A Compendium of Explanations

Solid explanations are the foundations of teaching. And yet, rarely do I talk with other teachers about how they explain tricky-or even simple- literary and linguistic concepts. And it’s to the detriment of my students. Take Onomatopoeia for example. Here’s my explanation of it:

It’s where words sound like what they describe. You know? Bang? It’s word that describes a sound and the word sounds like that sound?

Perplexed looks all round.

So, in this post, I will begin to compile a list of explanations, mini-narratives and anecdotes that teachers all over the land use to help elucidate and illuminate those slippery concepts that underpin English teaching. I’ll start us off:


  • A beautifully simplistic explanation of metaphor, that may appeal to the more logical students in the room, runs thus: X = Y (via @PositivTeacha)


  • Rember to spell it with ‘Ono-Mari-peeing on everyone is awful.’
  • And then read this: http://buff.ly/2f9hWXQ


  • If anybody has ever told you rhetorical questions don’t require an answer, they were lying to you. Every question requires an answer; otherwise, why ask them? I prefer to think of rhetorical questions as questions designed to make someone think of an answer  rather than give it literally. For example, if you tell me the dog has eaten your homework and I ask, “Do I look stupid to you?”, my intention isn’t that you reply “Yes.” Rather, I want you to think “Er…actually that does seem a bit lame. Perhaps I should tell the truth here.” Or take this example: if you walk past a bus stop and there’s a poster asking, HAVE YOU HAD YOUR SNICKERS TODAY?, you’re not expected to rush home and bang out an email or a letter to the Snickers factory explaining “No, sorry”, or “Yes, it was lovely thanks.” But, you are expected to think “I haven’t- maybe I should buy one” or “Yes and it was lovely. I should buy one more.” (via @PositivTeacha)


  •  Topic- what’s the poem about? Theme – what’s the poem *really* about? (via @MrStavely)
  •  if a story or novel was talking to you, what subjects would it be covering or discussing? (Via @msfrielvarndean)

Your turn. Any concept you like!

To put forward an explanation for this post, please add to the comments section, or get in touch via Twitter at @positivteacha

Shakespeare and Meaning from Mono-Syllabic Words. 

Coming from a lady who, four acts previously, proudly boasts about the ‘valour of [her] tongue’, the following lines from a Lady Macbeth, now in her pitiful descent into madness, are startling in their violent prosaicness:

Out, damned spot! out, I say!–One: two: why,then, ’tis time to do’t.–Hell is murky!–Fie, my lord, fie! a soldier, and afeard? What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account?–Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him.

(Act 5, scene 1)

Of the 56 words in this statement, 50 of them are mono-syllabic. That is, there are 50 words of just one syllable. Compare this to 56 words elsewhere in Shakespeare’s Scottish tragedy, act 1 scene 7-a scene  in which Lady Macbeth is positively frightening in her chastisement of her husband:

We fail! 

But screw your courage to the sticking-place, 

And we’ll not fail. When Duncan is asleep,– 

Whereto the rather shall his day’s hard journey 

Soundly invite him, his two chamberlains 

Will I with wine and wassail so convince 

That memory, the warder of the brain, 

Shall be a fume, and the receipt of reason

(Act 1, scene 7)

56 words again. Only this time, only 42 words are mono-syllabic. That’s 75% against 89% from act 5 scene 1. That’s a significant (but not the biggest) increase/decrease, depending on your stance, in the usage of mono-syllabic words. The fact is, in Act 5, overcome by guilt for her part in Duncan’s murder, Lady Macbeth has regressed to a child- like state in which vulnerability, fear, and guilt consume her. The increase in mono-syllabic splutterings reflects this.

Look at the following from Macduff, upon hearing of the slaughter of his ‘wife and babes’:

He has no children. All my pretty ones?

Did you say all? O hell-kite! All?

What, all my pretty chickens and their dam

At one fell swoop?

Choose 28 other words from Macduff elsewhere in the play and get your students to count the mono-syllabic words. Help them to explore for themselves,  Shakespeare’s genius in employing mono-syllabic words to heart-breaking effect. 

Marking PP work first: a sticking plaster for a headache. 

Marking has been getting a lot of attention recently. And rightly so. It’s a huge part of what we do. For many of us, it’s the only thing we feel we can control. After all, ticks on a page don’t dick about when we’re not looking at them.

In this blog post I want to offer a critique of a marking gimmick which, given the national picture on the underachievement of PP students, is becoming increasingly proliferate.

Many schools, in an attempt to ‘close the gap’ (ugh) between PP students and ‘the rest of the cohort’ (ugh again) are offering the following solution:

To help boost the attainment of PP pupils, ensure that, when marking, you mark PP students’ books first.

The reasoning is simple: As time spent marking increases, quality of marking decreases. Therefore, PP students whose books are marked first will get, presumably, more detailed, more accurate feedback.
Of course, this is toxic thinking. Such a policy is wrong for a number of reasons:

Most dangerously, it implicitly suggests that teachers are marking unfairly. It suggests that teachers aren’t intelligent enough to combat the dangers of marking fatigue by spacing their marking to avoid the inevitable decrease in marking quality. I’d suggest that any school Leader that offers this ‘solution’ up as a reasonable response to PP underachievement, would be better off addressing the issue of marking fatigue: Why are teachers marking work at the bottom of the pile less well than work at the top? Why aren’t these teachers aware of the dangers of marking fatigue? What can you do to help teachers adjust their marking practice to prevent this from happening?

Of course, and as I’ve written about here there is the issue of teacher prejudice. There is a very real possibility that teachers, who tend to be more middle class than working class, approach PP work with unconscious prejudices that result in lower grades for PP students. But as I have suggested before, it’s not marking that needs to be targeted; it’s teacher attitudes.

This gimmick also suggests that PP students are deserving of a better educational experience than those who aren’t. Quite simply, it says that PP students deserve a higher quality of marking than non-PP students.
Thirdly, it condones the calculated neglect of the work of non-PP students: “They’re at the bottom of the pile so their work won’t be marked as good as those at the top and that’s okay.” It’s not okay.

Finally, PP funding is allocated on the basis of socio-economic factors. The PP budget is not assigned to students on the basis of the quality of their marking. It’s like prescribing a sticking plaster for a headache. Rather than asking teachers to mark PP work first, schools would be better spent addressing or investigating the real issues behind PP under-achievement. And I would suspect that quality of marking isn’t one of them.