Bear – Robert Frost

The Bear

Robert Frost

The bear puts both arms around the tree above her
And draws it down as if it were a lover
And its choke cherries lips to kiss good-by,
Then lets it snap back upright in the sky.
Her next step rocks a boulder on the wall
(She’s making her cross-country in the fall).
Her great weight creaks the barbed wire in its staples
As she flings over and off down through the maples,
Leaving on one wire tooth a lock of hair.
Such is the uncaged progress of the bear.
The world has room to make a bear feel free;
The universe seems cramped to you and me.
Man acts more like the poor bear in a cage,
That all day fights a nervous inward rage,
His mood rejecting all his mind suggests.
He paces back and forth and never rests
The me-nail click and shuffle of his feet,
The telescope at one end of his beat,
And at the other end the microscope,
Two instruments of nearly equal hope,
And in conjunction giving quite a spread.
Or if he rests from scientific tread,
‘Tis only to sit back and sway his head
Through ninety-odd degrees of arc, it seems,
Between two metaphysical extremes.
He sits back on his fundamental butt
With lifted snout and eyes (if any) shut
(He almost looks religious but he’s not),
And back and forth he sways from cheek to cheek,
At one extreme agreeing with one Greek
At the other agreeing with another Greek
Which may be thought, but only so to speak.
A baggy figure, equally pathetic
When sedentary and when peripatetic.


This is a poem about a bear but it is also about so much more than just the bear itself. The poem uses “he” and “she” interspersed throughout, so I choose not to use a word of gender unless directly quoting, so as to not confuse. [It may be a typo off the website I took the poem from and if so, then apologies].

Written by Robert Frost, this poem describes how the bear acts and reacts in its natural environment. The description begins with the bear pulling down the tree branches that are over hanging for it to get at some food. But Frost describes the bear like we would a “lover” as it “draws down” the branch. As soon as it has retrieved the fruit it wants, it lets the branch go and the whole movement is described in one fell swoop, as it snaps back “upright in the sky.” There is a sensuous movement being described here, for the poet thinks the bear is a thing of beauty, capable of movement in such an exquisite manner that gives it a majestic manner as it feeds. This poem then sets the tone for the rest to follow, whereby we are led into the mind of the reader who is pro-animal and pro-animal rights in his approach, or so it would seem.

But could there be anything deeper than this when it comes to hidden meaning? To ascertain that, one has to consider what comes next as there are no verse endings like in four line verse. So one line interconnects with another and so on through the poem as we see the thoughts and feelings of the poet.

The progress this bear is making is the sort of progress that is seen as showing realism in the sense that the bear is in the wild but it is in its own element as well, something to not go near, something to watch and honour, rather than fear and hunt. Descriptions therefore, of how the bear “rocks a boulder on the wall” as how it is “making her cross-country in the fall” enable us to see the great animal in its element and at a certain time of year. The Fall, in America and Canada is the time of year we call Autumn, when all the leaves are falling from the trees and life is beginning to run out throughout nature as the elements give way from the warmth of summer, into the Fall and then moves on into winter. For the bear, it is a time of year where there is a lot to do, a lot to find, to store for its hibernation months through the long winter but there is also not a lot of food left for it to grab. That is its dilemma.

The level of progress it makes is called an “uncaged progress” in that it lingers where it needs to and lumbers off “down through the maples” leaving a wake of destruction in its wake as it leads its life in the natural elements. But then the poet makes us think of how we treat nature and animals in general, our attitudes to them and their needs. He says “the world has room to make a bear feel free” but at the same time, “the universe seems cramped to you and me.” It is true that what he is saying is that “man acts more like the poor bear in a cage,” fighting with rage against anything that will inhibit it. In this way, he is saying that we humans are just like the bear, capable of being nice and kind and also capable of living by our most natural, basest emotions and activities.

The bear fights a nervous inward rage, his mood rejecting all his mind suggests.” How true of humanity is that? We are so fickle at times, wanting things for ourselves over and above the thoughts and needs of others. There is an animal facet to humankind that the poet is making us think of as he paints the picture of the animal in the wild who “paces back and forth and never rests,” just like we do through life instead of focussing on something more solid and more worthy of our time and efforts. The bear’s head is described as swaying “through ninety-odd degrees of arc” as if it is looking at “two metaphysical extremes.” Life for us is like that. We can be taken up with one thing or another when we are either concerned, or worried, so when we look at this poem we need to figure out whether we think the bear is at peace, or not at this moment. Is the bear shaking its head from side to side in rapt contemplation, or is it doing that because life is an endless bore of walking and hunting and eating? Has the bear lost the plot of life and become useless and so, is shaking its head from side to side like some do when they are in the depths of madness? Or, is this shaking of the head that kind of side to side movement that a bear naturally does when moving? The sense of movement in the bear is so strong in this poem, even though the bearsits back on his fundamental butt with lifted snout and eyes (if any) shut.”

Whatever your answer is should be seen as the correct answer, for with poetry there is no wrong answer, for we each come to the reading of a poem with different life experiences and because of those differing life experiences, we interpret a poem differently to others. Therefore, your answer is just as valid as the next person and should not be taken as wrong, even by your teacher. This bear, to me, is nonchalantly sitting there, minding its own business. In parenthesis, Frost stresses that “he almost looks religious but he’s not.” It is the movement “back and forth” that paints the picture in the mind of the reader that makes them wonder why this bear is doing this. The bearsways from cheek to cheek” on a magnificent backside, as if contemplating what to do next.

It is as if the bear is thinking things through but it is also described as a “baggy figure,” something reflecting the utterly “pathetic” nature of life “when sedentary and when peripatetic.” The word “Sedentary” is sometimes used to describe someone who sits around not doing very much, so it suggests that life is one where there is not much to do any more. The bear has lost that special lifestyle that a wild bear should have, probably because of the influx of humanity into its natural region, which does suggest that the poet is being pro animal and anti human in his depiction of this animal in the wild. “Peripatetic” as a word, is usually used to describe someone, like a home tutor, who goes from one home to the next to teach his or her subject. Likewise, it here describes the bear’s wandering lifestyle, one of loneliness and despair and therefore, makes this poem quite a sad one, bordering on the depressive.

But then again, this would be natural for this poet because if you look online at his life, you will see that he had a lot of experience of things like mental illness and depression, in himself and his family members, both through his natural family and the family he married into. So, is this poem a metaphor for how he feels his life has gone? Is the bear a metaphor for him, shifting aimlessly on his own backside at times, sometimes feeling that life is nasty, brutish and short?

The answer is up to you, but it is worth a thought.

9-1 GCSE Exam Task: Write about a time when you did something without thinking it through.

This took 30 minutes to write out, including planning. Read it and then have a go at the task yourself.

Being Looked After

“He is okay but he is in a coma and he has been like that for three weeks now. We did not want to worry you until we knew for sure he would be okay!”

Words like that shock you to your core, to the very essence of your being, especially when the person being talked about is your older brother who you love dearly. So to receive that sentence over the phone back in 1992 was a shocker. I was in the middle of my GCSEs as a mature student and beginning to prepare for revision and then exams in June. This was March time, when my mother and father were celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary, a milestone for most people, let alone my parents. We got the call on the afternoon of their celebrations and I took the call.

Fortunately, for everyone concerned, it was me that took the call, for my brother James lives in the south of France, about 825 miles away from our home. His wife, Suzette, a French citizen he had met and fallen in love with, and then emigrated with, phoned us up my Mum’s house. Once the shock was over, I said that if I could, I would come over.

I actually said, “Right, I am coming over. See you in a few days.”

But after I put the phone down, I sat there and thought how am I going to do this? The solution to my dilemma is a story worth the telling, for it involved numerous people in my journey south. I lived in the southern part of Yorkshire at the time and when our church Minister found out, she asked me how I was going. I said I was hitching. I was unemployed, had no cash, just my allowance and needed help. So out went the telephone calls on my behalf. An hour later I got a call saying “I can get you as far as the tunnel that goes into Italy” [half way through France]. I was amazed so planned to meet two men somewhere nearby.

The following morning, I set off with a holdall and some spare clothes, my passport and a hopeful anticipation. I met two truckers at Rotherham and we set off south for Dover. The trip was pretty uneventful apart from them asking me why but what I did not understand was the fact that between our Minister and the owner of the haulage company, they had agreed to put me on their paperwork as a co-driver, so I did not have to pay for the ferry either. I was amazed really and now, looking back, I still am. We travelled onto the ferry, off the other side and then headed down some familiar countryside for me, who had done the same trip on two wheels a few years before. The time was spent in dozing half sleep or crazed coffee bouts when we stopped, but it was a great time. I cannot remember their names but I shall be ever thankful for those two men who drove me part way down to see my brother.

But the really amazing stuff was just about to begin. At Chamonix, the truck broke down. It was a refrigerated truck too with cow hides on, so it began to stink the town out. When they said it would be a day or so before they got moving, I decided to hitch hike from there to Avignon, a distance of about 400 miles I guess, but am not sure. So I wrote a place name further south on a piece of cardboard and SVP below it and hoped for the best. Within five minutes, I was on my way again, waving goodbye to the truckers from the back seat of an Alpha Sud.

Funny that it was going south, with a name like Sud.

At a spot near the Autoroute du Soleil, something very odd happened. The car I was in had to brake hard and hit the car in front. As they were all arguing, I thought this is my cue to get on with the journey and so I carried on my journey, again being picked up within minutes by a driver in an enormous, bulbous oil tanker.

But what happened next was even more amazing. The driver of the tanker asked me in broken English why I was heading south in March so in my broken French, I used world like “hopital” and “frere” and “Marseilles” to let him know. As soon as I had said that, he was onto the CB radio in the cab, jabbering away rapidly in French [could have been any language for me in my state] and then it happened. It rained! But it did not just pitter patter down. No, it belted it down! I was being stopped at every turn by fate, or someone more cruel than that, from getting to my brother. After about an hour of this rain, the tanker driver pulled over, stopped, pointed to the tanker at the side of him and told me that this was my next ride.

I couldn’t believe it!

Such kindness. Such graciousness. He had been organising my next lift all this time. It was simply unbelievable. That tanker took me as far as Montelimar, about 50kms from my brother’s house but by now it was getting late, so he stopped at a truck stop and left me to my devices. He pointed to the bar and the motel and gave me that look as if to say “it will be worth it mate.” So I got a room and bedded down for the night. I still had not gone through twenty four hours yet but was dog tired.

The following morning, I made sure I had some breakfast at the motel and then headed out to try the last 50kms. Within minutes I was visited by two men wearing guns at their side. If I had not seen the Gendarme uniform, I would have given birth there and then! They asked me where I was going, asked to see my passport and when I said where and why I was going to Avignon, [and then to Marseilles] they wished me well and left. Within ninety seconds, a white car pulled up and said he was going to Avignon on business, do I want a lift. Only 4k after that to his village and I am there. The man drove his car into the middle of the city, got out and did his banking and then set off. By now I am thinking the worst. This is Freddy Kruger in a beret! I had no idea where he was heading next. He had asked to see the address of my brother, to see if he was going anywhere near to my brother’s house but had shaken his head, not knowing the village.

I was clueless!

But then the most insane thing of all happened. As he was driving along country roads, my sense of déjà vu set in and I guessed what was happening. I had been on these roads before. He drove round one corner, over a roundabout and into Cabannes where my brother lives. Then I knew, he was taking me to the door. He did not have to do this but he chose to because of my predicament, just like the trucker, the two truckers before that and my church Minister. How did all of this happen? Was it a miracle in modern form? Or was it just a bunch of folk seeing an issue and getting in there to help and assist; modern good Samaritans as it were, or was some of it angelic?

I have no idea to this day and got there faster than I can drive there in a car [maybe not on a bike] which is nothing short of amazing really. Hitching should have taken me three days. I did it in about thirty hours; total. To this day, I stand amazed by it and by the fact that when I did see my brother, with broken legs, arms, head, wrist and both legs in a broche, I think to myself that someone was looking after me that day.

And yes, before you ask, this is a one hundred percent, bona fide, true story with just a hint of hyperbole. Your task is to find it.

An Idea from A Level English

Whilst with a student today, I reverted to something found in A Level English to help him to understand how to write for the new section B.

The task was to write about something that you, or someone you know, had to do and try really hard to do well. It could be real or made up and was based on a picture of a school football team Coach giving his lads a team talk at half time or before the game. It was all about trying hard and doing well.

So, I showed him a revised version of the A Level aide we use as teachers. It goes very loosely, like this:


In essence, it allows the reader a little bit of planning space, or the chance to plan and to be ultra creative at the same time. Other teachers will tell you planning is vital but to learn this list and to be able to memorise them will help you when it comes to writing in that section B of the exam.

Think about it. You have been asked to write about something that you have done that has been hard to do or achieve. What do you do? Panic? Possibly, but panic not my student body, for if you follow this plan, all will be well. See below for what I mean…

Set Scene = Under 21s Rugby team. Country = Scotland. Upcoming game to win championship games between 6 nations.

Chief Protagonist = Self, or a third person narrative character. Brought up in foster care. Problems with aggression and authority. Combustive relationship with Coach. But very good running forward; just overtly aggressive and always being sin binned or sent off. Give him a name which represents this. Oscar Strange?

Wider characters = his team, who are his only real family. They have been the defining force in his life. They are his levellers in life, his real mates, but he is injured two weeks before the final game.

Problem = injury two weeks before the last major game of the season and he wants to play. He has to play, in his head.

Resolution = He comes back from injury, to be on the bench for the final game, itching to get on to make a difference. His coach does not think he is needed but then there is a turning point in the game. He goes onto the pitch with minutes to go and scores the winning try.

Outcome = he wins and becomes so famous for this one event in his life. It is a Jonny Wilkinson moment for him. It does not matter that he does not do anything else worth the while in his career, so long as he is known solely for this.

With these thoughts in mind and only a few words written at the side of each heading, you would very easily be able to freely write a story of a time when you [as the rugby player] were able to do something that was hard.

So, now have a go yourself. The task is simple: Write about a time when you have had to something that has been very hard to do, using the plan as above. If you are a teacher reading this, try it with your students.


The Ten Most Cringe Worthy Student Mistakes That An English Teacher Has To Endure

The Ten Most Cringe Worthy Student Mistakes That An English Teacher Has To Endure

Have you ever considered why most English teachers are ageing before their time or have lots of grey hair? It is because sometimes, when a student makes a mistake, after hours of teaching them not to, the teachers shake their heads in despair and wonder just what they have been doing all of this time.

So here, without further ado, in no particular order, is a look at the top ten writing mistakes that you can make in your writing. Teachers, look away now!

  1. Your vs You’re

No matter how much you try, you cannot seem to get it right. Your teacher has tried. Your Mum and Dad have tried. Heck, even the Budgie has tried to make it sink in, but it hasn’t. Ever considered why YOUR and YOU’RE are so hard to fathom?

The answer lies in the human attitude to cutting corners. In writing, we cut corners by using an apostrophe, that horrible floating comma thing that confuses the hell out of most people. When we want to say YOU ARE we shorten it and miss out the A in the second word, joining them all together with the apostrophe, to make YOU’RE.

YOUR is a word that means it belongs to someone! It is YOUR book! It is as simple as that. But still, students get it wrong. Even my son gets it wrong and when I see him put the wrong one, it just makes me want to scream!

Please try to get these right!

  1. Being vs Been

My daughter does this one and it simply makes me want to cry. Check out this sentence: I have being to the shop!

Does it make sense to you? If it does, then there is something very wrong with your understanding of words in a sentence and it is based on the meaning and context of each word. The sentence should be: I have BEEN to the shop!

Try to think of it this way in future.

You are a human BEING. You have a sense of BEING. You can say to a child you are BEING nasty to your brother. But would you say you are been nasty to your brother? No? Of course not. It does not make sense. So please, try to think of what you are writing. Your grey haired English teacher will thank you for that little bit of thought before you write the word.

  1. There, Their and They’re

There is a right way to do something and there is a wrong way and sometimes, there are a lot of ways to play with the rules in anything, but in written English, when it comes to these three beauties, there is only one rule and that is this: Get them right!

So which is which [don’t get me started on which and witch, please]? Have a look at the three words in the context of the following sentence.

There was only one way that their shop was going to be sold.

The word there is one that denotes belonging. It is their book or their car. To add any other in when it denotes ownership is plain crazy. Likewise, when something or someone is over there, it means that is denotes a place. The car was parked over there. The bus crashed into the bus, over there.

So, place = there and ownership + their.

That just leaves the other, brain cringing one that people get wrong. There is a contraction of two words, a way of shortening something down, an example of brevity. The full two words should be they are and are written as they’re with an apostrophe inside and between the y and the r.

They’re going to their hotel over there!

See the placement of each one in that sentence? Please, get them right, for your ailing teacher’s sake. It drives us nuts when you get it wrong and mix them up.

  1. Write vs Right

This is another one that rankles and makes English teachers reach for the Gin bottle, or something stronger, when we see it.

There is a right way to do something and a wrong way. That is the context of this word right and how it is used but so many times in the last 20 years of teaching this subject, I have seen someone write something like:

The boy was asked to right something down on a piece of paper.

Oh my dear Lord, where is the sick bag? It turns my stomach to even write them down in this blog piece but so many students keep on making these mistakes, and believe me, you will not get a 4 [old fashioned C] if you consistently do this.

  1. The Dreaded Comma Splice

I am getting palpitations just thinking about what I am going to type next.

You know what a full stop is, yes? You know what it does, yes? It ends a sentence. It is as simple as that. So why, oh why, do so many of you do this:

The girl started to put on her make-up, she then went to the bedroom door and opened it, she saw a vision of beauty in front of her, the boyfriend had bought her a puppy.

Where’s the Valium anyone?

It is the sort of thing that destroys a piece of writing in Section B of the exam. You are asked to write about somewhere or someone, describing them in detail and then you do the above. Yuk!

If you look at the sentence I typed, for it is only one sentence, then you will see 35 words, 3 commas and a full stop, all started with a lovely capital letter.  However, it makes no sense whatsoever!

The correct way to write it is to use more full stops, or even a semi colon, like this:

The girl started to put on her make-up. She then went to the bedroom door and opened it; she saw a vision of beauty in front of her. The boyfriend had bought her a puppy.

Much better. Much neater. Much more meaning included. The first sentence would not get you a 4 grade from me, but the latter would get an 8 or thereabouts.

Please be careful out there.

  1. Scarred vs Scared

My wife makes this mistake, but she has an excuse; she struggles with dyslexia quite badly, but before she writes the correct word, she asks me and I clarify the matter for her.

Why do students get this one wrong? Well, they need to think about the word in its smallest part. The word scar refers to one single scar, say on the faced. You add the other r with the -ed ending and you have scarred just as much as pat and patted works in the same way. It is a common error that leads all English teachers to reach for the forks to stab themselves in the side of the head. It is such a simple, basic error and for anyone marking, is the first sign that a student does not know what they are doing. We as markers will let the odd one go, but do this throughout your exam script and don’t expect more than a 4 [the old fashioned C grade as was].

  1. Alot and Abit of a Pain

There are times in my teaching career when I have been marking exercise books and I have just wanted to groan and on occasion, jack the job in entirely. This mistake, when seen in a book or in an exam script, makes me cringe madly.

How a student can think that there is alot of pain when you fracture a leg is beyond me to be honest. Yes, there is a lot of pain when this thing happens, but the first effort is a bad one. Yes, there is a word spelt similarly and that is allot and to allot something means to give it out, like a ticket when allot a ticket to a person for a show. But to make such a stupid mistake as this, in my book, means you do not deserve a 4 grade if you do it all the time.

Similarly, I have seen lots of times when a student has written abit as a word to signify when someone has to wait abit. Just give me the drugs now if that is what you think is the right way to spell what are two words. I want to kill myself.

  1. Improper Use of Capital Letters

Have you ever stopped to think that things have capital letters for a reason? Names of people and places are proper nouns, so they have capital letters. When you type something on a computer, if you use MS Word, it corrects it for you, but to then add capital letters in randomly to words seems insane to anyone who has to read work completed by a student.

I have seen more than one student put capital letters into the middle of a word. So, a sentence like The boy crossed the road to enter the church has ended up being written like this…. The boY croSSed tHe roAd to enTer the ChurCh.

It looks odd when you type it but I see it daily from students and still to this day do not understand it. Claims of “I have done it like this all my life” are simply not good enough when it comes to an exam marker and you are here on this site looking for tips to improve your English skills. One simple one is this: do not use capital letters wrongly.

If something has a name like the capital city of Italy, then write it as Rome but please do not write rome or some other such abomination to the English language. Likewise, when something like a chair does not need a capital letter [because it is a common noun for common things] don’t write it as The boy sat on the Chair. It is mind sappingly wrong!

  1. The Battle Of The Tenses

English can be a tense and torrid thing to read if it is written badly. Did you see what I did there?

English words, when put together correctly, can be the most beautiful things in the world to the person seeing and hearing them but when they are butchered, then they are awful in their totality.

There are three tenses [but then there are subsections so do not panic] which are present tense, past tense and future tense. If you tell a story using past tense [the boy went to the shops], then keep it in past tense all the way through [apart from direct speech]. Do not, under any circumstances, think you are writing the sequel to Angela’s Ashes and mix them up. It will make zero sense and be impossible to read.

Try to remember this train of thought:

Past tense = stories about things that HAVE HAPPENED in the past.

Present tense = things happening in the here and now.

Future tense = things in the future.

But be careful. It is possible to write a sentence like The aeroplane took [past tense] off at 1120am and it took [past tense] three hours to get to its destination, but in future, the journey will [future tense word] because the journey route is [present tense] being changed [past tense word] as we speak [present tense word].

Generally speaking, the mistakes that students make are putting things like this together badly, not thinking of the meaning and how it will change when they add the wrong word.

Be careful please. This is the single most common error I see across all abilities, even the very clever ones.

  1. Bad Use Of Apostrophes

There is nothing worse for an English teacher than seeing words like couldnt and cant when they are not words as such. The first one does not exist as a word and the second one does not mean cannot. Get a dictionary and look up the word if you are not sure. Either way, when the apostrophe is used wrongly, it makes the English teacher so sad that they wonder just why they teach in the first place.

Consider this sentence for a second.

The man then asked, “isn’t there a way we could do this, or shouldn’t we be thinking of how we’d do it another way?”

Nothing wrong with the sentence, however banal it might be. Isn’t refers to is not and shouldn’t means should not.  All rather obvious. But have a go at reading it out as if there were no apostrophes. Then it becomes:

The man then asked, “is not there a way we could do this, or should not we be thinking of how we would do it another way?”

Is not there a way …. is very wrong when it comes to modern English. Maybe, two hundred years ago, some very high class person may have spoken like that, but not now, and we certainly do not write like that.

There is one simple rule that I teach my students and it is challenging so listen up. It is this: do not use an apostrophe if you do not need to.

Does that sound odd? Well consider that we use an apostrophe for omission [when we leave a letter out – can’t for can not etc] or for possession [Ralph’s book etc] but when we get them wrong, the result is bordering on insanity to read clearly.

By not using them at all, or as much as we can not use them, what happens is we have to rethink our words used. Instead of writing shouldn’t we write should not and so on. In essence, we then make less mistakes, our use of Standard English improves and we get better marks. Our use and command of the language gets better as well.

Leave apostrophes for direct speech when someone is speaking to another person. It is much easier that way.

These are the ten things that get my goat and send me for the bottle of beer. If you want your English teacher to keep his or her sanity, try to follow them. Please.

Happy writing!



Neighbours – Gillian Clarke

2017-09-23For readers nowadays to be able to understand this poem takes a reader who is into their world history. For the average reader in a school classroom, assuming they have not looked at Russian or Ukrainian history, such a poem may wash over them.

So, I urge you all now to research the following information. On 26th April, 1986, there was a nuclear disaster in a place called Chernobyl. It is responsible for 31 direct deaths and numerous others because of the nuclear fall out from the explosion there. Find out about it and do some digging on how it happened, why it happened and then look at what the UK was going through at the time, with the likes of the CND movement in this country, fighting something called Trident. No, that is not your work experience but a much more powerful thing indeed.

Go on, do some reading now!

So, you know about Chernobyl in some small way now, so when we come to read this poem, we begin to see how knowledge can help us to understand good, challenging poetry.

Clarke notes that the “Spring was late” in that year, beginning on a sombre tone, something to make the reader think about as they read. Upon a first reading, the reader is thinking okay, what is this about? The real meaning is hidden by the poet as she continues into line 2. She states how people studied weather charts and how “birds were late to pair” and mate with each other, leading the reader to think what has caused this? With the negative start, this makes the reader think something is coming that is bad. It sets that kind of tone as a poem.

The mention of Finland and how the bird population fails in its usual activity makes the reader think that something catastrophic happened in that “spring” but so far, there is no set thing, event or place to link these words to. In essence, the confusion continues for the reader, as they continue on through the poem.

The reference to birds “failing over fjords” is an interesting one, not only for the alliterative feel to it, but one normally associates Finland and the fjords as one of the most clean and healthy places on the planet, so for something to damage that sense of cleanliness must mean a global problem of some kind. But so far, there are only hints as to what. Now how good is your Geography? How well do you know where Finland is and where Russian and the Ukraine are? Is your knowledge up to date? If so, then this is a good thing, because when you realise just how close they are, you have a better chance to catch the sentiment and meaning of this poem as it progresses.

Those birds over the fjords breathe in the air and for each one there is a “sip of gall” because they are breathing in polluted air from somewhere. But then, with reference to “children” and milk being “spilt,” we begin to see that the effects of this event are now having a dangerous reaction in the lives of others, not just in what we know to be Chernobyl, but those nations who live close by. In a sense, there is a sense of globalism here, the belief that when there is a catastrophic event, it impacts people from all over the world, if you like, our neighbours who we live near. Neighbouring countries after Chernobyl suffered immensely with Cancer issues from the nuclear explosion. They still to this day struggle and the place cannot be lived in for some considerable time.

The first half of the poem is about that spring. The second half begins with “this Spring” and says something of what life is like now, thirty one years later. For us, life is tainted by this event. “Now we are all neighbours,” we find that each of us are related to each other because we share the same air, polluted air, air that damages us as we breathe it in. And so, we wait for the time when clean air can be once again taken into our lungs, a time when ideas of openness [Glasnost] can be a good thing.

This poem then is a metaphor for the dangers of nuclear fusion and the nuclear arms race. Was Clarke writing from the point of view of a CND member? Do some more research on her and see if she ever has been linked to the movement. If she has, then that is the driving force. If not, then she could just be making the connection between how we are neighbours and how we need to learn from such an event as Chernobyl. This then, is one very sombre but very effective poem.




One of the things I have loved in over twenty years of teaching is teaching poetry from other cultures because English students can fall into that tricky little trap of reading a poem from a writer from another culture and not understanding what is being shared at all. You see, they, like everyone, read any poem based on their background and experience.

Let us say for example, that a typically English student, living in the heart of the English countryside, reads this poem. He or she may not have any understanding of what it is like to live in the Caribbean, unless they see the news recently and all the mention of hurricanes and destruction. What they fail to see or understand is the harshness of normal life for some on islands in the middle of the Atlantic or Pacific. How can they understand what it is like to live there or to scavenge for work there when there isn’t any work at all and then try to understand the poem in front of them?

It is the teacher’s role to cross the boundaries of social and historical background when teaching these poems, just as much as it is for them teaching an Armitage poem and teaching their students about life as Simon Armitage sees it based on his life experience. If they are not doing that, then they are failing their students, in my humble, ageing opinion.

So, when we get to this Grace Nichols poem from her block of writing, we see someone writing about the islands she has lived on in the past. Married to John Agard will no doubt be a fun experience, but their shared love of English and of poetry allows them to write honestly, sometimes harshly and always beautifully.

Let me ask you a question. How much would you pay for the sun?

What does that mean? Can it have more than one meaning? I think this title has more than one meaning in it. After all, when she starts writing, she is doing so using Free Verse, using zero punctuation, making the reader pause at the end of each line, where punctuation should be. Because there is none there, you are supposed to pause. Thus, “These islands” becomes a statement in a way. “These islands” are home; beautiful in every way. But then she goes on to say they are not “picture postcards” that someone has created. No picture can fully bring about the fuller meaning of life on “these islands” and the reader should realise this is what she means from the beginning. She says “these islands real,” missing a word out of what we would call Standard English, using a ‘Creole’ of the English language to communicate. [If you are not sure on Creole, Google it and check please].

There is a reality for her in these islands because they are “more real than flesh and blood.” Now, we see the word “past” and we have to ask, because of the Creole style, whether or not she is saying the word in place of the word “except.” In other words, she is saying, “more real than flesh and blood except “these islands split bone.” Suddenly, there is a sense of harshness about life on these islands, as idyllic as they are. For mere British men and women, this would be a holiday destination, but to the islanders themselves, life here is nasty, brutish and for some, short. The phrase “split bone” is an interesting one, which makes the reader see that life is so tough that one has to be extra strong to survive there. But she is not being critical. She loves those islands. She loves what they stand for and what the culture is that exists there. To her, she is saying that there is no better place; there is no place like home.

In verse two, we see the poet extend those thoughts into a figure that is so central to her life, her mother. We sense closeness as we read how her “mother’s breasts like sleeping volcanoes” would be a source of rest for her when she was a youngster. By this, she is referring to those times when as a youngster, we go to mother for comfort and solace. We are in trouble, or in pain and we go to our mother for rest and peace, usually involving a huge cuddle, if we have that kind of relationship. There is then a reference to how those breasts know about the “Cancer tricking her below” and how the effect of such pain changes her mother and her mother’s outlook on life. The element of trickery is interesting too, for any kind of debilitating illness exists to wear you down until you are unable to fight any more. So, this is the poet looking back on the life [and demise] of her mother and thinking of her again. Read some of her other poems where she mentions mother and you will see her love for her shining from the poem.

But then she mentions her father and how his “tears” have been constantly whipped and turned into “salty hurricanes” showing us an element of real life on these islands. It reminds me of the poem Island Man in a way, but although the man in that poem is in London and dreaming of the Caribbean, this lady is reminiscing on the islands she lives or has lived on and is stating that these places are entrenched in her psyche. Words like “tears” and “salty hurricanes” evoke a certain image in the mind, one of pain and turmoil. This is a poor lifestyle, for certain, but it is a happy one too, for this woman inserts a glorious image at the end, as if to make her final point. She mentions “water mirroring palm” which makes me think of palm trees and the shadows they make on the sand, how the sea can make shapes that can mirror almost anything and how, after all this time away, she can see the true beauty of the place once again. It also makes one think of how nature mirrors our existence at times.

The last three lines are spectacular in their description because then we see the real meaning in her poem. This is almost polemic in its stance, for she is saying, to anyone who will read and listen, that “poverty is the price we pay for the sun.” We have sun here more or less all the time, she is saying, but the price we pay is that we remain poor. The ones with the money are outsiders. Now, the last two words, for me, can lead to confusion. At first, I was unsure how to take them. The words “run come” are oxymoronic yes, but what do they mean? The answer is that the reader is meant to consider that because of the way nature is portrayed as being brutal and that the islanders are seen as part of the land, the best thing to do is run away. There is a “run coming” may be a better way to understand the ending because she, along with her husband, did just that and emigrated from Guyana in the West Indies to a life away from their home. It is the story of so many West Indian people, who left for work and never came back. They sit in their relative luxury of home in which ever country they reside in now and look back to the motherland, their home, their sunshine paradise.

In this sense, this is a poem looking at the way nature is merged with humanity, how the islands are much more than mere images on a postcard or even, in the mind of those who are from there but have not seen home for some time. Because of that, this sits within what used to be called the ‘Poetry from Other Cultures’ section of anthologies, waiting to be read so that people from all over the world can see the reality of life for Caribbean islanders.

Cold Knap Lake – Gillian Clarke

Gillian Clarke poems tend to be a certain style, like most of us when we write, sharing a certain theme, whether that theme be beauty, nature, love, simplicity or any such theme. This one is no different and reminds this reader of a film starring Paul Newman, called Cold Hand Luke. Whether she intends this is not in question for that is only my memory playing tricks on me.

It is the telling of a memory of an event in the life of the person speaking, whether that is the poet’s memory, or her desire to write as if she was someone else for the purposes of this poem [for the latter, you need to remember that we poets tend to see something or read something and assume the person involved when writing].

She writes about how she is in a crowd of people, we assume to be young, who are observing the pulling from the water of a female body, who has the usual green silt trailing from her body because she has been in the water for some time before being found and rescued. We are not told how long at the beginning that she has been there but the words “Blue lipped” share an interesting description, which makes us see the picture of the oxygen starved body, her lips showing the early signs of decay and being under water. It is quite a grim description to set the scene for the reader so they sense that what is to follow will be grim also, or even worse. The reader is not told that she is alive or dead until the second verse when the “heroine” of the poem comes to the young girl’s aid and gives her mouth to mouth treatment in order to resuscitate her back to health. The “heroine” has her “red hair bowed” in this act of assistance and love. We call it the kiss of life in some parts of the world and so, here is this heroine trying to share what in other circumstances would be an act of love.

The word “wartime” sets this for us as being between the years of the second world war [1939-1945] so we are seeing a memory from some time ago, from the mind of a writer who I believe, is being autobiographical. We see that it is her “mother “giving “a stranger’s child her breath” and so we see an adult desperately trying to save a child who has ended up in the water. As she does this, “the crowd” of people stand in silence “drawn by the dread of it” and wondering with grim satisfaction, what will happen next.

Half way through the telling of this tale of woe, the third verse begins and we see the child spring from near death to life. But what happens next to the child is the most shocking thing of all in today’s liberal way of thinking and bringing up children. The child breathes in the air and is then thrashed [beaten] for getting into trouble when she gets home. She is punished for making others worry about her. Instead of a warm hug and a “how are you?” all she gets is a beating. We react negatively nowadays but back in these times, that would have been commonplace here in the UK, the almost expected thing from a parent. I remember times in the 60s when I got into trouble, apologised to the person, went home and got a beating for it, even though I had apologised. Physical violence was a much more accepted form of treatment back then and in some cases, was ignored. We live today in a much more humane world.

Then, in line 15, the poet asks if she was there at the time; in one sense, this is strange but it can be understood. Is it a memory or has she made some of it up over the years? That kind of thing tends to happen as you get older. Memories become muddled with time and usage. She is questioning the reality of it after so many years so this is normal for such an experience. It is a memory of a traumatic episode. But is she asking something else here as well? Was I there” could mean that she is referring to herself as the young girl in the lake, almost like allegory or parable in the telling of this harrowing story. If she means this then it means she is the girl and the mother is a “stranger” to her, suggesting displacement within the family setup. If so, and it is a small ‘if’ then the penultimate verse is one that is reflecting on the event in such a way as to ask, “is that troubled surface something else?” She reflects how “satiny mud blooms in cloudiness” and therefore, is asking if she has the memory right, especially since the brain does some strange things at the point of danger.

Either way, whether she is being autobiographical or not, what we have in the last two lines is a sense of “all lost things” laying at the bottom of the lake, under the water, “in that lake with the poor man’s daughter.” It is then, a poem of harrowing certainty. It is one that shares a story so horrible that the title suddenly comes into play. The words “cold” and “lake” are straightforward enough, but the word “knap” will make the younger reader wonder about what is being meant. It is the name of a lake in Wales where this happened.

But the poet is asking us to consider just how much our memories are useful in relating stories. We always tend to embellish our stories on each telling so that when we have told them a hundred times, it is not the story we began with. This is normal and a sign of passing times and age. Clarke is looking back on a story but looking at the present and asking is the past as accurate as I think? When I look at my life over the past four decades of life since I began work at sixteen, I think back and there is a certain element of truth to my memories but a huge amount of what I tell that is questionable. That is what this poem is asking us to consider in our life.