Good blogs and interesting ideas

Each week I read many blogs and tweets in which educators share ideas. Here is a random selection of recent blogs that have given me food for thought.

Top of the list for me is the blog written by American educator, Grant Wiggins. In this particular post, ( Wiggins says that, in their classrooms, teachers can be blind to what is actually happening and more likely to see and hear only what they expect.  In this way they miss the clues that tell them that their students do not understand.  Wiggins doesn’t think that it is an easy thing to pick up on  the clues, but he provides some concrete advice to assist teachers to do so.

Tanya de Hoog blogs as the PiEd PYPer. In some ways the main idea in this post ( is very similar to Wiggin’s idea: it, too, is talking about teacher awareness. Hoeg seeks to remind us that inquiry learning isn’t just about asking and answering questions.  Rather, she argues, it is about an ‘inquiry stance’, and ‘when we limit the inquiry stance to just asking questions, we limit the potential for meaningful and contextualized inquiry stance learning’.  Teachers need to be aware of all the different ways in which students demonstrate the inquiry stance. For me, this idea really opened up the whole notion of inquiry learning.

David Didau blogs as the Learning Spy. For this post he begins with a quote from Dylan Wiliam:

Getting students engaged so that they can be taught something seems much less effective than getting them engaged by teaching them something that engages them.

Once again, this post ( asks teachers to be aware of what is really going on in the classroom.  Just because the students are having fun, does it necessarily mean that they’re learning something?

Which is not to say, of course, that fun has no place in the classroom.  But its place is one that is planned for, purposeful and, most importantly,  inherent to the learning.


Teaching grammar in context – sentence structure

An understanding of sentence structure is both an important aid to comprehension when reading, and vital assistance for students who have been given the instruction: ‘Make your writing interesting!’ (An instruction, by the way, that is of little use unless students are given some clues as to how this might be done.)

So, how can an understanding of sentence structure be taught as part of the reading and writing that is done in the classroom?

  • Interest and style are created by sentence variety. Using only short or long sentences can be equally boring and monotonous for the reader. Demonstrate this to students by showing them a paragraph that is comprised of a series of short sentences, each highlighted in a different colour. Ask students to read the paragraph and to give their opinion of the writing, hoping to elicit from them that it is not very interesting. Encourage them to look at the way the sentences have been highlighted to explain that the lack of interest derives from the monotony of a series of short sentences. Ask students to suggest how it might be improved, or made more ‘interesting’ for the reader.Make the changes to the paragraph as suggested by the students and be explicit about what they have done in order to improve the writing.
  • Depending on their year level and previous experience with metalanguage, you might point out (or get them to identify) how they have changed some simple sentences into compound ones, or how they have created complex sentences by adding adverbial, adjectival or noun clauses. Draw particular attention to those sentences that have been left as simple sentences because you want students to understand that variety in sentence length can make writing more engaging.
  • Students might also suggest changes to the way in which the sentences begin – that is, instead of all beginning with a subject followed by a verb, they might suggest that a sentence should start with an adjective, adverb or phrase. Again, if they make these suggestions, be explicit about what they have done in order to create and emphasise the metalanguage for future use. In particular, ask students what effects are achieved by adding the extra detail.
  • Repeat this activity on another occasion with a paragraph comprised of a series of long sentences. Again, ask students for their opinion of the writing, hoping to elicit from them that it is not easy to read or understand. Encourage them to look at the way in which you have highlighted the sentences to demonstrate that they are all long sentences.  Get students to suggest changes to the paragraph and to discuss those changes as described in the previous activity.
  • Select a short, interesting extract from a novel to read to your students – for example, a description of a person that effectively creates a character in terms of appearance and behaviour; a description of a place that makes it seem particularly attractive, enticing, frightening or disgusting; or a retelling of an event which effectively conveys the pathos, humour or horror of the situation.Discuss their responses to the extract and then explain that you are going to look more closely at how the author has created this piece of writing.Display the extract on an interactive whiteboard so that it can be easily highlighted and marked up. Ask students to identify:
    – the kinds of sentences used by the author (simple, compound, complex, compound-complex).
    – where in the sentences the clauses  have been embedded (at the beginning, in the middle, at the end) or phrases added.  Depending on student experience, you might also ask them to identify the kinds of clauses and phrases.
    – particular words or images that help to create a vivid picture or mood. Again, depending on student experience, you might ask them to identify whether these words are nouns, verbs, adjectives or adverbs, and whether the images are similes or metaphors.
  • From time to time, when students are providing peer feedback on each other’s writing, identify a specific focus for them to concentrate on. For example, in the context of sentence construction, ask students to concentrate on providing each other with feedback about sentence variety. Ask them to offer explicit advice about where a peer might change a simple sentence to a complex sentence, for instance. Encourage them to use the metalanguage. For example, the peer feedback might be:
    Change this sentence into a complex sentence. You could add an adjectival clause to describe the car.
    Or, where students need a little more help, the feedback might be:
    Add an adjectival clause here to describe the car, such as:The car, which had been sitting out the front of our house for two weeks, seemed to have been abandoned.”’
    When you are providing feedback, be explicit about what you are doing so that you create a model for peer feedback – for example: ‘I’m giving Jay an example of an adjectival clause so that he can use one in his writing.’
  • If you encourage students to use editing and reviewing checklists when they are checking drafts of their writing, add a reference to sentence variety so that students become accustomed to reviewing their writing for more than spelling and punctuation. In writing conferences, encourage students to comment orally on their choice of sentence structure and to evaluate the effectiveness.
  • A short, simple sentence can sometimes be extremely effective; it is not necessarily the case that a long and complex sentence is always best. Demonstrate this for students by focusing on the shorter simple sentences in specific texts. Get them to identify, for example, how these sentences can be used to build tension and assist them to see this by substituting the short sentences for longer ones and examining the effect. Other selected texts might use short, simple sentences to grab attention, especially at the beginning of a text, or to sum up an argument. In a set of instructions, too, simple sentences might be more effective than complex sentences. Ask students to use these texts as models for their own writing, and encourage them to explain their choice of sentence construction, based on the effect they were hoping to achieve.

Teaching grammar in context – Verbs

How can you teach verbs in the context of reading and writing?  Here are some ideas:

  • Explore what happens if you change the modal verbs in a text. Select a persuasive text to share with the students on an interactive whiteboard. First get students to identify each of the modal verbs used, and then to change the verbs of high modality into verbs of low modality and vice versa. Ask students to discuss how the effectiveness of the writing changes.
  • To practise the use of modal verbs, have students write sets of rules relevant to the school context – for example, rules for using the library or for behaviour in the playground. They could write rules for both teachers and students.
  • Select (or write yourself) several very short stories written in the past tense. Cut the texts up into sentences and distribute one or two to each student. Ask students to rewrite their sentence/s in the present tense and then to find other class members whose sentences relate to the same story. (They will need to make use of language clues in order to do this.)When they have found all of the sentences in their story, they sit down together as a group and order the sentences into correct sequence to make the story. The group task is to check the tense of each verb to make sure it is accurate. Students could then underline each of the verbs and share their story with another group as a further check.
  • Ask students to work in groups to create a storybook about verbs. Students could take digital photos or download them from the internet and write three lines of accompanying text. The first line could be written in past tense, the next in present tense and the final line in future tense. In addition, each group could focus on a different kind of verb – action, saying, sensing, relating…
  • Ask students to find verbs in magazines and newspapers to make a verb collage of printed text and pictures. As a variation, different groups could focus on different kinds of verbs. The posters they produce could become teaching resources to display in the classroom.
  • Provide students with a series of letters that could have been written to an advice column in a magazine. Ask them to select one and write a reply. Tell them to be particularly aware of the way in which they use modal verbs. On completion, they could share their responses with peers who could comment on the use of modality, as well as providing feedback on the content of the letter and the effectiveness of the advice.
  • Travel articles often use a lot of modal verbs. Share a travel article with the students and ask them to identify the modals and to say whether they are of high or low modality. Ask them to discuss why the author might have selected one kind of modality rather than the other.
  • Analyse a procedural text to identify the use of action verbs in their imperative form. Use the text as a model for students to write their own procedural text and identify the action verbs they have used.
  • Explore the kinds of verbs used by the writer of a narrative. Encourage students to change the action and sensing verbs to create a different impression of a character.
  • In their own writing, encourage students to explain their choice of verb and the effect that they were hoping to create.
  • Share with the students a piece of writing that you have edited to make the verbs bland and ‘weak’. For each verb, get students to suggest alternative ‘stronger’ and thus more effective verbs. This is a good vocabulary-building exercise. Show them the original text, with the author’s choice of verbs intact, and ask them to discuss their their effectiveness. Perhaps they will decide that some of the verbs they have suggested are even better than the originals.

Why use Peer Feedback, Part 2

Peer feedback is at its most effective in a positive classroom culture where learning is valued and encouraged.

But how to develop such a culture?  Research suggests several ways to do this:

  • Clearly articulate classroom expectations.  This means that students know what kinds of behaviour are appropriate and why, as well as the kinds of behaviour that are not supported by the group.  Such expectations are ideally negotiated by the class as a group and, again ideally, they reflect the ethos of the school.
  • Ensure that students feel comfortable and supported by their peers.  This means that they respect each other’s opinions and feel able to ‘have a go’ rather than sit back, afraid of making a mistake. They know that everyone recognises that learning can come as result of mistakes.
  • Be aware of social and emotional learning strategies and incorporate these into everyday activities to increase empathy and understanding of others’ viewpoints.
  • Encourage risk-taking and intervene when ‘put-downs’ occur. This means that students are offered activities that provide opportunities to take those risks, to hypothesise and test their hypotheses with the help of peer feedback.  It also means that the teacher is alert to the ways in which ‘put-downs’ occur:  a roll of the eyes, a turning away, a sigh – understanding that these subtle put-downs can be just as damaging as the more obvious verbal comment.
  • Provide students with activities that both require and develop cooperation, and explicitly teach strategies to encourage cooperation. For example, teach the language of negotiation and support, including asking clarifying questions, and identify the various roles that group members can play – both positive and negative.
  • Make learning explicit by identifying learning intentions and sharing success criteria.
  • Teach the language of feedback and use role-play to coach students in its use.
  • Consider the physical configuration of the classroom.  Does it foster easy interaction between students? Can the configuration be easily changed to allow for paired and group activities?

Consider using some of these peer feedback techniques:

Two stars and a wish
In this technique student  identifies two things that a peer has done well (stars), in relation to the success criteria, and explains why.  “You engaged your audience well because you made eye contact with a lot of different people and you used hand gestures and facial expressions.”

The student the expresses a wish for what the peer might do next time.  “I wish that next time you might speak a little more slowly because sometimes I couldn’t understand what you were saying.”

The feedback sandwich
In this technique the student ‘sandwiches’ a suggestion for improvement between two positive comments.  For example

Positive comment: “You engaged your audience well because you made eye contact with a lot of different people.”
Suggestion for improvement: “Perhaps next time you could also speak a little more slowly so that we can understand you better.”
Positive comment: “Your use of facial expressions and hand gestures was very good.  You made us laugh.”

Medals and missions
When a student identifies what a peer has done well, he/she is awarding a ‘medal’.
When a student identifies what a peer needs to improve and offers advice about how to do this, he/she is suggesting a ‘mission’. (Geoff Petty)

Plus, minus and what’s next?
This technique can be used with younger students. The student looks at a peer’s work to identify a positive achievement in relation to the success criteria (the plus) and an area for improvement (the minus). He/she then makes a suggestion as to how the peer can improve. (What’s next?)

Traffic lights
Students use a green highlighter in the margin of a draft piece of writing to indicate success criteria achieved, or an orange highlighter to indicate where improvement is needed. The suggestions for improvement are delivered orally.

Feedback using technology
VoiceThread is an example of a software program that can be used to provide peer feedback.  Student upload their completed work (documents or pictures) and others record oral comments.

Googledocs allows students to create a document or a presentation which can then be edited or commented on by their peers.

A class wiki or blog provides a forum where students can publish and comment on each other’s work.

Edmodo is a software program that allows the uploading of documents and the recording of feedback.

Use an ipad to add voice comments.  Although this article is about teacher feedback, the process could easily be adapted for peer feedback.

Teach students a variety of ways to provide feedback and then allow them to negotiate the form they will use.