7 Tips for Using Background Knowledge to Improve Students’ Literary Analysis

Last month, I wrote about how to help your students analyze language. However, we’ve all read literary analysis essays that are mostly just a list of language features and their effects. To use this skill effectively, students need to be able to relate the language to the wider themes of the text and to the author’s purpose for using those language devices. In short, they need to deeply understand the meaning of text.

In today’s post, I want to explore the role of background knowledge in literary analysis, and give you some ideas for how you can both build your students’ background knowledge and teach them how to apply it to their analysis. The importance of background knowledge for reading comprehension is well-supported by research. If you want to know more about that, I recommend starting by reading some work by Daniel Willingham and Natalie Wexler.

In high school ELA, we tend to take surface-level comprehension for granted, unless we’re working with a text with particularly complex or archaic language. However, insightful analysis of a text’s characters and themes is essentially advanced comprehension; it just involves comprehending meaning that is more layered and nuanced than a simple plot summary. So, it makes sense that building background knowledge would help students add depth and sophistication to their understanding of the underlying ideas of a text.

There’s a great example of how background knowledge helps with literary analysis in Paul Bambrick-Santoyo and Stephen Chiger’s Love and Literacy, which I highly recommend if you’re looking for great advice on using annotation, writing, and discussion to teach literature in a way that is meaningful for your students (I get a small commission if you purchase through the link above – this doesn’t cost you any extra and I only link to products I’m enthusiastic about!). They’re looking a scene from Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home that references this line from The Great Gatsby:

“This fella’s a regular Belasco. It’s a triumph. What thoroughness! What realism! Knew when to stop, too–Didn’t cut the pages!”

Two pieces of background knowledge help us unpack this scene. First, David Balasco was a famous theatre producer who was known for making his sets look incredibly real. From this, we can tell that the speaker is impressed by the appearance of realism in Gatsby’s library – he’s impressed by the façade rather than by Gatsby actually being well-read.

Secondly, in the 1920s, when Gatsby was written, books were printed on large sheets of paper that were folded up into smaller pages. Readers would need to cut the pages apart to read the book. Since Gatsby “didn’t cut the pages,” we know that he has not read the books in his library, and that the whole room is really just for show. This gives us greater insight into the chasm between Gatsby’s reality and the face he presents to the world. Bambrick-Santoyo and Chiger go on to explore how these and other pieces of context can be applied to deeply understand the Gatsby reference in Fun Home.

To be honest, when I first read about that example, I was a bit overwhelmed. Are you telling me that by the time they read Gatsby my students should somehow just know about 1920s publishing practices and big names in 20th-century set design?

The answer to that, of course, is no. Texts like Fun Home and Gatsby provide us with the opportunity to build background knowledge in a context where it can immediately be applied to further their understanding of the text. What this example does illustrate, however, is how crucial background knowledge is for understanding a text, not just in the sense of knowing what’s going on, but in understanding the choices made by the author. Why does Fitzgerald reference Balasco? Why does it matter that the pages of Gatsby’s books are uncut? These are questions that relate directly to Gatsby’s characterisation and to the themes of the novel, and they cannot be answered if students aren’t given the information.

This example also points to the importance of background knowledge that is thorough and detailed, rather than just a few surface-level facts. Watching a movie with a similar historical setting is a great way to get students acquainted with the ‘feel’ of the setting before they study a text, but it doesn’t provide the kind of details that will generate insight. Likewise, basic biographical information about an author may be interesting, but without delving into the details it’s probably not going to add a huge amount to your students’ analyses.

I’ve split the seven tips in this post into two categories; first, advice for integrating knowledge-building into your literature and ELA lessons, and then suggestions for teaching students to actually apply their newfound knowledge in their analysis.

Integrating knowledge-building into your lessons

1.     Assign tiered texts to build knowledge cumulatively

Reading is, of course, a great way to build knowledge. It’s particularly effective if you give students a sequence of multiple texts about the same topic, starting with a simple text and working up to more sophisticated ones that require students to draw on the information they learned at earlier in the sequence. You probably do some context and pre-reading work before your class dives into a novel – think about how you can select and sequence 2-4 (or more) short texts introduce knowledge that will be useful when reading the main text.

Non-fiction articles are great for this, of course, but you don’t have to stop there. Consider poems by the same author or from the same time period; news articles about relevant historical events; picture books; short stories; videos; podcasts; philosophical essays – anything that provides background knowledge and, for later in the sequence, prompts students to apply the knowledge they’ve already learned. Some of these, especially the simpler texts, are best for the start of the unit, while others will be more relevant after students have read some of the text. Here’s a couple of examples of sequences I use:

Beowulf (usually ages 13-14)

  1. Article about the characteristics of epic poetry (we read this while studying either The Epic of Gilgamesh or The Odyssey, or both, so those two texts are really also a part of this sequence).
  2. Video of the Lord’s Prayer in Old English
  3. Short one-page summary of the plot of Beowulf
  4. One-page overview of the context of the poem, written for middle-schoolers
  5. Excerpt from Spark Notes about the tensions between Christianity and the Germanic heroic code
  6. Longer article about Viking blood feuds
  7. Bible verses related to Christian ideas about vengeance

Frankenstein (Ages 14-17)

There is a lot of good stuff to read related to Frankenstein, and unfortunately there’s just not time for it all. I usually have students read one of a selection of articles and then report back to the group about what they’ve learned. I’d prefer for them all to read each article themselves, as I know a lot of juicy knowledge gets lost in translation, but I try not to let perfect be the enemy of good and ensure that the knowledge we need is somewhere in the room, at least.

You can find out more about my online Frankenstein course here.

  1. Mary Shelley episode of the BBC podcast You’re Dead to Me (I recommend this to my students but sadly don’t have time in class to listen to it all)
  2. School of Life video about Romanticism
  3. Article about the conventions of Gothic literature
  4. Article about the trip to the Villa Diodati and the storytelling competition that led Shelley to write Frankenstein.
  5. Video summary of the Icarus myth from Overly Sarcastic Productions – we watch this as a part of a debate about the costs and benefits of ambition, but it also ensures that students will understand other references to this very popular Greek myth, whether it’s in Hamilton or Die Another Day.
  6. Article about the scientific discoveries and theories that inspired Shelley.
  7. Article from The Conversation (one of my favourite sources of supplemental texts!) about whether artificial intelligence should have rights.

Incidentally, I think that the need for background knowledge is a strong argument in favour of the now somewhat old-fashioned chronological survey course. Teaching texts chronologically allows students to apply their knowledge about an older text to one that came after it; they can see what an author might be influenced by or reacting against, and understand both the literary and historical context that led to a text’s creation. There are plenty of arguments for a thematic approach as well, of course. Either way, think about how you can build knowledge in one unit that will also be applicable to texts you study later in the year.

2.     Give students the knowledge they need at the exact time that they need it

Reading supplemental texts before and during reading a novel is great for big concepts, but it’s less helpful for the granular details, like the page-cutting example from Gatsby. In these cases, it’s best to be prepared to give them the knowledge at the moment when they need it.

As I’ll discuss in more detail below, ideally this will happen when the students themselves realise that they’re missing some important information. However, especially when you’re getting started, it’s likely that your students will simply skim over the things that don’t make sense to them. You’ll need to slow them down and point out spots where some background knowledge would help.

It’s tempting to take ideas from the floor in this scenario – “does anyone have any ideas for what “didn’t cut the pages” might mean?” – but I try to avoid this. Asking students to fill in this knowledge from their own brains can make them feel as if they’re supposed to already know it, which can be a blow to their belief that they can do well in English. It also invites guessing and the embedding of misconceptions, and there’s no guarantee that your students will remember the correct information they give them and not the wild guesses of their neighbour. So, just tell them what they need to know, and have them apply their brainpower to applying that knowledge to the text.

3.     Integrate extra bits of knowledge into grammar practice and test prep

Ideally, we’d like our knowledge-building to be very systematic, and this is certainly what I’d go for when it comes to planning knowledge related to the major texts in our courses. However, there is so much other knowledge out there that will enrich our students’ lives and help them understand texts and the world better. So, I look for any opportunity to throw a bit more knowledge their way. Thankfully, I don’t have to do a lot of test prep, but if students are preparing for a multiple-choice reading comprehension test I always try to have them practice with passages that are rich in interesting and valuable knowledge.

Run-on Sentence Correction Example from my History of Ancient Literature Collection

The main way I integrate extra knowledge into my teaching, though, is through my grammar teaching. Rather than using super-generic examples and exercises about my students’ everyday lives, I write sentences about knowledge I want my students to know. For instance, run-on sentences are by far the biggest grammar issue I see in my students’ writing, so I wrote a series of over one hundred run-on sentences for them to correct that take them through the history of literature, from the earliest writing to the twentieth century. I start each lesson with one or two of these, always ensuring I include a bit of discussion to get students focusing on the content as well as the grammar. My students won’t remember everything from these exercises, but they’re remember some of it, and that puts them ahead of where they’d be otherwise. Any time our students learn a bit of extra knowledge they’d otherwise miss out on, we’ve done them a great service.

4.     Get students writing about their new knowledge

It’s not enough to just give students new information, or even to have them immediately jump to applying it to the text. If we want students to deeply understand and take ownership of their new knowledge, they need to write about it. This can be as simple as a few sentence-writing tasks that get them putting the information into their own words and expressing it in different ways, or you might assign longer tasks that require them to dig deeper and think about both the big ideas and the small details.

For my students, I normally ask them to write single-sentence answers along the way as they read an article, allowing me to check for understanding while also getting them to engage with the content beyond just highlighting it or reading it back to me. Then, after completing the reading, we’ll write a summary paragraph that requires them to pull out the most important information that they’ve learned. These summary paragraphs become a great resource for them to draw on as we move onto the next stage: using that knowledge to analyse texts.

Teaching students to use background knowledge in their analysis

1.     Make knowledge part of the annotation process

If, like me, you use annotation as your main tool for getting students thinking about the text, you’ll definitely want to make background knowledge a part of the annotation process. If you teach a color-coded system or an acronym that gives your learners some structure to guide them through a text, add in a ‘knowledge’ or ‘context’ component.

A lot of what we’re trying to do here is increase our students’ awareness of when some additional knowledge might help them get more out of a text. Students tend to be quick to assume that if something doesn’t make sense to them, it’s because of a problem with either the text or the student, rather than something we can do something about. I think that a huge part of English teaching is getting students to recognise that there are things they can do when they don’t understand a text.

So, the first thing we want to do is have students mark any parts of the text where they think they’re missing some context. Chances are you already have them marking parts of a text they find confusing, but it’s useful to have them attempt to distinguish between parts where the syntax is a bit tricky and the parts where they need some outside information to help them. This will help them work out what kind of strategy to apply to figure out each confusing bit of text – do they need to slow down and figure out the relationships between the words, or do they need to do some research? Asking this question will also help to ward them off simply typing every challenging line into Google.

In addition to marking their knowledge gaps, I encourage my students to jot down in their annotations when they see a part of the text that they can apply their existing knowledge to. This is a part of recording their thought process about the text. It also wraps in some retrieval practice, since they’ll need to remember the information in enough detail to write it down, and it helps them practice the application of knowledge to their analysis.

2.     Give research time and strategies

Once your students have identified some lines from the text that they think some background knowledge would help them with, give them the time and the strategies they need to find at least some of that information for themselves. This is a chance to develop research skills, too; sometimes, simply typing the relevant part of the text into Google will yield an explanation, but with more obscure texts a bit more digging can be required. This is a chance for students to practice finding key words and skimming multiple sources to find what they need. Obviously, you won’t have time for every student to do this with every text, but weaving a quick research task into a few close reading tasks or assigning a student to be ‘researcher of the day’ will remind your students that the knowledge they need is accessible to them if they take the time to look for it.

3.     Give students the knowledge and ask them to apply it

While having students research the missing knowledge themselves centres the knowledge itself, this approach is a bit more efficient and puts the focus on actually using that knowledge to deepen one’s understanding of a text. The key here is to offer a bit of knowledge without explaining exactly how it applies to the text. Then, hand over the reins to your students and let them do the mental heavy lifting of working out what light that information sheds on what they’ve been reading. I tend to weave this kind of question into my close reading exercises, such as these questions from my short story digital close reading activities:

Knowledge is Power

I hope this post has given you some ideas for how to integrate knowledge-building into your literature classes and use it to help your students think more deeply about the texts they’re studying. This is yet another example of how knowledge-rich teaching isn’t just about stuffing students’ heads full of lists of facts for no apparent purpose – knowing more about the world helps us think more deeply about the world. That’s why I continue to centre knowledge-building in my teaching and in the resources I make for you!

Resources to help you

The majority of the resources I create have a knowledge-building component, but here are a few that I think are particularly relevant for teaching literature:

History of Literature Run-On Sentence Correction Tasks

These will give your students an overview of the literary conventions and intellectual history of the major periods in literary history, while also getting them to practice crucial grammar concepts. Includes a PowerPoint slide option with a related image for each sentence, which provides additional context and is a great jumping-off point for further discussion and knowledge-building.

Run-on Sentence Correction History of Literature Bundle

Short Story Digital Close Reading Tasks

The resources for ‘The Open Window’ and ‘The Cask of Amontillado’ include a slide with important background knowledge, while contextual information is included throughout the ‘Miss Brill’ resource. I’ve focused on providing knowledge about topics that will be useful for other texts as well.

The Cask of Amontillado by Edgar Allan Poe Digital Close Reading
Miss Brill by Katherine Mansfield Digital Close Reading
The Open Window by Saki Digital Close Reading

Resources for specific historical periods

My Great Depression Sentence Writing Bundle will get your students writing about the key aspects of this important historical event, and is a great way to establish solid background knowledge before reading The Grapes of Wrath or Esperanza Rising. The tasks are based on an article which is available for free on CommonLit, but can also be used with other sources containing similar information.

If you’re teaching the Odyssey, Greek mythology, or perhaps a contemporary novel set in ancient Greece, my bundle of reading passages and writing tasks will give your students an overview of four key periods in Ancient Greek history. This set includes tasks for writing both sentences and paragraphs to help build deeper knowledge and develop writing skills at the same time.

Great Depression Writing Tasks Bundle
Ancient Greece Reading Passages and Writing Tasks Bundle

How to Teach Your Students to Analyze Literary Devices

Are your students literary train-spotters? Do their text annotations mostly consist of the names of poetic devices? Do they have random sentences in their literary analysis essays where they mention that a quotation they’ve used contains a metaphor, without saying anything about how it works or why the author put it there?

It’s one of the eternal English teacher problems – after intensive practice, our students eventually learn to identify the different types of figurative language, but they still can’t analyse those devices. Unfortunately, simply mentioning the name of a language feature does nothing to add depth to a student’s argument or understanding. Not only does this lead to worse essays and assignments, but it also reinforces students’ suspicions that annotating and close reading texts for language is a pointless, meaningless endeavour.

This problem is exacerbated, I think, by the many lesson plans and activities for teaching figurative language that focus solely on understanding what each language feature is, rather than on how and why they’re used. Students spend hours every year looking at examples and definitions of metaphor, alliteration, simile, personification and the rest without getting concrete guidance on how to uncover the layers of meaning behind those devices. Then, suddenly, they’re being asked to talk about the effect and purpose of the techniques they’ve identified, and they have no idea where to start. To make matters worse, it seems like their teacher (and some of their peers) can just do it, coming up with original interpretations on the spot. In this scenario, students can be forgiven for thinking that they just don’t have a talent for literary analysis and may as well go straight to the SparkNotes.

How do we solve this problem and help our students succeed in – maybe even enjoy – analysing language? Through explicit, replicable strategies that students can apply to any language they come across, and careful scaffolding to allow every student to master those strategies. Here’s my step-by-step guide to teaching students to analyse figurative language and other literary devices:

The teaching of language features often begins with the teacher handing out a huge, multi-page table with all of the devices they expect their students to learn and use in their analysis. The table probably includes the name of the language technique, a definition, and an example. The problem is that students are then faced with a huge number of apparently unrelated terms and definitions to master. It’s overwhelming, and this makes it hard for them to see the underlying patterns and commonalities.

Instead, try introducing just a few devices – no more than five – at a time. Choose related devices. For instance, I begin with introducing imagery devices – simile, metaphor, and personification. Then I do sound devices – assonance, consonance, alliteration, sibilance, and onomatopoeia. Whatever groupings you choose, they key is that they should be devices that have similar types of effects and can be analysed in similar ways.

Once you’ve chosen the devices you’re going to teach, give your students the name of each technique, a definition, an example, and a sentence or two about the general effect of that device. That last one is crucial – we want to centre the meaning of each device right from the start.

Now is also the time to do some quick practice identifying and distinguishing between the different techniques. To reduce the cognitive load burden, we do want to make sure that students can easily distinguish between a simile and a metaphor before we ask them to learn how to analyze them. Throw a few examples on the board and ask students to identify each one. When you’re confident they know what each technique is, your students are ready to move on to step two.

Step Two: Show them what to look for
analyzing sound devices worksheet

Using the general effects you provided for each technique in step one, give your students 2-4 things they should consider when deciding on the effect of the example in front of them. For some examples, your entire list may be relevant; for others, perhaps only one of those effects is in play. In any case, these effects will be specific to the category of literary devices you’re teaching – while there is definitely some overlap, we generally need to analyse imagery very differently to how we analyse sound devices or syntax. As an example, this is what I tell my students to look for when we’re working on sound devices:

  • How they highlight links between related words
  • How they affect the mood of the text
  • How they enhance the effects of other language features, particularly imagery

Introduce one of these effects at a time, providing examples and explanations for each. Then, give students some highly-scaffolded individual practice with that effect. Since students are just getting started, I like to bold the parts of the quotation that actually show the poetic device in action, and I give them sentence templates to show them how to write about this specific effect. Providing this level of scaffolding means that all of your students should be able to experience success in analysing language from the start. When they’re writing about how sound devices enhance imagery, for instance, I give the following sentence frames:

  • The ________________ in these lines echoes the sound of ____________________, which contributes to the ____________________ mood in this part of the text.
  • [Author] uses _______________ in this line to imitate the sound of ______________, emphasizing _________________________________________________.

Worried that telling your students what to look for will inhibit their creativity or stop them seeing things that don’t fit into the template? Don’t be. Remember, this is just step one, and you only need to do a few examples with this level of scaffolding. If you have very able students who are proposing good interpretations that don’t fit the pattern, go ahead and encourage them! But make sure that they also grasp the common effects that they’ll draw on again and again. Meanwhile, your students who have always been mystified by the meaning behind authors’ language choices will have gained a concrete starting point.

Step Three: Practice identifying good analyses

This is a great activity that sets your students up for success while also providing a valuable formative assessment opportunity. Many students struggle to produce a good analysis simply because they don’t know what a good analysis looks like.

Take some time to discuss what makes an analysis good. I like to highlight that a good analysis should be specific about which techniques are used and where, why the author has used those techniques, the effects of the techniques on the reader, and the ideas that techniques draw our attention to.

Then, give your students an example of a language feature and two short analyses of it, where one is clearly better than the other (these analysis pairs are included in my language analysis activities for imagery and sound devices to save you having to write your own!) Make sure that they’re both around the same length – we don’t want it to be too easy! Ask them to choose which analysis they think is better and justify their choice. The second part is crucial, because it demands that students articulate for themselves what a good analysis requires. You can add further rigor here by having students debate about any examples they disagree on – get them to hash it out by providing their own reasoning, rather than telling them which one you think is best.

If your students struggle with this task, I recommend doing some more practice with steps two and three before moving on. Again, if they can’t identify a good analysis, they’re unlikely to produce one.

Step Four: Independent practice

Once your students have practiced successfully identifying each technique, writing about the technique’s common effects using sentence templates, and identifying what makes an analysis a good one, they’re ready to try out analysing some techniques on their own. I still recommend giving them short examples to analyse at this stage, so that they’re focused on perfecting the skill of analysing this type of literary device, and not on all the other components of making sense of a text. This does mean that their analyses will be missing the relevance of the device to the wider text – but they’ll be well-prepared to bring that in when they get to step five.

Here, we can keep things simple – give them a quotation of a few sentences or less than contains at least one of the language features you’ve been working on. I usually leave off the bolding at this stage to give students more flexibility about what devices they want to focus on, but you can bold the techniques if you think your own learners need that additional support.

Have students write a few sentences analysing each quotation, using all the strategies you’ve taught them. Some may go back to the sentence templates from earlier, while others will be ready to branch out. Some might need to check back on the examples they’ve seen already, or double-check the kinds of effects related to that technique. But all of them should have the knowledge in place to be able to produce an analysis. Since you’ve already practiced evaluating analyses, this will also provide a great opportunity for self- or peer-assessment. Give plenty of practice at this stage, and repeat it often – as a starter or bell-ringer activity, or as some review in amongst going through the process again with a new set of literary devices. Then, when they’re adept at analysing devices in isolation, you can move onto step five and start exploring how those skills can be applied in the context of longer texts.

Step Five: Analyze language in context

This is the final step, and it’s important not to rush it. Chances are, this is what your goal was when you started introducing all these figurative language devices – you want your students to use their analysis of these devices to draw more meaning from the texts you’re studying as a class.

At this stage, it’s important to ask your students to expand on their analysis by commenting on how the language contributes to the theme or the author’s purpose in creating the text. If you’re working with essential questions, discuss how language contributes to the answers offered by the text. This linking between the micro effect of a single language feature and the macro effect of the text as a whole is the last step in creating meaningful language analysis that feels like it’s actually worth doing.

If the text your students are studying in your class right now is particularly long or complex, consider easing students into this step by practicing with a short story or poem. This allows them to start thinking on a whole-text level without needing to first master an entire complex novel. If you use devices in your classroom, my short story digital close reading activities provide a great opportunity to practice both language analysis and other ways of making meaning from a text.


So that’s that – five steps that will take your students from being mystified and demotivated to intelligent analysts of authors’ language choices. If you like the sound of this strategy but think that all the resources and planning sounds like a lot of work, you’d be right! Lucky for you, you can get my worksheet sets for teaching students to analyze imagery and sound devices in my Teachers Pay Teachers store! Resources for teaching diction, rhetorical devices, and structure are also in the works, so keep an eye on my store and social media for those. I’d also love to hear in the comments below about your favourite ways to support your students in analyzing language in your ELA classroom!

Knowledge-Rich Tutoring: My Interview on the Qualified Tutor Podcast

A few weeks ago, I spoke with Ludo Millar on the Qualified Tutor Podcast about my knowledge-rich tutoring approach. Qualified Tutor is a brilliant UK organisation with a mission to raise the status and value of tutoring as a profession by establishing professional standards through sharing our best practices, and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to participate in that. It was a great conversation, and I hope you’ll give it a listen at one of the links below:

Here are a few of the ideas I discussed in the episode:

  • Reading, writing, and thinking are inextricably connected; when we build one, we’re really building all three.
  • A good education enables students to read and understand a text in detail, think about it and form their own opinion, and express that opinion in a way that can be understood by others – in short, we should be teaching students to read carefully, write clearly, and think deeply.
  • The best way to develop those capabilities isn’t through isolated skills instruction; it’s by giving opportunities to practice them in the context of building knowledge.
  • To see the benefits of the huge amount of knowledge we have access to now, at least some of that knowledge needs to actually be in your brain, where you can think about it, make connections, and apply it in new ways.
  • Students like learning new knowledge! Lessons about how people lived in ancient Mesopotamia will always be more fun than lessons about paragraph structure – and the former will probably result in better paragraphs, too.
  • Learning new facts gives students an immediate sense of progress, which maintains motivation through the slower process of improving literacy.

All this is discussed in more detail in the episode, along with my thoughts on how to do knowledge-rich tutoring effectively, and where I see Scholar’s Atelier going next. To get you started, here’s a short clip where I explain what I mean by knowledge-rich tutoring:

Ready for more? Here are those links again:

How to make any text relevant to your students using essential questions

The Relevance Trap

It’s become the go-to question when English teachers are looking for new texts to teach: My students don’t read the books I used to assign. These old books don’t have anything to do with my students’ lives. They can’t see themselves in my usual texts. What new texts can I teach that are relevant to my students?

We all want our students to be engaged in our classes. We also want them to feel like their experiences are important and worthy of study, and teaching a range of diverse texts is undoubtedly an important part of showing them that this is the case.

However, especially as New Zealand looks set to require English classes to focus heavily, if not exclusively, on New Zealand literature, I can’t help but feel that it’s extremely limiting to suggest to our students that the only way to relate to a text is through characters that share our race, ethnicity, nationality, sexuality, gender, age, or other group membership. Those identities are hugely important to us, but they’re only a part of the total human experience. In addition, no one text is ever going to seem relevant to everyone – increasing the diversity of texts we teach should be as much about confronting students with different experiences as it is about validating their own.

That’s why, rather than choosing texts based on relevance and student interest, I think we should be designing our teaching to show students how a text can be relevant to them, and to teach students to seek out that relevance by consciously applying what they read to their own experience of the world. I’ve been trying to do this ever since I started teaching, but it’s really only been since I started experimenting with Essential Questions that I started to see students truly making those connections and taking ownership of the texts. And essential questions haven’t just increased engagement – they’ve also helped me guide students to some of the core knowledge at the heart of English.

The Theory Bit: Making the Subjective Objective

(This bit of the post digs into some of the academic theory behind why I think essential questions are such a powerful tool. If you want to get straight to the practical classroom application of these ideas, feel free to skip to the next section!)

There are plenty of arguments for the importance of knowledge in education, and about why the move away from knowledge has been so disastrous, especially for disadvantaged students. However, this has always posed a bit of a problem for me as an English teacher. While I find it relatively easy to point to the knowledge in science or history, in my own topic things seem a bit more nebulous. I’ve fallen back before on language techniques, and grammar, and knowing about major authors and texts, and I do believe that all of those pieces of knowledge are an important part of the picture, but I always felt like something was missing: understanding literature.

Responding to literature can, of course, be a very subjective thing, and so it can seem impossible to translate it into anything resembling objective knowledge. We can teach students the standard interpretations of a given text, of course, and I think that has huge value, especially when students are new to literary analysis. However, that probably doesn’t help so much with helping students appreciate how the texts can be important to them; for that, some kind of personal interpretation or response is necessary.

I had a revelation regarding this issue when I read the chapter on English in What should schools teach? Disciplines, subjects and the pursuit of truth, edited by Alka Sehgal Cuthbert and Alex Standish. The chapter, written by Cuthbert, argues that the importance of literature lies in its ability to make the subjective objective:

The universal in aesthetics, human experience and subjectivity can be made objective in the arts not by generalization at a conceptual level, but by attending to the particular aesthetic form of a particular work.

Alka Sehgal Cuthbert (2017, p. 111)

In other words, literature takes the weird, subjective experiences that come with being a person, and puts them down on the page, effectively turning them into an ‘object’ which can be studied, analysed, and interpreted. Despite being subjective, people’s experiences are nonetheless very real, and are often also universal – think of every time you’ve felt strongly connected to a book, or a poem, or a song because it reflected something that you experienced yourself. When these subjective-but-universal experiences are put down on the page, we can gain some distance from them and scrutinize them differently from how we think about what’s going on in our own heads, while maintaining that connection to our own experiences.

How essential questions make the subjective objective

That’s all very well, but none of us want to stand up in front of year eleven and explain to them that A Midsummer Night’s Dream is going to be great for them because it will render their subjective experience in an objective form. Instead, this is where I bring in essential questions.

Essential questions are the ‘big questions’ that texts help us explore. They provide a perfect bridge between our students’ subjective experiences and the texts we want them to read. For example, when I teach Hamlet, these are the essential questions I use:

  • How do we make difficult decisions?
  • How do we balance thought and action?
  • How do we find our true identities when we play so many different roles in our lives?
  • How can we find or create meaning in our lives?

These are questions that Hamlet doesn’t answer, exactly, but that are certainly explored in the play. Because none of the questions are directly about text and can all be applied to real life, they make the real-world connections with the text more obvious to students, and open up possibilities for exploring students’ own subjective experiences of these questions along with the ways the questions are explored in the text.

Working with these essential questions alongside the text also creates a context for doing what Cuthbert refers to as “training the imagination.” While students should certainly develop their own answers to each of the essential questions, they should also be required to imagine what it would be like to be someone who answers them differently – how would Hamlet answer these questions? What about Horatio or Laertes? As students put themselves into the minds of others, they also see further possibilities for themselves, which is crucial if we’re teaching with any kind of social justice goal:

While there is an established literature in political philosophy that argues for the importance of reason and rational knowledge in democratic politics, it could be argued that the imagination is just as central for any progressive politics. Prior to organizing politically to change anything in the world, it is necessary to first imagine ourselves as subjectively intentional agents who are able to effect change in our social arrangements and relationships.

Alka Sehgal Cuthbert (2017, p. 118)

Tips for using Essential Questions effectively

There are two main things to be wary of if you’re thinking of integrating essential questions into your next unit. First, it’s easy to tack these questions on to the beginning or the end of the unit without really making full use of them. Essential questions are most powerful when students return to them over and over again, developing their understanding of the questions and the texts as they go.

The second challenge is ensuring that students do plenty of work that requires them to engage with the question in terms of the text. While it’s certainly a good idea to create space for students to develop and share their own responses to the questions – I do this at the beginning of my courses, and again at the end to see how their thinking has changed – if students are to benefit from the objectification of subjective experiences that we find in texts, they need to, you know, actually think and write about the texts.

Speaking of which, it is important that students write about the essential questions as well as discussing them. Just as literature objectifies subjective experiences, writing about that literature allows students to “objectify their internal responses to the rich world of textual meanings” (Cuthbert, p. 116). In other words, in writing their ideas down, students are forced to solidify their ideas and make them into an object to which others can respond.

Students should write about their answers to the questions at multiple times throughout the unit, and from multiple perspectives. As I mentioned, I always start by having students respond in their own voice. Later, I might have them answer the questions again from the point of view of a character in the text. You can also go a bit more general – how would a Romantic respond to the question, and how would it be different from a Realist’s answer? It can also be extremely helpful to bring in sources from philosophy or other disciplines. A highlight of my last Hamlet course was the time we spent learning about how an existentialist might answer the essential question “how can we find or create meaning in our lives?”, after which the students wrote paragraphs about whether or not Hamlet is an existentialist. That assignment does have some issues with anachronism, of course, but it certainly got students thinking harder about both the text and the essential question.

Essential Questions transformed my most recent courses on both Hamlet and Frankenstein. The quality of discussion skyrocketed, and students were much more ready to see the relevance of these texts to their own experience – without me needing to change to more ‘relevant’ texts. The questions created the relevance for us and gave students a number of different ways to explore the text as they read.


Cuthbert, A. S. (2017). English literature. In A. Standish and A. S. Cuthbert (Eds.), What should schools teach? Disciplines, subjects and the pursuit of truth (pp. 104-120). London: UCL Institute of Education Press.

Full set of discussion questions for Hamlet, based around four Essential Questions!
Includes two different sets of slides to suit your teaching style.
Finish your unit by having students write an essay about an Essential Question!
This product includes a task sheet, brainstorming guide, essay planning template, thesis statement activity, and rubric.

Beginning a unit with a preview text: Using the Amleth legend to introduce Shakespeare’s Hamlet

There’s a certain kind of student who loves to remind you that Shakespeare “stole” most of his stories from other sources, usually citing this as a reason why the bard isn’t so great after all. But this knowledge can also be used to a teacher’s advantage. I like to start off my teaching of Hamlet by reading Amleth, the Danish folktale on which Shakespeare’s play is based.

Like most folktales, the Amleth story was passed around orally for hundreds of years, but it was written down by Saxo Grammaticus (“Saxo the Learned”) in 1185, making his version of the tale as old to Shakespeare as Hamlet is to us. Saxo’s version – handily available in a public domain English translation by Oliver Elton – is fairly similar in plot to the play, but with enough differences to avoid completely spoiling the story.

Why start with Amleth?

I always like to start off any unit on a longer text by reading a “preview text” – something shorter, whether it be an earlier text that inspired the longer one, as in the case of Amleth, or a picture book, a children’s retelling, or a non-fiction article that introduces important themes or context for the work to come.

Reading Amleth helps students put Hamlet into some kind of context, beyond being writing by that old Shakespeare dude. It puts Shakespeare himself within a wider context, which I find helps take him down off the pedestal a bit. Rather than being this great and powerful literary figure all on his own, we can discuss Shakespeare as just one stage in a sequence of different approaches to the same story, from Saxo to Shakespeare to The Lion King. As I said above, Amleth also provides a preview of the story, which helps students keep track of the narrative as they read the play, but Shakespeare made enough changes that you can always remind students that they don’t really know how it’s all going to end.

I also think it’s important to give students practice with the skills they’ll need for reading a longer text on a smaller scale first. As English teachers, we’re sometimes in the position of teaching a play or novel to students who have never read a text of this length before. That can be intimidating enough without also using the skills of analysis and working out how to read a challenging text at the same time. Reading and doing some writing about a shorter version of the story first gives students a preview of the kind of work they’ll be doing as they progress with the longer text.

So how do I use a preview text like Amleth?

Simply reading and talking about a preview text in class will help provide some context and introduce the plot before you begin reading your extended text, and that may be all you have time for. If you can, though, I recommend giving your students some of the following supports and tasks to really leverage your preview text to prepare students for their extended text study:

Vocabulary Support
Ideally, your preview text will be somewhat challenging (short texts are a great opportunity to get students working with complex language in small doses!). If that’s the case, you may want to provide a glossary to help with vocabulary, especially if that vocabulary also crops up in the main text you’ll be studying. For instance, Oliver Elton’s Amleth translation includes a few vocabulary words from Hamlet, like “obsequies” and “aught.”

Check for Understanding
When they dive into challenging texts, students need to monitor their own comprehension so that they can stop, slow down, and work out what’s going on. Although we ultimately want students to do this independently, the start of a unit is a particularly good time to remind them of this by explicitly checking their understanding every few paragraphs.

Scaffold writing skills
You’re going to want students to write about the main text, right? Probably in paragraphs and essays? Again, this is something that some students are going to find challenging, and a preview text is the perfect place to ease students into the demands of writing about literature using sentence-level tasks. If you’ve read basically any other blog post by me, you know I’m a big fan of Natalie Wexler and Judith Hochman’s The Writing Revolution for this. Having students finish a few because/but/so sentences, for example, is a great way to both check for understanding and help students see how to write about a text, while still keeping things manageable.

Introduce literary analysis
Short texts are perfect for getting students to start flexing their literary analysis muscles in short bursts. Elton’s translation of Amleth provides just enough interesting language choices to give students a taste of what to look out for, and a chance to try out writing about it. You can always ask students to have a go at drawing out evidence from multiple parts of the text to explain how it explores key themes that come up both in the preview text and in the main text; when my students read Amleth, I draw their attention to the importance of bloodline and rank, and the role of spying and subterfuge, both of which also turn up in Shakespeare’s version. This also gives us a chance to practice the all-important skill of pulling quotes out from the text to support our ideas.

This sounds like a lot of work to put together before I even start teaching the play!

Yeah, it kind of is. But don’t panic! If you’re teaching Hamlet and want to start off your unit with Amleth, I’ve got you covered. My Amleth: Hamlet Introductory Activity resource in the Scholar’s Atelier Teachers Pay Teachers store does everything I’ve said above. It’s got:

  • A full eleven-page version, and an abridged four-page version, depending on how much time you have available.
  • SIX different versions depending on whether you want the full text or an abridged one; whether you want a digital or a printable version; and whether you prefer to use PDFs or PowerPoint slides (which can also be uploaded to Google Slides).
  • Vocabulary support on every page, with a focus on words that appear in Shakespeare’s text.
  • Questions on every page to check for understanding, scaffold writing skills, and get students analyzing the text.

You can check out this product here and let me know in the comments what other preview texts you use!

Throwing out the PEEL: An Argument-based Approach to Teaching Paragraph Structure

Really, a PEEL pun? Who am I?

I never liked the burger/sandwich metaphor for writing paragraphs. Sure, it looks good on a poster – but when was the last time you ate a burger bun-first, working your way through one layer of ingredients at a time? When has a mouthful of bread given you a useful preview of what the rest of the burger’s going to taste like? The burger model might give students a superficial idea of what their paragraph is supposed to look like, but it doesn’t offer an understanding of how paragraphs are supposed to function.

Superimposed over those burger images is usually some kind of acronym – SEER, SEED, TEAL, TEEPEE, TEXAS, PEE, SEE, SEXY, and PEEL. Most of these acronyms ask for basically the same thing: a topic sentence, an example, an explanation, and some kind of concluding sentence. This is how I was taught to write paragraphs (we used SEER), and it’s how I taught paragraph writing as a classroom teacher (my school preferred SEXY, in the forlorn hope that it would get students’ attention). While the capable writers quickly transcended the formula, it gave the middling writers something to cling to, and the struggling writers something concrete to aim for.

This approach to writing never sat well with me. Yes, structure and scaffolding are very good things. But these templates always felt like a straightjacket to me. How often can you actually say something useful with one example followed by one piece of explanation? Those elements work best when they’re intertwined, guiding the reader from the general to the specific and back again, multiple times, in various permutations. This is a complex process, but I don’t think we make it any easier by forcing students to use formulae that prevent them from expressing their their ideas in useful ways.

This is a post about writing, so of course I’m going to talk about The Writing Revolution. Hochman and Wexler don’t use PEEL – instead, they emphasise topic and concluding sentences to frame and focus a paragraph, with a number of supporting details in the middle. These supporting details can include examples, explanation, elaboration, sub-ideas within the main idea, and so on. It’s a much more flexible format that’s also much more applicable to real-world writing.

I’ve used this approach to paragraph writing for all of 2020, and I’ve had great success with it, but I’ve also had some issues. Freed from the confines of one example, one explanation paragraphs, my students struggle to select and sequence their supporting details. I often find myself reading paragraphs that are a jumble of vaguely-connected ideas, jammed in between the topic and concluding sentences in no particular order. Without the certainty of knowing in advance what kind of sentence goes on each layer of the burger, some of my students had no idea how to put their ideas in a logical order.

Enter transition phrases. These are introduced in the revision chapter of The Writing Revolution, but I find it helpful to have students use them earlier, as they plan their paragraphs, to help them sequence their ideas.

One they have a grasp of the basic topic sentence-supporting details-concluding sentence structure, I give my students a table with lists of transition phrases from the six categories given by Hochman and Wexler: time and sequence, illustration, emphasis, change of direction, cause and effect, and conclusion. I introduce these, not just as cute phrases to jazz up your writing, but as moves you can make as you build your argument. After they’ve written their topic sentence, they can decide how they will structure their support for it – will they list reasons, using time and sequence transitions? Will they introduce an example with an illustration transition? Will they introduce an opposing argument, then flip it around with a change of direction transition? After they’ve made a couple of points, will they draw them together with a cause and effect transition? To practice using these transitions to sequence their ideas, I have students rearrange sentence cards (about the content we’re learning, of course) in the most logical order and put transition phrases in between some of them (it’s important to remind them that they don’t need a transition between every sentence).

This approach gets students thinking about the relationships between their supporting details, and how they ultimately combine to form an argument. It gets them out of the rut of giving a list of disjointed reasons in support of their topic sentence, which ultimately leads to better arguments at the whole essay level, too. In fact, I think that this is one of the key factors that distinguishes a good essay from a poor one in the higher grades and at university. Some students never move beyond “My thesis statement is true because of reason #1, reason #2, and reason #3.” Those who succeed end up with arguments more like this: “Idea #1 is an established fact. Therefore, idea #2. Because of this, idea #3 and, despite objection #1, idea #4. Consequently, my thesis statement is correct.”

It takes more than a table of transition phrases to get students thinking like that, but so far, I’ve found it a pretty good start.

Kids like learning *stuff*

Figuring out what kids actually find fun has always been a struggle for me. To start with, it’s not my top priority – if something’s worth doing, I’m perfectly comfortable requiring students to do it, whether they’re excited about it or not. Still, a classroom where students are having fun is is a much happier place to be, and it’s easier to get them to do the work if it’s at least somewhat enjoyable, so I make as much of an effort as I can without sacrificing my larger educational goals.

A trickier obstacle is that my own ideas of fun are drastically different from the average thirteen-year-old’s. I genuinely enjoy searching through style guides for pointless, obscure punctuation rules. I am bewildered by the fact that kids still get uproariously excited when I bring up a Kahoot. I still haven’t managed to fully put myself in the shoes of anyone who reads Hamlet for the first time and has any response other than this is the best series of words that has ever entered my brain, despite ample evidence that my adolescent reaction to the play was not universal. On the rare occasions that I have promised my students something “fun”, I have faced, at best, mocking, and at worst, mutiny. I manage to keep myself entertained, but it’s time to face facts: I am not a “fun” person.

Speaking of things that aren’t fun – learning to write. Specifically, the slow, step-by-step method that I have found actually yields results. The more I teach writing, the more grammar work I introduce on the front end, and the better my results get, but this work certainly doesn’t get kids excited about their time with me. And no, basing their exercises on Fortnite or Riverdale doesn’t help, especially when kids’ interests are so varied and change so fast. And yet, the majority of my students (the ones where what I teach them isn’t dictated by their upcoming exams) are engaged and enjoy my lessons. Why? As with so many issues in education, my answer is: I teach them stuff about the world.

Subordinating conjunctions aren’t fun. But here are some things my students have found fun this year (links are to my related TpT products, where I have them):

  • Discovering how bees’ brains work and how pesticides affect them
  • Learning about the causes and effects of the Great Depression
  • Reading excerpts of The Odyssey and learning about Ancient Greek culture, then asking to stick with this topic for an extra couple of lessons so we can cover more of the story
  • Researching the historical context of Beowulf and enjoying a deliciously gruesome story from a thousand years ago
  • Being shocked by the ending of The Lottery and reading articles about psychology to decide whether they think people would really behave like the characters in the story
  • Hearing for the first time about the huge intellectual upheaval known as the Renaissance, and how it was in part set off by another pandemic
  • Reading advice about how to sell expensive products, and using this information to become more informed consumers
  • Learning about how Homo sapiens have developed over millions of years

I pretty much never set writing tasks that aren’t related to historical, literary, or scientific content. My tutoring sessions and online classes mostly operate as cycles of reading something interesting, and then doing a series of writing tasks that build their understanding and retention while also developing flexible and deliberate writing skills. Crucially, the topics my students read and write about are interesting because they’re about the world beyond their experience – for the most part, it’s all totally new. As I’ve built up my resources for a more cohesive curriculum that allows for students to carry their knowledge from one topic over to another, their enthusiasm has increased even further. Students leave my classes as better readers, better writers, better thinkers, and more informed about their world and how it got that way.

This stuff works. A knowledge-rich curriculum sets teachers up to build skills as well as knowledge. And, it turns out, it’s even “fun.”

How to teach writing so students actually make progress

This book changed the way I teach writing – and everything else.

When I went into my first year of teaching last year, I brought with me a hodge-podge of different approaches to teaching writing. I believed, contrary to what people kept telling me, that it was important to teach grammar explicitly and systematically, but I didn’t really know how to do that. I wanted my students to see the power of being able express their own ideas clearly, in ways that people would pay attention to, but I didn’t know how to do that either.

Most of my writing “instruction” took the form of journal-writing tasks, or the writing that was required for my seniors to complete their assessments. I set individual goals for my year nines based on each piece of writing they did, but didn’t actually get them writing often enough for that to help. I addressed grammar with proofreading exercises (which research suggests don’t help) or by going through individual students’ work, while they avoided my eyes until I gave in and told them exactly what they needed to do. It was massively frustrating, and my students’ writing didn’t improve.

And then, as they do, a book came along to save me. I’d seen lots of people on Twitter mentioning The Writing Revolution, by Natalie Wexler and Judith Hochman (NZ Link | US Link [these are affiliate links, so I may get a small commission if you purchase via these links – this doesn’t cost you any extra and I only link to products I’m enthusiastic about!]). Around term three, I ordered a copy and read it feverishly, scribbling notes in it about how I could use it in the time-poor, assessment-driven context I was working in. Term four would only be a few weeks long, so we were really in crunch time for getting all those internals finished, and it looked like some of Wexler and Hochman’s suggestions could be the cure I needed for my students’ incessant “I don’t know how to put this in writing” issues.

The core of The Writing Revolution‘s approach is an emphasis on good sentences as a prerequisite for paragraphs and essays. This explained much of the problems my seniors were having; the instructions they were given told them pretty much sentence-by-sentence how to structure their writing, but they didn’t know how to turn each part of that structure into a coherent, grammatically correct sentence. So, obediently, I gathered up a few of the most promising-looking sentence tasks from the book, and started giving them to my classes as Do Nows:

A typical Do Now activity for my year eleven class. We hadn’t been studying The Hate U Give, but a few students who I was particularly struggling to engage had read it, and I thought this might get them interested.

For the most part, my students muddled through these okay. Really, though, I was too short on time to do the thing properly. The reminder to “use commas and conjunctions where they are needed” wasn’t backed up with teaching on how to actually do those things. I was using the exercises, but I’d missed the key point of the book, which is that you have to explicitly and systematically teach students how to use these different sentence structures.

The magic of The Writing Revolution is in the sequence, specifically the emphasis on single sentences. Most writing teaching, Hochman and Wexler argue, rushes far too quickly into writing paragraphs and longer compositions, without establishing the building blocks – sentences – that paragraphs are made of. The Writing Revolution lays out a sequence of activities, beginning with identifying sentence fragments and building up to a variety of ways to form more interesting sentences, like starting with a subordinating conjunction or adding an appositive.

This sequence is now a major part of my tutoring. My students spend most of their time with me reading challenging texts, and writing about them using TWR tasks. I use the sentence tasks to help students unpick what the text is saying, as well as practice articulating those ideas in their own words. The students I started with at the beginning of the year are now moving into paragraph-writing tasks, which help them consolidate their understanding of the text and prepare for essay-writing. I’ve tried skipping parts of the sequence, but I’ve had much better results when I start at the beginning, even with more advanced students who can get through the first few steps quickly. Of course, most students are continuing with longer-form writing at school, and sometimes that means I temporarily jump ahead in the sequence to give them a basic foundation for tests and assignments.

What I love about this approach is that it makes progress so visible, for me and for my students. Rather than just being told to write and then getting vague feedback about “adding more detail” or “checking your punctuation” (common in the feedback I used to give), students are taught the specific, concrete moves they can make to improve their writing. Here’s an example of the improvement I’ve seen in one of my students’ writing:

First tutoring session

Instructions: write a paragraph using at least four words from the word bank (he used calendar, governor, and character)

Dave Woke up one morning and Looked at his calendar it was a very important day he was acting he jumped into his car with exitment and drove to the studio they put him on the cameras imidiatly he was playing the govenor he was the main character and the cameras went on.

After one term of tutoring

Instructions: Write an extension to the ending of the short story “Autumntime.”

The acorn was an oak brown it was Slipery and rough at the same time. On the way back I was thinking any way I could bring back a tree. When we arrived home I droped the acorn on the marble floor! I picked it up and asked Mum and Dad What it was they said it was a seed for a oke [note: this is how “oak” is spelled in the story] tree They said it was a food delicasy and said they would cook it for me. When dinner came it didn’t taste like the acorn but just synthetic beef.

Clearly, the more recent writing is still far from perfect. There are still plenty of run-on sentences, which we’re still working on correcting (this is, perhaps, a bit of a gap in TWR, but the various sentence types students learn help develop their sense of what is, and is not, a sentence). But this student now understands that a paragraph is a group of sentences, and there’s more variety in the types of sentences he’s using. In both examples, the student wrote the paragraphs you see without my guidance; in both cases, we went through and improved the sentences afterwards. It’s worth noting that Hochman and Wexler would probably have advised against these tasks, as the student hadn’t finished the sequence of sentence tasks that ought to precede such vague paragraph-writing assignments.

Another thing I love about Hochman and Wexler’s approach is that it keeps content central. They emphasise the importance of using their activities across the curriculum; I can’t attest to how well the sequence works outside of English, but the book is full of promising examples from science, maths, and history. As I said, I use the activities in the context of reading, so they do double-duty by building reading and writing skills simultaneously. Writing about a topic is one of the best ways to solidify content knowledge and ensure understanding, and the sentence-level tasks are brief enough to use consistently, even when you’re not teaching “a writing lesson.” I’d love to hear from teachers of subjects other than English who can comment on whether this approach is actually helpful, not just for incorporating literacy teaching into your classes, but for actually improving students’ understanding of your subject’s content.

Outside of tutoring, The Writing Revolution has made another major difference in my life: it’s finally got me actually planning my writing. As a student, I always wrote in order to figure out what I wanted to say. I couldn’t really plan ahead, because I needed to articulate my ideas in sentences in paragraphs before I had any idea what point I was trying to make. My essays, and even my masters’ thesis, started as a random assortment of half-finished paragraphs based on brainwaves I’d had while reading or thinking, which would gradually coalesce around a thesis, and could then be rearranged into a logical sequence. This is a super-fun way to write, and it’s why I love research work so much. But it’s also hugely time-consuming. Now that I’m trying to blog regularly, I can’t approach everything I write like it’s an essay worth 60% of my grade. I also usually sit down to write these with a good idea of what I want to say, and so using the straightforward outlining system in The Writing Revolution is much more efficient. Had I tried to write this post, or my last, without outlining it first, it probably would never have been written.

In short, if you’re frustrated with your students’ inability to string a sentence together, or you feel as if the lack of variety in their sentences is making it hard for them to express more complex ideas, I can’t recommend The Writing Revolution more. It’s completely changed how I teach writing and reading. It turns writing into a set of discrete skills that can be practiced and mastered, rather than a magical talent that you’ve either got or you don’t. If I’d been trained to teach writing this way, I think my classes last year would have made much more progress with than they did.

You can purchase The Writing Revolution here to find out more: NZ Link | US Link. These are affiliate links, so I may get a small commission if you purchase via these links – this doesn’t cost you any extra and I only link to products I’m enthusiastic about!

Literature and Literacy: What’s the point of English?

Schools make students take English for longer than any other subject. At the same time, English has become less about literature and more about literacy. Should it be?

When I was in year twelve, on the heels of an exciting assignment in one subject and some less wonderful test results in another, I started to think that I might prefer a career as an English professor to one as a physicist. But this posed a problem; while the value to humanity of unravelling the secrets of the universe seemed readily apparent, I wasn’t completely convinced that allowing myself to be paid to read and write about Shakespeare wouldn’t basically be robbery. I started an English degree anyway, telling myself that education was about more than preparing for work, and that if I did pursue an academic career in the subject, I at least wouldn’t be contributing any less to the world than an investment banker or professional athlete.

By the end of my degree, I had added a major in Education, which came closer to fulfilling my need to be doing something useful. Still, the question of what studying English was meant to achieve continued to haunt me. I wrote essays about the importance of the humanities in education, and sometimes temporarily convinced myself that I was right. I’ve always been aware, though, that I was looking for reasons to justify a belief that I would have held regardless of its logic, and that this was affecting my judgement. Ultimately, the reason why I continued to argue for the importance of studying literature was because I loved doing it.

Most New Zealand schools require students to take English for longer than any other subject, usually through year twelve. Despite our constant bewailing of the emphasis on STEM above all else in our schools, English is actually treated as more essential than maths and science.

This has an impact on what high school English looks like, because for longer than any other subject, English classes are filled with students who don’t want to be there, who don’t see the point of the subject and may struggle with it. Last year I had a student who was moved into my class halfway through the year because she was refusing to complete any assessments in Music. There was no point in her remaining in the Music class if she wasn’t going to do the work, so she moved to a different option and her timetable was rearranged, landing her in my English class. She had no intention of doing any English assessments, either (despite being very able), but she couldn’t simply drop the subject. It was compulsory to be in an English class, regardless of what you were doing while you were there. Keeping such students engaged and earning credits becomes the English teacher’s job, adding another incentive to centre English classes on films and pop culture instead of literature.

So, why is so much importance placed on English? You don’t need me to tell you this: it’s because of literacy.

Despite frequent claims that all teachers are responsible for literacy teaching, and the availability of NCEA literacy credits across the curriculum, English retains responsibility for the actual teaching of literacy skills. When I’m hired as an English tutor, what’s usually wanted is literacy help. It’s English teachers who (hopefully) keep helping students improve their writing skills. It’s in English class that students are introduced to essay writing. English class is the only place where it makes sense to frequently put content on hold to work on the way a student expresses themselves. The lofty status of English in our schools is fundamentally tied to its reputation as a “skills-based” subject; while we can argue that the specific content of any other subject isn’t strictly essential, we have retained some sense that becoming educated entails becoming literate, and requiring students to sit in an English class for four years enables a school to at least appear to meet that obligation.

But what if English class isn’t the best way to teach literacy? There’s plenty of evidence that literacy skills are best taught in the context of learning content knowledge, but English classes (especially those for struggling students) have a tendency to turn into “literacy” classes. A glance over the NCEA English standards or the New Zealand Curriculum achievement objectives for English is enough to see that the study of literature (the content of English as a discipline) is not a priority. And fair enough: while studying literature has some advantages for literacy teaching in terms of encouraging attention to language and high text complexity, literary analysis and writing are very different skills, and writing a literary analysis essay has little in common with day-to-day adult writing tasks. Teaching students to analyse Shakespeare while also teaching them to write about it isn’t actually any easier than teaching writing alongside teaching chemical bonding. Because English teachers carry the responsibility for literacy teaching, however, the chemistry teachers get to continue teaching their subject, while the study of literature is cut out of English class to make room for literacy.

This is a shame, because the study of literature has much to offer students. Literature takes students out of their own heads, broadening their worldview and building empathy. Like other academic disciplines, studying literature builds conceptual knowledge. It also builds cultural capital, allowing students to participate in the wider intellectual conversation. Literature-centred English classes also give students access to the classroom’s most valuable resource – the teacher’s expert knowledge. Most English teachers have degrees in English literature, not literacy development.

However, just because something has benefits doesn’t mean everyone should have to do it. There are similarly strong arguments for the value of history, science, even PE (much as it pains me to admit it, as someone whose decision about which secondary school to attend was heavily influenced by finding somewhere that didn’t require PE beyond year ten). This is is how we end up with a bloated curriculum; we can always come up with a compelling list of benefits for any subject an enthusiastic teacher would like to offer. Literature is important. For some people (the kind who become English teachers), it makes our lives better. But I don’t see any reason why the study of literature – as opposed to literacy development – should be treated as more important than other academic subjects like history and science. In fact, when it comes to being an informed citizen, both of those subjects have more obvious value than knowledge of literature.

So, I’m not saying that high school English should be abolished. I’m saying that we should make room for English to be a subject in its own right, with a focus on literature rather than literacy. In this form, it probably makes sense for English to be equal in status with, say, history — introduced in the junior school, but optional for seniors. Perhaps there should be a requirement for students to take one humanities class, just as many schools require year elevens to choose a science option. Most importantly, this requires a significant increase in literacy across the curriculum. My favourite books on how to make this happen are Hochman and Wexler’s The Writing Revolution, and Mike Schmoker’s Focus. By properly, deliberately teaching literacy in every class (not just assuming that literacy teaching is happening because students have to read and write occasionally), students can spend more time building this essential skill set, and English teachers can get back to teaching the subject they know and love.

Image credits

“old books” by vandentroost is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

“Emptiness” by YuMaNuMa is licensed under CC BY 2.0 

Is Effective ‘Traditional’ Teaching Possible in Low-Decile NZ Schools?

A major theme in my thinking about my teaching this term has been confronting the realities of the context in which I am teaching, and deciding which compromises I should and should not be willing to make in the face of those realities. I’ve read and thought about a wide range of teaching approaches, from the rigid approach to direct instruction advocated in Teach Like a Champion (Lemov, 2015) to the flexible and student-led approach of, as an extreme example, Never Mind the Inspectors, Here’s Punk Learning (Coles, 2014), I have developed strong ideas about which pedagogies I think are best: I favour teacher-led, highly structured approaches that emphasise knowledge acquisition over the development of general soft skills such as collaboration and creative or critical thinking.

I’m particularly skeptical of advice that takes as a starting point that students from low-income or otherwise disadvantaged backgrounds should learn different things in different ways to their higher-SES peers. This includes approaches that emphasise using ‘relevant’ content or high levels of student choice, as I believe that these are likely to trap students in their current experience, rather than introducing them to new ideas and new ways of thinking (Young, 2010). Progressive and supposedly ‘contemporary’ pedagogies are closely tied, from my perspective, to low expectations for learners in disadvantaged contexts. Such approaches, because they do not emphasise helping students learn new knowledge beyond their experience, entrench inequality by denying students’ access to the tools for creating social change. Limiting students’ access to academic knowledge because of their economic situation or cultural background is as dangerous a form of deficit thinking as the more blatant examples I have heard expressed at my school this year. 

I believe, then, that students in low-decile schools would benefit the most if they learned the same content, and through the same methods, as are generally used in the schools that serve our most privileged young people. However, my experiences this year have challenged that point of view. I have struggled to get my senior students, particularly my year eleven students, to complete schoolwork and pass assessments, and I have been unable to get my year nine class to consistently behave in a way that makes this kind of direct instruction possible. The usual social realist argument is that motivating students should be a matter of pedagogy, or how we teach, and that student motivation should not be considered when choosing curriculum content. In reality, though, I have found motivating students to be such a challenge that I need to use all methods available to me, including trying to choose content that I think students are more likely to be interested in. Some (McPhail, 2017) have suggested that powerful knowledge may be able to be taught using progressive pedagogies, but there isn’t much research thus far that provides a model for how this might be done. In addition, often finding activities that are motivating for disengaged students means providing tasks with minimal reading and writing, which directly contradicts the need for intensive practice in these skills. When I’ve expressed my frustration about my students’ lack of engagement to other teachers at my school, the response was often along the lines of this:

Yeah, I used to teach like that when I was at a decile ten school. But it just doesn’t work for the kind of kids we get in a school like ours.

Frustrated as I am about the limitations these statements place on these “kinds of kids”, I feel uncomfortable pushing back on suggestions that I try other strategies, given that the teachers I hear these comments from are much more successful with their students than I am. I felt obligated to give other approaches a fair trial.

One way that I did this was to introduce a choice-based approach in one lesson each week with my year nine class. Thursday period three had always been a disaster; the class came in over-excited after lunch, and it was a constant battle to get them to listen to me explain what we were learning that day. Frequently, no work at all would be done during that period, and it was a miserable experience for me and for many of my students. Because these lessons were so consistently ineffective, I didn’t feel like I was taking too much of a risk trying something else out; any learning that happened on a Thursday was a bonus. I resolved to avoid all whole-class teaching on Thursdays. Instead, students have a choice between three or four activities. The activities are a mixture of reading and writing, and include options that are related to what we do for the rest of the week, and others that have more scope for students to follow their own interests.

This change in approach completely transformed Thursdays with my year nines. Because I wasn’t battling with them to get them to listen to me, there was considerably less tension between me and the class. I was free to sit down with small groups of students and work with them for longer periods of time, which is something Rochelle had recommended I do to build relationships. Students who were interested in what we were doing in the rest of the class could dig deeper into this, and those who weren’t still had a chance every week to do something they enjoyed in English. They started asking me on Mondays and Wednesdays whether they could keep doing their Thursday work instead. Although students were still working slowly and were often off-task, they were learning more than they had been previously. The results of this change could easily be interpreted as an endorsement of a more flexible, student-led approach to learning.

However, I still have significant misgivings about this approach. Because I only have my classes three times a week, accepting that very little learning will happen on Thursdays means that I am effectively reducing my teaching time by a third. By nature, a choice-based approach encourages students to spend time on what they are already good at, rather than pushing them to do challenging work that will help them improve. Given that almost everyone in that class entered secondary school with significant gaps in their learning, this is a huge problem. While they are spending a third of their time doing tasks that do not challenge them, their counterparts at higher-decile schools are being stretched, and the gap between them widens even further.

While it could be said that I adapted my approach to suit my students’ needs, then, I am concerned that the choice I actually made might have been to lower my expectations of my students, rather than persisting with the expectation that they will do challenging work in every lesson. The problem I was trying to solve by offering choices was essentially a behavioural one. If I were able to create a classroom environment where students could be taught from the front and do challenging reading and writing tasks every day, I think that this would result in far more learning than my current approach on Thursdays. However, because my classroom management skills have not been sufficient to make this happen, what I see as the ideal approach has been less effective than approaches that I would generally consider to be suboptimal. Much of the classroom management advice I have received, however, has involved choosing more ‘relevant’ curriculum content or using constructivist teaching methods. This advice, which has come from a range of sources including mentor teachers, Mind Lab staff, and my own reading (see, for example, Blum, 2006), is often accompanied by claims that the kind of students that attend low decile schools are simply not capable of learning and behaving in the way that I am trying to teach them.

The culture of the school plays a large role here. I have frequently noted that there are aspects of my school’s culture that staff tend to blame on students (“they only care about credits”; “students here don’t read”) but are actually perpetuated by staff. The attitude expressed by some teachers at my school seems to be that students learning nothing is the default, and so any work that students can be persuaded to do at all is good. The focus is on finding anything that students will engage with, rather than choosing curriculum content and teaching methods that will have the greatest benefit in the long run. Because this is the approach taken by so many teachers in the school, it is what students expect when they enter my classroom. This means that I am setting myself up for a very difficult battle if I try to implement a very different approach. I commented on this in a reflection about halfway through this term:

“Maybe, in an environment where the expectations are mostly so different from the expectations I want to set up in my room, I’m trying to do the impossible. Maybe my students need a more progressive approach to teaching, not because it produces the most learning, not because they’re poor or Māori or Pasifika, but because the school does not provide the structures necessary for more traditional methods to be effective. Maybe the leap I’m asking my students to make when they come into my room is simply too large.” (portfolio reflection, June 3 2019)

This is not to say that I haven’t had any success in raising expectations for my students through a more ‘direct instruction’ approach this term. By systematically working through a structured programme, many of my year nines have been able to write their first essay – something I was told they would not be able to do. With some adaptations to the structure of the workbook I created for this unit I think I will see even greater success with this unit next year. My year twelves have read and enjoyed a classic novel, Lord of the Flies, and my success with this unit has led to another teacher in my department using the same text with his year ten class. These examples show the benefits of persisting with my preferred approach, but they must be balanced with the knowledge of other situations, particularly with my year eleven classes, where I have not been able to meet me students’ needs with this approach.

Much of my reflection this term, then, has been around deciding when to make compromises to work within my current context, and when to push back against the culture found in that context. Although I can see clear ways that I would like to change that culture, I can only do that from a position of being successful within my own classroom, as my experience with Lord of the Flies shows. In addition, in some cases, taking the ‘any learning is better than no learning’ approach may be in the best interests of my students. At the same time, when I make these concessions, I am reducing my own opportunities to get better at the kind of teaching that I think will be most effective once I get good at it. Balancing the short-term needs of the students in front of me with the long-term benefits of mastering a teaching approach that is more likely to give students access to powerful knowledge is extremely difficult. I’m also constantly having to re-convince myself that my ultimate goal is possible, when I’m constantly being told – by experienced and well-meaning teachers – that it’s not. Thankfully, I have examples from my own experience of a few effective teachers when I attended a low-decile school, as well as promising contemporary examples in overseas contexts. My next steps are to work out what compromises are necessary so that I can start to meet the needs of my most disengaged year eleven students, and to decide where to keep working towards effective direct instruction methods.


Blum, P. (2006). Surviving and Succeeding in Difficult Classrooms. New York: Routledge. (US Link)

Lemov, D. (2015). Teach Like a Champion 2.0: 62 Techniques that put students on the path to college. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. (NZ Link | US Link)

Coles, T. (2014). Never Mind the Inspectors, Here’s Punk Learning. Carmarthen, UK: Independent Thinking Press. (US Link)

McPhail, G. (2017). Rethinking what it means to be a progressive teacher: Key ideas from social realism. Pacific-Asian Education, 29(1), 75-90.

Young, M. F. D. (2010). Why educators must differentiate knowledge from experience. Pacific-Asian Education, 22(1), 9-20.