Whether your teen's aiming for top marks in English, or hates reading and just wants to 'get through English', this episode is for you.
Gemma Toms is our English-Focus Coach, Shakespeare ninja, literature lover and examination extraordinaire.
As well as being an in-demand high school teacher in the UK, she's also an external examiner, lead marker, senior examiner, moderator AND she even works as a professional editor, too (just for fun!).
Here's WHAT YOU'LL LEARN from my conversation with Gemma:
What your teen should do BEFORE they start reading any substantial text they're set (and the two things they should know before they dive in).
Better ways to develop a deep understanding of a novel or play (rather than re-reading it).
How to encourage a reluctant reader.
How to choose the BEST evidence when planning or writing an analytical essay.
What to do (and NOT do) in top responses when aiming to achieve top criteria.
Tips for proofreading and critiquing your teen's writing if they ask you to read over it.
Small edits that will make a BIG difference to final marks in creative or original writing.
You're listening to the parents of hardworking teens podcast episode 46.
How your teen can succeed in English, even if they hate Shakespeare, don't like reading or are the worst short story writer in the universe… which they can't be, because that's me!
Hi VIPs. I’m so pleased you’re here for this episode, because this is a doozy.
I've just interviewed special guest, Gemma Toms, our English focus coach to share her years and years of experience as not just an in-demand high school teacher in the UK but as an external examiner, lead marker, senior examiner, moderator and she even works as a professional editor as well! So you never know, a book you read may well have been proofread and corrected by the one and only Gemma Toms as well.
Now I've actually known Gemma for years. We were actually at the same uni together. We were friends there but neither of us at that time had any idea that we would become teachers. We weren't doing teaching degrees, or even planning to be teachers back then, but over the years since starting and growing Rock Solid Study, I became more and more aware of her expertise as an examiner. And having had discussions and conversations with her about our experiences of exams, marking criteria, syllabus descriptors and all of the other things that we like to geek out on as these types of people, because it turns out I am not the only one that finds the whole exam area of education super interesting.
I then decided, a couple of years ago, to invite Gemma to come on as our English focus coach, so she now knows the 10WGT inside out. She coaches in our group coaching and private Next Level coaching. I've even had her work with me on trainings and challenges that I've run and we delivered, inside of Next Level coaching, like the 4 week Essays Boot Camp that we delivered last year.
Now for any parents of 10WGT – the 10 Week Grade Transformation Programme – Graduates, so students who have been through the 10 week programme, we are opening enrolment for Next Level Coaching from 1st through to the 5th of May. Now, enrolment is limited. We only open twice a year. So be sure to get all of the information on this by jumping on the waitlist at www.gradetransformation.com/nextlevel if you are interested. But only if your teen has completed the 10 Week Grade Transformation Programme. This is only open to students who have completed the programme. And then keep an eye on your emails. Check spam folders if you need to, to get all of that info. Because inside of Next Level coaching, your teen gets instant access to every programme, every training, every challenge that I have ever run, including Essays Bootcamp and gets to come to our up-coming advanced live event happening online on 7th May. And all of that is on top of getting coached personally by me and by Gemma.
But I really wanted to get Gemma on the podcast so that all of you, no matter where your teen is at, benefit from her insights and expertise. So here is Gemma Toms, English focus coach, Shakespeare ninja, literature lover and examination extraordinaire.
K: Gemma Toms, welcome to the podcast.
G: Thank you for having me.
K: It's a pleasure. I'm very excited to talk about a lot of things all to do with English, and a little bit to do with how that relates to study strategy and techniques and tips and all the things that we love to talk about here, so tell us a little bit about why obviously you love English, but particularly what you love about English teaching and coaching.
G: I think the main reason I love English as the subject is because it’s that idea of not having a definitive answer. I know for a lot of students that's what's frustrating about English.
K: That is my worst nightmare!
G: No definitive answer. So I think that gives you the opportunity to read around the idea and the subject. So therefore you get to express your own opinion. There is no right or wrong, so long as you can justify what you're talking about, and there's evidence to support it. That is why I love the subject, and then, when I decided to teach and coach, it's the idea of sharing that enthusiasm. I'm a strong believer that if your teacher is enthusiastic and passionate about something then you're going to learn. So that was one of my first reasons. I wanted to share those experiences with others.
The coaching part is about, not only working with those students that love reading, because to be honest a lot of teenagers don't and I appreciate that. So it’s to work with those…
K: We’ll get into that for sure!
G: I know Katie can relate to that. So inspiring those average readers and giving them opportunities to develop and, you know, really extend themselves. But mainly really to build the confidence with those students that think no, I don't like reading. I can't read that whole novel. And I think that's one of my real motivations in coaching is making them see you do have the confidence. You don't have to enjoy reading to get the results and deal with the text your teacher throws at you. You know you have to study the text at school but it's making them, you know, those unnatural readers, the non autonomous readers, realise that actually, yeah, I can do this. I can break it down. I can understand what I think is this massive, you know, minefield of ideas. So overcoming those barriers.
And I love those light bulb moments with the students that don't enjoy reading, and they actually finally get something. Like, Oh, yeah, I do understand what they are saying. So that's really the coaching part of it. Building confidence really.
K: I love that. Like you said, I can definitely relate to this, because I never hated reading. I definitely enjoyed reading when I was young. love that sort of hated ring I definitely enjoy doing when I was young. I'll tell you the thing that did it for me, which sounds really awful, especially talking to an English teacher! But I think the thing that switched me off from reading was that forced reading. I literally remember, you know, being sent home and them saying that you've got to read the next few chapters by Monday, and just that forced, no pleasure behind it, having to be under pressure to read a certain amount by a certain time. That was the thing that I didn't love. And I will tell you, like you said, the whole breaking it down and having maybe some systems behind it or having some steps, I actually, as someone who didn't hate English but reading wasn't my thing. I actually enjoyed more having to study things like Shakespeare, because I kind of treated it a little bit more like a science. Like I would dissect it and be looking like hey, this means this, this means this, and that suited me more. So that's kind of interesting. What would you say to parents who are maybe a little bit concerned, or just wish that their teen was more into reading than they are at the moment?
G: I think one of the interesting things you said there was that forced, and I know a lot of schools over here in the UK, we studyDickens' 'A Christmas Carol' and over the Christmas holidays they're told to read Dickens' 'A Christmas Carol'. I’m like, no, that is the biggest thing...
K: I remember this with Oliver.
G: Honestly, it’s a Christmas Carol, it’s so dense. It’s the christmas holidays first of all, you want to enjoy it and want to read for pleasure if you’re doing any reading. But a text like that is short but so dense. So I think what parents need to do, if that is something that is given, to read the text that is a challenging text then look what else is out there. So I've had some really reluctant readers who, especially with Shakespeare, say they do some amazing, graphic novels. So there's so much more out there now than when we were in high school that you know, look for a graphic novel, look for a, you know, a reputable TV adaptation or a stage play. Obviously don't just go and watch anything, you need to sort of research on that. But using the study guides, especially when they get to the stage, where they may be near exams. You know I wouldn't say go and reread the whole text.
You know you've read the text. You've done the text in class. Now look what else is out there, and if you're struggling, your teacher should be able to give you that guidance as to well, this is a really good revision guide. This is a good bit of further reading if they wanted to read something further. And yeah, I suppose you said it. The idea of making it accessible…
K: And I think, if I can just jump in there for half a second, because this is something that you know, it's one of those things that I often talk about students doing study in inverted commas, that keeps them busy and feels productive, but probably isn't the best thing to do, and I think rereading the text is one of those things. So many students will say ‘I'm just going to reread the text’. And maybe as part of their revision. But what Gemma has just said are some of the other ways that are going to be much more useful and much more effective for students to maybe prepare for an assessment, or even just gain a firmer, more solid understanding of the text than literally just reading it. And one of the things I often also talk about. I don't know, in fact, It’s a great question to ask you Gemma. It’s one of the things I sometimes say to students is almost to have a look at some of those things beforehand, so they actually know what they're expecting in the text. Is that something you would agree with? Because I think sometimes we read something and it's not really going in, because we're not really sure what we are supposed to be getting out of it.
G: Most definitely. You know, type that into a Google search, that particular theme and see what they're saying about Macbeth, and you know his greed, for example, and quotations. You know. Then you'll be given small quotations that then you can then identify when you read it. I think a lot of teachers do this, but just making sure if they are not that we are doing it individually, picking out the parts of the text so you can then track it through.
I think that's really important when it comes to a substantial text that you know what you're looking for, your eyes are opened, and the other thing is now with your teen, you know, we’ve talked about forced reading. They don't have to like everything. When I was at high school, I was like, yeah, I have to like every book I'm studying, you know. I need to be that good student. I need to show I really love this book. I remember studying a book by James Joyce - Ulysses. I had to do it for my degree and I hated it. I don't think I ever finished it. I will be honest and by what Katie just said there, about looking at the text before you read it, hopefully you'll find something that interests you. You want to get that interest, and there was something like Romeo and Juliet, where you've got that conflict and fighting. You know, it's really tense, research it, like Kate was saying, then you'll see actually what's going on and then you can deal with the difficult language.
K: Yeah, I think my 2 tips on that are always like the main focus is always gonna be about the characters or the themes. So if that's what you go away and have a look at, in terms of your study guides, go and check out what are the key themes and what are the key, let's say issues or things, we should be getting about the character, like what kind of person are they? Or what sort of changes do they see? Because what I’ve found then is, if you read that, and you see it pop up in the novel or in the play, or in the text you're like, oh, okay, I see this happening, I get where this is going, and it clicks and it stays in your head more.
G: Most definitely. And the thing with that again, if it's overwhelming that I'm having to do plays and poetry and novels, I don't like any of that. It all overlaps. The skills are the same, irrelevant of what text you're looking at, even if it's a history text and you're looking at historical stimulus or something. You are still applying those same skills of interpretation and analysis, evaluation to whatever text you're looking at.
K: That's a really good point, because that really ties in now, quite nicely, to your experience as an examiner, as a marker, as I know you've been a lead marker. I know you're involved in a lot of the sort of reviews and the feedback as well, that are given on exams and this is one of the reasons why I basically got Gemma on board with us, at Rock Solid Study, and asked her to be our English focused coach, because not only does she have a huge amount of experience in high quality high school teaching and tutoring, but also has the most amount of experience I know of anyone in terms of their work with exam boards and the assessment and the formal assessment, external examinations, side of things. So, first of all, what made you decide to go and do some work with exam boards in the first place?
G: To be honest, in all honesty, the main reason was that I took a short break from my teaching career to bring up my family, and I still wanted to keep my mind active and keep my heart in education. I didn't want to totally walk away from it. I couldn’t juggle being a teacher and having 2 young kids. I wanted to keep doing something, so that was the main reason and the reason I don't think I will ever give it up, is that those benefits of you know, I now know what the students need to do. Actually, what they need to do in those exams, how they can actually do that. It's one of the things that is really close to my heart. I think it’s so valuable for any educator. And really importantly, for the students to appreciate as well, I think it's why they're doing it.
Especially for those learners that don't want to really study English. They don't see the point of studying it. You know this is why you're doing it and this is why the examiners want you to be able to do it, and it's allowed me to really understand certain areas. So I'll give you an example. We know this idea of context always comes up with literature. So what was going on during the time Dickens or Shakespeare was writing? So what you find is the students end up writing a whole paragraph at the beginning of their exam about social historical context. As an examiner, I will scan it just to see if there's any nuggets, but 9 times out of 10 there isn’t.
K: Wow! This is perfect because this is starting to see, you know, this is where we get to hear what's really going on behind the scenes. This is what we want to know.
G: Exactly. I've actually just led a training session with the department I work in at the moment on this idea of what the exam board want with context. Because they all felt that's what we needed. And it's like, no, I almost hang my head in horror. It's not what we need. So it's more about the idea of the influences. So yes, social, historical but also, what about the context of the extract within the text as a whole? Is it at the beginning? Is it in the middle? Is it in the end? Where is it happening in the context of the play? Also, like the messages of the writer. What are their perspectives, their viewpoints? Not just the writing in a patriarchal society, whatever it might be.
So there's a real misconception and being the examiner and a senior examiner, I get to train other examiners. That has actually really helped me, and the students, realise what we're looking for as examiners. And it's so different, I think, to what the education system is teaching them. And it's a shame, because if you don't know the outcome, how are you ever going to get there?
K: That's so true. If teachers aren't like fully getting this, you know, how are the students supposed to?
G: I think the why is so important. Why am I having to study Shakespeare? Why am I having to dissect this quote and tell you what it means?
K: Well, let's answer that! Can you tell us? Just for a second? Let's diverge or divert over and just talk like, why are, I'm sure so many students would love to ask this question and probably some parents as well, why are we still studying Shakespeare?
G:And the same text that I studied, you know, 30 years ago? It's the same texts. My opinion of it, you know, I can't speak for the powers that be, but my opinion is that they’re universal themes that actually transcend any generation. I know I keep talking about Shakespeare, if you know me. Like, yeah, I'm a bit of a Shakespeare lover. But you've got that conflict in love, in Romeo and Juliet. You've got, you know, the idea of ambition and greed to get what you want in Macbeth. So you've got all these things that actually resonate in today's society. And a little story here. I went to the cinema yesterday with my children and there was a trailer that resonated with me, in terms of why we still study Shakespeare, and there's a new film coming out, by Disney, called Elemental. And the trailer had this little fire girl. So a girl made out of fire, and then a water boy, so a boy made out of water. So all the characters are linked to an element. And they obviously are going to fall in love with each other but they can't hold hands. They can't be together because they're different elements. I was like, oh my goodness, this is Romeo and Juliet in the context, for children, to understand diversity and different backgrounds and challenges. And that's a Disney film that's coming out.
You've got Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses which some teens and parents may be familiar with. That is the Romeo and Juliet story retold. So, you know, I think we have to appreciate there are universal themes. These key messages, that actually, they still resonate with today's society. And I think that's one of the biggest reasons I feel it's important. I suppose also history, you know I learn a lot. I always say to my students, I'm not a historian, so don’t come and start challenging me on the Cold War. You know, anything like that. But I know it through a text. So you know, John Steinbeck is one of my favourite writers, and I know about what was going on in the Great Depression in America's deep South because of him. So I think the historical context you get from literature as well is, is so important.
K: Okay, perfect. Let's also talk for a moment then, so we talk about like Shakespearean and some of those heavier, you know, older style texts, some of the things that students maybe get overwhelmed by, maybe dread, let's talk about another thing that they sometimes get overwhelmed by, and maybe dread. Can we talk a little about essays? Because this is obviously something that sometimes students are maybe set to do in class. They often, I know, will spend hours and hours and hours on them for homework, and also sometimes procrastinate for hours and hours and hours! And sometimes, other times, they may have to write, you know, 2 whole essays in 2 hours, or something in an Exam. Is there any advice that you have for parents on helping their teens when they've got an essay to do at home?
G: That was definitely me, the procrastinator! I've got to write this essay. I'm a stickler for words, and the word essay says to me straight away, does make me clam up a little bit. And I feel overwhelmed. So I think one of the key things that we need to encourage our teens not to do, is don't try and include everything. You're given this question about a particular text, you are like, right I've got to impress the examiner or my teacher here, and I've got to include everything I've learned over the course of the study of this text. And it's not. You know, we want to get a really strong thesis as soon as we sit down. Now I’m a big advocate here for, I think the thesis and introduction actually come towards the end. Even though you've got to write it in the beginning, of course you do. I think it comes towards the end, because if we sit there, and I've done this, I've sat there for ages with the blank piece of paper with my question there, and I've tried to come up with that opening inspirational line that's going to grab my teacher… no! Okay, how can I do that effectively if I haven't gathered my evidence? If I haven't actually gone back to my class notes, got my quotations that I need? So I think it's the idea of looking for evidence, synthesizing all that before you come to write your thesis.
K: That's it. Because I think otherwise, we sort of we sit down to write an introduction and we don't know what we're introducing yet. So I absolutely agree. I often say like, write the intro last, not literally at the end of your essay, but think about everything, at least plan, that's the reason why we have to plan extended responses. But that's a whole other conversation. But we've got to know what we're writing about, because that is often a reason why students do struggle to get started, why they procrastinate, why they feel like they don't really know what they're writing. You've got to know what we're introducing first, and we've got to like you, said, gather that evidence. Figure out what is that answer even going to be? The answer comes from looking at the quotes and looking at the evidence.
G: I often get students say ‘I won't have space in my exam, because I would have written my first paragraph’. Just leave a block at the top, you know. It doesn't have to be ultra neat in an exam. We appreciate that you're going to be moving things around. So just leave a chunk for a paragraph at the top, and go back and fill it in. But yeah, you mentioned planning because that is one of my biggest tips as well. We feel with English, especially, I think. And maybe history. That there's no formula to it. And as a student I didn't think there was a formula. I'm an English lover, not a mathematician. I've got my grades working hard in maths, but I used to feel that there wasn't a formula for English. It's just creative. It's just ideas. But there is. There is a structure, there is a formula, and chunking it down and planning it is so important.
Again, a little story, something I've done with my students here. I’ve given them a practice question. I said right, you’ve got your exam in 4 weeks. Plan this question. That's your question in the exams, then 5, 10 minutes planning. Examples, actual words they are going to use. Rather than just writing, I'm going to use a simile. Tell me what that simile is. Write the example down.
K: Yes, yes. There has got to be so much more detail in that plan than most students think. It’s like, oh, I'm gonna have a quote. I'm like, what quote? Tell me the quote. You need to know before you start writing, because otherwise, it just takes up an awful lot of time. Or you start writing and then you realise there isn't a quote for this, I probably should have written this instead.
G:Yes and that's happened to me in exams where I haven't got a quote and I'm trying to find a quote and it doesn't come.
K: Oh, my goodness, I always remember you talking about that. Did you have an exam one time, I'm sure you've talked about this on a coaching call once before with students, and you are determined to find this quote or something like that?
G: That's yeah, this is an experience that sticks with me from high school, and even today is vivid in my mind because I didn't quite get the grade in my final exams that I felt I deserved and I was predicted. I think this is what let me down. So it was a King Lear, Shakespeare's King Lear exam. I studied the play for 2 years. So I knew the play pretty well, and I wanted to find a quote about the fool, the character of the fool. And I knew it was in the play now, even back in the day when we had open book exams, so we could take the books in. Now this will be a different podcast because I do not agree with those exams because it made me rely on the book, and I spent 15 to 20 minutes trying to find one quotation about the fool. Literally 15 to 20 minutes in a timed exam! I never found that quote. So you know, I was then all flustered because I couldn't find it. I knew it was in there.
Now with hindsight, knowing what I know now in terms of strategies and so on, how important was that quote to my overall essay? It would have been better for me to have actually spent that time developing my argument. Maybe even misquoting or paraphrasing. Earlier in the play, when the fool comments on, you know, I don't have to have a direct quote.
K: I was, gonna say, that's the tip, isn't it? if a student doesn't have an exact quote, they can still make reference to a time and that still counts as evidence, because, remember, evidence doesn't have to be a quote. Evidence is any reference to the text.
G: And that's the word I tend to use for my students, as you know, how many references, you can allude to something in a text. Yes, we need some quotations, but we can just refer to something as long as we can jump around that text and we know that text.
K: And you did mention. You just said the words, and I'll pick this out for people that like this would be useful for them to hear, is that jump around the text. That one of the other things that counts, as you know, a good variety of evidence. However, they word it in mark schemes, is like you said, jump around so you want a variety of references, let's call them from different parts of the text as well, so that might help students in determining or choosing which things they’re going to use in that response.
G: Yeah, definitely it gets back to that tracking we talked about earlier as well, you know, that knowing what's going on throughout that text. And definitely the top responses, you know, those high level responses are going to be able to do that. So yeah, that's a harrowing experience. But I still remember to this day, and I can't tell you that quote, because I never found it! So I still don't know it to this day.
K: Oh, man! And you just mentioned like hey, there's this thing for the top responses, have you got like one or two other things that people can take away from this? A parent who's got a teen who really is going for those top marks, top grades, are there a couple of general things? Obviously, you know, each thing is going to be specific to whatever question they get, but are there a couple of things, you know, like making sure they've got evidence from a variety of parts of the text, anything else that you could share for those top students, and then maybe we'll talk about a couple of things for students who may struggle a bit more?
G: Yes, so definitely the idea of patterns. I always use that word. So we talk about the tracking through the text. So, looking for those patterns within a text so it could be the beginning of the text, at the end of the text. Even a short extract, you know. Is there a particular word or motif that is repeated through? And you can talk about why that's being used. So I think it's making those linkages and looking for patterns rather than going chronologically through the text. So the top responses really need to look for patterns.
The other thing I always say to my students is, don't over stretch yourself. Now you think because you want to get a top response, you've got to look for the more ambiguous examples, and I had an example the other day that there was an amazing simile in this text. The students that struggled a bit, they could have talked about it. But the students that really wanted to get the top responses could really delve deeply into that simile. But they were trying to find paradox or hyperbole, and I’m like, there is a simile jumping out at you. So I think the key there is not to try too hard to find difficult examples. Use those obvious examples, but it's what you do with them that gets you those marks. And that's when you bring in that perceptive analysis. Really dig deep into that example. So it's not so much the examples you choose than what you do with it.
K: I think that is so good, because I often say to students, there are no bonus points on the mark scheme for choosing the most unique or different, or like you said, that obscure or ambiguous example. Now, yes, there are going to be some marks for having variety and well chosen evidence but if you have just chosen something because you think it's unique, and that's the same thing with coming up with ideas, we haven't talked about this much, but we'll touch on it now. We talked a lot about like analyzing texts, about all the reading and all of that but you don't need to come up with the most unique storyline if you are writing a short story. You just need to have a storyline that fulfills the criteria. Maybe it links to the stimulus, so it has some kind of message or theme to it and then it's all about like you said, like, what do you do with that? How well you use all the literary devices, let's just say.
Let's just talk about that for a second. What's your sort of thoughts or experience around some of those more creative pieces? Maybe they've got to write a short story. Maybe they've got to come up with a persuasive speech. Maybe they've got to discuss a topical issue. Have there been any examples of things that you've seen with that or tips that you would give around those sorts of tasks? Especially for maybe for people who let's talk about, those people who don't feel like you know English is not my thing I'm not creative. I can't just come up with an amazing story like really well, or in a sophisticated way, if it’s not my skill set.
G: And to be honest, I can relate to that. As you know, from what we've talked about so far, I am more literature, the analysis side of it and the thought of writing a story, even now, overwhelms me a bit. But one of the top things I always say, and this depends on the exam that you're doing. But some of the exams have a reading task and a writing task and the extract is always linked to the writing task. So I always say, you know, be a magpie, take some of those techniques, those ideas, and put it into your own writing. And that doesn't mean just regurgitate the whole thing. But, for example, if there is that motif I was talking about, for that, those top responses if there is that motif and I don't know, they'd used the raven as a symbol of death at the beginning and then at the end, and you do something like that and have that image, that in the first paragraph you’d talked about you know that particular metaphor, and then used it at the end of the paragraph.
Another thing I always like is that you have a one sentence paragraph, and that can go into anything. That can go into a persuasive piece or creative narrative. You need to think about where it goes. For persuasion that might be at the end, because it’s a nice powerful ending. A story, it may be more in the middle to suggest that moment of tension, but I always encourage my students to have a one sentence paragraph because it suggests that you are actually thinking about the structure. Okay, you may not be, because your teachers just told you to put it in there, but it suggests that you've thought about the structure.
Another thing, but we seem to forget when we are writing a text is verbs. Now this is going right back to primary school, you know, our lower years, when we learn about doing words. But we forget about them, at you know, in high school. They are so powerful. So if you struggle to write, really focus on the choice of verbs you're using. So if you want something to be really dramatic, make sure you're using those verbs to do that. And again, that could come from your editing when you're reading it through and you're like, this isn't dramatic enough, I'm going to cross it out and change that verb. But verbs are really, really powerful.
K: It's almost like treating it like a checklist. Have I got this? Have I got this? Have I got a one sentence paragraph? Are my verbs well chosen? Let's just call it the classic like better word than said - yelled, screamed, whispered, and going through and doing that editing, making those changes and that's why it’s so important to leave time, even in an examination situation, because you can literally make the changes. And I think that whole idea of like I don't want my writing to be messy. We absolutely expect there to be crossing outs, arrows, asterisk, changes - because we literally read, what is there to be read at the end of your writing and we don't expect it to look perfect. So, therefore, making some of those changes to up level the language used, or the vocabulary is really beneficial.
G: And I think another sort of top tip really for those struggling writers like myself, the people it doesn't come naturally to is that when you are rereading back through at the end to do your editing, have a look at how you're starting your sentences, because you'll notice if it gets quite boring and quite ploddy, or I call it pedestrian. It's because you're starting the sentence the same way. I mean the dog, the cat, the man, so it's the subject all the time. So another really easy way, if when you reread it, think well, no, I've got ‘the’ at the beginning of every sentence. How can I change it? Can I put an adverb in? Can I put a verb in? Can I use a connective?
The more natural writers will do that automatically. But those of us that you know struggle a bit creatively, we won't. But you'll notice that when you read it yourself, you, as the reader, you will notice that it is a bit boring, a bit pedestrian, so you can cross it out one line through and then rewrite it.
K: That's a really good piece of advice and a really good tip for the parents listening, who sometimes have their teen say ‘can you please read through this and give me some help or see if it's okay?’ Those are the words that they use. So actually taking some of these on board for yourself as the parent will be really helpful in knowing how to really support and guide your teen knowing what the examiners like Gemma are looking for.
G: That's a great idea is to get your teen to share it with you, because ultimately, the reader needs to understand what they've written. And you can be that reader. That's a really good use of the time as well before you submit a piece of work.
K: Beautiful. And before we wrap up, one of the questions that I do get asked fairly regularly, actually, from parents is: what reading could they get their teen to do? What would you say is some of the best things to try and get their teen to read, to maybe extend you know, their vocabulary, or just help them have a bigger experience of other people's writing to help them become more confident in their own writing? Is there anything you could suggest around that?
G: I think it's really important, we mentioned earlier, about that idea of interest. Especially if the reluctant readers, I often you know, I'm thinking of that stereotypical teenage boy that loves sports, that wants to be outside playing, you know, playing football rather than reading, I very often get them to look at blogs. So sports websites but to find blogs that link to their passion. Because that is still reading. And we need to read nonfiction and fiction texts. So actually, a way in, it's always those nonfiction texts on an interest that that you know, they really enjoy. So that's one of the things I would say.
Audio books. So, I've never got on with audio books. I will be honest, but I know loads of colleagues that love them. Again, rather than thinking I've got to sit down and read, to open my eyes for all these things I can find a way in, and I could be listening to podcasts like this to experience it.
The other thing I would suggest that actually, this is something I'm suggesting to a student at the moment is looking at more short story collections. Rather than looking at a whole novel that you may find you don't connect with. That you might find overwhelming, short stories is a really good way in. Now, Ray Bradbury is one of my favorite writers, and he does a lot of science fiction short stories. And again, you know you may find you read one that you don't connect with but I pretty much guarantee there will be something in some of the collections that you will. And again, they're very relevant to today’s society. So short stories I think are really important. And again, that could be nonfiction based on the topic that you enjoy. You know, it could be fiction on stories of a different genre. So I think, having those collections available rather than just reading a novel or sitting down to read the play. That’s just unrealistic.
K: Yeah, I think that's a really, really good point. I think it just takes away a lot of the dauntingness from, you know, a 200 page book in front of you takes that away a little bit.
G: And someone like Ray Bradbury then does write novels. So you may find you then connect and you think, okay, then, actually now, I've really enjoyed that. I'm going to look at his novels. So it maybe is that bridge into actually then doing the text that you know we're expected to do at school.
K: Excellent. So is there anything that we haven't talked about that you would love to share with listeners?
G: I think one of the key things is, why do I have to study English? I'm never going to watch Shakespeare or become an actor, whatever it might be, and I think it’s that question, how is it relevant? How does it transfer to other subjects? And I think it's that idea of history that I've talked about. But you’ve also got all those other universal skills like your cognitive skills, you’re developing those. Your critical thinking, the problem solving. Your reading. Your analysis. All those skills are encompassing our English studies just as they are in other subjects like maths and science.
You've got those intrapersonal skills like that idea of curiosity reflecting. Challenging ideas.
You've got all those sorts of things going on as well. One of my biggest ones is the idea of empathy and understanding others. Now I've been open to so many different cultures and experiences. I've actually just read a short story collection all about motherhoods and seeing perspectives of what it is to be a mother from different cultures, different situations that I’m in and it was really uplifting and enlightening. So the idea of being able to have that social awareness. I think if we take away English, you know, and I know Katie and I have spoken about it before. And over here they are actually stopping a lot of English degrees at university level. But it infuriates me, I think if we take it away a lot of that, that idea of awareness and empathy of others, other societies, cultures, differences and all those sorts of things. It is transferable between subjects, and I don’t think students necessarily see that. They just see it as reading and writing. It’s so much more than that.
K: Yes, that's so true, like you said, there's so many different facets to it.
Gemma, thank you so much for sharing your wisdom, your experience with us. It has been such a pleasure to have you on the podcast. I know it's been so useful to so many people, and we are really grateful to have you as our English focus coach and be able to help students in detail with their study every single week. So thank you again. Have a wonderful rest of your week, and for everyone listening, have a great week, and we'll see you back here next week on the podcast. Take care, bye.