Reading Challenge Homework

In my last post about displays, I included a picture of a rather bare display board which will be used for completed Reading Challenge Homework. This is a quick post explaining what that will involve.


We want our students to read: regularly, widely and ideally for pleasure. With this in mind, our KS3 students will be set one main homework task throughout the year – to read for twenty minutes every day. We will be supporting this by guiding students about which books to read and by talking to them about their reading. I think it’s also important that we communicate with parents the expectation that their children read at home and we’ll give some guidance about having discussions about what they’re reading.

But, as the title of this post and my empty display board will attest, students will also be set reading challenges.  I have created a grid with a range of tasks that students can choose from. I’ve tried to include a variety of creative tasks that will encourage students to engage with their chosen text. The minimum requirement is that they complete one per half term but if they decide to complete more that would be fantastic.

Any feedback or suggestions for reading challenges would be gratefully received. I’ve never tried this before but I’m hopeful that the range of tasks on offer will give everybody the opportunity to do something they really enjoy and can engage with. If nothing else, I’m hopeful that completed challenge homework will spark discussions about different texts to read (I’ve a space on top of the bookshelves ready for cereal box book reports).

Here’s a link to the document:




I’m starting full time at a new school in September and I think it’s really important to take ownership of the classroom I’ll be spending a lot of time teaching in. Consequently, I’ve spent a few days in school this summer rearranging the furniture (I love a horseshoe) and putting up my own displays.

My aim was to create displays that will be easy to read; can be referred to and won’t have to be redone at regular intervals. I’ve also got a thing about rainbow colours at the moment it seems…


I first saw something similar to this up in a classroom in my last school and I really like the idea of encouraging students to try working through a problem on their own or by using the resources available to them to problem solve. Of course I want to help my students but I also want to build their resilience and ability to work independently.

I created a composite of different 3B4ME ideas I’ve seen and if you’d like to use them the file is here: 3B4ME

Discussion Stems

I think the fantastic @fod must have one of the most beautiful classrooms in the country and she has been a source of inspiration in attempting to beautify my own. You can see her blog post here about her classroom displays and I’ve stolen the discussion stem display from her.

The Discussion Stem display file is here: Discussion Stems

Growth Mindset

I’d seen a few Growth Mindset displays on Twitter but liked the simplicity of a fixed mindset statement linked to where I’d like students to get to with their approach to learning.

The Growth Mindset display file is here: Growth Mindsets

The Word Rich Get Richer…

A reference to the Matthew Effect, I created this display for my word of the week. To create the butterflies, I cut out a cardboard template of a butterfly and then used that to cut out pages of an old dictionary (two per butterfly) which were then glued together and stapled to the board.

Reading Challenge Homework

This display looks a little sparse because it will be given over entirely to completed KS3 Reading Challenge Homework. I intend to  blog about what that will involve in the future…

I hope that some teachers out there are able to use the display materials I’ve put together. I think Twitter is a great place to find and share resources and ideas that means we can save each other time (and headaches). I’d love to see photos if you do use anything here.

‘Survive or Die’ #ChineseSchool


Last night my twitter feed was awash with tweets about #ChineseSchool. Largely these were dismissive of the attempt to use Chinese teaching methods in a British context but some were tweets expressing embarrassment at how some of the teenagers behaved. I think the behaviour of the 50 year 9 guinea pigs is a distraction from the other key reasons why this teaching approach should never be introduced here. Whilst I don’t think many are seriously suggesting a roll out of Chinese School methods, I think we should be very wary of looking to the East for answers to our international education ranking.

The programme began by explaining that in China students’ experience of school is one of ‘high pressure learning’ and ‘ruthless competition’. If the programme’s year 9 students were in China, they’d be competing for a place in a high school. Only about 70% would achieve the desired mark on a single test and the rest would end their formal education. My guess is that students like Sophie and Luca would be in amongst that unlucky 15… There are, of course, many cultural factors but you can see why the high stakes system engenders a culture that encourages students to spend every waking moment studying. In a ‘one child’ system, these students embody the ‘one chance’ ethos and it is easy to understand why parents would throw everything at helping their child succeed. (See this blog by Vincent Lien on the impact this system has on students).

Luckily for them, Bohunt’s year 9 live in leafy Liphook not smog-choked Shanghai. It’s little wonder that they don’t have the same work ethic as their Chinese counter parts. If they don’t do well in year 9, they’ll still progress to year 10 and so on and so forth. Teachers will be working tirelessly behind the scenes to help them do well (we saw one Maths teacher giving up his time to go over trigonometry with some confused year 9 girls) but they won’t be thrown on the scrap heap. What’s more, Bohunt’s year 9s have things that Chinese students don’t have: a life outside of school with time to nurture friendships; time to pursue their own hobbies and interests; time to try and figure out who they are as an individual.

I think the main issue with the Chinese School approach is how little value is placed on the individual. This could be seen most keenly in the class size of 50. It would be a challenge indeed to build rapport with a class that size; to know something about each of the students let alone their strengths and weaknesses in your subject. When one of the teachers shared the Confucius saying, ‘Knowledge makes humble; ignorance makes arrogant’ and expected students to reflect, one puzzled student said, ‘I don’t know what humble means’. No time was given to exploring key words or checking that everybody was able to tackle the task in hand. It was only when one of the teachers gave her class a ‘surprise’ Physics test that she began to appreciate how little students had understood in her lessons.

Another key issue was pace. The Chinese teachers were blazing a trail through the curriculum and employing teaching methods that allowed them to go fast. In essence, they were sacrificing secure and deep understanding for speed. In China this approach might well work with students staying up until they fall asleep to consolidate and memorise but Bohunt’s year 9s were left, bemused and befuddled, in the smoke trails. What happens to those left behind? In a ‘survive or die’ system the answer is clear…

One of the surprising successes in the first programme was what a hit the combined morning exercise was with the students. Who would have guessed that hormonal year 9s would enjoy swinging their arms around in unison? It was great to see students leading the exercises later in the programme being followed by their peers in an activity designed to build a collective sense. I also think we have something to learn about building the resilience of our students to stick with things they find difficult and concentrate even when lessons are uninspiring because, newsflash, when they start work they’re going to need those skills. I wouldn’t, however, advocate throwing them in at the deep end of an alien education culture and expecting them to swim.

After 4 weeks of the experiment, Bohunt’s year 9s will be tested to see which approach delivers better results. Even if the Chinese School approach does deliver better results, would we really want to introduce it? Do we want to put our students under more pressure? Do we want a culture of ruthless competition where students, in the words of one of the Chinese teachers, ‘survive or die’? Do we want our students’ lives to be dominated by the pursuit of academic success at the expense of pursuing their own interests, family time and nurturing friendships? I think we would be slaughtering our children’s happiness and individuality on the PISA league table.


‘Here she is in drag as, famously, Hamlet.’ #BlogSyncEnglish

Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet

It struck me, whilst reflecting on my most and least favourite texts to teach, that both the texts I have chosen I taught first in my NQT year in 2007/8 to A level students: my favourite, Hamlet, to year 13; my least favourite, Wise Children, to year 12. Perhaps the combined intensity of the NQT year and A level teaching has meant they have stuck in my mind. It was a memorable year.


Branagh as Hamlet in 1996 *swoon*

Before teaching Hamlet that first time, I had never read it before. I believe the text was chosen for me by my co-teacher before I took up the post in September. I am forever grateful to him for introducing me to a text that I am now unashamedly passionate about. It also further cemented my love for Kenneth Branagh thanks to his 1996 bleached blonde performance of the Danish prince. Since 2007 I have seen the play on stage many times including seeing David Tenant and Jude Law take on the role (I am very much looking forward to seeing Cumberbatch’s efforts in September). Enough of my own Hamlet love, though, this is meant to be about why it is my favourite text to teach…

I taught Hamlet only twice before the specification changes meant that it disappeared from my A level classroom. However, it remains my favourite because of how much I enjoyed it and how much my year 13 students enjoyed it too.

As it was a closed book exam text, I encouraged students to commit quotations to memory from the moment we began studying it. There’s something powerful, I think, in ‘owning’ some Shakespeare and I would regularly be greeted in the corridor by my students delivering lines with gusto: ‘Miss, Miss! This above all: to thine own self be true!’ I gave students their own quotation book (I still have my copy) in which we’d select and analyse quotations as we went along and memorise as many as we good. I say ‘we’ because I joined in. It was fun. Although I wouldn’t have used the term at the time, I used lots of regular ‘low stakes’ testing to ensure that students not only knew key quotations but also had good knowledge and understanding of the plot, characters and themes. We had a bit of a league table going and my year 13s were surprisingly keen to win.

Of course these methods could be applied to any text and they’re probably not the reason that I loved teaching Hamlet but my overriding memory is that I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Perhaps it is as simple as the pleasure of teaching a text I fell in love with? Maybe it is because circumstances meant that I had to teach a text I’d never read before and so I was on a learning journey just one step ahead of my students? Maybe it is my favourite text to teach because it gives me an excuse to moon over Kenneth Branagh…I don’t know. All I know is that thanks to the most recent specification changes I will be teaching Hamlet at A level again from September and I cannot wait.

Wise Children


Having studied The Bloody Chamber during my own A level course, I chose Wise Children from the available options merely because it was written by Angela Carter. That was mistake number one. Mistake number two was that I chose the text before having read it for myself. If I’d read it first, I would never have chosen it. Not only did I not like the text – that is an understatement – but the complexity, literary allusions and, frankly, oddness of it all made it particularly challenging to teach.

If you haven’t read Wise Children, and clearly I wouldn’t recommend that you do, the plot centres around identical twins Dora and Nora Chance on their 75th birthday. Their birthday just so happens to be on the same day as their father’s (also, coincidentally, a twin) which just so happens to be the same day as Shakespeare’s birthday. Over the course of the day, people thought dead turn out to be alive, at his 100th birthday party the twins’ father, Melchior Hazard, finally acknowledges them as his children and the twins are presented with their own set of twins to care for which encourages them not to die for another twenty years… This plot is interwoven with the memories of Dora who I found to be a singularly irritating narrative voice.

Having struggled with the text myself, I then had to teach it to year 12. Whilst internally bemoaning my choice of text, I determined not to share my dislike of the text with the students. When they complained about the confusing nature of it, we found ways to simplify and visualise it. When they missed a literary allusion (there were about a million) I guided them. I can still picture their puzzled faces when I introduced them to the ideas of carinavelesque and magical realism…

It was hard work. If I said they ended the year in love with Angela Carter I’d be lying but they wrestled with the text and ultimately managed to pin it down. I told them that if they could do that, they could tackle any text. I, however, was weary from my brawl with Wise Children and was thankful that the A Level specification changes meant that I no longer had to teach it. I vowed I would never teach Wise Children again.

 What have been your favourite and least favourite texts to teach? Join in August’s #BlogSyncEnglish and share using the hash tag.