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Chris Curtis

Chris Curtis is an English teacher and head of department with over a decade’s experience in education. Chris is forever reflecting on what aspects of his teaching work best for his students and, as an avid reader and blogger, is a big believer in sharing the practical solutions that he finds to tackling difficult problems in the classroom.


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Publications by Chris Curtis

How to Teach: English

Jam-packed with enlivening ideas to help teachers make the subject…

Author Blog

Thinking smarter with vocabulary and using the GCSEs

May 19 2019

Like most people, I am thinking about vocabulary and looking at ways to improve and increase a student's vocabulary. One of the key sources for vocabulary is the GCSE English Language paper. 

I am jealous of other subjects in the way they can microanalyse the chances of things being or not being on their exam papers. We don't really do that in the way other subjects. They look at exam papers in such detail that makes our 'it might not be Exposure or Ozymandias' look pathetic when compared to their detailed analysis of X, Y and Z not being on the paper but A, B and C will definitely be on there. 

Based on the way other subjects interrogate their papers, I thought I'd do the same with the reading texts on the papers. My simple question was: what words would some students struggle with the meaning of? Then, for the duration of an hour or so, I went through each paper and looked ay the words used and catalogued them. The result is a list of words that could cause students difficulty in a future exam. There's no guarantee that students will meet these words in an exam, but there is a good chance they might. 

Anyway, I compiled the list so that when teaching vocabulary next year, we have a starting point. Of course, there are billions of words, but at least this is a start. Interestingly, the non-fiction texts tend to have more difficult words than the fiction texts and, surprisingly, I felt the specimen materials seemed to have been easier with the word choices even when the texts might be harder from an understanding point of view. 

You might disagree with my choices, but it is a start. 

Thanks for reading, 

Xris 









P1 Nov18
clients
prehistoric
ceased
oiled
resilient
striding
sheathed
gleam
ivory
mesh
sculptured
gaped
taloned
poised
warily
reptilian
jerked
pronounced
remit
crusted
undulate
wilderness
lunged
blazed
engulfed
idol
levelled
metallic



P1 Nov 17
archaeological
gulps
haze
shimmer
dented
unrelenting
chorus
expanses
pastures
submission
inhospitable
concealed
slope
awning
demoralised
monotonous
significance
momentum
P1 Jun 18
terraced
soared
on par
kindle
illuminating
triumphed
devotion
conviction
sullen
disillusionment
crept
uncharacteristically
routine
quickened
meticulous
prospector
discouraged
bankrupt
critically
formulate
swelled
elements
vaguely
entirely

P1 Jun 17
practically
sufficient
sacrificed
striking
opal
stifled
resolve
meaningless
charmed
perishable
exquisitely


P1 Spec 16
cynical
bewildered
multitudes
hastily
inclination
uncoiled
gaiety
immense
P1 Spec 16
mound
shards
quivered
plunged
rustle


P1 Spec 16
adrift
bulk
pounding
conviction
unseeable
presence
fragrance
immaculate
Paper 2



P2 Jun 17
obnoxious
thrived
withered
unprecedented
giddy
gibberish
ambush
crook of arm
totters
uncontrollably
obliviously
liberty
stern
droop
fret
scold
P2 Jun 18
bronzed
dazzled
hollow
pestered
spread-eagled
native
ritual
legions
dexterous
slanting
majestically
uttering
exultant
verge
engulf
engulfment
crest
waded
exploits
mount
erect
exultingly
amidst
thronged
stimulated
exploits
galloping
enchanted
serene





P2 Spec 16
huddle
uniform
unrelieved
terraced
anonymous
debris
disused
blistered
perilous
entombed
hardened
endured
inching
ominously
treacherous
seeping
smothered
stupefying
catastrophe
wanton
void
feeble
displaced
fabled
successive
foundations
agitated
strained
roused
situated
accustomed
startled
scarcely
colossal
ashen
hues
pungent
persist
upheaved
P2 Spec 16
dilated
emerging
grandiose
devastation
undiluted
overcast
exhaled
resign
good-humoured
chit-chat
salubrious
wackiness
loathing
broad
concussion
derangement
gaily
profusely
disposed
bilious
dense
immense
enact

P2 Nov 17
beamed
disadvantage
brooding
industrial
adjacent
grim
forbidding
derelict
grime
oasis
enthusiastically
raring
darting
fluttering
mischievous
glint
ensemble
flourish
inclination
tantamount
philosopher
dismal
squalid
discordant
bawling
respectability
distressing
profusely
P2 Nov18
residential
assumption
congested
relatively
thus
characterise
waging
recline
barge
sole
plausible
morals
cocooned
despite
apparent
obliged
majority
minority
urban
bordering
proceeded
exceedingly
stead
inflicting


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Mauve Analysis

May 12 2019


Recently, there’s been a lot of discussion of vocabulary on Twitter and blogs and helping students to develop with the GCSEs. Some of it has been heated. Some of it has been needed. Some of it superfluous. The problem with all new trends is that they drown out a lot of good practices. There always needs to be a balance. My fear is that there has been an imbalance in terms of vocabulary and we have swung too far one way. I have seen supposedly Grade 9 examples with the language that is impenetrable to the human brain. It sounds clever, but it doesn’t really amount to much. We’ve, in some cases, swung too far with analysis.  We have the next generation of purple prose. I like to call it mauve analysis.

When you look at published critical essays (the style of writing that is at the top of the pile in sophistication in literary analysis), they read nothing like this mauve analysis. F.R.Leavis, for example. The problems we have had with creative writing for years has now infected literary analysis in the classroom. There’s become a checklist for analysing a text. We’ve reduced interesting discussion of a text in to a list of features. Have you mentioned context? Have you included an alternative viewpoint? Have you mentioned structure? Have you mentioned that the writer had a mole on his nose and this affected how he viewed society? Look at any critical essay and you’d be pushed to find any of these in one paragraph. Yes, you will find them somewhere across a twenty page essay, but I can guarantee you will not find them all in one paragraph, which is what some teachers are expecting students to do. We are creating these bizarre paragraphs which list things rather than develop and discuss ideas.

When you look at the best literature students, they don’t follow a formula. They tend to be very precise and spot subtle things and make interesting connections across a text. The ‘what’ isn’t the big thing for literature. However, ‘the what’ has become an obsession for some.  It is the explanation and that’s what we have as a department worked on: developing the meaningful discussion of a text. We’ve used the ‘what / how / why’ structure as a starting point.



Dickens presents  - the ideas

Dickens uses – the techniques (words / techniques / characters / patterns / structure)

Dickens teaches us – the reason for doing this – feeling / context / message



We stress to students that these can be placed in order, but presents and teaches tend to be best at the start. We give students them written like this:



Dickens presents education as something that will solve problems in society.

Dickens uses the visit of three ghost to teach Scrooge of the benefits of changing his attitude.

Dickens teaches the Victorian audience why they must care for others in society.



On a sheet of paper, students add to these three sentences and develop the explanation. This term we’ve been doing this regularly. The emphasis is on development and extending thinking. We wanted to avoid the listing of aspects and promote the development of ideas. This has become a bit of a planning tool for us. Presents/ Uses/Teaches.

The problem with the literature text is the extract, if I am honest. The tiny extract is seen as the source of answers and it becomes an obsession for students. I tell students to use the extract for language analysis and use the whole text to answer the question. The answers to the question are not in the extract and sadly students think that is the case. They’ll warp their thinking by obsessing on the extract, so essays will be constant reference to the extract. Also, using three sentences like this has been really useful for me as it promotes developing the existing idea rather than searching for a new idea. All too often in literature analysis students are stumped because they can’t think of something new or original. This approach allowed them to build on what is existing and extend it.



Another model used is this one. This one is about using multiple elements and forcing students not to fixate on one sole thing.



Shakespeare presents love as dangerous and deadly.



Shakespeare uses



character                             contrast of characters                                   foreshadowing



Imagery                               setting                                  event                     structure



word                     repetition             juxtaposition   symbol



Shakespeare teaches us



Love      hate       family   fate/ destiny     freewill   light/darkness   conflict



                                …. because ….

                                …so….

                                …as…



The problem we find is the obsession of one technique to rule them all. More advanced students talk about combinations of techniques. Or, they’d develop the idea by referring to several different aspects in the text. By forcing students to think of several aspects in the ‘use’ element, we have seen some interesting combinations of things. And, if I am honest, it is a bit source of enjoyment, because you are asking students to be creative and not spot the most obvious thing. The development of an idea through three techniques is interesting and has lots of scope for lessons.

Finally, to extend the development of think we get students to see that themes are not viewed in isolation and an idea can cover several themes. This allows for extension of the point and make more meaningful connections. So when talking about love, students feel they can link hate and family in their discussion. Students, like us, compartmentalise things and it is all too easy to narrow the focus. The writer uses X to show the theme of love.

In the end, students have a plan for a paragraph where they are looking at multiple elements and multiple ideas and they have extended their thinking and ideas. I have taught students that the ‘presents / uses / teaches’ are different threads and they all should be interwoven together rather than written as threads rather than discrete sentences. 
We can easily obsess over the words and the techniques but students need to develop explanations and ideas. We need to put explanation at the front of teaching analysis. We need to get students better at explaining and developing their thoughts. There needs to be a balance.  



Thanks for reading,

Xris

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