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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 which aspects of his teaching work best for his students and, as an avid reader and blogger, is a big believer in sharing practical ways to tackle difficult problems in the classroom.


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How to Teach: English

Written by Chris Curtis, How to Teach: English: Novels, non-fiction…

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Being word friendly or porous

November 10 2019


We all know the importance of vocabulary. We all know that ‘tier 2’ words are a sticking point for students. We all know that students will struggle to read some texts without a good level of vocabulary.  The problem is the method in which we use to teach that vocabulary to ensure it is of benefit and not just simply a case of cramming them full of impressive vocabulary. Or ‘WOW words’.


I feel that as teachers we need to be more porous to words. By that, I mean we should be prepared to make the words an important part of the lesson, planning and discussion. How many times in lessons do we ask students for the meaning of a word? How many times in a lesson do we stop a lesson for a discussion on the use of one word? How many times do we stop a conversation with a student and we question them on their choice of words?

What does lanced mean?

Why did the writer use silently instead of stealthily?

Why did you use the word ‘it’ to describe the Tom?


There’s lots out there about vocabulary and people are trying to find their own little way or system for imparting vocabulary. However, there’s so many words and so little time. Being porous to words is the key. If a teacher is porous to words, then the students will be. Students don’t need endless lists of words that they might never ever face or use in their own reading, writing and speech. They need to be a sponge with vocabulary, meaning that they must have the ability to suck up a word and store it.


This blog is about the ‘sucking up’ part of vocabulary. I am going to talk about a lesson which, for me, is about being porous and sucking up words. I am going to simply explain what I did and why I did it.



Part 1:

The class have been working on ‘Of Mice and Men’. At the start of the lesson, I gave students an extract from the text and gave them a few minutes to think about the words in read and what do they mean. Then I selected students to tell me what a word meant.



Extract 1
Lennie begged, "Le's do it now. Le's get that place now."

"Sure, right now. I gotta. We gotta."

And George raised the gun and steadied it, and he brought the muzzle of it close to the back of Lennie's head. The hand shook violently, but his face set and his hand steadied. He pulled the trigger. The crash of the shot rolled up the hills and rolled down again. Lennie jarred, and then settled slowly forward to the sand, and he lay without quivering.

George shivered and looked at the gun, and then he threw it from him, back up on the bank, near the pile of old ashes.

The brush seemed filled with cries and with the sound of running feet. Slim's voice shouted. "George. Where you at, George?“



Students are unprepared to give meanings to words. Historically, I’d say we have generally shied away from using students to generate the meanings of words or providing definitions. We’ve provided glossaries and given our personal meanings of words, linking to our first holiday as a child and the obscure etymology of the word that will only be of use to a person watching ‘University Challenge’ episode 4 in 1982. 


This task was interesting because without preparation students are pretty bad at giving definitions.


What does the word ‘begging’ mean, Sue? 


Umm. It means begging. You know. Like you are begging for something.


Often or not, the students repeated the word in their explanation and showed me how difficult students actually find defining words. This carried on with the rest of the words. It got to the point where some students we quite frustrated that they used hand actions to enable the meaning rather than repeat the word steadied. Clearly, there’s room for some work there on explanation and clarification.



Part 2

I then gave students another extract. This time I asked them to do two things. Think of a synonym to use instead of the word. Think of a definition for the word here. Each pair had a particular word.

I read aloud the extract twice. The first time when I got to a focus word they said a synonym. The second time they said their definition.



Extract 2

The deep green pool of the Salinas River was still in the late afternoon. Already the sun had left the valley to 

go climbing up the slopes of the Gabilan Mountains, and the hilltops were rosy in the sun. But by the pool 

among the mottled sycamores, a pleasant shade had fallen.

A water snake glided smoothly up the pool, twisting its periscope head from side to side; and it swam the 

length of the pool and came to the legs of a motionless heron that stood in the shallows. A silent head and 

beak lanced down and plucked it out by the head, and the beak swallowed the little snake while its tail waved
frantically.

A far rush of wind sounded and a gust drove through the tops of the trees like a wave. The sycamore leaves 

turned up their silver sides, the brown, dry leaves on the ground scudded a few feet. And row on row of tiny 

wind waves flowed up the pool's green surface.

As quickly as it had come, the wind died, and the clearing was quiet again. The heron stood in the shallows, 

motionless and waiting.

Another little water snake swam up the pool, turning its periscope head from side to side.

Suddenly Lennie appeared out of the brush, and he came as silently as a creeping bear moves.



This for me built up their confidence around the use of language. It adds some problem solving element. They heard me push to develop the definitions in Part 1, so they knew they had to avoid repeating the word in their definition. 


Personally, I’d say students are far more comfortable with providing a synonym rather than defining words. Verbally, we don’t define words in our everyday conversation but we do use synonyms. What was the person like? Small, petit, tiny. We do this naturally because we sort through our brain for the right word for the context. X doesn’t fit so I will use Y. Y is not quite right so I will use Z. We scroll through words.



Part 3

For the final part of the lesson, we narrowed the focus on one particular line from the extract. This part was about connections. We connected the words to different aspects. We recapped the word’s meaning and possible synonyms. Then, I used a PowerPoint to show words to build connections.



A silent head and beak lanced down and pluckedit out by the head, and the beak swallowed the little snake while its tail waved frantically.   



Slide 1 – Connections

Reminds me of

Echoes

Links to

Mirrors

Makes me think of

Foreshadows



Slide 2 – Purpose

Question

Highlights

Emphasises

Understands

Prepares

Draws attention to



Slide 3 – Effect

Think that

Feel that

Understand that

Imagine that





This started students on thinking of the words’ connection to the text and the rest of the text. We were connecting it to the reader’s thoughts, the writer’s intention and structure. It made for an interesting discussion on the symbolic identity of the heron and snake. The heron was possibly George, Lennie or even Curley’s wife. There was talk of the ‘lanced’ reflecting what George does to Lennie and the pain and violence associated with the word. We also talked about ‘lancing’ a boil and how that could be what George does.

For me, once they had the concrete aspect of meaning secure it made the students far more confident when talking about the connections with the rest of the text. This staggered approach helped a lot of my students build up understanding.



Overall, the whole experience for me has highlighted how we make assumptions about words and their meanings. We assume students know certain words and assume that they can articulate a word’s meaning. In English, we often ask students to comment on the language used by the writer. That often entails looking for patterns or easily recognisable techniques. We miss a large part of the understanding when doing that. I talk a lot in lessons about ‘false confidence’. Complex words provide students with a false confidence in the subject. Because they can use complex words they feel that have mastered things. We know that English is vast and complex as a subject that the subtle, nuanced meanings could be hidden behind one word.  Every word is important. Take the use of the word ‘it’ instead of ‘murder’ when Macbeth comments on killing King Duncan. Students need to be sponges for words and we have got to make active processes in lessons that allows this. They have to be part of the definition learning and clarifying. We have to keep going back and keep asking for the meaning of words. Something we have lost over time. Yes, we might do it here or there, but do we regularly ask students to give meanings to words?


Do students have false confidence around vocabulary because we have made too many assumptions about them? I bet when looking at the extracts above people thought some of the words were easy. I bet people were thinking that some of the words are not challenging students. I bet people were thinking that the words would never develop a student’s vocabulary.


Look at a glossary provided for texts. It is interesting. There’s an assumption that the reader knows some words and an assumption that the reader doesn’t know some other words. Should we so easily make that distinction in the classroom?


Maybe, we should be stating that any and every word is game in the classroom. That’ why the simple definition of a word is paramount. Asking students to verbally define words in the classroom is the starting point for making a word porous environment. The choice of words is important. Students need to be exposed to all levels of word. Timothy, define the word ‘exposed’. Martha, explain to me what the word ‘porous’ means.  



Thanks for reading,

Xris




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Jumping because of the shark – Tension

October 20 2019


Teaching creative writing is something that constantly interests me. It is such a complex and interesting element of English lessons. This week I have been exploring tension in writing and getting students to effectively create tension. 


Students often struggle with creating tension because they rely on ‘jump shocks’ at every given moment. Therefore the writing reads like somebody is saying ‘boo’ at the end of each sentence. BOO! Or, they tend to load their first sentence with the words ‘death’, ‘blood’ and ‘murder’ so any sense of build up or atmosphere is burst like a balloon. Then, there are about fifty billion ‘suddenly’s or ‘and then’s punctuating the sentences. It is a large struggle for them. Not matter what you do they really struggle with making writing tense. They can make things sad, happy, creepy, but tense is another thing.


So this week, I was looking at tension with my Year 8s. They are writing their own horror story.  One lesson concentrated on the old staple ‘Jaws’ and the opening of ‘The Graveyard Book’ by Neil Gaiman. We compared how each one in its own way created tension or suspense.


The next lesson concentrated on the crafting of tension. We started with lines from ‘Jaws’. Students had to decide how the writer created tension through the one line. Often the problem students have is unpicking tension from the whole text. Hence why we get it makes the reader want to read on. The initial focus was on what makes tension in this one specific line. What could we imitate in our own writing?









Together, we came up with some ideas. These are just a few of them.





Then, I gave the class these sentences.



The boy walked down the path.

The man followed him.

He wanted to kill him.

The boy turned around and spotted the man.

The man walked faster.

The boy was really worried now.

The man had a knife in his hand.

It had blood on it.

The boy reached a dead-end.

He was dead.



They then had to rewrite the piece of action, but they had to build the tension. It generate discussion about the opening and how it starts, in the current form, quite tense and so they needed to reduce the tension in the opening so they could build it up.


Here’s an example:


It was a sunny afternoon. A boy was skipping down the lonely street. Distracted by his music he didn’t notice the clouds darken above him. It began to rain. He pulled out his ear plugs with a huff and heard footsteps behind him. He looked back and didn’t see anything. As he carried on, he heard footsteps again and picked up his pace. The footsteps got faster as well, like someone was following him. He looked behind and saw nothing and slipped in a puddle. He fell on the floor and saw a shadow hover over him with an object. A sharp object. Then the darkness took over.


For me, I like the subtle gradual changes in the mood and I quite like the shift from happy to tense in the second sentence:


A boy was skipping down the lonely street.


I also like the use of pathetic fallacy. The great thing is that the student was forced down an avenue by the rigid context they were writing for. They had to resolve a problem on their own rather than adapting the story to suit their needs. Instead they had to adapt their writing style. This happened quite a number of times with the group. Here’s another example:


The young, innocent boy wandered down the stone path. Little did he know, his life was going to change that day – for the worse. He had a sudden feeling that something was following him. The boy nervously turned around, to see a kind, timid old lady, minding her own business. Relieved, the boy continued to stroll down the path. However, once again, he felt someone watching him. Paranoid, he decided to quickly glance behind him, once again. Nothing. Then a cat jumped down out of the tree. His mind was set to rest. It must have been the cat.


A shadow lurked out from behind the tree about to pounce on its prey. Stealthily, the figure creeped towards the young boy. Oblivious, the boy sat down on a bench to rest. That was when it all happened. Every inch of the figure’s blade brightly reflected a large beam of light, almost blinding the young child. Every step the shadow took, the more the blade beamed. With a final scream, the blood clotted blade buried itself in the boy’s stomach. It was all over. Silence. No witnesses. No one to help him. No hope.


The great thing about the whole process was the discussion about choices. We discussed how to hide the identity of the man. We discussed how we could fool the reader. We discussed how we could gradually build up the tension… subtly.


I suppose what I liked about the whole process was the rigid approach of the writing. All too often creative writing dictates that students have so much freedom and choice, yet rarely do we put students in a situation similar to the A-team. You have a van and barn full of stuff and you have to get yourself out of the situation. The problem solving nature of writing. All writers do it. Work to solve a problem. We all know about the problems Spielberg had with the shark prop on ‘Jaws’. His creative problem was the shark, yet he solved the problem by hiding the shark as much as possible, which helped add to the tension.


Maybe there is scope to add more ‘problem-solving’ to writing. After all, the majority of analysis in English surrounds ‘writing solutions’. We are reading the writer’s solution to problem they had in the story. We are constantly asking students to explore the writer’s choices, yet do we put them in that situation enough. How would they describe this?



A teacher is fed up of marking.

He is bored of life in general.

He lives on his own.

He misses the old days. 
He thinks students have lost their creativity.  

He reads a piece of work which makes him happy.

His name is Mr Fisher.      



How would you convey Mr Fisher’s internal conflict? Maybe, putting ‘story problems’ at the centre of lessons would benefit all. It would support their creative writing, but also it would support their understanding of texts. A text is a solution to the problems a writer had in conveying ideas to the reader. When looking for a solution, the writer would have to consider what the reader would think or feel. Something that is rewarded in the top bands for the GCSE exam questions.



Thanks for reading,



Xris


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