Next steps

August in the UK – GCSE and A-Level students get their long-awaited results and either finalise or revisit their next steps – University? Gap Year? Resits? BTEC or A-Levels or Apprenticeship? Proudly Instagram their results slip, or slip into a corner and cry?

GCSE-prep starts in earnest for the new Year Tens – sometimes even the Nines. Early-entry English can be tough on students – many need another year to develop their skills of inference and response, one of the key areas in my lessons, whether online or in-person.

Eleven-year-olds get bus passes and oversized blazers and ties for the move up to Secondary School in September. Proper ties for the private schools, clip-on, strangle-resistant versions for the state ones – so I’m told. Maybe it’s a myth. Boys with long hair are shorn, girls wonder if earrings are allowed in PE. All of them now have phones and belong to unwieldy Whatsapp groups, and not a single one has any idea what they’re in for in Year Seven.

Some of the new Year Sixes have spent the summer learning homophones, shuffling sentences and finding odd ones out for the imminent 11-Plus and Independent School Entrance exams. They’ll have a brief respite before everyone starts worrying about the SATs.

Four-year-olds get grey shorts or red gingham dresses – the Reception class uniform. Landfills thoughout the country overflow with rucksacks, pencil cases and lunch boxes, education apparently depending upon new equipment every September. Such are some of the rituals of Leaving, Going Back to or Starting School.

Meanwhile teachers stagger back from Greece and Cornwall, swapping schemes of work and tales of woe on Edu-Twitter. And private tutors like me open up their timetables to children at all stages of education, whether they’re in school or home-educated. In my case, it’s Key Stages 3, 4 and 5 – pre-GCSE, GCSE and AS / A-Level. Students can join me at any point in the academic year, for long-term tuition or short, focused boosts on areas that need attention. Have a look at my Lesson Information page for more details – and do get in touch if you think your teenager might benefit from one-to-one lessons in English Language and/or Literature with an experienced and successful tutor. Happy New Term everyone!

Monsters, myths and ‘reluctant readers’.

norse stories pic

How to spark the interest of that reluctant reader who’d sharpen every pencil in the school before they’d open a book?  Well first, don’t make them read a demoralisingly long ‘chapter book’. And second, spellbind them with proper stories – ideally involving ancient magic, hideous monsters, dwarfs and giants.  Not Harry Potter, but important old myths and legends. And explain that although we find these adventures in books, they came down through the generations orally, before print – or kindles. Everyone, whatever their age, listened to the storyteller. I’ve found some older struggling readers are embarrassed to be read to (and what a shame that is), but relax into the story if they see it as a respectable tradition. Soon they’re clamouring for another instalment of Rhiannon on her horse that no man can catch, one-eyed Odin, the trickster Loki,  Sita and Rama, Theseus and Ariadne, Lancelot and Guinevere. Choose versions with evocative illustrations and muscular, direct language (try the Norse sagas for this – I like Kevin Crossley-Holland’s retellings), and dynamic tales with a touch of blood and gore, a clear message, a dash of humour, strong heroes and heroines (oh, that’s all of them…) and your reluctant readers might just want to take the book home. Then watch their imaginations soar. 

Pic from Norse Myths: Tales of Odin, Thor and Loki  by Kevin Crossley-Holland, illustrated by Jeffrey Alan Love

Stepping into the Virtual Classroom

Skyping with my Dubai students just wasn’t working in early January.  Literally not working – they could see and hear me perfectly but the audio/visual at my end seemed scrambled. We soon discovered the reason – UAE had banned the free communication services I, and many other online tutors, use.

We tried the UAE’s approved VOIP service. The audio crackled, the video wouldn’t kick in, and I struggled without screensharing. We resorted to an old-fashioned method: collaborating on a powerpoint shared via Google Drive, while talking by phone. But that’s a poor substitute for being able to see each other and work on a document controlled by me.

It was time to step into the world of virtual classrooms, properly interactive online learning. But which of the many products in the marketplace suited me best? The right one would be easy at the student’s end. The audio and video would be audible and visible. The interactive whiteboard would work. And if I could also show videos – my own, or from YouTube – well, hurray! Techies might be able to do all this by manipulating a variety of products during one lesson. I am not a techie. My students are invariably aeons ahead of me when it comes to technology, and it’s not good business to test their patience too far….

After some research, I signed up to WizIQ, and so far, I love it. Better still, so do my online students . It’s early days, and there’ll be a learning curve (for me – all the students have to do is log-in.) I’m now using this everywhere online, not just where Skype and the rest are banned.

And I case studied the situation to teach an EAL student the meaning of the idiom “cloud with a silver lining’…

Is my dad here already – the lesson went too fast!

Screenshot 2017-11-20 09.50.34

MarshMallows – one of the Literacy Shed’s amazing animated shorts  – is a huge hit with my Year 5 and 6 one-to-one tutees. A. is so impressed that students made the film that he’s decided he’s going to be a film maker himself! As usual, the children have seen far more detail in the film than I noticed, and been fascinated by so many different aspects.

D. was impressed by the technicalities  –  ‘how do they make the monster’s  eyebrows fly up?’ – and is now planning to email the film-makers to find out, my answer having fallen far short of satisfactory.  S. was saddened by the monster’s disappointment when his ‘marshmallow’ disappeared, while C.  thought it would teach him a lesson for being greedy and scary.

The film has no dialogue or voiceover, so the children are working on providing their own. Not something that can be accomplished in one hour-long tutorial, so this is an ongoing process.  After enough preparation time, once the children have a feel for their approach,  we record their voiceover or dialogue, spoken as the film is playing.  My method is a touch Heath Robinson, so all suggestions for improvement are welcome – I play the animation on a monitor via my Macbook, sound off, and record the voicing on Quicktime. We’ll add the finished soundtrack to the film ( assuming Literacy Shed is OK with my doing that. It’s not for public consumption, obviously).

I want the children to be able to respond spontaneously, without having to mediate their feelings through writing a script; speaking their dialogue or narrative as the film is playing is yielding great results. The children who are articulate but struggle to get their thoughts down on paper are particularly enjoying the project. The children who don’t ‘get’ the inference questions on the loathed reading tests, and can’t readily walk in someone else’s shoes when asked to do so in writing have shown impressive insights while ‘being’ the boy or monster as the film unfolds. And the children who like to plan out every word – yes, they do exist – are benefiting by loosening up. So far, all have decided their first effort needs improvement – more details, more expression, even a few ‘wow’ words …

The next step will be transcribing (and further improving) the voiceovers. More information on how the project went in my next post.

“Reluctant Reader” no more.

Like most teachers, I know the lure and the dangers of labelling children, and try to avoid doing it.   Charlie’s a boy aged ten, who’s in Y5. Why reduce him to ‘a Year 5’? It’s quicker, of course, and only lasts12 months. It has meaning within a limited context, but like all labels, it excludes everything else that Charlie ‘is’.  More objectionable are sticky negative labels that a child may never be able to remove. Of course, positive labels are just as reductionist – what does Maisie do beyond incarnating an Able Infant? – but the connotations they accrue,  the life paths they signal, the prophecies they help fulfil, somehow don’t grate so much.

But if we accept the welcome effect of some labels, we must worry about the negative fall-out from others. One that I’m fixated on at the moment is Reluctant Reader.  Several students have come to me dragging that millstone.  I tell them I’ll have none of it, and we set about removing the ‘reluctant’ element. I admit to being more favourably inclined to  Reader...   The American writer, James Patterson, puts it well:

 “There’s no such thing as a kid who hates reading. There are just kids who love reading, and kids who are reading the wrong books. We need to help them find the right books.”

Have a look at his website  Read Kiddo Read for the wonderfully named I-hated-to-Read-Until-I-Read-This Booklist for Boys.      There’s a mix of genres and countries of publication, and free extracts to download.

Try the UK recommendation site Love Reading For Kids for other booklists and extracts.

I think we’d all agree with their pitch that:

Reading is fundamental to the development of children, and countless research shows the links between good reading skills from an early age and future success in life.

Illustration source

What doesn’t work?

Great addition to my resources for developing inference skills. Children who find it difficult to access non-literal meaning in words, and dread the reading comprehension tests in school, often relate more easily to visual material, and can practise the skills of inference and deduction without pressure. I think next week’s students will enjoy ‘reading between the lines’ of this wonderful picture by the Chilean artist, Oscar Ramos, entitles Does Not Work.  Thanks to the folks at Once Upon A Picture for their brilliant finds.


First Day

8.50 am. Infants and Juniors troop past our house on their way to school. The cat’s in the front window watching them, trying to get her head around the mystery that is children. Why are they not stopping to play with her? What’s with the new shoes and the too-long dresses?  Why are they poking each other with shiny new gel pens?



Yes, it’s the First Day Back. La Rentrée, as the kids lucky enough to have holidayed in France will know it; their gel pens came from Carrefour. But wherever these primary pupils sourced their new-term goodies, they’ll all be thinking the same. Will I sit by my friends? What’s Mrs X really like? Please don’t make us write about My Holiday …

Students ‘doing English’ with me know there’s often poetry in my lessons (frequently sourced from the fabulous Children’s Poetry Archive – see link below). Here’s a helpful poem for all the children wondering how to deal with their new classteacher.  And a message for my new Year Fives and Sixes – don’t try it on me!!


Heebie Geebie, Hurple Burple
 Time To Turn My Teacher. . . PURPLE!

Simply chant this magic spell
 soon your teacher looks unwell:
 purple cheeks and purple nose
 purpleness from head to toes

Feed her beetroot every hour
 see her fill with purple power
 bloomin’ like a purple flower
 how she’ll scream
 when in the shower!!!

How to Turn Your Teacher Purple and Other Sizzling Science Poems (A&C Black, 2011), © James Carter 2011

How to Turn Your Teacher Purple


This is also the First Day of my blog. English With Dr Julia Fowler .  There’ll be info and snippets for GCSE students and 11+ parents, links to stuff I like and find useful, and thoughts on literacy coaching.  Looking forward to hearing your thoughts too!