Help your students keep their English skills fresh

By York Notes Series Consultant, Mike Gould


When it comes to catching up, it’s tempting to think that absorbing English content – the plot of a novel, revising the themes of a play – is of most concern just now, but in reality this can be tackled quite efficiently. Judicious use of films or stage productions, our York Notes, your own summaries and so on, can assist in fast-tracking students through texts.

However, it is the reiterative practice of engaging with ideas, exploring models of criticism or creativity, and applying learning independently, that is most lacking outside the classroom. So, how can we help students keep those sorts of cognitive skills fresh? Here are four quick tips – which you can use in stages, if you like.

1. Set five-minute warm-ups

The brain is a muscle and needs exercising. Give students some quickfire tasks which are less about the texts they are studying and more about firing imagination or sparking thought. For example: Create a set of emojis to tell the plot of ‘An Inspector Calls’ or Un-jumble these two lines from ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’. Or Write word chains for these key words about ‘Macbeth’: ‘Blood’, ‘Sleep’, and ‘Guilt’

2. Look at models – and evaluate

As a step up, give students snippets of Literature essays (a paragraph or two) at different levels and get them to evaluate what works or doesn’t work, to ascribe marks or annotate with comments against some very basic criteria. In our Workbooks, there are lots of these sorts of evaluative paragraphs to read and respond to. At this stage, keep the content small, but the thinking big.

Download these sample pages from our Workbooks for some example activities!

3. Rewrite and improve

Push the brain cells further by providing additional extracts of sample student responses (use ours if you’d prefer not to write your own) and highlight sections (quotations, introductory clauses, follow-up points) to rewrite. Again, keep the material small – but ensure students really have to work their brains to replace core phrases or add new material.

Watch our video tutorial ‘Change it up!’ on how small changes can make a big difference to students’ writing.

4. Fill the gaps

Extend students’ thinking by giving them one of the shorter poems from their anthology or a speech from a play or novel, and remove nearly all the text except a few lines or phrases. Ask them to fill in the missing text, however few the clues are. Provide the same speech or poem again, but this time with more text included – how close did they get the first time around? Then, supply the whole speech. Give students the chance to comment on its language, structure – anything they now notice having gone through the process of writing through the mind of the author.

Try this example task based around the poem ‘The Moon’ by Percy Bysshe Shelley.


These are just a few skills-based activities that will keep your students’ thinking fresh and alive.

Check out our Workbooks and Skills books for more ways to engage and stimulate with a range of short, sharp tasks – and increase the level of their thinking with more open tasks and responses.

Mike Gould is a former Head of English and Drama and author of over 150 books and other educational resources. He has worked as a lecturer in English and education at Brighton University.