Like Lambs to the Slaughter: preparing Year 9 for GCSE English

25 Nov 2016



“Mary Maloney was waiting for her husband to come home from work.”

Poor old Mary, the jilted lover of Roald Dahl’s masterful ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’.   It all began so calmly. Her tumultuous marriage has been the focus for two Year 9 groups I am teaching this year: one a low band set and one a middle band. Both these groups present different learners and different levels of engagement, but both need to be equally primed and ready to start the challenge that is GCSE English by the end of the year.   The inordinately more challenging English GCSE. A year, therefore, that needs careful planning.  So to distill my priorities for these two groups this year:

  1. SPAG: making sure they arrive at Year 10 as confident spellers.
  2. Understanding of how texts are structured and being able to write about structure.
  3. Ability to appreciate the nuances of language and word level analysis – growing more confident and independent readers.
  4. Ability to craft interesting narratives.
  5. Development of vocabulary in preparation for challenging non fiction texts and novels like ‘A Christmas Carol’ or ‘Jekyll and Hyde’
  6. Preparation for difficult how questions that dominate the GCSE specification.
  7. Start to understand the nuances of how to compare texts.
  8. Grow their ability to read non-fiction texts.
  9. Ability to approach extract questions and write analytically.
  10. Knowledge of how to write for different audiences and purposes.

Cue Patrick, the ill fated protagonist of Dahl’s short story, in his pre announcement of divorce moment: “He lifted his glass and drained it in one swallow although there was still half of it, at least half of it left.” Slightly intimidating. Important, therefore, that the the standards are high, that students recognise this year is very important for them and that behaviour is condusive to this expectation. David Didau’s post on creating this environment for learning for lower sets is particularly helpful. Sharing examples of GCSE examinations and model answers  with them at the start of the year was a good means to secure focus and to clarify the level of expectations. We are now constantly talking about this in class and I frequently share my Year 11 work with them.

This half term has had a focus on narrative writing. Teaching writing in isolation, particularly with these low ability groups, is impossible. They need something to get them thinking, something to focus their writing on. As the great man Dahl himself said:

A writer of fiction lives in fear. Each new day demands new ideas and he can never be sure whether he is going to come up with them or not.”

For these students who are more reluctant readers (as much as we try!) the notion that they could at this stage come up with a purpose for fiction is very challenging. The past couple of weeks I have been experimenting with using ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’, combining the overarching purpose to work on creating engaging narratives with the above terrifying ten targets. I am also conscious of moving too fast with the groups, allowing them time to imbed skills and honing quality writing. I also want them to be engaged in English as a subject, to enjoy the experience and develop an interest in reading and writing.

So the adventure began with the image and opening line of the story that opens this post. Students had to instantly connect with her character: who is she? What is she waiting for? What is her background? This led to some interesting ideas, and some good dialogue on how to construct an engaging opening sentence.

They then had an extract of the opening page to explore. This led to our first evaluation of the importance of structure and more discussion on what makes  a successful opening.  We decided on a character profile for Mary. The dialogue students have built into their writing so far has been pretty poor. After generating ideas about Mary, we continued the opening dialogue between Mary and Patrick. If only I had read this brilliant post on teaching dialogue from Mark Roberts before this moment! Student’s responses were fairly simplistic. One to come back to!

Things got more interesting when we looked at how Dahl builds drama and tension in this passage: how-does-dahl-build-tension-in-this-extract. We unpicked and annotated this together this then produced an analytical response evaluating how Dahl has built tension. Students had to use a range of evidence and techniques to form their answer, useful preparation for ten mark GCSE questions. My careful reflection on Dahl’s use of language and techniques it also meant they were more informed when it came to structuring their extended narrative to build tension. Pleasingly, as the below example shows – they started to use these in their writing.

Students then produced their more extended first person narrative for this question. We built up a character profile for Patrick to inform writing from his perspective, building up a word bank of quotations and completing a Patrick psychology session (great hot seating fun!) I wrote my opening few paragraphs of a narrative from his perspective  with students and I talked through my process of writing with them.  Students produced some good stuff, building on their earlier attempts at building in dialogue and ‘zooming in’ to capture more detail.


One of the joys of teaching the short story is the narrative hooks: students are genuinely engaged and shocked when the revelation of Patrick’s murder with the leg of lamb is shared. It is exciting, dynamic and appeals to both genders. It is a powerful way to demonstrate to them the potential of writing to evoke genuine surprise and shock. At each stage of the reading the story I asked students to stop and make predictions,  helping them to become both emotionally invested and more reflective about the direction of plot. We finished these two weeks with students writing a short narrative from Mary’s perspective at the end of the novel:


Then students had a go at a piece of lively writing: a review of the short story to be published in ‘Shorts Weekly’. We looked at some examples of interesting review writing to help scaffold this for them. A student’s opening paragraph:


Finally we finished up with ‘Lambs to the Spelling’: students took these twenty key spelling words home (lambs-to-the-spelling) and they were expected to achieve full marks in a test the following lesson. We then had ‘Lambs to the Vocabulary’, in which students had a vocabulary race to make sure they could define and use twenty new words (lamb-to-the-slaughter-vocabulary) from the story. My particularly favourite being: James luxuriated in “Edinbrough”:


So a whistle stop tour but in two weeks we have started to build more engaging narratives and build their confidence and engagement in writing. It has all been carefully scaffolded and structured for them, combined with modelling, dialogue, drafting and experimentation. I haven’t quite hit the all of the terrifying ten that opened this post but we have had experience of a number.  Lots to reflect on and consider about how to develop their writing further. We will power on, the next couple of weeks we will compare with Alan Paton’s short story ‘The Wasteland’: the-waste-land-by-alan-paton

Thanks for reading, Mary would have loved it:

“And in the other room, Mary Maloney began to giggle.”





Jamie Thom

English teacher, host of @TES English teaching podcast. Author of 'Slow Teaching.' MEd in Practitioner Enquiry, doctorate student #StrathEdD. Runner.

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