The dream English workbook

06 Jan 2017


“Now here I go again, I see the crystal visions
I keep my visions to myself, it’s only me
Who wants to wrap around your dreams and,
Have you any dreams you’d like to sell?”

Fleetwood Mac: ‘Dreams’

How much time on a weekly basis does the humble workbook occupy? Marking, planning, organising: all revolve around this most conspicuous of tools of the teacher trade. They accompany us  (often in gargantuan sacks) home on a nightly basis; they taunt us at weekends and holidays; they dominate our classrooms throughout the day; they even rear their ugly heads, as I discovered to my alarm this week, in our slumber.

Most “return to work after a holiday nights” are unsettled by the best of standards, a night of fretting and turning.  This week’s return dream on Tuesday night was particularly bizarre: I was being chased across a car park by a gigantic oversized student workbook, backed up by a collection of his workbook chums. You will appreciate this was rather disconcerting and certainly not a dream I wish to “sell”, and probably in all honesty a “vision” I should keep “to myself”.

If ever a dream had a more obvious metaphor then I will eat the proverbial workbook. So, out of the widow with nebulous New Year’s resolutions, this will be the year in which the battle with the workbook will be won. The workbook will soon be the one waking up in a sweaty mess, conquered by my utter control over it. His chums will be demure, looking up patiently at their master – awaiting wisdom and direction. Just need to work out how first…

One of the most insightful and helpful blogs I read last year was Tom Boulter’s ‘How to get great results in GCSE English.’  The post involves dissecting a successful GCSE student’s workbook and evaluating how their use of the workbook contributed to their success. An essential read and a significant influence in planning for the workbook war, I will be spending much more time reflecting on what is a quality student book as a result of this post. It is also the product of my previous role in management in central London. One of the perks of early promotion was that each weekend was accompanied by a large collection of workbooks that I had to review and feedback to members of staff on. I always struggled with this: a workbook in isolation only whispers of the story of the classroom. I also believe the infamous workbook review is only meaningful and useful if  the focus is on the quality of student work and if it can engender a meaningful conversation about learning with a  teacher.

There is also another danger: just because a student has a delightful workbook does not mean they will automatically do well in an examination. Yet this year the importance of the workbook in English lessons is magnified. There is no support network with Controlled Assessments – my GCSE students will have their future dictated by over eight hours of final exams.  Their workbooks are now real gold dust, the principal mechanism by which they will revise and prepare for these exams.

Given that slightly terrifying context, here is my ten point vision of using the workbook effectively in 2017 and the individuals and posts who have informed the thinking:

  1. Pride: When I pick up a workbook I want to see that a student cares about the content and values the book as a representation of the very best of what they are capable of. Honing and developing this is one of my missions this year: that includes being pedantic about dates and titles being underlined and working to develop students’ handwriting. This brilliant post from Sarah Barker on handwriting will influence a lot of my work with students on this. By sharing workbooks more in class and giving more opportunities for students to look at others in gallery style peer assessment, this will hopefully be promoted more than my ranting and raving at the front of the room!
  2. Teacher input: There is no doubt about it: marking is an important part of the learning cycle. As Alex Quigley summarises in this post, the nature of the marking is vital. Spurious marks and assessments that encourage comparisons with others can be harmful, what marking should do is encourage the student to think for themselves, to deepen their understanding and move forward with their learning. I know I am guilty of pointless comments that will do nothing for the student, of laboriously investing hours of time with no real tangible impact on learning. My input in the workbook war needs serious reflection: how will any comment I make have an impact in moving forward student learning? What will be the impact from the student from my marking – are they doing significantly more than me?
  3. Process: The workbook needs to be clear, all revolving around the philosophy of extended writing being core. So I will be planning this carefully – what work will build up to a longer piece of writing? This will help inform planning for half term and the marking timetable I complete. I want to think carefully about if a piece of work needs to go into a workbook, is it necessary for revision or documenting understanding?
  4. Organisation: I want students and parents to be clear about the purpose of what we are working on. At the start of each unit will be mini overviews that clarify the direction of the work. I want limited sheets stuck in books, it all to speak of organisation and clarity. The importance of using the workbook as a revision tool needs to be honed with students from Year 7 so they grow in confidence in this throughout their time in school. That means that I will be working hard to make it direct and clear for them to use.
  5. Self and Peer-assessment: I have my reservations on this, it needs to be carefully planned in order for it to be meaningful and not waste valuable lesson time. For peer assessment, the gallery approach, written about in this post from Chris Curtis, is particularly effective. I also make sure that if I am asking students to self assess their work there are clear expectations for them to identify, and support any self-assessment with a model answer so that clarity on quality is provided. What I also want to see in the workbooks is a developed sense of students reflecting on their own work, making changes and improvements as they go along.
  6. Effort and positivity: I am going to make a real concerted effort to make ‘Workbook of the Week’ a huge focus with each of classes this year. This area of my classroom is one in which wonderful workbooks are enshrined for the world to admire, idealistically raved about at the start of the year. The parents of each student are called at the end of the week and I rant about how amazing they are. Year 7 go hysterical over it, Year 11 pretend they hate it but I know the truth! The core to this is building a culture of effort and ownership of the workbooks – moving away from the notion that I should be more invested in the workbooks than the students.
  7.  Extended writing: What do I want to invest most of my time marking and reflecting on this year? It can’t be everything, that will drive me to an early workbook grave. I want to read/mark/copy/share examples of extended writing. I want that to be the bedrock of the time I invest on workbooks – looking at the quality of the final input to inform future planning. To do this I want to build in more time on a weekly basis for students to complete more writing. I have planned in for one per week for each of my groups for this term, and linked this to a marking plan.
  8. Gimmicks: This post from Shaun Allison on hits this perfectly: no more showy gimmicks. I want the workbook to reflect serious academic endeavour. I appreciate that sounds remarkably dry but it does not mean that lessons will not seek to inspire and engage the learners, rather the mechanisms to do this will be different and reflected differently in the workbook. There will be no wasted space: no pictures of characters; no word searches; only lots and lots of writing that has a purpose in moving forward learning.
  9.  Improvements: Honing, redrafting, redrafting work leading to direct improvement in quality – they should all be present in an English workbook and students need the opportunity to do it. Yet I know I have done this very badly in the past: ‘upgraded’ work that has been redrafted and has been infinitely worse than what has come before; responses to ‘improvement questions’ that are mono syllabic and don’t move learning forward at all.  Deciding how students will make improvements with work will be a real focus of the workbook war: will it be a paragraph, a sentence, a particular technique? This post from Andy Tharby has a number of strategies that now inform the time students spend from marking in my lessons.  Like everything it needs careful planning and scaffolding.
  10.  Modelling writing: I am determined to do more of this in 2017. This post on using my own narrative with Year 11 outlines my thinking on the value of this. One hour of writing an essay is often more productive than the five hours to mark a set of books. While I am loath to have lots of sheets all of over the place in student workbooks, what I do want in there is lots and lots of model answers: ranging from the top end that students can dissect for successes to answers in which students are encouraged to identify areas to improve. All encourages student reflection on what makes successful work in the particular area of English they are exploring.

This will constantly evolve with experimentation and reflection, like all aspects of teaching. What I do feel is I need to to now step away from the hamster like wheel of churning back marked work to students and not reflecting carefully on the purpose of the book. I want to make this a year in which what students do with workbooks, and in turn what I do with workbooks, is very high up on the agenda. Thanks for reading, the last word can go back to perhaps the greatest album ever written: Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Rumours.’ “Yesterday is gone” and it is time to “go my own way.” The new strategic, forward thinking workbook revolution- no more workbook nightmares!



Jamie Thom

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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: