The symbolism of clothing and colour in The Handmaid’s Tale

Thursday, September 1, 2016 by

The symbolism of clothing and colour in The Handmaid’s Tale

One of the texts I’m teaching this coming year is Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, as part of the dystopian topic for OCR A-Level literature. Re-reading it (again!) it’s striking how much the colours play a part in the makeup of this novel.

Clothing in dystopian fiction is an important signifier. The totalitarian dystopias – The Handmaid’s Tale, 1984 and so on – use clothing as a method of control, ensuring that divisions (often power hierarchies) are respected, and that people are in their appropriate places. In 1984, the Party members wear black or blue overalls (a working man’s clothing, removing distinctions of gender but maintaining the distinction of Inner or Outer party), Atwood’s characters are strictly defined by their coloured uniforms. The hierarchies in The Handmaid’s Tale are made clear through the clothing the women in particular are forced to wear.


Red is loaded with symbolic meaning in the novel. The most obvious is the colour of the Handmaids’ dresses, long, draping, covering every inch of their bodies. Frequently she complains how hot and uncomfortable the clothing is, a physical constant oppression, and remembers ‘freedom’ as the ability to wear less, for women to wear what they chose. When the Commander takes Offred to Jezebels nightclub, the clothing is vibrant, bright and multi-coloured but a perverted inversion of what Offred remembers as freedom. As a Handmaid, Offred also wears red gloves and shoes. Atwood specifically explains the symbolism: “the colour of blood, which defines us”, yet there is also more to it than that. Red is certainly associated with menstrual blood and the womb; it’s also oppressive and over-powering, almost too vibrant (see Jane Eyre’s terrifying experience, for example of its oppressive horrors). Red in the novel comes to symbolise all blood, for example the men hanging in the square and other acts of violence in the novels are described with red prominent; blood is not only life but death – just as birth is in Gilead. Red is associated with lust and overpowering passion – not the pretty romantic pink of sweet innocent love. The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850), tells the story of Hester Prynne, condemned to wear a scarlet A on her dress, symbolising her adultery. The Handmaids are designed for adultery, and their clothing reflects that.


Frequently used as a stark contrast to white, symbolising innocence and purity. The Daughters wear white until marriage, for example, and Offred’s underwear is white. It’s also used as a frequent visual image to marry red and white together – the bodies hanging on the wall have white bags on their heads, splashed with red – a shocking and brutal contrast.

The wings of the Handmaids’ uniform are white, blocking their view of the world and hiding them from sight in turn – wrapping them in the colour of innocence.


The Wives wear blue, a colour associated with Mary, the Madonna, and symbolising their ultimate role as mothers – but pure mothers, ones who have not conceived themselves but rear the children anyway. Offred often seems envious of the coolness of Serena Joy’s clothes – “Her dress is crisp cool cotton. For her it’s blue, watercolour, not this red of mine that sucks in heat and blazes with it at the same time.” She’s also jealous, although she rarely admits it, of some of Serena Joy’s additional freedoms and higher place in the hierarchy of women, noting that Serena Joy could, at any moment, have her reassigned or worse. Occasionally Offred refers to the blue of the sky as protective – warm, enveloping her – perhaps a reference to the protection offered the Wives by the outward signs of their status. Serena Joy’s flowers – a motif in themselves! – also reflect the contrast of blue and red;

 “Then we had the irises, rising beautiful and cool on their tall stalks, like blown glass, like pastel water momentarily frozen in a splash, light blue, light mauve,”

Here, the irises are blue, cool and frozen, symbolic of Serena Joy’s wifely status with her lack of fertility, in contrast with the red tulips that are overflowing with seedpods, being destroyed by Serena Joy’s shears, a vicious representation of Serena’s feelings towards Offred.


The Marthas, domestic servants running the home, dress in green, a colour associated with nature but also cleanliness and health – medical organisations frequently use green as a colour of healing. The Guardians (remember – full title “Guardians of the Faith”) also wear a green uniform, reminiscent of military garb, and indicating their role to protect and defend Gilead.


Traditionally used to symbolise death and threat, used by Atwood as the primary colour for the Eyes and their vans. It’s also a sign of power and often in description in the novel, accompanied with the vans, surveillance, the authority, brings to mind connotations of the SS officers’ uniforms in Nazi Germany, particularly with the other insignia worn.


Men and women in the Colonies wear grey, symbolising their lack of importance and their “unwoman”/”unman” status – an interesting comparison perhaps with Fitzgerald’s “ash grey men” in the Valley of Ashes, in The Great Gatsby.


Occupying a strange space on the very fringes of the novel, the Econowives are very like the Proles in 1984; they are working class, therefore beyond the novel’s scope and beyond the notice in many ways of the ruling powers, the Commanders, Wives and so on. They wear “striped dresses, red and blue and green and cheap and skimpy,” a mix of colours (although still the prescribed colours – the women are clearly still subject to many restrictions) indicating their need to fulfil the roles separated by Wife, Handmaid and Martha.

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Lessons from examining AS Literature

Tuesday, August 23, 2016 by


This year I examined the Modern Drama and Prose paper for OCR. Obviously as an examiner, I have to respect certain confidentiality etc so the following is not specific to actual candidates, but will reflect the way I approach my own class in September.  As this was the first time my department went with OCR, there’s also some reflection to do on the process as a teacher/curriculum leader.

As it ended up quite a length post, here’s a summary:

  • Understand the way the mark-scheme is applied, shading the answer with assessment objectives.
  • Answer the whole
  • Balance seen/unseen texts, and genuinely compare them within a coherent argument
  • Have good handwriting

Using the mark-scheme

I really like the OCR approach to the mark-scheme. At standardising (which was face to face) it was very clear that we were expected to be using the top band which, often in my teaching experience, AQA doesn’t as much, and their grade boundaries don’t require it to the same extent. I haven’t extensively explored the new spec so someone may correct me and I’ll happily change but the mark bands seem broadly in line percentage wise (the top being 21/25 for AQA and 26/30 for OCR) and work similarly down. The descriptors aren’t quite as easy to map across but don’t seem particularly different. OCR’s mark bands include, in order, the key words Excellent / Good / Competent / Some / Limited. AQA’s key words are Perceptive/Assured – Coherent/thorough – straightforward/relevant – simple/generalised – Irrelevant/inaccurate.

OCR’s method appealed to me more personally. Allocate the band (excellent/good etc) and then use the addressing of the AOs to shade the mark within that band. So someone who’s written a superb essay on a play, clearly gets the whole writer’s methods, the critical interpretation, but who’s missed a fair bit of context, can still achieve “Excellent.”

When teaching, I’d still say you need to make students aware of the AOs – what they need to cover to write a great essay. You still need to make sure there are some essays when they need critical interpretations and others where they don’t. But for me it was less mechanistic than I’ve previously found, and I wasn’t trying to find ten marks for context even though the analysis of form, structure and language was outstandingly good. It felt more balanced.

Answer the whole question

I’d say on reflection this was the major difference between top and second band candidates for me. The question is usually something like:

“When Blanche says she can’t stand a naked light-bulb, she means she can’t face the truth”. In the light of this comment, discuss the role of Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire.

A competent student will write an essay on Blanche’s character. It’ll be decently structured, explore her changes. Linguistic analysis is decent, closely quoted/reference and there’s a sense the candidate knows the play and understands it. Some contextual knowledge, though it’s not always that relevant. They’ll mostly refer to the question sentence – discuss the role of Blanche. This does them a disservice in two ways: one, they’ll not fully address the whole argument about her importance, and two, they’ll find it harder, actually, to pin this down and their argument becomes fuzzy and unfocused. It’s too big to address in forty-five minutes – the statement helps to pin it down.

A good candidate will write an essay on Blanche’s character, and be more focused on the facing of the truth – the argument will include comments at the end of many paragraphs linking back to this theme, they won’t stray into too many other themes. Context will be a bit more selective, too – the use of plastic theatre to create the sense of unreality, maybe, or the fact that Williams struggled with reality in his own life, both his sexuality and his sister’s illness. Although these might be mentioned by a less qualified candidate, the application will be better here. Their argument will be about truth and illusion in some way, rather than Blanche in general.

An excellent student will use the whole quotation to create a very structured debate. They might explore the idea that Blanche’s retreat into madness is a failure to face reality, or that she chooses to hide from truth where she can. Often they used the motif of light to do this as well, fully using the whole quotation. Especially in this question, it was a superv way in given the deterioration of the light, its changes from subtle to glaring, the symbolism of the lantern being torn away and so on. Some of the most impressive suggested that Blanche fully understands the truth but chooses to manipulate it, and pointed out the irony that when she finally does tell the truth about Stanley’s rape, nobody believes her.

Precision, in short, is the benefit. I think a big problem for A-Level students in 45 minutes is deciding what to include and it can feel like a waste to know so much and go into an exam only o write about “one thing”, as a student once told me. But by really focusing on the whole quotation you’re not overwhelmed by the whole text, and can write a very focused, detailed essay.

Write a great introduction

Be clear, specific and precise. Address the whole question. Be authoritative and confident. Address each assessment objective in the introduction however briefly.

Do not say “I am going to write” or anything of that nature. Or “it can be argued.”

More on introductions here.

Dealing with the extract question

For the post-1900 novel question, the balance of the extract and the novel was best it seemed when it was around about 1/3 extract, 2/3 novel. Some of the most interesting answers had a very coherent structure, identifying similarities in a topic sentence and working out from there, e.g. in the 1984 question focusing paragraphs on ideas like: the clothing of the characters; the names including Ministry of Love contrasted with the Palace of Corrections; the use of language – removing Newspeak, and the character’s use of “we” as being reductive; both characters writing a diary; the physical setting of the cracked walls in the extract and the state of Victory mansions; the use of names – Equality 72521 and comrade; the idea of resistance being impossible. These connections could either be very closely language focused or more thematic, but they worked to tether the two together. Excellent answers also wove the seen and unseen together in each paragraph, moving back and forth between them. They also referred to the whole (seen) text in different ways. Some references to the appendix were particularly good on noting that Orwell’s 1984 seems to come to an end at some future point, suggesting that removal of individuality is fundamentality impossible.

These kind of comments are also good because they have a connected, coherent argument rather than a discussion almost without a thread of purpose. It’s easy to pick three things off that list, write a paragraph or two on each (which could go in any order) and then it’s done. But I don’t think that leads to excellence. An argument is still needed, and the ways each novelist approaches the theme are just as important. That’ll be my focus with the unseen for A Level, and the Dystopian comparison.

Being able to use the whole of the information was important here too. Those who look at the dates, for example, and discern something about the changes in society that affected the writer. Again, engagement with the question rather than a pre-prepared answer. I think the Carter suffered from people trying to shoehorn in ideas about the Gothic when that wasn’t in the question – this is not a comparative study paper, and students need to be prepared for the text not the genre. You could address the Gothic very effectively, but only if it serves discussion about the relationship with the supernatural in fairytale.

Handwriting is important.

We don’t pay enough attention to this, I think. I read so many that I found really difficult. Good, clear handwriting is essential – it’s easier to read in the first place, and it scans better at the resolution used by exam boards. And quite simply when you’re struggling to read the words, the sense of the argument gets lost. It’s almost inevitable, as this article in the Guardian also suggests.

Write in black, write clearly and at a decent size. Obviously nobody’s going to count words to a line in an exam but as a decent size check I’d say around ten would be about right. I read some scripts where there were four words to a line, and that was just as difficult as reading some where there were twenty. All our practice essays are handwritten and I do comment on handwriting.


Given that length I’d better finish there! I’d love to share ideas about this and prep for the coming year – you can find me on twitter @miss_tiggr for more!

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Creating readers – or literary critics?

Wednesday, August 17, 2016 by

Creating readers – or literary critics?

While writing this post on the importance of colour symbolism, I was writing about the ways we often expect students to implicitly understand the symbolism in literature, and I wrote the sentence: “it’s part of our job as literary critics to figure out whether that choice is important.” I almost edited it to write “as readers”, but then decided it crystallised a few things for me that I’d been thinking about. One was the ongoing debate about how to create great readers, and the other was something that had stuck in my head from reading the research of model texts which commented that of all the genres taught in an English classroom, the literary analysis was a genre rarely found outside academia.

Clearly, the need to be a fluent, confident and interested reader comes first – and I am fortunate to work in a school where the vast majority of Year 7s come in as keen confident readers, and it’s up to us to maintain that rather than create it (although that still presents challenges!) But by KS4, the requirements have changed somewhat, especially with more emphasis on literature in the Language exams.

So maybe the discussion about ‘readers’ is misleading? After all, consider the differences between the two:

Readers Literary critics
Read for pleasure
Often read in the same genres
Read based on recommendations from others
Skip, skim or don’t finish if they don’t enjoy it
Put books down and come back to them
Compare to what they’ve read
Focus on emotional response and connection
Finish books.
Read what they wouldn’t ‘read for pleasure’
Read in context of literary history and criticism
Compare to what they’ve read, and what they’ve read about literature
Read based on academic interest
Focus on writers’ techniques, methods and representation

The important ones for me here in the context of literary study is that readers read what they want, when they want, and in their own context. Literary critics read based on their current research interests and bring a wealth of literary history and criticism to their reading.

That’s the section that we need to focus on with our students to enable them to truly engage with the literature that they’re studying at a very analytical level. The emotional response can be important – but it can be made richer if they understand other things. Although “context” as an assessment objective is often lightly weighted, in my view it’s essential to truly understand the book.

An example – a common GCSE text, Frankenstein, which has come up in a recent Twitter discussion.

A reader might read this often dense, complex text and enjoy it, find it interesting and have an emotional connection to the story through the monster’s portrayal, and the deaths that occur in the book.

A literary critic will also consider the following:

  • Mary Shelley’s personal life, including her controversial personal life, the early miscarriages and deaths of her children.
  • The emergence of scientific enquiry, its rapid developments in the era, and public concern over the potential outcomes of these experiments
  • Religious understandings of the time
  • Shelley’s family upbringings with Godwin and Wollstonecraft’s also sometimes controversial, progressive views
  • The genre of science-fiction and its inception at this time, and its path since
  • A knowledge of new historicist and feminist approaches to literature

With an understanding of those elements, the text becomes richer, and we can explore the novel as not just a good read, but something more that speaks to our humanity and helps us to understand more about ourselves – the hallmarks of a classic, in my view.

Achieving this in the class-room

Clearly, reading has to come first. A reader who isn’t fluent and confident is going to struggle with Frankenstein because of its density. I usually get students to read the chapter in advance, and spend some time discussing their initial response as a reader. And then, a bit at a time, unfold the context behind it. Giving students a piece of information at a time – how does that change your view? Does that explain something you had trouble with before? How else can we read that chapter now you know this? Give them a school of thought and ask them to decide whether they agree.

Writing like a critic

I think this also has implications for writing style, as I alluded to at the start. In many academic journals you’ll not see the forensic pulling to pieces of individual words that students have been guided towards in recent GCSE specifications. Instead you see a much more consolidated overview, one that takes in the whole text but can see patterns, linguistic and structural, using an occasional pertinent example, Take this example from an undergrad thesis on The Handmaid’s Tale:

The red dress also masks individual identity by making the women virtually indistinguishable from each other. Offred describes the first sighting of another handmaid in the story, Ofglen, her shopping companion, in these terms, “a shape, red with white wings around the face, a shape like mine, a nondescript woman in red carrying a basket”. Offred shows the lack of identity among handmaids through the descriptions of her companion. Ofglen is described as “nondescript” and “a shape like mine,” indicating that this dehumanization of handmaids occurs even among the ranks of the handmaids. The handmaids first lose their identity when their name is replaced with the derivative of their commander’s name, such as Ofwarren, Ofglen, and Offred, but their identity is lost a second time through their mandated uniform. Instead of individual expression, the handmaids are draped with fabric so that they become one recognizable caste separate from society.


Nobody could argue with the style of this writing – and it is more the style I’ve been teaching this year with the closed book exams next year, and the OCR A-Level that we’ve been teaching too.  I think this benefits closed book exams – few quotations needed but a deep understanding of the ideas behind the text, not just plot and character arc. Using small extracts from this kind of academic writing is often just as valuable as pre-written model answers.

In my own learning, I’ve come to love even more the books that improve on study – the ones which were entertaining reads but, once you get down to it, they’re so well-crafted, layered and complex that you could study them for years and find something new each time. Students love that too.

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Shelley’s Love’s Philosophy: analysis and linked text ideas

Wednesday, August 10, 2016 by

Percy Bysshe (“Bish”, apparently) Shelley is a Romantic poet – the capital R meaning not necessarily overcome with love all the time, but part of a group of poets who took a particular attitude towards life. They used a lot of natural imagery, thought and wrote about the excesses of emotion, and were often a little melodramatic.

Shelley also has some extremely scandalous personal life-stories, which I’ve found great hooks for students! He was married to Harriet, when she was 16, and they had two children together before he abandoned her for Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin – also 16 at the time – after they’d met at Mary’s father’s home, where Percy and Harriet were frequent visitors. The tragic side Especially for those students who’ve read/are studying Frankenstein, it’s great to digress into the story of her writing Frankenstein and the holiday in Geneva. For this poem, though, it also makes Shelley a little bit more dubious – who is he writing for? Can we trust his apparently romantic (small-r deliberate!) nature or is there something a little unseemly in his persuasion here?

This poem is all about persuasion – to summarise in one sentence: “If nature must be coupled up, then why won’t you be with me?”

From the start, Shelley’s focused on the intermingling of nature – fountains, rivers, oceans all as one, the mountains kiss heaven, flowers grow together. Beginning with the statement of fact implies the lack of argument that he can expect – things are simply stated, unalterable. In many of the mingled elements, the items grow in size as they join together, symbolising the increased strength and power of the joined versus the single. In the first stanza, the elements are water and wind – transitory, moving, hard to get hold of – and often the feminine elements. In the second stanza, the more solid earthy “mountain” is summoned but, perhaps surprisingly, Shelley doesn’t move to the more masculine elements entirely. Instead, he focuses on the combination of the solid with the elusive – heaven, sunlight with the earth, moonlight with the more permanent sea. Is this Shelley being persuasive and charming, hinting that his love is the slightly mysterious element of light? Or is he using the elusive nature of the embrace to make a further comment on the difficulties of holding onto love?

Despite Shelley’s dislike of religion – he was temporarily expelled from Oxford for writing a pamphlet titled “The necessity of atheism” – he’s still influenced by his time and there are repeated references to the divine, Heaven, spirit and so on (a different sort of atheism to the present, perhaps!) Again these further the persuasive argument, implying that their love is divine providence, or fate. Each stanza ends with a rhetorical question daring the lover to respond and argue – but we’re never permitted to hear the response.

The ideas of masculine and feminine expressed in the elements are also present in the rhyme-scheme. Masculine rhymes end on a stressed syllable (river, mingle) whereas the feminine is the unstressed ending (ocean, earth). The combination of these is another subtly underlying hint that the two should be together. Gradually, the line endings become more masculine, creating a more determined sound as the poem reaches its conclusion. The sentence structure and punctuation too creates a sense of unity with the balance of the two stanzas, each stanza using semi-colons to prevent the sentences being split apart. Throughout, the poem is gentle and soft sounding; the sibilance and gentle verbs (mingle, clasp) with the euphony of their vowel-heavy sounds all present the sweet request: be with me.

Teaching links:

Poetry: If teaching the AQA Love and Relationships anthology for GCSE it would be interesting to pair this with “When We Two Parted” as another Romantic poet, and the two being such close companions in life. It also works well with Barrett Browning’s “Sonnet 29”, expressing the nature of love and using the imagery of the tree and vine entwined together to present the couple, compelled to be together in the same way as Shelley’s.

Non-Fiction: Link this with non-fiction extracts from Shelley’s wife, Mary Shelley – the preface to her Frankenstein, maybe, or to her mother’s Vindication of the Rights of Women to explore the roles of feminine and masculine in the era. Or perhaps some letters from Shelley to give an idea of his character?

Click here for some suggested non-fiction links on my Dropbox

 Love’s Philosophy:

The fountains mingle with the river
And the rivers with the Ocean,
The winds of Heaven mix for ever
With a sweet emotion;
Nothing in the world is single;
All things by a law divine
in one spirit meet and mingle.
Why not I with thine?-

See the mountains kiss high Heaven
And the waves clasp one another;
No sister-flower would be forgiven
If it disdained its brother;
And the sunlight clasps the earth
And the moonbeams kiss the sea:
What is all this sweet work worth
If thou kiss not me?

Click here for the AudioPi podcast revision series I’ve written for the AQA anthology poems


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Why colour matters: symbolism in literature

Thursday, August 4, 2016 by

Why colour matters: symbolism in literature

Towards the end of the summer term, I was teaching a lesson on “Your Shoes”, leading to monologue writing – it’s a nice one, usually provokes interest and some creative responses. But this time, one girl in particular was very frustrated by the shoe imagery and ended up exclaiming “how am I supposed to know that white means innocence?”

It got me thinking about the use of literary symbols – what I’ve started thinking of as a literary shorthand – and the way that I often take for granted that students will see some of them. Not all, of course, but something beyond the sun=good, rain=bad pathetic fallacy, into the colours being used or the idea that nature is innocent, while cities can symbolise loneliness or destruction.

Of course, when I started thinking about it, it made little sense to me! Students who read are likely to get it, but perhaps need it pointing out for it to become conscious. Students who don’t read have no reason to see it. And from experience they’re more likely to be the ones who complain about the “blue curtain” theory:bluecurtain

I personally think it’s rare that they’re “just” blue. They don’t have to symbolise the character’s falling into despair, or the inner misery of the room. They might just tell you about the writer’s study window! There’s always a choice that’s been made and it’s part of our job as literary critics to figure out whether that choice is important.

What do colours symbolise in literature?

I’ve put some common meanings below – do add any more in the comments!


Purity – often formed as innocence, and sexual purity / virginity. An untouched, untainted colour. Because of this, often used to symbolise goodness – the white queen in The Wizard of Oz, for example. But white’s often worn by those trying to symbolise goodness, like the White Witch in The Chronicles of Narnia.


Evil, death, sadness, mourning. grief. A complete loss of innocence, whether in the moral/religious sense, or in gaining knowledge of something (e.g. mourning – knowledge of death). Used in settings to create mystery and something sinister. Can often be used to hide things, secretive. In clothing, can represent elegance but likely to have some undertones to the character.


Usually calm and peaceful, rather than the more generically cultural “blues” of melancholy and depression, though it does depend on the shade and surrounding description. Often linked with water, which if blue – clear, crystal and clean – is usually cleansing and purifying. Some associations with Mary, who’s often painted in religious images as wearing blue, so can have connotations of virtue and piety.


Earth, nature and poverty. Frequently associated with lower status or poor characters, due to stereotypes about the types of clothing worn, the manual labour undertaken, and th brown coarseness of unrefined, undyed fabric. Brown can either be warm – earthy, rich, comforting, like freshly-rained soil, or melted chocolate – or murky, something on the edge of becoming black, something tainted.


Nature, growth and vitality – the colour of grass, trees, spring and summer. Green is about new life, and rebirth. It’s also about endurance and honour (Gawain and the Green Knight) . Green’s more negative connotations include jealousy – Othello’s “green eyed monster” – and being inexperienced (being ‘green’, or new). In American literature, green can be the colour of money, and therefore greed. In English literature, green is often a supernatural colour, in part because of the associations with nature – fairies, magical creatures, spells, all hold a green tinge.

Yellow / GoldYellowWallpaper

Sunshine – a warm happiness is usually what comes to mind. Yellow also associates with gold, and its connotations of wealth, not only in the coins of many countries but in the value of gold itself as a relatively universal commodity. Particularly in older literature, yellow also symbolises sickness or cowardice (perhaps due to the yellowing of the skin due to jaundice, a liver disease, especially as “lily-livered” is an insult to a coward too). Read the Yellow Wallpaper for a chilling inversion of the colour!


Royalty, primarily – a throwback to the British sumptuary laws of the Renaissance era dictating that by law only the royal family could wear purple. Its meaning has ameliorated slightly to simply mean luxurious or decadent – a full bar of Cadbury’s! Purple also has some religious connotations, associated with some of the highest status bishops, the cloth used at the most celebratory times, as referenced in Rossetti’s poem ‘Birthday’.


Sometimes love, but an angry and passionate, lustful love. Red is often the strongest colour, confident and ambitious but also seductive, wicked and tempting. Red has connotations of fire, burning bright and hot, and hell, linking it with sin. It’s also the colour of blood – hot blood raging, or damage done. The link with blood brings in representation of women through the menstrual cycle and the first blood of sex, linking again with sin – the original sin – and with rebirth, but in the messy, difficult, painful way rather than the calm renewal of green.

Ways in:

Start with a recall list – words or phrases associated with colours. Then, characters associated with or named for colours. Do any of these have additional symbolism? Give them the Harry Potter house colours – see article below – and ask what the colours indicate.

Houses of Harry PotterUseful extracts to use when teaching colour symbolism:

  • Description of Daisy Buchanan, The Great Gatsby (even in her name)
  • The party scene, The Great Gatsby (a whole host of colours!)
  • Jane Eyre in the Red Room (red!)
  • Rossetti’s Birthday (purple, silver, white)
  • Hardy’s Neutral Tones

All available on my dropbox here

If any students are still doubtful, then what about this article by J K Rowling on her use of colours in Harry Potter?


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Beyond Levels assessment – our model for KS3

Monday, July 4, 2016 by

Assessment beyond levels – our approach

Every teacher reading this pretty much knows the score with why this is a thing, so I won’t go into it again. Following Monday’s #engchatuk, I thought I’d share our model.

Our working party involved all subjects, and we rolled the model out across all department areas in September 2015 – all using the same, thank god! – but I’m only going to cover the English implementation. If any other subject does want a look, I’ll happily provide details. It’s coming to the end of the first year now.

Depth of understanding

This is at the heart of what we’re trying to do – removing the numbers from assessments wherever possible. Primarily, this is because many students do one of several things:

  1. Label themselves – “I’m a six.”
  2. Limit themselves – only complete the level six work because, after all, “I’m a six”.
  3. Don’t actually get there – because they don’t see learning as a continuum, an ongoing experience or that hideous “journey”, and so they don’t do the level 5 work. Thereby missing out on the level 6, because there’s no solid foundation to what they’re doing.
  4. Don’t make connections between different skills, knowledge or even subjects.

So we went for depth and quality of understanding instead: Deep, Secure, Basic, and Emerging, We argued about some language. Confident might have been better than deep, but you can be confident without reason… Some staff wanted Foundation, rather than basic but we decided it had connotations of exam tiers which we wanted to get away from. Instead, “the basics” were what we start with, and we develop from there. So Basic stayed put.

We felt this not only gives us the quality of understanding, but it allows for a non-linear progression, and that’s something I feel very strongly about. Replacing levels with levels is pointless – why did you spend any time on it?! We have students who have a secure understanding of poetry, but their knowledge of Shakespeare is emerging. Their creative writing is basic, but their analytical writing is secure. At the beginning of a genetics topic in Biology, they all have emerging understanding but they can develop a deep knowledge but the end of the unit. Sadly then they’re back to emerging with the water cycle, but that’s the way it goes!

Assessment – what, when, how

Students receive formative feedback on their work. Teachers read work, comment on it, give them targets – because we all read, and all write, and know what to do to make a good piece of work – and then they deal with that feedback in various ways. We do frequent feedback – some short pieces and some longer, throughout their schemes of work. It’s not an end of unit test, it’s ongoing discussion about understanding. We have moderation discussions and take copies of examples, which we share with staff and students.

The feedback comments often include something like “This shows a deep understanding of Bathsheba’s dilemma. Your analysis of language is secure and accurate.”

It enables us to move students on, and to positively comment on their work while also drawing attention to the differences – they get the character, absolutely, but they need to work on identifying how that happens.

Once a year – just recently, actually – each Key Stage 3 class has an end of year assessment. See below for comments on this one!

When it comes to the dreaded ‘p’ word, we believe we can show students making progress because what they wrote this week is better than last month – look at their books. But, in addition, we also think if they are maintaining a secure level of understanding, then they’re improving – because our curriculum is organised so that the level of challenge and expectation increases through the year. It’s a difficult balancing act, and one we’re tweaking to get just right as we come to the end of the first year.

The language is crucial

Although we might complain about it, I actually like the mark-scheme’s ”confident”, “secure”, “some”. It’s easy to tell the difference, in my opinion as an English specialist. There is training to do – for new teachers and non-specialists in particular – in terms of expectation, but actually – it’s fairly easy to put three pieces of work in front of your and identify those things.

In classrooms, it’s all about quality of understanding. The phrase “I’m deep” isn’t used (and not only because it sounds ridiculous). Instead, the teachers and students use “This shows a deep understanding”, “this is really secure.”

What do students think?

They’re very positive indeed. Most accept that learning isn’t a steady upward motion or flight path, or steps, and that they can be better at some things than others, and all can go up and down depending on what you have in front of you.

Some subjects – particularly the numeric ones – have a harder time with comparison, and what did the person next to me get, and all of that. In English, they compare feedback and we overhear “so how did you get that from this line?” instead.

So how does reporting work?

Three times a year, we report two things to parents: “on track”, and “effort.”

The “Effort” is fairly standard – a school-wide criteria based on attitude, homework, deadlines etc.

At the end of the year, the final assessment is converted into a 7.8, 7.7 – the first number denoting their year group, the second denoting their grade. These at the moment are our best guesstimates, ranking the year group and looking at statistical GCSE predictions of where they should be given our historical cohorts. I don’t like that bit, but it’s necessary for reporting and behind-the-scenes tracking, so I forbear and continue to make my thoughts on the subject known!

Next year

The end of year assessment wasn’t as successful as we’d hoped, mainly because of the design of it, and it needs rethinking.

The current discussion is on what we choose in terms of question styles. We won’t be spending five years drilling GCSE questions, so the KS3 sample materials are a non-starter. Our decision really is whether we go for an essay-based question, or a series of ordered questions. And how should we order those questions – running simply from basic to deep (identify, recall, apply, compare, evaluate, etc in terms of command words) or run mainly from secure to deep, and include some basic as we go through.

I’d love to read some more about assessment design in the oodles of free time I have! I personally prefer the essay-style response, but that is often an all-or-nothing prospect, and I want these girls to get confident too. Then again, I love writing essays – maybe they will too!



While some departments rewrote Year 7 and Year 8 at the same time, we’re working out way through – so the current Year 7 will move into Year 8 on the same system, and we’ll amend schemes of work as we work through them from September, alongside a redesign of the curriculum to increase rigour and breadth of knowledge.

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Planning to teach a poetry cluster: Christina Rossetti

Friday, June 10, 2016 by

Planning to teach a poetry cluster: Christina Rossetti

When we’ve been teaching Rossetti this year, we’ve been preparing for the AS-level. We’re not doing that next year (switching to linear now every other spec has caught up and reformed!) but I think it’ll probably take a similar approach:

  • Identify the poems that work well together in comparison and teach them alongside one another (in the new Y12, teaching them at key moments in their comparison text)
  • Each ‘mini-unit’ of poems ends with a written assessment in timed conditions, in the class room.
  • In a single lesson, I use a question/answer format, which usually guides students through a discussion exploring the poems and they make notes on it. i’l;l model the annotations in the first lesson but we do this an awful lot at GCSE so find it unnecessary at A-Level – it’s mainly to get them back into things after nearly three months off (!) and to model the detail I expect.
    This year, I also showed them my teaching notes – which turned into my revision guide when I realised I didn’t have enough space on the page to write everything!

Some of my question prompts are on a shared Dropbox folder – I tend to use these as the starting point, and then go from there depending where the discussion takes us.

Goblin Market

This is a different proposition, to my mind, partly because of length and partly because it’s so very complex! We did a couple of mini-units/groups of poems, and then spent three weeks on Goblin Market – but could have spent a lot longer!

We discussed it in a very similar way, including guiding them towards a more subtextual understanding, but by this point they were pretty good at reading into Rossetti.Then I gave each pair a presentation topic – also in the shared folder – and they had a lesson and homework to prepare. Topics included, among others:

  • Interpretation as a discussion of addiction and mental health, with reference to Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Lizzie Siddal (AO1: interpretation; AO2: FSL; AO3: CR’s own context)
  • Presentation and interpretation of character: Lizzie (AO1: interpretation; AO2: FSL)
  • Interpretation as a comment on economics and female position in society (AO1: interpretation; AO3: Victorian context)
  • Effects of rhyme, rhythm and narrative form (AO2: FSL)
  • The importance of sisterhood and female relationships with one another (AO1: interpretation; AO2: FSL)
  • Where does it sit in relation to other Victorian fantasy, and children’s fantasy? (AO1: interpretation; AO3: Literary context)

Once you’ve done Goblin Market, it’s a great opportunity to review and bring it into the other comparisons, because it really does fit with everything.

Poems I’d put together: 

Presentation of women

  • No Thank You John
  • From the Antique
  • Maude Clare
  • Winter: My Secret

Religious doubt / faith

  • A Birthday
  • Good Friday
  • Shut Out
  • Twice
  • Uphill

Death, loss and grief

  • In the Round Tower
  • Remember
  • Song When I am Dead
  • Echo

Desire and sex

  • Soeur Louise de la Misericorde
  • Goblin Market

I’d also single out some particularly important (for me) images or forms e.g. the door and other liminal imagery; nature, particularly birds, the monologues.

Other resrouces, including assessments are here on Dropbox


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How to write brilliantly: Blogsync English

Sunday, June 5, 2016 by

How to write brilliantly: Blogsync English

Ok, so I’m a little behind, but I do like the blogsync idea – a team of twitter teachers all blogging about the same topic each month. I’m pretty sure “great writers” was May, but hey  it was half-term.

This time around, it was all about how to create “convincing and compelling” writers. In the teaching of writing it’s easy to condense writing into frames and acronyms – PEE, PEA, PEAL, PETAL, WETRATS and so on. While these do have some merit, in making sure students understand basic paragraphing, I’d argue that by the time students get to thinking about GCSEs they should have that basic structure down and be starting to play around with it. I’m focusing more here on analytical writing, rather than creative.

The question is, what is “convincing and compelling writing”? For me, it’s writing that sings of enjoyment. It’s not uncommon for me to write as a target “have more fun with your writing”, and I’m very lucky indeed to work in a school where that’ But how do you convey that enjoyment – or, in the case of some students, fake it. I know some students hate English and don’t see the point, or adopt a very workmanlike, head-down and gritted teeth approach. But even they can write convincingly. I have a feeling each of these could be a blog-post in themselves, but here goes, in brief:

How to write compellingly:

  1. Be right

    Nothing worse than reading an essay and thinking “mmm, no.” The old phrase “there’s no wrong answer in English” is, ironically, wrong. What you’re saying has to be reasonable and come from the text, or it doesn’t really matter how you’re writing.

  2. Be clear and develop a line of argument across the whole piece

    Paragraphs that lead from one thought to another, and guide the reader are essential. Clear topic sentences and deliberate organisation are key.

  3. Write a thought-provoking and challenging introduction

    Answer the question in an inventive, slightly off-beat way if you can. If not, then use something a little out of the ordinary – a quote, a contextual reference, a question. Something to make me sit up and take notice.

  4. Be expressive, and interesting

    Use great language. Not just literary terminology,although that’s important, but language that is precise and detailed. “Melancholy” is so much more expressive than “sad”. I ban the words “positive” and “negative” because they’re far too vague – “positive” could be happy, joyful, calm, optimistic, loving, and a whole host more. What do you actually mean?

  5. Have a dynamic conclusion that reaches beyond the question/topic

  6. Write tightly, and use an academic voice.

The best practical advice I’ve come across for improving work has been David Didau’s piece on lexical density, which I’ve used over and over again, across key stages 3-5. There’s something about focusing students on writing to a word limit which really forces them to cut the waffle, and to write something not only worth reading but enjoyable to read. #

Students really take hold of it as well; they can see the difference in their own writing, and it can get beautifully competitive, especially when they’re trying to beat my reduced word count!

So, to practically develop convincing and compelling writers:

  1. Practise introductions to questions – it’s also a great springboard into discussion to use this practice as a starter and develop a line of argument from there
  2. Give lots of vocabulary choices. Word lists, interpretive as well as terminology-based, to ensure that students have the language that they need for a unit. Require that they use it
  3. Opportunity to redraft with a precise goal – reducing the word count by 30% and not losing any meaning, for example, is often very focusing.
  4. Give students practical guidance on what to include or avoid
  5. Practise choosing meaningful elements – identifying the most significant phrase in the paragraph/chapter/novel can be very rewarding, getting students to justify their choices. It’s also great revision

Practical tips for students:

Use the writer’s name – it helps focus on technique, and how the writer is deliberately working

Don’t use the word “quote” or “this suggests” – it forces you to embed quotations more fluently, rather than breaking up the flow of the sentence. Using colons, dashes or brackets to embed quotes can be more productive

Never define or describe – examiners know the terminology; if they don’t, they can look it up. Assume that the examiners know what happens and when.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions – it shows engagement and enthusiasm for the text

Ban vague phrases including positive/negative, creates a picture in the reader’s mind, makes the reader want to read one. These don’t tell me anything. E.g. a writer uses a description, not to “create a picture” but to suggest the serenity of the setting, indicating the contrast with the character’s inner turmoil.

What is its function in the text?  It’s the blue curtain dilemma. Are the curtains blue because the character is so depressed and miserable? If they’re just blue, then why would you bother wasting your time writing about them? Pick something meaningful.

 Further reading:

David Didau on lexical density

Kerry Pullen on nominalisation

Caroline Spalding’s quote funnel:








Xris32 also has really practical lesson-based ideas for what to do to improve writing



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