‘The Four M’s’ in the English classroom

06 Oct 2018

Yesterday, I delivered a workshop to a group of English teachers from Harris Academy, under the title of ‘Sustainable Outstanding Teaching’. In part of the talk I wanted to talk about what I am focussing on developing in my own classroom practice this term.  I have, in a moment of lightning bolt genius, deemed one my pedagogical projects for the year ‘The Four M’s.’ Now if that isn’t a cocktail that will change the face of education forever, I don’t know what will. Having written individual chapters on each modelling, memory, metacognition and marking for ‘Slow Teaching’ last year –  I now want to spend a few months looking in more depth about how they can be applied to the English classroom.

  1. Modelling

I am now thinking carefully through each lesson I approach: how am I making the implicit, explicit in this lesson? What are my students going to actively see and deconstruct that will help move forward their abilities as writers? How am I guiding them through my own thinking? As English teachers, the potential of modelling in our classrooms is endless:

Plan for success and misconceptions: what do we want the task to look like?

Incomplete and partially completed model answers.

Comparative model answers.

Modelling misconceptions.

Student and teacher model answers.

Live and collaborative modelling: the silent teacher.

Talk through the thinking process –strengthening metacognitive thinking.

What I really want to do now is start to make much more of model answers, and have the confidence in the classroom to devote real lesson time to unpicking what is happening in model answers. My Year 9 class have been studying ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ this term, and wrote an essay on Jem’s presentation in the first half of the novel. I spent ten minutes writing a paragraph after marking their books – taking the implicit and generic marking feedback (use more textual evidence, explore language in more detail, be specific in plot links etc) and making it very clear for them how they could apply it. The lesson itself required no planning – we talked about the model for around twenty five minutes, then they improved one of their paragraphs and highlighted how they had improved it. I still think far too often we give students a cursory glimpse at a model answer, then remove it before any kind of positive learning experience can take place – all too often merely serving to intimidate students rather than aid them. I had the model in A3 stuck on the board, and we all annotated and discussed it at the same time:

2. Memory 


I wrote this post having read Peps Mccrea’s excellent ‘Memorable Teaching’ last year, and it is still an educational book I come back to again and again. These are the areas I have been working on this year:


Low-stake quizzing

Review questioning

Interleaving topics/making links.

Recall tests

Empty canvas/knowledge crushes


Revision clocks

Images for recall


My low set Year 11 group are the group that I am most focussed on with this – as I desperately try to encourage them to remember information about ‘Macbeth’ this term. Sizzling Shakespeare recall tasks, that I explained in this post here, are having a positive impact in starting lessons with instant recall and building their confidence:

They know at the start of each lesson they will face a ‘Macmemory’ task – and they are aware that it is about strengthening their ability to recall things in the exam. They decide which two or three questions they are going to answer in detail. The empty vessel task below (“pour your knowledge onto the page,” was a mid week inspiration), also worked well in terms of making it very clear to me what the gaps in their knowledge are – and gain in helping to build their confidence. Having reached the end of Act Three it was a good point to see just how much this group had taken in. It is very easy to set up and empowering for us in letting us know exactly what our students are able to recall:

Having a clear mnemonic to write about Shakespeare with in SEAL (Shakesepare, evidence, audience, language) has also helped this group to focus their writing. I need their attention to be more on unpicking the challenging language and finding meaning when it comes to the exam, so the more we repeat the skills of achieving the SEAL of approval with each paragraph, the more they can channel their attention on that in the exam.

3. Metacognition 

The utopian English student would perhaps be Dylan William’s depiction of “essential partners in the learning process.” I am interested in looking this year at how I can grow the metacognitive awareness of my middle band Year 8 group. How can I encourage them, at this early stage in their secondary careers, to develop a more reflective attitude that begins to take ownership of their learning. Lofty goals for the start of the year indeed! The most obvious way, is to try and apply each if the following when they are working towards extended tasks: planning, monitoring and evaluation. The planning mechanism can be achieved by employing the following:


1.Mind maps

2.Venn diagrams

3.Bullet points



6.Concept maps


The group completed a written task this week: How is conflict presented in ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est.’ I modelled an A3 plan for them initially, then asked them to plan out their response by including a range of criteria. This young lady did a particularly splendid job:


In terms of the monitoring aspect, building in check-in points into the writing task, every fifteen minutes or so worked well and focussed their attention on going back to the plan and considering what they had currently done, and what they needed to do more of. They could either tick off aspects that had been completed, or highlight what they had done – providing a visual cue to help them reflect on what they could do more of.


Finally, the evaluation stage is the most important. Too often we see students rushing to hand in work to us that doesn’t represent their very best effort – or their most careful attempt. It is vital we put the ownership on them, not on us, to dissect in carefully and judge what the strengths and weaknesses are. Evaluation questions that can be posed at the end of a piece of work:


•What have I learned from completing this task?

•What are my strengths –what did I do well?

•Did I use my plan effectively?

•What are my weaknesses? What do I need to prioritise?

•When could I use this kind of thinking again?

•Does this represent my very best work? If not, what do I need to change?

4. Marking 

The most overrated of the many branches of the feedback tree, but one that nevertheless gobbles up our time as English teachers is of course marking. Yes, it is important, but I still don’t feel I have the balance right on this one. This year I am aiming to invest all the marking time on work that actually matters – work that students have invested real time and effort in. Some areas I am working on:


Edit, edit edit: Is it excellent before it comes to me?
Live feedback: the wand of red pen. Lots more circulation while students are writing and marking. I am being clear with them about what the “wand” will be looking for: spelling, quotations etc – to give this feedback a focus.
Be selective: mark what will have impact.
Using coded feedback.
Using questions rather than statements.
Using whole-class feedback lessons.
Upgrade, improve: there must be impact.

The coded feedback is the most useful for saving time. I had these six codes for feedback for my Year 9 group on their ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ essays:

1. Building in more evidence

2. Explore word level

3. Spelling and literacy focus

4. Expanding on plot detail

5. Linking to themes

6. Formality of language


At the end of each students’ work I have them three numbers to focus on, then they wrote in their targets. The early model was coded when each of the targets had been achieved – making the implicit codes as explicit as possible for them. They then re-wrote a paragraph focusing on their targets:

There is another, very obvious ‘M’ that could be added to this party that Gatsby himself would be proud of: motivation. I had a fascinating hour speaking to Carl Hendrick and Robin Macpherson about educational research for the podcast last month, and their points about motivation have really stuck with me. Each of these strategies can go some way in building students self-efficacy and our students’ confidence in being able to achieve tangible outputs in the classroom. That, more than any speech we can deliver on growth mindset and effort, is what will really help them to feel like they can achieve in our subject. I also think in terms of my own motivation in the classroom it is important – taking the time out of the frantic first term to reflect on how to move forward with these complex aspects, helps me to focus on what really matters: teaching and learning in our classrooms.


Thanks for reading, I would be fascinated to hear other approaches to these tricky M’s!


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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