Teach Like an Elizabethan Champion – Part 3

If you’ve read the first two posts and the suggested links in this series, you will hopefully now have:

In this final post, I’d like to examine how Elizabethan pedagogy relating to rhetoric compares to more recent approaches to the teaching of persuasive and argument writing. I’ll explore, a little, why these differences may have emerged and finish up by outlining a methodology we’ll be trying out to teach the art of rhetoric more traditionally and thoroughly.

What’s school like now Daddy?

As I’ve mentioned here, my training and early teaching experience were largely informed by the National Strategies. One of the key drivers of change which the Strategies team produced and which a combination of Ofsted, exam boards, publishers and SLTs were complicit in supporting was a set of different teaching sequences. Here’s the teaching sequence for writing.

Teaching Sequence For Writing

Pages 3-10 of this document (Teaching for Progression – Writing) take you through the suggested processes far more thoroughly if you’re unfamiliar with them.

So, where are the similarities and differences between this method and the classical model of teaching rhetoric?

To some extent, this is a false comparison as it assumes that all Elizabethan teachers used the process I described in my previous post and that all teachers in the early part of this century used the National Strategy’s processes unquestioningly and without adaptation. Neither of these is true, but I still think it worth making the comparison as these were the prevalent models of teaching persuasion or rhetoric in their respective time periods.

In terms of similarities, both processes involved providing examples; the teaching of specific conventions and their definitions; the teacher demonstrating and explaining the writing process and the student ultimately participating in independent writing, following some scaffolding.

The two key differences lie, I think, in:

  1. The structured collation of knowledge in the form of relevant quotations and moral lessons in the classical model’s commonplace notebook. This is not present as clearly in the National Strategies guidance.
  2. The concepts of rhetorical exercises in the Progymnasmata and repetition of rhetorical drills. This is arguably implicit in the “Compose Together” section, but I don’t recall any adviser I worked with or any school I went into arguing for repetition, repeated practice or drills for fluency in English lessons.

In fact, often the opposite was the case. That is to say, the advice was often given that “pace” required variety rather than repetition.

However, the context in which these sequences were used is important here too, not just the sequences themselves.

In the 90s and early 00s, the government (through the SATs exams) the exam boards (through the GCSE papers) and the National Strategy (through their materials) promoted something called writing triplets. Genres of text were divided up into:

  • Argue, Persuade, Advise
  • Inform, Explain, Describe
  • Explore, Imagine, Entertain
  • Analyse, Review, Comment

A successful Year 9 student needed to know the “conventions” of these twelve, arbitrarily devised text types and make use of them in two different writing tasks. At GCSE level, if you took the AQA paper, this was reduced further. Only the first two triplets listed above appeared on the exam papers and students knew that there would be a question on each, so often only the arbitrarily defined conventions for persuasion and description were taught. These conventions were often reduced to a single poster of techniques like this:

Persuasion Poster

Alternatively, a ‘handy’ mnemonic, such as AFOREST, may have been used.

  • Alliteration
  • Facts/Forceful phrases
  • Opinions
  • Repetition
  • Exaggeration
  • Statistics
  • Threes

It would be difficult to argue, when compared with teaching the full range of classical rhetorical principles, devices and structures that this is not dumbing down.

The writing tasks were not the only place where assessment led to this race to the bottom. Persuasive texts in the reading sections of the GCSE papers were, more often than not, either adverts, magazine covers, occasionally a tabloid article or rarely a broadsheet editorial. This led, I believe, teachers to be less likely to expose their students to the amazing range of rhetorical texts from the past. In addition to this, assessment criteria and the drive for C grades led the development of teacher subject knowledge to focus on strategies to push students over the D/C borderline rather than to be more aspirational. If students are only being taught a limited range of devices to be successful at C grade (in the style of AFOREST) then it’s less likely that, in struggling schools at least, the development of teacher subject knowledge will go beyond this. Finally, I think that the concept of rapid progress which was pushed for by Ofsted often led to a rush through the National Strategies teaching sequence so that there was a risk that students would actually be exposed to fewer genuinely high quality models of writing and write only relatively short snippets.

What are you going to do about it?

One of the key things which we’ve done this year is to remove the focus from individual lessons and towards a focus on teaching cycles within, across and between lessons. This is partly as a result of the thinking which Bodil Isaksen has done here and also from working with David Didau during the course of this year.

Specifically in relation to rhetoric though, our first step is an introductory module in Year 7. During the unit, students will be introduced to the history of rhetoric in order to provide them with a clear sense of context but also to develop knowledge of how these methods of communication can be empowering. Teachers will take them through how classical orators and rhetoricians through history, including Shakespeare, would have learnt their craft. They will study the structures and devices used, particularly in great oratory and letter writing. We’ll analyse some key texts, including translations of Cicero, speeches from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and medieval letters to provide models. Students will complete rhetorical drills, use exercises from a progymnasmata which we’re creating and gather quotations and moral lessons in a commonplace notebook, then produce rhetorical texts using the knowledge they have gained.

In the remainder of Y7 and the rest of Key Stage 3, they will build on this factual and procedural knowledge in further iterations of this model, exploring how the art of rhetoric has developed through time, expanding their repertoire of rhetorical devices and learning to manipulate the basic rhetorical structures.

Over time and increasingly, we’d want our students to become fluent in thinking, writing and speaking with rhetorical flair and precision. We’d also like to explore the kind of model offered at Tom Sherrington’s Highbury Grove, as outlined in this post about their Rhetoric Roadmap.

Teach Like an Elizabethan Champion Part 2

In the first post in this mini-series, I outlined my current knowledge about the process used for teaching rhetoric in Elizabethan schools.

This second post looks at the process of producing an overall rhetorical composition in terms of structure and style. I must confess here that the bulk of my learning has come from ‘Are you talking to me?‘ by Sam Leith and ‘The Elements of Eloquence‘ by Mark Forsyth. However, I should also credit Martin Robinson for his book Trivium 21stC and this blog as well as Joe Kirby’s Pragmatic Reform blog and James Theobald’s Othmars Trombone for pointing me in the direction of the two books.

The reason I wished to explore these two areas was to examine what might be lacking, if anything, in our own teaching of reading and writing. I’ll explore this further in the final post of the series.

In ‘Are you talking to me?’ Leith outlines three branches of oratory,  three principles of rhetoric and five stages in the composition of a rhetorical text. All of this would be substantially easier, I would think, if students had been taught in the manner described in part one.

The three branches Leith discusses are:

  1. Deliberative: Texts which attempt to make the audience believe something or do something.
  2. Judicial: Texts which attempt to establish what happened, how it happened and whether the people involved were at fault in terms of the moral or legal law.
  3. Epideictic: Texts which attempt to praise or blame somebody.

The process of creating one of these texts, according to Leith, takes place over five stages.

Stage 1: Invention

This stage involves establishing your arguments and predicting or figuring out the arguments of your opponents. It’s essentially a planning process.

It requires knowledge of the field which is being written or spoken about as well as knowledge of the kinds of moral sentence and model texts mentioned in my previous post. In planning or inventing, rhetoricians need to also consider these three principles of rhetorical influence.

Ethos – Influence through status

Effective ethos requires consideration of your own status and that of the audience.

Logos – Influence through reason

In rhetorical oratory and writing, you need to sound reasonable to your audience. This doesn’t necessarily mean using reasoned argument though many audiences will consider you more reasonable if you do use reasoning.

Pathos – Influence through emotion

This could be an appeal to a wide range of emotions: excitement, fear, love, patriotism, amusement, sadness, pity or hope.

The invention process also requires writers and orators to consider the path of their argument. Leith provides the following forms of argument or topic:

  • Syllogisms – the combining two premises to draw a fresh conclusion.
  • Analogies – a comparison used to prove a point.
  • If something is true of a genus, it is true of a species.
  • If something can be stated of one thing, the opposite can be stated of its opposite.
  • If something has happened, then its antecedent must also have happened.
  • The Law of Induction – if something has always happened a particular way, then it always will.
  • The Law of Averages– if something has always happened a particular way, it is likely to occur a different way the next time.
  • Commonplaces – assumed wisdoms which are culturally specific.

Stage 2: Arrangement

A typical structure of a rhetorical theme (an early form of essay) was as follows:

  1. Exordium – Establish your status/expertise; grab the audience’s attention and hope to keep it. Discuss yourself, your opponents and your audience.
  2. Narration (diegesis, prothesis or narratio) – Establish the area/boundaries of the argument and set out the facts of the case as generally understood. This is where you are likely to use spin to bias the facts to your advantage.
  3. Division (divisio, propositio or partitio) – Set out the areas of agreement and disagreement between you and your opponents. Leith argues it’s best not to state more than three points of division at this point, though you can cover more later on.
  4. Proof (pistis, confirmatio, probatio)  – Set out your arguments.
  5. Refutation (confutatio, reprehensio) – Pull your opponents’ arguments apart.
  6. Peroration (epilogos, conclusio) – Sum up what has gone before, reiterate your strongest arguments, drive to your conclusion.

Stage 3: Style 

Leith’s book approaches style by exploring high, medium and plain style, arguing that great orators are able to move between the three. He also explores jokes, tenses then comes on to figures. At this point, I could quite happily real off a range of rhetorical figures which students of rhetoric should practice using until they’re fluent. However, Mark Forsyth does this far better than I could, so go and read his book or, for a summary, have a look at Joe Kirby’s aforementioned blog here.

Stage 4: Memory

At this stage, Leith explores the concept of the memory palace or the use of an imagined, physical space in your memory in which to hang key ideas. He looks at the ways in which classical orators would use it in order to speak at great length. He also, towards the end of the chapter, examines how the method has been abandoned, to a certain extent, in modern times in favour of notes or an auto-cue.

Stage 5: Delivery

Here, Leith discusses the importance of a speakers ability to read and adapt to the mood or actions and reactions of an audience. He focuses on tone, clarity, volume, diction as well as physical gestures and mannerisms.

What I hope has become  clear to you, as it has to me over the last two posts, is that there is so much more exciting material to be covered in terms of rhetorical writing and speech than is covered within the ridiculous process of AFOREST writing which, if we’re honest, is more like a couple of twigs. In the final post in this series, I intend to outline a possible way forwards for teaching rhetoric, drawing on what I’ve explored so far.


Christmas Selection Box – Traditional Fudge or Progressive Soft Centre?

Over Christmas, there was a selection box full of blog posts highlighted on Twitter which I wanted to respond to. I had schemes of learning to write and some other school work to take care of. Aside from this though, there was no way I wanted to be distracted from enjoying Christmas with my family. Hence, I read the blogs but focused on having festive fun.

Cadbury's Selection

However, it’s now the evening of the last Sunday of the Christmas holidays so I’m going to dip into the selection box and pull out a response to three posts, all of which invited one. I’ll come onto this Ross Mcgill post,  which some have seen as being a bit flakey, and these crunchy ripostes from James Theobald and Phil Stock, but I want to begin with Michael Tidd’s caramel smooth post about three teachers who inspired him.

In his post, Tidd describes a teacher who he emulates, a teacher who changed him and a teacher who made him want to teach. He suggests in his post that, “maybe others will be minded to do the same.” I’m not sure if it’s a bit tragic, but I find these kinds of ‘reflection on teachers who inspired you’ questions a real challenge. I’ve been asked to do similar activities on training and even at interview and, embarrassingly, I have to confess that I make it up. I don’t do this because I only had terrible teachers at school. In fact, in some ways it’s the opposite. There wasn’t one single blinding light figure who illuminated my childhood with their cult of personality or the wisdom of platitudes. Instead, along the way there were a number of teachers who taught me really well. There were also some really poor teachers.

So, when I’m asked about an inspiring teacher, what I do is amalgamate the various attributes which these consistently effective teachers possessed. They were all exceptionally knowledgeable, able to talk at length, with eloquence and enthusiasm about their subject; they explained complex issues, concepts and processes with clarity; they modeled excellent communication and provided me with opportunities outside of the classroom curriculum; they knew how to teach whole classes of students  to achieve at the highest levels; they didn’t only use text books, but killed the school Xerox by providing us with reams of photocopied chapters from academic journals and texts they asked tough questions and pushed their students to do so with their high expectations of work and behaviour. Theirs were the classrooms where I became more knowledgeable.


Which brings me onto a second and third confession by way of a curly wurly (sorry) return to the aforementioned blog post by Ross McGill. In this post, Ross lists eight teaching ideas to “bin” in 2016. The “idea” which Ross calls “the number one item I’d like to see the back of” is “Progressive vs Traditional.”  Ross argues, “In reality, teachers at the chalkface actually don’t care what it’s called, they just get on with teaching, using whatever methods suit them and their students. And because of their workload, most have little time to be concerned.” I know that these teachers exist, but I think it goes deeper than that. I think that there are also a lot of teachers who aren’t even aware of the dichotomy which Horatio Speaks defines here:

“The essentially romantic progressive philosophy aims to improve society by creating individuals who are caring, co-operative, empathetic, concerned with justice, open to new ideas, and tolerant. It seeks to do so by promoting autonomy, authenticity, co-operation and diversity in the classroom. Knowledge is secondary to attitudes – indeed, in recent years knowledge has become irrelevant to some educators. In this philosophy, society will be improved by making the classroom a microcosm of what we would like the world outside to become.

What is generally labeled traditional education in the current debate is not, fortunately, very traditional. If we look back at our educational past, there are practices that very few of us would want to see return: violent punishment, ignoring safeguarding, tolerance of absenteeism, poor co-operation with external agencies. But there are also traditions worth conserving, because they will benefit our students: community, discipline, work, and knowledge. In this philosophy, while attitudes are important, they are secondary to knowledge. Knowledge is prized because it not only carries forward the accumulated learning of previous generations, but because it also equips students to succeed in the world as it exists beyond the classroom.”

I strongly suspect this is the case because my second confession is that I shamefully managed to reach the level of Assistant Principal in a school without being able to define what progressive and traditional meant. “How can this happen?” you may ask. “What kind of incompetent fool is this?”

Well, My PGCE training year at Warwick was built, in large part, around National Strategies materials. We learnt about some other things, but essentially we learnt how to teach using other people’s materials and methods. During my NQT year and second year of teaching, the department I was a part of worked closely with National Strategy advisers and at the school I moved to, in order to become Head of English, we continued to use National Strategy consultants and support materials. In 2009, I stepped out of teaching to become Local Authority, National Strategies consultant for literacy in Swindon. When I got the job as consultant, it was as if my whole teaching career had led me to the unquestioning pedalling of other people’s materials.

National Strategies

In my consultancy work, I was guilty of advising others to use more group work, more discovery learning, less teacher talk, heavy scaffolding, short extracts of texts rather than full novels, plays or non-fiction texts, the monstrous behemoth of the Assessing Pupil Progress materials and hundreds of different objectives and progress grids. My one saving grace is that I never promoted brain gym. I’d go into other teachers’ classrooms to teach one off lessons to ‘demonstrate’ how to do this. In Shelley’s poem, Ozymandias, the speaker mocks those with pretentions of grandeur and longevity whose power and influence fail to survive the battering of the winds of time. All that is left is a shattered visage, a pedestal and a colossal wreck. As a consultant, I was the equivalent of a slave to Ozymandias.

It wasn’t until the final year of my time as a consultant that I began to genuinely explore alternative approaches to curriculum design and delivery in the classroom. The voices I began to listen to on Twitter and in blogs and in books on education were like the traveler from an antique land, come to tell me that the past ideas I’d drawn upon were infinitely more fragile than I’d thought – far more susceptible to decay. What mattered was the teaching of knowledge.

At a similar time, I managed to get a job back in a school, with students like the three I’d like to tell you about now. Their experiences illuminate a lot of the thinking behind the journey which I and the school have been on over the past three years. We’ll call them Sam, Ellie and Will.


The first of these students, Ellie, made masses of progress during her two years in our sixth form. The transformation in the quality of her essay writing was a delight to observe. At the start of Year 12 she didn’t have a full grasp of what an essay was. She had been able to produce coursework across a range of subjects at GCSE level, but she had all manner of confused notions about literary terminology and wouldn’t have believed for one second that she’d be able to quote Shakespeare to you. Despite being pleased that Ellie came out of her closed book exam buzzing because she’d written twelve pages and carried out some excellent analysis of the quotations she’d committed to memory, I couldn’t help but think she’d have been even better off if she’d arrived at the start of Year 12 being able to do much of this already – having had an education which had exposed her to “the best that has been thought and known.”

Sam, like a number of our Year 11 students, had lived through some exceedingly tragic events at home – both before and during his GCSE years. Though I believe his subsequent low attendance impacted on his progress during Key Stage 3, Sam had also learnt a whole myriad of work avoidance strategies – he was the king of the oblique question. He’d find ways to disconnect from Ozymandias to ask about an episode of Breaking Bad or ice-hockey or your favourite biscuits. At various points in his education, he had been allowed to opt out. By allowing him to develop these strategies, we accepted that Sam was less likely to get a cluster of C grades in his envelope in the summer he completed his GCSEs. Sam did get his “five Cs”, but could have achieved B’s and A’s.

Will arrived in Year 7 having been fairly successful in his Year 6 SATS, though not as successful as some of his peers. However, he was driven and motivated. He was a vociferous reader of both fiction and non-fiction across a wide range of subject areas, he thought deeply without the need for much prompting and provoked thought in others. He left sixth form with a clutch of top grades. However, he had been denied a place at Cambridge, in part as a result of the more limited range of wider opportunities which he’d been offered or taken up which focused on his course choice.

In order to avoid students like Sam developing poor learning habits and students like Ellie arriving in Year 12 without the academic foundations to fly from the outset and to ensure students like Will have access to the best opportunity to secure places on top courses, we began to move increasingly towards a model of curriculum design, planning and teaching which are both principled and informed by our reading and research – informed, in part by the progressive vs traditional debate. We’d begun to read the work of Willingham. We’d started to implement what we’ve describe as a mastery curriculum, having been inspired by the work of Bruno Reddy and others at King Solomon Academy. We drew on the teaching model developed by Shaun Allison at Durrington High School in Sussex. We began to implement a number of the principles found in Teach Like A Champion by Doug Lemov.

My third confession therefore is that, in being ignorant, I betrayed all of those consistently effective teachers I mentioned earlier in whose classes I became more knowledgeable. Worse still, I now wonder whether, if I’d become aware of the debate sooner, I’d have taught differently sooner. Taught like I do now. Taught better.

What concerns me the most is that, if we “bin” what can be a repetitive argument about progressive and traditional education, then it will prevent others from going on this journey. Ending or binning the debate could limit horizons.

Teach Like an Elizabethan Champion Part 1

One of my jobs this half term is to produce a scheme of learning focusing on rhetoric for Year 7. The original scheme was going to revolve around the study of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and the contents of Sam Leith’s ‘Are You Talking to Me’ and Mark Forsyth’s ‘Elements of Eloquence.’ I’d read various blogs by other English teachers about schemes they’d developed or were developing using these texts and, like many English departments, we wanted to take our students way further than the reductive AFOREST approach to persuasive writing which has been used in recent years to help students, often to jump through a GCSE hoop.

In carrying out the background reading for the scheme, I wanted to know not only about what Elizabethan schoolboys were taught about rhetoric but also how it was taught. The more I found out, the more I began to question how I’ve gone about teaching reading and writing in the past and whether it has limited students’ outcomes. The approach taken by teachers in Elizabethan England, as far as I understand it now, highlights a number of shortcomings in the way I’ve had students read, annotate, record, memorise and compose writing.

This blog post will come in three parts. The first two parts will outline my developing knowledge of the teaching of rhetoric in the past. I’ll begin by revealing what I’ve discovered about the Elizabethan approach to teaching rhetoric from Peter Mack’s book ‘Elizabethan Rhetoric: Theory and Practice (Ideas in Context)’ as well as these two websites



In part two, I’ll move on to rhetorical structures and style, exploring the books by Leith and Forsyth as well as some other teachers’ blog posts.

The third part will focus on how my new learning will feed into the new scheme of learning, but also how it has affected the way I will approach the teaching of reading and writing in the future.

I do not now consider myself to be an expert in this field and would welcome any further guidance or pointers towards further reading.

Part 1: What was school like back then Daddy?

Elizabethan Grammar Schools:

In his book, ‘Elizabethan Rhetoric: Theory and Practice (Ideas in Context)’ Peter Mack tells us that Elizabethan Grammar schools had the shared aim of “making students wise, pious and eloquent.” The study and use of rhetoric formed a part of this process.

Students learnt how to:

  • Record and use moral narratives
  • Identify and analyse the grammatical and rhetorical structures in texts
  • Amplify (intensify the language choices in, add elements to or reshape texts)
  • Compose a range of text types based on their reading


Students learnt moral sentences (such as those from the bible, Cato or other religious texts) by heart as examples of Latin syntax. They had to locate these in classical texts when they read them and include them in composition exercises. Students kept two ‘commonplace notebooks’ to record:

  • Powerful words or examples of rhetoric
  • Quotations linked to specific areas of morality or themes – friendship, justice or mercy, for example.

A number of patterns of teaching are mentioned in different texts but Mack identifies this as being the main one:

  • A general introduction to the text from the teacher – including the author and genre.
  • A reading of the Latin extract with full explanation and subsequent paraphrasing or translation.
  • A discussion about some of the following: difficult or unusual words, contextual issues, questions of style, parallels with other texts.

In other models, students would re-read texts four times: once for general meaning, summary or paraphrase; once for vocabulary and constructions; once for rhetoric, figures, elegant expressions, sententiae, histories, fables and comparisons; and once for moral teaching.


To support in the composition process, students  were given collections of model texts focusing mainly on letters and themes (essays).

Some schools used the Progymnasmata by Aphthonius – a collection of fourteen sets of exercises, including:

  • Fable
  • Narrative
  • Chreia
  • Proverb
  • Refutation
  • Confirmation
  • Commonplace
  • Encomium
  • Vituperation
  • Comparison
  • Impersonation
  • Description
  • Thesis or Theme
  • Defend / Attack a Law

These exercises made use of the elements students had collated and adapted from their reading of classical texts. The idea was that producing these shorter passages would enable students to write longer texts, incorporating parts of their smaller pieces.

Mack informs us that Aphthonius provides a “definition of the form, a division into different sub-types, a recipe for the content of the form and one or more examples. The commentaries explain the terms of the definition and division (sometimes providing alternatives), refer to examples from classical literature and provide additional examples, usually divided into subsections to show how the elements of the recipe build up into the whole composition.

The Progymnasmata offers rigid forms in order to provide students with exercises in different aspects of an overall oration.

Another text which appeared often in Elizabethan syllabi was Erasmus’ De Copia Rerum Et Verborum. This text provided a methodology for enhancing writing through adding to the words used, changing grammatical or rhetorical constructions or adding to the content through rhetorical invention.

Erasmus suggests the following forms of Copia:

  • Varying by metaphor
  • Varying by allegory
  • Varying by amplification (heightening vocabulary or expression)
  • Varying by hyperbole
  • Varying by diminutio (weakening vocabulary to make something less serious)

Students were given sentences to practice with. An oft quoted example is “Your letter has delighted me very much.” Erasmus devises 195 different versions of this sentence. This kind of practice was intended to challenge students to consider their choice of lexis and expression as well as make students more fluent when they were speaking or writing at length.

In the next post in this series, I’ll look at what this extended oration and composition entailed in terms of structure and style.