Ten Takeaways from ‘How to Teach English’ by Jennifer Webb

My main priority this summer-from a work perspective- is to do a lot of reading. I’ve got a notepad which I’m keeping with me as I read, and I’m jotting ideas down as I read. I offered on Twitter to share some of my reflections, and it was met with a positive response, so I’m going to go ahead and process some of my ideas in this post.

I saw Jennifer Webb speak at the Team English National Conference, and I absolutely loved her opening keynote, which had us all laughing and reflecting on our roles as English teachers. I immediately decided to buy her new book; I have seen a lot of positivity around it on Twitter so it was an easy choice to read. Below are 10 ideas/activities/thoughts I had when reading it – it’s not in chronological or any other type or order. Let me know if you’ve read it and agree, or took something else away.

1. Solar System Planning

I’ve tweeted about this already, so have a look at my feed for an image of this. Essentially it’s a way for students to map out their essay responses, with a visual representation of how each element of the essay relates to the others elements. If printed big enough, I think students will be able to really develop their ideas and build a cohesive argument.

I think this is a great way for students to build from recalling knowledge into full essay planning. It will ensure students are going through periods of elaboration and building their essay writing skills without writing their full essay. In Daisy Christodoulou’s ‘Making Good Progress’, she uses the analogy of marathon runners who do not train by running marathons every day. I think, as English teachers, we can fall into the trap of just getting students to “do essays” without any targeted skill development. I feel like the structure of this planning might provide a bridge from recall to essay writing.

2. A New Perspective on Modelling

I love modelling. I think it’s extremely valuable in the classroom, especially in developing students’ critical writing style. Sometimes, when I’m modelling, I want students to write it down too, to know what it feels like and looks like to write at a high level. Webb argues that it’s an important part of classroom practice, and goes through various modelling processes. I worry about it looking lazy – students just copying what I do, but I like what she says: “This isn’t simply copying, it is them coming along with me and being part of the process”. I particularly like the idea of them writing it and leaving lines as they write, then going back through the model after and annotating it using a success criteria. I feel like this would add another layer to the impact of live modelling.

3. Teaching Literary Criticism

I have taught some basic criticism to students aiming for a grade 9 before. I think it’s a tricky topic between English teachers – a lot would argue that it’s not necessary at GCSE level. Which is undoubtedly true – one of my students gained a grade 9 last year, and I hadn’t taught him any literary criticism. I think, as Webb discusses, critical theory provides the bridge to A Level. It also helps students to begin to understand there isn’t one way to read a text – they aren’t the only reader, in their current context. The simplified versions of critical theories provided in the book are useful for the classroom too.

5. Ideas About Symbolism

My ideas about this started during the speech at the Team English National Conference, where our automatic association of literary symbols were used by Webb to evidence how students do not have the same language as us when reading texts. In the book, she also discusses how our society is shifting away from basic knowledge of literary ideas, and that the younger generation do not have the same cultural capital as we might expect. There is a great chapter where all the key symbols are listed – and I plan to begin sharing this with students.

6. Sharing the Research with Students

I try to do this as often as possible, but I’m not sure I’m that great at it. I try to explain the research. Or I just tell students “Trust me, I know what I’m doing… I’ve read the fun cognitive science stuff”… but that’s probably not enough. So I really enjoyed Webb’s analogy for recall, and I feel like it might be worth developing analogies for other important learning strategies. The idea is that long term memory as a field of wheat, and making a path to new information is hard at first, but essentially the more you do it, the easier it gets as you beat the path down. It’s a clever way of explaining it, which I’m going to use with Year 11 the first week back.

7. Levels of Analysis

Another practical idea I have taken away is ‘Pyramid Analysis’ – the idea that students’ analysis should include different levels: text level, line level, word level and sound level. This is an interesting way to encourage students to hone in on specific elements of the text. These levels are placed into a triangle shape so that students start with the whole text then move their way to the narrow part of the triangle. Also, there are some great analytical paragraphs provided which follow this structure;  I love reading model examples written by other teachers, so these are great!

8. Reconsidering Revision Menus

In my NQT year, I made a ‘Takeaway’ homework for Year 11 out of a nandos menu. I posted it on Tes, and it was, and still is, quite a popular resource. I kind of laugh at that naïve teacher who spent days faffing with a menu and didn’t do enough with it – let students pick tasks, it had some not very useful revision on it, and I didn’t really track how it was going. There is an argument in the book for revision menus, which are structured in terms of time length, and students must make up an hour. It is also expected that students must complete all tasks from memory, ensuring retrieval practice is taking place (something that was lacking on my old NQT Nandos menu!)

9. Poetry Crush

Another little activity my Year 11 will definitely benefit from is the poetry crush activity, where you make a new poem by taking lines from the poems in the cluster. Webb creates these herself, and gets students to annotate them with analysis and comparison points from memory, as an example of variation. I also think there is potential for students to create these themselves, to identify a recurring word or image across the poems and use the lines to create their own poem.

10. Write Like a Literary Critic

David Didau did some literacy training at my old school, and he talked about the importance of students being able to talk through their ideas in an academic way – if they can’t verbalise their thinking, they definitely won’t be able to write it correctly. Webb expands on this in detail, and it helped me to think of specific, practical ways to ensure my students write like critics. This isn’t isolated to one page of the book, in fact the whole chapter on writing revolves around how to improve students’ academic fluency. I feel like I have made efforts to do this in the past, but I’m not sure I’m consistent enough with it, so I decided to use some ideas from the book, along with how I usually teach it, to finally make a display. My very able year 10 students have been asking for a display which includes all the words I ‘drop in’ to lessons, and the sentence structure I try to reinforce all the time. Reading this book gave me the drive to get it done. I’ve put it on the front wall in a large blank wall space where all students can see it, and it’s going to be my main focus with Year 11 this year.  I’ve already shared it on Twitter, but the display is available on Tes, for free, here.


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