Tag Archives: education

Motivating Boys in English (by guest Blogger Ian Knightley)

english blog pic

Students come in all shapes and sizes: high flyers, hard-workers and some are just plain crazy! It’s this variety that can make teaching such an enriching and infuriating career path to follow. In my five years as an English teacher at a large comprehensive, the challenge of trying to motivate disaffected boys has undoubtedly been one of the biggest I have faced.

In my experience, when this issue is raised, suggestions for success and explanations for disengagement tend to follow along predictable lines:

a) Give them texts they’ll enjoy – ones about cars, computers and football
b) get them out of their seat; boys need to be active
c) boys don’t like learning – school’s not cool.

While I would not suggest that these comments are entirely lacking in substance, as somebody who sat in English lessons and was enthralled by poetry, prose and drama, I can’t help but find such rhetoric misguided, hard to swallow and to a degree, patronising.

Perhaps first I should clarify – I was by no means a model pupil; although I was reasonably bright, I did not enjoy many lessons and whiled away hours staring outside of windows. I can also clearly remember that awful feeling when I just couldn’t “get” something; exertion was rapidly usurped by frustration and frustration by resignation, a feeling I still experience when someone throws a simultaneous equation within a double decker’s length of me! So, the question remains: how do we motivate boys? How did my teacher motivate me? At the risk of adding my own sweeping statement to those listed above, he recognised one of the fundamental characteristics of many boys:

  • they like to be seen to succeed, especially if they can do so without looking like they’re trying to.


My teacher was a particularly crafty bugger. Time and time again, he would water our egos, snatching a book from a desk and reading aloud a ‘FANTASTIC’ (ordinary) short story or an ‘INSIGHTFUL’ (average) attempt at analysis. He would wave away our pretend protestations, allowing us to feel like we were doing well and more importantly look like we were doing well without appearing to be trying.

**Nothing is more motivational than recognition and success. **

Of course, this alone is not enough – some teaching must take place, some progress must be made.

  • But corrections would be made under the guise of suggestions and mistakes would be pointed out with subtlety and tact, not in bright, red scrawl.

Red Pen

The notion that sticking “laddish” texts in front of boys, sitting back and waiting for their enthusiasm to erupt is, in my view, one of the worse so-called solutions. For one, this is entirely impractical; the curriculum requires an understanding of a range of texts – like it or not, you’re going to have to learn Shakespeare along with a smattering of soppy poems. I tend to favour a very honest approach to this: it’s worth X% of your GCSE and if you don’t try, you can’t do well; although remember, you must first earn the right to be “honest”.

  • Where possible, frame units that you know won’t go down well with those that will – it can’t all be fun but it has to be sometimes – surround the thorn with roses – consideration of this should occur more frequently when planning specifications (why must all classes follow the same specifications?).

Secondly, pigeonholing boys within the narrow parameters of cars, computers and football, at every available opportunity, only serves to heighten their disinterest in/dislike of many texts that they have to study; you are effectively reinforcing a stereotype and conditioning them to believe that there are some texts they are supposed to like and some that they aren’t. What could be less motivating than someone making you read a text full of a plot, characters and themes that you believe you shouldn’t be interested in, in front of a room full of your peers who KNOW you shouldn’t be interested?

  • The establishment of an environment within which it’s OK to be interested is as important as creating the motivation to learn itself.

The problem is, it’s equally as difficult to achieve. I have found that presenting my own love of literature unapologetically has, on occasions, led to success. I want all my classes, whether boys, girls or both, to realise how much I love my subject and how much I want them to love it too. Even the most apathetic group of boys have found my love of Wilfred Owen a source of amusement, if not contagious and that’s a start, eh?


The busy start of term..

Whether you are a parent or a teacher, the last weekend in August marks the start or end of your freedom but those first few days offer a hectic similarity to us all as we readjust to the early mornings and return to the loss of our evenings and weekends to planning, preparation and marking. The countdown to half term begins the moment you step across the threshold and pick up your timetable for the weeks and months ahead. Still, the process of educating and entertaining our charges keeps us going and quickly the arrival of over 300 new personalities serves to reawaken the passion and move on from a relaxing 6 weeks.

The transition period for some young people is a tricky one. Routine is absolutely essential as they try to get used to approximately 15 slight variations of the school rules and have to get to grips with how they will transport the hoard of new books and PE kit in their newly purchased undersized ruck sacks.

The early days do serve as stressful times for the newbies and as teachers it’s important that as we start to set and establish classroom routines and discipline rules in our way, we remember that a collection of nervous faces look at you judging how ‘safe’ they will feel in your class. Hopefully some are not weighing up what they can get away with but a confident approach in the first lesson combined with a nice mix of  assertive humour you will have the kids eating out of your hands.

As you start to see the production of work try and look out for the following traits you may wish to raise with your Head of Department/SENCo as potential areas that may need attention.

  1. The grip the student uses with the pen/pencil. You are looking for a classic tripod grip between thumb and first two fingers. The child doesn’t need to stop and shake their hand from fatigue associated with a tight grip.
  2. The speed at which the student writes. This could be due to poor processing speeds, poor spelling or because of attention issues (which could be temporary and dealt with via a swift prompt and refocus)
  3. Do all students complete tests in the time you have allowed. If not, it could be because of a couple of reasons. Potentially there are processing difficulties which could be alleviated with the application of 25% extra time.  Alternatively a student with an average processing ability may not have yet developed the skills to plan and organise their writing efficiently and some strategic coaching may be all that is needed.
  4. Watch out for spelling errors.

Any of the above observations should be raised with the SENCo who is likely to look into transition data as potential additional evidence to build a picture of need.

Lots to think about but the new term wouldn’t be the new term  without a reminder of the job we trained to do and the reward it offers on a daily basis.

Watch out for next week where my first guest blog post will be uploaded. Keep a close eye.

Enjoy your first half term everyone.

A quick tip to improve reading skills.

Few people realise that many young people (and old!) do not have a reading age that is in line with our chronological age (the age you are today). Reading comprehension (the extent to which you understand what you read) is vital for ensuring young people are able to access lesson materials. One skill that may affect the ability to understand text is the speed at which a young person is able to read. The more efficient the reader, the more fluent and therefore the better the level of understanding is likely to be compared to someone who reads slowly.

‘But how do I know how fast my child reads and how do can speed be improved’? I hear you ask.. This is easy. Check out www.spreeder.com . It’s a free online speed reading tool and is one of the best finds I have stumbled across. It’s great for many reasons but more so because it’s free. Here is what the tool looks like. Simple design and simple to use. Just click Spreed and off you go. But be careful! This tool is set to a default of 300 words per minute which is fast. If you click on the settings tab at the bottom right, you can change this to start with something less swift. Maybe start at 80 wpm and keep increasing until you feel out of your comfort zone. When it becomes easier, simply increase the speed some more.

spreeder 1
 The beauty of this tool is that you can also copy and paste your own text into the box so that you can ensure that what is used to practise with is either of interest or of relevance. It therefore means that this tool can be used for any age and ability (added bonus!!) If this is done regularly reading speed will improve over time and comprehension will too.

spreeder 2


Such a simple way to make a big impact. Keep a record of the young person’s achievements using a chart or graph and let them see their progress grow and grow as the weeks pass.

Happy Spreeding!



Getting to know you!!

One of the best strategies I have employed as a pastoral leader and Special Educational Needs Co-ordination is probably one of the most logical. In fact, thinking about it, most of what I do in school is about common sense. I wouldn’t necessarily call myself an expert problem solver, just an experienced one and my learning is based on the rich experience of the students I have had the pleasure to work with. I have always maintained that building a relationship with the young person and their family from the outset is vital to ongoing success. It’s useful to know what the ‘hooks’ are with the young people we work with. Knowing how we can focus the work we set on the interests and strengths of the students rather than devising mundane generic tasks will always help motivation. It’s important to get updates from parents so I invite and encourage regular communication. I look to the parent as the expert when it comes to the young person and the information I gather is key. Any school worth it’s salt will welcome communication from parents so please don’t wait to be contacted by your child’s school. Be proactive and arrange a meeting to share information you might not think is relevant but could actually reveal little gems of information that can unlock massive future potential. Why not make a real impact and send your child’s school a postcard telling them of your som or daughters latest successes or achievements from home?

We never stop learning…

During my last 15 years in school I have met thousands of young people, hundreds of parents and hundreds of like-minded professionals who share (to a greater or lesser extent) my aim of giving young people the tools required to access the education system upon entry (however much we agree or disagree with the central establishment at the time) and exit it as successful learners able to make the transition to employment and sustainability. I don’t yet have children of my own and I am certain that when I do, the decisions I make as a father will be as difficult as those I have helped parents and young people make during their educational journey. What I love about education and learning is that no two learners are ever the same and the challenges faced by each learner and their family are unique. However, there are a number of common themes I have addressed over the years and I will begin to address a range of them in no particular order. Since I took on the role of Special Educational Needs Coordinator in 2008, I have learnt masses about a range of needs spanning the moderate to the complex, yet my approach has always been the same. As I begin to upload more and more posts you will hopefully be able to relate to some with your own experience and context in mind and begin to see a recurring pattern of pragmatism and creativity. As you will have seen already, I will try to include hyperlinks to websites I think may find of use. There are lots of websites out there designed to support parents and carers and if you find any of what I post useful please share this and feel free to make comments and ask questions.