A Toolbox of Horror

Cambridge Regional College

Teaching English and in particular, writing, on a construction programme in an FE college, with teenage boys predominantly, could be seen as some people’s worst nightmare. Not us! Writing in a specific genre that suited the majority of our learners was the key to escaping the stereotype of a tedious English lesson and humdrum writing tasks, along with building stamina and ‘writing fitness’.

You can download a PDF of this report on the Excellence Gateway.


We are a large FE College in Cambridge with a majority cohort of 16–19-year-old learners on Study Programmes. We also have a growing number of courses for adults, for 14–16-year-olds in alternative provision and for apprentices.

This project was based in the construction department at our college. It was our goal to improve the engagement, attendance and writing skills of our learners. Our attendance at English lessons, whilst good, still needed improving.

We identified a specific group of L1 Plumbing learners to focus on for the project. We chose this group predominantly because of the enthusiasm of the plumbing course tutor and the fact that the OTLA Project Lead taught this group for all 3 weekly lessons of a GCSE English Language resit programme.
It was clear that engagement in lessons was a major challenge and a creative and flexible approach would be required.


It was our goal for our learners to see writing for what it is – a ‘diverse social and professional practice that we all need to learn and use through life’ (Ivanic, R et al, 2008) – and not just a mandatory requirement for English exams. We planned to explore a range of

Toolbox of Horror Infographic

Toolbox of Horror Infographic

strategies and resources to develop and extend writing skills to meet the needs of all levels of vocational learners.

Our learners tend to perceive writing skills to be only a part of their English lessons and literacy as predominantly assessed within their English exams. They are therefore, unsurprisingly, reluctant to engage in writing. Unfortunately, this is a view which we as educators may inadvertently reinforce through our lack of collaboration with vocational tutors to encourage writing within the core programme.

Vocational lessons do require a great deal of writing, not only in practical work-related tasks but to evidence that learning through assessment, e.g., writing step by step professional guides. Unfortunately, at present, those tasks and assessments are all done on computers, which do not offer learners the focussed support and practice they need to develop their handwriting, spelling, punctuation and grammar skills.

We wanted to use this project as a positive opportunity to work with our plumbing tutors to continue to build solid, supportive and collaborative professional relationships whilst also preparing learners for the demands of their GCSE English exams.


Our first approach was to research our learners’ anxieties and blocks about writing. We designed a questionnaire (Appendix 2) and distributed it amongst a variety of learners in order to gain a better understanding of their mindset.

The results (Appendix 3) clearly confirmed our thoughts and we were able to identify that our learners had a variety of struggles including:

  • poor stamina in coping with the physical effort of writing by hand
  • low self-esteem/fear of yet another failure
  • poor pen grip due to lack of practice

Upon the basis of these results, we first looked at a variety of what we thought could be ‘quick fixes’ e.g., using a Stabilo pen (Appendix 4), designing a writing board with a slant on it and purchasing pen grips. A few learners warmed to the pen grips but others dismissed them very quickly. The Stabilo pen looked ‘different’ and the learners did not want to appear to be ‘different’. There was a similar response to the writing board and learners also said that they didn’t want to have to carry it around all day. Although these resources were not welcomed by this group of learners, we are interested in trying them again with other groups from the start of the next academic year.

Poster for Power Up room

Poster for Power Up room

Not for the faint hearted!
We were slowly approaching the November exams when we changed our approach. We identified that the learners could do very well in imaginative writing tasks if they were equipped with a focus on one specific genre. It was quickly identified that the majority of our learners loved the ‘horror’ genre so we focused on that. We looked at various film trailers, talked about the structure and features of a ‘Horror’ movie/script but without using the technical language. The learners soon relaxed into informal discussions about specific movies they liked and what it was about them that they liked. Again, this prompted various discussions but we avoided using too much technical language about language techniques at this stage.

We then looked at key vocabulary, still using the horror genre. We introduced a variety of texts for us to read as a group, identifying key words that you would probably only use in this genre. Learners recorded this vocabulary in their exercise books and we referred to it throughout our lessons/discussions.

Exploiting their existing knowledge of atmosphere and setting provided us with the ideal route into exploring and creating their own examples of the use of simple stylistic techniques e.g. similes and metaphors.

Another approach that supported their writing in lessons was when we did short burst writing tasks with them. This gave us the opportunity to extend the time that they wrote in every lesson incrementally in order to build up their stamina to prepare them for the exam.

Then we discovered ‘slow writing’ – a complete game changer!

Professional Learning: Evidence of changes in teaching, learning and assessment practices

‘Slow writing’ is a technique that we discovered by accident upon researching the internet for some resources to support poor writing skills (Didau, 2021).
You use this technique by giving the learners explicit instructions on how to write a text, sentence by sentence. It then supports them to not just think about what they write but how they construct each sentence.

Image of writing challenges

Writing Challenges


  • Your first sentence must start with a verb
  • Your second sentence must contain a simile
  • Your third sentence must be 3 words only

Once we introduced this technique into our teaching, it was a complete eye opener. We literally started off ‘slow’ (no pun intended). We used the above format and asked them to write 5 sentences. There was no time limit initially as we wanted to see the results. That first session was a revelation for the learners and us! When we gave them feedback, they couldn’t believe the difference and even that small amount of writing and feedback boosted their self-esteem and confidence with writing. We then began to differentiate and personalise the slow writing directions to reflect the learners’ individual support needs in sentence construction.

For one student who tended to act out the role of ‘class clown’ the use of ‘slow writing’ scaffolding technique provided exactly the support he needed to engage in writing. It enabled him to feel that he was working collaboratively with the tutor and so the daunting challenge of writing was effectively shared in a way he found encouraging and motivating. (See case study 1 in Appendix 8)

Moving forward, the use of ‘slow writing’ technique is one that we will be looking to introduce to all groups within the construction and motor vehicle departments. For our taster days this year, we are going to design a one-paragraph writing task with explicit instructions on what should be included to see how the learners respond. It would also give us an opportunity to identify any learners that could potentially go to a GCSE class instead of a FS class.

Next academic year, we are also planning to have a dedicated ‘Power Up’ room (Appendix 6) set up for learners to utilise 3 days a week in order to have support with writing any assessments, homework, or to improve on English skills. This will be supervised by an English tutor with support from a Construction learning support mentor.

Evidence of improved collaboration and changes in organisation practices

To support collaboration, we designed a training session for our construction tutors (Appendix 11) on how to mark learners’ written work. We wanted them to be involved more in supporting our learners with their SPAG (spelling, punctuation and grammar) skills so that the learners would see a more collaborative approach between English and vocational tutors and also to reinforce the importance of these skills.

In order to support our learners with their writing and plumbing course work, we discovered a set of writing challenges (Appendix 6) that we were able to adapt in order to include some contextualised writing so that they could see the relevance of writing skills for workplace and vocational tasks.

We focused on one particular L1 Plumbing group as a case study. There were approximately 18 learners in this group and whilst their Initial Assessments indicated that they were working at a Grade 1 or 2, their Centre Assessed Grades (CAG) were a 2 or 3.

These learners had 1 hour a week on their timetable called Independent Study and it was led by their course tutor. The course tutor, who was dyslexic himself, was fully committed to the OTLA project and it was decided that we would use this opportunity for them to complete a writing challenge. The learners could choose which writing challenge they wanted to complete each session, and this then helped them with their handwriting stamina.

Our explicitly collaborative approach involving the plumbing and English teams, served to highlight the importance of attendance and participation. The support and involvement of the plumbing tutor also gave a strong message that having barriers to learning e.g., dyslexia, does not mean you cannot have professional aspirations and achieve your dreams.

We also held a writing competition at Christmas (Appendix 7) to encourage our learners to write. Some of the entries were amazing. The English team chose two winners from each group and the winners weren’t always necessarily the ‘best’ stories. Many were chosen on the basis of the learners’ progress in their writing skills. We created posters of the winners with their entries and displayed them in the Construction Dept.

Evidence of improvement in learners’ achievements, retention and progression

Our learners’ stamina in handwriting has improved vastly over the past academic year. We struggled during the national lockdown imposed by Covid-19 as it was natural for our learners to type any writing tasks that we set them online. However, their attendance was consistent even during lockdown and once back on site we managed to get them back into handwriting again. Bearing in mind that each GCSE English Language paper is 1 hour and 45 mins long, this will always be an important challenge for our vocational learners.

We have had some encouraging emails from parents who have noticed the change in their son/daughter’s approach to, and enthusiasm for, English. Some parents have said:

“Thanks so much, he enjoys English a lot more now”

“Thank you for all the encouragement and energy you have given …to lift both his confidence and academic achievement.”

“What a difference this year has made to [learner’s name] in his English, thanks so much!”

The two case studies in Appendix 8 illustrate how students have also felt about the difference in their learning and ability this year. They haven’t been shy about letting us know about their favourite horror movie or sharing with us a new word they have learnt for their horror vocabulary.

Appendix 9 provides some examples of students’ work, writing in the horror theme.

Learning from this project

As with our previous project (ETF OTLA 6, Project 6, 2020), our research programme this year has again awakened the creative drive in us as a team and we were very surprised by how quickly tutors and learners became engaged in the range of strategies we explored

Image of a writing competition

Writing Competition

What went well for us was definitely the adoption of ‘slow writing’ as a teaching technique. It would have been even better if we had had time at the end of this academic year to investigate this technique and train more staff in using it in their lessons. We will continue to explore a ‘slow writing’ approach next year and I feel it is definitely a scaffolding technique that works with low level learners and which can support them in developing higher level writing skills. Introducing this technique across the whole department offers all our learners the opportunity to develop and improve their performance within a tight and supportive framework.

Working with the plumbing team in particular was a fantastic experience as we got the opportunity to witness the learners in their workshop completing work that they enjoy and do well. It also gave us a wider insight into the plumbing industry and how we could contextualise resources and writing tasks to show their relevance. We got to see learners in practical lessons where their practical talents would shine and this improved our relationships with them. Learners didn’t mind greeting us in corridors and were keen to drop us messages on Teams to say what horror film they watched at the weekend.

Finally, it was good for the learners to see us all working together as ‘one team’! Overall, the Toolbox of Horror project was a success and will continue to grow even more next year (See Infographic, Appendix 10).