Word Cloud Generators

Nothing new here: just a few links to various online word cloud generators.

Wordle is the best-known and most widely used application.

Tagul Clouds allows you to put your words into a custom shape, to use a variety of fonts, and to orientate the words in a variety of ways.  Here is an example drawn from my recent article about the Times Festival of Education:


Tagxedo is a similar package, but has a different variety of shapes on offer: it would lend itself well to Biology and the Humanities as it includes the outlines of countries, plants and animals.

VocabGrabber takes a all this a step further by analysing the text you want to feature in your word cloud.

Theme mats

Teaching within a fixed timetable, we inevitably have to deliver information in manageable chunks.  Given that this is the case, how do we help pupils to see the bigger picture?  Do we try to gradually build this up as we go, or do we wait until all the information is in place, then take a step back from it?  I am most acutely aware of this problem when teaching literature, and I have tried all sorts of different approaches.  The one I’m about to outline is a recent addition to the repertoire, and I was pleased with how well it got the students to start talking about the whole text, rather than just specific episodes within it …

We read the play Antigone fairly quickly, pausing only to confirm basic understanding or to clarify important background information.  Once we had finished, I asked the pupils to get into groups of three or four and discuss the images below.  Their aim was to discuss what ideas the image seemed to convey, and then think of a way of linking these ideas to the play.  I had chosen some of the images in the hope of eliciting certain points from the class, and others at random, just to see where they took the students.

As with all new ideas, I was worried this might be a total flop, and was reassured to see the students become quite animated in their discussions of the images, and of how they might relate to the play.  Before long, they were talking about key themes such as death, relationships, power, pride and pain and realising for themselves just how complex Sophocles’ exploration of these was.

I will certainly be repeating this idea.  Perhaps the next step will be to get the pupils creating “theme mats” of their own …

theme map

On the Level # 6 – Less marking, more DIRT, better progress

The more I contemplate and discuss possible approaches to life after levels, the more I find myself thinking that my own subject might have some good practice to share.  I don’t know why it has taken me so long to reach this conclusion – after all, Classical subjects have never been part of the National Curriculum and so they have never had any National Curriculum levels.  No wonder we’ve already got a workable alternative in place!

Our approach involves plenty of DIRT.  What am I talking about?  And what’s its relevance to assessment without levels?  All will be revealed … 

DIRT is one of those lovely acronyms which the educational world is so fond of.  It is short for Dedicated Improvement and Reflection Time – which is one of those fancy terms the educational world is also fond of.  Both the term and the acronym are relatively new, but the principles associated with them will be familiar to all good teachers.  Essentially, DIRT is all about setting aside time, either in lessons or otherwise, for pupils to actively engage with the feedback they receive, hopefully improving their knowledge, understanding and skills as a result.

We have been doing this in the Classics department for several years now, and it certainly makes a difference.  You may be doing something similar already, but in case you’re not I will explain here how we use DIRT in our teaching, and you can decide whether it might be both possible and desirable to adapt it for use in your subject.  I’ll take you through our typical approach to teaching a new language point to a Latin class.  I will offer some examples of Y10 work to support this, but these principles work just as well in KS3.

1. Pupils work with a passage of Latin which contains a language feature they have never seen before.  After they’ve worked out what the passage is about, we ask them questions or set them activities designed to help them spot the new feature for themselves, and then we encourage them to explain what they think is happening.

2. After this, we formally explain the new feature, working together on a few more examples to help clarify the idea.

3. The pupils complete independent or group activities designed to help the idea really set in.  They self-assess or peer-assess this work.  We check understanding by asking them to share their marks (“Hands up if you got more than 7/10!”) or by asking them to verbally explain how they arrived at their answers (“How did you know that a command was being given?”), and so on.  I often use lollypop sticks and Pose, Pause, Pounce, Bounce at this stage – see the page on “Class discussions” for more on this.  We then ask the pupils to record in their own words what they have learned – DIRT part 1!   Here are some examples – click on the images in order to enlarge them and read the pupils’ comments.  More text below!


4. Having got the basic idea by this stage, we do something completely different for a while, and then in a subsequent lesson we will do a refresher activity on the new feature, often as a starter.  This break is worked in deliberately because research has shown that new learning is processed most effectively when it is moved away from and then returned to in this way – ideally about 2-3 days after the initial encounter.

5. We ask the pupils to prepare for an assessment on the new language feature.  We offer advice on how to do this, and over time each student will develop approaches which work well for them.

6. Pupils sit a short assessment containing 5 Latin sentences.  First the pupils have to work on the Latin in some way (e.g. underline a certain type of word, add in a missing word or complete a word): this will relate solely to the new language feature.  Next the pupils have to translate the sentences into English.  This will require them to deal with the new feature, and also to pull in previous learning, so that old ideas are not forgotten.  We allow them about 5 minutes for them to do these tests, and it takes us about 10-15 minutes to mark a full set.  In Y10 & 11, we use GCSE marking criteria and grade-boundaries – we would have no trouble doing the same in KS3 too.  One of the reasons the marking is so quick is that we correct nothing.  Instead we highlight the bits of Latin they have got wrong, and maybe add a question or two to help them work out why.

7. We return the scripts to the pupils and tell them to make corrections.  There is also an extension task to provide an extra challenge for those who made very few mistakes.  DIRT part 2 has begun.  Pupils are only given two or three minutes to do this, and are expected to use the Brain-Book-Buddy-Boss approach to work out what they need to change (see the page on “Resilience” for more details on this).  After a couple of minutes we go through the answers together, naturally spending more time on any areas which caused the pupils particular problems pupils.  Again, click on the images to enlarge them.  More text below!


8. The pupils now fill in their “Progress Record”.  They note the name of the language feature and the score they achieved, and then they comment on the key points they need to remember in the future – this is DIRT part 3.   This is something they tend to get better at with practice.  As before, click on the images to enlarge.  More text below!


9. As you can see from the above examples. we take in and read their progress records to check that the pupils are making appropriate notes.

10. When it is time to sit a bigger assessment such as an exam, we encourage the pupils to make sure their progress records are used to help bring focus to their revision – reminding them of key learning points, and highlighting areas which are likely to need extra attention.  This is DIRT part 4!

Pupils sit these tests roughly every 4 lessons, so we’ve always got plenty of data to hand whenever we need to comment on their progress.  More importantly, our approach to assessment really helps the pupils to build a sound overall understanding of the subject.

This may all seem very formulaic: in terms of structure it certainly is, and deliberately so – the more familiar the pupils become with the format, the more expert they become at getting the most out of their DIRT.  Despite the repetitive nature of the approach, it doesn’t feel boring or unproductive, because we use plenty of variety in our teaching and in the activities we set.  The pupils enjoy these opportunities to check that they are making good progress, they prepare sensibly for the assessments, they take the reflection time seriously, and all of this helps to keep their confidence high despite the many challenges this subject can present.

Do you already do something similar in your subject?  Can you share any extra thinking on this?  If not, is there scope for your subject to take on this sort of approach, probably with some adaptation?  Could we have here one potential strand in an effective approach to life without levels?  As always, please do share your comments and questions!



BBC Learning Zone


The BBC has created an online library of short video clips specifically for secondary school teachers to use in their lessons, covering a vast range of topics.  If you haven’t yet discovered it, click here.

Mentor Mats

Mark Miller recommends “Mentor Mats” as a way of helping students to appreciate and emulate certain styles of writing.  He has English in mind, but the idea could work with any subject where extended writing is required. Click here for more details.

Mentor Mat 1

Simple Starters # 8 – Mystery Guest

A little competition is always good for warming the class up.  In this activity pupils are given clues to help them identify a “mystery guest”.  The first clue should be deliberately vague or ambiguous, and each subsequent clue should be a little more precise, with the final clue being a dead giveaway. If pupils get the answer on the last clue, they should score one point, if they get it on the second to last clue then they score 2 points, and so on.

This starter could just be used as a quick recap activity, but it can also provide a good introduction to exploring key themes.  For example, in English literature the first clue for one guest could be “somebody who has fallen out with a close relative”, and then the same clue could be used for an entirely different guest, thereby highlighting just how often family strife is central to tragic events.

For those who don’t teach English literature or subjects where “mystery guests” are easy to come up with, it is worth bearing in mind that it doesn’t actually have to be a person – it could just as easily be an “item”, a “theme” or a “topic”, though these might require a little more imagination!

Simple starters # 5 – Press Conference

This starter certainly lends itself to topics where specific events are important, but with a bit of imagination it can work in other areas too.

You are about to hold a press conference. As the pupils come in, give them their press passes, stating which media organisation they represent. Tell them to get their pencils ready as an important announcement is about to be made and their editors are expecting a full report from them.

press conference

Give the students a brief outline of the “event” – by no means the full story – and then ask if there are any questions. Initially they may be slow to get going, and you may need to drop a few “hooks” into the answers you give them.

This can be a surprisingly effective way to deliver a lot of content in a short space of time, and in a way which really engages the students.