Allowing Pupils to Develop their Own Responses

 

There has been a lot of discussion on Twitter recently on ways to allow pupils to develop their own responses to texts – such as poetry and novels.   Some teachers might feel that pupils’ responses are ‘a waste of time’ and they should be focused on writing ‘the correct answer’. I completely disagree with this approach to teaching. I believe the reader’s response is vital as it allows pupils to think about their own feelings about texts in terms of their individual life experiences. It also allows me to think about texts in a different way: as teachers we can often get ‘caught up’ in what we believe and, subconsciously or not, influence the way pupils feel about characters, the plot and the language used.

I have been using reader-response theory with my classes for a couple of years and the improvement, in terms of their engagement and understanding, has been significant. One of the great things about it is anyone can give their own response without the pressure of a ‘right or wrong’ answer:  pupils have the space to think about their own views without trying to predict what I, as the teacher, am thinking.  It has been a great way to introduce pupils to poetry as they can think about their own response before I ‘influence’ them with my views. I have also found it to be a useful tool for when pupils are thinking about characterisation in a novel.

I decided to use reader response theory to help understand pupils’ views of George and Lennie in ‘Of Mice and Men’.  Pupils were shown a reader response theory grid and were asked to write down likes, dislikes, puzzles and key moments for each of the main characters. I used ‘puzzles’ as an opportunity for them to think about elements of the character that they  were not sure about/ did not understand. Key moments was used for them to think about moments which they felt were ‘key’ for each character. It was interesting to see the differences between George and Lennie’s ‘key moments’ considering how much time they spend together in the novel.

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Pupils were then given the opportunity to share their responses with their groups and they were also asked to think about the similarities and differences they all had. It was fascinating to see how they felt about the characters so far in the novel and to see them expand on their notes once they had shared their views with their groups.  One of the most interesting parts for me is hearing about pupils ‘puzzles’.  I often open up pupils’ questions to the class and we all think about why that might be a puzzle – views will often differ in terms of a ‘solution’ but that just makes the debate even more compelling.

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As well as the reader-response grid, I ask pupils to respond to statements rather than questions. This gives pupils another opportunity to think about their own reactions. They agree or disagree with a statement and give reasons to back up their point of view.   Statements are also useful when discussing poetry with pupils as they don’t try to get the ‘right’ answer but instead respond to a text and back it up with evidence to fight their case.  I will often be ‘the devil’s advocate’ and put in statements which can cause a split in the class in terms of agreement and disagreement.

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For me, reader-response theory is a beneficial tool which allows pupils to have their own say and then develop responses through discussion with the class. It is a great starting point for class dialogue and it is fascinating to see the way responses grow and develop. The theory also allows pupils to express any ‘puzzles’ they may have and these can be addressed – sometimes they can be answered and sometimes we can only speculate about what a  potential ‘solution’ might be.

I have written another couple of blogs looking at similar topics: Applying Reader-Response Theory to Media and Texts   and Statements or Questions?

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Encouraging Pupils to use Refreshing Language in their Writing

Last weekend I attended the 2018 NATE  conference and, just like the year before, I left with loads of thought-provoking ideas.  One workshop in particular was so inspiring that I decided to try out some of the tasks with one of my classes.

At the conference the Award-winning poet Jonathan Edwards delivered a hands-on and enjoyable workshop exploring exciting  approaches to teaching poetry and creative writing.

Jonathan began the workshop by asking us to write for 5 minutes about someone close to us.  He asked us to start our writing with ‘my father is…’ but changing ‘father’ to the person we had chosen to write about.  This task was a great way to get the creativity flowing and , when I used it with my pupils, it worked well as a starter to get them focused on the lesson ahead. I also liked that it was a short sharp task and pupils could write as much as they could within the time limit.

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After pupils had shared some of their writing we moved on to Jonathan’s next task:  writing about a person/thing from their toes to their head.  The pupils were introduced to ‘Blood’ by Ian Duhig – another recommended poem by the workshop leader. ‘Blood’ is a great poem to show the pupils as it uses the same structure and has a twist at the end.  The poem also has brand and well-known item references throughout and this is an interesting challenge for pupils – can they consider the clothing choices of their chosen person?  This task can also be differentiated in terms of challenge; you might want to encourage some pupils to add a twist to the end of their writing, like ‘Blood’, or even write about a famous figure. One of the attendees wrote a fantastic piece on Julies Caesar and therefore this task could be used in connection with subjects like History and Modern Studies.

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The final task was my favourite one in the workshop and it also turned out to be beneficial in the classroom.  Pupils read ‘Not The Furniture Game’ by Simon Armitage – a poem that is made up of unusual, humorous and original metaphors.   Once the poem has been read the pupils started thinking about the metaphors in the poem they thought worked well and those they deemed as ‘random’.  It was interesting to hear the pupils’ differing views on this and the ones which stood out to each individual. We then moved on to a task that Jonathan introduced me to in the workshop and I think it is a fantastic way to encourage pupils to move away from clichéd language.  Pupils were given a piece of A4 paper and, whilst keeping their chosen person in mind,  were asked to fold this into 8 pieces and write down:

two adjectives

two body parts

two objects/places

two words of their choice

Once pupils had completed this part of the task they could start to play around with the language and create metaphors. I allowed them to add a few words to these in order to make them more logical if they wished; pupils then had the opportunity to get up from their seats and ‘borrow’  words chosen by other pupils in the classroom in order to create more of their own original metaphors. I was blown away by some of the examples including:

Her hair was the sandy beaches of Bora Bora

His eyes were a mesmerising Disney film

His arm was a jubilant musical

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This approach  was a great way to encourage pupils to be ambitious and take a step away from the over-done language they can be used to using.  It exposed them to how fun and exciting poetry can be and allowed them to be creative with their writing.   In the next lesson pupils will create their own poem based on their chosen person and ‘Not the Furniture Game’ will be an inspiring model for them if they require a scaffold.

Throughout all of these tasks I wrote with the pupils and this was extremely beneficial for them as they could see the struggles and triumphs all writers go through when creating pieces of work. They were also really interested to hear what I had created and seeing me engrossed in the task also helped them to stay focused.   I often think teachers can shy away from writing with pupils but I find it makes my job easier as I’m more aware of possible issues; it also shows pupils that we enjoy writing and I think that is extremely important.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pupils’ Expectations

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In life we always have set expectations for an event. We develop these expectations through our own prior experiences and through word of mouth. As we live the experience we soon begin to gage whether it is living up to our hopes or letting us down. For example, the expectation for a lecture is students sitting in rows facing a lecturer and taking in information. This can seem exciting to some fresh undergrad students as they hope to be inspired by this new form of learning; however most students have heard that lectures are boring and to skip them because ‘they just put the slides online anyway’: is this what we want learning to be?

 
I have been to many inspiring lectures, as well as the not so inspiring ones, and I have come to realise that expectations can often be dangerous and misleading: they can determine the attitude we have as we approach a new experience and our level of engagement with it. If more lecturers began their sessions with active learning and discussion, would we still class it as a lecture or something else? If we call an experience within a lecture hall a ‘workshop’ does that mean it is different or does it depend on what actually happens within the ‘workshop’?

 
These thoughts got me thinking about the expectations pupils have for what happens in the classroom. Yes, we may set our high expectations for them but what are their assumptions about us and our teaching? Do their views change as they enter our classroom and are we presented with opportunities to alter their outlook?
I have been considering this mainly in relation to senior classes and the change of timetable that is almost ( or already for some) upon us. Senior pupils will enter our classes with a set expectation of what the class will be like through word of mouth from their peers (unless we are new) and if we have taught them in the past. From the moment the pupils steps through the door we have an opportunity to either stick with what they expected or start afresh and try something new.

 
It is pretty common to spend the first few periods going over the course outline with a senior class and to discuss the exam structure; however I find this detrimental. For me, it puts the exam at the centre of importance rather than the pupils’ learning. If we lecture to pupils for an hour about what they ‘need’ to know for an exam we have, in my opinion, already set their expectations for the rest of the year: this teacher is going to tell me what to think in order to pass this exam. 

 
Although exams are important I believe it is vital that students are aware that it is their learning that should take centre stage. I believe that starting the year with a discussion about literature, and giving pupils the opportunity to develop their own opinions about texts, is far more beneficial. We should take that opportunity to build pupils’ confidence rather than get them worked up about an exam and set them in the ‘just tell me what I need to know’ mentality. If we begin the year by letting pupils know that we aren’t going to tell them what to think and if we encourage them to contribute their views, then I believe we will all gain more out of the school year.

Text-Worlds in the Classroom Seminar

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I recently attended an inspiring seminar, with  Jess Mason and Marcello Giovanelli, looking at Text World theory and the way that it can help structure classroom activities.

At the beginning of the seminar we were asked to picture how we would visualise a short piece of writing and draw this on paper.  The extract was taken from The Mist in the Mirror by Susan Hill and it was interesting to compare our drawings with other members of the group and see the elements of the story that we each, individually focused on.  There were many similarities with the drawings and these occurred most frequently in the same groups.  For example each individual in my group did not use the whole sheet of A2 paper and focused on smaller images instead; whereas other groups used the whole sheet with much larger drawings.   Marcello then explained that this comes from our mental representation of a text as we are more likely to  create similar images to those who are near us and may influence our decisions.

This would be a fantastic task to use with a class as it would allow pupils to build an individual mental image of a text that can then be shared and discussed with their group.  It would also be interesting for pupils to think about why they focused on certain words in the story and why they discarded others. There will be words in the extract that some pupils may have vocabulary gaps with.  For example, in the extract we were given, the word ‘London’ triggered mental pictures such as Big Ben and the London Eye; however if a pupil has little/no knowledge of London they may not choose to focus on that word. This, therefore, highlights the important connection between comprehension and interpretation: if  there is a lack of understanding then it may make it more challenging for pupils to think critically about a novel and create their own interpretation.

Quick minute drawings to create a mental representation of an extract from The Mist in the Mirror.

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This task also tied in well with Jess Mason’s thoughts on personal preference.  As we read more we start to gain an understanding of what we like and dislike.  Due to our own experiences we may also be more likely to focus on certain elements of a text.  This was made evident in a whole group discussion. Some members of the seminar stated they enjoyed rich character description and voice, whereas others preferred descriptive setting and landscape.  Interestingly, this reflected on the drawings we created in our groups.   Certain words in the extract created an individual trigger for each of us and we focused on that element of the story.  This, perhaps, indicates the influence our personal preferences can have over what we focus on in a text and the mental image we create.

This idea of personal preferences led Jess into a discussion about pupils and their experiences with novels in a classroom.  This was really insightful for me as Jess explained the difference between a teacher’s experience with a class novel and a pupil’s. Teachers will, normally, read a novel before they begin it with a class.  This means that a teacher experiences an authentic reading of a text and, therefore, can create their own interpretation of the novel.  However, pupils often only experience a class novel within a classroom.  They might read some of it with the class for 15 minutes of the lesson and then start tasks in groups and this may potentially result in the pleasure of reading being denied for these pupils.  There will be pupils in the class who wish to read at a slower pace or those who read ahead and we must ask ourselves how much this disjointed experience of reading is influencing the pupils’ enjoyment of a novel.

Furthermore, because the teacher has their own interpretation of the text they can, consciously or not, influence the way the pupils perceive a text.  This means that pupils are experiencing a manufactured reading of a novel and are being denied the right to engage.  If we think about sharing our thoughts with someone on a TV series we have watched,  we expect to have similarities and differences in terms of likes and dislikes and we expect to interpret characters in different ways .  Yet, because teachers have already had the experience of a novel , they are more likely to encourage pupils to create their  mental representation of a text rather than allowing pupils to have the freedom to create their own.

As a result of teachers having a natural reading experience with a class novel, it may influence the tasks chosen for a class.  This perhaps highlights the potential dangers of learning intentions if teachers feel the lesson cannot take another direction.  There is also a danger in waiting for the ‘right answer’ and then moving on when that has been given.  This can, therefore, exacerbate the issue with pupils experiencing a manufactured reading of a text as they may switch off if they feel that their views are not important or lose confidence if they feel they are wrong.   However, viewing something differently often has real value and this led Jess to a discussion on the idea of a character being perceived as a ‘villain’.  A teacher Jess was working with asked the class to think about what makes the Warden in Holes  a villain.  Jess then asked a group of pupils if they thought she was a villain and after some hesitation one boy suggested that the Warden was only doing what she knew and following in the footsteps of her family. Therefore this highlights the importance of the way we ask questions, as teachers, as it can lead pupils to share their personal view of a text.

This was a thoroughly enjoyable seminar and I have gained loads of ideas to use with my classes over the next few weeks.  It is always interesting to consider the differences individuals can have in terms of their approach to a text and the way we can, as teachers, utilise these differences to create uplifting critical discussions.

 

Giovanelli, Marcello and Mason, Jessica (2015) ‘Well I don’t feel that’: schemas, worlds and authentic reading in the classroom. English in Education, 49 (1). pp. 4155. ISSN 1754-884

 

 

 

 

Using the Outdoors To Support Disadvantaged Pupils

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I am always amazed by how much of an influence a change in the environment can have on pupils.  We often expect so much from pupils through the restrictions of four concrete walls. We ask pupils to describe the smell of the beach on a hot summer’s day  and to write down the sounds of an ocean during a storm.  In these circumstances we are hoping that the pupils will have experienced this at some point through real life, a film or a book. We might even set a group task to create a word bank filled with ideas – but who is really producing these ideas?  Are they coming from the pupil who has never experienced a beach?  Or are they coming from the highflyer who experiences a captivating new destination every July? We might, then, ask pupils in their group to choose their ‘most descriptive words’ and we can all guess who has provided them.

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In the classroom, it’s my belief, that we are often in danger of unintentionally excluding some pupils from our lessons.  Even if we were to check pupils’ prior learning we may find that, for some pupils, their prior learning is really the learning of their classmates. They have picked up certain ideas and words through the experiences of their peers. Although some may argue there is nothing wrong with this as they are sharing the learning, we must remember that many pupils may have never experienced a beach or a theme park.  We might be able to provide visuals for these pupils through images and videos, however does this give them a sensory experience that will enable them to add description and excitement to their writing?

I am currently taking one of my classes out on monthly trips throughout the year. As their peers add more experiences to their collection, my class are being left stationary, or worse, slipping further behind due to the vital early years now being behind them.  Their peers are constantly adding to the knowledge and skills they have through their experiences. They have the prior knowledge to help them adapt to situations and new learning.  However, I realised that my class, often, don’t have this prior knowledge.  They may have picked up parts of it from their peers but they have never fully experienced it for themselves. Therefore this encouraged me to start taking my pupils to new places for their creative writing.  My aim is for them to start thinking about their senses and how they can use them to enhance their writing.

One of my first trips allowed pupils to experience creative writing in a woodland parkland with over 170 acres to be explored. We had discussed sensory poems in class and we were now going to create them in the outdoors.  It was a perfect day for it. The Autumnal leaves were starting to fall and the winter air was apparent but not too harsh.

The pupils first task was to think about 4 of the senses: sight, sound, touch and smell. The pupils’ task was to walk around an area of the park, on their own, and consider some describing words for each of the senses and I said that I would do the same.  The pupils were all provided with a booklet with a box for each of the senses.  I noticed that having this structure and separating the task into sections, rather than just delving into the poem, helped pupils to focus. Before I set the them off I also asked them to consider the way the leaves fell from the trees, the colours they saw, the sounds they were hearing around them and to touch the grass and the trees to get a real sensory feel.

Some of the describing words were fantastic. One pupil  described the leaves falling as ‘dancing’ and another described a tree as ‘looking like a monster’. As well as sight pupils considered the grass as ‘smooth at first but with an unexpected jag’ and the leaves on the ground having a ‘satisfying crunch’.   After we had our words we began to think about moulding them into  a short 4 line poem; with a sense for each line.  I have attached some pictures at the bottom so you can see some of the work the class produced. Although some people might look at them and think they are nothing amazing, I was really proud of the work the pupils produced on this trip. To describe a tree as ‘like a monster’ was fantastic and I am sure they would not have said this in class. In fact  a parting comment from a pupil was, ‘my poem in class would be different and it probably wouldn’t be as good.’ This shows the benefits of a short trip like this.  I am lucky enough to have a small class but most schools will be within a 15 minute walk from a park and I would definitely recommend branching out from the classroom and allowing all pupils to experience the outdoors and all it can offer.

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Trees like monsters with scary branches,                                                                            The cold frosty air moved on my legs.                                                                                  The sweet smell of the autumn leaves,                                                                                Ducks talking to each other through quacks.              

_20171030_203152                                                                      Leaves rustling in the grass,                                                                                                 Leaves changing colours like,                                                                                               Red, orange and yellow.                                                                                                          Wet and soggy grass like a dog,                                                                                             Birds chirping a pretty tune.

_20171030_203142                                                                            The leaves are multi-coloured and falling slowly,                                                              The birds sound like a chatter.                                                                                             I feel the cold on my hand,                                                                                                     As the winter air creeps in.                                                                               

 

 

 

Using the Outdoors to Foster Creativity

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I remember the pressure of sitting in English lessons and being asked to come up with an idea for a short story in 50 minutes. The teacher would read out one example then we were expected to get started. The pupils who could write 3 pages in 50 minutes were often praised for their hard work and their writing would be read out to the class. I never produced my best work in the limitations of the classroom and I would often ask to take my work home to finish it there. I had quiet places I could go to write and would subconsciously think back to my own experiences with books, films and the outside world in general as a stimulus for my work. As a teacher I have been considering this idea in more depth: what about the pupils with limited experiences and no place of solitude?

We all find it difficult to write about something we know nothing or little about. We will attempt to weave any prior knowledge we do have with our experiences of the world in order to support our writing: this can then be enhanced by the use of media and discussion with peers. There is also an argument that the more experiences and knowledge we have the easier we will find it to use our imagination and engage the reader with our writing. However, I am uncertain about whether knowledge and experiences automatically equal creativity. We have to know how to use them together and the benefits they can bring to our own work.

The impact of experiences has always been something I have been interested in as a teacher. They help us to respond to texts and think critically about our own interpretations. We will often rely on what we know to support our creative pieces of work.  Therefore this is why we receive so many zombie stories based on The Walking Dead and reflections of wild house parties: they are what many young people are interested in and relate to.  As we  go to more places and live our life there is a high chance that what we write about will not only change but become more original: potentially explaining why authors’  adapt their writing style over the years. From these notions of experiences and writing I decided to see what kind of impact being outside the classroom would have on a group of pupils.

Many of the pupils in the class have little experience outside their hometown. They often find it challenging to come up with ideas for their writing; even with scaffolds and differentiation. This, therefore, leads to a dangerous situation where they are constantly behind their peers. As other classes gain more experience and progress, we can have a situation where some pupils stay stagnant or move backwards due to lack of interest and self-belief. They are one year away from their senior year and I can’t imagine what it must feel like to be in what is deemed as the ‘bottom set’ throughout school.

My hope was that by taking these pupils on trips outside of the classroom they would gain life experience and knowledge from the excursions. I hoped that these trips would support pupils to write in a much more engaging manner that truly reflects the experiences they have had. We have had one of our trips already and what I have gained, and I hope what the pupils have gained, from this is so much more than improving writing.

Even as the pupils boarded the mini-bus I noticed a change in them. There was a feeling of excitement but also uncertainty at experiencing something new. I remember from my own school years the change in mood and atmosphere being out of the classroom caused. Yet, we still teach in a predictable room with desks and a board: another example of tradition suppressing reform?

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I made up booklets for the pupils to take notes on the senses and ways that they could use these senses to enhance their writing. I asked pupils to look at the nature around them, the different angles and also the people  walking around. Their ideas were unbelievable. One girl described the trees in the distance as looking like silhouettes because of the misty air. We then discussed this further and came up with them being blurred white silhouettes and one pupil mentioned them resembling weapons. It was amazing to see the confidence that the pupils had and the way they were interacting with each other and building on each other’s ideas. Language that they would find challenging to produce in a classroom was coming to them naturally outdoors.  We were on a hill at one point and they were comparing houses to dolls’ houses and cars to toy cars. This then led to the idea of the people below us resembling ants as we were giants in comparison. The way that the pupils were expressing their ideas was something I had not fully anticipated. They were talking to each other naturally rather than being forced into a group discussion.

As we returned to the classroom and reflected on the trip, the pupils were still able to think and express their ideas; however I noticed that some of the spark was now gone. The pupils had started to write about their experience with the class word-bank we created and were using a lot of the language we had discussed; yet there was something forced behind it. I think this is what led me to consider the idea of experiences + knowledge = creativity: it is often not as straightforward as that. Other factors can influence how we respond to a situation,  such as the environment we are in or how we are feeling,  and this is definitely something I have learned from this trip.

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I hope that as we go on more excursions the pupils will find it easier to transfer all their enthusiasm and use of language into the classroom. I am also going to start the writing on the trip to see if this makes a difference. I left this excursion feeling like my relationships with the pupils had improved and I’m certain they have gained something from it. I felt really emotional seeing them coming out of their shells and having the confidence to speak up about not only what they were experiencing on the trip, but also how they were feeling in general.

We are often so caught up in results, data and improving outcomes that we forget to look at the bigger picture. I’m not sure yet if these trips will have a huge impact on enhancing the pupils’ writing; but I do know they will gain much more from them than an improved creative piece of work.

Exploring the Motivation behind a Character’s Actions

 

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The other day I had an interesting discussion with one of my higher pupils.  She was talking about her advanced higher drama course and the idea of ‘given circumstances’.  This is a term coined by the Russian theatre practitioner Konstantin Stanislavski and is a methodology for actor training.

The term given circumstances is applied to the total set of environmental and situational conditions which influence the actions that a character in a drama makes.  The character (in the play) is often unconscious of these decisions, however the actor playing them is aware of these conditions in order to deepen their understanding of a character’s motivation.  This discussion got me thinking about the play I am studying with my higher (‘Men should Weep’ ) and the way that characters’ actions are often underpinned by a deeper issue.

In real life we will interact differently with people depending on who we are talking to and the same can be applied to characters in a play.  Their relationships vary depending on  whether they have status over other characters and their emotional connection to them.  Pupils often understand the ‘surface’ issues in drama relationships but can find it challenging to think about why a character is reacting in a certain way.

I modelled, with my class, an example of a relationship between two characters: Isa and Alec.  I asked the class to write down what they knew about the characters and then focus on their knowledge of their relationship. Pupils then shared with their group and we started to discuss it as a class. Some pupils mentioned the turbulent relationship that the two characters have and the fact that  Isa often overpowers Alec.   Although this was a good point it isn’t taking into consideration their motivation. Why does Isa choose to control Alec? This then resulted in one of the pupils stating that Alec is an easy target for her and she has a different relationship with other characters.   This is shown in her interaction with a removal man as she is taken aback when he notices her lack of respect for Granny.  We then discussed the idea that Isa is actually an insecure character and Alec allows her to treat him badly, so why does he put up with this?  A pupil then mentioned the idea that Alec is mollycoddled by his mum. This led to a discussion about Alec needing strong female characters in his life and this results in his desire (need) to be loved by Isa.

By asking pupils to think about characters’ motivations and their reason behind an action they produced some fantastic answers. If a character shows anger is that the only emotion they are feeling or is something driving the anger? If a character is making fun of someone else is something driving that nasty trait? I think that, as English teachers, these are really important elements to think about. They can definitely help pupils gain a deeper understanding of a text and build confidence so they can explore  their own interpretation.

This could be a useful task for exploring relationships/character development with any text. It may also help pupils structure essays and think about how the evidence in a text helps support a response rather than it being the main focus.

Some examples of pupils’ work:

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