Sociograms – making links


Sociograms are a great way to encourage students to make links. I use them for getting students to make links between poems, but have also used them as a strategy for getting students to make links between characters in a play or novel, or as a basis for student presentations.

In a nutshell, a sociogram is a fun, visual way to explore ideas. It involves little input from the teacher, enabling you to circulate, encourage, intervene or guide according to student need. One of the pleasures of setting them as a learning activity is that students always surprise me with new links and interpretations.

The image below shows some students making links between poems. To set it up, the titles of the poems are spread around a big piece of sugar paper – the bigger the better. Coloured pens or markers are always popular and can be used to separate out ideas so they can be picked out easily.

The students here made connections by drawing images which connected with the link. So, poems that featured the theme of death had the footsteps of a grim reaper connecting them (you can make him out in the right hand corner). Poems with a patriotic tone feature a ‘flags’ link, and so on.

Apart from a useful strategy for linking poems, I’ve used them for learning about the relationships between characters in Shakespeare plays in KS3. Like the poems, the characters’ names are spread out around the sugar paper, and what links them is used as an image to connect them. For example, characters who are in love might be connected by hearts; warring characters can be connected by an image which reflects the nature of their conflict – swords, guns, megaphones – whatever is appropriate.

Sociograms can be differentiated in a number of ways. You can leave students to choose their own connections or provide symbols for them to use as an extra scaffold. Colour coding can be used for different assessment objectives such as themes/ideas, language, structure, form or context, enabling students to work on different aspects of a topic on the same sociograms.

An additional use for them is that they make a great basis for student presentations. The magic of them is that there are few, if any, words, but provoke some analytical thinking. Students who use their sociograms as a basis for presentation cannot simply read what they have prepared, but use the symbols as prompts. This works most successfully when they have a little preparation time to organise a structure before talking to the class.

Finally, students enjoy them and encourage independence in terms of task and thinking.

Exam Literacy – Whole School Strategies to Maximise Success at KS4 and KS5

pic of A level students celebrating

What follows is a whole school CPD session which I led recently with our post-16 staff. However, the principles could equally be applied to maximising success at GCSE. The catalyst (this is mentioned on one of the ppt slides) was a visit by my HT to another school which had focussed on what might be termed ‘exam literacy’ as a way of improving results.

What this involved was a whole school approach to ‘exam literacy’. In a nutshell, this means that subjects employ common strategies and common exam-related language within and across subjects. The purpose (and result at the school seen) was to ensure that students’ experienced consistently high quality preparation for mock and real exams by setting standard expectations about what might happen in all subjects. Of course, different subjects might place more emphasis on some aspects of preparation than others, so this is designed in no way to limit what subject areas might do by way of preparing students, but to ensure a consistently high quality exam preparation diet.

First of all, a preparation discussion took place during which subject areas exchanged ideas about what works best in their subject area, and from this a set of ‘expectations’ was developed. We also discussed what studying for A levels and taking exams in those subjects might ‘look like at its best’, as a way of encouraging best practice and paving the way forward.

Here’s a copy of the presentation:

A Level Mock Exams 2013 presentation

Below is a new page in our teaching and learning handbook, which will become school policy.

TandL book page exam literacy

The statements from the teaching and learning handbook were used as a ranking activity. This really asked those taking part to consider in a nuanced way which were their strongest and weakest areas of exam prep and we held out our own ‘speed date’ clinic as a result of the analysis. The statement ranking activity can be found here: Ranking activity exam literacy expectations

Lastly, everyone taking part carried out a reflection to identify next steps and these will be subject to discussion with our Assistant Head in charge of 6th Form, Teresa Huntley, who collaborated with me on the development of the policy. That can be found here: 6th Form Forum reflection

The ‘at its best’ statements on the policy document are designed to be considered as a line of continuum – so a discussion about ‘to what extent are we achieving these now?’ is designed to challenge limiting beliefs and consider just how we might move forward even further.

I hope the workshop session will be successful in helping us to learn from each other and emulate best practice. I hope you find it useful.

Starters for English/English language unit 1 practice

For most teachers of English, the next few weeks in their classroom will be taken up with a focus on exam practice – quite a lot of it based around the skills needed for the unit 1 exam on reading and writing non-fiction texts.

A love for all aspects of your subject can blind you to the possibility that this can become boring! A couple of years ago, a lovely, hardworking student of mine commented that all the exam practice we were doing meant that she might lose her love of English. So gently expressed a protest could hardly be ignored!  So, I set about devising some fun starter and skills related activities that can be used to spice up exam practice. Some are my own and others ‘magpied’ from generous colleagues – so thanks to them.

Here are a few that are useful in preparing for the reading section:

1. Newspaper Quest – useful for buildings students’ reading speed, with lots of fun in the process.

Buy a selection of newspapers or ask someone to save them for you. A mixture of titles works well, with a paper between three students. Teams then compete to use their speedy reading skills to find out various information. You can vary the questions and circulate the papers as you wish. Questions like these work well:

a) What is on BBC3 tonight at 10.30pm?
b) What is the biggest story on page 4 about?
c) Name 6 sportsmen named on the penultimate page?
d) Which horse won the 2.30pm at Kempton Park yesterday?
e) Find the names of 5 female celebrities.
f) List 5 products advertised in the first 5 pages.
g) What is the weather forecast where you live for tomorrow?
h) Solve a crossword clue.
I) List the names of 5 politicians
j) Find a story relating to another EU country. Write down the country’s name.
k) Find a good news story and note what it is about.

The fastest team to complete the challenge wins the multipack of curly wurlies.

2. Leaflet prediction activity

Scan a leaflet front cover (or run round the class with it quickly so everyone gets a look). Ask students to predict some of the words it will contain (they are very good at this, usually). If you show a leaflet for a day out at a National Trust property, they will predict words like ‘history’, ‘heritage’, ‘garden’, ‘generations’, ‘future’. You get the idea. This builds confidence by making them feel like experts on how a text is pitched for a particular audience and purpose.

3. Front cover comparison

Scan and show two magazine front covers on your whiteboard. Students compare and contrast the covers. The focus can be varied to suit the group, but works well for presentational or language features. Similarities and differences can be noted, or students can fill in a Venn diagram. This works well as a paired activity and prizes/glory/house points can be awarded to the team with the most/most interesting ideas.

4. Beat the teacher

Distribute a text or show one with plenty of presentational features. Teams of 2 have to find more presentational features/facts/opinions – whatever else you went – than the teacher in a specified time. Winners improve their reading speed and have the glory of beating Miss or Sir. In my experience, the curly wurlies are yours for this one!

5. Student examiners

Students need a good, working knowledge of the exam paper before you can do this, but it helps embed their understanding of what to expect in the unit 1 questions. Hand out a newspaper front page or use the same papers you have used for Newspaper Challenge above. Students set exam questions based solely on the front page. Extra credit can be given for putting them in the same order as they are in the exam.

6. Pairs game

Make and play ‘pairs’. Make two sets of cards – one has language features named, such as ‘fact’, ‘alliteration’, ‘triplets’. The other set of cards (use a different colour) features examples of each language feature. At the start, all the cards are put face down on the table. Students take turns to pick up a pair of cards. If they match, they keep the cards. If not, they are put back and the game continues. Pairs can be made by you or the students for each other. Can also be adapted to be a ‘loop’ exercise.

7. Magazine adverts

These can provide endless opportunities linked to the exam, as well as allowing students to bring in their own to the lesson. Students work in pairs to compete against others to find as many aspects of language, structure and presentation as possible. Can be extended by asking some to convince others why theirs is the best and most persuasive advert.

8. Speed reading and summarising

Distribute a newspaper article. Using the local paper is a good idea because it reinforces the idea that there are expert writers on their doorstep; they are not just dreamed up by you or the exam board. This makes the students read at speed, which they need to do in order to be successful in the exam. The more you do it, the more confident they become and you get a more ‘nuanced’ summary of the text. The activity goes like this: students read the article and do one of the following:

  • annotate what each paragraph is about
  • tell your partner/write on a whiteboard what the article is about in exactly 100 words, then 50 words, then 10 words
  • find a selection of interesting language features

9.  Famous works of art – what’s the story?

This is a good one for building confidence with Q2 of the higher paper, in which students have to link different parts of the text – for example, headlines, images and the text itself.  Click  below for a selection of famous paintings. There are lots to choose from here and elsewhere on the web.   First of all, students can give them a ‘headline’ or caption and then challenge others to make links between those and the image, ensuring that evidence is given for the link.

Alternatively, students can write a one paragraph story based on the image and others can make links between that and the image. Drawing a line between the detail of the text and the exact spot on the image or photo is especially effective at encouraging precision.  This activity is only useful if they give detailed evidence for their links and comment on the effect of aspects of the image, as they would need to in the exam.

Extra challenge can be built in by giving rules for the story, such as an exact word limit or a variety of images.  This works equally well with still images from films or high quality news photography and contributes to widening students’ horizons generally.  However, some care is needed in the choice of images as there are plenty which are too upsetting for an activity intended to be fun.  If you google ‘famous news photographs’, you will find a selection.

10.  Discombobulate!

This is a made up game which attempts to replicate the general feeling of discombobulation that students experience in exams because they are stressed.  The general idea is that you replicate that feeling in the safe environment of the lesson so they get used to it and learn to manage it when it counts.  Here’s what you do:

  • Each student draws six noughts and crosses grids.
  • First of all they play their partner in a time limit.
  • Then they swap partners and play with their left hand.
  • Swap partners again and you tell them to swap being a cross for a nought and vice versa half way through the game.  This is tricky to explain, so practise in advance!
  • Swap partners again.  This time they have to try and lose the game.
  • Change partners.  This time, play the game with different symbols and, if they’re the type of class who will, they have to make a stupid noise at the same time.

This doesn’t really support any of the exam skills directly, but results in a lot of giggling, as well as the opportunity to practise keeping a cool head.

Have fun and if you try these out, let me know how you get on.

Improving the formality of students’ writing – nominalisation

This blogging lark is really tricky to get off the ground! First of all, there is the inevitable dilemma about the topic for your first blog post and the ensuing self-doubt. Why would anybody care about what I write? Then, just when you develop an inkling of confidence, another blogger touches on your treasured subject matter or, just as your forefinger hovers over the ‘publish’ button, you are overwhelmed by the wit and worth of someone else’s writing. So, in order to overcome these psychological barriers and my own hesitation, I thought I’d better just get stuck in and hope people will be kind.

So, the purpose of this occasional blog will be no more than to record some lesson ideas I have used or might use in future.

Those who were involved will know that there was a cracking discussion on #literacychat last week, which explored the impact of talk for writing and methods which had a positive impact on students’ levels of formality. Alex Quigley (@huntingenglish) produced a fresh and incisive blog straight after which explored the importance of teachers making explicit to students what he referred to as an ‘academic code’. This led me to consider how I do this currently and how I might do it with greater impact in future.

Anyone who is familiar with the GCSE English assessment criteria will know that students’ work must be ‘confident and assured’ in order for them to achieve at least band 4. If their work lacks formality, this is almost impossible to achieve. In order to convince my students that they are not just hoop-jumping for the sake of their GCSE, I tell them that standard English is the formal language of public life and their ability to use it successfully will help them make their views heard and enable them to influence others.

One of the ways I try to help them develop a confident and formal tone is by teaching them to nominalise in their writing. In a nutshell, this means turning verbs into nouns – but this is a simplistic and not very helpful explanation. Used sparingly, nominalisation creates a tone of confidence and certainty in writing or speech, which is why it is so widely used by politicians.

At the NATE conference about three years ago, I attended a workshop (very good it was too) on improving formality and the resources which were handed out are included below. These have been helpful to me and so might be helpful to others.  What follows is a description of a lesson sequence and some resources. I wanted to embed copies of these, but as a novice blogger, I haven’t worked out how. I am happy to share electronic copies if people would like them – just contact me on Twitter @kerrypulleyn.

Bell work: Put the following questions on the board for discussion upon entry:

Who do you know who speaks very formally or very informally?
How do we know if a text is formal?
Why might we choose to speak of write formally or informally?

This is designed just to get them ‘in the zone’ for thinking about the lesson topic. Take feedback.

Learning objective:

 To be able to use nominalisation in your writing so that you can create a confident tone and be more convincing.

(They will need to live with some uncertainty at this point, because they will need to see examples of nominalisation in order to understand what it is.)

Starter: Ask students to compare the following statements.

Crime was increasing rapidly and the police were becoming concerned.  The rapid increase in crime was causing concern among the police. 
Germany invaded Poland in 1939. This immediately caused World War Two to break out.  Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939 was the immediate cause of the outbreak of World War Two. 
We engaged staff in the initiative by encouraging them to attend lunchtime meetings.  The engagement of staff in the initiative was encouraged by attendance at lunchtime meetings. 

Once they have highlighted and discussed the basic grammatical differences, they should have noticed the following:

Crime was increasing rapidly and the police were becoming concerned.  The rapid increase in crime was causing concern among the police.  
Germany invaded Poland in 1939. This immediately caused World War Two to break out.  Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939 was the immediate cause of the outbreak of World War Two. 
We engaged staff in the initiative by encouraging them to attend lunchtime meetings.  The engagement of staff in the initiative was encouraged by attendance at lunchtime meetings  

At this point, it is worth revising the LO and start to establish students’ confidence with the key term – nominalisation – and a definition of it, making sure they understand which column has the nominalised sentences in.


The process of nominalisation turns verbs (actions) into nouns (concepts/ideas)

It makes your writing sound more formal and authoritative.



Introduce the text below. Model finding a sentence and denominalising it. Remind students that you are looking for a noun, presented as an important idea or concept. For example, you could identify ‘promiscuity’ and change it to ‘getting involved in promiscuous behaviour.’


Students find three examples of nominalisation in the text below and denominalise the sentences, considering the change in effect.


Teen lifestyle is ‘health time bomb’

The party lifestyles of teenagers today could be destroying their health later in life, warn doctors.

The British Medical Association describes their obesity, binge drinking and promiscuity as a potential public health time bomb. It is calling for swift action to reverse the worsening trends in adolescent health. This follows a prediction from England’s Chief Medical Officer that children could face death before their parents. Official health statistics suggest a growing threat to child health on a number of fronts, says the BMA.

The number of children with weight problems has doubled in the last two decades, with nearly one in five fifteen year-olds now classes as obese. Alcohol consumption among the young is also on the rise – some under sixteens admitting drinking an average of ten units of alcohol per week, five pints of beer or ten normal glasses of wine. Six out of ten sixteen to twenty-four year olds admit to not using condoms and rates of certain sexually transmitted diseases are soaring among this age group. In addition, almost a quarter of fifteen year-olds are regular smokers and cannabis has been tried by one in three.

Vivienne Nathanson, the BMA’s Head of Science and Ethics said: “Young people in Britain are increasingly likely to be overweight, indulge in binge drinking, have a sexually transmitted infection and suffer mental health problems. It is high time we provided education and health care services that target the specific needs of young people. We need to ensure that young people do not fall in between the gap between services for children and those designed for adults.

Doctor Russell Viner from Great Ormond Street Hospital in London was one of the authors of the BMA report. He told a newspaper: “The report paints a bleak picture. It’s not until you take all these figures together that you realise how worrying the situation is. It seems that adolescents are the only age group whose health is actually getting worse.

BBC News Channel


 This is the sort of thing they are likely to come up with: 

 The party lifestyle of teenagers today could be destroying their health later in life, warn doctors.  Doctors warn that teenagers today go to parties all the time which means they could be less healthy later in life.
 It is calling for swift action to reverse the worsening trends in adolescent health.  It is calling for someone to act swiftly to reverse the way adolescent health is getting worse.
 This follows a prediction from  England’s Chief Medical Officer that children could face death before their parents.   This follows England’s Chief Medical Officer predicting that children could die before their parents. 

Pair/Share:  Get them to compare answers as a practice run for giving you well developed feedback if asked.

At this point, they know enough to be able to analyse the effect of each and consider why the nominalised sentences create a greater sense of confidence and authority.  The kind of thing students come up with are as follows.

  • ‘party lifestyles’ suggests a wide range of activities and seems more potentially harmful than simply ‘go(ing) to parties’
  • ‘calling for swift action’ suggests that they know it could happen and hints even that they may have some power in making it happen.  In contrast, ‘calling for someone to act swiftly’ makes the speaker/writer seem a bit lost and hints they don’t know who ‘someone’ is
  • ‘England’s CMO predicting’ sounds as if he uses guesswork for important issue – it’s also written in the present tense, whereas ‘follows a prediction’ from England’s CMO’ suggests it’s something more important, a bit like an announcement.

You have a choice of where to go now, depending upon how confident you think your students are.  They could either attempt a paragraph of their own, including some nominalised sentences, or the opportunity to edit for nominalisation.  You could provide further text transformation opportunities.  Lastly, you could decide they have done enough and leave it there.

Plenary:  Depending on what you have opted for beforehand, students could peer assess and write a brief comment on the effect of a partner’s work or you could play nominalisation bingo with a text you read aloud – always a winner!

If you feel like giving this a try, I would opt for a fairly able group to begin with.  Then, as you see it working, you could consider how it might be made accessible to a wider range of students.  That’s my next step.